Movie reviews

There’s a whole range of movies, books and cultural artefacts dedicated to exploring the impact of the 9/11 tragedy, but Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (12A) is less interested in the event and more concerned with its consequences, and particularly the way in which the destruction of the Twin Towers had such a positive effect on New York itself.

Adapted by Eric Roth from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, and directed by Stephen Daldry, the film focuses on nine-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), who is devastated when his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) loses his life on what the child consistently refers to as “the worst day”. When Oskar subsequently discovers a key in a jar in his father’s cupboard, in an envelope addressed simply to ‘Black’, the boy sets out to track down every person in New York called Black, in order to discover what secrets may be unlocked by the key. It’s a quirky set-up, and Oskar is an appropriately idiosyncratic character: diagnosed as a borderline case for Asperger’s Syndrome, the boy criss-crosses the city interrogating a series of complete strangers, banging his trusty tambourine whenever he gets frightened. The possessive-compulsive role is a demanding one, but young Thomas Horn copes admirably with the heavy burden on his shoulders. It’s clear, of course, that Oskar’s mission is a metaphor for how the brash citizens of New York city learned to reconnect with one another in a more thoughtful way in the wake of 9/11, but such is Oskar’s intensity, and the fraught nature of his relationship with his mother (Sandra Bullock) and his mute grandfather (Max von Sydow), that the metaphors remain subservient to the boy’s pursuit of his father’s forgiveness. Until, that is, director Stephen Daldry goes for broke in the last 20 minutes or so, and begins plucking on the heart-strings like a demented harpist. The net result is that the story feels cheapened by the shrill shilling for tears, and undermines much of the dignified process of learning to live with loss that has gone before.

The Woman in the Fifth (15A) is in some ways an inversion of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. An author and unemployed university lecturer, American Tom Hicks (Ethan Hawke) travels to Paris in a desperate bid to maintain his relationship with his young daughter, Chloe (Julie Papillon), despite the best efforts of Julie’s mother, from whom Tom is separated, to keep them apart. Robbed on his first day in Paris, Tom is reduced to desperate straits as he tries to communicate with Chloe, and goes to work for a low-life gangster, Sezer (Samir Guesmi), in order to pay rent on the most basic of accommodation. Despite his circumstances, however, Tom finds room in his life for the eponymous heroine, Margit (Kristen Scott Thomas), an attractive widow who seduces Tom and provides him with a ray of hope. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski adapts Douglas Kennedy’s novel as a downbeat but emotionally engaging and ambitious noir thriller. Once all the elements are in place, however, the story begins to throw up some strange anomalies, suggesting that Tom’s perception of the world may be heavily influenced by the novel he finds himself inspired to write amid the squalor of his new life. Hawke’s air of seedy desperation is neatly offset by the glamour of Scott Thomas. Read literally, the latter stages of the story will strain credulity; taken as a point-of-view account of incipient insanity, however, the movie becomes a bleak but poignant account of one man’s descent into a personal hell.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) derived his demonic status from the actual hell in Ghost Rider (2007), and the fiery avenger again takes to his flaming motorcycle in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (12A), this time to save a young boy — who happens to be the spawn of the devil — from the evil clutches of Roarke (Ciarán Hinds), aka Satan himself. An adaptation of a comic book is one thing, but this movie is so cartoonishly executed as to unintentionally resemble a Blazing Saddles-style parody of the genre. It’s genuinely difficult to know whether Cage is playing his role straight or for camp laughs, but what’s inescapable is that this is very much a self-indulgent bonfire of Cage’s vanity.

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