Movie Review ~ Wonder Wheel


The Facts
:

Synopsis: On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator and his beleaguered wife.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Debi Mazar, Max Casella, James Belushi

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When I first heard that Woody Allen was setting his new movie (his 48th!) at Coney Island, I was expecting something a bit more…fun.  The first preview set me straight and I’ve spent the last few months waiting for it to arrive and wondering if it was going to be another bump in the downward slant slump or if the director was going to put some cinematic snowshoes on and start to climb back up.  While the shoes are definitely on, Wonder Wheel proves there’s little traction being made by Allen to get back to where he once was.  Perhaps, considering continued allegations against Allen’s personal life, that can never be.

Taking place in the summer months of the waning years of Coney Island’s hey-day, Wonder Wheel opens with an introduction by Mickey (Justin Timberlake, Inside Llewyn Davis), a lifeguard that has a literal birds eye view of the comings and goings of the tourists that visit the beaches and amusement park as well as the people that work there.  One such worker is Ginny (Kate Winslet, The Dressmaker) an unhappy woman approaching 40 raising her son with her second husband, a carousel operator named Humpty (James Belushi, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return).  Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple, Maleficent, Cracks) shows up out of the blue looking for a place to hide from her mobster husband that has marked her for death.  Adding another body to an already cramped apartment turns up the heat for the mixed family, bringing out old frustrations.  When Ginny starts up an affair with Mickey who soon becomes enamored with Carolina, the spark is lit for flames on the pyre Allen has built.

Yet…despite some fairly magnetic performances and strong technical merits, the film never manages to catch much heat.  It feels as if Allen (Magic in the Moonlight) had an idea for a beginning but no real inspiration for an ending.  It’s well-known the writer-director has a zillion half-finished scripts he’s hidden away in some old drawer and many of his recent works have been retrieved from the par-baked cave of wonders.  Wonder Wheel has elements to it that make me feel it started in Allen’s mind as a stage-play.  Lengthy scenes in one setting would seem natural for a stage-bound work but on the big screen it feels too claustrophobic and stilted.

While the script may be underdeveloped, the same cannot be said for its production design and cinematography.  Production designer Santo Loquasto (Radio Days) has outdone himself here, beautifully recreating Coney Island in all its swirling technicolor glory.  Rides I’ve long heard about but never seen are digitally recreated in background shots and the central Ferris Wheel from which the movie takes its title is spiffed up…though I was disappointed there are no shots on the actual ride!  Loquasto’s design elements are captured by Vittorio Storaro in a dazzling color palette that gives the film a vibrancy its words sorely lack.  Watching the film on mute wouldn’t be a totally bad way to while away 101 minutes, either.

Another thing that should be mentioned in the music.  Allen’s movies aren’t scored in the traditional sense of the word but instead are comprised of existing songs used in place of instrumental pieces.  That usually works well for me but Wonder Wheel repeats two songs repeatedly to the point that it becomes torturous.  That may be intentional though, as any person that’s worked in a theme park or near one knows the piped in music can cause early-onset madness in even the most milquetoast individual.

It’s a shame the movie isn’t overall a better experience because Winslet’s performance is tremendous.  Ditching her posh accent for the harsh edges of a New York one, Winslet comes alive with a fiery energy that has tinges of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill is actually referenced several times and Allen clearly is going for another Williams-esque tale, a la, Blue Jasmine.  She has two speeches in the film that are magnificent to watch, especially when you consider they are done in long takes. That doesn’t leave the actress with any room for a false note…and she largely has perfect pitch.

Winslet is surrounded by a crew of supporting players that don’t quite meet her in the middle, though.  Temple fares best as a wounded character that could easily have been sketched with a mean streak but ultimately has a kind heart.  Belushi goes outside of his comedy comfort zone as Winslet’s gruff husband that keeps trying to fall off the wagon before being caught by his beleaguered wife.  The real low point is Timberlake, totally miscast as both the narrator and love interest of the two women.  Timberlake’s line deliveries seem like first tries at the material and Allen does him no favors by not prodding the actor to take more risks.

