Monday, August 29, 2011


On paper “white woman exposes unfair treatment of black maids in 60s Mississippi” probably sounds like a deeply serious Time-Life docu-drama, or some Matthew Perry, white guilt schlock. But rather, The Help is a witty, uplifting comeuppance tale in which nasty housewives are made to eat some very humble pie. It’s packed with sassy comebacks, secret women’s’ business and wicked pranks which shine all the more triumphant against a dark background of police brutality, segregation, and an active KKK. This produces a compelling sincerity the women of Wisteria Lane could only dream of.

In the 1960s, Jackson, Mississippi was a place of bullet-bras, and pastel Bakelite appliances. It was the heyday of neighbourhood solidarity: tidy lawn competitions, housewife committees and punchbowl charity galas. Of course, none of this blow-dried pomp could take place without “the help”. Young, indulgent white housewives relied heavily on the blue-collar black women who worked as their maids. The Help is the story of ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a cosmopolitan-headed young writer and her unlikely friendship with two maids, Minny (Octavia Jackson) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), as together they anonymously pen the first ever novel about life as a maid. Their stories reveal malice and mistreatment of their uninterested employers. The worst of these is the manipulative Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a nasty piece of work and segregation lobbyist.

Visually, The Help is spectacular. Sweeping aerial shots take in manicured green lawns and white-pillared plantation homes, among vast fields pulsating with crickets: Jackson was a small town that thought it was the only town in America. The mid-Western summer heat almost radiates off the screen via sweat patches on grey maids uniforms, poetic dust clouds rising in the wake of cherry-red Chevrolet Corvets and my god, those Turkish-style glasses sweetly clinking with ice cold iced tea. If anything The Help proves that however expensive or fashionable something is, it can still be broken. This era of social discrimination was just that.

I think The Help is also an important film. Sometimes, the marker that a cultural belief has become convention is not when a graduate film student makes a controversial documentary about it (although there is a place for that) but when it hits the mainstream entertainment market. I doubt The Help will be considered a provocative film, which suggests the segregation it documents as being implausible to audiences. This is not to say that racial discrimination has been eradicated because of one funny movie, but rather that in describing past attitudes as fiction we strip them of their validity.

After years of being romanticised the 60s housewife often appears to girls nowadays as a kind of domestic goddess, an infinitely savvy woman-about-the-house who never let the Mixmaster splatter her apron. The truth, as the story of Jackson shows, was that wealthy housewives had absolutely no idea about cooking, cleaning or even raising their children any further than that last laborious push. It’s a lifestyle unrecognisable from that of the modern female multi-tasker; getting promoted, now dropping off kids, now learning French, yoga, pottery, Salmon en Papillete, between coffee with the girls. The absurdity of that bygone lifestyle is ripe for comedy.

The Help is probably therefore an important one for the ladies. Almost the entire plot goes down under the noses of the male characters without their slightest influence. It muses on the female friendship, an untameable beast that is at once powerful and contenting. In particular, it nurses the idea that only through hardship can one foster sisterly love, and that pure frivolity, regardless of how good the fried chicken or potatah salad is, cannot give us the means to show our mettle or truly connect. Perhaps a secondary reason to go see this with the girls, is of course the chance to glimpse the scrumptious Nelsan Ellis (True Blood’s Lafayette) charmingly attired in flat cap, bow tie and thick rimmed spectacles.

Those with an octogenarian grandmother will probably, like me, spend most of the film simpering over the food. Every social scene is accompanied by the most spectacularly out-dated terrines, bean salads, and ridiculous garnishes (whole grapes sprinkled over mayonnaise chicken?). Memories of my Nanna’s anachronistic multi-coloured pickled onions and toothpick-skewered cheddar cubes came flooding back. The fried chicken motif, however, was the most haunting: my resolve trembled as the seductively nose-slapping smell of KFC charged its way past the giant rotating bucket into my nostrils on the way home.

The most important feature of The Help is it’s humour. I say this because as a young female who was tickled by the 60s dress code of the preview screening, I am the target audience. If anything is proof of that, it’s that my +1 and I won door prizes for our lacquered beehives, pearls and fur boleros, then had synchronised mascara emergencies in the Kleenex-sponsored scenes (the cinema is a cruel mistress for the smoky-eye enthusiast). Were it not hilarious, largely on the part of bombastically sassy Minny (“mmm-hmm!”) it would be hard to recommend a film centrally formed around the dynamics of female social stigma and delectable period dresses to anybody other than women, and women who like dramas at that. But the appeal of The Help really does reach beyond those self-evident charms to woo a much wider audience.

