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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

11/29/2017

Worlds of wonders are coming to the big screen

Gerald SchmitzLoving Vincent (Poland/U.K.)
Professor Marston and
the Wonder Women (U.S.)
Wonderstruck (U.S.)
Wonder (U.S.)

Woody Allen’s newest annual feature Wonder Wheel won’t reach theatres until next month. But wonder is a theme that runs through a number of recent movies.

Wonder isn’t in the title of Loving Vincent (http://lovingvincent.com/), but this first fully oil-painted film, a Polish-British co-production directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, is certainly a visual wonder. The subject is the reclusive Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh who died in a small French village in 1890 at age 37 of a bullet wound to the stomach after producing some 800 paintings in eight years, but only selling one. This is the Van Gogh who became one of the most celebrated painters of all time, whose coveted art fetches fortunes, and who remains a figure of enduring controversy over whether the fatal wound was self-inflicted.

The film Loving Vincent brings the paintings of Vincent van Gogh to life to tell his remarkable story. (Café Terrace at Night). http://lovingvincent.com/

Over six years 125 painters laboured to produce 65,000 painted frames in Van Gogh’s strikingly distinctive impressionist style. That work has been transformed into a moving posthumous mystery and story arc by means of animation techniques including live action and digital rotoscoping. The story has Armand (Douglas Booth), the son of local postmaster Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), tasked with delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo (Cezary Lukaszewicz). Armand’s investigation into the murky circumstances of the artist’s demise brings into the picture other figures, notably Doctor Gachet (Jerome Flynn) and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), immortalized in Van Gogh portraits. The film leaves unresolved the enigma of the painter’s tormented character and the manner of his passing. Its main effect is to inspire a fresh appreciation for the wondrous power of a unique artistic vision.

***

Following this summer’s return of Wonder Woman to the big screen as a blockbuster superhero, the timing could not be better for writer-director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which recounts the history of her creation as a popular, and controversial, comic book figure. In the late 1920s William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) was a psychology professor to bright female students at Radcliffe College. His book Emotions for Normal People posited four primary human behaviours: dominance, inducement, submission, compliance (known as DISC theory). Marston’s wife and collaborator was the blunt-spoken Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), a fellow psychology academic resentful of Harvard’s refusal to grant her a doctorate. The couple invented a lie-detection apparatus based on measuring subliminal physiological responses. Their own emotional relationship was tested when Marston was drawn to an attractive student, Olive Green (Bella Heathcote), whom he engaged as an assistant.

Although the daughter of a radical feminist and niece of contraception advocate Margaret Sanger, Olive tells them she was raised by nuns. As bizarrely, if less than fully convincing, is that the young sexual ingénue soon enters into an unconventional love triangle with her mentors that is a prelude to the circumstances for Marston’s later comic inspiration.

The movie tries to hook us into that consequential narrative from the start by jumping ahead to when the wartime Wonder Woman comics sold like hotcakes but were also condemned for alleged moral perversions, even burned in public protests. By 1945 Dr. Marston was on the hot seat, defending himself to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) of the concerned Child Study Association of America. What does he have to say about the comic strip’s scenarios of bondage, suggestive deviant sexuality and undercurrent of sadomasochism?

The story flips back and forth between that interrogation room and the unfolding ménage à trois involving Marston with Elizabeth and Olive as bisexual lovers. The subject of scandalous rumours, William and Elizabeth lost their teaching posts and, having failed to patent the lie detector, needed another source of income. While Elizabeth worked as a secretary, William came up with a novel way to explore female desire and power, which he saw as confirming his DISC theory. Why not a fighting female heroine? Not coincidentally, Wonder Woman (like Superman’s Clark Kent) conceals her identity as a secretary. And she has a golden lasso that compels men to tell the truth.

The threesome indulged in some kinky behaviour while raising two sons. Elizabeth and Olive briefly separated, but reunited before William died of cancer in 1947, and spent the rest of their lives together. Though the accuracy of their sexual bond has been questioned, the movie makes one wonder about the unusual human affairs in the genesis of cartoon characters.

***

Director Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, adapted by Brian Selznick from his 2011 novel, tells one of the year’s most unusual and beautiful stories through alternating narratives set a half-century apart that parallel the experiences of two deaf children in New York City until ultimately they intersect.

