Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Movies - Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

Dir: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Thomas Horn, Max von Sydow, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Jeffrey White Running Time: 129mins

Following in a long tradition of Oscar-nominated movies that few people outside the industry seem to like, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close's view of post-9/11 New York has been lambasted as patronising, self-serving and pretentious by a particularly vocal set of critics. There is no denying that Stephen Daldry's movie has an over-reliance on clich├ęs and self-conscious quirks, not to mention that is it arriving over a decade after the event it occasionally comes perilously close to fetishising, but if it deserves credit for anything, it is at least sincere in its intentions.

There's a trend these days towards stories having to be edgy or emotionally neutral to be considered telling, which isn't always healthy. Allowing audiences to project their own feelings onto a narrative is a brave approach, and cinema would certainly be a less interesting place were there not people willing to break a few taboos, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for more heartfelt experiences as well. I've never been a fan of the Steven Spielberg school of emotional manipulation, but a lot of people love them for how they wear their hearts so openly. There are many movies which achieve the same effect with less effort and engineering, and it's not bad thing that Extremely Loud aims to be one of them.
Along with that Robert Pattinson movie from 2010, Remember Me, it seems that filmmakers are finally feeling ready to tackle the tragedy of 9/11 straight-on, rather than indirectly (Flight 93) or through metaphor (Cloverfield). That's a relief, because the power of the images from the event itself were far more powerful and evocative than any filmmaker, no matter how skilled, could relay through a back door interpretation. A plane crashing into a building, men and women jumping to their deaths... these are sights which lodge in the memory through the primacy of their horror. There's no point comparing them to anything, or positing the build-up as a key event: whether on television or in person, people know what they saw that day. Its effect was direct and uncomplicated.

Extremely Loud takes as direct a route as possible in relaying its themes: the story centres around a boy whose father died in the tragedy. Finding a key hidden inside a vase in his father's bedroom, he sets out to find whatever it unlocks in order to achieve a degree of peace and closure that reality seems unwilling to offer him. As he tracks down every person in New York with the surname 'Black' (as was written on the envelope the key was found in), his scrapbook begins to form a chronicle of the varied lives of a city united by a shared pain.

It's not a bad conceit, and the movie occasionally achieves moments of great poignancy when it puts the quirks to one side and allows the simplest version of its ideas to do the work. A scene between the young Oscar and a businessman on the brink of divorce, played in an extraordinarily delicate turn from Jeffrey White, conveys the haunting power of guilt through a simple but immensely painful image. Max von Sydow also injects his character with a great deal of poise and wrought dignity, saying more through his world-weary expression and ability to control his grief in a way Oscar cannot. That he plays a mute is one of the movie's more successful attempts at idiosyncrasy.

Unfortunately, the movie's biggest failing is its portrayal of the lead character. For what it's worth, Thomas Horn gives a credible performance, making Oscar's precociousness seem more natural than is deserved. Asperger's is one of those conditions that writers have adopted as the affliction du jour without bothering to really understand what it means. It's a neat fit for making a child character preternaturally clever and an outsider, but supposedly without any of the difficult implications of giving a young character a more 'serious' condition.

Extremely Loud offers a version of Asperger's that exists solely to justify Oscar having personality traits that would otherwise be unlikeable - ignoring his mother, frequently being obnoxious or losing his temper - or ridiculous - constructing complex filing systems and having an overdeveloped knowledge of language and random facts. As with the rest of the film, it offers the broad strokes but neglects the nuances, turning the character into more of an irritating caricature than someone who we can sympathise with through his struggles to comprehend that sorrow cannot be compartmentalised and indexed in the same way as everything else in his life.

While writer Eric Roth obviously has a clear intention for the role Oscar's condition has to play in the story, as someone who starts to understand the connections between people at the same time as we get to know them, his inability to handle the subtle details of what the disorder actually entails leads to those good intentions being lost. The same is true of the handling of the 9/11 event: it's clear what Roth and Daldry are trying to do, but their emotional beats are played so bluntly that the tone veers too often towards uncomfortable exploitation rather than sincerity. A daydreamed snapshot of Tom Hanks tumbling from the burning tower is the worst example (an ugly conceit of sending Oscar into the subway wearing a gas mask comes a close second), being completely unneccessary, conveying no new information and attempting to elicit a quick reaction via the audience's naturally horrified reaction to their memories of the event, rather gradually earning it through skillful storytelling.

Alexandre Desplat's overwrought score is equally on-the-nose and intrusive, barely able to contain the sense of self-importance which lingers throughout, discrediting what could otherwise have been - and sometimes offers glimpses of - a subtly moving portrayal of a city emotionally rebuilding. Instead, Extremely Loud goes mawkish when it needs to be gentle, broad when it needs to be subtle, ending on a perfunctory 'happy' note that betrays an affecting earlier twist and the overall message of Oscar's memories of his father being more important than any physical souvenirs. The movie is too slick and self-aware to appropriately handle a tragedy whose images imprinted into the Western consciousness through harsh, horrific simplicity. A more appropriate title might have been Extremely Long And Incredibly Cloying. [ 4 ]


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