BPM (Beats Per Minute)(11/11/2017)/The Square(11/12/2017)

Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited.  2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important.  Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies.  Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner.  By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square.  Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect.  These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP.  It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities.  The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm.  Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.

It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world.  That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film.  The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from.  Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way.  I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.

The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable.  I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me.  The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are.  The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European.  He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong.  Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test.  His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this.  It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.

Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives.  Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests.  These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings.  The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research.  Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group.  I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates.  I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.

If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect.  Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title.  Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece.  The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team.  In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble.  This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.

So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes?  Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been.  It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving.  This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time.  Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together.  Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club.  However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often.  In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look.  Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time

BPM (Beats Per Minute):

The Square:

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Thor: Ragnarok(11/8/2017)

The last couple of times a Marvel “MCU” movie came out I was surprised to see people talk about how all of Marvel’s films were “the same” and how they were tired of them having “too many cameos” and that they felt the films were acting as advertisements for each other.  Every time I saw a reaction like that I couldn’t help but think “where were you guys when I felt that way.”  While I generally gave a pass to most of their movies I definitely thought they were lame all through “phase one” and on and off again into “phase two.”  But Marvel is actually on something of a winning streak right now.  Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming were all winners, each probably better than the last.  Granted, even the best MCU movies aren’t “great” and at times I worry that I grade them on something of a curve but I didn’t have much in the way of major complaints about any of them.  If there’s one movie that I worried would derail this string of success it was almost certainly Thor: Ragnarok, which would be a follow-up to the MCU’s low-point: Thor: The Dark World.  That second Thor movie was a disaster; it’s probably the one MCU movie that I’d say was outright bad, a movie that seems to basically only exist because it was on their schedule to make another Thor movie at that point and which did little but tread water for two hours.  Still, I don’t see myself ever skipping an MCU movie in theaters so I was willing to give it a shot anyway.

The film picks up a few months after the ending of The Avengers: Age of Ultron and depicts what Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was up to while the people back on earth were going through the events of Captain America: Civil War.  It begins with him on one of many unsuccessful attempts to find infinity stones after his epiphany at the cave in that rather strange scene in Age of Ultron.  This particular adventure found him defeating an ancient force which claims that it will bring the Ragnarok apocalypse upon the Asgard.  For all his prophetic talk the guy is actually pretty easily defeated and his crown collected.  Thor then returns to Asgard with the crown and uncovers within minutes that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is impersonating Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as was set up in the cliffhanger of the last Thor solo movie.  Thor demands that Loki show him where their father is and the two go to Earth, where Odin has been hanging out and contemplating his life.  Soon he dies, seemingly of old age or something, and leaves them a parting warning of the looming Ragnarok.  Shortly thereafter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, shows up and sends them off to a strange prison-like planet run by a guy called the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) while she goes to conquer Asgard.  Thor must thus escape the odd prison he finds himself in in order to have a shot of saving his people.

The last three MCU films have been a bit disconnected from the wider Avengers storyline.  Doctor Strange had an infinity stone in it but was ultimately mostly about establishing a new character, Spider-Man: Homecoming was all about how Spider-Man wasn’t prepared to handle Avengers-caliber foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are kind of off in their own corner of the galaxy disconnected from what the other Marvel characters are up to.  As such it seems that Thor: Ragnarok was in the position of having to pick up a lot of the burden of setting things up for the Avengers movie that’s coming in less than six months.  This becomes quickly apparent when we get an extended (and ultimately rather pointless) cameo by Dr. Strange, many references to previous films including Black Widow stock footage, and (as anyone whose seen the trailer has had spoiled for them) a fairly large part for The Incredible Hulk.  That would seem like a recipe for disaster but somehow some way the movie gets away with it.  Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that seemingly makes every mistake that an MCU movie can make and yet still works in spite of itself.

