Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

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Cameras in Orbit — Chronicle

Review: If there’s any conceit in post-modern filmmaking that strikes me as dubious, it’s found-footage.  Though of course, it certainly is a fantastic example of blatantly post-modern filmmaking, in that it deliberately makes the audience aware that they are watching a fictional world through a camera.  Conversely, classical Hollywood style — the most pervasive form of filmmaking in the world — tries to render narrative construction and the camera invisible, so that the viewer sees only the story and not the seams.  Found-footage changes the rules, reframing fictional narratives as cinema verite documentaries, and therein lies the rub — audiences don’t like being reminded of a film’s fictionality while they are watching it.  They want to be fooled.  (As an aside, this is exactly why the French New Wave persists as such a big hit with filmmakers and the intelligentsia and not regular disinterested folks; French New Wave techniques, being deliberate exposures of the filmmaking process, appeal to those who can appreciate films objectively or even ironically.  Most people just want to have a good time, and why shouldn’t they?)  To understand this phenomenon, consider dreams: the emotional power of a dream relies on the dreamer’s belief, while in the dreamworld, in the dream’s veracity.  When the dreamer becomes aware that the dreamworld is a lie, the dream loses its power, and the dreamer seeks escape or control over the dreamworld, a rebellion against the unconscious fears and desires that shape dream logic.  Movies, however, require willing suspension of disbelief.  They are, in effect, dreams on demand.  What matters, therefore, is the filmmaker’s promise to the prospective dreamer about what sort of story, and, more importantly, what sort of emotions they will experience in the fictional world.  This is why genre exists: it’s a shorthand for a promise.

Since found-footage is a conceit, not a genre, it cannot be used as such a promise.  In fact, found-footage often betrays these promises by failing to justify its use as a narrative conceit.  For example, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which, as perhaps the most famous found-footage horror film ever made, set the tone for all films of its type.  A great deal of its box office power came from the filmmakers’ elaborate marketing campaign, in which they promised that the fictional legend of the Blair Witch was real, and that the footage assembled into a mass-market horror film came from a real ill-fated expedition.  How or why or even if anybody ever really believed that is unclear.  But they were making a promise, one that tied directly into the found-footage conceit and supported it; though the film has lost its luster now due to endless imitations, it’s still fascinating as an experiment.  Of course, what it really proved was that the found-footage conceit is limited to how plausible it seems to the audience, making any narrative so framed vulnerable to critiques leveled at the conceit rather than the narrative itself.  In short, found-footage is dubious to me because it’s a needless risk.  That’s not to mention the aesthetic shortcuts made by filmmakers in its name, of course, although these shortcuts are arguably just as bad in classical Hollywood style films that employ lots of shaky-cam.

To counter that sour note, let’s move on to ‘Chronicle’, the first film from young director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, the son of John.)  Beyond being remarkably succinct and emotionally credible as a story, ‘Chronicle’ does two really interesting things.  First, it directly challenges the superhero genre — which is in a bit of a renaissance at the moment — by playing out as a superhero drama rather than an action-adventure.  Second, it uses the found-footage conceit primarily as a character device, and at the first opportunity more or less jettisons cinema verite in the name of a unique binding aesthetic that could only exist in its particular fictional world.  In other words, it presents a real step forward for its genre and conceit, an organic evolution in narrative technique that emerges out of human drama rather than pure experimentalism.  It is, in a way, the anti-‘Blair Witch’.

There’s no attempt to get the viewer to believe any of this actually happened; instead, from the outset, Trank & Landis establish the camera as the protagonist’s method of engagement with the world.  It’s how the character defends himself against harm, makes sense of life, exercises control and renders his identity.  As the story progresses, the protagonist makes friends (with whom he gains telekinetic powers, which is almost incidental) and the camera’s use expands — it no longer functions at his exclusive command.  Instead, the movie includes cameras of all sorts, the sort of footage you could never find and assemble into a narrative like this.  That’s because “found-footage” is in this instance a misnomer — ‘Chronicle’ is too evolved for that.  Brilliantly, Trank & Landis hijack the conceit and make it do something a great deal more interesting.  Since the story revolves around three contemporary teenagers, the camera’s function as a metaphor for the nexus between the self and the world makes perfect sense.  The titular chronicle is the echoes their lives leave behind in omnipresent media devices, and the protagonist’s struggle to gain control over his world means he must direct the camera, thereby seizing the chronicle itself.  Hence, the protagonist literally fights for control over the movie, a daringly meta dramatic device that never rings false.

