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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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb


Even Ben Stiller's flashlight isn't enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

Even Ben Stiller’s flashlight isn’t enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

(2014) Family Adventure (Paramount) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Dan Stevens, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rami Malek, Skyler Gisondo, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Andrea Martin, Rachael Harris, Brad Garrett (voice), Anjali Jay, Regina Taufen (voice). Directed by Shawn Levy

Some movies can be extremely poignant and bring a tear even to the most heartless of people. Sometimes movies are lent extra poignancy by real life circumstances.

Things at the Museum of Natural History in New York City couldn’t be going better. They’ve added a brand new planetarium and opening night is a dazzling affair. Larry Daley (Stiller) has set up quite the soiree with President Theodore Roosevelt (Williams), Attila the Hun (Gallagher) and Sacajawea (Peck) leading the way, along with some animated constellations and Trixie the T-Rex. However, things go terribly wrong; Attila and the Huns (sounds like a great name for a garage band) attack indiscriminately, Teddy reads lines from his nephew Franklin and the exhibits who have come to life basically aren’t acting like themselves.

Ahkmenrah (Malek) whose tablet possesses the magic to keep his son living, discovers that the tablet is corroding somehow but it seems to be tied in to the issues that the exhibits are having. He isn’t quite sure why it is corroding now nor how to stop it; the one who really knows about the tablet is his dad Merenkahre (Kingsley) who happens to be in the British Museum.

So it is that Larry heads to London, taking with him Akhmenrah and Teddy – as well as Sacajawea, Attila and the tiny cowboy Jebediah (Wilson) and Roman legionnaire Octavius (Coogan) and Dexter, the mischievous Capuchin monkey. They seek out dear old dad who tells them that the tablet needs moonlight in order to recharge; like a battery, the tablet is corroding. Seems a simple enough fix.

Of course not. The vainglorious Sir Lancelot (Stevens) has seen the magic properties of the tablet and figures out that this is the Holy Grail he was sent to find and he can thus bring it back to Camelot and claim Guinevere to be his very own. The rest of them need the tablet to continue being reanimated at night; without it they’ll be permanent wax figures and thus the chase is on with the stakes being incredibly high.

I haven’t had a real love affair with this series but neither have I particularly hated it either. All three of the movies in the franchise I have found to be competently done entertainment. Many critics have lamented the waste of talent and I can’t say as I don’t disagree but for what the film is intended to be, it is successful.

There are moments that are the highlights of the series, as the penultimate scene that takes place on the roof when Dexter is stricken. There is some real tenderness in that moment and when Dexter whimpers it was a real shot to the heart and some of the more tender-hearted kids in the audience reacted so you might want to be sure your kids can handle an animal in distress, or the grieving that comes with impending loss. Other moments of grace include bringing back the trio of security guards (Van Dyke, Cobb and Rooney) who initiated the events of the movie originally.

There are also moments that remind me why I never warmed to the series in the first place, like Larry having a conversation about parenting with Laa (also Stiller), a caveman who seems to understand what Larry is saying but through a much simpler filter. Also Dexter saves Octavius and Jebediah from a lava flow in Pompeii by relieving himself on the lava – and on the figures. Nice.

While the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan is genuine, the same is not true for the rest of the cast. Mostly it seems very much like a paycheck rather than a passion project and for good reason. As much as the highbrow aim is to educate as well as entertain, they really don’t do very much of the former whenever they have a chance for the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the humor is as unmemorable as the humor is here, there’s a problem. Rebel Wilson, for example, who plays an oversexed and dimwitted British security guard, is utilized poorly.

There is a vibe of finality to the film which isn’t entirely due to the movie itself; the passing of Williams and Rooney adds to that feeling. We are in essence saying good-bye to both of them which adds to the poignancy of the final scenes. While I was entertained in places and touched in others however, the movie isn’t cohesive enough to really keep my interest for the full length of the movie. Like an under-powered train chugging into the engine with its fuel exhausted, the franchise barely has enough in it to make it through the shortest running time of any of its films. Worth seeing? More or less but more to say goodbye to two of the greatest to ever walk onto a sound stage than for anything onscreen.

REASONS TO GO: Very touching in some places, especially on the British Museum rooftop. A nice way to say farewell to Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty generic and bland. Humor is of the lowest common denominator sort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly foul language, a bit of peril and some humor of the pee-pee doo-doo kind.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Nick (Larry’s son) was played by Jake Cherry in the first two films; Gisondo plays him here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mannequin
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Force Majeure

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Ben Stiller and Amy Adams learn that seven bobbleheads are better than one.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Alain Chabat, Jonah Hill, Ricky Gervais, Jon Bernthal, Mizuo Peck, Jake Cherry, Rami Malek, Jay Baruchel. Directed by Shawn Levy.

Anyone can tell you that there is a little bit of magic in a museum. Not only are they repositories of human knowledge and culture, they are also objects of awe and inspiration. There’s quite a lot of juju in those things.

It is two years after the events of Night at the Museum in which an Egyptian tablet brings the statues and inhabitants of the New York Museum of Natural History to life once the sun goes down. Night security guard Larry Daley (Stiller) has moved on from his gig as a night watchman at the museum, becoming the CEO of his own company which markets his own inventions including the latest, the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. He has become a busy man, meeting with Wal-Mart executives and filming infomercials with George Foreman. However, he tries to make time to see his friends in the museum, including Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), Jedediah (Wilson) and Octavius (Coogan).

This night he is informed by unctuous museum director Dr. McPhee (Gervais) that the board of trustees has elected to go a more high-tech route, with holographic exhibits that are much more cost-effective. The mannequins, stuffed animals and statuary have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and will reside in their archives as American treasures. Only a few items – the canine T-Rex skeleton, the Easter Island statues and Roosevelt – will remain in New York.

Unfortunately Dexter, the high-strung Capuchin monkey that tormented Larry in the first movie has managed to snag that magic tablet. The night after the move takes place, Larry gets an alarming phone call from Jedediah (how he got access to a phone is anybody’s guess) indicating there is a pharaoh who is after the tablet and the outnumbered refugees from New York are under siege.

Larry gets on a plane immediately and heads to the nation’s capital. From there he heads into the bowels of the Smithsonian using a pilfered card from Brendan (Hill) – pronounced “Brun-dun” – a somewhat inexperienced Smithsonian guard, and meets up with Amelia Earhart (Adams), who becomes an instant ally.

The pharaoh in question, Kahmunrah (Azaria), is the brother of Ahkmenrah (Malek) from the first movie, and he has a chip on his shoulder. He also plans on using the tablet to summon an army of demons to initiate his rule on earth. There is nobody but Larry, Amelia and his friends from the New York museum who stand in the way of Kahmunrah and his nefarious plan.

Those who loved the first movie won’t be disappointed here. Generally, the things that made the movie delightful are here, only amplified. Unfortunately, the first movie’s flaws are also here, only amplified. Let’s start with the good stuff. Stiller’s Larry, to the credit of the filmmakers, is no longer the milquetoast that made him so annoying in the first movie. He’s matured, grown some self-confidence and found success. He makes a better hero in this movie and is given a great foil in Adams. She’s probably my favorite actress working today – I can’t think of another actress besides Julia Roberts whose mere presence in a movie is reason enough for me to see it. Ever since she first attracted notice in Junebug she hasn’t given a poor performance yet, and has proven she can carry a movie in Enchanted. While she’s not required to do that here, she essentially does it anyway. She’s the focus of every scene she’s in, at least from my point of view.

The supporting cast is pretty awesome as well. Azaria makes a superb comic villain, whose lisping delivery is a bit of homage to Boris Karloff in The Mummy. He’s completely believable and menacing enough without being too over-the-top, comic enough without being a buffoon. Coogan and Wilson make a good team and Hill’s uncredited cameo is one of the movie’s highlights. Williams is far less visible in the movie, but makes an impact whenever he’s around.

One of my big peeves with the movie is that it isn’t true to its own canon. In the first film, items brought to life that were left outside the museum after dawn turned to dust but that doesn’t happen here. Also, while the Smithsonian is crawling with security guards and riddled with surveillance cameras during the day, it seems devoid of any kind of security once darkness falls. Considering the value of the artifacts stored in their museums, you’d think that there’d be a guard or two on duty once the doors close.

Still, gripes aside, this is a fairly good family adventure movie. There’s the comedy you’d expect given the cast as well as action a-plenty. The young ‘uns in our audience seemed well-pleased with the movie and I have no reason to suspect that most family audiences won’t find it otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: A likable cast and premise make this movie all kinds of fun. The things that made the first movie work are still here, only amplified. Amy Adams is always worth seeing no matter what the role; she nearly steals the film here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some lazy script choices give the movie a few unnecessary plot holes which admittedly the movie’s target audience will be young enough to overlook.

FAMILY VALUES: Kahmunrah’s demon army might be a bit frightening for the younger set but they aren’t really all that menacing. Otherwise, this is suitable for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lemmon make cameos as the Wright Brothers.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several featurettes and a DVD game centered around the Capuchin monkeys.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Blind Side