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« I'm fluent in "Cher" | Main | Hertzfeldt's Return to "World of Tomorrow" »
Tuesday
Oct242017

"Wonderstruck" and "Mudbound"

Lynn Lee continuing our Middleburg Film Festival adventure

Dee Rees and Mudbound cast earlier this year. © Daniel Bergeron

It’s always a little weird to attend a talk with a director before seeing the film they’re being interviewed about.  That’s what happened with Mudbound, which concluded a day that began with a very engaging conversation between director Dee Rees and Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and festival founder Sheila Johnson’s presentation of the 2017 “Visionary” award to Rees.  Rees was charming, articulate, and impressively self-possessed, and had many interesting comments on the directorial choices she made in Mudbound, which I wasn’t sure whether I should keep in mind or set aside while watching the film that night.  Rees made clear that she resists being pigeonholed as a director of color, female director, or female director of color, an aversion reflected in her somewhat bland mantra “let excellence be the standard.”  At the same time, she agreed that the current system is structurally biased against prioritizing excellence and needs to be opened up...

I agree with Murtada and Nathaniel that Mudbound is powerful but overstuffed, with too much going on to do full justice to any one of its multiple threads and themes.  The war sequences in particular feel both overly squeezed and truncated; I wish Rees had just cut them altogether and focused exclusively on the domestic events back home, where she also does a much better job evoking a strong sense of place – of perpetual toil and soil (and mud) being scraped to scrape by, but also warmth, affection and hope for a better future.  In contrast, the battlefront scenes never felt entirely real, maybe because we simply don’t spend enough time in those places, but maybe also because the two main characters are isolated from everyone else.  In Rees’s interview, she noted that she was drawn to multiple character perspectives and ensembles; here, perhaps, she had a little too much of a good thing. 

Still, her affinity for ensembles shows and this one is solid across the board.  Like Murtada, I thought Rob Morgan was best in show, with Mary K. Blige a close second.  And this may be the first movie where I finally, fully understood Garrett Hedlund’s appeal.  The one flat note, with all due respect to Jonathan Banks (so great in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”), was his virulently racist “Pappy.”  I have no problem believing that vile racists like him abounded, then and now; the real problem is his character is as uninteresting and one-note as he is loathsome.  Maybe that’s deliberate; maybe there isn’t supposed to be anything redeeming or interesting about him.  In a film filled with widely varied and shifting interracial dynamics, the one striking constant is his destructive, single-minded racism.  While that may be true to life, it makes the film’s tragic climax feel predetermined.  It packs a punch, but an over-telegraphed one. 

Grade: B
Mudbound opens in select theaters on Friday and will also stream on Netflix. It won the Audience Award at Middleburg Film Festival.

© Mary Cybulski

As for the sweet but inert Wonderstruck, I’m sad to report that I was anything but.  Which is not to say it doesn’t have its charms, most of them visual: Julianne Moore as a silent film star (she would have been a great one, with that face).  The way Haynes’ go-t DP Edward Lachman makes the browns, greens, and golds of the ’70s sequences pop; this is one of the few films that make the New York City of that decade look vibrant rather than decrepit.  The grand, almost Wes Anderson-esque diorama of Manhattan revealing all its secrets. 

Unfortunately, the interactions between the characters also take on a weirdly stiff, diorama-like quality – like they’re being placed in particular positions, given lines, and moved, step by step, to tell us the story, rather than letting them breathe and unfold organically.  I’m not sure how much of this is a function of Brian Selznick adapting his own book and how much a pacing decision by Haynes.  All I know is I came away uncertain who the target audience for this film was supposed to be.  A reasonably attentive adult should be able to figure out before the midway point how the two halves of the narrative are connected, and there’s not enough going on with character development or subplots to hold one’s full interest.  At the same time, I think the movie’s too slow and muted in tone for most children, except maybe those with a particular affinity for natural history museums. 

By that token, perhaps “Wonderstruck” is best enjoyed as a kind of museum or scrapbook, like the ones its protagonists assemble, or a moving “cabinet of wonders,” like the one that serves as the narrative fulcrum.  Or like that spectacular diorama.  It looks lovely, but it never comes fully to life. 

Grade: B-
Wonderstruck is now playing in limited release

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Reader Comments (4)

I love Moore in this movie. Uncomplicated, warm, emotional, matter-of-fact positive. My favourite supporting performance of this year.

October 24, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Lynn, thanks for wonderfully articulating why these two highly anticipated titles miss the mark. I still want to see Mudbound for its fascinating story and Jason and Garrett. Haynes has always been hit or miss for me so I may wait for the DVD.

October 24, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Any word which theaters will be screening MUDBOUND? Netflix is a wider audience, but I'd like to try and catch this on the big screen like I did with (an advance screening) OKJA.

October 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I liked Wonderstruck but agree with a lot of what was stated here about its drawbacks. I think that overall its lovely and worth seeing, and I would recommend it to others--but it's a minor achievement for a director who has consistently given us such major statements. Like Cal, I also liked Moore a lot in this. After her remarkable double whammy of "Still Alice" and "Maps" it feels easy to overlook some of her wonderful work in more low-key pictures like this one and "Maggie's Plan."

October 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

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