So in the end, is this nostalgic trip back worth stepping up to the ticket booth for?  Yes and no.  It’s worth a watch for Winslet’s work and the excellent production elements, just don’t be too surprised if you find yourselves divested from interest in the overall plot.

Movie Review ~ Last Flag Flying


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Kate Easton, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s not lost on this reviewer that the director behind the tin-eared Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater.  Linklater has built a career on authentic sounding/feeling movies like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, not to mention his career high of Boyhood.  Following that up with the enjoyable Everybody Wants Some! which was seen as a spiritual sequel to his earlier Dazed and Confused, Linklater seemed like he was entering a mid-career golden zone of easy-going character driven films.

So you’ll forgive me for being pretty surprised that he’s at the helm of Last Flag Flying, a phony baloney film that not only wastes two good actors (and one mediocre one) but your valuable holiday time as well.   A kinda-sorta sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (which, full disclosure, I have not seen), this is a long trip with a short premise and it all goes nowhere.  I’m usually fairly forgiving with movies that limp out of the gate if they can finish strong but this one falls flat from the very beginning and never gets back up again.

On a cold night in 2003, a Larry Shepherd enters a dive bar in Virginia.  The man (Steve Carell, Freeheld) strikes up a conversation with Sal, the guy behind the bar (Bryan Cranston, Godzilla) and reveals himself to be an old Vietnam war buddy the bartender hasn’t seen in decades.  With lingering guilt over a crime Sal was involved with that Larry took the fall for, Sal agrees to accompany Larry on a day trip to a church nearby.  That’s where they meet up with former comrade in arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, Passengers), who has transformed from a war-time wild man to a man of the cloth.

Larry has tracked down these two men because he recently lost not only his wife to a long-term illness but has just learned his son was killed in the Iraq war.  Would these men accompany Larry as he buries his son in Arlington Cemetery, you know, for old times sake?  Mueller was also involved with the indiscretion that saw Larry serving time in custody and while Larry doesn’t explicitly say the two men owe him one, the suggestion is that this small favor is something they can do to right a past wrong and clear their conscience.  It also helps Mueller’s wife forces him to go.

Thus begins a road trip that stretches across multiple states and forms of transportation as the three men bring the fallen solider home to his final rest.  Along the way old war wounds are opened and the guys must come to terms with what they did and how that changed the course of everything they’ve done since they returned to the states.  There’s even a chance for some small redemption with a stop to visit with the mother (Cicely Tyson, Alex Cross, excellent with limited screen time) of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

All of this should have panned out to a rewarding experience, but the movie is so faux in thought, word, and deed that I never warmed to anyone or anything on screen.  I never once bought that the three leads were former military, nor that they would ever in a million years be friends.  I know war makes friends out of enemies but there’s no authenticity in the performances or in the script from Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan.  While Fishburne is the most believable, he’s also the one least invested in the movie.  Carell continues to be an actor with interesting depths but struggles with a role that asks him to emote in all the wrong ways.  As usual, the actor that has the greatest trouble is poor Cranston who proves again that he’s an actor probably best suited for television.  Cranston’s performance (much like his hammy Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo) is all hot air and booming voice; when you place it aside Fishburne and Carell who are trying to find their own arcs he just crumbles under the pressure.  It’s a memorably forgettable performance in a movie that’s equally a huge write-off.

I can think of a half-dozen actors that could have pulled these roles off better but at the heart of the movie’s problems is a meandering script and poor pacing – that falls squarely on Linklater’s shoulders.  There’s a kernel of an appealing movie at play but before we’d even reached the halfway mark I was waving the white flag of distress.  Skip it… Now it’s time for me to go seek out The Last Detail.