Earlier I alluded to the notion that this is a superhero drama and not an action movie.  While there is action, there’s no good vs. evil or find-the-MacGuffin plot, but plenty of deft writing that strives moment-to-moment to cultivate empathy for the characters.  Action, therefore, appears as character crisis.   Indeed, the biggest and most satisfying burst of action in the story emerges out of the rage of a traumatized teenager.   Furthermore, this climatic battle serves to sum up the film that preceded it, pitting the protagonist — who becomes the villain in a practical sense — against his super-powered cousin, as hundreds of visible cameras spin around them in the air, a striking image that renders the film’s main theme obvious.  Interestingly, the protagonist acts as if he’s fighting to protect his dominion over the movie, centering the cameras on him, putting them up, as he does in the opening scene, as an emotional shield.  His cousin isn’t interested in wresting the movie from his grasp, though he’s aware of its existence; he just wants to break through the shield and rescue the protagonist.  In sum, the climatic sequence functions as pure drama, simultaneously thrilling and tragic, and says everything the film wants to say with poetic brilliance.  Is it too early to call Trank & Landis virtuosos?  Too bad.  They’re virtuosos.  Deal with it.

Unfortunately for found-footage filmmakers, ‘Chronicle’ is a logical end-point for the conceit, returning to filmmaking’s raison d’être — any image created by the camera must develop the immediate experience of human emotion.  An audience, once betrayed, is never emotionally invested in the story.  Therefore, found-footage should be avoided in all cases that do not reward audiences for their faith.  ‘Chronicle’, by reinventing the conceit, builds a bridge between the audience and its characters, never once denying that it is fictional, while simultaneously being self-reflexive in order to strengthen that very bridge.  As a drama and an evolution in cinematic technique, ‘Chronicle’ is a triumph.

Hugo

Poster courtesy of impawards.com

Review:   Scorsese’s wonderful, thoughtful film ‘Hugo’ is his tribute to the intimate relationship between cinematic dreams and their dreamers, and how the magic of filmmaking, so easily believed by children, is, in a psychological sense, actually real.  Movies are not primarily about what is seen — the plot, characters, setting, and action — but a way of seeing.  Cinematic vision can transform mundanity into magic, magic into mundanity, violence into beauty, or beauty into violence — and that’s just scratching the surface.  It’s why Kubrick, Malick or Spielberg can hold on one simple image and change it into a microcosm of creation’s majesty, while in another film, through less imaginative eyes, the simple image would be glossed over, and the insight lost.  Great directors like Martin Scorsese stand above their peers because they succeed in creating unified, articulate expressions of their unconscious minds, in essence giving life to their dreams.  We go to the movies, whether we realize it or not, to live in a filmmaker’s mind and to let it shape our own.  This is why recognizing creative forces is such a big part of responsible movie-going; whose dreams have you been having, lately?

Like the source material, Brian Selznick’s gorgeously illustrated book ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, Scorsese’s film is a fictionalized account of how filmmaking pioneer George Méliès was rediscovered by French cinema enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s.  Audiences are given a way in through the title character, an orphan named Hugo, who keeps the clocks running in a Paris train station and tries to fix the mysterious, intricate automaton left by his dead father.  The brilliant thing about letting this talented, intelligent and vulnerable boy shape the narrative is that it helps today’s cynical audiences connect with Méliès’ strange world, while simultaneously providing a sympathetic story that demands resolution.  Scorsese’s love of cinema, and his emulation of it, is mirrored in Hugo.  Hugo takes his friend Isabelle to see silent comedian Harold Lloyd’s ‘Safety Last‘, and the delight on their faces is worth the price of admission.  Though Hugo doesn’t yet suspect it, a filmmaker works in the train station as a toymaker; a sad, elderly man who Hugo observes with fascination.  Hugo, and the audience, do not yet know that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, but we sense the man’s painful loss immediately.  The toymaker/magician is incomplete, because his films — his dreams, in fact — are gone.  It’s up to Hugo to reconnect the filmmaker with his lost work, and in the process to solve the mystery of the automaton.

