When I think of the movies made in the last ten years that deal with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the effects that they had on American lives, there are really only two that immediately come to mind because of their bold, direct portrayals of the situation – 'United 93' and 'World Trade Center.' The theme has be used in many more movies that talk about post 9/11 America, but none have congealed in a truly intimate and honest depiction that not only works story-wise, but movie-wise. 'Reign Over Me' came close, but 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' does it in a far superior and fluid manner, becoming not only one of the very best 9/11 movies, but one of the best movies of 2011. Although it wasn't the most hyped of the Best Picture contenders at the Academy Awards, it definitely deserved to be in the category.
Oskar (Thomas Horn) and his father (Tom Hanks) used to play lots of games together – not the traditional board games that you or I might play as a family, but big adventures across town looking for clues that unlock certain mysteries. They called them "reconnaissance expeditions." His dad would set up clues all over New York City that would require Oskar to step out of his comfort zone. He did this in order to help Oskar, who is clearly different. Doctors suspect that he may have Aspergers syndrome, but the tests have come back inconclusive. Whatever his condition is, it makes him a highly intelligent little boy with symptoms that suggest he likely has a condition on the autistism spectrum. Playing deep, logical games like this puts his mind to use, while also forcing him to interact with other people and strangers. It's almost used as a sort of therapy.
'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' bounces back and forth from the events of Sept. 11, 2001 to the movie's present, one year after the World Trade Center attacks. The day that changed America - or, as Oskar calls it, "The Worst Day" - may have affected Oskar and his family even more than the rest of the world. You see, Oskar's father was a victim of the 9/11 attacks. Oskar has been tortured by the loneliness of his father's passing ever since. Although his mother (Sandra Bullock) is still alive, the two are managing their grief individually. His mother is emotionally numb and wounded, so we don't get much of a look into her perspective until the second half of the movie. But the first half vividly paints a picture of Oskar's grief, which Oskar compares to the dying of the sun. If the sun were to burn out, we wouldn't know it for another eight minutes because that's how long it takes sunlight to reach the Earth. One year after his father's death, he's starting to feel his father's presence fleeting before him. His eight minutes are almost up, so Oskar must find a way to make those few moments with his father's memory last forever. Luckily, he may have found a way.
Oskar sneaks into his dad's untouched closet to find something that renews his father's memory and finds just what he's looking for - a key, a clue to another expedition that they had not yet started. All alone, Oskar starts off on his dad's last game, a big one, to find the lock that the key belongs to and discover his dad's final message. The only clue included with this game is a last name written on the envelope that held the key – Black. After researching, Oskar has found 472 people in the greater New York City area with the last name Black. According to his statistics, every Saturday and Sunday for the next three years are going to be filled with tracking down all the Blacks until he can find the lock that his dad wants him to open.
Where 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' could have played the manipulation card to stir up the audience's emotions, it never comes across that way. The non-stop intimacy of the film keeps it from feeling like it's plucking strings to get at your emotions. Instead, you constantly feel like you're enveloped in this sole journey to have one last minute with your own dad. One of the biggest contributors to this is the filmmaking. The script is clean, personal, and multidimensional. The editing allows the film to take its time, establishing the world through the eyes of young Oskar. It not only conveys the panic attack-inducing anxiety from walking the cluttered city, but shows you the small, seemingly pointless moments that define humanity. It's not afraid to jump back and forth from past to present as many times as needed just to give the right amount of emotional connection to Oskar's inspiration. Each of the strange and occasionally odd encounters that Oskar has with a Black is so intimate, personal, and realistic that you'll want to see extended versions of the brief scenes that make the final cut of the film in the form of montages.
It's impossible to mention the components of 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' that make it Oscar-worthy without mentioning the actors. Whoever had the idea to cast non-acting kid Thomas Horn after seeing him on 'Kids Jeopardy' is brilliant. If you didn't know any better, you'd think that he was a seasoned actor. This is Oskar's movie and Horn carries it. Had it not been for him, the film would have been wasted.
As always, Tom Hanks gives a great performance that makes you miss his character almost as much as Oskar does. You love him. As a parent, you want to be just like him. He embraces everything that a father should be. Seeing how torn up his family is after his death is 100 percent believable because of how great a man he was. But Sandra Bullock can't go without mention. She gave a strong performance in 'The Blind Side,' but I believe that her performance in 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is far more Oscar-worthy. Although she comes across as a cold, frail, and emotionally detached wreck in the beginning, when we finally get some insight into her perspective, it all makes sense. Bullock has stretched her acting abilities much farther than we've ever seen.