Most Marvel movies tend to have large and frankly over-qualified casts and this one is particularly impressive in that regard.  We have all the returning actors from the Thor series like Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba but also some newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, and Jeff Goldblume.  Blanchett is obviously someone who’s “above” doing a movie like this in many ways and could have easily done this villainess role in her sleep, but she does seem to have brought her A-game or at least her B+ game just the same and is almost unrecognizable here.  Jeff Goldblume is also fun even if he’s largely doing a riff on his usual persona and Tessa Thompson is a solid addition as well who seems likely to play a role in the series going forward.  As with previous Marvel movies including the original Thor there’s a lot of comedy to be found here, like, A LOT.  The movie seems to be following the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy is practically being a straight-up comedy at times but does wisely find a slightly different approach.  The film was directed by the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, an associate of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords who sort of shares a certain dry sense of humor with them.

Where most movies have comic relief one could almost call this a comedic movie with moments of dramatic relief.  At times this feels like a bit of a crutch to conceal some screenplay problems (like the immense coincidence of Thor and The Hulk finding themselves stranded on the same remote planet) and sometimes this abundance of yucks can lead to some odd dissonance, like the fact that it more or less forgives Loki for the many many murders he committed in previous movies just because it’s fun to treat him like a lovable rogue.  For the most part though the movie actually does a surprisingly good job of keeping the stakes of the story in place while subverting them at every chance.  Part of it is the film’s bisected structure in which the antics on the Grandmaster’s planet are separated from the slightly more serious peril going on in Asgard.  This format would probably lead to a tonal disaster if the plight of the Asgard felt just a little more grim or the escape from the Grandmaster was just a little lower stakes, but the balance does seem to work out just right so that the two parts can support each other rather than detract from each other.

Thor: Ragnarok is a movie I want to be careful not to over-rate but also avoid under-appreciating.  If the most you want out of a movie is to be entertained for two hours then this is definitely a movie that will leave you satisfied, but I also don’t consider it to be particularly special in any way.  It’s basically doing nothing that other MCU movies haven’t already done and it also isn’t the MCU movie I’d send anyone to if they haven’t already bought into what Marvel does.  I definitely think less of it than I do of some of Marvel’s other recent triumphs like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange which were better able to tell self-contained stories or Captain America: Civil War which managed to deliver even more in terms of fan service.  It is, however still part of a fairly triumphant string of Marvel films and is notably better than some of the more mediocre films they were putting out earlier including the first and second Thor movies.

Home Video Round-Up: 10/31/2017

Gerald’s Game (10/16/2017)

Though I read a lot of Stephen King books in high school, Gerald’s Game is one title’s I never read, in part because I never wanted to be seen reading it and have to explain what it was I was reading.  To my young mind the novel’s premise, which involved bondage sex, seemed wildly dirty and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever making a movie out of it.  Fast forward a decade and “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a mainstream property and “Gerald’s Game” seems a lot more acceptable by contrast, especially given that its bondage sex scene is not consummated.  The story involves a middle aged woman who’s gone to a remote cabin with her husband and after he’s handcuffed both of her hands to a bed he suddenly has a heart attack and she’s left chained to the bed with the key out of reach and starts having hallucinations of her husband talking to her and of a strange looking bald man who may or may not be the grim reaper.  This is certainly a high concept movie what with its single room setup and lack of real supporting characters.  One could perhaps imagine a version of it being performed as a stage play give or take a couple of moments… including one incredibly gory moment that is decidedly not for the squeamish.  Mike Flanagan directs the film well and has an eye for some signature visuals, but some of the writing is not great (the hallucinations are basically an excuse for inner-monologue, and King is not always the best writer of inner monologue) and while Carla Gugino is good in the lead role her performance is not necessarily the tour-de-force required of someone who needs to 100% carry a film.

**1/2 out of Five

Strong Island (10/21/2017)

The usual line on documentaries is that they should be made by people who maintain some objective distance, but there are other approaches, like the one used for the film Strong Island.  The documentary is directed by Yance Ford and tells the story about how his brother (an African American) was killed in 1992 by a white person during an argument and how the police and district attorney did nothing to bring him to justice.  The central case of the film is not necessarily the most elaborate and isn’t filled with twists and turns.  The appeal to the movie is less the case itself and more the effect it had on the family.  Yance Ford makes for an interesting subject given the quiet dignity he shows while a lot of the painful facts of the case are dredged up and it’s compelling to hear about this family’s private In the Bedroom.  Obviously this movie is increasingly relevant in a post Trayvon Martin world, I don’t know that it’s a story that’s going to change many people’s minds about the value of black lives but seeing the long lasting torment of the family of one of these victims can add a piece to the puzzle.

***1/2 out of Five

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (10/22/2017)

This Noah Baumbach film ended up going straight to Netflix despite having a number of stars and a major director, which may say a bit more about just how rich Netflix has gotten moreso than the film’s quality.  In fact this is probably the best feature film to debut on that platform, though that’s relative.  The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel as the sons and daughter of an aging artist played by Dustin Hoffman who are dealing with their various feelings about their father and about their current situation.  The film’s set-up, with upper-middle class New Yorkers coming to grips with a large than life patriarch, is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but the style here is obviously quite different and perhaps has more in common with what you’d expect from other films about worried New Yorkers like The Savages, Please Give, and Little Men.  Adam Sandler has been getting a lot of attention for appearing in a respectable movie and doing a decent job in it, but I do think he’s perhaps been the beneficiary of low expectations.  Ben Stiller is just as good here but is getting half the credit simply because he’s done similarly good work in Noah Baumbach movies before.  Baumbach’s films, and really most movies of this New York indie scene, tend to be a bit iffy for me.  His movie are never “bad” but my interest in them almost seems to vary by the mood I’m in when I watch them.  This one only did so much for me, the story just felt a bit too familiar and while I liked a lot of the cast and characters the scenario just didn’t generate enough interest to push it past other similar movies for me.

*** out of Five

Icarus (10/26/2017)

Sometimes the best stories just fall into the laps of the most unlikely people.  Take the (rather poorly titled) documentary Icarus, which was directed by a guy named Bryan Fogel.  Fogel is an amateur cyclist who competed in a major bike race in France but suspected that some of his competition was doping, and experience that inspired him to make a Super Size Me style documentary where he would start taking steroids and show on film the steps he would take to beat his drug tests and thus expose the system.  Not a terrible idea for a documentary, but that’s not what the project ended up being because in the process of making that silly high concept movie one of the experts he was consulting with turned out to be a key figure in aiding the Russian Olympic team in beating steroid tests and much of the film ended up following him as he became an enemy of the state in Russia and ended up defecting to America and blowing the whistle on Putin’s entire operation.  I’m not necessarily sure that Fogel was the best person to be telling this story but he does do an adequate job of bringing this crazy story to the screen and it’s definitely worth watching.  The movie sold for a record breaking sum to Netflix at Sundance, but its profile hasn’t quite been as high as it could be.  Part of that might be the crappy title, but part of it might also be that it’s been somewhat surpassed by real events.  When we’re worried about Putin invading his neighbors and stealing elections and sowing mass discord within the country, worrying about him cheating in the Olympics just seems kind of quaint.

***1/2 out of Five

1922 (10/31/2017)

This year Netflix decided to step up their original film production arm and to do it they decided to purchase a pair of heretofore un-adapted Stephen King works and adapt them themselves and release both in October.  1922 is the second of these and unlike Gerald’s Game I actually have read the novella that this one was based on and quite liked it.  The story and film examines a Nebraska farmer who comes into bitter conflict with his wife when she proposes selling their farm and moving to the city with their son.  Not liking this option the farmer proceeds to kill her.  The rest of the story deals with the fallout of this both emotionally and otherwise and the various horrific manifestations of the farmer’s guilt.  Given a choice between this and Netflix’s other King adaptation I think I like Gerald’s Game slightly more.  That movie is a bit more unique and has more in the way of memorable imagry and is just generally a little better made.  However, I think 1922 has source material to work with that fits a bit more naturally to the format of film even if it has to use a voice-over in a slightly clunky way.  The film needs to stretch things a little to hit feature length, which may have been a bit of a mistake as the final film actually feels like it could benefit from a trim or two.  Ultimately I think the bigger problem is the film’s star, Thomas Jane, who I don’t really fits this rural character too well and adopts a rather silly voice throughout.  Had this movie gotten a theatrical release I feel like its shortcomings would have been even more clear, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as glorified straight-to-video trash either as it has scope and doesn’t necessarily feel cheap.  It’s ultimately just a pretty decent above average horror movie.

**1/2 out of Five

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(11/4/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers

There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises.  Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie.  It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee.  His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump.  People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut.  He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster.  That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more.  Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.

The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes.  As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear.  He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident.   Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.

This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it.  The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War.  A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself.  There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.

The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.  Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention.  Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means.  There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power.  I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.

I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed.  The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting.  Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other.  This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people.  It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English.  With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in.  It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter.  Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?

This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation.  The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie.  Was that worth it?  I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker.  In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema.  It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for.  It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.

Wonderstruck(10/29/2017)

 

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

While I like to stay focused on movies themselves when talking about them, there do occasionally arise certain situations where distractions happen while watching movies that I feel obligated to disclose.  In this case I had the odd experience of showing up to a movie I barely knew anything about to find that it was playing subtitles at the bottom.  These were not subtitles translating a foreign language as the film’s spoken dialogue is in English, rather these were captions intended for the deaf and hard of hearing which transcribed every word of dialogue and also described all the sound effects and music ques.  They were annoying.  Really though my distraction had less to do with the captions themselves so much as my confusion as to why they were there.  Had I accidentally walked into a special screening of this intended for the hard of hearing?  Should I have waited for the next screening?  Why wasn’t I told ahead of time this was a special screening?  Or did the film’s director, Todd Haynes, actually intend for the film to have these caption given that it turned out to be a story about deaf people?  Doing research after the fact I took another look at the theater’s website I discovered that they were in fact turning on these “open captions” for every screening of the film, possibly in response to an online petition that is demanding that theaters do so.  It’s a fact that they apparently saw no need to alert their customers to outside of some fine print next to other “amenities” like reserved seating.  Some simple notice that this was going to happen would have gone a long way toward letting me just relax rather than stewing about this during the first act of the movie.

The film follows two children who live in two different times and places and whose fates seem increasingly intertwined as the film goes on.  The first is a boy living in the Midwest circa 1977 named Ben (Oakes Fegley) whose mother has recently died and has a burning desire to track down his long lost father.  When fate intercedes in the form of having him struck by lightning and left deaf he decides to take matters into his own hands and run away to New York City in order to follow a lead that could help him find his father.  This is intercut with the story of Rose (Millicent Simmonds), a young deaf girl living in New Jersey circa 1927.  This girl has never been taught sign language and her father seems to have very little patience with her.  Eventually this reaches a breaking point and she runs away and boards the ferry to New York City in hopes of finding her favorite silent film star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  Both characters paths lead them to the American Museum of Natural History and specifically an exhibit there called a Cabinet of Wonders where a souvenir book called “Wonderstruck” is sold.