Indeed, the writing is exceptional. The plot is riveting yet consistently paced, with surprises, rivalries, a hint of romance and a splash of toilet humour. The characters are complex, yet make a brilliant kind of intuitive sense and really capture that upstairs/downstairs theme. The funniest moments are in the stories told by the maids Skeeter interviews, as they describe from a totally uninvested point of view, the vanities and silliness of their housewife employers. It seems the business of keeping up appearances can indeed be very ugly, more so than one of Hyacinth Bucket’s candlelit suppers, no doubt. Aibileen and Minny are two of the most admirable characters I’ve encountered on screen. They are underpaid, yet wise and pragmatic; underdogs yet stoic; haunted yet hopeful. These maids, their inner life hidden behind washing baskets and training diapers make the very picture of womanhood. Which is something very different from femininity.
As the credits rolled on The Help, I could hear applause in the auditorium, I had a distinct craving for fried chicken and cold potato salad, and a particular song was stuck in my head.
Yes, “Minny had a heart that was as big as a whale”.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


13 Assassins is perhaps the best kind of reality check for feudal battle enthusiasts who have seen too many films in which goodness and strength of character win out in of themselves. This film is written so as to amplify the intrinsic relationship between conflict and resources, whether those resources are as trivial as swords or maps, or as poignant as the foregone lives of samurai warriors, or the will of nature itself. It redresses battle as a meeting of two objectives, a courting of chance that has to be both taken seriously and lightly at the same time. This makes for a compellingly tight story that despite a shaky start is able to resurrect in its characters a lost kind of chivalry and noble masculinity.

In mid 19th century feudal Japan, the Shogunate system is nearing its historical end and the ways of the samurai are beginning to fade due to the decades-long achievement of civil peace. The equilibriums is threatened by the unfortunate political ascent of the shogun’s illegitimate brother Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki). Naritsugu is a poor leader and perpetrates acts of hedonistic cruelty just for his own amusement. Despairing at the fate of his Japan, a senior advisor to the Shogun secretly issues orders to the valiant veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) to assemble a hit squad of elite samurai to take out Naritsugu and in doing so preserve precious peace. After preparations, training and bribery, Shinzaemon’s 13 assassins must pit themselves against 200 of the Shogun’s men in what is a rare peacetime suicide mission.  

13 Assassins opens with an energetically disturbing Hara-Kiri sequence and the brutal portrait of one of Naritsugu’s young victims. These scenes unfortunately misrepresent the rest of the film. A pair of sensitive old dears walked out of the cinema I was in. I wish they hadn’t left, the film’s remainder never alarmed at that pitch again. Having said that, this is not exactly a date movie. Next, 13 Assassins continues with a surprisingly long and complex political exposition. Much is made of the ‘case’ against the enemy and of the various conflicts of interest among the main players of the assassination plot. This extended start has the potential to confuse at points, as every detail of the government hierarchy is elucidated. It has to be said that once the battle starts, this long preparation almost matches the lifelong wait of the warriors themselves, enriching the battle scenes with a heightened desperation and volatility. In a time when men really did fight to the death, the Samurai especially had to follow the dictum and “pick their battles”.

We don’t get to know the 13 assassins quite as well as their enemy, as the mission itself becomes their identity. You might indeed find yourself simply doing a headcount to remember how many are left or where they are. Battle scenes are notorious for disorienting choreography and fast-cut camerawork and it has to be said 13 Assassins doesn’t trip on those stumbling blocks. The action is coherent, played out in short, vibrant chapters with varying sets, weapons and costumed participants. It’s more colourful this way: A Samurai salad, if you will.

The character of Naritsugu is constructed in a fascinatingly modern way. Often battle epics set in the past rush to explain how the enemy is pure evil, or had been embittered by past misfortune. Naritsugu is neither. Rather, he displays the maniacal behaviour of a detached psychopath attempting to add meaning and excitement to a life he can’t quite grasp the preciousness of. This makes for an incredible struggle, not between the forces of good and evil, but between reason and chaos; sanity and lunacy.

