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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.

THE SALESMAN (FORUSHANDE)

Producer: Asghar Farhadi and Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writer: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Baba Karimi, Farid Sajjadihosseini, Mina Sadaati, Maral Bani Adam, Mehdi Kooshki, Emad Emani, Shirin Aghakashi, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Sahra Asadollahe, Ehteram Boroumand and Sam Valipour
Studio: Cohen Media

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has recently captured media attention for his decision not to attend the Oscar ceremony in response to President Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries; one hopes that the controversy will increase public interest in seeing his film, which has been nominated as Best Foreign-Language Film and is a strong contender to win, though the fact that his earlier picture, “A Separation,” took the prize in 2012 probably works against it.

The film takes its title from the fact that the couple at its center—Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a Tehran teacher, and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti)—are preparing an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in which they play Willy and Linda Loman. They have to deal with state censors and a fractious cast, but face a more immediate problem when their apartment building starts to shuffle and crack and the residents are compelled to evacuate. It seems good fortune when Babak (Babak Karimi), a member of their acting troupe, offers them a place he has for rent.

There are, however, drawbacks, the most notable being that the previous tenant has left behind many of her belongings in one of the rooms, having promised to retrieve them when she finds a new place. The reason for her departure, it’s eventually revealed, is that she is a lady who had many male visitors, a fact that gave the place an unsavory reputation. (Babak, it appears, was one of her regulars.) Not all of her customers, moreover, are aware that she’s no longer the tenant, and one evening Rana buzzes the door open, believing that she’s letting Emad in; it turns out to be someone else, however, and the man attacks her.

Rana is understandably traumatized, and Emad is frustrated by his inability to help her. Though her injuries are dealt with in the hospital, she vacillates between neediness and standoffishness with him, and refuses to report the assault to the authorities, knowing that she would be shamed rather than treated as a victim. (The neighbors, by and large, concur.) Frustrated, Emad turns sleuth himself. The perpetrator has, in his haste to escape, apparently left his truck behind, and Emad is able to identify it and, despite obstacles, use it to trap the culprit. The question is what to do with him, and the final sequence of the film, with its shifts of perspective, proves as lacerating a portrait of marriage and family in Iranian society as the one Farhadi presented in “A Separation,” though of a very different sort.

The film uses Miller’s play to exhibit the stark differences between the U.S. and Iran—a character in the play is supposed to appear in skimpy dress, but in this performance must, incongruously, be fully clothed to meet the censors’ demands—but also to point up the observations about relationships between men and women that both a mid-century American drama and present-day Iranian practice share. Willy and Emad both are revealed as self-centered, demanding to be seen as strong heads of household, capable of handling whatever reverses might arise in a virile, definitive way. By contrast both wives, Linda and Rana, are the ones who suffer—in different ways, of course—but they are the ones who ultimately must endure and pick up the pieces, however imperfectly. The presence of “Death of a Salesman,” which at first might simply seem just a cheeky cross-cultural joke, by the close takes on a degree of surprising significance.

The performances are all excellent, with Hosseini gradually transformed from genial and sympathetic to furiously obsessive, while Alidoosti more quietly conveys the profound resignation of a woman living under strictures we can only imagine, but with a vein of steely anger beneath. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Karimi conveying the hint of shiftiness appropriate to Babak and Farid Sajjadihosseni bringing remarkable depth to the figure that provides a skewered closure to the tale. With its subtle nuances and shifts, his is a turn that might remind you of the quality Peter Lorre managed to endow his character with in Fritz Lang’s “M.”

Keyvan Moghadam’s production design and Hossein Jafarian’s cinematography provide the necessary degree of realism, as well as more than a bit of unobtrusive artistry, but ultimately “The Salesman” is primarily a showcase for Farhadi and his actors—and they make the film as emotionally wrenching an experience as Miller’s masterpiece, even if it demands a degree of patience as it leads you to a shattering conclusion.