111 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +
More of a Grimm's fairy tale than the dimwitted "Red Riding Hood" and kicking "Sucker Punch," another girl-power action movie, square in the lady parts, "Hanna" packs a wallop. Directed with style to burn by Joe Wright and written with a spareness by first-timers Seth Lochhead and David Farr, it's full of sound and fury, but signifies a lot. "Hanna" is a trim, relentless, and enjoyably pulpy ride.
Once upon a time in a cottage in the stark, remote Finnish forest, there lived a 16-year-old girl named Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) who was raised by her papa, rogue ex-CIA agent Erik (Eric Bana). She can kill a caribou with a bow and arrow and cook it for dinner. She speaks all different languages. Ah yes, and behind those piercing blue eyes and that rugged blonde hair, she's a killing machine highly trained in combat and weaponry. Jason Bourne who? Erik has taught his daughter everything she knows, but Hanna has never been exposed to the outside world. When she tells him she is "ready," Hanna can flick a switch (literally) that will reveal her whereabouts to the government who are after Erik. With plans to meet up with her again, Dad leaves, and Hanna is captured but escapes on a race across Europe with CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) hot on her trail. Hanna knows how to kick ass on her own and won't need gingerbread crumbs to get back to her father.
The reasons behind "who" Hanna is and "why" Marissa obsessively wants Hanna are left until the bitter end, kind of like the mystery behind Angelina Jolie's ass-kicking heroine in "Salt." But that's less interesting than Hanna's coming-of-age, as if she's straight out of the womb and new to the world. When she requests a place to sleep in a Moroccan hotel, the sight of electricity escapes her, or earlier outside of the cabin, she's in complete awe when an airplane flies overhead. She comes in contact with a traveling family, becomes a stowaway, and befriends the teen daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) in particular. As the movie sprints along, we're with Hanna every step of the way on her odyssey.
The allusions to fairy tales are sometimes too on-the-nose but fit perfectly. Hanna seeks refuge at the candy house of an old friend of her father's. One character says "off to Grandmother's house we go" and calls another "little piggy." In the big face-off between Hanna and Marissa, uniquely set in an abandoned amusement park, there is a shot of Marissa standing in the giant mouth of a Big Bad Wolf along the train tracks.
Much like 1998's "Run Lola Run," the film relies a lot on the sights and sounds. Alwin Kuchler's cinematography is visually fascinating and kinetic. Pounding in each scene, the techno music score from English dance-pop duo The Chemical Brothers is funky and unusual, congruous of the movie's rhythms and escalation of tension. The young, pint-sized Ronan has such an ethereal, blank face but proves to be a force of nature, showing us the confused girl behind the icy exterior of a killer. Blanchett is coldly calculating as Marissa Wiegler, whose primary skill is to shoot her target in heels. She's fun to watch: just listen to that Texan accent and watch how she aggressively brushes her bleeding gums. Tom Hollander, as Marissa's sexually ambiguous chief henchman Isaac, is pretty cartoonish but amusing, and what are his "skills" exactly? Barden steals her scenes as the gabby Sophie, who shows Hanna the ropes to socializing, and Olivia Williams is a rare source of warmth as Sophie's bohemian mother.
As a thematically rich and exhilarating fable-chase thriller, "Hanna" begins and ends with a nearly identical shot, but in the last, Hanna has finally come-of-age. Wright and Ronan make a great team.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
132 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +
In the wake of the first three mutant-superhero Marvel Comics movies, a prequel was in order. 2000's "X-Men" was colorfully enjoyable, 2003's "X2: X-Men United" was twice as enjoyable, 2006's lively but least involving "X-Men: The Last Stand" had its moments, but we'll skip 2009's disappointing "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." So how X-citing to find "X-Men: First Class," a "preboot" (prequel + reboot), improving on the places its predecessors often faltered.