Accordingly, it is strategy that characterises 13 Assassins. Similar to the brilliant Red Cliff, it is not the violence itself that we enjoy, but the sheer genius of the methods used to exact it. There are incredible booby traps, double bluffs, gauntlets, explosions and ingenious weaponry. The combat takes place in a fortified boarding compound, which turns into a perilous maze of shifting walls, dead ends and rooftop escapes. This is a more sophisticated use of the ‘doll house’ melee technique employed in Kung Fu Hustle. Lovers of classic Kung-Fu will no doubt relish the compartmentalised fight choreography and nigh-silly manner with which enemy foot soldiers running screaming toward inevitable doom.

Perhaps the best thing about 13 Assassins is its delightfully dark sense of humour. It makes masterly use of that slapstick, farcical breed of comedy that characterises older martial arts films. The jokes are brilliantly droll and usually operate at the expense of unwilling fools. It’s clear that there is a level at which 13 Assassins is self-aware, really making fun at the expense of martial arts clichés. Some favourite chestnuts appear; the wise old man who belly laughs at everything; the idiotic henchman who runs and screams as he charges; and the no-good nephew playing chasey with a room full of kimonoed concubines.

            At its core, 13 Assassins is quite a philosophical contemplation of the components that allow one side to win over another. This is surprising, because in most movies you end up winning if you’re a ‘goodie’. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t bet on a cowboy in a white Stetson over the moustached guy in a black ten-gallon number. This film takes more than good vs. evil into account: you win a battle first with good men, second with good strategy, then thirdly, and cruelly, with good luck.
This film is considerably pared back from the high-wire poetics of blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and despite its violence, takes itself far less seriously. In notable lack are the classical samurai articulated suits of armour, (thanks for nothing, Tom Cruise. You too Ninja Turtles III), melodramatic and ill-fated romantic affairs (what, no Ziyi Zhang?), and of course there’s little underdog-drama about this one (all hail, Bruce Lei). That’s not to say 13 Assassins isn’t visually spectacular or written with a sense of the grandiose. This is a magnificent portrait of good men behaving like heroes and accomplishing great feats using their skills, rather than prophecy, magic or the hand of fate. There’s a lot to like here, and this is no typical martial arts glitterball.

Most introspectively, 13 Assassins also reflects on what it means to be a samurai: is it unquestioning obedience to your master or laying down your life for the greater peace? As Shinzaemon (a name I’m hoping Pokemon will pick up) argues this point with opponent general and old friend Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura), one slowly realises that more often than not it is cinema, not history that decides which honour is most appropriate for an audience’s palate. 13 Assassins is the rare film that begs the question, which is nobler: the vigilante or the loyalist?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


If it weren’t for the fact that it grossed 18 million on it’s opening weekend, Conan the Barbarian could have become one of the best cult films of the 2010’s. Sure, it has blockbuster budgeting and an overdose of special effects, but this film has truly taken the “sword and sorcery” epic to a new level of historical abandon and literary haphazardness. This film is jam-packed with broads, swords and CGI hordes, along with gratuitous projectile viscera and abuse hurtled at women in a way that would make Sam Raimi proud.

2011’s Conan the Barbarian is a remake of the 1982 film of the same name, starring California’s favourite beefcake, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The original was certainly an offbeat classic. Its billing poster is hand-painted. In it, Conan was a thug, ludicrously wooing women despite a thick Austrian accent and aggressive flirting techniques. And, bizarrely, Conan punches a number of camels in the face (a montage of this has enjoyed a successful YouTube incarnation). Conan’s rebirth as a 3D million-dollar gorefest follows valiantly in this tradition of real entertainment cinema.

Even as a boy, Conan (Jason Momoa) is an exceptionally skilled warrior with more than a few notches to his belt; that is decapitated heads in his bloody fist. Having lost his mother at his battlefield birth, he’s developed a close and intensely manly relationship with his father (Ron Perlman). The pair’s Spartan-like subsistence lifestyle is brought to an end when a huge army led by the cruel Khalar Zim (Stephen Lang) brutally decimates the Barbarian village in search of the missing piece of a magical mask. Zim wants to use the mask to become the supreme ruler of all Hyboria, which is a veritable mish-mash of cities that broadly takes in Arabian, Egyptian, African, Greek, Viking, Celtic, Babylonian, Roman and native American motifs and costumes. We then skip forward to the adult Conan’s protracted search to exact revenge upon Zim, a journey taking in all of the whorehouses and skirmishes it can. Zim and his witch-daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) are also searching; for a pureblooded descendant of some ancient Necromancers whose blood they intend to feed to the aforementioned mask in order to resurrect Zim’s long-dead sorceress wife. Said pureblood is a white-clad virginal femme fatale played by Rachel Nicholls, who as the only female in the piece comprises Conan’s love interest.

