14 December, 2011

Hanna: Or How To Do That Rogue Super-Assassin Movie Right

Before even finishing watching Hanna my first instinct was to compare it with Drive. There's a lot of similarities to be found-- They're both directed by Europeans who are aping American blockbusters, they both came out this year, they're both modern fairy tales, they're both ostensibly genre films with a deep well of artsty-what-have-you, both have excellent soundtracks, and both have a really stellar kill with a length of pipe. A younger version of myself that had to finish a paper would have gone along for the ride. He also might have tried to wedge something about, I don't know, realism into the mix. Also, at the time of writing the first draft of this I was pretty drunk and the whole mess got away from me. It's probably for the best, I'm sure.

Now, before I get into it, the more important argument than any of this is that you should really watch the hell out of both of them. So unless you want to indulge me in my prolonged. . . I don't know what, exactly, then leave now. Go. Go now. Gone? Good. Then it's just me and the dogs in my head that won't stop barking. The reality is that the only way I could square writing about Hanna-- or Drive-- was to couch it in film schoolic nonsense, when I should have taken a breath and realized that it should be enough that it is a very good movie.

What I like about Hanna is that it takes a pretty simple premise and manages to twist it and turn it enough so that it's a better product than the sum of its parts.

On the surface it's a rogue spy movie and underneath that it's just Red Riding Hood. Neither is a particularly complex concept, but there's a reason movies and TV and books and comics and stories told around the campfire keep on coming back to premises as simple as this is because there is something in the human brain that finds it compelling. There's a reason that operas about three thousand year old legends are still being performed and that a new edition of Beowulf comes out every couple of years and it isn't because Adolf Hitler is running an endowment for the fine arts.

On the one hand you can make a hackneyed version of that familiar story and on the other hand there is something immensely satisfying about seeing that old tale told in a new and clever way. The simplicity of Hanna is probably it's greatest flaw. Despite that it still manages to be smarter, more fun, funnier, and more touching than the majority of the high-budget action films it would share a shelf with. At the very least if you want to see a young super-assassin take out a bunch of Euro-trash, this is the movie to see.

One of the reasons this modern fairytale stands out is its European in their style and sensibilities. That probably sounds like an obnoxious thing to say and it probably is, but give me a second here, I'm going to be complimentary. That's a sort of amorphous thing to say and I also realize that calling something "European" or "American" is usually just a code word for some sort of national hostility, in this case I mean it in a positive way. Hanna just feels like a kind of an action movie that could have only been made by Europeans in Europe (though I'm willing to bet that this had no little amount of American money involved in it).

Obviously that might have something to do with the cast, the setting, and the amount of electronica in the soundtrack. Personally I'd like to think I'm a little more cultured than that.

Also, on a base level, it is fun to see a movie where the people with the European accents are the good guys and the person with the over-blown American accent is the bad guy. You don't need to go far to find the opposite is usually the case. There are worse gimmicks to be hooked by.

This is a poster. Stare at it.

Looking at the basic ingredients of Hanna you can see how a lesser director and a stupid cast and crew might have made Bourne Identity: Teenage Edition instead. The movie is allowed to be a little messy and quiet in a way that a bigger budget movie wouldn't allow and it also avoids being just a cheaper version of those films, as well. By applying some sort of weird art judo Hanna, like its titular character, manages to beat the hell out of its bigger competitors by never actually directly competing with them.

Most of the time you see a foreign production make a straight attempt on an American genre it winds up being a version that's made with less money and by someone who doesn't quite get why the genre works in the first place. It's like listening to the Japanese play rock music or the French play the blues. It's a grotesquerie and I'll have no part in it. And just to put it in perspective, do you really want to see an American studio make a Bollywood musical or a comedy of manners?

The best translations of American genres are the ones that take what's good about those films and put their own spin on it. In the case of Bande A Part, Jean-Luc Godard took the American hard boiled novel and the film noir and managed to make a fun and resisted the urge to do a cheap press-plate copy*. The best comparison I can think of is a good cover version of the song-- If I wanted to listen to somebody sound exactly like Bob Dylan, I'll just go and listen to him-- you have to do something different in order to make it worthwhile.

Hanna proves a lesson to which the studios are completely resilient to, which is that you don't have to make a fun popcorn film and make it dumb, as well. You'd think The Dark Knight and Inception especially would be good enough argument for that. As the parade of board game movies and sequels carry on shitting up our streets and making us collectively dumber as a species, it proves that these studios and executives not only aren't listening but that they hate you.

Hanna, and Drive, as well, cost a fraction of the price that the average crime or action or chase film. It also made back twice its budget, which is pretty much the most important factor in all of this. I'm not one to argue for making art for art's sake, so when you see good movies becoming profitable and yet the tide of nonsense seems to only accelerate, it starts to feel like a Kafka story. I mean, if being well made and well liked and profitable isn't enough of an argument, then what the fuck do you even want?

And another thing, if you're spending two-hundred fifty million dollars on a movie and it isn't as good as a movie that cost thirty, what is all of that money going towards? Cocaine and Red Bull can't cost that much.

I was looking at this article about Amazon dot com and there was a line I read which just kind of confirmed something I've been hearing for a while, which is "[w]hen you try to have a conversation with the new Hollywood, it quickly becomes clear that you’re talking about movies and they’re talking about refrigerators."

It makes me hope that at least at this point in history while most film studios are looking to make fridges, there might be some relict community in Europe that still want to make movies. That's probably not true, I realize. I just want to believe it is.

But none of this has to do with anything.

Arctic mountain girl assassin is a good look. I predict a trend.

