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.
i have noticed that since you began your podcast that your reviews have become increasingly vapid, by-the-numbers and inoffensively bland. Before Cinematica, you had a personal taste (which i did not always agree with) but your style has changed now to be so innocuously tepid that it may as well be op-eds for your sponsor (since its uncreditted, i assume its a distributor, or a cinema chain). You have nothing insightful or original to give the reader/listener, you pad your reviews out with plot descriptions and factoids that are to be found in other ‘reviews’ across the blogosphere. Your dishonest “it-is-what-it-is” tone, (evident in your REST FOR THE WICKED review) continues unabated, reserved for any by-the-numbers slice of the old fart genre that appeals to the Penthouse cinema’s demographic. Very lazy. whats worse is your new Two Word review b.s. PROJECT X is “toxic waste”. Really? thats it? thats all you got? You havent even got the energy to cut’n’paste all the other old fart guff for the film? But you think your audience will simply trust your two word ‘opinion’. Why bother? seriously? Sad to see how you sold out yourself for a few bucks so fast.…
Wow, what a delightfully offensive comment to wake up to. You don’t get one for ages and then this… Still, I was once told that complaints are simply misdirected energy so allow me to try and correct a few of your misapprehensions.
There may well be a difference between my opinions recently, I’m not really the best person to comment. I think I’m pretty consistent and have been for the six years I’ve been producing these reviews. But the arrival of Cinematica is not the cause of, or response to, any of these changes. If I appear to be softer on films now than when I used to be, it may be because the films are better (the first quarter of 2012 has been a ripper so far) and that I am a generally happier person. I’m certainly enjoying my trips to the pictures more than I have done for ages.
Which leads us to other changes. I have been getting more and more non-film related work over the last six months which means that the constant struggle to pay bills has eased a bit. Business is good. But time is short. I have been producing these articles for the Capital Times for six years and haven’t been paid a cent for them. Even watching all the films every week has become a huge challenge. Writing the articles now gets done in the 6am to 8am gap before work on a Monday morning.
And I don’t write for the “blogosphere” so don’t pay much attention to what others online are saying or what people already know. I write for the 20,000+ weekly Capital Times readers who look to the paper and to me for a guide to what’s on, what it’s about and whether they should spend their time and money on something. I don’t read other people’s reviews (except by accident) and haven’t since I started. Capital Times readers want to know whether a film will appeal to them, not just whether I liked it or not. If I can do both things, great, but there’s an audience for REST FOR THE WICKED just maybe not in cinemas. I really object to being called dishonest – completely inaccurate, unfair and hurtful.
Cinematica is a paid gig but I think, after all this time, I’m entitled to get some reward for the hours I have put in and the pleasure I hope I’ve given people. It’s also a fun project where I get to work with great people on building something cool. We’re learning all the time, and constructive feedback is super-useful for our development. This, though, isn’t it.
It’s neither here nor there who pays for the show. If it’s a sponsorship it’s a spectacularly unsuccessful one as we never mention their name! You can’t even tell what branch of the business they are in. All I can say is they are generous, far-sighted, enthusiastic supporters of movies. They are movie fans and the Cinematica project is by fans for fans. I think our respective industry backgrounds also helps provide context for our reviews – and the many interviews we do. It’s a lot of work producing nearly an hour of radio every week and I don’t apologise for not doing it for nothing. I still do plenty for free and don’t get much in the way of thanks for it either.
The two-word review of PROJECT X was a joke. All the two-word reviews are. We had Sakura_59 on the show reviewing the film at length the week before so we didn’t ignore it. The two-word reviews are whimsy, like Ebert’s “Two Thumbs Up” or a pointless star rating. They are our signature and listeners enjoy taking part.
So, unless you are prepared to step up and be my patron – as opposed to reading and listening to my work for free – I’ll continue to try and find partners who do want to work with me, pay me for my time and respect what I do.
Thanks for the feedback and I’m sorry you aren’t happy with the way things are going.
I hear the Carter Holt Harveys Kinleith Paper Mill are interested in buying that huge chip on your shoulder
Just curious; was that your debut comment on this blog?
@Mark. Dan Slevin goes to every movie because he does not feel it is fair that some miss out. That is a big reflection of the type of person he is. Space restrictions at Capital Times mean he often has a lot of films to review in very few words. Also, he does it all out of the good of his own heart. Just so you know.