Headhunters (2011)

Not since the days of Ingmar Bergman (or, alright, Abba) has it been so cool to be Scandinavian. With the popularity of the Millennium novels/films at fever pitch, not to mention well-received genre flicks Rare Exports and Troll Hunter, Scandinavia is definitely making it big in the cinematic arena right now. Its latest offering is Headhunters, a stylish Norwegian mystery (based on the book by Jo Nesbø) that doesn’t exactly break any rules, but is bags of fun anyway.

Featuring everything from grisly car wrecks to speared mutts, Headhunters is as frequently grim as that multi-meaning title suggests. Not that you’d guess as much from the film’s spritely opening scenes. We’re introduced to anti-hero Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a status-hungry, anxiety-riddled suit who exploits his role as a corporate headhunter to gain important information that’ll help him in his on-the-side hobby of art-thievery. Except then he rips off the wrong guy in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game Of Thrones), an ex-military bloodhound who turns Roger from hunter to huntee.

After a fleet-footed and funny opening, Headhunters quickly transforms into a breakneck chase movie. The film’s location-dashing mid-section is often wordless and viscerally involving, mostly thanks to Hennie’s committed turn. It also includes a comically horrible scene where Roger, shall we say, ‘pulls a Slumdog’.

The main problem here, though, is that Headhunters’ mystery is too unwieldy to truly rivet. It’s so bogged down in boring corporate politics that it’s unable to function as the glorified action movie it has every right to be. As a study of a man brought down by his own insecurities, though, it’s often tongue-in-cheek funny, even if tonally director Morten Tyldum seems torn between two different movies. Still, despite its flaws, Headhunters is pacy and engaging. The Scando invasion continues… 3/5

Man On A Ledge (2012)

New York. The Roosevelt Hotel’s twenty-first floor. Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) has some breakfast. Wipes the room of prints. Writes a suicide note. Opens the window. And steps out onto a ledge… When it comes to grabbing an audience’s attention, nothing does it quite like a bloke threatening to throw himself off the top of a Manhattan high-rise. It was true in Henry Hathaway’s 1951 drama Fourteen Hours, and it’s true for Man on a Ledge.

Except where Hathaway’s film earned plaudits for its portrayal of a man (Richard Basehart) grappling with his own inner-demons, Ledge has its sights set on less torturous thrills. Released a whole six months before the summer blockbuster season kicks off, it’s the first popcorn thriller of 2012. Worthington’s not even given a chance to scream ‘I’m gonna do it!’ before we’re treated to shaky-cam car chases, explosions, jail breaks and Ed Harris sneering away as a slithery scoundrel.

In an age when blockbusters are often suffocated by their bloated storylines, though, the plot of Danish director Asger Leth’s thriller is refreshingly straightforward. Stirring in the biggest of big movie themes – redemption and revenge – we discover that Cassidy is an ex-cop wrongly convicted of a crime (aren’t they all?). But his gamble with gravity is merely a diversionary tactic as his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) embarks on a diamond heist nearby.

Thrown into that mix is Elizabeth Banks as a police negotiator attempting to talk Cassidy down, while on the ground is Kyra Sedgwick as a Gale Weathers-like reporter whose final line is the film’s most gloriously ridiculous. Because, yes, Man on a Ledge is ridiculous, but the fact that it’s so acutely aware of that is what just about saves it.

This is pure bubblegum entertainment. Winking and nodding in almost all the right places, Leth coaxes out moments of genuine hilarity – in particular a snapshot in which desperate women brandish ‘Jump into my arms!’ placards. Sure, the film’s impractical heist logic doesn’t hold a crowbar to Ocean’s Eleven (air vents in air-tight vaults? Thieves who don’t wear gloves?), but the combined magnetism of its spot-on cast – not to mention Leth’s impressive, soaring cityscapes – gives Ledge a winsome kind of charm.

There are certain inexcusable shortcomings, of course. Though it’s nice to have a low-budget thriller come out of Hollywood, the flick occasionally suffers from those slight production values, and poor Elizabeth Banks struggles to escape the restrictions of her underdeveloped soap opera character.

Ledge also oversteps the mark in its final act, and the closing scenes are soppy to the point of embarrassment. Only Ed Harris’ viper-like caricature retains bite. His view on so-called ‘jumpers’? “Why don’t these people just shoot themselves in the head?”