Forgive me if I have breezed over this mess of magical characters and vendettas a little half-heartedly. It’s really not the plot that makes this film. Conan the Barbian is quite simply (and perhaps unexpectedly) a chronological biography film.  Any more explanation is far from necessary. Like Conan’s existence, the film thrives upon in-the-moment, instantaneous gratification. It’s sexy, gory and exotic, with a smattering of quippy comic relief.

The main aesthetic feature of Conan the Barbarian is violence. In this respect all stops have been pulled out. The claret is spilt liberally throughout the almost unabridged fight scenes. The action is fast-paced and occasionally disorienting, and paired with horrendous bone-crunching and flesh-smacking Foley effects. The screening I attended had the volume up so loud that the on-screen violence began to impinge upon my own physical equilibrium. The most unsettling aspect of Conan’s brutality was the creativity with which the violence was rendered; satisfying the gimmick quota that cult cinema usually commands. i.e. exotic torture devices, repulsive opponents with inhuman tattoos, scars and teeth, nigh-farcical ways to slice a person up and of course a few classic impalings. It’s so exuberant as to nearly make light of the savagery, and is accordingly rated 18+.

The miraculously proportioned Hawaiian Jason Momoa re-incarnates the role previously filled by the Robot Republican. Momoa is an exceptional physical actor and navigates choreography with great agility. This is what Momoa does, his previous gig being the silently smouldering Khal Drogo in HBO series Game of Thrones. He has a similar number of lines in Conan as for the whole ten hours of the Thrones, and manages to get the job done well enough. Really, Conan is a visual feast; listening to what any character has to say is only going to inhibit your enjoyment of the slickness of the rest of the film. To this end, Conan’s lines are appropriately few and generally slightly on the ironically action-style side (“Woman! Come here!”). Between the pectoral close-ups and angelic male buttock shots you also may consider Conan to be a vehicle film for Momoa’s male glamour modelling career. Oh, the PECstasy of it all!

Performances by Rose McGowan and Stephen Lang are far more stimulating but still limited by the constant interruption of visual trickery. In particular, McGowan’s makeup and creepy finger-blades seem to be plot points-cum-character development in of themselves. Ron Perlman seems to be some kind of all-star wink to comic and action film fans, who would have loved him in Hellboy. His gruff voice and ridiculous beard are pitch perfect here.

There are a number of aspects to Conan the Barbarian that are laughable. An awkwardly realised magical mask and pale imitation of an Alien face-hugger earned a few sniggers, as did the fight scene where Conan “saves” a horde of frisky, topless girls from a life of sexual slavery and is rewarded with sex. Particularly unfathomable is the decision to use the voice of Morgan Freeman as the narrator in the opening scenes. On the one hand, this provides some serious swagger, but Freeman’s theatrical tone perhaps makes promises the rest of the film can’t keep in terms of real histrionic storytelling. Furthermore, Freeman’s most famous narration gig was the polar opposite of Conan: the tearjerking documentary March of the Penguins. His gentle tonal qualities are almost irreconcilable with the fact we’re meant to root for the barbarous Conan.  

Conan the Barbarian is a far more satisfying and tangible experience than other recent ancient civilisation epics such as Clash of the Titans, Scorpion King, Centurion or Season of the Witch. The effects are better and crucially, the plot does not masquerade itself as anything other than a violent adventure film, which certainly reduces the number of cringeworthy moments in which “faces” attempt to act. In this kind of film, general trajectory therefore becomes more important to plot fulfilment than writing. This is where Conan is reneges on all promises. Oddly for a film about gratification, Conan’s life story fizzles after his mission is completed and unlike most adventure films, we really aren’t given any indication that another greater calling is imminent. An anti-climax to say the least. This is the equivalent of earning and million and retiring at thirty. I expect no sequel unless it is an ensemble piece about Conan’s difficulties managing his riches and reigning in his harem and countless love children whilst reminiscing about the ‘good old days’. A Barbarian Cheaper by the Dozen.