‘Hugo’ is a film populated by broken characters.  Like the automaton, they are missing the pieces that would allow them to act according to their design, and each of them, incomplete, cannot connect with those they care for.  It’s a simple but beautiful rationalization of life, and rightfully, the film lets young Hugo and Isabelle articulate it for us.  Like many children’s films, ‘Hugo’ expresses its morals through its youngest characters, but unlike a typical genre entry, it carefully shows us not just why, but how these morals are practical.  Each character contributes to the stream of plot, and as the protagonist, Hugo is kind enough to open the dam and let it resolve itself.   Until the final thirty minutes, the film progresses slowly; it takes its time to flesh out the train station and its peculiar denizens, in particular the comically awful Station Inspector, played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen.  Lanky, awkward, and by turns pathetic and menacing, the Station Inspector makes a terrifically pitiable villain, a guy we’d like to see get his comeuppance and fall in love at the end of the day.  Méliès, meanwhile, begins as a minor, though sympathetic, villain, and ends as a playful sorcerer and loving father.    Hugo confronts the Station Inspector and the filmmaker, and his actions, like those of a skilled tinkerer, realign their hearts with their dreams.  Méliès’ cinematic magic, in turn, fixes Hugo, demonstrating the truth of cinema and the real power a director has over a willing human soul.

On the technical side of the equation, director of photography Robert Richardson’s 3D cinematography is so rich that it competes with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’.  While Cameron’s film illuminated the beauty of nature, Scorsese’s collaboration with Richardson renders clockwork machinery glorious.  This makes for a rare occasion in which I will actually recommend that you experience ‘Hugo’ with the third dimension; just make an effort to find a theater with very bright projection to offset those tinted glasses.  Even without 3D, the color palette and composition in ‘Hugo’ is striking, so if you can’t find a showing with bright projection, go 2D.

For more on ‘Hugo’, I recommend the following articles: Kristin Thompson’s historical analysis of the film, which doubles as a review; Matthias Stork’s take; and Richard Brody’s thoughts at the New Yorker. 

Also, you can find many of Méliès’ films on YouTube.  Here’s a good one to start with: A Trip to the Moon. 

Real Steel

Review: The first thing we hear in director Shawn Levy’s ‘Real Steel’ is an acoustic guitar being plucked sentimentally, the kind of music that tells you, before the first lyrics are sung, that it is about a man down on his luck, probably on the road, desperate for a second chance.  Which is, of course, exactly what we get.  Hugh Jackman is a former boxer eclipsed by the robot fighting craze, but he’s trying to stay in the game with his own machines.  He’s not doing particularly well.  He also has an eleven-year-old son he’s never met… and you can probably guess where this is going.  The boy doesn’t want him, he doesn’t want the boy, and the story is about bringing them together — while they take a unique fighting machine to international stardom.

With its diverse team of producers, a couple story-by credits and a usually terrifying partially-inspired-by credit, it’s clear that this is a movie that was made by committee.  It’s cheese, fluff, and big CGI robots beating the crud out of each other.  A story this thoroughly soaked in sentimentalism and the mush of recycled pop culture should be so rote and manufactured that it fails to achieve a modicum of emotional impact.

