Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

            Papa, Can You Hear Me?
                       Review by Ken Burke
This is a tender tale of a boy’s devastating loss of his father in the 9/11/01 attack on NYC and his attempt to reconnect through a quest to solve a remaining mystery.

“Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone?”
                                                             Joni Mitchell  “Big Yellow Taxi”

            Or, to begin with another musical reminder, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” from one of New York City icon Paul Simon’s marvelous solo albums, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.  But in the case of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close the contrast is that one person’s heartfelt understandings of the tragedies that life so arbitrarily throws at us is another person’s dismissal of this film’s content as banal treacle, overly emotive and pandering to the basest level of our improperly stimulated emotions.  I understand the dichotomy, referencing my own review on this blog of War Horse where I dismissed as corny and derivative what others might receive as a sincere exploration of the strong bond between humans and animals along with a touching anti-war plea.  It all comes down to what we think is authentic vs. what we reject as constructed.  For me—a non-New Yorker now, but I did live in Queens in 1972-73—Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is extremely effective and incredibly touching, but I can understand if some others might find it too manipulative, just as I did with War Horse.  And, unfortunately for me, I won’t be able to give my best arguments in favor of the film at this date because for once I’m suspending the Spoiler Alert and not revealing the resolution of the film’s events, respecting the marketing reality that it hasn’t played yet in my San Francisco Bay area and I don’t want to ruin the revelations that play out as the tale is told.  (This was a rare opportunity for me to see an advance screening, so I'm trying to write like a newspaper or magazine reviewer whose readers haven’t seen the film yet but need enough information to make a decision on viewing.  That’s not likely to happen too often here, but I’ll add a little more at the end at a later date after Extremely Loud has been in general circulation.)

            What I can say at this point is that despite a lot of known name actors in the cast—Sandra Bullock as Linda Schell, the mom, Zoe Caldwell (a 4-time Tony winner on Broadway) as the grandmother, John Goodman as Stan, the doorman, Viola Davis as Abby Black, the first contact on the boy’s journey of discovery, and Jeffery Wright as William Black, Abby’s ex-husband—there are really only three characters that mainly drive the film’s events (except for a few important actions late in the story that shall remain unexplained for now).  They are Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), the boy on a quest to reconnect with some remnant of his dead father; Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), the father tragically killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001; and the Renter (Max von Sydow), who accompanies Oskar on his journey.  We’ll start our discussion with Oskar, an obviously traumatized kid who was dealing with relationship and phobia problems even before his dad’s death.  Despite the loving attention Oskar gets from his family, especially his devoted father, he’s obviously struggling with some variation of autism or Asperger’s syndrome (related problems, not necessarily easy to distinguish), which manifests itself in his obsessions, his fears, his harsh personality, and, on the positive side, his intensely-focused ability to set out on an expedition after through research and planning.  He’s often not an easy person to be around because of his incessant demands and his singular objectives.  However, he’s just playing the hand nature dealt him as best as he can, even as his actions sometimes make it difficult for those not afflicted with his challenges to understand his singular determination and his desperate need to resolve his “reconnaissance expeditions,” a skill encouraged by his father’s hope of bringing his boy as fully into the world as Oskar can push himself to enter.

            We start the film with a widescreen closeup (a seeming semantic oxymoron but one that is properly descriptive visually, just as this film overall is built on confounding elements that ultimately resolve themselves) of Oskar speculating on an unusual solution to increasing world population:  bury the dead in skyscrapers or huge underground vaults so that their demise won’t take up so much needed space and their loved ones can more easily visit them through simple elevator rides and cataloging systems.  This speculation may seem a bit weird for an 11-year-old boy, but he’s an unusual kid and we quickly are given the context we need (if we haven’t already seen previews such as the first clip noted at the end of this review) that Oskar is very aware of both death and skyscrapers because of Dad’s sad fate on “the Worst Day” back in 2001, a year before the present events of this film (although we get plenty of backstory on father and son as well through the numerous flashbacks).  Oskar is convinced that a key he accidently finds among his father’s still preserved belongings was intended for him to use to pursue the answer of another of Dad’s planned adventures.  The single word “black” on the key’s envelope leads him to attempt to meet every person named Black in the five boroughs of NYC, a task that would confound an adult with time, money, and resources to attempt such an endeavor but it's just a normal challenge for Oskar (based on some of his rapid recitations of facts he might even top Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt [Rain Man, Barry Levinson, 1988] in “counting cards”), whose dedication to his self-selected cause encourages him to plot out a travel plan (which, woefully, doesn’t include subways because of one of his phobias so he gets a lot of walking exercise), rationalize the days he chooses to skip school (with the excuse to various clueless adults that certain holidays have been moved around), and recruit the mysterious Renter as a helper (more on that below, unless you already know about him from the aforementioned video trailer) whose presence and muteness is often more of a hindrance than Oskar anticipated. 