Who knew the X-Men played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis? Before X-Men came to be X-Men and before Magneto and Professor X earned their names, it all started with two young boys whose genetic mutations and extraordinary powers made them society pariahs. Beginning in 1944, Poland, 12-year-old Erik Lensherr learned of his telekinetic control of metal when he was separated from his parents during the Holocaust by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a menacing-with-glee Christoph Waltz award-worthy performance), a Nazi mutant who can turn energy into superhuman strength. As for Charles Xavier, he meets cute with shape-shifting Raven upon using his telepathy. Fast-forward almost a whole two decades, Erik (Michael Fassbender) is like "Frankenstein's monster" out for revenge on Sebastian and his Hellfire Club who desire a World War III. Then he meets Oxford-bred Charles (James McAvoy) whose hope for peace doesn't gel with Erik's bloodthirsty plans, but they settle on merging their destinies by forming a school for the gifted when approached by CIA-working scientist Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who sees the mutants as the answer to solving the problems with the Soviet Union. Erik and Charles enlist closet mutants Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Havok (Lucas Till), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and of course, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
This is the only "Origins" movie about mutant superheroes that you should see. With expert performances, a strong script, and fluid action, "X-Men: First Class" is, well, first-class. It's character-based but not without a sense of fun, and a funny cameo or two. There's reason and depth behind all the effects and brouhaha. Rather than having bitten off more than they can chew, writer-director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") and his trio of screenwriters bring more flesh and blood to these well-drawn characters. The diffuse script was written by many hands, so it pays off that it's as complex as it is.
McAvoy and Fassbender are impeccably cast and magnetic that you completely buy them in the roles that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen already created. Lawrence, proving to us that her gripping debut in "Winter's Bone" was no fluke, not only fills out the blue body-paint but solidifies Raven as a troubled young woman hiding her true self before taking Magneto's side as the seductively dangerous Mystique. Everyone else in the cast nicely acquits themselves memorably, although January Jones as the ice-cold Emma Frost in gogo boots is wooden and bland. A few things are too neatly tied-in with the movies that already came first (like the backward order of George Lucas's New Episode "Star Wars" movies), but "X-Men: First Class" is a rarity that upends the typical state of prequels and sequels. For once, comic geeks have a reason to get jazzed for a summer superhero movie that's actually worth the go—and mercifully not in 3-D!
103 min., rated R.
Grade: B -
If writer-director-producer-composer-editor Steven Mena's "Malevolence" (2004) was a standard but well-made throwback to old-school slasher movies (namely "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Halloween"), then its prequel "Bereavement" is a darker, disturbing psychological study of an influenced child and the cycle of violence that would eat 2002's less explicit and more suggestive "Frailty" for breakfast.
Minersville, Pennsylvania, 1989: Local recluse Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby) lures six-year-old Martin Bristol, who suffers from CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis), off of his backyard swing and into his van. Five years later, Martin (Spencer List) has long become Graham's killing protege, as the two of them turn the old Sutter meatpacking plant into a literal slaughterhouse. After the deaths of her parents, 17-year-old Chicago orphan Allison (Alexandra Daddario) arrives in the armpit of a town to live with her Uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn) and his family. She tries to start fresh and get past that the high school she newly attends doesn't have a girls' track-and-field team. Allison even takes to the town bad boy William (Nolan Gerald Funk), who takes care of his wheelchair-bound father (John Savage) in their trailer. One afternoon, jogging past the rundown property, Allison spots young Martin at one of the broken windows, but her curiosity and determination will have consequences. We know none of this will end pleasantly, as Martin Bristol will grow up to be the potato-sacked madman in "Malevolence."
Though more character-driven than its predecessor, "Bereavement" isn't called "Benevolence" for good reason. It never pretends to be a drama and never stops being a horror film, uncompromising and merciless in its grimly realistic picture of a small town becoming the hiding place for horrific crimes. Mena has surely matured as a director since cutting his teeth on the first film. His pacing deliberate but taut, and the crisp, professional cinematography of the open farmland is beautiful while it simultaneously suggests that screams can't be heard for miles. And the return of those cattle skulls will go down as iconic. There comes a time when "Bereavement" stops being more than it was, and dwells on bloody exploitation, but its nervy ruthlessness holds no bounds, especially when a young boy's impulse to kill ups the ante. Mena holds nothing back and keeps no one safe, even when he's sympathetically introduced his characters.