In 1977 in Gunflint, Minnesota, 12-year-old Ben (Oakes Fegley) has nightmares about wolves as he mourns the loss of his single mother, Elaine (a brief appearance by Michelle Williams), the local librarian. One day Ben discovers a book with the title “Wonderstruck” about the origins of museums as “cabinets of wonders.” Inside is a bookmark to Elaine signed “Love Danny” with the address of a New York City bookstore. Just as Ben thinks he may have found his father, a lightning strike renders him deaf. Ben is hospitalized but, undeterred and with a little help, hops a bus to the Big Apple in search of the bookstore and Danny.

In 1927 in Hoboken, New Jersey, a deaf girl, Rose (played by Millicent Simonds who is deaf), leaves her stern father’s household and takes the ferry to the marvels of Manhattan seeking a favourite famous actress, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), a star of the stage and the silent screen just as the “talkies” are about to take over. Although that doesn’t turn out so well for the star-struck Rose, she discovers other wonders in the American Museum of Natural History where her brother Walter works. A promising door has opened.

For young Rose’s bustling New York of the Roaring Twenties, Haynes and longtime ace cinematographer Edward Lachman create the silent black-and-white world that she witnesses. Ben’s 1970s New York is a multiracial polyglot place viewed in Technicolor and showing the scars of urban blight. In addition to evocative music by Carter Burwell, the visual contrasts are accompanied by David Bowie’s Space Oddity and a version of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (the famous theme of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). This city turned toward the future seems to embody a repeated phrase from Oscar Wilde: “All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Wandering its strange crowded streets, Ben is soon robbed. But he still has the bookmark and a fortunate encounter with an African-American boy of similar age leads to the Museum of Natural History where the boy’s father works. Further discovery takes Ben to a relocated bookstore run by a man named Walter and a meeting with his deaf sister Rose (Moore again), whose only son, Daniel, had travelled to Gunflint Lake as part of creating a diorama of wolves for the museum.

Rose tells Ben of her work as a maker of models for museums, and takes him to see a miniature panorama of New York built for the 1964 world’s fair in which she had hidden mementos of Daniel. Outside, the great blackout strikes and the stars come out over the darkened skyline.

So ends a wondrous fable in which the stars seem to align as we look up at them.

***

Vancouver child actor Jacob Tremblay, Oscar nominated for 2015’s Room, has had mixed success in several roles since — in the overlooked Burn Your Maps (good) playing a kid who imagines himself to be a Mongolian goat herder, and in The Book of Henry (not so good). But he will star in Xavier Dolan’s first English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, scheduled for a January release. And, now 11, he is a wonder in the director Stephen Chobosky’s aptly named Wonder, adapted from the novel by R.J. Palacio.

Tremblay plays August “Auggie” Pullman who was born with a rare condition known as mandibulofacial dysostosis, which affects the face and ears. Even after 27 corrective surgeries marked facial deformities remain, and Auggie, star-gazer and Star Wars fan, takes to wearing an astronaut helmet to hide from the world. It’s also a reason he loves going about masked on Halloween.

Auggie is lucky to have two loving parents, Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson), a kind adolescent sister, Olivia “Via” (Izabela Vidovic), and family dog Daisy. But after early years of home schooling, Mom decides it’s time for him to enter fifth grade with regular kids at Beecher preparatory school.

The principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), tries to ease that process and Auggie’s home-room teacher, Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs), is a cool black dude. But the whip-smart Auggie sticks out, and kids can be insensitive and cruel. A rich, overbearing classmate, Julian (Bryce Gheisar), is a particular teasing tormentor, treating him as a freak. Auggie thinks he’s made a friend of another boy, Jack Will (Noah Jupe), but is heartbroken when something is said behind his back. An African-American girl named Summer (Millie Davis) then reaches out to him. Meanwhile, Via struggles with her own issues, feeling left out and abandoned by best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell). When she and an African-American boy, Justin (Nadji Jeter), become close, she pretends to be an only child.

A series of small dramas ensue, but with kindness as the theme, things eventually work out. Indeed, together with some endearing fantasy touches, this is the kind of movie described as heart-warming, and that’s OK.