For this writer, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the defining global event of my lifetime. It was the day when anything became possible — even the utterly unthinkable. It was the day when sheer randomness and extreme force collided to prove that we have only the thinnest veneer of protection from the world despite all the promises that have been made to us since childhood.
Since that day, I have never consciously sought out 9/11 footage to watch. That first 20 minutes of television news (switched on after being woken by Hewitt Humphrey’s terrifyingly calm announcement on Morning Report) was all I could manage that day. I have no need to re-traumatise myself thank you very much.
So what to make of 9/11 cinema? For ten years it has been an almost impossible topic to successfully turn into art. The literal retellings of the day’s events (United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center) were the least awful, emphasising heroism in the face of impossible odds and not attempting anything metaphoric or allusive. In the clumsy Remember Me — in which Robert Pattinson goes to visit his estranged father (Pierce Brosnan) in the WTC North Tower that fateful morning — 9/11 was used as a cheap gotcha, a way of provoking a reaction that the story couldn’t manage on its own.
Now we have the cinema adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed novel Extemely Loud & Incredibly Close — a book that emphasises the inexplicable nature of the event by portraying it through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. And not just any nine-year-old. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is an extremely intelligent child but somewhere on the autism spectrum meaning that his emotional sensitivity — and ability to deal with contradiction — are somewhat compromised.
On what Oskar calls “the worst day”, his father (Tom Hanks) was visiting the WTC and his body was never recovered — Oskar’s first great outrage is that the family buries an empty coffin — but he left telephone messages and, Oskar thinks, a puzzle to be solved in the form of a mysterious key. The child — with the help of his grandmother’s silent lodger or “renter” (Max von Sydow) — embarks on a quest to discover the lock for the key and, somehow, stay connected to his lost father.
This is of course a film about 9/11 — and it very delicately handles its relationship to the images of the day — but it is also about trauma more generally and how we do or don’t recover from it. In that way, it is closely related to Steve McQueen’s Shame (reviewed last week) which was also a New York trauma story but where recovery seems a long way off. Von Sydow’s old man cannot speak because of his own fear and guilt about fatherhood (let alone his memories of surviving the Dresden bombing) and many of the people Oskar visits on his journey are dealing with their own sadness and loss — and every one is different.
I’ve given this film a lot more space than I normally would, even though I don’t think it totally works. What it is is brave, thoughtful and caring. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) tip-toe around the challenging material, trying to maintain a poetic vision while not milking the emotion too blatantly and — until the too-tidy conclusion — they mostly get the balance right. I give Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close an A for “ambition” and a B for “execution”.
The least-awaited film of 2012 has finally showed up. Adam Sandler’s comedies have been getting sloppier and sloppier over the years and Jack and Jill does not buck the trend. Sandler’s Happy Madison production company makes sure that only the barest essential parts of the budget make it on to the screen and that as much of that as possible is paid for by outrageous corporate product placement.
Sandler offers his usual comic persona as an ad creative who mistakes being a successful breadwinner for being a genuine family man, and also trots out the drag to play the annoying twin sister who throws everything into chaos when Al Pacino (yes, that Al Pacino) decides she is his new muse.
There’s so much to dislike about this film — and yet I actually didn’t. I know I’m going to ‘film reviewer hell’ for this but I actually quite enjoyed it. It is slapdash and lazy but there are quite a few laughs (the more thrown away the better) as well some amusing celebrity cameos and the legendary Pacino — who has long been in the shadow of his former greatness — sends himself up with furious deadpan commitment. He’s demented but often brilliant.
Neither of which you could say about the Mark Wahlberg thriller Contraband which trots out every tired cliché in the book: he’s trying to get out but they drag him back in; they’re going to kill his family so he has to do one last job; his former-alcoholic best friend is probably going to betray him and start drinking again; he doesn’t want to end up like his father in jail; best of all he saves the day by calling his wife and then hearing the sound of her cellphone ringing from under the cement being poured on top of her. That’s a spoiler, sorry, but the film is all one big spoiler — totally predictable from beginning to end.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times newspaper on Wednesday 29 February, 2012.