But that’s not the case; just because it is an exercise in efficient Hollywood money-making does not mean it is fundamentally wrong or, for that matter, ineffective.  Levy and company employ an army of clichés that prove their familiar power; there will be slow-motion, there will be last stands, there will be unlikely heroes, and somehow there will still be tears in the audience.  Hell, I cried, and I knew exactly what they were doing in a cool, objective way.  This is a film that blatantly mashes up giant robots with ‘Rocky’ and dares you to sneer at it.  It’s like a cinematic staring contest; whose eyes will get watery first?  Let this serve as an important reminder: originality is not King — truth is.  Well-worn clichés persist because of their inherent value, and when communicated through good performances and rousing sequences, they can reach the most cynical of viewers.

The fights are the heart and soul of this film, even more so than the dramatic beats in between.  They are tense, exciting, well-photographed, and always character driven.  There are no superfluous action sequences.  I will call them good, certainly, but I will not call them great.  Like so many other postmodern films, ‘Real Steel’ succumbs to an excess of cuts and angles, which results in frequent disorientation and intermittent suspense.  The cinematography and editing outshine most other contemporary action films, but are still hamstrung by an underlining impatience.  Quick editing is powerful in small doses, while in large amounts it is simply wearying.  Slow motion is not an acceptable respite, either, as in effect the pace only slows about two to four seconds per shot, and while it highlights emotion, it does not balance out the marathon tempo of a given scene.  Here’s a simple slice of cinematic theory: The longer the take, the longer the characters live and breathe in the frame, the suspense persists, and the action plays.  In short, more bang for your buck, all because you didn’t cut to camera B until another five to ten seconds had passed.  Say you’ve got your robot hero enduring punches thrown by his opponent, and you want to emphasize the assault’s punishing duration.  Don’t cut to a “more intense” angle or return to a reaction shot more than once or twice, the bare minimum necessary to set up an emotional relationship between your characters in the moment.  Stay focused.  We should endure the assault along with our hero, as long as it takes.  Therefore, when he finally ducks a blow and hits his opponent square in the jaw, the reversal’s impact is substantially heightened.  Save the quick cuts for the quick changes.  For example, say the robot combatants are tangling back and forth, only keeping the upper hand for split second intervals.  Use quick cuts to mirror the choppy nature of the battle.  A filmmaker who perfectly fits their visual progression to the story’s events (i.e., cause and effect from moment to moment) is a perfect filmmaker.

Lastly, I’d like to consider the ideas the exist in the film’s text and subtext.  I think, if ‘Real Steel’ is successful (and it deserves to be), there is room to explore these notions in a respectable sequel.  Centrally, the robots serve as avatars, helping humans achieve emotional catharsis through violence.  Both Jackman’s character, and his son, express themselves through the robot called Atom, who can learn any movement he sees performed by a human being.  This relationship is what makes the finale so powerful, and ultimately justifies ‘Real Steel’ to me.  Indeed, the last shot is of the machine mimicking the boy and his father simultaneously — he’s the synergistic bridge between the two, where their souls meet and act as one.  He may also be a self-aware A.I.; if he is, then that has terrific implications for the robot boxing enterprise.  If a boxing robot’s nature is that of an avatar, could it choose what person to represent?  What if a boxing robot wished only to represent itself?  I won’t suggest that the filmmakers should tread down the familiar path of the robot uprising.  ‘Real Steel’ should be limited to explorations of its peculiar territory, nothing more or less.

In conclusion, I can say that ‘Real Steel’ is a solid work of genre filmmaking for a wide audience.  It’s a movie that young boys will drag their parents to see, but I don’t think that anyone in attendance — provided they are not hopelessly jaded — will remain unaffected.  It’s not a film geared toward (snobbish) cinephiles such as myself, but I recognize that good, comfortable narratives like this are why many people go to the movies at all.  In IMAX, ‘Real Steel’ has all the rumble of a roller coaster, and it is in that spectacular format that I would recommend you to experience this sentimental, rousing, bubblegum, two-fisted, populist dreck.

I liked it.

Polishing The Silver Mirror

Here’s where the blog turns from a smattering of ideas and bursts of insight into something bigger.

The subtitle, as reads on the head of every page, is reflections on cinema and culture.  We cover a fair bit of popular cinema, but what about culture?  Specifically, whose?  Well, obviously American; but that’s general.  I’m a journalist in Indiana, and it’s time to make note of that.

