Friday, November 24, 2017


Director Todd Haynes on the set

Director Todd Haynes with Ed Lachman shooting on the streets of New York

WONDERSTRUCK              A                    
USA  (117 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Todd Haynes                    Official Site

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Premiering in competition on the second day at Cannes, the film received little fanfare in a less than stunning field, yet once again it appears the critics missed the boat, as it’s literally an astonishing effort, one of the more highly accomplished and best directed films seen all year, arguably the best edited, featuring a truly remarkable production design from Mark Friedberg, coming on the heels of one of Haynes’ most acclaimed films, 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol, we are witnessing a director at the peak of his creative powers.  Shot by the irrepressible Ed Lachman, among the best in the business, with writer and illustrator Brian Selznick adapting his own children’s novel, the film bears some similarity to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 3D (2011), which was also an adaptation of a Selznick novel, though Scorsese directed his film so that 12-year olds could see the film, while this feels as if children are not the target audience, if only due to the gravity of the material, though there’s nothing in it that’s inappropriate for children.  The fact that it’s a children’s story may have turned many adults off, thinking it’s not heavyweight material, but they’d be misguided, as this is one of the more dramatically compelling films seen all year, where it’s like an homage to curiosity, drawing implications from stored memories, especially preserving things over time, finding hidden meanings in the messages they convey, which inflames and literally enlarges a child’s imagination.  What’s perhaps most surprising is the artistic sweep of the film, which can be breathtaking, where the technical precision is impeccable, combining two stories from different time periods into one, with abandoned lives forced to search for what’s missing, where the power of discovery can feel enthralling, particularly the vibrant energy captured on the streets of New York City, which have rarely been seen with this kind of expressivity.  The other surprise is how cleverly Haynes uses deafness as a key element, allowing him to slip back into the black and white silent era, while seamlessly moving back into the modern era where moving pictures tell the story, using the conventions of the silent era, image and gesture, to convey meaning, with silence an interesting motif for missing parents in the intersecting lives of two kids across a broad extension of time, much of it visually intoxicating, with choice music by Carter Burwell along with a several recognizable period pieces.  This may be the only film that advances the storyline using written notes to a deaf person that are read aloud, much like a storybook might be read to a child, creating a strange intersection between cinema and the literary world, actually honoring and celebrating the written word.    

Ben (Oakes Fegley) is the 12-year old son of a single mother, Michelle Williams, in an isolated rural setting of Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota in 1977, offering many clues in just the opening few minutes, including a nightmare involving wolves, a curious quotation attributed to no one in particular (though it’s Oscar Wilde), but also a late-night moment when he can’t sleep, wandering into his mother’s room, where she’s sitting alone having a cigarette, listening to a David Bowie record, David Bowie – Space Oddity [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube (5:05), with Ben wondering about his absent father, wishing she’d tell him something about him, while she calmly tells him now is not the time, though this sounds like a common refrain, as if he’s heard it many times before.  This moment is significant on many levels, as it occurs again later but under different circumstances, with a few changed details, as now Ben’s mother is gone, feeling particularly abandoned and alone from her death, searching skyward for unanswered questions, when suddenly a freakish accident from a bolt of lightning causes instant, yet permanent, hearing loss.  The address of a used book store written on a bookmark found in an old book from his mother’s bedroom, an exhibition catalogue called Cabinets of Wonder, leads Ben on a series of clues, along with a secret stash of money, sending him on his way to New York City on a bus in search of his missing father.  In a parallel black and white silent film story set in 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds, a first-time deaf actress) is a 12-year old deaf girl born to a wealthy but punitive father, James Urbaniak from Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (1997), who makes paper models of skyscrapers in her room, but decides to run away to New York City carrying a newspaper clipping about a famous actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  Her arrival to the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of New York is an experience similar to that of so many immigrants who don’t speak the language, who are instantly lost, pushed aside, and rudely ignored by everyone walking by, mad at anyone who slows them down.  Despite the difficulties, including an afternoon visit to a movie melodrama, Daughter of the Storm, a Lillian Mayhew tearjerker with the theater advertising its transition to talking pictures, she finds her way to the theater for an afternoon rehearsal where the famous actress, looking exactly as she did onscreen in the movie matinee, angrily locks her up in her dressing room, forcing her to escape out a street-level window. 