If we can glean any wisdom from the fairytale that is Conan the Barbarian, it is that muscles and fighting are as popular as ever, and apparently still look good on a man. Similarly, if you are a good guy, your moral code amounts to little more than an eye for an eye. If you wanted to go any deeper into what this film tells us you’ll discover that the new model for a big budget entertainment cinema includes less dialogue than it used to. Technology has always been an poignant indicator of the state of the world’s communicative preferences. For centuries, the world was ruled by the oral tradition, entertainments dominated by the bard, jester, and the melodramatic priest at the pulpit. Later, silent radio plays gave way to talkies, the sitting room plasma and pictorial info-graphics. Now the rate at which visual technologies are being developed is allowing action films to be made faster than perhaps is an admissible time for their scripts to be worked upon. In short, visual storytelling seems to be entering a kind of golden age. This format certainly privileges events and action over wit and ideas. I can’t help but wonder where the Mel Brooks of our time has got to, and heave a sigh when I realise the Scary Movie team have already made Epic Movie and maybe that’s as good as we’re going to get. Having said this, Conan is a visual feast and not at all a film that should be overly wordy. However, viewing too many visual feasts that are nonetheless artless may indeed result in optical malnutrition. 7.0/10

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Will Rodman (James Franco) is a stellar chemical biologist working for the omniscient yet fundamentally money-lusting drug corporation Genesis in San Francisco. Rodman has pulled off a true spectacle of human ingenuity, creating a new chemical elixir that promises to eradicate Alzheimer’s. Rodman’s unveiling goes awry when one of the chimps he plans to showcase goes, well, ape shit. Designer conference room chairs go flying out the window, as do Rodman’s dreams of finding finance to bring his project to the world. His one consolation is a baby chimp, Caesar, whose hereditary exposure to the compound enables him to evolve and learn much like a human child would, only so fast that it becomes much more than just a chimpanzee.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is of course an explanatory prequel to the 1968 Charleton Heston classic, in which humans are mystically transported into the future when civilisation has been entirely usurped by a sentient population of ape-men. The original was something of a cult classic, being made back during the heyday of science fiction exploitation films. What I mean by this is that it contains an abundance of Technicolor tanning, makeup-plastered damsels in distress, lavish studio sets and unconvincing beast costumes. We are no longer in such manual times it seems for unlike its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in every way a slick operation.  

In particular, the apes themselves are rendered with magnificent realism. Details like individual hairs and glistening eyes are realised with a subtlety mostly absent from blockbusters; there is none of that incongruous, Transformers-ish CGI. This is because Rise was made using the very cutting edge of motion-capture technologies. One will notice in that the credits for Rise every principle ape character in the film is actually played by a separate actor. This quite rightly indicates that the technology is able to translate the idiosyncratic movements and facial expressions of each different performer into distinct visual characters. To top this off the special effects are singularly consistent – we never see a cut to a recognisably plastic monkey glove, helping the audience to see past the ins and outs of the technology and dive into the plot.

The actor behind the genuinely masterly performance of the Caesar role is the profoundly versatile Andy Serkis. The actor is at home in the realm of motion-capture white dots and blue screens after having famously played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series. There are in fact many similarities between these two semi-human characters. Serkis navigates and fluctuates Caesar’s varying states of animalism and consciousness in a manner nothing short of moving.

Notwithstanding a few paeans to classic monster cinema in which innocent bystanders yell ‘What the HELL!” and the insipid and cruel monkey handler gets his just desserts (Tom Felton allowing himself to be typecast as another villain), Rise is very well written. This is perhaps surprising considering the pre-determined trajectory of the film. With all the expensive special effects and action scenes, most writing teams would have simply attempted to get from Point A (the world as it is today) to Point B (all humans dead, apes reign supreme) in a the simplest way possible. To their credit, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (what names!) have crafted a script in which not only is the audience guided past remembering they know the ending, but actually instil real suspense, in particular with regard to the strains in Rodman’s relationship with Caesar and with his father.

