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

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Rebel in the Rye


Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong

 

Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salinger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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