The goal is to transform The Silver Mirror into an online magazine that serves as the nexus between filmmakers, cinemas, and cinephiles in four tiers: Indiana cities (largely Indianapolis), Indiana, America, and the World.

So what you’re going to see, dear reader, is far more than film reviews.  We’re going to interview local filmmakers, big and small.  We’re going to keep an eye on cinemas and the average filmgoer’s experience.  We’re going to attend festivals.  We’re going to help inspire filmmakers across the country with fresh footage of locations and events that deserve to be up on screen.  We’re going to continue analyzing trends in filmmaking and film criticism in the Elements of the Screen column.  The average film review is going to be much more in depth, probably doubling or tripling in length.  We’re going to conduct our own private film screenings and record our discussions for your reading pleasure.

We’re going to do a lot.

With that, I’d like to wish us a happy 200th post!

Classic Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Summary:  A superb adaptation, the most suitable cinematic echo of Tolkien’s immutable trilogy, and one of the greatest epics ever put to film.

Review: In setting out to review Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s supreme fantasy epic, I’m forced to consider the three films in their entirety (i.e. the extended editions) and as one work, because unlike other famous trilogies such as, say, ‘Star Wars’, the studio didn’t wait to pursue a sequel after a successful first installment — it was a single gamble from the beginning, and divided only by marketing and logistical necessity, as with the source material.

But to tackle such a monumental work, something that is so inseparable from my personal development, a little biographical reflection is necessary.

Tolkien first captured my imagination when I was about 9 years old, as I read his playful ‘The Hobbit’, the witty, straightforward adventure that serves as the prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  As anticipation built for the upcoming film trilogy, I absorbed the giddy excitement of my friends through osmosis, and plunged into the thick prose of the greater work with gusto.  I came out the other side somewhat changed, in ways I of course can only now appreciate.  Being an imaginative boy, I had always loved fantasy, but Tolkien’s lengendarium was different — it had substance, having in fact less in common with strict fantasy than history.  What Middle-Earth lacked in physical reality in made up for in spiritual truth — both in the religious sense and the broader rational sense.  I would never touch The Shire, but it was nevertheless solid to me.

When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ hit theaters, I was simply too young to handle the emotional intensity of it, and so I had to rely on the secondhand experience of my older brother, my parents, and my friends.  To me, it was like hearing from people who had visited Middle-Earth, and could describe it as fresh observers.  I relived the book, again, from the perspective of a witness.

A habit of mine at the time was to stay up way too late and wait for the creative part of my brain, perhaps in want of the dream-state, to be released.  Then I would write, draw, and imagine with the freedom only a child can possess.  As if I needed any more motivation, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its two forms, literary and witnessed, inspired a new burst of creativity, as I intuitively sought to capture the emotions of reading the novels, the anticipation of revisiting the world in a new way, hearing about it from friends, and finally seeing it.  To the point, Jackson wasn’t just adapting the story I loved, he was adapting me — into a filmmaker.

My fate was sealed when ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released on DVD.  The experience was everything I wanted, and more.  It was actually not as though the filmmakers had reached into my imagination and created my vision of Middle-Earth — the dissonance, in fact, made it more profound.  The emotional intensity was great, but my absorption into the world was complete, and I believed once again.  A great film is like a stage magic act — you know that somehow the artist has fabricated what you are seeing, but the method escapes your notice, and the thrill of magic, the mystery of it, appears.  The magician is at the top of his form when you most want to be like him.  The best thing a magician or a filmmaker can win is not applause, nor critical adulation, nor an apostle, but an apprentice.

The second most beautiful thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films is that the filmmakers never compromise on the level of graphic detail that is present in the source material.  The plot is highly condensed, and with good reason; Tolkien’s dense, meandering prose is impossible to translate beat-for-beat to cinema.  What works for an invented history does not work for narrative film, even one that stretches 726 minutes.  The story itself survives.  Filmmakers should always understand story in the sense of a retelling, as if you had to explain everything that really mattered in a short amount of time.  Proper film craft stresses  economy and emotion.  When the key emotions are tied up in how real the world feels, it takes a special effort to achieve immersion.  Here Tolkien’s description and the filmmakers’ production design synchronize; the visuals suggest all the depth of history that Jackson never has a chance to share with us.