Performances by John Lithgow as Rodman’s father who suffers with advanced Alzheimer’s and Franco as Rodman are pitch-perfect for this kind of high-quality action film. Frieda Pinto as Rodman’s love interest and David Oyelowo as his boss are caricatures, but performed well and un-intrusively. Whilst Franco’s crow-foot-crinkling paternal smiles pack emotional punch, the stars here really are the apes. This is a film with a lot of big moments, the majority of which are written for Caesar and his gang of misunderstood primates. The best instance of this is an extended prison hierarchy metaphor during scenes shot in a primate compound.

The usage of apes in modern narratives throws light on something very interesting about the way humans think of their own biological vulnerability. Think back to all of the apocalyptic movies you’ve watched whose premise involved caged gorillas or chimps being experimented on by well-meaning scientists. Remember 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later, The Island of Dr. Moreau. In the same way that the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial captured man’s sense of anxiety about our nearest relatives, these films portray our need to associate doomsday with a discussion of what makes us human.

It is easy to see why Caesar makes such a complex character rather than just an entertaining beast or monster. Apes make great signifiers of the incredibly improbable, if not miraculous event of the evolution of human consciousness. It was statistically far more likely that all life in the universe turned out in the form of sludge or bacteria, if at all. And yet here we are, thinking, interacting, planning our dominance over the universe and secretly fearing the uprising all of our nearest animal relatives. On the other hand, there’s the primate family, which just never quite evolved fast enough to be in our position. What this gives us is a demonstration of possibility. Some of us might see in Caesar’s knowing black-pooled eyes a flicker of what we used to be, others a forecast of our own downfall. Either way this pre-imagined elegy for humanity uses non-humans to define what being human means.

In light of this favourite cinematic discussion, perhaps it is a good thing that Rise works so effectively to earn our sympathies for the apes. The human characters are by and large easily detestable or meagre, so that when we come to the inevitably successful rise of the apes, or at least the suggestion of it, we’re not too upset about the fact that with it comes the promise us homo sapiens won’t have long before we’re wiped out and Heston has his Statue of Liberty moment. This raises perhaps the most thrilling and tricky question: if apes became so like humans that they took over and became a civilisation of people, would it follow to mourn the loss of humanity? In short, could humanity exist without humans? There is a lot to unpack here, but Rise is by no means a theoretical ordeal. In fact, it’s one of the more satisfyingly swashbuckling films I’ve seen of late.

It’s surely a sign of a well-made film that it leaves a residue in your everyday life. Back at home after watching Rise at the cinema, I was a little unnerved by two interactions I had with my pets. First I had to feed my adorable black-and-white rat Cherokee. As he rattled the bars of his cage in anticipation of his pellets I found myself flashing back to the caged chimp scenes of Rise and distinctly thought “Rat, what are you capable of?” I had then become so sensitive to the possible humanness of my collie Bonnie that I gave her two treats, a paw massage and let her drift off to sleep with her head in my lap. As I stared into those knowing puppy eyes, it was almost as if she knew I was thinking about whether she was capable of understanding that I was thinking about her…


Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Hanna is a ferocious little number whose sole purpose seems to be to satisfy action blockbuster requirements whilst simultaneously advertising the coolness of all things German. It’s tapping into a little revival of industrial music, synths and desert boots in a true Krautophiliac spirit. It’s perfect for those audiences who are just catching on to the appeal of 80’s electro and Bauhaus design, yet can’t manage subtitles, German leads or independent cinema just yet. It has a big-name cast, big budget, well choreographed fight scenes and enjoyed great publicity with a rollicking trailer, yet somehow manages to combine these with a European visual sensibility.
When we meet the pale and beautiful Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in her sixteenth year, living an isolated existence in the snowy wilderness of Northern Finland. Raised by her father (Eric Bana) to be the perfect assassin, she has never encountered the outside world, hearing about it only in stories as though it were a kind of fiction. Her hunting skills are formidable; she’s tireless, capable of flooring a grown man; her robotic memory stores fairtytales, false identities, weapons handling; and she rocks ‘moose fur chic’ to perfection (I’m currently searching eBay for elk legwarmers in my size). When her father unearths a satellite beacon, Hanna finally gives up her wintery idyll and embarks on a bloody revenge mission against intelligence operative Marissa Wiegler (a ginger Cate Blanchett with dubious Southern accent).

