There’s a sequence of scenes in Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity about half way through the film that starts tense, becomes nail-biting, and then explodes – literally and figuratively – into a mind-boggling orchestra of space disaster action. I was clenching my boyfriend’s thigh and clenching my jaw at the beginning of it, but when it reached its full throttle, I was slapping his leg and laughing and bouncing up and down in my chair. I wasn’t laughing at the movie; I was laughing the way I have when I am on a roller coaster and it is throwing me through the most absurdly improbable flips and loops. Cuarón’s use of CGI, 3-D, and IMAX photography is so skilled that I found myself nearly ducking the space shrapnel hurtling towards the audience. Such an enveloping, unnervingly real film, Gravity is an actually astonishing experience. Continue…
About ten minutes after the end of maudlin 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I was standing outside the theater, feeling the tears drying on my face and the crying jags subside, and I got angry. I asked my friend who I now feel guilty for bringing along, “Why in the world was it necessary to make this movie?” You can ask that question about all sorts of terrible movies, and usually the answer is “to make money.” The Transformers franchise and just about every Adam Sandler vehicle exist simply as methods to earn cash, to make profits, to please shareholders of multinational conglomerates. But movies like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close have loftier goals. Sure, everyone involved is making money and wants to make as much as possible, but directors like Stephen Daldry and producers like Scott Rudin value prestige and artistic excellence as much if not more than their bank accounts. Unfortunately and bizarrely, none of these laudable goals are met or even visible in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which is a cruel and blunt assault on the audience’s basest emotions. I didn’t think I would ever see a movie more offensive than Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s cynically manipulative slapstick comedy about the Holocaust. But I have.
The plot is admittedly somewhat ingenious. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is a precocious, oddly articulate 9-year-old boy who probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of autism. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11; he was on the 106th floor of one of the towers and probably was one of the jumpers. Oskar’s mother Linda (Sandra Bullock, as good as she’s ever been) is beside herself with grief and depression. About a year after Thomas’s death, Oskar is rummaging through his father’s closet and finds a key in an envelope at the bottom of a vase; on the envelope is written “Black.” Believing that this is a message from his father, part of one the elaborate adventures of investigation that the two shared, Oskar is determined to find what the key opens. This involves talking to everyone with the last name Black in New York City and trying hundreds and hundreds of locks. It is only through this quest that this analytical, emotionally destroyed little boy can find meaning in what happened on “the worst day.” Eventually, Oskar is joined by the mute old man (Max Von Sydow, moving and Chaplinesque) renting a room from Oskar’s grandmother.
Since it is clear to the old man and to the audience that this quest is going nowhere, watching Oskar run around the city, desperately searching for a grand meaning to 9/11 seemed sadistic to me. That Oskar is at times adorable, but is also at times dreadfully mean, makes this even more problematic and discomfiting. But the biggest problem is how Daldry zeroes in the grief of this boy and his poor mother; I felt as if I was a finger rooting around in a gaping wound. At one point, the old man tells Oskar – via his notepad – to stop playing the answering machine messages Thomas left while the tower was burning. Stop. He can’t take it anymore. The entire audience is crying, and I wanted to scream at the screen just what the old man had written.
Extremely Loud is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, which was published four years after the September 11th attacks. In addition to a great deal of praise, it earned a great deal of criticism similar to what the film has: that it was sentimental and obvious and attempted to create false and unbelievable profundity. I didn’t read the book; my experience of 9/11 and its aftermath was traumatic enough that descriptions or images of the events sent me into a tizzy of grief and anxiety. However, it took me ten years to write about it, but I have. I can listen to Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant album The Rising now without crying. But I still cannot bear to be asked, “Oh, you lived in New York then? What was it like?” It was awful. Awful. Why any filmmaker would want to berate an audience with this awfulness or why anyone would want to pay $12 to experience this awfulness is simply beyond my comprehension.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by Eric Roth
Starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow
Opens January 20 in San Diego
At your local multiplex
This will be out in next week’s LGBT Weekly.
I must admit that I walked into The Help expecting to be offended. Because I knew it to be about a young white woman writing a book about the black maids in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, perhaps unfairly I expected it to be a prequel of sorts to The Blind Side. That movie, about a rich white lady who saves a poor black boy from poverty and turns him into a successful pro football player, won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. But as the critic Melissa Anderson wrote, and I concur, The Blindside “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of blacks who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.” However, I was thrilled that The Help, in fact, is nothing like that. Despite (or maybe because of) some cloying sentimentality and an overly simplistic binary of good and evil, The Help is strikingly good populist entertainment about morality, ethics, and bravery. Yes, it is about a white woman who helps black women rise up, but it is also about why and how these women fight back, why they decide to risk everything, and why telling the truth becomes more important than anything else.
The story is centered around three women: Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), a young, unmarried, rich, and white Jackson society woman who wants to be a writer; Aibilene Clark (Viola Davis), a black maid who has raised nearly two dozen children for white employers who couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves; and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), another black maid who is as a good at cooking as she is bad she is at controlling her “sass.” Both Aibilene and Minny work for friends of Skeeter, and when Skeeter decides to write about “the help” from their perspective of the maids, it is first Aibilene and then Minny who provide the initial stories. Since this is 1963 Jackson, not only is it taboo for Skeeter and Aibilene to be having anything more than the most superficial of conversations, it is actually illegal for Aibiline and Minny to help write the book, since it is, according to the film, a clear violation of Jim Crow laws banning the dissemination of literature advocating equal rights for whites and blacks. There is danger all around, with the evil of white supremacy, classism, arrogance and hypocrisy conveniently embodied in lithe steeliness of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).
The seriousness of all of this is lightened by several less scary subplots and by every scene involving Minny. While Spencer has been stealing scenes in small roles for years, as Minny, she is a revelation, brilliantly funny (sometimes with only a raised eyebrow) while also being so deeply and believably embedded in the role of an arrogant yet terrified, wise yet impulsive woman trapped in the hell of Jim Crow. Even better is Viola Davis, one of the great actresses of her generation, whose pride, sorrow, love, and bravery is as intensely portrayed as possible without being difficult to watch. That Davis and Spencer will be nominated for Oscars should be a foregone conclusion.
I missed the review screenings for the film, so I saw it in the theater with an actual paying audience. It was a Thursday matinee, and the theater was packed with women, about a third of whom were African-American. I’m glad I saw it with that crowd, because their love – the easy laughter, the cheers, and the expressive loathing of Hilly – was infectious. I’m sure I would have liked The Help if I’d seen it alone, but the communal experience of watching the film with the demographic it was made for added to its enjoyment. (For example, when Warrior comes out, see it with Marines. You won’t regret it.) This is a movie about and for women – of its 146 minutes, there may be all of ten minutes of scenes featuring men speaking. Movies like this, from The Women to Steel Magnolias, tend be beloved by gay men, too. There are as many, if not more, witticisms and zingers in The Help as either of those two earlier classics. As funny as it is, it’s also rather moving. The schmaltz is turned up too high for me, but for the audience I watched it with, it was just enough.
Written and Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard
At your local multiplex