Tag Archives: Todd Haynes

Time of the Season for Loving

May December

by Hope Madden

I’ve missed Todd Haynes.

He hasn’t gone anywhere, and I don’t mean to imply that what he’s made in recent years is bad. In 2021 he made a remarkable documentary on The Velvet Underground, and his previous two narrative features – Dark Waters and Wonderstruck ­– were worthwhile and interesting. They just weren’t very Todd Haynes.

Perhaps after his 2015 masterpiece Carol, the capstone to a string of magnificent and unusual films (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven and I’m Not There), it was time for Haynes to find his stride with a more mainstream audience.

May December feels more like Haynes of old: a sultry situation masquerading as hum drum, populated by Tennessee Williams-esque damaged beauties wanting, wanting. Plus, Julianne Moore.

Moore, who stunned in both Safe and Far from Heaven, returns to Haynes-land as Gracie. Years back, beautiful Gracie went to prison for loving the wrong man. Well, boy. 7th grader, actually. Indeed, she had Joe Yoo’s (played in adulthood by Charles Melton) baby behind bars. But after prison, Gracie and Joe built a life together. Their oldest daughter is in college now, and their twins Charlie (Gabriel Chung) and Mary (Elizabeth Yu) are just about to graduate from high school.

Soon-to-be empty nesters, Gracie and Joe welcome (if somewhat reluctantly) TV star Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) to their home. In just a few weeks, Elizabeth will play Gracie in a new independent feature film about Joe and Gracie’s life.

Portman is magnificent, biting into a role with more salty meat than anything she’s handled since Black Swan. Elizabeth is, of course, not what she appears to be. But what’s magical in Portman’s performance is the way the actor utilizes odd moments to reveal who Elizabeth truly is.

Moore is characteristically brilliant and wonderfully enigmatic. Elizabeth’s goal is to understand Gracie, which makes that the main goal of May December, but Moore’s not giving an inch. Is Gracie the master manipulator people might believe, or is she the babe in the woods she projects? Or is human nature more complicated than that, no matter how much movies and actors and audiences try to believe otherwise?

The whole cast impresses, but it’s Melton who truly surprises. The one innocent in the film, stunted by a lifetime of repressed and lived trauma, his Joe is the heartbreaking emotional honesty in a film that flaunts insincerity.

The filmmaker, working from a script by Samy Burch and Alex Menchanik, finds wry humor in the soap opera nature of the tale. It’s a morally ambiguous, gorgeously realized character study. It’s so good to have Todd Haynes back.

Better Living through Chemistry

Dark Waters

by Hope Madden

Todd Haynes hasn’t written one of his own films since 2007’s I’m Not There, a biopic that refuses to fit neatly into that genre (making it a perfect fit for its subject).

The director’s collaboration with other writers has been both sublime (Carol) and spotty (Wonderstruck), the content sometimes feeling as if it simply is a mismatch for his own often gorgeously subversive vision.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a shock to witness the filmmaker who depicted Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia via Barbie dolls (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) tackle the blue collar true story of a corporate defense attorney who grows a conscience and hits DuPont Chemical where it hurts the most.

Shooting again in southern and central Ohio, Haynes turns in the buttery glamour of Carol for a grimmer image of America.

Dark Waters sees Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a good guy who also happens to be a corporate lawyer. I guess he’s proof those two concepts need not be mutually exclusive.

A keep-your-head-down kind of colleague, Bilott is confronted at work by a friend of his grandmother back home, a curmudgeonly West Virgina farmer (Bill Camp) who is offering VHS proof that his cows are being poisoned.

The corporate lawyer in Bilott wants to ignore this problem. The salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner in him cannot.

Few actors play the scrupulous good guy as reliably or believably as Ruffalo, who leads the film with a quiet, fragile dignity.

Anne Hathaway co-stars as Bilott’s conflicted wife Sarah. It’s a small and somewhat thankless role for the Oscar winner, but she gives it some meat and, better still, a much needed edge that strengthens the film.

She’s not alone. William Jackson Harper (Midsommar) continues to prove that he’s really good at playing a dick. Meanwhile, veteran “that guy” Camp offers a perfectly off-putting, guttural performance. A number of other sharp turns in small roles, including those by Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham and Victor Garber, help Haynes shade and shadow what could easily have become a paint-by-numbers eco-terror biopic.

He can’t entirely break free, though, and Dark Waters in the end—however stirring, informative and timely the tale—feels far too safe to be a Todd Haynes film.

Wonder and Thunder


by Hope Madden

If Wonderstruck—the latest from indie god Todd Haynes—feels a bit like Scorsese’s 2011 wonder Hugo, there’s a reason for that. Both films are based on juvenile fiction created by Brian Selznick.

Selznick, who adapts his own material here for the screen, is a one-of-a-kind author whose elaborate pencil drawings fill far more pages than actual text. The resulting novels offer near-magical journeys full of sumptuous detail supplied by visuals.

In both cases, the visual majesty of Selznick’s work jumps easily to the screen—in Hugo, to Oscar-winning results by cinematographer Robert Richardson. For Wonderstruck, Haynes works with longtime collaborator Edward Lachman.

But if Selznick’s unabashedly whimsical, sentimental material felt out of character for Scorsese, it’s no more characteristic for Haynes. His films tend to tackle ideas far more subversive, and by lighting those ideas with beauty and humanity, Haynes illustrates universal ideas, often of longing and the desire to belong.

His newest film also explores the human need to belong, although there’s very little to find subversive in Wonderstruck. It’s a family film that’s likely too slow moving for most youngsters and too lightweight for most Haynes fans.

The tale follows two deaf children, each on a similar journey 50 years apart. In 1927, a period lensed in black and white with a near-silent film feel about it, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) escapes her overbearing father to run away to a Broadway theater in search of her favorite starlet (Julianne Moore).

Ben (Oakes Fegley) follows a similar path in a far more garishly colorful 1977. Having recently lost both his mother and his hearing, the boy follows a clue about his father’s whereabouts to a bookstore in Queens.

Wonderstruck is a gorgeous movie. The Seventies period detail is as delightful and the Twenties elegance is lovely. All performances—particularly those of the two young leads—compel attention. Underlying themes of loneliness and the longing for acceptance resonate in the same way they echo through all of Haynes’s work.

Unfortunately, the narrative feels more full of contrivance and convenience than wonder. In the end you’re left thinking, wow, that was really pretty. Too bad it all collapsed on itself at the end.