In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, dad (Tom Hanks) has a fatal appointment at the World Trade Center.
  • In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, dad (Tom Hanks) has a fatal appointment at the World Trade Center.
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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 0 stars

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Hollywood spends too much time and money turning tragedies into buckets of custard. In The Descendants, a coma crisis is sweetened by Hawaiian scenery and George Clooney’s breeze-along charm. In We Bought a Zoo, the death of a young mother leads her family to being consoled by cute animals. The hell of World War I becomes an equine sob story in War Horse. And now Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close shows 9/11 haunting a child, which is like piling the World Trade Center on the frail shoulders of a toy.

Oskar Schell is an unusually bright boy who, even before the calamity, suffers from Woody Allen syndrome (snarky, motor-mouth anxiety). His dad is a smart and funny jeweler who plays brain-teaser games with Oskar, and they read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (is Wittgenstein being saved for a sequel?). But dad (Tom Hanks) has a fatal appointment at the WTC. His increasingly desperate messages left on a phone recorder torment Oskar, who feels guilty for not having answered. The marginalized widow is Sandra Bullock, who appears to be suffering from post-Oscar syndrome. Or maybe from too much know-it-all Oskar.

In the story, weirdly whimsical but not wonderful, Oskar tries to find the secret behind a key left by his father. That inspires him to walk all over handsomely photographed New York City (he is phobic about public transport). Oskar tracks down people named Black, one of whom looks remarkably like Gertrude Stein. Was “Black” used to make us feel more gravely sober, more memorially solemn?

As the key unlocks fears and tears, the long plod demonstrates Oskar’s plucky zeal to torment adults with streams of precise and didactic verbiage. Boy-actor Thomas Horn has nice features and works hard, but he could remind you of those whiz kids on the old College Bowl TV shows who seemed to be constipated from eating encyclopedias. Oskar may be too numbingly symbolic a role for any actor to bring off.

True to the novel of Jonathan Safran Foer, who tackled the Holocaust in Everything Is Illuminated, there is a haggard mystery man played by that consummate chalice of European depth, Max von Sydow. Mute, he writes “yes” and “no” on his palms (why not just nod or shake his head?). Even when staring down Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, von Sydow seemed less burdened by fate. As the kid babbles and badgers, how dearly did Max wish to become the child-menacing Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his hands?

It is like a parade of file folders marked Very Important (in crayon). In a 2005 book review, John Updike discerned that the novel’s “hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama.” Bingo! Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) and writer Eric Roth (Ali, Munich, Forrest Gump) are the sort of earnest, prize-loaded talents who could carry bricks to the top of Everest and call it a gift to geology. They barely employ Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, all set in place like markers in a game designed to provide fishy clues.

Oskar and his dad speak, though vaguely, of a mythic “sixth borough” of New York. Is that a sly, winking clue that this bulging loaf of angst could be a dream of M. Night (The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan? As Oskar walked and blabbed toward inevitably healing uplift, I would have preferred time with Eloise, the famous mascot brat of the Plaza Hotel.

Albert Nobbs **

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In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close at 64 again plays the fearful transvestite butler. She did Albert 30 years ago off-Broadway and won an Obie Award. In this movie that she produced and co-scripted, Close is like a shrunken-mummy version of Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day as outfitted by René Magritte. Expressive only in tiny increments, Albert is a corseted, black-suited, derby-hatted woman pretending to be a man who finds relief from blank-faced service by counting the money stashed under his floorboards.

Uniformed as a male since 14, Albert seems drugged on drag. He works at a Dublin hotel run by a pretentious “duchess” (Pauline Collins — a bit much, as usual). His little room is like a cell for a castrated monk. Albert is not so much masculine as sexless, made clear when Janet McTeer swings in as Hubert Page, another woman in manly camouflage. Hubert is tall, jaunty, almost jeeringly macho, like a pub stud in a Eugene O’Neill play or John Ford movie. The neat surprise is finding that Hubert is a crafty gay who dotes on his pretty wife.

Albert is dazzled but abashed, unable to truly imagine lesbian love. When he pursues an absurd crush on a very feminine housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), he is too frigidly trapped to make an erotic move. Rodrigo García (Nine Lives) directed with sensual snap in a credible Victorian Dublin. Though the sound blurs some Irish accents, the expert cast (including infallible Brendan Gleeson as a doctor) keeps this play/movie tight and humming. There is never the poetic poignancy of John Huston’s Joycean elegy The Dead, but there is a gentle, stricken pathos. Albert Nobbs is like a suicide note primly written on a doily.

A Separation ***

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They often have tight budgets and suffer from official censors, but that hardly equates Iranian films with B-movies. Their stories peel open layers and often exceed in human and artistic interest what mostly passes now for A-list American movies. A Separation keeps deepening, and its awards are another sign that Iran has art to offer well beyond simplistic views of that country.

As Simin, Leila Hatami is a modern woman. In Tehran she teaches English, does not wear the black chador in public, and her wall has pictures of Leonardo da Vinci and a Native American. She wants to leave Iran on a special visa, hoping to take her teen daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to a better life. But the shy, studious girl is loyal to her father, Nader (Peyman Moadi), and hopes to save her parents from lasting separation. Nader is bound to his job and his father, who has Alzheimer’s.

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Comments

Javajoe25 Jan. 26, 2012 @ 7:07 a.m.

Let's be honest: anyone who looks at Glen Close for one minute and thinks she is a man must be on drugs. That film presumes the audience is willing to go along with the charade for the sake of the movie, but I just felt like I was participating in some childish nonsense the whole way through. What a farce.

As for "Separation," I told my friend Parviz, an Iranian immigrant not to go see the film as it will only make him feel embarrassed for his countrymen.

While I found the subject matter of the film interesting enough, the peculiar behavior of the characters, between phoning mullahs to see if it was a sin to cleanse a dirty man, and slapping oneself because of the shame brought on by the wife's behavior, caused me to feel I was watching a travelogue film about some bizarre, primitive people, disconnected from the modern world, and far removed from any education or science.

Some may want to raise Hoo-Ha's for such a film even being produced by an Iranian company, but I suspect the film maker knew part of the success of the film would be due to the rest of the world being given a glimpse of what life is really like in a culture that adheres to 7th century beliefs. It is unique; but is it really good?

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Jan. 26, 2012 @ 12:44 p.m.

I've got to disagree, JavaJoe. Glenn Close is near the top of the list of Famous Actresses with Man Faces.

FAMF's foundress and Immortal Icon, of course, is Joan Crawford. That woman had the manliest mug on her.

Just last night, I caught a bit of Fatal Attraction, and boy did Glenn look like a dude with teased 80s hair.

Katherine Hepburn was a card-carrying FAMF member.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1 p.m.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Hillary Swank are man-faced, too.

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David Elliott Jan. 26, 2012 @ 1:17 p.m.

Scott: you're welcome. Javajoe: In picking apart A Separation, you somehow missed the movie. It is grounded closely on real Iranian life, though with some credible short-cuts for dramatic effect. The movie is not unique. It carries forward a great modern tradition of factually rooted but inspired, low-budget Iranian films, some brave enough to make the director (notably Jafar Panahi) a victim of official repression. Go to Kensington Video and ask Guy to rent you some of the fine Iranian works (I'd recommend Offside, The Apple, Taste of Cherry, to name only a few). Joaquin: Man-faced? Is that in the exalted hip tradition of "man whore" and "manimal"? At this rate of progress, we may soon be back to referring to gay men as nancy boys. DE

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Javajoe25 Jan. 26, 2012 @ 2:40 p.m.

I don't know what you guys are looking at, but if you think Hillary Swank has a man-face, then I don't know what to tell you. Hillary is a doll. A bit androgynous, but still, a cutie.

I will admit there is nothing especially feminine about Glenn Close's face, but it is still far, far from being convincingly manly, or even slightly masculine. Let's be honest; the poor woman has a face like a proboscis monkey--but it's still not a man's face.

They may give her an Oscar for "Being Albert," but I still think the entire film is based on "Let's make believe".

David, as for "Separation," I didn't miss the movie; I sort of wish I had...but..and this is not to take anything away from those who risk their lives making movies, but, to say a film that presents a view of everyday life in Iran is good because it does...well, that's like saying the current reality shows like "Swamp People," or "Ragin'Cajuns" should get awards for their view of life in that part of Loosi-anna. Seriously? And what about that ending? The primary question throughout the film is left hanging? For us to resolve, no doubt. The "Artistic" finish. Give me a break.

Look, I would like to see things open up in Iran and all the artists there be free to show the world they too have rich imaginations, and are equally capable of presenting truly profound works, of a rich and complex beauty that only their culture can provide...but let's not lower the bar and claim certain films are extraordinary simply because they were made at all.

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David Elliott Jan. 26, 2012 @ 11:48 p.m.

Javajoe, My review does not say that A Separation is a good movie simply because it has a realistic base. The stresses and loyalties of the people are wonderfully expressed, the layering is complex, and no one is turned into a stark villain, even the macho hothead who hides behind Islamic piety. You need to see some of those Iranian films, among the best in the world during the last 15 or so years. Enjoy. DE

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