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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Extremely Loud & Incrdibly Close

U.S.: Stephen Daldry, 2012 (Warner Bros.)
I don’t want to come across as mean and heartless here, but, though there were parts of it I liked a lot,  the movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close affected me something like a persistent urchin might — an impeccable waif with annoyingly wide Martha Keane eyes, who keeps knocking on my door, demanding more gruel.
“Look kid,” I feel like saying. “I don’t have any gruel. Maybe you’ll settle for oatmeal? Or a cracker? Better yet, try the lady next door.” Then, sure enough, ten minutes later: Knock, knock, knock. Open the door. There he is again. Sheesh! “Please sir,” he says in this awful precious nagging little voice. “Can I have some more? I’m a wonderful movie. Socially conscious. Dramatically ambitious. Literarily well-connected. Politically flawless. With an Oscar-winning cast and writer. And I’m an orphan you see, or half an orphan, and I’m walking through this big cold wounded city, emotionally scarred but terribly brave, searching, searching…“
“Searching for what?’“ I ask, feeling like a sucker. And the urchin widens his eyes even more and rears back and cries: “I’m searching for the meaning of life! And I’m searching for a connection to my poor dead father Tom Schell, played by Tom Hanks (Oscar One), who died leaping from a window of the Twin Towers on 9/11 — a horrible tragic fall that I keep showing over and over. And over.
He goes on, relentless. “And I search too for understanding — for my grieving mother, Sandra Bullock (Oscar Two). And my weird maybe-grandfather played by Max von Sydow (who’s deserved maybe seven Oscars), my grandpa who can’t talk and scribbles little notes all over the place. And my puzzled grandmother (played by Zoe Caldwell), who reads the notes. And a squabbling but compassionate couple named Mr. and Mrs. Black, played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright — who‘ll win Oscars some day, if there‘s any justice. I want to understand them all, and the world as well, and New York City, and the depths of my own soul: Me, played by a first time crackerjack child actor and TV genius Jeopardy champ named Thomas Horn.”
I‘m stupefied by all this, so the kid, the movie, just rambles on. “Aren’t you impressed? Just a little? I’ll tell you the meaning of life. All of us are just…just characters in an open book: in fact, we’re all in a tender but cryptic novel written by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Everything is Illuminated,” and exactly the kind of serious writer, with three names, you yourself, Wilmo, keep saying the movies should use — a book now turned into a shattering, inspirational, luminous, unforgettable (if I do say so myself) movie on 9/11 and the meaning of life by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, a film that tenderly, cryptically examines the trauma of a child, Oskar Schell (that’s me) trying to cope with the death of his beloved father, and with the awful psychic aftermath of 9/11 — a child maybe suffering from Asperger‘s Syndrome, maybe from autism. And maybe from the traumas of my strange inability to use public transportation, or of my curious attachment to a tambourine and an Israeli gas mask, which I carry with me.” (He shakes it firmly, twice. The tambourine, then the gas mask. I think of Bob Dylan, and “Desolation Row.”)
“And, most of all,” he says, “suffused with my great quest: with my tender, cryptic determination to find and interrogate all the people named Black in all the boroughs of New York City…”
What? Why?
“ Because” he yells, in obvious frustration. “Because my father left a mysterious key in a mysterious box that mysteriously had “Black” written on it, and I am convinced that, when I finally find the right Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms. Black (there are 472 Blacks in the city, you know, look it up in Wikipedia), that the mysterious key will unlock a mysterious lock that will open another mysterious something-or-other, that will finally tell me whatever my poor dead father wanted me so mysteriously to know. Then there’s a surprise ending, or so I hear. SPOILER ALERT. SORRY, FALSE ALARM. So, tenderly, cryptically, I keep searching, searching, for the lock to my key….
I ruminate. The kid has quite an act, but I still didn’t like the movie. And I don’t have any gruel to spare. I hesitate. “Okay,“ I say, trying to keep the irony level down. “You — or that is, the character of the Schell son — are hunting down all the people named Black in all the boroughs of New York to discover a link with your dead father and maybe the meaning of life? On foot? With a tambourine and a gas mask? Without telling anything about this to your mother? With Ingmar Bergman’s old buddy Max scribbling along behind you?
 “My God kid, you don’t need more gruel. You need a therapist. You need a taxi driver. You need a script doctor, somebody like Ben Hecht. Seriously. By the way, weren‘t the characters in the novel Jewish? And why is your character  stopping with just the five boroughs of New York? Is he working from a Saul Steinberg cover map or something? Life has no meaning in New Jersey?”
I pause, disconcerted by my own venom. “Look, some of the family scenes — the ones with John Horn and Hanks and Sandy and Max, were really touching. And I liked…”

“No!“ he cries with terrifying urgency, extremely loud (& incredibly close). “I need gruel. I need some more! I need validation. I need a lock. I have a key. I need the meaning of life. I need the answers to all the mysterious questions every pretentiously serious novelist has searched for — tenderly, cryptically — since time immemorial.

“ I need four stars. I need Oscar nominations. And Golden Globes. Don’t give me that Descendants garbage, that Tree of Life baloney, that Midnight in Paris malarkey, that Artist bull, that George Clooney crud. They may call me Oscar-bait, but who are they, the bums? I’ve got everything a serious adult movie with a child for a protagonist could want.

“I have that great cast, topped by Horn. I have the great cinematographer Chris Menges, who shot Kes, with David Bradley. I have the gifted and highly praised director Stephen Daldry who gave us those poignantly tender, wistfully cryptic films The Hours, The Reader and Billy Elliott (with Jamie Bell). I have the highly esteemed writer Eric Roth (Oscar Three) who scripted Forrest Gump. And I have Forrest Gump himself, Tom Hanks — leaping out of that Twin Tower window on 9/11, over and over. And I have 9/11. Top that for serious.”

“Now,” says the strange urchin, extremely loud, incredibly close: “Can. I. Have. Some. More?”

I’m stumped. “Look kid. I don’t think I can help you. I gave up looking for the meaning of life, especially in New York, years ago. After they re-released Manhattan, in fact. And frankly I‘ve gotta say, speaking about movies that take you on a tour of the city — to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I really prefer Bye Bye Braverman. But who am I? Seriously, try the lady down the hall. I even think her name may be Black.

“Tell you what though. Maybe I can rustle up some gruel, or something that tastes like gruel. Here, I think I have it right here…And about those four stars, I‘ll give you half of them. How‘s that?” I hand him an oatmeal cookie. “By the way, what’s your name?”

The urchin, the movie, stares at me, disappointed. A cryptic scowl breaks over his face, as he munches away, spilling the crumbs. “I told you.“ he says. “My name is Oskar.”

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin