Anna (2019) movie review

ANNA

Director: Luc Besson
Cast : Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Eric Godon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : M18

            Luc Besson has always been drawn to lead female characters who make quite the impact, from Mathilda to Joan of Arc and Leeloo to Lucy. Anna now enters the fray, attempting to prove she can take her place in the pantheon of women who have defined Besson’s films.

It is 1990 and Anna Poliatova has become a successful fashion model in Paris and Milan. Anna has a secret double life as an assassin working for the KGB. She reports to Olga (Helen Mirren), who sends her to eliminate whomever the Russian intelligence apparatus deems as a threat. Anna begins a relationship with fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), while having dalliances with Russian intelligence officer Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). The game of international espionage is one with extremely high stakes, but it’s a game that Anna knows her way around.

Anna sees Besson revisiting old territory, in that the film is very much a re-tread of La Femme Nikita, with elements of The Professional incorporated into it. This movie is of a smaller scale than recent Besson projects like 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – there are times when it feels more like something that was made by one of Besson’s stable of apprentices who have gone on to direct their own films, directors like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel.

There is nothing wrong with Anna being lower-key than the average James Bond style-spy action movie, but the film is remarkably stupid while thinking it is quite clever. One’s enjoyment of Anna is very much contingent on the threshold of one’s suspension of disbelief. The film’s structure is deliberately annoying, flashing back to earlier points in the film and reframing the events to reveal a new twist multiple times. The spy games depicted in the film feel rudimentary rather than sophisticated, and the dialogue is often terrible. If Besson had gone just a bit further, Anna would’ve become a parody akin to the Austin Powers movies.

Besson is known as a director with an eye for detail, but the period setting of Anna never seems convincing. The film is largely set in 1990, and there are pagers and black-and-white surveillance monitors, but characters transfer data to and from laptops using USB sticks. One character leaves a message for another that looks like it’s been recorded with a remarkably high-resolution webcam. Although Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ensures Anna never looks cheap, it just feels like something that Besson hasn’t put a lot of effort into at all. It’s also harder to watch a typically male gaze-heavy Besson movie given the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against him (allegations which he has categorically denied and which were dismissed by a Paris prosecutor).

Sasha Luss is a Russian supermodel who previously appeared as an alien princess in the afore-mentioned Valerian. She looks like a supermodel, but is devoid of charisma in a fascinating way, such that she almost seems like an inanimate object that the rest of the film is arranged around. Her line delivery is stilted and her performance in the action scenes makes it difficult to buy her as a highly trained secret agent. It’s still early days for Luss and it’s unfair to say she’ll never make a good leading lady, but especially given the mediocre material, she struggles to hold her own in a role that calls for a bona fide badass.

Luke Evans seems like a standard choice for one of Anna’s love interests, but casting Cillian Murphy as his opposite number seems baffling.

Murphy is known for indie projects and apart from the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rarely appears in a mainstream action movie. The part doesn’t make full use of his mystique and seems like one that could’ve been given to any number of American actors.

Of all the supporting players, it’s Helen Mirren who knows what’s up. Her severe, curmudgeonly spymaster character seems to be modelled after characters from the earlier Bond movies like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt, forbidding and authoritative Russian intelligence officials with a nasty streak. The Oscar-winner has fun with what she knows is a silly role, chain-smoking and swearing angrily at video monitors.

Model Lera Abova lends a bit of brightness to the proceedings as the radiant Maud, but her character seems to exist solely for Anna to lie to, and so the camera can leer at Anna and Maud being intimate with each other.

Anna benefits from its supporting cast and the director’s experience making slick action movies, but it often feels like a throwaway direct-to-video movie one would catch a glimpse of on a hotel TV. The plot feels like someone half-remembered a season of Alias and tried to write it all down. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a thriller, but also not ridiculous enough to be an all-out, over the top parody.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

For F*** Magazine

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS 

Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 17m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