Both of these stories are beautifully interwoven, displaying the director’s master craftsmanship, especially the arrivals at the ferry landing and Port Authority Bus Terminal, which are spectacular recreations, with Haynes shooting what amounts to a love letter to his beloved city of New York, as it has rarely been shown with this degree of affection for the teeming humanity that lives there, interjecting color and energy to a story that is exquisitely told, unraveling like a storybook, showing astonishing range, continually delivering a series of unexpected events, creating what amounts to a treasure chest of memories and lingering hopes, all thrown into a mix of what amounts to a city-wide treasure hunt, with both characters searching for what’s missing in their lives, following what they hope are promising clues that feel more like stabs in the dark.  What’s interesting is that both children are clearly moved by hidden secrets, a newspaper headline about an actress appearing in a play in New York inspires Rose in much the same way a dusty old book seizes Ben’s imagination, with both acting on their instincts.  Both are drawn to similar locales, where the film brilliantly explores the American Natural History Museum and the Queens Museum through a child’s impressionable eyes, where each exhibit is like seeing it for the first time, literally coming to life in their minds, where movies project a kind of magical allure.  At one entryway Rose walks inside the Cabinets of Wonder, which at the time was on full display, yet she brings a strange inquisitiveness inside, plagued by lingering doubts, continually targeted by over-anxious security guards that vehemently lecture her (but can’t be heard or understood), asking herself a perpetual question, “Where do I belong?”  Ben, on the other hand, is unleashed into the city streets to the electronic music of Deodato, Deodato - Also Sprach Zarathustra HQ audio - YouTube (9:00), suggesting the experience is an awakening, with Haynes revealing layers underneath the layers, striking out at his first destination, as the bookstore is boarded up, instead finding a friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael) who takes him under his wing, as his father works at the museum, so he knows all the hidden passageways, including a secret room no one else knows about.  This unorthodox friendship inside a museum is reminiscent of the interior observatory scenes with James Dean and Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), as Jamie, like Mineo, is desperate for a friend, any friend, literally clinging to Ben who’s on another mission, bolting to a new address provided, as the initial bookstore visited moved around the corner.  What awaits inside is like unlocking the key to his own curious mystery, as a whole new world awaits.  Becoming more emotionally driven by the end, reaching a remarkable crescendo, Julianne Moore makes an impressive appearance late in the film, where one of the astonishing secrets is a full-scale model of the City of New York, initially commissioned for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which mirrors the paper models of skyscrapers that Rose kept in her bedroom.  This film has more small delights than one could ever possibly expect, where the film is a cherished expression of the resilience of the human spirit and the undiscovered worlds we can encounter, concluding with a children’s chorus recorded in the mid 70’s which eerily bookends the film, The Langley Schools Music Project - Space Oddity (Official) - YouTube (5:27).

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Florida Project

THE FLORIDA PROJECT      B                 
USA  (111 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Sean Baker

A glimpse of the hidden homeless tucked seamlessly inside the nooks and crannies of a near invisible American underclass, premiering at Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, by the maker of Starlet (2012) and the in-your-face TANGERINE (2015), a cinéma vérité experience shot entirely with an iPhone, this is like the kiddie version of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey(2016), a raw and blistering look at the seamy underside of America, set initially to the outlandishly upbeat music of Kool & The Gang - Celebration - YouTube (4:18), though it feels much closer to a Harmony Korine film, yes, the man who made Spring Breakers (2012), who typically adores those living on the fringe of society, where reality is not the essential truth about the film, but a carefully constructed candy-colored artificiality.  The grimness of the film is a deluded sense of empowerment.  Remove the illusion and what you’re left with is scathingly empty.  Set just off the highway in a cheap, strip-mall motel in Orlando, Florida, a transient city where people come and go, home of the renowned Disney World, which promises to be “the happiest place on earth,” this is an eye-opening, tour-de-force exposé that centers around 6-year old child actress Brooklyn Kimberly Prince as Moonee, who is in nearly every shot of the film, basically running free, ruler of her own little world, free from adult supervision, and just simply has the run of the place.  Co-written, directed, edited, and produced by Baker, in a very atypical experience, spending so much time in the company of kids onscreen, he’s made a film that has white trash written all over it, yet withholds judgment, as it’s not so presumptuous, offering a more free-form expression of kids on the loose, brash trash talkers, wildly uninhibited, full of mischief and back-talk to adults, where they seem giddily happy most of the time, with nothing and no one stopping them from doing whatever they want.  This liberated spirit is the heart of the film, as the place is surrounded by rampant commercialism, the kinds of places seen in every tourist trap, grotesque examples of crass capitalism in play.  Conformity and proper decorum follow these family-oriented businesses, as they cater to kids, luring families and their pocket books by being child-friendly in a landscape of Disney paradise, but it’s all about the dollar signs, as anyone stepping out of line will be rudely escorted out of these places.  But the Magic Castle Motel, where Moonee lives, or Futureland Inn around the corner, are dead-end motels further off the track, away from the strip, seemingly lost in a netherworld, a grungy and decaying depiction of a dilapidated world, where people only find them by making a wrong turn, hilariously exemplified by a Brazilian couple on their honeymoon, who take one look at the dump before heading off in another direction.  Completely off-limits from established middle-class joints, Magic Castle is painted a bright lavender color that makes it look Wes Anderson surreal from The Grand Budapest Hotel(2014), shot on 35 mm, though of course projected on digital in theaters, with an incandescent color scheme by Alexis Zabé, the cinematographer for Carlos Reygadas and 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux, yet the film has a cinéma vérité documentary style, offsetting the blatant artificiality with a searing realism.

While these are the kinds of kids you might see running up and down the aisles of Walmart or Target, dodging shopping carts, grabbing food or candy off the shelves, inadvertently knocking things over, and then high-tailing it out of there before the manager can catch up to them, all brazenly done out in the open, and probably repeated in store after store, where despite the fact these are misfit kids, they already have a dubious reputation.  Because of their age, they probably avoid criminal prosecution, but are more likely viewed as smart-alecky kids that get away with murder because their parents are too lax to scold them or hold them accountable for their behavior.  We’ve all seen kids like this, but mostly they remain off the radar, as rarely do films focus their full attention on their lives as they do here.  Moonee’s partner in crime is Scooty (Christopher Rivera), another kid from the motel (wildly adorable, both of whom appeared in formal wear on the red carpet premiere at Cannes), as we follow their misadventures wandering into another apartment complex and creating havoc, spitting on cars from an overhead balcony railing, before running away.  Quickly identified as the culprits, we see them returned to the scene of the crime, where they are ordered to wipe up the mess, but rather than view it as punishment, they turn it into a playful game where one of the kids from the offended party actually wants to join in, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), becoming their new best friend.  And off they go on another adventure, visiting the local ice-cream parlor, hitting on adults for money to buy a cone that all three can share, delightfully lapping it up before it melts.  When we meet Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), we’re not surprised, as she’s a foul-mouthed, heavily tattooed con artist who also happens to be a pathological liar.  What we witness from her is atrocious and reprehensible adult behavior, as she weasels her way out of everything, rarely keeping a watchful eye on her daughter, always blaming others, thinking only of herself, believing she has a free ride.  She pays rent week by week by scraping up whatever she can, buying discount items and selling them to tourists at more upscale locales, using her daughter as part of the scam.  While she’s a completely unsympathetic character, even resorting to prostitution, she adores her daughter and loves playing with her, always making her the center of attention.

Holding down the fort as manager of this hell-hole is none other than Willem Dafoe as Bobby, the guy that has to deal with all these bottom-dwelling personalities, as the place is filled with people of questionable character, while he’s charged with maintaining the property, fixing all disputes, and taking care of things that break down.  Dafoe plays it straight, making no judgments, abiding by the house rules, refusing to be taken advantage of by overly frugal guests or people with questionable character, such as an aging woman who prefers sitting at the pool topless, causing commotion with the kids, or more disturbingly runs off an old man who takes a perverse interest lurking around the kids, who for the most part comes across as a decent, stand-up guy who treats people fairly, understanding the fragility in their lives, often standing up for them, while also overlooking things and minding his own business.  While there is plenty of outrageous humor in this film, it’s a surprisingly upbeat film that grows more devastatingly grim toward the end, as this film shows what it feels like to be down-and-out in America, with Halley growing more desperate, resorting to riskier criminal activity, where her best friend cuts off relations, then bans Scooty from hanging out with Moonee, feeling like a noose is pulling ever tighter around Halley’s neck, with her world collapsing like a house of cards.  Moonee has no idea what’s going on, showing surprising resiliency, yet there are stark moments where boundaries are crossed, such as when a strange man walks in on her while she’s naked in the bathtub, violating her space, but seen from Moonee’s vantage point, those moments vanish in the blink of an eye, as each day stretches longer and longer, seemingly filled with limitless time, as there’s no real narrative here, where instead each successive day blends blurry-eyed into the next one.  There are moments that stand out, such as when charity food trucks pull up to hand out free food, quickly relocated out back, away from roving eyes, or when Halley and Moonee treat themselves to an all-you-can eat banquet, literally stuffing themselves, with the camera staring straight at Moonee’s face as she devours every bite, offering a view of instant fulfillment, but it’s a mood that can’t last, as everything in their lives is temporary, where there is never any forethought or plan, as this is a fly-by-night operation.  When things further deteriorate with Halley, it’s inevitable that Moonee’s world will also be affected, and though alluded to, that’s not the focus of this film, which dreamily prefers a more impressionable view of children as wild animals running free, scampering through the artificially constructed landscape, where her fate is all too reminiscent of rounding up the wild horses at the end of John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), where the thought of taming and caging them is unthinkable, and ultimately heartbreaking.