EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
The protagonist of director Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - based on Jonathan Safran Foer's famed 9/11/01-themed novel and adapted by screenwriter Eric Roth - is Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old Manhattanite who tells a new acquaintance that he was once tested for Asperger's syndrome, but that "the results weren't definitive." My first thought upon hearing that admission was that Oskar's folks really should've sought a second opinion, because with young actor Thomas Horn tearing through breathless reams of stream-of-consciousness dialogue, his condition seemed definitive as all-get-out. My second thought, which I only fully composed during the end credits, and which I apologize for in advance, was that watching Extremely Loud was like watching a movie while an 11-year-old with Asperger's yammers in your ear for 130 minutes.
I have friends who claim to have been moved to tears by Foer's tale of a boy grieving the loss of his father during the World Trade Center attacks, and there were definite sniffles heard at the screening I attended, though whether these viewers were affected by the film or merely by its manipulative imagery (Thomas Horn crying, Sandra Bullock crying, Viola Davis crying) is open to debate. But I found Daldry's movie almost jaw-droppingly insensitive and illogical and irritating, and so stunningly removed from real-life experience that it almost defies belief. From Oskar's unaccompanied treks through Manhattan neighborhoods to the incessant flashbacks with Tom Hanks (as the child's dangerously over-solicitous dad) to the sitcom cutesiness of Oskar's aversion to public transportation and obsession with his tambourine, not one scene in the film plays as remotely believable. Gifted actors such as Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, and Zoe Caldwell are forced to grapple with sketchy, unplayable characters. The employment of 9/11 signifiers - particularly a series of increasingly terrified phone messages left by Oskar's father - for cheap pathos and even cheaper suspense is staggeringly distasteful. And while acting novice Horn plays his "not definitive" Asperger's sufferer with impressive flintiness, his Oskar still emerges as a hyper-articulate yet endlessly prattling pain who's completely oblivious to the feelings of others; despite my ever-increasing ire toward the film, I nearly applauded the finale, as it meant this kid would finally shut the hell up. With cinematographer Chris Menges' camera zeroing in on Oskar's forced anguish and verbosity, it's actually the movie's lead who's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and like the misbegotten effort he stars in, he left me feeling extremely annoyed and incredibly pissed.
Director Anthony Hemingway's Red Tails, an intentionally - and intensely - cornball World War II saga about the African-American fighter pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen, opens with a citation from a 1925 Army War College study that concluded that blacks lacked the basic intelligence and ambition to serve in combat. I'm going to suggest that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't the best idea to follow this offensive bit of backward thinking with the airborne image of one of our heroes yawning and sluggishly admitting, "I need a nap." And while I'd like to believe that this gesture was meant to be ironic (despite not playing as funny), nothing over the next two hours suggests anything other than a square, earnest, powerfully dull history lesson; aside from a few admittedly exciting though decidedly unrealistic battle scenes, Red Tails is little more than well-meaning inertia. Although Cuba Gooding Jr. doesn't possess the vocal command necessary to pull off his role as the squadron's commander, everyone in the cast does a perfectly serviceable job of playing one-note archetypes, even managing to keep straight faces amidst the eye-rollingly banal dialogue. (Of course, during the aerial sequences, it probably helps that nearly all of the actors' features are hidden by their masks.) Yet while the performers, especially the soulful David Oyelowo, are uniformly likable, and there can be no denying the historical significance and importance of the subject matter, the movie is still an awfully tough sit. By the time the German fighter pilot barked a subtitled "Die, you foolish African!!!" and a Tuskegee Airman fell from the sky while his best friend wailed "No-o-o-o-o!!!", I began to feel that all those rounds of artillery were unnecessary, as Red Tails' warring pilots might have been just as successful pummeling each other with clichés.
Beyond the kinetic, bone-crunching fun in watching MMA champion Gina Carano beat the crap out of people, I don't think there's any reason for Steven Soderbergh's action thriller Haywire to exist. I don't think we need another reason; Carano's enjoyably lightning-quick acts of retaliation, revenge, and self-defense against the likes of Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and others provide plenty of diversion all by themselves. (Michael Douglas also shows up, and you'll either be perversely disappointed or hugely relieved to learn that the mixed-martial-arts star does not beat the crap out of him.) Granted, the movie won't be a tasty bowl of strawberry whup-ass for everyone, particularly viewers who demand rigorous, logical plotting or who immediately turn against any film that finds its heroine routinely punched in the face - and it's hard not to empathize with either of those sects. Yet in screenwriter Lem Dobs' convoluted tale of a Black Ops ninja marked for death by shifty government spooks, Carano is a thrillingly distinct presence, despite not yet being much of an actor. With her confidence and evocative fierceness allowing you not to fear for her Mallory Kane, you're able to watch the movie's brutal mayhem free of guilt, and fully appreciate the formal precision and playfulness of Haywire's staging; the fight choreography, which Soderbergh cleverly (and wisely) films without tension-heightening music on the soundtrack, is both vicious and elegant. Several scenes here seem unnecessarily protracted, with one foot race through the streets of Barcelona lasting so long that, for all I know, it might still be taking place. But Haywire remains a mostly snappy good-bad time, with added personality courtesy of the lovably scruffy Michael Angarano, who delivers a memorable laugh line about Kane's expert driving skills two seconds before the woman accidentally plows into a deer. It's that kind of movie, which should immediately tell you whether it's your kind of movie.