The Films of Todd Haynes
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Far from Heaven (November 8/02)
Far from Heaven casts Julianne Moore as 1950s housewife Cathy Whitaker, with the narrative detailing the fallout that ensues after Cathy catches her husband (Dennis Quaid's Frank) making out with a man. (Cathy's friendship with a black gardener also stirs controversy amongst her narrow-minded neighbors.)
As virtually every other critic has noted, Far From Heaven, in terms of its look and style, has been designed to echo the various melodramas of the 1950s - with a particular emphasis on the films of Douglas Sirk. Sirk movies like All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind specialized in melodrama and lush cinematography - both of which essentially fuel Far From Heaven. But the difference is Haynes tackles issues that were completely verboten back in Sirk's time. For a while, though, the film really does feel like an unearthed Sirk flick - until Haynes starts sending in the more subversive elements. It's certainly quite interesting for a while, with Cathy forced to completely re-examine her life, but there's a lack of cohesiveness here that prevents the movie from ever becoming completely engrossing.
After the major plotlines are laid out for us - Frank's homosexuality and Cathy's relationship with the aforementioned black gardener - the movie essentially coasts along on the supposed shocking nature of these threads. There's no story here; Far From Heaven becomes entirely about the downward spiral of Julianne Moore's character. The only real question becomes, will Cathy find happiness and redemption? But really, it takes far too long to arrive at that answer - and it's hard to care at that point.
Still, it's hard not to appreciate on some level what Haynes has done. Far From Heaven, if nothing else, boasts an often mesmerizing visual sensibility; from the tacky parlor room in Frank and Cathy's house to the absurdly over-the-top fashions sported by the various characters, this is clearly a movie that's done its homework. And in that sense, Far From Heaven clearly evokes a very specific period in American history. Haynes is obviously trying to show that this idealized decade was rife with intolerance and bigotry, but he never really takes the material much further than that.
Far From Heaven is the sort of film the term "ambitious failure" was coined for. But some fantastic acting by the three leads will provide at least some entertainment, even if the movie never quite becomes the searing indictment Haynes so desperately wants it to be.
I'm Not There.
Carol (December 22/15)
Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol follows '50s department-store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) as she falls for a married high-society figure named Carol (Cate Blanchett) - with the movie detailing the various complications that subsequently (and naturally) ensue (including Carol's ongoing dealings with her estranged husband, Kyle Chandler's Harge). Filmmaker Todd Haynes, working from Phyllis Nagy's script, has infused the entirety of Carol with an almost excessively slow-moving pace that is, in the movie's first half, nothing short of disastrous, as the viewer's initial attempts at embracing the characters are stymied by Haynes' overly deliberate approach to the material. There is, as a result, little here to wholeheartedly embrace in the film's early stages, with the strong performances and flawless production design unable to compensate for a narrative lacking in compelling, attention-grabbing attributes. (The film is, at the outset, quite appealing to look at it but there's just no emotional resonance here.) Carol improves demonstrably once Therese and Carol embark on a road trip to Chicago, as the storyline finally adopts some dramatic heft that's otherwise been entirely absent from the proceedings - with the movie's second half subsequently boasting an impressive number of electrifying sequences (eg Carol undergoes a fairly traumatic legal deposition). There finally does, then, reach a point wherein the viewer becomes invested in the clandestine relationship between Mara and Blanchett's respective characters, with this, in turn, ensuring that the movie's final stretch packs a far more emotional punch than one might've anticipated - which ultimately does compensate for the ineffectiveness of Carol's opening stretch and confirms the movie's place as an erratic yet heartwrenching period piece.
Wonderstruck (November 26/17)
Based on Brian Selznick's novel, Wonderstruck unfolds in two entirely separate time periods and follows a circa 1920s young girl (Millicent Simmonds' Rose) and a '70s boy (Oakes Fegley's Ben), both deaf, as they arrive in New York City for the first time. Though it boasts a relatively conventional opening stretch, Wonderstruck progresses into an impressively (and thoroughly) audacious midsection that transpires with virtually no spoken dialogue - as the narrative details the largely silent exploits of the two central characters. (Furthering the less-than-typical vibe is director Todd Haynes' decision to present the Rose story as a period-appropriate, black-and-white silent film.) It's just as clear, however, that Selznick's meandering screenplay results in a somewhat less-than-consistently engrossing atmosphere, with the movie suffering from a handful of lulls that are exacerbated by a palpably overlong running time. (There is, for example, a padded-out stretch involving Ben's sojourn at a New York museum.) The somewhat middling second act eventually gives way to a compelling and much improved final stretch, as the narrative begins to adopt a decidedly fascinating feel once the two stories converge (eg there's a spellbinding scene set at the Queens Museum's Panorama of the City of New York) - which ultimately cements Wonderstruck's place as an engaging, often exhilaratingly off-the-wall piece of work.