Movie Review ~ Wonderstruck

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: We’re all about honesty at The MN Movie Man so I’ll admit that I was a little sleepy when I caught an early preview of Wonderstuck a few weeks back. Seen on a double screening day, I struggled greatly not only keeping up with its ping-pong-y plot but just staying awake for the new film from well-liked director Todd Haynes. Based on Brian Selznick’s thick tome that’s a hybrid of novel and picture book (much like his previous hit Hugo which found its own way to screens a few years back), Selznick also wrote the screenplay and one wonders what Haynes would have done (or could have done) had he run the whole show.

Taking place in two time periods that eventually collide in unexpected ways, Wonderstuck spends a good hour just to get moving and another half hour after that to provoke the kind of wonderment I think the filmmakers were going for. For those first sixty minutes I was largely at sea with the two tales. One features a motherless boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) in the ‘70s who loses his hearing in a freak accident before running away to find his unknown father. The other trails deaf-mute Rose (the exceptional Millicent Simmonds) as she embarks on a quest to track down her favorite Hollywood actress (Julianne Moore, Still Alice) making a return to the New York stage following the advent of talkies in the late ‘20s.

Ben’s story is displayed in the vibrant, pulsating with color world of the ‘70s while Rose’s is presented in somber black and white silence. No matter how good or bad his movies are, the one thing you can absolutely say about a Todd Haynes film is that the production design will be flawless and that’s certainly the case here. Production designer Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) recreates two totally different eras of NYC with a master’s touch. I totally marveled at the depth of detail evoked by each period…if this isn’t an Oscar front-runner already, it surely will be as more people in the know see it.

How the stories eventually come together is a mystery that isn’t as easy to solve as you may first realize. The disparate time periods would suggest a different solution than Selznick arrives at but by the time we get to our destination the film has overstayed its welcome every so slightly and explained more than it showed how it all came to be.  It does help that the performances across the board are delivered with a strong sense of conviction.  Fegley’s frustration at his loss of hearing, the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), and the needle in NY haystack he’s out to find is crushingly felt as is Simmonds wish for independence despite the limitations others perceive her as having.  Moore, as usual, makes a strong showing in dual roles that are polar opposites of each other.

To its credit, the final fifteen minutes are exceptionally moving and send you out of theater better than when you arrived…but at the same time I wish the film had found another fifteen minutes to excise. It wants to be a family art-house prestige picture but can’t get out of its own way to find a stronger rhythm that will hold the attention of young and old alike. That’s all well and good for the previous films that Haynes has directed like Carol or Far From Heaven, these films had the benefit of playing to an adult audience looking for a sophistication. If Wonderstruck is able to find that family audience, I think that’s wonderful and I hope it happens. However, parents should take this one in first to determine if their kids are up for something challenging.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Wonder Wheel

Synopsis: On Coney Island in the 1950s, a lifeguard tells the story of a middle-aged carousel operator and his beleaguered wife.

Release Date: December 1, 2017

Thoughts: Round and round he goes and where he stops, nobody knows because there’s a certain element of surprise each year as the release date for the next Woody Allen film draws near.  We’ve been teased on the cast, sometimes given good lead time on a title, but often the plot details are kept under wraps until the film is ready to screen.  Premiering at the New York Film Festival, Allen’s 48th film (!) doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would.  I imagined more of a period memory piece set on Coney Island but this first look at Wonder Wheel suggests more crime drama than family drama so I’m curious how this one will play out.  It’s been a while since Allen (Blue Jasmine) has delivered a full-fledged comedy but with long-time A-listers and first time Allen collaborators like Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker) and Justin Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis) in the mix it’s likely this one may attract a different audience than would normally take in an Allen flick.

Movie Review ~ The Dressmaker

dressmaker

The Facts:

Synopsis: A glamorous woman returns to her small town in rural Australia. With her sewing machine and haute couture style, she transforms the women and exacts sweet revenge on those who did her wrong.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Judy Davis, Caroline Goodall

Director: Jocelyn Moorhouse

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Watching The Dressmaker made me think back to a different time…not just the time when the haute couture fashions on display were commonplace but just a hop and a skip back to the mid 90s. That’s when there was a big influx of films imported from down under, mostly wacky comedies like Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and dramas such as Shine. There’s just some particular Australian sensibility that plays like a genre unto itself, a fearlessness to sketch outsider characters that don’t have to be sympathetic or hyper-broad to engage us.