Ever since Darude released that pesky trance favourite ‘Feel The Beat’ in 2000 (, and sorry), I have been particularly sore about the commonness and mal-realisation of the chase concept in music videos. It’s too easy! Being a regular jogger, I am well aware that you can run to nearly any music, but few songs make you run any faster. Stock standard action sequences are often the go-to accompaniment for whichever three minutes of gratifyingly punchy dance music has made it onto Video Hits due to overplay at your local EuroBar.

I didn’t anticipate I’d be reminded of this music video chase-scene dilemma whilst watching Hanna. Hanna is a fairly structureless film in which numerous song-length fight and chase scenes set to “ass-kicking” music by the Chemical Brothers are strung together like a clumsy (but colourful) pasta necklace. The soundtrack is anaemic, never generating any tension or reaching the heights it could have. It goes for the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ treatment (bangin’ beats to let us know something badass is happening), when it could really have created an atmosphere akin to what we hear in 28 Weeks Later. Perhaps Kraftwerk and the Prodigy were simply busy?

These action vignettes do look good, though. Each piece is set in a unique and richly realised location, involving strong art direction, set decoration, brilliant lighting and perhaps the best camerawork I’ve seen this year. German cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler performs truly hypnotic feats with close-ups, selective soft-focus, hand-held and point-of-view. Every scene is genuinely beautiful, though apparently just for its own sake. There’s little plot-based explanation for any of it: something something, avenge mother, something something, genetically modified super soldier. My question must obviously be; does it matter? Is Hanna cool or stylish enough for the plot to become secondary?

It certainly seems that Saoirse Ronan’s looks, more than her acting (the part of unblinking killer isn’t exactly Shakespearean, let’s be honest) are what provide the character of Hanna with her credulity. Her porcelain complexion and white-blond hair are calling out to be splattered with the blood of unfortunate foot soldiers. Her youth and emergent femininity is what precludes her combative prowess. In short, her beauty is an ambush. It could be said that the whole film works in this manner. Eric Bana’s Heller performs his greatest character transformation by shaving and slipping into a suit; Weigler’s past is elicited most strongly by her choice of velveteen pump and the way her accent seems to shift with the breeze. Even Ronan’s most involved emotional feat is a totally non-verbal scene in which Hanna encounters electrical appliances and their rhythmic noises for the first time. Hanna’s visual majesty tells the story better than the dialogue itself, which is indeed sparse and peppered with classic action exchanges:
“Is she what you imagined?”
Then: “No. She’s better.”
So whilst the film is certainly no contender for Best Script, it does a singular job of telling the story using physical and visual symbolism.

The principle leitmotif of Hanna is the girl warrior’s understanding of fiction and fairy-tale. She grows up reading Grimm fables in a climate not unlike the stories themselves: a wintery forest filled with stags, wolves and peril. Like we all do, Hanna dreams of leaving what she considers to be the real world in order to enter a strange, magical new universe to battle evil and see magic. Once she leaves home, it is the outside world that resembles her ideal fictional wonderland, making her blinkered dedication to her quest resemble folklore all the more. Whilst this narrative thread is tantalising as a concept, it is applied with a rather broad brush throughout the film, especially when Hanna encounters “Grimm”, and ex-clown at a safe house in the shape of a the proverbial Old Woman’s shoe, and later when she takes a path overhung literally by the mouth of a wolf.

Whilst this all sounds good and swashbuckling the success of Hanna begins to unravel over weaknesses in the plot and the way the film has been assembled. Hanna’s mission simply gets repetitive. Further, the characters include a number of jarringly over-caricatured roles. Namely, a German hitman (played by great villain-specialist Tom Hollander) with a penchant for golfing pastels (á la ‘Funny Games’) and a vacuous British tween whose complaints and tasteless bikini would be more at home on Little Britain. One scene reads like a bad joke: “Two neo-Nazis, a Hilfiger-clad gangster, a babysitter and a virgin assassin walk into a shipping yard…”.

In the end, the style over substance debate is one I can happily leave on the shelf. Hanna feels like one of those rare successful compromises: It’s a slick entry-level film for those whose normal diet consists mostly of Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson flicks, and who have trouble making it through the ‘festival’ DVD their girlfriend brought home. For those with a taste for independent cinema, this is a familiar yet palatable take on the splendour of violence, leaning heavily on symbolic storytelling: what lovers say with flowers, Hanna says with an improvised crossbow.