Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Water for Elephants" and "Hanna": Two New Films with Polish Characters

"Water for Elephants" and "Hanna" reviews below, followed by commentary on their Polish characters. One is quite the surprise. 

Even in the poster, Christoph Waltz, and the elephant, are the most interesting characters. 

"Water for Elephants" is a flat soap opera lacking flair or heart or even coherence. It's a love story set in a Depression-era circus; how could it be so boring? Direction and miscasting. Director Francis Lawrence never milks the Depression or the circus setting. He directs as if in the suburban living and bedrooms of television's Pine Valley. You never get the sense of how a Depression-era, small-town kid would be thrilled, terrified, and curious seeing a lion or an elephant for the first time. There are a couple of what appear to be CGI shots of a train chugging across moonlit landscapes; even these lack magic.

Robert Pattinson, star of the teen-vampire sensation "Twilight," is miscast as Jacob, the lead character, a circus vet. Pattinson displays the skills necessary to make teenage girls swoon: he pouts, he broods, he is self-absorbed, he makes zero intellectual or psychological demands on his audience. He has heavy brows and lots of hair. These skills deserve respect. They cause teen girl fans to post reviews of his work that end in multiple exclamation points!!!!!!! But Pattinson is in so far over his head in "Water for Elephants" all you see of him, in some scenes, are bubbles on the surface as he sinks into invisibility.

Reese Witherspoon is a crisp and perky professional with shiny hair and perfect teeth. Problem is, she's playing Marlena, an orphan trick horse rider who marries an abusive circus boss, August (Christoph Waltz.) Marlena should exude desperate vulnerability combined with manipulative power, the kinky raw sex appeal of a woman who, scantily clad in skin-tight, revealing costumes, performs suggestive tricks with muscly animals in front of applauding throngs. Witherspoon doesn't even try to bring that Marlena to life. She just plays Reese Witherspoon, professional movie star with flawless hair and teeth, a little bit bored as Oprah interviews her. There's nothing of the abusive orphanage, the poor street, the skanky Big Top about her at all.

Robert Pattinson's Jacob and Reese Witherspoon's Marlena have zero chemistry. They are the least sexy screen couple I've ever seen. Al Gore and Bill Clinton had more chemistry. When they do kiss, it's not that long-awaited, thrilling moment of release. It's "Huh?"

Christoph Waltz as August, the circus owner, is from a completely different, much better, movie. People are going to walk out of this film wishing that they could have seen the movie centered around Christoph Waltz's August. Waltz demands the audience's attention in a way that no one else in the film does, except Tai as the elephant, Rosie. Waltz's nuanced performance brings to life an August who is very complex and worth caring about, despite his being a monster.

It's clear that Sara Gruen, the book's author, and the filmmaker wanted to tell a story that featured lots of animals. The plot is a cobbled-together, soulless bit of scaffolding on which to hang shots of circus animals and shallow depictions of circus rituals. Why is Jacob a Polish speaker? Why is the elephant a speaker of Polish? Most Polish immigrants to the US at this time were descendents of recently liberated serfs, and did very harsh manual labor in the US: coal mining, steel, cleaning. It's very unlikely that a Polish speaker would be an Ivy League veterinary school graduate. In any case, the film makes no use of Jacob's ethnicity. He could as easily be Spanish or Italian or Greek. Why would a man who had the focus and self-discipline to complete an Ivy League veterinary school education toss aside, literally, everything he has worked for, and everything he owns, to jump on a passing train? The moment utterly lacks verisimilitude and psychological depth. It's obvious that the film just wants to get to its circus setting and animals. Jacob is just a pawn. Why is the film told as an old man's flashback? That approach, and the voiceover narration, add nothing to the film.

"Hanna": Come to think of it, she DOES look a bit Polish.

"Hanna" is a ruthless, relentless, chase featuring a teen girl assassin. It's violent and suspenseful, fast and cruel. The chase sprawls over travelogue settings in the Arctic Circle, North Africa, and Berlin. It's like the Bourne movies, like Daniel Craig's Bond movies. The difference is, of course, that the hero is not a muscle-bound adult male, but a barely muscled teenage girl, Saorise Ronan. And the focus never waivers from the chase. Hanna gets no love interest.