Anticipation: Has Sam Worthington finally watched Clash of the Titans, then? 2

Enjoyment: Daft as an old brush but oddly, endearingly entertaining. 3

In Retrospect: A joyfully silly thriller that won’t win any awards for subtlety, but it already knows that. 3

Snowtown (2011)

Crafting a movie around a real-life tragedy is an understandably tricky endeavour. While James Cameron’s Titanic doomed hundreds to their deaths, pretty much everybody alive at the time of that travesty had long since passed on. Not so with the Snowtown murders, which were committed in an isolated, downtrodden region of Australia not 12 years ago, and are still a justifiably touchy issue for those who live there – not least the families of serial killer John Bunting’s 11 victims.

It’s to first-time director Justin Kurzel’s credit, then, that he approaches the subject with both compassion and sensitivity. That’s not to say that he balks at Bunting’s horrific deeds – though Snowtown is essentially a hard-bitten character study, it’s also easily one of the year’s most disturbing films. Undulating with an unhurried, creeping menace, it positions horror in everyday situations and stealthily cranks up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable.

At the centre of this dark and absorbing drama we find 16-year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway). Living with his mother and brothers, he finds a new father figure in Bunting (Daniel Henshall), his mum’s latest, quietly charismatic squeeze. Except John’s idea of educating Jamie in the ways of world involves acts of ever-increasing violence, as first the pair vandalise the house of the paedophile living across the street, and then take part in a little casual murder.

Providing Snowtown with its murky heart, Henshall is fantastic – at once relatable, likeable even, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a figure of pure terror. Instead of focussing entirely on him, though, Kurzel is more interested in Jamie. Skirting away from vivid depictions of brutality (though when those killer moments come, they freeze the blood), the director wrestles with that most fascinating, perhaps unanswerable of questions: what turns a timid teenager into a ruthless killer? 4/5

Colombiana (2011)

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but thanks to a sizzling Zoe Saldana, Luc Besson’s latest shoot-’em-up is a sure-fire scorcher. Teaming with the feisty femme of the moment, Besson has a writer/producer credit on Colombiana, but it’s quite clearly his bambino. Once envisioned as a sequel to Léon starring a grown-up Mathilda, but reworked into a Nikita-aping, assassin-on-a-mission vengeance flick, Colombiana combines both the best and worst of Besson.

The best? Well, in the wake of Angelina Jolie’s so-so Salt, Colombiana knows how to have a good time and get its hands grubby. Director Olivier Megaton’s mission statement is ‘Bourne with boobs’, and he very nearly hits that target. With its opening shot cradling an endless sea of favelas, not to mention Colombiana’s handful of dusty, dirty fist fights (choreographed by The Bourne Identity’s Alain Figlarz), Megaton’s film is a refined style-oozer that doesn’t beat around the bush.

A pacy but patchy opening introduces us to 10-year-old Cataleya, whose parents have just been shot dead. She escapes alive – but only just. Fifteen years later, Cataleya is working as an assassin for her gangster uncle, offing bad guys on his behalf while secretly planning to avenge her dead parents. Which is when Saldana makes her killer entrance, ploughing into a police car and giggling drunkenly when she’s arrested. As she’s thrown into the clink to sober up, Colombiana’s finest set piece unravels – a near-wordless jail assassination that shows us what Cataleya (and Saldana) is made of.

A wily, wiry waster, Saldana holds her own in a massively physical role – most impressively during a brutal final hour bathroom brawl that has her going 10 rounds with a guy twice her size. Shame, then, that Megaton chooses to fetishise her so much; popping Saldana in nipple-enhancing vests and having her suck on lollipops only works to trivialise our otherwise fierce and fearsome anti-heroine.

Because, yes, Colombiana is the kind of subtlety-free movie where guns are strapped under tables, gates are smashed open by rampaging trucks, and doors are blown up instead of kicked in. Megaton’s film would have done well to stick to the punchy, chat-free approach of its jail segment.

As dodgy dialogue pinched from the Big Book Of Crime Thriller Clichés is repeatedly stuffed down our throats (‘She’s the mist under the door, you won’t see her until it’s too late!”), it’s clear that Colombiana would’ve worked better as a sexy, sultry silent movie. With a bare bones story set out in a visually snappy way, the dialogue only serves to sour the dish.

Anticipation: A post-Avatar Zoe Saldana nabs her first mo-cap-free lead role and Besson’s producing? Where do we sign up? 4

Enjoyment: Saldana sizzles as a feisty fatal femme, making up for the duff dialogue. 3

In Retrospect:
Colombiana wants to be Bourne with boobs, but its connect-the-dots narrative and silted script means it can’t quite reach those bone-crunching heights. 3

Hanna (2011)

Why would the director of an impeccably polished period tragedy like Atonement choose to make an action movie? Well, why not? And if Hanna’s anything to go by, it’d be no crime against cinema for Joe Wright to spend the rest of his career crafting action movies. In fact, many might demand it of him.