Besides the genre-bending going on, there's scene in Hanna that I think all of us would recognize as a standard pillow-talk scene between two lovers. In fact, I'm positive I've seen this scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Except that instead of it being two lovers talking at point blank range under a sheet, it's two teenage girls.

The amazing thing is that even when one character kisses the other, it isn't creepy or weird or tinged by any sort of lechery. It's a legitimate sign of one person loving another. It's beautiful. Where this movie differs from the standard action-thriller can't be numbered, but this scene sticks out in my head the most, because while this is an ass-kicking, fuck-you-up, fugitive/chase/assassin movie, it's still about a little girl lost in the woods who found a friend.

I guess the fact that this scene is set-up in such a way and is not intended in any way to inflict boners gets me to believe that there is something greater at work. That this is so casually put in and then tossed away leads me also to believe that there's an alternative way of looking at things that doesn't involve dude boners or lady boners poking all over the place or being completely asexual.

I mean you've got people who have access to nude beaches making films, occasionally there's going to be some fissures between them and us in terms of what's normal. Or what is inappropriately titillating. One can only imagine what the Brett Ratner version of this movie would look like.

On second thought, don't.

Cate Blanchett points her weapon and ludicrous Southern accent at persons unknown.

Watching the special features, I also realize that the movie is better edited than most high budget affairs, in that, when people are fighting, I can actually tell that two people are fighting. What a concept.

Over the past ten or so years the art of editing an action sequence as gone from a coherent narrative to something akin to blurred objects fucking for a third of a second at a time. It's a shame and-- I, in no uncertain terms blame Sir Ridley Scott for all of this-- luckily Hanna manages to escape that trap. It's odd that we're at a point in our evolution where putting together a fight scene so that the human eye can comprehend it is an aesthetic choice.

Tom Hollander just straight up being a boss with his sexually ambiguous skinhead henchmen.

So what have we all learned here? I don't know, I kind of lost track of it here. I guess what I'm getting at is that if you're going to make an action movie make sure that you have a competent director who is maybe from Europe. They seem to know a thing or two about using a smaller budget and also maybe story telling. And if you're going to make a movie that could quite easily fall into the realm of cliche or camp make sure you at least pack it full of well done action and fine performances. Also, I am kind of angry with the status quo of the movie industry. Again, fifty years ago one of the biggest movies ever made starred an Egyptian and was about a Russian poet who cheats on his wife. Today it is about people who jerk off to close-up shots of cars for a third of a second at a time.

Oh, also, the soundtrack deserves a mention. Composed by the Chemical Brothers also known as "That one electronica band nobody really has a problem with" and "Not, that's the Dust Brothers you're thinking of, they also do electronica music," the original score is pretty darn delightful just on its own. When inserted into the film it gives the subject a kind of light-heartedness and a playfulness that works perfectly with what's on the screen. Hanna isn't a perfect film but there are few movies I can think of recently where the soundtrack works with the visuals as in this film.

The music comes into the frame, so to speak, at just the right moments and isn't so overbearing that it telegraphs to the audience "We're doing something, you should be impressed right now," which is maybe a voice only I hear in my head, though I'm sure it's an experience we've all seen and heard in films (I'm going to blame oh, I don't know, David Fincher for that one. Yeah. He can take it. He'll be alright). It's like a character on its own, but it's not about to upstage anyone.

Anyways--If you want a sleek European action movie you could do worse. Go and see Hanna. You deserve a fun movie and it deserves the audience. It's the kind of movie I can't wait until my niece and nephew are old enough to watch.

On that note, let's let the Drive soundtrack play us out--

Yeah. That hits the spot.

And this fun little scene--

Horse hockey, they cut out the best line in this scene!

SUB-NOTE: Seriously, the worst thing about Hanna is that the title isn't an anagram. Would it have hurt them s much to add an H on the end?

SECOND SUB-NOTE: I couldn't find a place in the essay for this, but I'd like to point out that both movies have a pretty stellar kills with a pipe. A good year for elaborate pipe kills.

THIRD SUB-NOTE: Oh shit that's the guy from In the Loop and The Thick of It! Holy shit! I thought he was just some German weirdo they picked up off the streets. I love this movie!

FOURTH SUB-NOTE: Another thing I cut out before this "went to print" (laugh to self, wipe tear away) is how because this movie was basically a version of Red Riding Hood, but with paramilitary and espionage what have you inserted into the story it therefore shared some DNA with the Japanese film Jin-Roh.

FINAL SUB-NOTE: I just recently finished Fantastic Mr. Fox. I didn't care for it at all. I'm fairly certain everyone who thinks it's brilliant is insane, but looking at the negative reviews, I can't say anything kinder about the people who didn't like it. There is a weird anti-American sentiment regarding the movie, as though this fairly inocuous movie was final straw in an Anglo-American culture war that we didn't even know existed (which I'm sure pisses these passive-agressive English people to no end). It's a crazy thing to read consider that Wes Anderson is hardly the most bombastic or American film maker I can think of. "Oh that Anderson fella, always being loud and making overweight films!" I mean, really? Wes Anderson? That's the strawman you're going to burn for bastardizing your culture? Blegh. Idiots.

*Actually, thinking about it, the film noir is one of the few American genres that foreigners seem to do just as well. Hmmm. I might have to recalibrate my thoughts on this. Westerns are another good example-- Sergio Leone took the cowboy movie and injected it with an operatic glee that his American counterparts never had. Then again how corny are the movies that are trying to copy Leone? You know what? In general: Don't go around copying people if you suck.