I’d almost forgotten about The Dressmaker, having posted my thoughts on its preview over a year ago. When its October 2015 release date passed, I all but put it out of my mind…save for a nagging worry in wondering why it didn’t open stateside as planned. Either I had the dates wrong or the pushback was deliberate because there’s certainly nothing wrong with this dark dramedy that scored a record 13 nominations at the Australian Oscars (that’s 1 more than Mad Max: Fury Road received, by the by).

The rural Australian outback is likened to our Old West and that ties in nicely with The Dressmaker’s operatic overtones. While it’s not an outright Western and there’s no horses, spittoons, or cowboy hats on display the film is very much in that vein, delighting in its revenge tale and maximizing the mystery surrounding a woman returning to town with a score to settle.

Arriving without notice in her one horse town in the dead of night, Tilly’s (Kate Winslet, Labor Day) first line, “I’m back you bastards.”, is delivered through an exhale of crisp cigarette smoke. It’s clear something bad happened here and through a series of flashbacks Tilly’s history with the town and its secrets comes to light. But first…there’s work to be done.

Her first stop is to the ramshackle house on the hill where her aged mother lives. Not recognizing her glamorous daughter at first (and continuing to deny knowing her long after she connects the dots), Molly (Judy Davis) gets scrubbed up and her clap trap home receives a good cleaning. The town is full of gossips, busybodies, crooked councilmen, and an array of other tightly wired curiosities…none of which are the least bit happy to see Tilly’s return. The only folk showing some interest is Teddy (Liam Hemsworth, The Expendables 2, dreamy to look at but at least a decade too young to play Winslet’s peer) and the cross-dressing town sergeant (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) who gets the first big laugh of the film with an unexpected exclamation.

Though they still prefer to keep her at a distance, Tilly’s transformative way with a needle and thread revitalizes the fickle women of the town who are willing to let bygones be bygones as long as they look good doing it. The past comes back to haunt them all, though, when old scars are opened and fresh wounds revealed, culminating in an unusually satisfying finale that successfully ties off a whole host of loose ends.

With her impressive Australian accent, Winslet fits right in as a woman who sticks out. Her fair white skin is a perfect contrast to the weather beaten sun scorched faces of a past clan she’s left behind but can’t quite escape. Weaving and Caroline Goodall are lively while Sarah Snook (Jessabelle) transforms from an ugly duckling to a glamorous swan with a dark side. The movie truly belongs to Davis, though, in a performance that deserves major award recognition. Nailing each laugh and then some, she’s the one you’ll be watching whenever she’s onscreen.

If there’s fault here, it’s that director Jocelyn Moorhouse (adapting the screenplay from the novel by Rosalie Ham) lets the film go on longer than it has to. Reaching its first climax about 75 minutes in, there’s still 45 more minutes for the wheels to grind and sputter before finding some fire as it leads up to the finale. All in all, it’s a minor problem to have when the rest of the elements are so solid. The Dressmaker hasn’t arrived in the US with much fanfare but here’s hoping that, like it’s heroine, it sneaks up on audiences in most surprising ways.

Movie Review ~ The Neon Demon

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neon_demon_ver7

The Facts:

Synopsis: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alesandro Nivola

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: First 75 minutes: (7/10); Final 45 minutes (1/10); Overall (4/10)

Review: When I first caught the trailer for The Neon Demon, I thought it had a nice giallo look that reminded me of horror maestro Dario Argento. Giallo, for the horror-averse, is a 20th-century Italian film genre and giallo films are thrillers often with slasher, supernatural horror, or crime fiction elements. Awash with bright, bold colors and an overall vison that favored style over any shred of substance, these films can be seen as overly cornball now but were considered viscerally raw during their time of release. I went into The Neon Demon expecting a nice side dish to Argento’s classic 1977 film Suspiria, but wound up with sour stomach.

