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Opening Weekend: Girls gone wild in Hanna, Your Highness and Soul Surfer

There will be blood—in the Amazonian quests of Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan and AnnaSophia Robb


 
Saoirse Ronan in ‘Hanna’

Sometimes a girl just needs a paycheck. How else to explain how three Oscar-winning actresses are slumming in a trio of popcorn movies coming out this week? Natalie Portman trades her tutu for a thong as a Robin Hood hottie in Your Highness; Cate Blanchett practices high-heeled homicide as an icy spy mistress in Hanna; and Helen Hunt furrows her brow on the beach as a gnarly surf mom in Soul Surfer. The best of the bunch is Hanna—a sleek, willfully preposterous action movie starring Saoirse Ronan (Lovely Bones) as a feral killing machine, with Blanchett as her evil nemesis. As a feature-length chase scene, it’s an exotic, well-honed ride that carries a sharp kick, even if the story’s not believable for a second. Soul Surfer, based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton’s comeback on a surfboard after losing an arm to a shark, has the undeniable grip of a real-life sports flick. But it also has a cloying undertow of inspirational sentiment, and a surfer girl surfeit of blond born-again Christianity. As for Your Highness, well, I felt I was earning paycheck, and then some, just by watching it.

Hanna

Killer kids are the latest craze. Last year we had Chloe Moretz playing a murderous 11-year-old scamp in the comic book bloodbath called Kick-Ass, then a teenage vampire in Let Me In. Now the ethereal Saoirse Ronan, who told a nasty lie in Atonement, graduates to wholesale slaughter in an action movie by the same director, Joe Wright. She stars as Hanna, a 16-year-old who has grown up completely cut off from society in a cabin in the snowy forests of Finland, trained as polymath killing machine by her father, Erik, a former CIA man (Eric Bana). One day, for no apparent reason, Dad decides it’s time for her to leave home and settle some family scores, which puts her on a collision course with his ex-colleague, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a wicked witch of the West who runs a tight ship at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

The action ranges from Finland to Morocco to Berlin, and unfolds as a series of classy set pieces. Along the way, Hanna insinuates herself into a family of English tourists traveling in an RV, a satirical model of progressive post-hippie parenting. Their scenes are among the best in the film, an oasis of wit amid the the relentless action. Wright has stressed that he conceived of the movie as a Lynchian fable, which he hammers home with scenes in a fairy tale theme park. And that partly excuses the lack of narrative coherence. The film’s visual palette is stunning. It’s unusual to see a movie that begins with a scene of a teenage girl bringing down a deer with a bow and arrow in a northern snowscape, and leads to a lethal game of hide-and-seek in an industrial container yard and a grisly killing in a Hansel and Gretel cottage. But the chief pleasure here is watching Ronan play the part of an ethereal Femme Nikita, or Fille Nikita—a home-schooled wild child with a Spock-like emotional distance who discovers the world on the fly while fighting for her life. It’s also a treat to see Blanchett embrace her red-headed role as starchy villainy with an immaculate wardrobe and not a trace of a conscience. Upstaged by both of them, Eric Bana keeps his head down and does the job. This is a rare action movie where women rule.

Natalie Portman in ‘Your Highness’

Your Highness is a shameless adventure in bad taste, re-setting the bar for stoner comedy at a new nadir of vulgarity. Some viewers will consider that a historic triumph, a Medieval Times banquet of glorious garbage. For me, it’s  the kind of exhausting extravagance that gives weed a bad name, and watching it was mostly torture. Yes, there were some rich laughs, and some jaw-dropping reactions to the taboo-busting, gross-out moments—such as the first-ever scene of inter-species sodomy that actually shows a Minotaur’s erection.

