“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” touching look at 9/11 through eyes of a child

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” has been released to a vitrolic-at-worst, lukewarm-at-best reception. Rarely do I stray so far and so strongly from the American critical consensus, but “Extremely Loud” is the kind of emotionally raw, gracefully moving Hollywood filmmaking that I personally can’t (and don’t) get enough of.

“Extremely Loud” looks directly at the emotional void left in the world’s heart after 9/11, by focusing on a young boy, Oscar, whose father was killed in the Towers’ collapse. Oscar is an 11-year-old curiosity, one whose Asperger’s both bolsters his considerable intelligence and impairs his social capabilities, to say the least.

Flashbacks reveal an intimate relationship between Oscar and his father, one marked by activites as varied as kung-fu, alliteration-competitions and city-wide scavenger hunts. When his father is taken from him, Oscar’s life is shattered, leaving him alone with his mother (played by Sandra Bullock).

Oscar is convinced that his father had left him one final message, and when he stumbles upon a mysterious key in his closet, he sets off on a quest to find what the key fits, and why his father wanted him to unlock it. He’s aided frequently by an elderly man, who, for reasons initially unknown, will not speak.

Thomas Horn, the doe-eyed actor who plays Oscar, may be the film’s weakest asset. While convincingly portraying Oscar’s mental and social tics, Horn may as well have gone through the film with a T-shirt exclaimed, “I, Sir, Am An Actor!”. It’s a performance rich with feeling and love, but one about as far from subtle as humanly possible.

The supporting players surrounding Horn are much more convincing. Tom Hanks has a wonderful supporting turn as the boy’s deceased father. Sandra Bullock is under-used but highly effective as Horn’s mother. Bullock runs away with the film’s best scenes, including some highly emotional exchanges with her on-screen son. This highly-maligned film has a better Bullock performance than her Oscar-winning work in “The Blind Side”, which kills me with irony.

Max von Sydow’s Oscar-nominated turn as Oscar’s elderly, secretive companion is excellent. This is a man whose entire character’s history is mapped onto his face, carrying his scenes’ emotions to great effect. Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis and John Goodman are all solid as well, in supporting roles of varying importance and secrecy.

Stephen Daldry’s direction, the source of strong debate, is highly effective. Daldry is as technically proficient as he’s always been, with tight editing and evocative cinematography communicating his ideas really effectively. But putting aside his ability to work cameras and computers, it’s his tone that presents a challenge: Daldry must walk a fine line between sensitivity and total rage, between bewilderment and knowledge, hope and reality. Keeping in mind that “Extremely Loud” must come from a child’s perspective yet present strong emotional truths, Daldry’s work is close to a knock-out. B+

“The Grey” a pulpy survival tale unafraid to get philosophical.

In spite of what marketing may have you believe, “The Grey” is not about tough men punching wolves in the face. “The Grey” is about God, man’s weakness, nature, grappling with death and fear; and yeah, a wolf or two are slain in the process. This is a great film; one that asks big questions and scores big thrills.

No question, it’s one of the most bleak, philosophically challenging films to come out of the Hollywood mainstream in quite some time. Directed by Joe Carnahan, whose output has largely consisted of competent if inconsequential actioners, it’s a complete reinvention, from a hack to something resembling an auteur.

Liam Neeson, giving his best performance since 1993’s “Schindler’s List”, plays John Ottway. He’s a suicidal sharpshooter whose gig in desolate Alaska is to protect oil-drillers from raging wolves. When his plane-ride home crashes horrifically in the midst of Alaska, Ottway and six other survivors find themselves in the middle of nowhere, with the blistering cold, inner clashes, and ravenous wolves all conspiring to make sure they never get home.

“The Grey” is a perfect blend of generally incongruous elements: pulpy survival tale, intimate character study, thrilling adventure, and – here’s the shocking part – spiritual exploration.

It tackles incredibly weighty themes with grace and wisdom. Why doesn’t God answer peoples’ cries for help? Who is the film’s malicious force — the wolves for attacking the humans, or the humans, for intruding on their habitat and upsetting the natural order? Can man and nature ever truly co-exist? (Stay after the credits for the disturbing resolution to this particular issue) It does all this in a totally natural, moving way. It never sits us down and holds our hand through it.

Mind you, it’s certainly a thriller first and thinker second. “The Grey”‘s structure is a constant alternation between moments of unbearable horror and satisfying action. Carnahan really nails the portrayal of wolves as totally unpredictable forces. Their presence is always felt but rarely seen, save for the moments where they’re, you know, ripping a character’s throat out.

Carnahan’s greatest strength lies in the subtle character development, both in between and during the moments of intensity. Many of these characters are blank slates for the film’s first half, and these guys’ unpredictability is yet another asset to “The Grey”‘s considerable tension. It’s also a gorgeously shot movie: Masanobu Takayanagi’s compositions stare into icy brutality and find, of all things, genuine beauty.

January, as a rule of thumb, is a studio’s dumping ground; a place to offshoot whatever embarrassments don’t fulfill their already-low standards. So it’s almost with suspicion that I regard “The Grey”, but also with elation. A triumph for all involved, save for those damned characters. A-

“Haywire” stripped-down, brutal spy thriller

I was reviewing a new Steven Soderbergh film not four months ago, and will be doing so in not five months. Such is the pace at which he hammers out films. No hard feelings. The man’s a maniac, and American cinema is all the better for it. His new film, the chase thriller “Haywire”, is an exercise in how much excitement restraint can yield. It stars, in her cinematic debut, the former MME wrestler Gina Carano.

Her character, Mallory Kane, is a freelance government soldier. After a successful Barcelona operation, she’s quickly re-deployed to Dublin, and here things get a bit shaky. She’s double-crossed and sets off on a mission to see who spited her. Her options are not slim: “Haywire”s amazing supporting cast of men include Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and sporting a magnificent beard, Antonio Banderas. They’re all given quite a bit to do in the film’s slim 93-minute running time, an impressive accomplishment. Carano herself never wavers in her unwavering, magnetic intensity, hinting through Bill Paxton’s father figure at a softer, sweeter side that we never (nor should ever) see.

“Haywire” isn’t so much a story to be told, but rather, a sort of style and vibe to be evoked. There’s a cohesive, interesting plot in play here, but its clearly not Soderbergh’s primary intent. “Haywire” is really about lining up a group of insanely talented men and having a unique physical presence beat her way through all of them.

And what beatings! “Haywire” strips action to its bare-knuckled roots: people with their fists, beating each other furiously. Soderbergh’s approach is just as vintage-minded, with steady camerawork, continuous shots, and no music or sound providing a welcome alternative to the Adderall-infused action-sequence standard we’ve come to expect. And when the score does kick in, DJ David Holmes’ pulsing rhythms are just as coolly fitting as his excellent work with Soderbergh’s “Oceans” trilogy.

Soderbergh’s technical finesse remains entirely evident, as his tendency to personally take up the duties of editing and cinematography results in an intriguingly toned visual style. “Haywire” climaxes in a showdown on a beach, and here all of the film’s strengths come together deftly: interesting technical techniques, restrained style, and just a good old-fashioned ass-beating. “Haywire” is blockbuster entertainment imagined as methodical minimalism; the result goes down smooth as butter with a kick like spice, or better yet, from its main character. B

“The Iron Lady” middling, uninspired Thatcher biopic

Standing with her husband, Margaret Thatcher -- the first woman Prime Minister of England and the "Iron Lady" of the film.

Seemingly every year, audiences and critics rally around the new Meryl Streep film, chanting up and down the block that her work is mesmerizing and demands to be seen. They are always right.

Whether the actual narrative built around and within Streep is compelling, remains more of a mixed bag. Her latest work vying for a potential Oscar nomination – if all goes kosher, her 17th – is “The Iron Lady”.