While the thought of indulging in any food that slithers, slimes, or swims gets my stomach roiling I think I have a steely tolerance for gore and general grotesqueness but The Neon Demon finally broke me. This is a film with a substantial ick factor aiming to shock more than awe, it practically begs you to disengage more and more as the minutes t(ick) by. And that’s too bad because I can’t remember another movie in recent memory that starts off so well before devolving into a gross display of nastiness.

Right off the bat the film introduces an uneasiness as the studio credits/logos appear with no sound (one genius audience member kept asking for “Sound, please?”) and the credits play over a color shifting texture set to a synth score. We’re at a photo shoot and young Jesse (Elle Fanning, Trumbo) is playing dead for the camera, bathed in blood and keeping her eyes fixed and breathing to a minimum. New to town, she’s befriended by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice) who appears to be taking a parental interest in Jesse’s well-being but may have sinister intentions hidden away.

Ruby introduces Jesse to her model friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road) who size up the fresh face as a serious threat to their already diminishing shelf life. Picked up by a prestigious modeling agency (led by Christina Hendricks, Zoolander 2 in a dandy of an all-too-brief cameo), favored by both a bad-boy photographer (Desmond Harrington, The Dark Knight Rises) and a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola, A Most Violent Year), and pursued by a seemingly benign acquaintance (Karl Glusman) before she knows it Jesse is the toast of the town in an other-wise gluten free industry.

These developments occupy the first half of the film and it creates genuine intrigue in the viewer as well as the characters. Who is this girl and where did she come from? Hints of a broken home and a dangerous past are only that, hints, mere morsels of information that lead down a rabbit hole. Once it leads you to the bottom, though, the ground hits hard and reality sets in. There’s blood letting (and drinking), necrophilia, cannibalism, and adolescent rape for the viewers that stick this one out (numerous people at my screening didn’t make it to the end credits).

It’s no secret that director Nicolas Winding Refn thrives on excess. Making a warm entrance with 2008’s Bronson (which introduced Tom Hardy to us) before releasing his big splash Drive in 2011, he fell mighty far with his follow-up Only God Forgives two years later and now The Neon Demon is his most difficult film to stomach yet. This one has an uncooked feel, bloody and tenderized without offering any heat. Some movies could make up for a lurid ending by knocking the beginning out of the park but even the fascinating opening stretch can’t save this one.

Winding Refn’s style (and name, his monogram appears over the beginning and end titles, showing up in the same frame as his actual film credit) is all over this one. He’s admitted to being color-blind which is why his palette is so vibrant and the film admittedly has a chic perfection to nearly every frame, but the script (co-written by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham) is a schizophrenic mess. One moment it’s a wicked parable condemning the industry with its subversive commentary and the next it’s glorying the excess of young flesh and starved bodies. The graphic nudity feels exploitative and unnecessary, with Winding Refn lingering too long and too intently on his subjects.

Some sort of survival award must be given to the actors Winding Refn cast here. Fanning manages to come out the best, nicely using her blank stares and whisper of a voice to suggest innocence even when we start to suspect she’s been playing us all along. Lee and Heathcote are a nice pair of harpies, gnashing their teeth the higher Jesse rises and Lee in particular really sells an insanely disgusting moment near the conclusion. I’ve always loved Malone and feel sort of sorry for what she’s asked to do here, including an act so revolting I can’t bear to think about it let alone write about it. Then there’s Keanu Reeves (John Wick) as a manager of a seedy motel that shows up in one of Jesse’s twisted psycho-sexual nightmares only to act out an even more horrifying atrocity in reality.

Going back to Suspiria, I always loved its tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92” and could apply a similar one to The Neon Demon: “The Only Thing More Disgusting Than The Last 5 Minutes Of This Film Are The Previous 112”.