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FOXTROT

Producer: Eitan Masuri, Jonathan Doweck, Michael Weber, Viola Fuegen, Cedomir Kolar, Marc Baschet and Michel Merkt
Director: Samuel Maoz
Writer: Samuel Maoz
Stars: Lior Ashkenazi, Sarah Adler, Yonatan Shiray, Gefen Barkai, Dekel Adin, Shaul Amir, Itay Exlroad, Danny Isserles, Itamar Rotschild, Roi Miller, Arie Tcherner, Yehuda Almagor, Shira Haas and Karin Ugowski
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

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The titular dance, as is explained in a scene from Samuel Maoz’s haunting “Foxtrot,” brings one back to the very position where you began, which describes the sad symmetry in the film, a tragicomic critique of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, which, while putting the lives of both of victims and victimizers at risk, creates a morally bankrupt society.

The film falls into three distinct segments. In the first, well-to-do couple Michael and Dafna Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are informed by a somber IDF officer that their son Jonathan, who is serving his required tour, has been killed in action. Dafna collapses and is heavily sedated; Michael goes through a paroxysm of grief, not ameliorated by the arrival of his brother Avigdor (Yehuda Almagor) and a military rabbi (Itamar Rothschild) who provides details of the planned funeral, or by a visit to his institutionalized mother (Karin Ugowski) to tell her of her grandson’s death. This harrowing portion of the film ends with a shocking revelation that only increases the family’s anger.

Suddenly the focus shifts to Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray), who is part of a four-man detachment manning a lonely roadblock in a remote area. They raise the crossbar occasionally for camels lumbering by, and even more rarely for cars after they’ve searched them and—in some cases—humiliated the passengers. Their main preoccupation, it seems, consists of estimating how quickly their metal sleeping shed is sinking into the mud by rolling cans of the potted meat they eat down the incline of the floor. Then a tragedy occurs, and a military cover-up is begun.

The third section takes us back to Michael and Dafna, who have separated over a dispute that will only gradually be revealed. He approaches her to seek a reconciliation; she responds by sharing a cake she’s baked; they also share a reefer, and then greet their daughter, who notes how close and happy they seem. We then return to see the outcome of the tragedy at Jonathan’s checkpoint.

The foregoing précis has deliberately omitted several twists that occur in “Foxtrot,” like the moves of the dance along the way to its final placement exactly where it started. The structure of the film mimics that structure, but in unexpected ways. The changes are also reflected in the different styles Maoz and his cinematographer Giora Bejach adopt for the three segments. The first part is presented in stark, intense fashion as the devastating news sinks in and the family members react in understandably ferocious ways. The checkpoint portion is portrayed in a weird, hallucinatory perspective that emphasizes the otherworldly character of the landscape and the little cruelties that arise as the tiny squadron goes throughout the paces of their assignment while their boredom and angst deepen.

The final segment lurches back into realism, but one touched with an aching sense of sadness and regret, as well as a degree of pain that can barely be articulated. The last-minute reveal comes as a punch to the stomach, and feels exactly right.

The performances are unerring, with Ashkenazi—recently seen as Itzhak Rabin in “7 Days in Entebbe”—the anchor as the distraught, furious father. Adler seconds him as Dafna, running the gamut of emotions from unfathomable grief to unexpected joy and finally resignation. Shiray’s assignment is perhaps the most difficult of all; he has to present an almost blank face as a man benumbed by what his government compels him to do. He succeeds by virtually disappearing into a semi-awake state, presenting a portrait of a sleepwalking ghost of a human being. The remainder of the cast provides able support, with Ugowski creating an unforgettable cameo as Michael’s hard but fragile mother.

“Foxtrot” is a complex, challenging film that uses a singular tragedy to illuminate the dark implications of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, for both sides.

WONDERSTRUCK

Producer: Pamela Koffler, John Sloss and Christine Vachon
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Brian Selznick
Stars: Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Jaden Michael, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak, Cory Michael Smith, Morgan Turner, Amy Hargreaves, Damian Young and Sawyer Nunes
Studio: Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

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A children’s book by Brian Selznick was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s wonderful “Hugo,” and another serves the same function for Todd Haynes’ equally masterful “Wonderstruck.” This deliciously artificial, intricate tale of lives intersecting in surprising ways will leave most viewers moved and delighted.

As beautifully crafted as all of Haynes’ films, this one juxtaposes stories about two children set fifty years apart. One, set in 1977, centers on Ben (Oakes Fegley), who lives in the small town of Gunflint, Minnesota. His mother Elaine (Michelle Williams), the town librarian, was recently killed in a car accident, and she never revealed the identity of his father to him. Now living with an aunt in a nearby house, he wanders home one stormy evening and finds a bookmark from Kincaid’s in New York City tucked in the pages of one of his mother’s volumes, a museum exhibition catalogue titled Cabinets of Wonder—and it has a handwritten note from an admirer named Danny on it.

No sooner does he make that discovery than Ben has an accident: while he’s on the phone, lightning strikes the house, leaving him unconscious and—when he awakens in the hospital—deaf. That doesn’t deter him from following up on the lead to his father, however, and with some help from a cousin who owes him a favor, he’s on a bus to the Big Apple.

He finds the bookstore long closed and is robbed of his bankroll on the street—this is 1977 NYC, after all, not today’s family-friendly city. But he is befriended by Jamie (Jaden Michael), who introduces him to the inner sanctum of the American Museum of Natural History, where his father works, and where he shows him a tableau of wolves from his hometown—which reminds him of a nightmare he’s been persistently having of being chased by wolves.

Ben’s story, told in vibrant color with garish period detail provided by production designer Mark Friedberg and costumer Sandy Powell and shot in bright widescreen by cinematographer Ed Lachman, is periodically interrupted by a second, set in 1927 and centering on Rose (Millicent Simmons), a deaf girl living in Hoboken with her wealthy but unfeeling father (James Urbaniak). Her story—told in luminous black-and-white—is presented as a silent movie after the fashion of “The Artist.”

Rose is obsessed with film actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore), seen in lovingly fashioned clips as a Lillian Gish type, and when she learns that Mayhew will be appearing live on a New York stage, she runs away to see her. After a brief encounter with the actress that reveals the reason for her obsession, the girl runs into the city, eventually winding up at—you guessed it—the American Museum of Natural History.

It’s here that the two stories converge in what is the central cabinet of wonders. But the connection between the two adolescents separated by time will be fully revealed only at the relocated Kincaid’s Books, presided over by a clerk named Walter (Tom Noonan), and at the Queens Museum of Art, where Ben views the remarkable Panorama of the City of New York constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair. The great blackout of the city provides a fitting climax to the conjoined narratives.

Throughout the film Haynes proves the same masterly recreator of time and place that he was in “Far from Heaven” and “Carol.” And while the central characters in this instance are children, their emotional needs prove no less affecting that those of the adults in his previous pictures. He’s helped by performances from his young stars that are unerringly right. Fegley, who starred in David Lowery’s remake of “Pete’s Dragon,” makes a likable hero, while Simmonds, who actually is deaf, is an expressive and sympathetic young heroine and Michael provides a dose of pure, vibrant energy. Moore does a fine impression of a twenties silent screen diva, and brings enormous empathy to the film’s latter stages, when the dual narratives’ linkages are made clear. The other more mature actors contribute worthy turns.

Together with Selznick, who adapted his book for the screen, Haynes has fashioned what amounts to a cinematic cabinet of wonders, filled with a dazzling array of exhibits, which editor Affonso Goncalves glides through with clarity and grace, bringing cohesion to a construct that might have easily gotten jumbled. No less important is the score by Carter Burwell, whose music finds the perfect tone for each of the component parts, especially Rose’s silent-film-within-the-film. The occasional interpolation of period songs adds to the sense of detail.

Some will call “Wonderstruck” precious in the derogatory sense, but it this case the adjective is actually appropriate in terms of the film’s value. Like Haynes’ best work, it represents cinematic artistry of a high order.