Wonderstruck is based on an illustrated juvenile novel of the same title by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the book that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was based on.  Selznick apparently has some pretty strong interests because there are definitely some commonalities between the two.  Both works seem to have an interest in silent films, both are about children, both have a sort of whimsical magical realism at their center, and both are very interested in fate resolving wrongs and reuniting people.  Let’s start with the silent film thing.  Early on in the 1927 section we see the deaf girl go to the movies and watch a fictional silent film and upon leaving the theater see a sign advertising that the theater is about to install a sound system and begin playing “talkies.”  This may have been the inspiration for the whole captioning thing at my theater and the fact that one more comfort is being taken away from her acts as a reasonable catalyst for her trying to run away.  It also serves a purpose to bring up silent film during this section because the scenes in 1927 take on a lot of the language of silent cinema.  The dialogue and sound effects in these scenes are dropped in the film to mimic the character’s affliction, but the non-diegetic musical score persists.  The sections are also in black and white and many of the actors do take on the somewhat exaggerated pantomime associated with silent cinema.  The scenes are not, however, a complete recreation of 1920s film style along the lines of something like The Artist and certain more modern techniques do persist.  There are no title cards in these scenes and the film maintains its widescreen presentation and continues to use camera-work that is 21st Century in nature.

That silent film style is pretty cool and the movie’s look at late 70s New York in the other sections is also pretty well rendered.  Todd Haynes certainly directs the film well and it’s generally pretty enjoyable to watch in the moment and up until the moment it ended I thought it was a pretty good piece of work.  However, I was not satisfied by the film’s ending and the more I thought about it the more I think the problems that led to be underwhelmed were baked into the film’s entire plot.  Central to the film is some sort of magical force that’s driving its characters to reunite at the end.  The magical force gives Ben the clues he needs, seemingly provides him a guide in New York, and even has him struck by lightning to spark his journey.  The film surrounds this magical force with whimsy and clearly sees it as a benevolent force setting fate into motion, but if you think about it this magic causes way more harm than good.  For one thing, the film couches Ben’s decision to run away from what appears to be a perfectly loving aunt in a whole lot of romanticism and then has seemingly no regard for the panic that Ben’s little runaway adventure is probably causing back home.  That’s perhaps forgivable given the film’s point of view but it becomes more and more clear that this “amazing” revelation the film is leading towards is not worth all the trouble that this divine intervention is causing.

At the film’s end Ben does not get his hearing back and is disfigured seemingly for life and his aunt presumably worried sick, and for what?  For his trouble he learns about a grandmother he was never looking for, gets a friend he probably won’t be spending much time with once he returns home, and I guess he can say he had an adventurous week in New York when he was a kid.  Did he need to be struck deaf by fate in order for any of this to happen?  I don’t see why.  The fact that he didn’t know who his grandmother was in the first place is odd, the film doesn’t give a particularly good explanation why this is meant to be some hidden secret.  What’s more there’s no particular reason why Ben couldn’t have come to this revelation in a less dramatic way.  There’s no real time limit on finding out who his father is and we aren’t given much of a reason why his aunt couldn’t just bring him to New York to find this bookstore instead of having to be sparked into running away to do everything on his own.  A lot of this isn’t readily apparent, firstly because the film’s supposedly happy ending arrives abruptly before Ben returns to his previous life having been permanently disfigured in order to learn some things that won’t really affect him in the grand scheme of things, and secondly because we as the audience get answers to questions that we have and are thus probably more satisfied by everything than the people who actually need to live with the consequences of all this should be.

Having said all that I don’t want to be completely dismissive of Wonderstruck even if I think the story is kind of daft.  The 1927 sections in particular are worth watching even if it sort of peters out towards the end.  The film also employs some interesting techniques involving puppetry and panorama towards its ending to explain a lot of the backstory in a way that doesn’t feel like an exposition dump and almost distracts form the aforementioned story problems.  This is of course nominally a family movie, which perhaps complicates how it’s assessed.  If you weigh it against some of the other movies aimed at that audience it is noticeably more artful than the competition despite its problems and some of its flaws might not be as apparent to younger audiences who might buy into the film’s whimsy rather than see it as a strange crutch.  However, when compared against other Todd Haynes films or against the movies that Todd Haynes films are usually compared against.  There are definitely worse movies to see than Wonderstruck, but I still can’t forgive it for its occasional laziness or for its ultimate pointlessness.