POSTED ON APRIL 13, 2011:
Your Highness is more lovable than laughable, but Hanna stirs up arty action
The '80s were the genesis of my cinematic awakening. Sure, a few short years earlier, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope had blown the doors open and subsequent theater experiences acquainted me with George Lucas' betters, Steven Spielberg, and his amazing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ridley Scott with his terrifying Alien. But the '80s, with its VCRs and HBO, were the real deluge of film.
In the '80s I was a huge sci-fi/fantasy nerd with a nasty Dungeons & Dragons habit and an outsider's gravitation to the chronic. Coupled with the fact that I delighted in fantasy/adventure flicks like Conan the Barbarian, Krull, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beast Master and uncountable others during that genre's '80s Renaissance, and the prospect of Your Highness -- a big, fat homage to all those things held dear -- had my expectations peaked.
And expectations can be a movie's worst enemy; right behind not being particularly good.
In Your Highness, Thadeous (star/writer, Danny McBride) and Fabious (James Franco) are the privileged sons of King Tallious (Charles Dance). Fabious, being the first born, is slated for the throne and is possessed of the requisite kingly qualities: good-looks, bravery and a dopey, laid-back disposition. Actually, that last one isn't so kingly. His brother, however, is a vain, jealous, cowardly reprobate who chafes at walking in Fabious' shadow and at the muted disapproval of his father.
When Fabious returns from a quest with a new fiancée, Belladonna (an ethereal Zooey Deschanel) and the head of a Cyclops, the evil wizard Leezar, (Justin Theroux) angered at the death of his monster and the rescue of his future bride, busts up the nuptials, re-kidnapping Belladonna. Leezar cannot be killed by normal weapons so King Tallious sends Thadeous to help his chivalrous brother find the Sword of the Unicorn to kill Leezar and save Belladonna from a gruesome honeymoon.
The high (in both senses) expectations for Your Highness weren't just based on its niche genre affection as much as they were on pairing director David Gordon Green (The Pineapple Express) with the writing team of Danny McBride and Ben Best, the duo behind the HBO gem Eastbound and Down--as well as their cornerstone film, The Foot Fist Way. The script has their trademark blend of crudity and grudging warm-heartedness and it is, if nothing else, a loving homage to the genre. Respectful doses of nudity, violence and supernatural monsters abound as our heroes get the help of a pedophilic Muppet and his magical compass, battle a corpulent wizard who can summon a hydra and take on a tumescent Minotaur in their quest to vanquish the evil Leezar.
But as much as Your Highness's heart is in the right place the comedy is extremely uneven. The best gags are funny yet infrequent while just as often the script seems to think fantasy caricatures smoking weed and saying "fuck" is somehow biting or transgressive. When it does defy actual good taste it's neither funny nor particularly imaginative. Your Highness seems most inspired when it gets genuinely weird -- that corpulent wizard and the horny Minotaur score major points there. This is a comedic homage as opposed to a spoof and it's clear that McBride, Best and Green have a love of the genre and all its nerdy accoutrement. But that isn't really enough to make it the laughgasm it wanted to be. McBride's and Best's work seems to benefit from repeated viewings so maybe it'll grow funnier on cable. Comedy Central will eventually play this into the ground.
Natalie Portman turns up fresh off her Oscar-win to class Your Highness up as Isabel, a warrior woman with a mission that inexorably draws her closer to the Brothers Dim. Her dead-serious portrayal made for some awkwardly funny moments.
That said the film looks the part, with some nicely realized production design that tags a variety of fantasy mainstays from Krull to Conan to The Lord of the Rings, among others. The location photography in Northern Ireland lends an authentic setting. Barring some of the CG work, Your Highness actually looks like a '80s fantasy film, right down to Green's clumsy staging of the battle sequences and a predilection for practical creature FX.
McBride is playing a medieval version of Kenny Powers on a hero's journey that transforms him from an egomaniacal fop to a redeemed son who validates his family's faith in him. He's not stretching at all, as evidenced by his horrible, intermittent accent, but he's still fun to watch. Franco seems to be more stoned than his brother is supposed to be, but he's pretty much perfect for this role and his comic timing holds up well against McBride's (though I wish they had funnier lines). Natalie Portman turns up fresh off her Oscar-win to class things up as Isabel, a warrior woman with a mission that inexorably draws her closer to the Brothers Dim. Her dead-serious portrayal made for some awkwardly funny moments. Justin Theroux as the evil wizard Leezar nails the hirsute, frustrated nerd who can't get laid character admirably, with his snooty belligerence and bizarre, Gary Oldman-inspired locks. The cast are all having a lot of fun, which goes a long way to getting Your Highness past its significant dearth of actual jokes.