            Oskar’s first strategy session with his newly found assistant is also a marvelous display of cinematic virtuosity as we get a useful recap of the film’s events to that point, presented in a rapid montage of images, overlapping vocal delivery of Oskar’s words, and a sense of frantic presentation that demonstrates not only how important this quest is for Oskar but how desperately terrified he is that failure may be the undesired result.  This kid knows his strengths, but he’s also knowledgeable of his limitations—hence, the tambourine in the above photo, a constant companion whose soft jingling helps calm his racing anxiety—and fearful that this huge task is beyond his capabilities, hindered by such hesitations as walking on wooden bridges over water to reach one of his Black family destinations (although he’s fine with a more substantial NYC landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge, to help him access another borough of the city).

            Oscar’s dad, Thomas, certainly did everything he could to help his son overcome his hesitations and sharpen his detective skills, including sending him on an extensive recon mission to locate clues about a lost sixth borough which supposedly floated away, forcing the good citizens of NYC to forcibly use hooks and ropes to save Central Park from floating away with the “lost” island.  While sophisticated readers of fantastic literature might recognize Dad’s plausible explanation of clues about the existence of this disappeared urban treasure as something akin to the seemingly rational explanations of non-existent people or civilizations in the writings of Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, Oskar is completely convinced of the existence of the vanished sixth borough because his father is so thorough and plausible in his information that seems to verify this missing piece of the metropolis.  In the fairly brief time that we get to spend with Thomas we can understand why his son would be so devoted to him because he’s the epitome of what we’d want a father to be: loving and committed to his son’s betterment, creative in the strategies he uses to encourage Oskar to keep expanding his imposed boundaries, and not so anxious to “improve” his son as to force him beyond the burden of those boundaries as when he gently backs off in encouraging Oskar to try the swing set in the park, even though he’s sure his son would enjoy the exhilaration of semi-flight, because this is a limit that Oskar’s not ready to confront just yet.  Thomas appreciates Oskar’s limits, because he’s grown up with some of his own.  He doesn’t suffer the emotional disadvantages his son does, but he’s lived his version of restrictions by not knowing his own father and finding his career as a jeweler (with corresponding meticulous skills that he passes on generically to his son) not so much by choice but by necessity.  To get back to Joni Mitchell again, Thomas “could have been more” (“The Arrangement”) but with the life choices that Oskar's father has been presented with he'll never know for sure what "more" could have been.

            Thomas doesn’t know everything about everything anyway, as Oskar is convinced that he must (although any father who reads to his child from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is obviously trying to pass on as much information as possible), because he underestimates the danger he’s in after the jetliner has crashed into the tower where he’s at a business meeting, but he’s certainly imparted a great sense of facing up to challenges to his son and has proven himself to have a complex, intriguing mind that would be likely to devise a hidden treasure hunt for the boy, giving Oskar the assurance he needs beyond a reasonable doubt that the hidden key in the closet must have significance, that it must be the first clue in a complex scheme concocted by his dad to once again reveal a rewarding secret, or at least to bring about a last reunion with Oskar’s departed spirit guide on his adventurous journeys.  In one of the many factual notations that Oskar shares with us as he narrates the film he notes that if the sun were to explode and disappear, taking with it our necessary source of warmth and illumination, it would be 8 minutes before we’d even know about this life-ending tragedy because of the limitations of the speed of light in reaching—or in this case, not reaching—the Earth.  We’d have just 8 minutes of unrealized bliss before everything would come to a horrendous end, just as Thomas’ life came to an unanticipated end when his tower suddenly collapsed.  Oscar’s turned this into a metaphor of how this key quest has suddenly given him an unexpected sense of an extended 8-minute window of connection with his lost father, an opportunity to have some part of him back in Oskar’s life again before the inevitable end must once again be acknowledged.  This hope of finding a brief rapture with the key’s lock and its unknown bounty before all goes dark again drives Oskar to continue his difficult search but it also fills him with dread that the lock may be too elusive, that he wasn’t given enough clues and can never get any others from the dead clue master.

