Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

I have one of these. It's awesome.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the best action film of 2011 came in the form of animation maestro Brad Bird‘s live action directorial debut.  Take a close look at his three earlier films; the criminally underrated Warner Bros. feature ‘The Iron Giant‘, and his two Pixar pictures, the exhilarating superhero caper ‘The Incredibles’ and the insightful artistic comedy ‘Ratatouille’.  All three films, in addition to their strong characters and distinctive styles, boast extraordinary action sequences, the likes of which rarely seen in live action filmmaking.  After all, truly effective cinematic action is all about telling a coherent and consistently surprising story, and it doesn’t matter what form that takes.  It’s one of the grandest — and therefore, one of the hardest — magic tricks in existence.  Most of what passes for action is actually noise.  True action relies on suspense, clarity, easily discernible rules, and character development.  A giant robot shooting a gun is not action.  A giant robot shooting a gun while it avoids being shot by another giant robot is not action.  A giant robot having to shoot another robot before a bomb goes off is not necessarily action either, but it is getting close.  Unfortunately, that third iteration is about as far as most filmmakers will ever go.  At best, they will add more robots, guns, and bombs, but they will not use these elements to tell an effective story.  This is because the clarity required to deliver an edge-of-your-seat action sequence is not just external; primarily, it applies to the characters, and through the characters to the audience.  Bird’s ability to quickly build bridges between characters and audiences is the foundation of his cross-medium action expertise.  It’s why ‘Ghost Protocol’ is not only the best film in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series, or the best action vehicle of 2011, but indeed one of the best of the past ten years.

Without doubt the best scene in the film is Ethan Hunt’s unfortunate climb of the Burj Hotel, which, in case you didn’t know, is Dubai’s crown jewel and the tallest building in the world.  The way Bird eases the audience into the scenario is masterful.  First, he takes advantage of the IMAX format to immerse us in a tremendous establishing shot of the tower.  Scale matters.  If, for example, you want a giant robot fighting another giant robot whilst humans run in terror at their feet, you should probably pull the camera back and hold it steady so we can drink in the sheer and literal weight of the conflict.  It’s ultimately about sympathy; if we’re intended to connect with the five-foot humans running around, the composition needs to center on both their perspective and their emotions within the context of character.  Put someone on the ground whose reactions matter to the audience, and have that person change over time as the scenario evolves in logical ways.  In the climbing scene, Bird does this immediately; as soon as the IMF team discovers that they have to send someone to climb the tower, we see Ethan’s mix of fear and determination, and we connect with it because we are, in a sense, going out there with him.  Sympathy has been established — we know how high the tower is, and dread it just as much as Ethan does, but we also know that if he doesn’t go out the IMF team can’t stop the bad guys.  Suspense and clarity are in full force.  What about rules?  Clearly, Ethan requires some apparatus to make the ascent, and the team provides him with futuristic gloves that glow blue when adhesive and red when they fail.  “Blue is glue,” Benji, the tech expert, offers, “And red is dead.”  As long as Ethan makes the proper motions when climbing, the gloves should work; but what happens if they simply quit on him?  As you can see, rules, clarity, and suspense feed into each other.  Every subsequent development strengthens the bond between the Ethan and the audience, and makes his eventual improvised descent — which is highly reminiscent of the original ‘Die Hard’ — one of the most thrilling cinematic moments since Indy went under the truck in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘.  The Dubai scenes alone would have made ‘Ghost Protocol’ a standout picture, but Bird and company keep up the intensity through the final act, and it all comes together in a highly satisfying way.

‘Ghost Protocol’ is an extremely effective piece of escapist entertainment, more faithful in tone and structure to Bruce Geller’s television series than the other entries, and pleasantly reminiscent of the golden age James Bond films.  Indeed, it’s more spectacular and fun than any Bond since Timothy Dalton fell out the back of a plane in ‘The Living Daylights‘.  Perhaps Brad Bird could inject some vigor into that spy series, as well; as the box office numbers have shown, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is more alive than ever, simply because of Bird’s willingness to get swept up in the exhilarating places the genre can go.  Darkness, grit, and serious themes can make for compelling stories, but they can also be as predictable and disappointing as fluff.  Balance gravity with levity, however, and you have the most potent concoction in the business.  Once you have a taste, you’ll always be looking for your next fix, and I’m glad to say that after ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ got me hooked, ‘Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’ satisfies my need for a cinematic high.  Brad Bird, you’re with Steven Spielberg as one of the great pushers of our day.