Your Highness is a film aimed at a super-specific audience and one that might find it more loveable than I do, though no one wanted to love it more than I did. Expectations are a bitch.
Last year, director Anton Corbijn came out with the stylish, low-key assassin flick The American. Starring George Clooney as a quiet, haunted professional killer, Corbijn created a beautifully photographed art film full of understated emphasis on mood and a starkly lean tale that put one in the shoes of a character whose life is defined by his lucrative, morally ambiguous profession. An action flick it wasn't (despite its marketing) but that didn't matter because it was masterfully atmospheric, cloak-and-dagger suspense filmmaking.
This year, director Joe Wright has an action tale just as steeped in controlled tone and artful execution. Hanna, a wonderful amalgam of tight storytelling and often gorgeous visual style, is a compelling tale that hopefully makes its lead, Saoirse Ronan, the star that her role in Peter Jackson's awful The Lovely Bones failed to make her.
Secluded in an Arctic forest compound where she has learned how to survive the elements and her fatherís combat drills, Hannaís knowledge of the outside world is limited to lessons read from an old encyclopedia. Hanna director Joe Wright is pitch perfect here and wrings a saturated tone that drips with an almost fairy tale aesthetic.
Hanna (Ronan) has been raised by her father Erik (Eric Bana), secluded in an Arctic forest compound where she has learned how to survive the elements and her father's combat drills. Her knowledge of the outside world is limited to lessons read from an old encyclopedia. She knows her mother is dead "of three bullets" and that she's training to get revenge from her murderer. She has her alias memorized and her father is only waiting for her to be ready.
The day comes and their plan is set in motion when Hanna turns on a military transponder that captures the interest of Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a black-ops director who was her father's handler and her mother's murderer. By the time troops arrive Erik is long gone but they capture Hanna and bring her to a super-secret facility in the middle of the desert. The seemingly scared girl quickly proves that her diminutive size is not equal to her aptitude for quick, efficient death dealing. Hanna makes short work of her captors and lights out to meet her father in Berlin. Marissa pursues her covertly, under the radar of her superiors, in order to clean up a mess she made long ago.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement) is pitch perfect with Hanna. Working from a story and script by Seth Lochhead (with David Farr), Wright wrings a saturated tone from the narrative which drips with an almost fairy tale aesthetic as Hanna begins to learn about the world and is alternately dazzled by and inhibited from the newly discovered humanity around her.
But Wright also comes through on the action, and while Hanna is not a bulletfest, Wright brings a lucid comprehension to the action sequences that utilize excellent camera choreography to capture the bursts of violence. He also lets the narrative and characters breathe and when he does his artistic visual sense and the gorgeous cinematography of Alwin H. Kuchler (Sunshine) give Hanna an atmosphere so thick it would crush a beer can.
That mood is accentuated by The Chemical Brothers weird, propulsive and great score that the film uses as a back drop for the action but which rarely imposes on the films quieter moments, which are supported by the fine performances from Wright's well chosen cast.
Saoirse Ronan was very good in the otherwise misguided The Lovely Bones, but as Hanna she's great. Ronan pulls off the ass kicking convincingly in a character that could be wrongly perceived as a Hit Girl knock-off. But it's her performance that really sets the roles apart as much as their only similarity being that they are both lethal kids. If anything the character, and story, owe more to Luc Besson's equally excellent 1994 film, The Professional.
Bana is typically solid and in his element as Erik, utilizing his physicality as well as his empathy; always his strong suits. It's good to see him not being misused in a film, and Hanna's script gives him plenty of room to shine.
Blanchett is equally chilly and somehow sympathetic in a role that is a bit on the background. If Wright or the script made any major mistakes it was in not making Marissa and her minion, Issacs (the nearly campy Tom Hollander) feel like more of a genuine threat.
But that's a minor flaw in what is otherwise a taut, stylish, arty action hybrid. Hanna is as assuredly cinematic and character driven as it is adept at scratching one's adrenaline itch to a bloody pulp.
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