WONDERSTRUCK (2017)

October 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you know an adolescent who is ready to step up from comic book movies, this would be a terrific introduction to more emotionally dramatic and narrative-driven cinema. That’s certainly not meant to imply that director Todd Haynes’ latest is only for kids, or even that it’s aimed at that demographic. Instead, it’s the rare opportunity to follow two intersecting story lines over two different time periods with kids as the main focus, and have some very interesting post-movie discussions related to characters, eras, and filmmaking techniques.

We follow the stories of two kids who are separated by 50 years. Although the time boundary exists, the similarities between their journeys are many. Each is running away from home in search of their roots and identity. They are both hearing-impaired and living in less than ideal family environments. Additionally, their footsteps cross many of the same places in New York City as two museums play key roles.

Ben (Oakes Fegley, PETE’S DRAGON) is a 12 year old living in Gunflint, Minnesota. It’s 1977 when his mother (Michelle Williams) dies unexpectedly and a freak accident takes his hearing. Convinced an odd bookmark is a clue to finding the father he’s never met, Ben sets off for New York City. Rose (remarkable first time actress Millicent Simmonds) lives in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey and is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore in a dual role). Rose is an artistic child whose domineering dad has little time for her, so she hops aboard the ferry and heads to the big city to track down an idol – who may be more closely tied than we first imagine.

Brian Selznick adapted the screenplay from his own novel (he also wrote “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which was the basis for Scorcese’s HUGO), and some may find the two story lines muddled or difficult to follow. However, for those who connect with the characters and their adventures, it’s a fascinating and entertaining ride. Director Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, CAROL) has established his expertise in visual stylings, and here he gets to present two distinct looks for the separate eras. Ben’s 1977 world is filled with the polyester and neon colors of that era and it’s even given the washed-out look of 1970’s cinema. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rose’s 1927 world is presented in black and white as a silent movie. The lack of dialogue allows us to focus on her facial expressions and body language, which tell us what we need to know.

The American Museum of Natural History plays a significant role in both stories, and the Queens Museum is central to the finale which ties up the two pieces for us. The contrasts of the two eras are as vital as the similarities. Along the way, each of the kids gets a bit of help. Ben befriends Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose connection to the museum and the city provides Ben a boost, while Rose’s much older brother Walter (Cory Michael Smith) also has a connection to the museum and helps put Rose on the right track. The distinct photographic styles help us easily switch between eras, and much credit goes to cinematographer (and frequent Haynes collaborator) Edward Lachman and editor Affonso Goncalves.

Oscar Wilde’s quote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, takes its shot as the theme for the two stories, and really it’s a heartfelt film with interesting storytelling and unusual cinematic effects. The set design is terrific throughout, and especially vital during the silent movie segments of Rose’s story. Carter Burwell’s prominent score also effectively shifts styles between stories and eras. The ties that bind us – a core need to understand our roots – do so regardless of age and time period. This is a nifty little film that provides much to discuss and consider.

watch the trailer:

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HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

watch the trailer: