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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Anomalisa


Running down the shining halls.

Running down the shining halls.

(2015) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan. Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

2016 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Animated Feature
WINS – Pending

Oscar Gold 2016

The world can be an impersonal place. Sometimes we seem to just be going through the motions, surrounded by automatons who are doing the same. Particularly when we’re lonely, we can feel isolated and unappreciated; we might reach out but sometimes we wonder what the point of another unfeeling sexual encounter, another meaningless friendship with vapid people who don’t do anything to arouse any sort of passion in us, might be.

Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a published author specializing in improving customer service. He has a young son and a wife in Los Angeles. He’s successful. A lot of people would consider his situation to be a successful life, but Michael feels far from successful. He’s alone in a crowd; his marriage has hit a rough patch and as he jets to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement, he decides to reach out to an ex-lover and see if she wants to hook up for the evening.

That goes predictably badly; their break-up had been not one of Michael’s shining moments and she’s still a bit bitter about it to say the least. It leads to an unpleasant scene in the hotel bar. Depressed, Michael heads back to his room but in the elevator he meets a pair of girls who are attending his speaking engagement; one, Lisa (Leigh) gets his attention.

That’s because to Michael’s eye, everyone looks the same, sounds the same, says the same things as one another. The world is a dull, dull place for Michael and Lisa is immediately like a breath of fresh air. She’s an anomaly in his life and he begins referring to her as “Anomalisa.”  Even though she lacks self-confidence and doesn’t think she’s particularly pretty or attractive, she welcomes his attention and the two end up in bed.

But Michael is not altogether well and his affliction threatens to pull him and Lisa apart. Is Michael doomed to lead a mundane life of emptiness? Or will he find something that at last, makes him feel alive again?

Kaufman, one of the quirkiest writers in the business, utilizes stop-motion animator Johnson to tell a story which absolutely suits the medium to a “T.” There is a Kafka-esque quality to the movie which can be unexpectedly humorous and occasionally surreal. When we saw the previews for this, Da Queen noted the line on the face of Michael that seems to go around his face; there is a reason for it that will become clear during one of the more funny scenes involving the hotel manager’s subterranean office and a much larger secretarial pool than any hotel manager in history ever had.

Thewlis has one of those distinctive voices, gravelly and British but with a sardonic twinkle in it. He captures Michael’s loneliness but also his narcissism well. Michael isn’t the nicest of protagonists; you get the sense that there is a reason that people don’t respond to him well and yet there is a humanity to him that manages to bleed through the puppetry (more on that in a moment). However, it’s hard to get too attached to someone who performs serial infidelity.

Leigh brings a very vulnerable quality to Lisa; at one point, she sings a version of Cyndi Lauper’s classic hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that is haunting and effective. You wouldn’t call her sexy but there is a kind of sensuality about her; you can see Michael’s attraction to her but she’s a bit on the mousy side. In other words, she’s the perfect foil.

The only other voice heard in the movie belongs to Tom Noonan. He supplies the voices to every other character, male and female. His performance is the most brilliant of all, managing to give a certain amount of individuality to each character while making them sound the same enough to fuel Michael’s strange perception. There is something a little scary about the sameness of everyone here, like something out of The Twilight Zone. The mundanity of Michael’s life fuels the whole story; Kaufman seems to be saying that safety and security is a prison of its own, something I certainly can see.

Where the movie goes wrong is that it gets too mundane sometimes; the movie drags a bit in the middle third and at times seems to be wandering aimlessly in a plot that seems to go places at random. There are some fairly funny moments and certain scenes seem to be added on just to add to the comedy that doesn’t feel like they belong in the narrative. That might well be intentional, but at least for me it didn’t work.

This isn’t for the kids so despite this being an animated feature, do leave them at home; there is a sex scene that is fairly graphic and intense, a scene of Puppet-lingus that may be difficult to wipe from your memory even if you try. Brain bleach is awfully expensive these days, after all. Still, there is enough here that is thoughtful to warrant a look, if nothing else to provoke some stimulating conversation, something ironically Michael doesn’t have enough of. If you’re looking for something to take you out of the ho-hum of life, this is it.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly human. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally confusing. A bit sloggy around the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very adult sexuality, graphic nudity and strong language. Definitely not for the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Tail Job