Chronicling Margaret Thatcher’s rise from timid, insecure school-girl to conservative, authoritative Prime Minister of the U.K., “The Iron Lady” aims to encapsulate the soul of one of the 20th century’s biggest figures. What is its plan to go about doing this?

Well, director Phyllida Lloyd of “Mamma Mia!” seems to believe that having Streep bellow non-stop political monologues is the way to go. Lloyd rarely possesses the confidence to slow things down to simply allow the characters play off one another, instead depending on monologues and rapid-fire political montages to try and sculpt a plot. And when she does, its a series of repetitive conversations between Thatcher and her long-dead husband (via grating hallucinations).

“The Iron Lady”s low budget, cited by Streep jokingly in a recent awards-acceptance speech, comes across really strongly in every aspect of the film, from the rushed Thomas Newman score, to the sets, reminiscent of a TV movie, to the awkward, clumsy lighting. Were it not for Streep, this would be on Lifetime.

“The Iron Lady”, in theory, should have been a dynamic exploration of what makes a great world leader tick. We emerge from the film, however, not caring so much about its main character, but how good the make-up looked on Meryl Streep. “The Iron Lady” reduces one of the 20th-century’s most dynamic figures into an accent, prosthetic teeth, and red lipstick. An amazing feat of shallow reductiveness, that in having nothing to say, in turn, leaves me with very little to say. D

2011 in film, explored in exactly 2,011 words.

I watched roughly 14,400 minutes of new cinema in 2011. Picking and ranking 2-hour chunks above one another is an absolutely monumental, draining, and in some ways worthless task for a year that many would argue was lackluster. Hell, I would have — but then when making a shortlist of truly great 2011 films worthy of recognition, I jotted down thirty titles, no problem, no sweat. I considered going the Rolling Stone route and doing ten ranked mainstream films and ten ranked indies/foreigns — but even that proved too difficult. What I took away from this year is that the simplest and oldest of ideas, given the right approach and passion, can achieve the highest of highs. So without further ado, my 2,011-word-breakdown on what got me jazzed in 2011.

20. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”.

This one seemed to transcend all genders and tastes to become the romantic comedy event of the year. Damn straight. “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, while falling prey to many tropes of its genre, goes to show just how far organic relationships and characters can elevate material. It’s a funny, touching, and surprisingly wise look at love in all its stages. Insert comment about Ryan Gosling’s shirtless scene here.

19. Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”.

Every ounce as sappy and corny as its many detractors will tell you. That’s what made it click for me. “War Horse” features some of Spielberg’s most well-directed sequences in a decade, and wisely focuses not on the eponymous horse, but his indelible impact on the humans around him. A gorgeously shot, lovingly made film that, if made 60 years ago, would probably be hailed as a classic.

18. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”.

It hurts my soul that this isn’t higher. Few films hit harder than “Hugo” did, or pulled out as many technical stops. Scorsese manages to combine a redemption story, a dreamlike fantasy, a film-preservationist-manifesto and a children’s film into one very tasty package, while also making the most cogent case yet for the existence of 3D.

17. Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult”.

From the “Juno” team, this is a comedy whose humor is by and directed towards very, very misguided characters, giving every laugh a really subtle but lasting burn. It’s acerbic in tone but thoughtful in nature, with some very fine performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.

16. Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene”.

Girl is integrated into cult. Girl eventually leaves cult physically, yet not mentally. This simple, but terrifying premise made for some of the subtler filmmaking this year — but haunting filmmaking, nonetheless. The ending of this film will either soothe or shake you, and the way the film makes a cogent thematic argument for either interpretation makes it an uncannily unsettling work.

15. Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”.

A lot of films’ twists leave you surprised to some degree — but how often do they make you re-evaluate what you just saw on every level, be it thematic, emotional, motivational, and yes, sexual. “The Skin I Live In” does that, using ’50s-esque pulp and modern paranoia to craft something totally undefinable. And brilliant.

14. Jason Eisener’s “Hobo With A Shotgun”.

You think the joke’s on you because this made my list? Nope. Joke’s on you for not seeing this endlessly inventive, blood-soaked grindhouse tribute. Available on Netflix Instant, this 86-minute monster is perfect viewing for the whole family, especially little kids who may derive enjoyment from watching people their age set on fire.

13. Gore Verbinski’s “Rango”.

Before you ask, that last sentence was a joke. What American families need to be watching is “Rango”, a Johnny Depp-starring film among the funkiest and most original genre-hybrids of the year. It’s also absolutely hilarious, filled with excellent action, and unlike many on this list, made hundreds of millions of dollars. Who loses here? No one.

12. Michel Hazanivicus’ “The Artist”.

By reaching to devices of the past, “The Artist” created an almost disgustingly charming, thoroughly entertaining dramedy. Its black-and-white, silent format has brought an entire filmmaking era back into public consciousness, an absolute miracle if you ask me. Oh, and that damn dog…

11. Jonathon Levine’s “50/50”.

Writer Will Reiser, drawing from his own experiences as a young man getting cancer, managed to create something with the raunchy charm of “Superbad” with the emotional weight of, well, “Terms of Endearment”. “50/50” owned me from the first frame, and though you may be laughing too hard to notice, some of the year’s most subtle, effective character-development is to be found here. Good movie. Great movie.

10. Kim Ji-Woon’s “I Saw The Devil”.

“I Saw The Devil” is the revenge movie to beat all revenge movies, and I mean this in both how much it breaks your heart and how freakin’ bloody it gets. There is nothing that these men will not do in this movie. But the way the film simultaneously provides outlandishly well-done action and, by its conclsuion, condemns what it’s done to these people’s souls, is as fascinating as it is contradictory. Good looks, South Korea!

9. Mike Mills’ “Beginners”.

An elderly man, coping with the death of his wife of 40 years and a cancer diagnosis, comes out as gay. His son struggles to cope and finds solace in his dog, who communicates with him via subtitles. There’s about a million different ways that premise could have derailed and become typical “indie” fare — but it didn’t. Miraculously, it’s one of the most moving, heartfelt movies of the year, with the nostalgic 1950s’ score making the story of a man’s exit from this world subtly devastating.

8. Brad Bird’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”.

After how long I’ve been yearning for a perfect action film, to finally receive it is the greatest of all pleasures. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” has action that gets at the heart of what the genre, and popcorn entertainment at large, is really all about. And after due consideration and three viewings (IMAX is a must), the 30-minute Dubai segment is genuinely one of the greatest action sequences ever created. The fact that this film finally ended the ridiculous Tom Cruise backlash nets bonus points.

7. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”.

If I were to tell you my own Hawaiian heritage didn’t make me hugely biased to this, I’d be lying. But the majority of America seems to be with me on this one – George Clooney turned in some of his best work as a Honolulu man trying, by any means necessary, to protect his newly-inherited responsibilities to his daughters, in the wake of a jet-skiing accident leaving his wife in a coma. Such a moving, hopeful work. If Oscar taps this one’s shoulder, I would not be surprised or displeased in any way.

6. Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”.

Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, or have access to Academy voters’ screener DVDs (my secret, now not-so-secret weapon), you have not seen or probably heard of “A Separation”. And now you have. It’s an Iranian film pulsing with vitality and emotion, about a couple in the midst of a divorce and the effects it has on the people around them — their daughter, her teacher, and a couple who accuses the husband of something truly horrible. “A Separation” is a film whose greatness comes by way of revelations that cannot be spoiled — but, like the greatest of thrillers, language-barrier or no, this film gripped me totally and never dared to let me go.

5. Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.

If “Midnight in Paris” is a light, frothy dream, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a garish, bloody nightmare. Some of the most effective horror filmmaking in decades is on display here, with two utterly killer performances as a doomed mother-and-son duo. “Kevin” is a prime example of both the lows of humanity and the highs of filmmaking.

4. Joe Wright’s “Hanna”.

The story of a teenaged assassin and her destructive impact on the people around her as she traverses the globe towards an unknown mission. “Hanna” begins and closes with the title character taking a life. The first time I was in a state of shock. The second time I was in a state of utter awe, a state into which only the best motion pictures can exalt me. “Hanna” is some of the most energetic, propulsive mainstream filmmaking in a decade, with every element coming together totally and tightly.

3. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”, tied with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.

You probably think my use of tie is cheap and lazy. You’re totally right. But see this hypnotic duo and tell me you could choose one over the other. Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick have crafted lush, gorgeous tone poems that make 2011’s strongest case for film as a pure sensory art form. My reactions to these films were totally indescribable, characterized only by the joy I feel when I stumble upon projects very near and dear to their maker’s hearts. The fact that these films are about both the end and the creation of the world ties it together nicely.

2. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”.

Woody Allen takes absolutely no risks with “Midnight in Paris”, exploring very few themes and using very few characters he hasn’t before. All the better for it. When a Woody Allen film clicks together, as seems to be the case less and less these days, there’s absolutely nothing like it. “Midnight in Paris” is a film reflecting on love and memory’s potential to deceive us, but as time has gone on this year my adoration for this has only gotten stronger. It’s an utterly charming, wonderfully romantic tribute to one of the world’s great cities.

1. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”.

I’ll keep this final entry short and sweet. “Drive”. The film of the year, the film of my dreams. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it on my first go-around. So then I went for seconds, with thirds, fourths, and fifths not far behind. The premise is simple: Ryan Gosling drives getaway cars for criminals, gets romantically involved with a neighbor, and things crash and burn for everyone involved, bloodily. But the approach taken to “Drive” is everything, making a film whose every moment puts a spell on me — one unlike anything else this year, last year, any year. This is as tense, mysterious, satisfying, sensual, shocking, good, and just plain cool as movies can get.

Thank you to the films and the readers that made 2011 unforgettable. $10 to the first person who provides a count of the adjectives in this column. Cheers.

-RM

Note: I didn’t yet see “Shame” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, two films that have dominated this year’s cultural discussion. Ten further films that barely missed the cut on this list, and broke my heart in doing so: Takashi Miike’s unbelievably epic samurai romp “13 Assassins”, J.J. Abrams’ utterly joyful Spielberg tribute “Super 8”, Spielberg himself with the animated entry “Adventures of Tintin”, George Clooney’s “Ides of March” whose killer ensemble brought a haunting political and moral dilemma to life, the funniest film of the year “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”, Tomas Alfredson’s paranoia-infused espionage drama “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, Steven Soderbergh’s virus-documenting thriller “Contagion”, 2011-pop culture’s biggest event in the final “Harry Potter” film, one of the great contemporary youth romances “Submarine” and finally, Kevin Smith’s “Red State”, which incurred the hatred of most critics but was truly the biggest leap ahead for any filmmaker all year. 

Note post-other note: The worst film of the year was “Battle Los Angeles”. Everything these above films are not, totally incompetent “action cinema”, and not even filmed in Los Angeles…Not far behind is the stoner medieval-comedy disaster “Your Highness”. The pandering racism of “The Help” was every ounce as disgusting as the film’s complete success and probable Oscar wins. “The Hangover: Part II” was Hollywood at its copy-and-paste worst. “The Rite” was utterly rote. “Breaking Dawn: Part I” fully validates the complaints of every die-hard “Twilight” hater, which it’s worth noting, until I saw it, I was not. And I fully apologize to the theater janitors who swept up the popcorn I threw while watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” both horrific nightmare and film-geek’s greatest dream

Eva and Kevin make up a doomed family in "We Need To Talk About Kevin".

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a film of unrelenting terror and discomfort; one that left me physically trembling by the conclusion at the events I had just witnessed. Reactions like this are what I live for. “Kevin” shook me to the core, with its tightly-constructed, dream-like style constantly suggesting horror just beneath the surface.

“Kevin” is told as a non-linear series of memories, framed as a mystery in reverse. We open with Tilda Swinton as Eva, a woman who has very clearly been rocked by a tragedy. Pills lay about in her run-down one-room home, and neighbors are hostile towards her. This begs the question — what happened?

“Kevin” bounces back and forth between Eva’s present memories and ones of her past — moments of utter joy with her boyfriend Franklin in Italy, starting a family with him, and watching their first child Kevin grow into a calculated force of terror and unpredictability.

Franklin’s refusal to see Kevin for what he is will ultimately destroy this family. And as the film barrels toward Kevin’s 16th birthday, we see the worst in him, humanity at large, and ourselves.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” is an absolute masterpiece, from top to bottom, beginning to end. Every aspect of the film both stands on its own, and is a vital component to the film’s overall nightmarish tone.

Director Lynne Ramsay has an impeccable technical grasp. The film itself is constructed like a nightmare, with the editing fluidly jumping 20 years, the red-hues providing a constant reminder of the blood on these people’s hands, and the shaky camerawork throwing your balance for a loop while remaining totally visually coherent.

Jonny Greenwood’s score provides much of the film’s power. The lead guitarist of my favorite band, Radiohead, Greenwood’s scores often stray from guitar towards more ambient, subtle compositions. I’m not complaining. This music is terrifying.

“Kevin” wields a counter-duo of Oscar-worthy performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as mother and son. The interactions between these two will break your heart; Swinton’s devastation playing off of Miller’s steely insensitivity to great effect.

The really troubling thing about “Kevin”, to me, is the ambiguity as to who is responsible for the actions of the title character. Is Kevin just a self-propagated force of malice and evil? Or is he simply the sum of the actions of his mother, whose lack of support in his early years may have ruined him? Who is the victim? Who is the villain? And why is “We Need To Talk About Kevin”, a film I wouldn’t even classify as horror, probably the most unnerving English film since Kubrick’s “The Shining”? Here’s why — because it has the  tightest grasp on film’s power to shock, wound, and feel. A

“Rampart” one-note study of a corrupt cop

Woody Harrelson in one of his many morally twisted misadventures in "RAMPART".

For the second time in three years actor Woody Harrelson collaborates with fresh directorial talent Oren Moverman, tackling. However, unlike their first team-up, 2009’s “The Messenger”, “Rampart” isn’t an emotionally organic narrative so much as it is a series of sketches illustrating how corrupt and deranged its protagonist is.

“Rampart” has been advertised as wielding the “most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen”. False. Nicolas Cage’s nutty junkie of a badge in 2009’s “Bad Lieutenant” remake, one of my favorites of the last decade, dug a little deeper and made me laugh a lot harder.

Not to discredit Woody Harrelson’s work as seedy Los Angeles cop Dave Brown — Harrelson chomps Moverman’s script to bits and spits it out with plentiful venom and cigarette smoke. It almost makes me guilty to enjoy so thoroughly a violent, drunken sex-addict of a man, but Harrelson’s tongue is planted partially in-cheek at all times. Harrelson is having a blast, even if it clearly comes at the expense of the characters surrounding him.

He is the energy, delirium and insanity of “Rampart”. But even he can’t supply it with a dosage of humanity. Harrelson’s rampage through Los Angeles streets and courtrooms loses its novelty at around the 45 minute mark and the end result is a film more repetitive than truly involving.

Moverman surrounds Dave Brown with a competent group to mess with — Sigourney Weaver pops her head in as a grizzled department-chief, Robin Wright plays one of Dave’s many sexual endeavors, Ben Foster as a homeless addict in an amusing “Messenger” reunion, and Ice Cube as a private investigator driven to bring Dave down. They all deliver very solid work, and the fact that Ice Cube has gone from rapping songs like “F–k Tha Police” to a mild-mannered movie career will always amuse me.

“Rampart” is a film whose main thesis seems to be, ‘Hey guys, this is a really bad man.’. We understand that from the second he comes on-screen. The film’s remainder serves as more of an exclamation-point to that thesis, rather than validly exploring it. C