And who can forget the speechless Max von Sydow. The majority of the Black-searching that we see Oskar doing in the film is by himself, but along the way he picks up an unlikely companion known only as "The Renter," an old German who hasn't spoken a word in many decades who rents a room from Oskar's grandmother. The little bits that we learn about The Renter suggests that this might be the same type of man that Oskar will grow up to be. Both witnessed things in their childhood that no kid should ever have to go through, so The Renter very well may be the only person that can properly empathize with Oskar. Without saying a single word, Sydow gives a stellar performance.
'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is hard to watch at times, but it gives you a peek into what it may have been like to have that World Trade Center tragedy personally affect your life. Know that while the attack on the towers is a central subject for the story, we literally only see one shot of the burning towers and one quick glimpse of news footage showing a tower collapsing. This touchy subject matter is handled in the most delicate, sensitive, and honest manner. Despite the loss and destruction, we are reminded of the positive things that came from that day. Through Oskar's story, we are reminded that we are all connected, that by working through our own hurt and suffering, we can reach out and touch others. Some things can never be undone, but they will never be forgotten.
If you haven't seen 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,' now's your chance. Get out a jumbo pack of tissues and be prepared for a film to move you. I'll warn you that you're going to walk away an emotional wreck.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has given 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' a two-disc combo pack that includes a BD-50, a DVD and a code that unlocks an Ultraviolet copy of the film in an eco-friendly blue keepcase that vertically slides into a nice cardboard slipcase. A lot of junk plays before the main menu – FBI warning, firmware disclaimer, regional product disclaimer, WB 3D promo reel, WB Insider Rewards promo reel – but each video is skippable. With bulky and generic icons that resemble something from Windows '95's layout design, Warner Bros. needs to get rid of these awful-looking main menu buttons. There's nothing aesthetically pleasing about it.
Warners have given 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' a sharp and crisp 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presented in a wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio. There's literally only one flaw with this Blu-ray's fantastic picture quality – occasional aliasing.
While aliasing may show up from time to time, there's not enough of it to distract you from the detailed quality of the image. Close-up and mediums shots both reveal the fine details that lie within the picture – texture of clothing, peach fuzz on a child's face and individual rogue hairs on Sandra Bullock's frowzy head. The image carries a strong 3D look (without being in 3D) via its unique use of lenses and focus. The subtly stylized cinematography is done justice with this strong picture quality.
Fleshtones are natural, as is the color palette. The filmmakers have obviously gone for a realistic look for the film and the Blu-ray does just that. The realistic black levels and natural shadow delineation also add to the feel and look of the film.
Edge enhancement, DNR, artifacts, bands and noise are never an issue.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn't as strong as the video quality, but it's fitting for the movie at hand.
There aren't too many instances in the film that warrant effects that would stand out, but that doesn't stop the mix from applying small enhancing sounds that, once again, mirror a realistic non-sensationalized world. Quiet environmental effects are layered throughout the film to help transport you to the inner city. This use is constant, never letting up – but you have to focus your ears to notice it. Whenever the film calls for great channel-spanning effects, it pulls those off just as well. My favorite of them all is used in a few scenes where Oskar dabbles on the edge of a panic attack. It's quite a strong effect, so I'll keep from spoiling the unique sound design. One instance that I don't mind mentioning is when Oskar drops the vase that contains the mysterious key, shattering effects dynamically spread throughout the theater as if your head was located in the center of the slow-motion destruction. Instances of imaging can be heard as traffic zooms by, sirens blare past you, and flocks of birds swarm back and forth.
Alexandre Desplat's beautiful score is one that doesn't tell you what emotions to feel during certain scenes, but enhances the emotion from what's unfolding on-screen. The score is allowed to swell from all channels, as well as play quietly in the background. The music is dynamically mixed.
Neither the sounds nor the music ever gobble up the film's dialog. Oskar's narration rings out loud and clear from the center speaker. All of the dialog is completely clean, but if you can't understand the loud high-pitch curse that Oskar screams at his mom, know that it's because of the strange thing he's actually saying - "Fukizawa you!" - and not the mix.
Being a Best Picture nominee, I sure expected a lot more in the way of special features. While the one included is decent, it's a little too brief to satisfy me. Where's the commentary? The interview with the book's author? Deleted scenes? Thank heaven for the few Blu-ray exclusive features.
It's not often that a film has the power and ability to turn me into an emotional wreck, but 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' did just that. Telling the story of a kid who lost his father in the attacks on the World Trade Center, imagine how poignant the films gets. But as heavy and depressing as it may sound, know that this is a film about healing. It's not all tears and tragedy, and that's what makes it even more emotional. It never delves into the manipulative side. Combine the story with the filmmaking and acting and you'll know exactly why this was a Best Picture nominee. Warner Bros. has done a great job with the Blu-ray, but it could still be slightly better. The picture quality is near-perfect, its only flaw being aliasing. The sound is great, but could have been more impressive. The special features are lacking, but the HD extras help make up for it. All-in-all, this is a Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet combo pack that I highly recommend.