I generally don't go to movies I know are going to be violent and I have walked out of violent films, but I loved "Hanna" and kept my eyes open throughout almost all of it. It's not just that Hanna, the assassin, is a girl, and I'm female, too, although that was part of it. "Hanna" depicts Hanna as having an admirable work ethic, and as being an underdog. The one thing that separates her from the people she so determinedly wounds, beats, stabs, and kills is that she is just following the pedagogical training of her admirably dedicated, old-school patriarch, Erik (Eric Bana.) Erik raised his girl to know how to read, write, and kill. He did this for a righteous reason. The people Erik trained Hanna to kill are very, very bad people, and the audience wants them dead, as well. The morality and worldview of "Hanna" is very much that of the setting of its opening scene: the harsh north. This is Nordic morality, where even if you do the right thing, you may end up dead, anyway. There is no reward. If you don't end up dead, and live on, you live on only to keep fighting in a harsh, unforgiving landscape.

Saorise Ronan gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Hanna. She truly inhabits a character whose sole focus is on struggle. She enters every new landscape, from a treeless desert to a hotel room, with the focus of a wild animal: where is the food? Where is something to drink? From what direction will danger come? How will I meet it? Ronan never once slips up, never once behaves as a comfortable teenage girl would behave. She has a killer's eyes throughout the entire film. I have to wonder if this wasn't a tough film for her to make. Playing Hanna would have given me nightmares.

The film's ruthlessness becomes a bit of a failing. The film is so ready to wound and kill characters the audience wants to like, so ready to turn sweet moments into deadly poison, so ready to let any landscape become a death trap, that I did get a bit jaded about 75% into the film. I was no longer surprised when a character showed some humanity only to be dispatched in the most hateful of ways. But the film threw some new plot developments in at that point, and it kept my interest.

Cate Blanchett is terrific as Hanna's foil. Eric Bana is solid as her dedicated teacher and father. The supporting cast, including Tom Hollander and Olivia Williams, is all very good.

The Chemical Brothers' soundtrack is perfect. I often don't even hear soundtracks the first time I watch a movie, and when I do notice them, it is, all too often, because they are intrusive and trying to do the work of wrenching emotions that poor filmmaking could not do. During one breathless scene in "Hanna," I realized that the post-Apocalyptic soundtrack geared me up and made me tense and brought me into the scene in a very enjoyable way.


Comments on the Polish characters in these new films:

"Water for Elephants"'s Jacob Jankowski is Polish in name only. It's highly unlikely that a Polish speaker would be an Ivy League vet school grad in the Depression. Most Polish immigrants to the US at that time were descendants of serfs who had been liberated only in the 1860s. They did very demanding, deadly, manual labor and Ivy League universities, at that time, were cranking out "scholarship" proving their racial inferiority. I'm not saying that no Polish American got an Ivy League vet degree in the Depression; I'm saying that such a person would not be representational.

In any case, there is nothing Polish about Robert Pattinson's Jacob. He could be the exact same character and be Greek, Eskimo, or Urdu.

The whole film struck me as random in that way. Events and characters existed only as an excuse to produce a movie pretty animals and exotic circus costumes and the Depression. And none of these features came to have any verisimilitude or heart, except Rosie, the very adorable elephant, and Christoph Waltz.

"Water for Elephants" is the first movie that made me lose respect for a book I had not read. I came to wonder if the book is as random and pointless as the movie, as much just an excuse for pretty horses on the page. I read reviews at Amazon that suggested to me that that may be true.

"Hanna," on the other hand, is fascinating. One learns -- I'm about to type a spoiler! -- that Hanna is a genetically modified human being. She was genetically modified to have less pity, and more of an urge to kill. Where did the CIA go to get embryos to manipulate in this way? You got it, reader, Poland!


  1. Wow .... 93% of the viewers liked WFE on RT and WFE recd a A- cinema-score.. I am somewhat puzzled by your total disdain for WFE. But I do understand you can't expect someone to like every movie they see :) Btw, I love it

  2. I liked the book, Water for Elephants, but have seen neither movie. I read it in part to look at the style of describing two eras. I would agree that it unlikely that a Pole would be a vet in the depression, but my mother became a chemist at that time, though it was anything but smooth sailing. Also, in the book, Marlena ran away to join the circus and marry August. She wasn't an orphan.

  3. I was so sad when I finished this book! The story wrapped up beautifully and made me misty eyed. I hated to put it down every night so I could sleep but I knew that if I kept reading, it would be over soon. There was some adult content in parts but the story was wonderful.


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