            He doesn’t get much in the way of clues about his recruited assistant either, the silent Renter in his grandmother’s apartment.  This man doesn’t seem to be physically mute, just determined in his own way, as insistent as Oskar is in his obsessions, to not grace humanity with his voice again. (He’s like Elisabeth Vogler [Liv Ullmann] in Persona [Ingmar Bergman, 1966], a famous actress who suddenly has an existential crisis during a performance of Electra and elects not to speak to anyone again; of course, von Sydow has his own connection to Bergman, as Antonius Block, the knight on his own important journey, in The Seventh Seal [1957] and as other characters in other early Bergman classics.)  The Renter is an old man, whose face and demeanor imply a hard life so far, a recluse that my wife says reminds her of what little she’s been able to find out about her own quiet, reclusive Swedish immigrant great-grandfather, Gustav Kindblad (anyone with any genealogical clues beyond what we never found at Ellis Island, two archive libraries in Sweden, and countless family-tree websites is welcome to contact me directly at and I’ll pass on any possibilities).  This film’s Renter may be incredibly close to Oskar in terms of accompanying him on his journey—and even effectively arguing him onto a subway car in an attempt to make their search more time- and energy-efficient—but he’s nowhere close to loud, extremely or otherwise, except in his forceful insistence to not talk nor reveal much at all about himself (although we do finally get some answers, but nothing that I can share in this constrained “preview review” format).  Ultimately, he does prove valuable for Oskar but not in anticipated ways—just as the key search itself takes turns that are unexpected for both Oskar and us.  What’s also valuable about his presence is the acting lesson given here by von Sydow who communicates with facial and body gestures (along with constant written notes to the boy, a tactic that fits well with his presence as a silent movie actor in this story) a strong sense of the man’s emotional turmoil and personality without having to say a word.

            While I can’t say for sure what my Best Supporting Actor Oscar preference is for 2011 until I see just a few more of the important contenders, my current inclination is to root for “mad” (as he sometimes seems here) Max who manages to accomplish a marvelous sense of character development without the most obvious of theatrical attributes, the human voice. (And his is a fine voice in Swedish or English, as I was reminded of in a recent DVD screening of another troubled von Sydow character, Harry Haller, in the wildly surrealistic Steppenwolf [Fred Haines, 1974]; and in another aside, I’ll note that my probable choice for the Best Actor Oscar is another speechless wonder, Jean Dujardin as George Valentin in The Artist [Michel Hazanavicius], so I’m glad that my likely Best Actress favorites this year [probably Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, or Glenn Close—haven’t yet seen The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd) or Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia)]—for lead and Octavia Spencer [The Help, Tate Taylor] for supporting get to talk plenty in their films.)

            But, because of “preview” limitations, I haven’t been able to talk much about why this film impacts me so much, in contrast to its generally tepid reaction from critics such as those you can explore at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (links provided below).  Despite my previous residence in NYC, I knew almost no one there at the time of the 9/11 disaster except two of my nieces, who fortunately weren’t harmed by the attacks.  However, my wife and I visited those nieces in July 2002 and saw the former World Trade Center site still in rubble with all the personal memorials posted around it, and it really gave me a sense of how loud and close this horrible assault was on those actually in the buildings and nearby, reminders of which are laudably few in the film and tastefully presented from a distance or on a TV screen.  But you don’t have to have lived near the epicenter of this heinous terrorist act or directly lost someone in the buildings’ collapse to feel the loss that Oskar carries on a daily basis because of the sudden removal of the guiding light of his life (he cares about his mother too and she proves more protective of him than we first understand, but her own grief has made her distant from her son which sets them on an inevitable collision course, particularly over Oskar’s anger with her burying “an empty box” because he wants more closure than that about his father’s death).  People everywhere are weighted down with the grief of lost loved ones, whether from natural causes years ago or through rapid disruptions of seemingly stable lives brought on sudden illnesses, accidents, or violence beyond our control.  People everywhere cling to the same frantic hope that Oskar has in his long-shot key quest that some unexpected reminder will surface, bringing some new connection to the dead and buried that will create the seemingly uncreatable: a new memory, a new link to what had been closed off from us forever (at least in this existence; I speculate nothing about what may lie beyond—but I’m not much convinced that anything does, so I encourage living life to the fullest here and now because you never know when your own tower may suddenly collapse)

            The events in this film may be completely fictional as far as the Schell family goes but they’re set within an historical context that relates directly to thousands of New Yorkers and indirectly to millions of the rest of us.  Keeping with my minor theme of musical references in this review, I’m reminded not only of Joni Mitchell but also Jackson Browne whose “Fountain of Sorrow” contains the lines: “And while the future's there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past” (a desire we’ve all shared, one given great exploration in Steven King’s new book 11/22/63 [one of the few instances when I’m actually reading a novel while it’s on the New York Times Best Seller List] where a time traveler hopes to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy; that semi-intrepid counter-historian from our era might also have had thoughts about changing the outcome of 9/11/01 but his portal to the past must always start in 1958 and go forward in real time so he would have had to send someone considerably younger than himself to even attempt such an enormous task).  Oskar fervently wants to change his past by undoing 9/11 but must deal instead with the present in hopes of “the future [being] there for [him] to change,” to get beyond the tragedy that has so stunted his life in 2002.  If you see his journey through city streets and personal memory you may not be as moved by it as I was, you may find that the feelings stirred are too calculated, you may not think that the conclusion is the best resolution that could have been offered.  If so, we simply disagree because for me this experience was removed from my specific life but firmly linked to my larger existence of what needs to be a more interconnected world of universal human suffering and saving grace.

            I’ll end with a few comments on major contributors to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  Director Stephen Daldry is known for a couple of films that connected well with many audiences, Billy Elliot (2000) that showcased another, more triumphant look at childhood and The Reader (2008) a very serious—tragic, actually—look at post-WW II Germany that won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for Kate Winslet (and a Best Director nomination for Daldry, but if I had been giving out the statues that year I’d have awarded Winslet for her portrayal of April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road as well as given the Director Oscar to her helmsman [and husband] Sam Mendes, although he did win once for 1999’s American Beauty).  For me, though (And this is all about me, isn’t it?  If you want something else, do your own damn blog!  Just kidding, keep reading please), Daldry’s best work, and one that evokes relevant comparisons with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is The Hours (2002), a Best Actress Oscar winner for Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and collector of 8 other Oscar nominations, including one for Daldry (and my choice for that year’s Best Picture, despite Rob Marshall’s fine work with Chicago)The Hours' focus on contemplated or completed suicide explores a possibly even more tragic aspect of existence, the burden of living that entices or compels a person to escape permanently despite the anguish that will live on for those close to the self-chosen victim (as seen in The Reader as well) as they go through their own endless hours (and days) of suffering afterward.  Obviously, Daldry isn’t frequently drawn to uplifting tales of optimism, although there’s ultimately more to be found in Extremely Loud than you might initially have reason to anticipate, but in navigating through the sorrows that characterize his dramas he provides tasteful excursions onto the shadowy sides of our streets, in this case with a well-crafted script from Eric Roth who’s shown a good deal of complexity in his understanding of human nature as well in scripts for films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008), Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005), and The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999), although his greatest claim to fame came previously with Tom Hanks and Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994; this was Roth’s only Oscar win but he did get nominations for the other three films noted here).
            Finally, I’ll note that in addition to the glowing reviews Thomas Horn has received on his performance there is some negative commentary about his acting ability, the latter indicating that his 15 minutes of fame should have ended with his financial triumph on Jeopardy’s Kids Week rather than trying to extend into the world of portraying fictional characters.  Again, maybe just for me, he seemed to be the perfect fit for the given part, even if that could have been due to limited range rather than highly-honed skill (and consult and  if you'd like to find out more from the local press about this San Francisco Bay Area boy who must have impressed Daldry as he beat out over 3,000 other aspirants for the role).  He conveyed very appropriately what I expect to see from a kid with withdrawn emotions and limited interpersonal skills, the very qualities that often make him so frustrating to those around him.  I’m not saying that a contemporary version of a natural professional like Haley Joel Osment couldn’t have just as successfully created an effective rendition of this character, but I don’t see the need to find your inner Asperger’s if your performance is already yielding the desired result.  (My apologies to Horn if this comes off as just a backhanded compliment, which is not what I intend.  For that we'd have to turn to Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone in The Godfather: Part III [Francis Ford Coppola, 1990], where her very limited ability as an actress [unlike her better skills as a director, shown best in Lost in Translation, 2003, which won her an Original Screenplay Oscar and got one of the few Director Oscar nominations ever for a woman] would have been better received if her father had been doing a fictionalized documentary on Mafia mobsters and their biological families because she could easily have conveyed such a real person caught by the camera, just as Horn is maybe being the only actor he’s capable of but if so that happens to convey well the qualities of an obsessed, socially inept kid in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close much better than Coppola was able to present herself as the Godfather's distraught daughter.)