War Horse

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Before going to see ‘War Horse’ with my family on Christmas Day, I caught a glimpse of Christopher Kelly’s review, which described the film as a “magnificently mounted, yet utterly soulless shell of a movie.”  I was intrigued by the idea that this could potentially be one of Steven Spielberg’s rare blunders in filmmaking (he has made a couple.)  I attempted to watch the film with the mindset that I was viewing an inherently bad one.  I critiqued every potential flaw, every plot hole; I questioned the films credibility; I tried my hardest to see the film as having no emotional weight and being truly “soulless,” as Christopher Kelly put it.  However, despite my best efforts to see this as a bad film, I failed.  ‘War Horse’ is many things, but poor filmmaking it is not.

‘War Horse’ is not “soulless”; it is conventional, however.  It seems pieced together from a wealth of other films.  Countless animal pictures, including ‘Lassie’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘International Velvet’ are channeled during the first half hour as a boy befriends a colt, Joey, in pre-World War I England.  Later, as the horse is sold to the British army and makes an incredible journey through the war, a thousand different war films — not the least of which is Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ — will seem to pass on the screen as well.  Furthermore, at no point during the film does Spielberg pull any fast ones — the story that the audience, from countless experiences at the movies, believes will happen does indeed unfold, albeit in a very beautiful way.

So yes, the film does rely on conventions, but that’s not necessarily bad. Writer/actor Harold Ramis once mused that conventions and clichés were essentially the same thing, conventions were simply done well; and that’s certainly true of this film.  There is a reason conventions exist — they do tend to work — and Spielberg does not abuse them here.  Rather, he executes them well, molding them into a story that feels organic and strong.

Simply put, this film is incredibly well put together and shows more genuine heart than I’ve seen in a while.  A lot of that has to do with the characters.  As the horse travels from new owner to new owner during the course of the war — the core piece of the film — Spielberg balances a plethora of roles without cheating any principal character of their humanity.  British and German, civilians and soldiers, parents and children, young and old; Spielberg makes them all feel real.  No one seems like a caricature, and certainly none a stereotype.  A scene of a British soldier working with a German to free the horse from barbed wire shows beautifully the complexity and sympathy he has given to each character; it’s consequently one of the best and most powerful film scenes of recent memory.

I would especially like to point out the outstanding performance of Tom Hiddleston (Loki from this year’s ‘Thor’), in the role of a British captain.  During his brief screen time, he exudes so much emotion and depth that he deserves at least a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actor.

If there’s one minor complaint I would levy against the film in terms of its characters, though, it is that there are so many that no one really gets an adequate amount of screen time.  However, I think that is ultimately a good problem for the film to have — we like these characters enough to want to see more of them, and that is a testament to Spielberg’s storytelling.  Perhaps an extended version down the road will rectify this.
Lastly, I commend the performance of the true star of this picture, the horse himself.  From subtle gestures to gallops and leaps, Joey is an incredibly well-trained animal, and his personality in the film shines through brilliantly.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much for an on-screen creature.

In closing, ‘War Horse’ is a film you’ve already seen, but it’s told so well you’ll want to see it again anyways.  Spielberg has proven once again that what matters most in filmmaking is passion and heart, and that certainly bleeds through here.
One final note on conventions: In these modern of times of art and individuality, a lot of us live under a myth that to be conventional is to be unambitious.  To be conventional, is to sell out.  To be conventional is to create something fleeting and shallow.  And that does happen… sometimes.  But if Spielberg hadn’t been willing to be conventional, he never would have made ‘War Horse’.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

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.

The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.