Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements


Better to soar among the eagles than walk with the turkeys.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama/HBOJonas, Paul, Sally, Colleen, Matthew, Irene. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

 

As someone who loves movies and music, my senses of sight and hearing are particularly precious to me. As such, I tend to feel a tremendous pity for those who lack one or both of those senses. How can someone without those senses appreciate the grandeur of Laurence of Arabia attacking Aqaba or the soaring Maurice Jarrė score that accompanies it? It seems to me to be an irreplaceable loss – but there are other compensations that perhaps I failed to take into account.

Brodsky is the child of two deaf parents, Paul and Sally, who received cochlear implants while in their sixties. She and her siblings are all hearing, so they were in some ways insiders to the challenges their parents faced without perhaps understanding them fully, as those possessed of a sense can never truly understand what it is to be without it. How does one, after all, describe a world of silence to someone whose world is filled with noise?

She is also the mother of a deaf son, Jonas, who was born hearing but gradually lost his ability to hear when he was four. He was then given cochlear implants and when the documentary was filmed, was 11 years old who most of us would never realize he had any sort of hearing issue.

Music is also important to Jonas and he is taking piano lessons. He tells his piano teacher Colleen that he wants to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which his teacher tells him he doesn’t hav the skills for et. Jonas is insistent and at last Colleen relents. After all, Beethoven wrote the piece during a time when his hearing was failing him. Was that a motivating factor in Jonas’ desire to play it, or did he merely like the piece? We never find out for sure; at least, not from Jonas.

This is a very personal film for Brodsky and in many ways that makes it more difficult to review. Not because I believe she’s going to ever read this review, although I like to think she might someday, but it feels too much like I’m reviewing her family life. She is clearly devoted to er children and her parents, and although we see little interaction between the director and her husband Matthew, we see him comforting and encouraging his son and realize that he is a good man. The relationship between Jonas and his grandparents is a special one and the elder couple obviously adore their grandson even when they chide him over being sloppy when using American Sign Language.

As the film progresses, we see that Paul – one of the inventors of TTY technology which allows deaf people to use the telephone – is beginning to show signs of oncoming dementia. He is forgetful and sometimes loses focus on what he’s doing. When Brodsky lovingly but firmly tells him that she can’t allow him to drive her children any longer, it is a truly emotional moment; Paul not understanding why she’s come to this decision, Sally tearfully asking him to stop arguing. Many viewers who have undergone similar discussions with their own parents or grandparents will feel compassion.

In the background looms the ghost of Beethoven, his music providing a soundtrack. Quotes from his letters pop up throughout the film and animations depict him (but curiously always as an outline, never as a fully realized figure) linking him with a solitary bird flying within sight but definitely separate from the flock.

Jonas is, at the end of the day, a fairly typical 11-year-old boy. There are things about him that are admirable, there are other things in which he is less so. He sometimes tries to con Colleen into thinking that he’s doing better with the piece than he actually is but she’s having none of it; she holds him accountable but never in a cruel or vicious way. She simply calls him on his bull when he is espousing some. I don’t know that I would have liked my life immortalized when I was eleven; I would like to hope that I would handle it as well as Jonas does here.

Brodsky has two other children who show up incidentally and always with Jonas; the clear focus is on her eldest son. I wonder what her kids thought about that or how they handled not being the center of mommy’s attention. Still, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn your cameras on your kids when you know that the footage isn’t going to be shown just to family and a few long-suffering friends but to the entire world, or at least that part of it that subscribes to HBO (this film will be available on the premium content channel later this fall).

Like any life, there are ups and downs in the film. We get to see Jonas playing the Sonata at a recital and we get to see the difficulties that the grandparents face as old age robs Paul of memory and cognitive thought. He is just in the beginning stages here but the ordeal to come is one that many children are sadly familiar with and it’s hard not to feel compassion for Paul, Sally and their family. The road ahead won’t be easy for them.

I found that Brodsky dividing her film into movements to be kind of gimmicky and arbitrary; the first movement seems to be about beginnings, the second about the journey and the final about destinations but that’s over-simplifying. I thought the movie would have been better without it. Using Beethoven as a linking device doesn’t always work either.

But let it not be said that there are not moments here of exquisite grace; Jonas takes off the external device of his cochlear implant to practice, rendering him deaf but also removing the distractions of sound. Jonas speaks of how when the implant is off, he can just play for the sheer joy of it. When the implant is in and working, he can hear his every mistake and every one gnaws at him. He has not yet gotten to the point where he understands that imperfections are okay, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. We all would like to be flawless but none of us achieves it truly (other than my dog Penelope but that’s another story entirely). Our mistakes make us human and our humanity makes us beautiful. It’s the aspiration to be flawless that is wonderful, not the achievement of it.

REASONS TO SEE: This is probably as close as the hearing are ever going to get to understanding what it’s like to be deaf.
REASONS TO AVOID: The division of the film into movements seems arbitrary and gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brodsky’s previous documentary on her deaf parents, Hear and Now, was nominated for an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes:82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sound and Fury
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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A Quiet Place


Splish splash I was taking a bath.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom, Rhonda Pell. Directed by John Krasinski

 

Who doesn’t love a little peace and quiet from time to time? Here is a movie that gives you plenty of the latter but not a whole lot of the former.

The premise is fiendishly simple; the Earth has been invaded by insect-like alien creatures who, blind, hunt exclusively by hearing. The slightest noise will bring the down on you and your end will not be pleasant. The Abbott family – papa Lee (Krasinski), mama Evelyn (Blunt), daughter and eldest child Regan (Simmonds) – who in a bit of intentional irony is deaf – middle son Marcus (Jupe) and youngest son beau (Woodward) try to survive in a world where noise is death, a point driven home in the opening scene in a visceral and shocking manner.

Evelyn, to make things worse, is pregnant and her due date rapidly approaches. As any woman will tell you there is nothing quiet about childbirth and certainly nothing quiet about babies. Papa Lee however isn’t willing to say die and has things pretty much figured out – except that almost nothing goes the way he plans it.

The creatures in this movie are terrific; they make logical sense and in fact this is a horror movie that creates its own universe and the rules therein and sticks to them. This is essentially a silent movie although there is ambient noise but it isn’t always quiet. In this space, nobody had better hear you scream.

The performances here are really, really good from Krasinski as the embattled father butting heads with his headstrong daughter and his wife who thinks he’s being too hard on her and Simmonds – so good in Wonderstruck – proves that performance wasn’t a fluke. It is Blunt however who is the most memorable here. Blunt is so emotionally expressive; she acts mainly with body language and facial expression without dialogue to aid her, she communicates directly with her audience without needing subtitles. While I’m not sure Oscar will take notice, she should at least be considered for a Best Actress nod.

Krasinski as a director is promising enough; while he hasn’t broken through to the A-List quite yet as an actor, he once again shows he has the talent to get there eventually. It may turn out that his future lies in directing, which isn’t an easy path to take. Krasinski shows he is more than capable enough to follow that path. Still, it’s hard to dismiss his acting skills, particularly in light of a poignant scene near the end of the movie in which a father’s love shines brightest in the darkness.

This is an outstanding horror movie that is going to end up as one of the year’s best chillers. It’s a shame if you didn’t already catch it on the big screen which is where this would be much more effective; however if you didn’t you at least have the opportunity to see it on your own home video setup. Don’t make the same mistake twice; even if you’re not fond of genre movies you should see this one. Even film buffs are raving about it.

REASONS TO GO: Krasinski the director keeps the tension high throughout and Krasinski the actor once again shows star quality. The monster in this film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene may be too shocking and disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and bloody images, alongside some children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the entire film not a single door is opened or closd.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Across the River

Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Murder in Mansfield