            Who knows how much of what we see on screen is from Horn’s talent and how much is from being at the right place at the right time?  All I know is that it works for me, as does the entire film, despite any choices that might legitimately come off as too sentimental for someone else.  Take a look for yourself when the film goes into wider exhibition and see what you think.  I, for one, was moved, especially by the book that Oskar made of his experiences in NYC; if what he conveys on the last page doesn’t open your heart to the power of this film’s vision then I doubt our perspectives could ever be reconciled, no matter how “right” each of us may think we are.

            But most importantly, no matter what your opinion of the film, I ask you to just remember along with Joni Mitchell that “… you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”  Whatever "it" is for you, embrace it now while you have the chance because we never know how fleeting life and its attributes may be.  In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Oskar's world was never secure but he always had his father to help him navigate it.  When he goes rudderless without Dad he has to find new strategies and understand that other resources are also available to him if he can be open to them.  This film is hopefully an inspiration for all of us to learn to fully appreciate what is vital for the life we have and what opportunities await us when that life is put to the test.

          (2/15/12     Now that some time has passed since the local opening of this film I'll just add some comments I didn't want to say previously so as not to spoil the poignant ending.  When Oskar's mother finds the strange little collage book of her boy's impressions of NYC [a book he has named Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, seemingly as a description of not only how the 9/11 events impacted him indirectly and his dad directly but also metaphorically how proximate these events feel to him because of his unforgettable loss] it was both heart-warming and heart-breaking to me to see the final image of a constructed insert where he could reverse the fall of his father from the building, bringing him back again, even just in fantasy, to Oskar's life.  That simple gesture is one of the most impactful images I can remember from any film, with echoes of "Rosebud," Charles Foster Kane's final word in Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941], just before he drops the glass ball and everything goes dark for him, just as a major light in Oskar's existence went dark on "the Worst Day" he's ever experienced, made even worse by his shame at not having been able to pick up the phone when his dad called the last time before the Tower collapsed, frozen by the fear of knowing that he'd be speaking to him moments before his horrible demise.  No matter what Oskar did at that moment, his choice was too overwhelming to bear but now he lives with his haunting memories of indecision.
          Those awful ghosts are mitigated in the film's final scenes as Oskar does find a last note from his father hidden in a park swing, he overcomes his fears of heights and motion to finally enjoy a ride on that swing, he has great memories of [most] all of the Blacks that he met during his quest, and we find that the Renter is actually his grandfather, suffering through his own grief at his son's death, who begins to overcome his own sorrows and self-imposed isolation to move back in with Oskar's grandmother.  None of these positive moments will ever erase the horror of Thomas' tragic end, but they do give us strength that even the bitterest life can take a turn for the better as we see with Oskar's refocused hopes for the future and the revealed assurance that his mother wasn't neglecting him the whole time he was seemingly out on his own, estranged from her, but that she had learned of his "Holy Grail" mission and quietly prepared the way so that he'd be safe in his journey.
          Given the overall negative critical reaction to the film, I'm pleasantly surprised that it made the Best Picture finalists for the Oscars, pleased that von Sydow was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and convinced that nominations will be the highest honors that they get on Feb. 26.  However, I'm still greatly impressed by this film and proud to include it in my Top Ten of the year, a list I'll note in my predictions for this year's Oscar winners to be posted a bit later today.)

            If you’re interested in exploring this film further here are some suggested links:

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