By far the best quality of the trilogy is the cast.  Their chemistry is fantastic.  Not a single actor is miscast.  It’s clear from the extensive behind-the-scenes material that they grew into a family.  There’s not a relationship, scene, or line that feels wrong.  If life did not so directly compliment the art, these films would not work.  There’s no such thing as a flawless film, only a film you can’t quit.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is highly addictive.  Like the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the people give this production, which could have easily collapsed under its own weight, such soul that the story transcends standard cinematic storytelling.  In this way, its emotional detail alone equals the historical detail of the novels.  You couldn’t hope for a better adaptation.

Considering the films as a single experience, it becomes much more difficult to criticize the weaker sections of the narrative, in particular the ending.  In the theater, I did not begrudge Jackson’s decision to follow Tolkien to the Grey Havens.  Later on, as other viewers complained that it was too long and perhaps too sad, I flipped over.  Now I’ve flopped back.  I understand why the long ending is the right one.  After all the darkness and despair, to transform the final section of the film into a potion of joy through a veil of sadness  — well, I think it’s obvious that it’s poetry.  Heck, the ending is kind of short in the proper perspective.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the ‘Star Wars’ of my generation, because obviously the ill-conceived prequels were not.  All things considered, I’m pretty happy with that.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pushed filmmaking craft forward in all the right ways, with a timeless story at its core, and it is undoubtedly a classic, one epic to rule them all.

Hanna

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  With organic, character-based storytelling and artful technique, ‘Hanna’ is the way genre thrillers should be made.

Review:  If you want to make a genre film, such as an action thriller with familiar espionage elements, there exists a principle that serves to prevent your story from being a stale retread: Character depth.  From characters and relationships should grow, organically, the plot and action you want to see.  ‘Hanna’ is a brilliant example of this principle in full effect.  Every scene in the excellent screenplay serves to flesh out the titular character, in an oblique way that subverts genre expectations as often as it fulfills them.  The filmmakers deliver a moving human story that works as a kickass action movie, too.  This is doing it right.

Director Joe Wright exploits the close relationship between film and music, which renders aid to the dramatic theme of music as a critical part of human life.  The action sequences play out perfectly with The Chemical Brothers’ genius score, a visual-for-sound beat synergy that locks the twain together in your mind.  It pleases me to no end that I can now imagine the action in ‘Hanna’ with just the score playing as well as I can ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  I hope The Chemical Brothers stay open to future collaborations with Joe Wright in particular, and film scoring in general.  They’ve got a knack for it.

Visually, the filmmakers work both old school and inventively, as they use Steadicam wisely and lend the frame clarity and focus, instead of, say, kinetic obscurity ala Greengrass.  Joe Wright notably executes a particularly badass tracking shot that lasts for about five minutes, the centerpiece of which is a brutal fight with Eric Bana.  The whole film is beautiful, even when it’s dwelling on violent subject matter.  When the composition and editing coalesce into something this gorgeous, there’s not much I can do but watch with a silly grin on my face.

What’s truly brilliant about the story is its subjectivity, as we experience the film from primarily Hanna’s perspective, and even when we divert to other characters it’s interpreted through her worldview.  She grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales, an encyclopedia and Finland’s unforgiving wilderness — the scope of her experience colors even mundane objects like tea kettles and fluorescent lights.  The villains morph, symbolically, into witches and wolves, teeth and claws and dark magic.  As she evolves, so does her world, and while her lingering childhood innocence vanishes, it’s replaced with powerful self-knowledge, the apotheosis of the film’s tagline: Adapt or die.  The fact that the filmmakers allow us to share her perspective so intimately makes this transformation powerful, regardless of whether the plot surprises us.  As Eric Bana’s character simply observes, “Kids grow up” — and it’s best when we can grow up with them.