Not that Hanna is just any old action picture. Brit director Wright takes what could easily have been a by rote, gunfire-stacked Hit Girl-like cash-in and executes the material with the same devil-in-the-details approach that made Atonement so wrenching. Wright isn’t just concerned with making a ball-cracking actioner (though he definitely succeeds there); he puts value in a surfeit of old school moviemaking rules that few take the time to acknowledge nowadays.

For example, the slow burn. When we’re introduced to Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), she’s clad in animal furs, hunting a reindeer in a desolate, frost-bitten landscape. In a seamless blend of style and substance, she’s treated to a fantastic title card moment of pure iconic clout – before Wright winds things down so we can get to know our strange little heroine.

She’s 16, we learn, and living in the wilds of Finland with her ex-CIA father Erik (Eric Bana). He’s trained her from birth to be strong, resourceful, smart. And when he feels that she’s ready, Erik will let her flip a switch that will alert their whereabouts to his ex-colleague Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Armed with that knowledge, Marissa will make it her mission to kill both Hanna and her father.

Ghostly and attentive, Hanna makes for a bewitchingly unconventional lead. Perfectly captured by Ronan (who worked with Wright on Atonement), she presents Hanna as a fascinating enigma; quirky and serious and one heck of a grappler. The joy and humanity in Wright’s film comes from seeing Hanna unceremoniously exposed to the outside world, adrift from everything she’s ever known, then watching as her cheeks gradually fill with the colour of life.

Though continually turning tricks, blending sly storytelling with some remarkable set pieces, Wright never lets things get too bogged down in plot. While the Bourne films are an intricate labyrinth of false turns and laundered lies (and that’s how we like them), Wright and screenwriters David Farr and Seth Lochlead keep Hanna simple. They understand that Hanna’s journey – both internally and externally – is the real story, not the MacGuffin of her origins or her supposed purpose in a CIA game plan (which any comic book fan could easily predict).

Further polishing Hanna is a killer soundtrack courtesy of the Chemical Brothers. In an era when movie scores are gaining much renewed acclaim thanks to big name authorship (Trent Reznor with The Social Network, Daft Punk and, uh, Tron: Legacy), the Chemical Brothers don’t miss a beat in their hollering, atmospheric soundscapes, adding heft and wallop to Wright’s already-stellar moving images.

Talking of images, Hanna’s packed with bold visual design. Blanchett, on fantastic form as the drawling Texan CIA agent, appears in Hanna’s most brilliantly orchestrated shot, emerging from the shadows inside the gaping, razor-fanged maw of a giant funhouse wolf. Meanwhile, Bana gets his own iconic moment in the form of an underground skirmish, while he convinces as an attentive father at the film’s opening.

Where Hanna stumbles is in its final act. As it seeks to find a satisfactory conclusion, it suddenly realises that its lightweight plotting hasn’t really set itself up for one. There’s no massively devastatingly twist (though there is a twist, to be sure), so instead we’re subjected to scene after scene of running and yelling, as confrontations turn into chases that lead to further confrontations and chases. Meanwhile, the film’s final line, while clearly linking up to its opening scene, feels horribly overcooked.

If Hanna succeeds in anything above all else, it’s in further establishing Saoirse Ronan as a young actress going places. Adeptly navigating both Hanna’s emotional and physical currents, she blows this starmaker of a role out of the water. Here, also, is proof that Wright can handle more than sumptuous costume dramas – his first foray into full-blown action territory results in a pacy, stylish revenge thriller. 4/5

Pitt of alright

Here’s Brad Pitt. With a gun. Looking mean as hell. It’s the first shot of him from the currently filming thriller Coogan’s Trade, a book adaptation helmed by Andrew Dominik (the director of moody Western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford).

I’ve not read the original Coogan’s Trade novel, and I’ve yet to see Jesse James (it’s been sat forlornly in the ‘To watch’ pile on my bookcase for months), but I’m still pretty hyped for this. Why? Well, for a start it has a cast that includes Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins and Ben Mendelsohn.

Then there’s the film’s plot, which has Pitt playing mob enforcer Jackie Cogan, who investigates a dodgy high stakes card game. Considering all the praise Dominik and Pitt received for Jesse James, this second team up ought to be something equally special.

Also, wow, Brad Pitt overload on the blog today. The man must stop being so freaking cool.

Pic via The Playlist