As Allison, Daddario is entrancing with her piercing blue eyes. Once she makes a decision that grievously puts her life at risk, the actress is believably tough and vulnerable, handling the emotional swings she gets dragged through with earnestness. Rickaby is chillingly in tune with the mental illness and obsession of Graham, and List is impressive, considering the circumstances of playing a mute, blank-faced follower who feels nothing.
Despite the inevitability of where this story is headed, Mena's script never allows Martin to question his master or such a moral conundrum, besides letting a few of the female victims escape. At least it's more interesting than, say, Rob Zombie's 2007 re-imagining of "Halloween," which overdeveloped Michael Myers' seed of evil until the terror was drained. Stay until the last of the ending credits and it's the inciting incident that jumpstarts the events of "Malevolence." Let's make it clear that "Bereavement" might make the casual viewer think there's no accounting for taste, but this wasn't made for them, unless you want to feel the twist of a knife. The independent production company isn't called Crimson Films for nothing.
Everything Must Go (2011)
96 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Actors should always try to take chances and break new ground, or else they become boringly typecast. It's nice to see what else they can do and how they transfer from the silly to the heavy. Adam Sandler showcased a weird, sad, against-type turn in "Punch-Drunk Love." Jim Carrey proved he could reel in his zany side to exhibit some honest-to-god range and subtlety in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Will Ferrell has shown what he's capable of, deviating from his over-the-top funnyman shtick with more daring, offbeat roles in "Winter Passing" and "Stranger Than Fiction." Here, in the small, quietly moving indie drama "Everything Must Go," Ferrell really bears his heart and soul in a rare dramatic role, playing an actual human being.
Hitting his rock-bottom worst, Nick Halsey is fired from his longtime sales job and his wife leaves him, having changed all the locks to their suburban Arizona house and strewning his possessions all over the front lawn. It doesn't help that Nick is also an alcoholic, so he buys cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and sits outside on the grass in his favorite recliner getting drunk. Pretending he's having a yard sale, he asks a bored young kid named Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of late rapper Notorious B.I.G.) on his bike to watch his stuff, and they form a bond in which Nick teaches Kenny how to be a salesman like him. Observing across the street is pregnant neighbor Samantha (the always-lovely Rebecca Hall), whose husband is always on the road. Without telling her the truth to why his front yard is bombarded with junk, Nick and Samantha share a similar loneliness. Stop right there, this is not the start of a romance.
"Everything Must Go," based on the short story "Why Don't You Dance?" by Raymond Carver, doesn't take many dramatic dips in its storytelling or have any propulsive narrative momentum. Written and directed by first-timer Dan Rush, the film is decidedly uneventful that way, but honesty and simplicity are both to its advantage. Nick's alcoholism and melancholy are not treated too lightly, nor do they become a slog. Nick's friendships with Kenny and Samantha are also carefully handled, with the help from Wallace and Hall's performances, without becoming obvious or sentimental.
In a notably authentic and sympathetic performance, Ferrell looks like hell, and that's a compliment. Like many people at their lowest points, Ferrell makes Nick an innate subject for our rooting interest, even as a functioning alcoholic. Michael Peña is fine as Nick's AA sponsor, a police detective, with a subplot haphazardly introduced too late in the game. The terrific Laura Dern has one beautifully written and performed scene at the halfway mark as one of Nick's former high school classmates. The inclusion of Stephen Root as a kinky next-door neighbor seems disconnected and pretty needless from the rest.
While a plainly tidy conclusion stares the filmmakers in the face, Rush avoids glibness and gives Nick a more nuanced arc and a glimmer of hope. For once, Ferrell isn't getting laughs but he's showing the depth that we didn't know he had.