Friday, November 22, 2013

Worth Mentioning - The Devil Is in the Details

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody speaks of assassins, criminals, and real life heroism.

HANNA (2011)

When Hanna Heller was a toddler, CIA agent Marissa Wiegler attempted to kill her and her parents. Wiegler only managed to kill Hanna's mother, as her father Erik, a former CIA operative himself, escaped with his young daughter. Erik took Hanna off to a cabin deep in the Finland wilderness, where he has spent years training her to hunt and handle weapons, teaching her martial arts, looking forward to a day when Hanna will avenge her mother and kill Marissa Wiegler. As her sixteenth birthday approaches, Hanna notifies her father that it's time. She's ready to do what she's been training to do for all these years. She's ready to wade into the outside world.

With the flip of a switch on a long-buried beacon, Hanna alerts the CIA - and Wiegler - to her existence. A heavily armed team arrives at the cabin and takes her into custody, locking her up in an underground base beneath the Moroccan desert. In very short order, Hanna has accomplished her mission to kill Wiegler and easily escapes from the bunker, setting out to meet up with her father in Berlin.

But the woman Hanna killed was not Wiegler, it was another agent posing as the higher-ranking woman, and as Hanna makes her way from Morocco to Germany, Wiegler and the CIA, as well as killers that Wiegler hires on her own dime, are tracking the girl and her father.

Because of the unusual, sheltered life that Hanna has led up to this point, the film is not only an action thriller but also a character study of this young girl as she experiences the modern world for the first time. Electricity, television, indoor plumbing, telephones, music. Because of her age, it's also a coming-of-age story. Most of her journey is spent with a bohemian couple touring Morocco and Spain with their two children, one of whom is a girl around Hanna's age. This girl shows Hanna what the life of a typical, pop culture-consumed teenager is like. She spouts gossip nonstop, introduces Hanna to the world of boys and parties, puts makeup on her...

Saoirse Ronan is fantastic in the role of Hanna, and after being cast she suggested that Joe Wright, the man who directed her to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for 2007's Atonement, be brought on to helm the film. Hanna is a credit out of the ordinary for Wright, who primarily makes dramas, usually period pieces. It's his only action movie, and he brought a very thoughtful, arthouse flair with him to this genre. The film has a great and unique style, the action is well shot with some excellent fight choreography, and the dramatic element is quite strong. It's all driven forward on an awesome score by The Chemical Brothers.


The only other film from writer/director Edward Zwick that I've written about on the blog so far is his 2010 romantic drama Love & Other Drugs, but that film and 1986's prototypical rom-com About Last Night... aside, Zwick's career has largely consisted of thrillers based around real world issues, conflicts, and historical events - Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, etc. With Defiance, Zwick tells a true story of courage and resistance that came out of the horrors of World War II; the story of the Bielski partisans.

Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, a Jewish man living in 1941 Poland who's forced to retreat into the wilderness with his brothers Zus, Asael and Aron when the occupying Nazi forces start killing the Jewish people in their area, including their wives and parents. The Bielski brothers prove adept at living in the forest, and as the genocide in their country continues, they take fellow Jews under their wing to protect and hide away. Soon they have built a community in the middle of the wooded nowhere... a community that is not only always in danger of being discovered by armed soldiers and authorities, but one that must also struggle to learn how to exist out in the elements, how to find enough food in the wild, and as the group grows, how to live with each other in an orderly manner.

Tuvia takes on the leadership role, laying out the rules of the camp. After some initial violence, he takes on a no fighting and no killing stance for his people, which doesn't sit well with his brother Zus, who leaves in favor of joining a group of Soviet resistance fighters. But despite his desire for a peaceful existence, Tuvia may have to end up making a stand to keep his people safe...

Zwick's telling of the story focuses on the establishment of the camp and the workings of life there, the group's struggle to survive, interspersed with breakouts of violence. The cast all do well in their roles, Craig being awesome as ever in the lead, with a solid supporting cast that includes Liev Schreiber as the more vengeance-minded Zus, Jamie Bell as Asael, and Alexa Davalos, Iben Hjejle, and Mia Wasikowska as female members of the camp.

The Bielskis ultimately spent more than two years living in the forests of Poland, and when they were finally able to emerge there were more than 1200 people in the group called the Bielski partisans. Tens of thousands of people today owe their lives to the efforts of the Bielski brothers. Zwick shed some very deserved light on an interesting, touching, extraordinary story with this film.


Joe Carnahan spent a year and a half attached to direct Mission: Impossible III, developing the project, overseeing drafts of the script, scouting locations, casting actors. Filming was soon to commence... Then Carnahan dropped off the project due to creative differences. His version of the film was scrapped, and while JJ Abrams was hired to direct M:I III and rebuilt it from the ground up, Carnahan got his own personal, original film together. This film. After spending a year and a half on a project that didn't work out, Smokin' Aces was his way to vent his creative frustrations.

The set-up is wonderfully simple: building a case against Las Vegas mafia godfather Primo Sparazza, the FBI are seeking to have Vegas showman with criminal ties Buddy "Aces" Israel testify against him and blow the lid off the mob activities in the area. While a deal is being worked out, Aces holes up in a penthouse Lake Tahoe's Nomad Casino. Getting wind of all this, Sparazza puts out a hit on Aces: a million dollars for anyone who can bring him Aces' heart. Assassins come crawling out of the woodwork to seek out Aces and claim this prize, meanwhile the FBI and casino security are trying to keep him safe, and a trio of bail bondsmen are looking to capture Aces to satisfy their own agenda.

This sets the stage for a lot of bloody violence, but things really aren't as simple as they seem, as Carnahan throws in some clever twists and turns along the way.

The assassins he created aren't run of the mill hitmen, rather he gives them some comic bookish pizazz; the money-hungry, bloodthirsty killers after Aces include the likes of a mask-making master of disguise, a sadistic torturer with a spring blade in his coat sleeve, a pair of female gun-for-hires with good looks and a .50 caliber sniper rifle, and the Tremor brothers - redneck punk speed freaks who treat every hit like a suicide mission and will lay waste to anyone and anything in their path, wading into gun battles with not just guns but also machetes, axes, and chainsaws.

The cast assembled to play out this madness is incredible - Jeremy Piven as Aces; Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, and Andy Garcia as FBI agents; Curtis Armstrong and Jason Bateman as lawyers; among the killers are Tommy Flanagan, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Pine, and Kevin Durand; Ben Affleck and Peter Berg are ill-fated bondsmen. Matthew Fox appears as a security officer who makes interesting hair choices, and the first time I ever saw Joel Edgerton he was playing a dimwitted bodyguard in this film.

This was also the first time I ever saw Chris Pine in a film, and never would've imagined that the guy playing Darwin Tremor, the scrawny, filthy backwoods neo-Nazi who, in the movie's most memorable moment as far as I'm concerned, puppeteers Ben Affleck's corpse to forgive himself for murdering him and assure himself that he'll still go to Heaven someday, would end up being Captain James T. Kirk. Pine plays Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan character in next month's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a character that Affleck played in 2002's Sum of All Fears. Jack Ryan killed Jack Ryan...

Where Smokin' Aces really makes an impression is in its style, as it comes off like a drug-fuelled, hyperkinetic, punk rock nightmare. It exists in what Tony Scott would have described as "heightened reality".

Intriguing, entertaining, and insane, Smokin' Aces is a hell of action/crime flick and well worth checking out.

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