20 years after The Fifth Element, Luc Besson takes another crack at the space opera subgenre with this sprawling sci-fi epic. It is the 28th century, and Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne) are Federation operatives tasked with keeping the peace across the cosmos. Valerian is drawn to Laureline, but because of his reputation as a serial heartbreaker, Laureline rebuffs her partner’s advances. The minister of defence (Hancock) sends the pair on assignment to Alpha, a bustling space station metropolis home to 30 million inhabitants of every conceivable species, nicknamed ‘the city of a thousand planets’. When Valerian and Laureline’s superior Arün Filitt (Owen) is kidnapped, they must get to the bottom of a long-buried conspiracy. Along the way, the pair meets colourful characters including the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble (Rihanna) and her sleazy pimp Jolly (Hawke).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the classic French comic Valerian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières and first published in 1967. When writer-director Besson was growing up, the comics were a favourite of his, and they became a strong influence of The Fifth Element. Mézières was a concept artist on that film, and pre-dating that, many French observers noted strong similarities between the aesthetic of Star Wars and that of Valerian and Laureline. An anime adaptation called Time Jam: Valerian and Laureline was made in 2007, but a feature film adaptation hasn’t been made until now.

This is clearly a labour of love for Besson, and it’s abundantly obvious that lots of people put staggering amounts of effort into bringing this film to fruition. Environments bursting with imaginative detail are all over the movie. There is extensive, expansive visual effects work from vendors including Weta Digital, ILM, Rodeo FX and Hybride. While the film is fun to look at, after a certain point, it becomes exhausting, as if one has gotten indigestion after a feast for the eyes. This is yet another example of an adaptation being late to its own party – in between 1967 and now, audiences have seen similar visuals in many sci-fi films and TV shows. Beyond the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek connections, Valerian is also quite reminiscent of the Mass Effect video games. There is a race of slender, sylph-like tribal aliens with translucent, glowing skin, which will instantly conjure up memories of the Na’vi from Avatar.

Besson busies himself far more with the world-building than with developing the story. The plot is surprisingly difficult to follow, until everything is laid out in an exposition-heavy scene towards the film’s conclusion. While the action set pieces and chases are relatively thrilling, every other scene feels like a diversion, and it seems like we take extended breaks from furthering the plot to poke around some corner of some extra-terrestrial city. Our heroes don’t go through that grand an arc, and because of the episodic nature of the central adventure, it seems like we’re watching a stretched-out episode of a TV series. Audiences might be tired of origin stories, but perhaps that would have served this well, since most viewers outside France aren’t overly familiar with the property.

The film’s biggest weakness is the casting of its two leads. At every turn, DeHaan and Delevingne look woefully out of place amidst the dazzlingly designed surroundings. Valerian and Laureline should be swashbuckling action heroes, charismatic, larger-than-life figures. DeHaan and Delevingne aren’t the obvious picks to lead a sci-fi action adventure, and that’s a significant problem. Leaning into, instead of rejecting, the archetypes would play better, since this is something of a tribute to the space opera genre. Beyond their inability to convincingly inhabit the other-worldly environments, DeHaan and Delevingne have minimal chemistry with each other. The bickering rom-com relationship is tiring rather than tantalising, most of their interaction consists of Valerian harassing Laureline, and a lot of their dialogue borders on Star Wars prequel, Padmé and Anakin cheesiness.

The movie is packed with characters, but none of the supporting cast has that big an impact on the story. Owen does next to nothing, and Kris Wu stands around the control room a bunch. Hancock mostly appears as an image on the screen giving orders to our heroes via video call. Rihanna gets an extended dance sequence, which is entertaining, but is yet another moment when it feels like the story comes to a screeching halt to turn its attention to a distraction. Her character Bubble is sympathetic and is more interesting that either Valerian or Laureline, but she’s only in the film for a bit. Hawke has fun as the cheerfully cruel Jolly, but it amounts to little than a cameo.

Valerian serves up spectacle in spades, and packs in a lot of weirdness that’s sufficiently different from standard Hollywood blockbuster fare. However, it can’t help but feel derivative, even if its source material is a progenitor of the media that this film appears to borrow from. This is meant to be a light-hearted jaunt, but a key plot point centres on war crimes and genocide. It’s often close to being immersive, but is hampered by marked unevenness and miscast leads.

Summary: Visually, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves up bang for your buck, but no matter how dazzling the effects or how thrilling the action, you’ll have a hard time believing Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as space-hopping super agents.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong