Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Stephen Daldry take on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an extremely laboured and incredibly contrived melodrama that follows a young boy’s struggle to make sense of his father’s death in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre. Insufferably saccharine and sanctimonious for its entire two and a half hour running time, Daldry’s literary adaptation aims high, which only gives it further to fall.

“The worst day” is how twelve year old Oskar Schell (newcomer Thomas Horn) repeatedly refers to 9/11, the day his jeweller father Thomas (Tom Hanks) died in one of the twin towers while there for a business meeting. As seen in generous flashbacks, Oskar and his father had a close relationship, with the older Schell concocting all manner of intellectual games for his young son who, it is hinted, has Asperger’s Syndrome. Socially awkward Oskar is bright and inquisitive but suffers from a mass of private fears and phobias, made even more pronounced by his father’s death. His mother (Sandra Bullock) is a busy office worker and played no part in bringing the youngster out of his shell, a distance that has grown since her husband’s death. On that fateful day, young Oskar had returned to the family’s empty apartment where he listened to six increasingly agitated messages from his father on the answering machine. He swapped the machine for a duplicate and used the tape as the centrepiece of a shrine he has constructed to his father in a cupboard, where he listens to his dead father’s voice over and over, looking to make sense of what happened. His mother knows nothing about it.

A year after the tragedy, Oskar finds a mysterious key in an envelope with the word “black” written on it. Seeing this as another clue in the games his father would play, Oskar takes it upon himself to find the lock that the key will open. He determines that “black” is a surname and decides to visit (on foot, as he is afraid of the subway) every one of the hundreds of people with that name in the New York phone book. This leads to a lengthy quest across each of the five boroughs as he visits a wide spread of likely stereotypes, looking for the message he is sure his father has left him. So beings a seemingly impossible task as Daldry’s trailing camera follows the youngster as he knocks on doors, talking to strangers, with only an elderly mute man known as The Renter (Max von Sydow) for company. The Renter – who has the words Yes and No tattooed on his hands - has a secret too, even if it is one that would not require an endless urban hike to uncover.

As he was written in Foer’s novel, the workings of Oskar’s mind were absorbed at the pace of the reader. On screen, there is no respite from his shrill, mile-a-minute voice-over, his incessant activity, his deadening precocity. If Oskar wasn’t insufferable enough, Daldry makes him carry a tambourine around the place as a kind of musical security blanket, which might well be comforting for the youngster, but set my teeth on edge. Horn is in almost every frame of the film, constantly throwing out references to his phobias and whimsical trivia. “If the sun were to explode, you wouldn’t even know about it for eight minutes”. Daldry’s film is one that would make you think eight minutes is not such a very long time to embrace oblivion.

Because of the enormity of the tragedy of 9/11, Daldry and his producers might expect their film to be greeted with hushed reverence and dabbed eyes. But a bad film is a bad film, regardless of what real-life events inspired it: had Oskar’s father died in a train crash, the boy’s grief would not have been any less. To extract meaningful drama out of mass tragedy requires skill, judgement and sensitivity, rather than co-opting the iconography of the event for gimmicky reconstructions, sentimental artifice and unmerited uplift.

The Muppets

After a gap of more than a decade, it’s once again time to play the music and light the lights with the return of The Muppets to the big screen. The fuzzy felt franchise, which topped the box office with 1979s Muppet Movie and 1981s Great Muppet Caper, went into steep decline following the untimely death of creator Jim Henson in 1989.

The loss of the Muppets driving force is not the only challenge facing this reboot. Frank Oz (who voiced Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear) is pursuing a directing career of his own nowadays and declined to take part, while the kids today, reared on a diet of indistinguishable digital cartoons, think a muppet is something else entirely. Wholesome, music-hall inspired knockabout puppet comedy isn’t fashionable nowadays. As Kermit the Frog might tell you, it’s not easy being green, anymore.

Director James Bobin’s approach seems to be to embrace the fact that times have changed. This is clear from the opening scenes, where we watch home-movie footage of a young Muppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) and his human brother Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller). Walter and Gary might be different species, one being fleshy and the other fleecy, but that obvious difference is never acknowledged. They are brothers, pure and simple, with the older Gary constantly looking out for his half-pint, hand-operated sibling.

When Walter discovers an old VHS tape of The Muppet Show, he realises how different he is and sees, for the first time, how his life could be. Obsessed with the show, and devoted to Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmore), Walter tags along when Gary brings his sweet-natured fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) on a romantic trip to Los Angeles. There they visit the old Muppet Theatre, now a crumbling, cobwebbed museum and discover that the site is in danger of being torn down by Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a sinister oil tycoon with no time for nostalgia. The race is on for Walter and Gary to reunite the original Muppets and host a fundraising television special to restore the theatre, and its furry players, to their rightful glory.

Kermit, now living in splendid isolation in a vast, empty mansion in Beverly Hills, is the first recruit and the gang pile into his Rolls Royce and hit the road. Their first stop is to rescue Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobsen) from a Muppet tribute band with a residency in a dangerous dive bar. Animal is lifted from an anger management therapy clinic, Gonzo rediscovered in a plumbing supplies warehouse while Miss Piggy has become, what else, the editor of French Vogue. Reunited and their confidence restored, the Muppets enlist a host of cameo stars to join them on the show, while Cooper’s greedy capitalist (whose moustache-twirling so outraged the conservative Fox News network) waits in the wings.

None of this should work, really. The "save the theatre" plot is tired, the structure is rickety, the star cameoes are decidedly low-watt and the central puppet characters, owing to death and disputes, don’t sound like they should. What saves the film is a vivacious, witty tone, familiar to older fans of the original series and easily absorbed by a new generation. Segel and Adams bring an infectious sense of humour and a purposefully awkward charm to a knockabout series of song-and-dance routines that combine new songs (from Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie) with the welcome reprise of a few old favourites, including a show-stopping version of Kermit’s Rainbow Connection.

The Descendants

Eight years on from Sideways, director Alexander Payne returns with The Descendants, a quiet story about a family tragedy that is also an uplifting character comedy. Payne has always been able to inject his identifiably flawed, ordinary Joe characters with unexpected darts of humour and heart but his unique knack of subtly shifting moods and maintaining a complicated tone has never been more skilfully applied. Nominated for a host of Oscars at this month’s ceremony, this is a wonderful film, beautifully acted and delicately presented, as funny as it is moving.

Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel by Payne and comedy writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rush, the story unfolds over the course of a week in Hawaii, where busy lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is busy deciding the fate of a huge tract of land he inherited from his founding-father ancestors. As the head of a trust established to maintain the unspoiled paradise, now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Matt has to decide whether to sell the land to competing developers looking to build a resort and divide the fortune that accrues among a gaggle of distant cousins. A self-confessed workaholic, Matt hasn’t been much of a father to his two young daughters, precocious ten year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and tear-away teenager Alex (Shailene Woodley). When his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) falls off a speedboat and hits her head, lapsing into a coma, Matthew must try to find a way to keep his family together as they face up to an accidental tragedy.

Beset on all sides, Matthew’s problems are compounded when his daughter, who despises him for sending her to a boarding school, insists on bringing her maddeningly laid-back boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) along wherever they go. At the same time, his gruff father-in-law (Robert Forster) directs his grief at his daughter’s bleak prognosis towards Matthew, blaming his frugality for her accident. As Matt prevaricates over his decision to sell the land, he meets Cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), whose head-nodding affability hides a determination to cash in on the family fortune.

Everybody in the film might carry an aloha smile and wear a flowery short-sleeved shirt, but that doesn’t make them easy to classify as simple, backwater characters. “Don’t be fooled by appearances,” Clooney intones in a witty voice-over, “In Hawaii some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.” Emotionally and financially, there is a lot at stake in The Descendants, which gradually crystallizes into a story about how hard it is to close the gap with family and the land when some vital connection is broken. Threading his way with extraordinary facility through Matt’s legal, family and emotional troubles, Payne plays drama against comedy and light against shade, without ever forcing his hand, until the moment that Matt realises how all his problems have coiled together in a clump.

As he has done throughout his career, Payne balances the fallout from his dramatic revelations with brilliant darts of sharply chiselled humour. There are funny lines, and lots of them, but Payne’s real talents lie in his character’s silences, glances and gestures. Matt’s response to his daughter dropping a bombshell on his marriage is to struggle into a pair of ill-fitting sandals and flip-flop his way over to his neighbours house in a fog of sweat, with Payne’s camera following him every drenched step of the way. Never more lively or sympathetic, Clooney carries the film with a beautifully underplayed performance. Onscreen nearly the entire time, and adding a sometimes bitter voice-over, he never puts a foot wrong, except on purpose. Opposite him, and similarly essential to the film’s success, Woodley transforms convincingly from a callow girl unable to see beyond her own issues into her father’s stalwart defender, aiding and abetting him as he tries to figure everything out.

Payne’s unfussy approach gives a believably lived-in atmosphere to a place we might only know from postcards, contrasting the sumptuous landscape with images of traffic-filled highways and sprays of high-rise spreading up a bright green mountainside. The soulful soundtrack of Hawaiian songs from Hawaiian musicians is also essential to the mood, alternately joyful and subdued.

War Horse

Recently, cinema has been rediscovering its own history; something up to now it has always tried to do covertly. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist are inspired by the early days of movies, recreating key moments of the classics. Steven Spielberg’s latest film War Horse is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo (and the smash-hit stage adaptation) but it is also a tribute to the filmmakers that have inspired him; from Lewis Milestone’s WWI epic All Quiet on the Western Front to his friend Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and from John Ford to David Lean. War Horse is an old fashioned film, and I’m not certain that I mean that as a compliment. It is pure Spielberg; emotional, uplifting, richly photographed and carefully composed but it is a film that might have been made at any time in the last hundred years. This old warhorse is, by title and design, a traditional standard.

The film opens with pastoral views of the Devonshire countryside and an equally cloying flourish from John William’s ever-present score, as a young foal is born in a field. Looking on is poor farmer’s son Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), who falls in love with the horse at first sight. When his father Ted (Peter Mullan), stubbornly outbids his landlord Lyons (David Thewliss) at an auction to buy the horse, Albert gladly takes on the seemingly impossible task of turning the thoroughbred into a working farm horse. With the help of his long-suffering mother (Emily Watson), Albert fits his prize with a bridle and, in a tediously overplayed prologue, teaches the slim-ankled horse to plough a rain-soaked field.

Then 1914 rolls around and war is declared against Germany. The horse, now called Joey, is sold to a kindly cavalry captain (Tom Hiddleston) and shipped off to the green fields of France. From that point on, Spielberg tells the story of the war from the point of view of the horse, with vignettes from the recently-enlisted Albert’s experience in trying to track him down. Even less suited to battle than to pulling ploughs, Joey is soon deployed in an ultimately disastrous dawn raid on a German camp in France.

Captured by the enemy, Joey begins a journey across the frontlines of the war, where he encounters a spread of likely types, each with a different view of the conflict. There are two German brothers (David Kross and Leonard Carow) who use him to escape their fates as infantrymen, a French grandfather and his precocious granddaughter (Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens) whose fruit farm is in the way of the advancing Germans and a brave Tommy (Toby Kebbell) and a German sharpshooter (Rainer Bock), who rescue the horse from a tangle of barbed wire.

There are times when Spielberg’s touch with emotions and show-stopping individual moments still pack a wallop. An early cavalry charge might recall a better one in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but it is still heart-stoppingly intense and heart-breakingly futile. Later, a moment when a group of horses react when a fallen horse is put down is simple and brilliant and one of the rare occasions when the film feels genuine and alive.

But as Joey gallops from one set of hastily-sketched characters to the next, War Horse loses clarity and focus. Because the film is aimed at a young audience, Spielberg cannot show us the real horrors of the First World War, even if they might struggle to sit through the entire 2 hour and 20 minute running time. At the same time, the film is too broadly played and dramatically unsophisticated for adults, who might find themselves questioning the wisdom of following the fortunes of an animal at war when millions of men, with wives, children, fathers and mothers, are dying in the trenches.

Heavy on homage and thick with carefully-crafted atmosphere, War Horse is an admirable attempt to find another way in which to tell an old story but Spielberg’s fuzzy storytelling and sentimental embellishments make for a gelding where there should have been a stallion.