I never cease to be amazed by how Hollywood’s genetic engineers keep coming up with mutant variations on formula. Your Highness is sword-and-sorcery spoof larded with gore, gratuitous nudity and cheesy special effects, while making clumsy stabs at the wit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail through a thick haze of wannabe Cheech-and-Chong hijinks. The joker behind the camera is David Gordon Green, who made an auspiciously arty debut with George Washington, but with Pineapple Express, and now this, he seems to have settled into the stoner/action groove.

Your Highness tries to do for the questing epic what Scary Movie did for the horror genre, and it’s a royal mess. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as happy as anyone to see someone tear down the epic pretension of Lord of the Rings. But throughout the film, I was irritated by the sense that the actors were having way more fun than the audience, notably a perpetually grinning James Franco.

He stars as Fabius, a gallant crown prince who routinely slays hydra-headed monsters, and has a slacker brother named Thaddeus (co-writer Danny McBride), a homely coward who just wants to lie around, smoke weed and pleasure himself. When Fabius’s virgin bride, Beladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by a wicked wizard named Leezar (Justin Theroux) on her wedding day, so she can be raped during an eclipse of the two moons and give birth to a dragon that will plunge the world into eternal darkness… yadda, yadda, yadda. To save the girl and the world, Fabius cajoles his brother and his simpleton squire (Rasmus Hardiker) to join him on a rescue quest.

Portman doesn’t show up until midway through the plot. She’s the best thing in the movie, and not just because she flashes her thong-flossed butt in a semi-nude skinny dipping scene. She plays a ruthless Robin Hood ninja relatively straight, and acts circles around her mugging co-stars. But even though her character saves their asses, again and again, it’s not enough to save the movie.


Soul Surfer stars AnneSophia Robb in the inspirational role of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who fought her way back in competition after losing an arm to a shark attack. There are some gripping sequences, not the least of which is the attack itself, and the race to get Bethany to the emergency ward before she dies from blood loss. That sequence, and the surfing scenes, have a thrilling authenticity. The feel-good human drama feels more forced. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt co-star as Bethany’s parents, playing up the friction between the father who’s trying to coax her back into the water and the overly protective mother.  Quaid, who has the juicier role, gets to show off his stubbornly gym-toned physique, while a strained Hunt looks like she’s worked too hard to look good in a bathing suit. Much of the time, I found I was more anxious about the careers of these mid-life actors than Bethany’s ability to master the art of one-armed surfing. Hunt’s role as the whiny mom is especially thankless. Robb, whose arm is digitally amputated, holds her own among a cast of  beach babes (including Carrie Underwood, making her film debut). The film’s tone of blond supremacy becomes a bit alarming in places. The only “bad” people are an ethnic-looking hustler trying to package Bethany’s story and her dark-haired rival in the waves, played by surfing beauty Sonya Balmores Chung, a mixed-raced former Miss Hawaii Teen USA. Directed by producer Sean McNamara, a veteran of family fare, the movie plays like a vanity project for its heroine, whose ardent Christian message is muted into triumph-of-the-human-spirit platitudes. The problem with a story like this is that the real drama lies in the first act, courtesy of the shark. After that, it’s an uphill slog to a resolution that holds no surprises, aside from some bracing surf scenes in the final competition. I think I preferred the cornball eye candy of Blue Crush to the earnest inspiration of Soul Surfer. But if you’re keen to see a good surf movie, I suggest you rent the documentary Riding Giants.


 

Opening Weekend: Girls gone wild in Hanna, Your Highness and Soul Surfer

  1. I believe in Canada is called a paycheque.

  2. I believe in Canada is called a paycheque.

  3. Hey Brian D Johnson, please stop spoiling the good jokes in comedies and key plot points in dramas and mysteries. Learn how to write a spoiler free review. Please. Just skimming through a review of yours can spoil 3-4 movies for me.

  4. Hey Brian D Johnson, please stop spoiling the good jokes in comedies and key plot points in dramas and mysteries. Learn how to write a spoiler free review. Please. Just skimming through a review of yours can spoil 3-4 movies for me.

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