Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close * * * *
Cert 12A, 129 mins
Considering the epic scale of the terrorist attack which hit New York on September 11, 2001, Hollywood has been rather slow to reflect it in cinemas.
It’s as if the studios prefer infantile fictional violence to attempts at genuine catharsis.
In September 2006, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was an understandably-dull drama about trapped survivors, especially as it was released three months after British director Paul Greengrass’s heartrending re-enactment of flight United 93.
Here, Dorset-born Stephen Daldry also creates more emotion than Stone with an adaptation of a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer.
We meet nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) when he still has both parents, Thomas (Tom Hanks) and Linda (Sandra Bullock).
But the boy’s life will soon change for ever when people who ‘didn’t even know my father’ are responsible for his death.
Daldry was an Oscar-nominated director for his first three movies, Billy Elliot (2001), The Hours (2003) and The Reader (2009).
Equally impressively, this is his third successive best picture nomination, with Max von Sydow also earning a nod as best supporting actor as a character called The Renter.
Beautifully shot by Herefordshire’s double Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges (The Killing Fields / The Mission), Extremely Loud is receiving mixed reviews.
Some of the symbolism is heavy-handed and manipulative and the story is surely physically impossible.
But for anyone who understands the unfairness of grief it’s a rare chance to let your guard down and go with an emotional flow powered by a rolling piano score from Alexandre Desplat’s (The Queen) who, to his credit, also knows when to stop.
Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999), Horn is impressive in a debut role which demands so much screen time while Hanks and Bullock both appear as normal parents, not Oscar-winning egos.
Having Oskar finding a key and trying to unite it with the appropriate lock is uncomfortably close to Martin Scorsese’s rival best picture contender Hugo. The idea works much better as a broad metaphor than in specific practice; much more truthful is the way Oskar is driven by his father’s inner voice. And that is what moved me.
Big Miracle * * *
Cert PG, 107 mins
Back in the mists of time before the dawn of the internet age, I remember spending days researching the various ins and outs of international whaling bans for a degree essay.
What it taught me then is still true today – that some people want to hunt whales for all sorts of reasons while others want to protect the great creatures of the sea.
From a distance, it will always be possible to understand both intractable points of view.
Inspired by a true story, Big Miracle features three Californian gray whales trapped by Arctic ice.
And it shows how, in the age of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, there was a degree of international co-operation to try to free them.
At the heart of the plot is Greenpeace girl Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore, with impressively greasy roots) taking on a determined oil developer called JW McGraw (Ted Danson, back on form).
Caught in the middle are the whales. And the indigenous local people who might see them as fast food.
Even with an ill-developed, bolted-on romantic subplot, Big Miracle could generally be summed up as Three Chilly Willies.
Except it’s also much more than a Disney-style thriller from Warner Bros.
Greenpeace is an organisation with the good of the Earth’s resources at its heart.
But that doesn’t always make its members right.
Similarly, McGraw is typical of any businessman who spots an opportunity to exploit the kind of energy reserves which enable all of us to go about our daily lives.
But that doesn’t mean people of his ilk are always right, either.
The film’s best moment, then, is when the Alaskan natives have to choose whether they’d like to eat these specific, stricken creatures – or whales at large in years to come.
In this respect, Big Miracle is bigger than the sum of its predictable parts.
It has a lot to teach children about personal ambition, respect for nature and the benefits of different types of people coming together in order to find an inventive, new way of doing something which hadn’t been thought of before.
In other words, like the surprisingly thick ice shelf itself, it has unexpected strengths.
A Dangerous Method * * *
Cert 15, 99 mins
Now aged 68, Canadian director David Cronenberg is one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation – but very often an acquired taste.
Wondering why a friend had mysteriously left the building during a late 70s horror double bill (remember them?) of Rabid and Shivers remains an abiding memory of some of my adolescent cinemagoing adventures.
I didn’t much care for successive releases like Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999) or Spider (2002), but there was no doubting Cronenberg’s return to form with Viggo Mortensen starring in both A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2008).
Now they are both back with a curiously wordy insight into the early nature of psychoanalysis.
Viggo plays Austrian Sigmund Freud opposite flavour-of-the-month Shame actor Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung.
The Swiss psychiatrist’s patients include a seriously disturbed, jaw-twisting 18-year-old Russian called Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) whose fits means she needs to be physically restrained when she arrives in care barely able to speak.
Jung turns to his mentor for advice and the pair end up challenging their respective beliefs, while the educated Spielrein later fancies becoming a psychoanalyst herself.
Further spice is added by psychologist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) encouraging Jung to develop a relationship with the vulnerable young girl even though he is married to Emma (Sarah Gagon).
A Dangerous Method has been adapted from John Kerr’s book by Christopher ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ Hampton, who originally turned it into a play called The Talking Cure and who also translated the French play which became Roman Polanski’s most recent film, Carnage.
As with the writers of The Vow (see below), he seems to have forgotten something.
In this case, that most cinema audiences want more than dreary textbook theories like ‘Angels always speak German’, ‘nothing happens by accident’, ‘true sexuality demands the destruction of the ego’ and ‘pleasure is never simple / of course it is as long as we don’t complicate it’.
Though stylishly directed, Cronenberg is unable to lift the script beyond seriously academic.
A Dangerous Method features three potentially fine central performances, but each one is undermined by the weight of some often heavy duty dialogue.
Knightley especially so since her pre-First World War jump from contorted mess to being relatively normal after talking about her father’s treatment of her is at best unconvincing in this day and age.
Moreover, this film arrives with some baggage of controversial expectation re: Jung whipping his young patient.
Anyone expecting sexual electricity at this point will be left feeling sorely disappointed, especially after hearing the line: ‘I want you to be ferocious’.
A last-placed jockey in the average horse race will have offered more pulse-quickening excitement than this.
The Vow * * *
Cert 12A, 104mins
Making a film about memory loss is so unoriginal it’s as if Hollywood’s studio bosses can’t remember they’ve been there so many times before.
Then again, perhaps it’s because they can’t forget that such films have grossed more than $1.5 billion in the US alone since 1980 that they keep returning to the subject with movies like Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates (2004) and Liam Neeson’s Unknown (2011).
The biggest hits include Matt Damon’s class-leading Bourne series, three movies that are so far ahead of the amnesiac box office that Jeremy Renner and Ed Norton are due in a fourth instalment on August 17... just a week ahead of Colin Farrell starring in a remake of Arnie’s Total Recall. Don’t forget the dates!
Based on a true story, The Vow is an enjoyably old-fashioned romantic drama which would have worked even better if its five writers hadn’t been so collectively forgetful.
The couple at the heart of the film work well together, with Channing Tatum growing in relaxed confidence after the success of starring opposite Amanda Seyfried in Dear John (2010).
As a recording studio owner called Leo, his dream partner Paige is played by Rachel McAdams whose best work to date was in The Notebook (2004), still this century’s best and most undervalued drama about memories.
Leo understands that each person’s life is effectively a sketch made up of our day-to-day experiences joining the bigger dots left by significant events.
So when Paige loses her memory, can she still anchor herself with him going forward?
Debut directed by Michael Sucsy, The Vow is beautifully shot and offers some lovely images of Chicago.
Paige’s parents, played by Sam Neill and Jessica Lange, have pivotal roles.
But the writers ensure their place in the story is both underdeveloped and relatively unconvincing.
Today’s saturated mass media audiences will also find Leo’s attempts to jog Paige’s memory a little half-hearted and surprisingly lacking in physical evidence.
That said, it’s nice to see a romantic drama that absolutely isn’t trying to rely on smut or the inexplicable pulling power of an actor like Adam Sandler to get by.