Movie Review ~ Wonder Wheel


The Facts
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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.

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.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)

The Silver Bullet ~ Trolls

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Synopsis: This holiday season, enter a colorful, wondrous world populated by hilariously unforgettable characters and discover the story of the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomach.

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Thoughts: If you’ve yet to watch the trailer for Trolls,  the new animated film from Dreamworks, you should probably put on a pair of sunglasses. Not only is the color palette so vibrant it practically vibrates but the overall cheer of the piece is as sunny as a day in May.  Already making a splash with a catchy music video from Justin Timberlake, Trolls takes those whispy haired wonders from being mere lucky Bingo idols to the big screen in an original musical adventure.  It looks like quite the trip and with voices from Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), James Corden (Into the Woods), Gwen Stefani, and more all signs point to a zany treat come November.

Movie Review ~ Inside Llewyn Davis

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I went into Inside Llewyn Davis with a bit of trepidation at the thought of two hours of melancholy set to a folk music score.  You see, I don’t seem to have it in my bones to have quite the love affair with the Coen Brothers as most dedicated cinephiles do.  For every homerun they hit (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Blood Simple) they produce their fair share of fouls (Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty) as well.

It tends to go that for every great Coen film, two mediocre ones follow and with their last picture being 2010’s commendable remake of True Grit I was expecting to be disappointed in their latest creation.  While Inside Llewyn Davis may have won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, it isn’t pitch perfect but I found it to resonate in the right spots.

Llewyn Davis is a young-ish folk singer in New York in the early 60’s trying to strike out on his own after his former singing partner tosses himself off a bridge.  Playing in smoky clubs with names like The Gaslight Café and the Gate of Horn, he’s clearly a talented singer but his general ‘why not me’ attitude has soured him and alienated him from friends and family.  Over the course of the week we get to know Llewyn we see him make all sorts of personal and professional mistakes in a journey that proves to be less about gaining a greater self awareness of past wrongs and more about an inner awakening of the direction his life is headed.

The screenplay by co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen is pretty maudlin and curiously lacking the usual crackle they instill in their dialogue.  Even with that spitfire patter absent, the film is dryly funny with many scenes soaked through with an acidly salty banter between Llewyn and the like.

As our titular anti-hero, Oscar Isaac (Won’t Back Down, The Bourne Legacy) possesses a helluva voice that fits perfectly into the folksy tunes compiled by dynamo music producer T-Bone Burnett.  Each scene seems to have a song to go with it and the film is most surely at its assured best when Isaac, Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby), Justin Timberlake (Runner Runner), and Stark Sands (Broadway’s Kinky Boots) are plaintively singing in their quiet way.  I’m not a huge folk music aficionado but these music sequences (all set realistically and not staged like a musical) were the moments I was truly transported within the film.  The songs are so good, in fact, that the movie could have excised all the dialogue and just kept the songs to tell the story and the effect would be the same.

Where the film struggles are the moments between the songs when the situations get a bit routine.  Though a wayward road trip with John Goodman (Flight, Argo, ParaNorman, Stella) and Garrett Hedlund  has moments that exemplify the quirkiness that put the Coen Brothers on the map, too often we’re treated to the same incidents were Llewyn screws up and is reprimanded…usually by a woman so it comes across as mundane brow beating.

Though the film is fairly somber, I left with a song in my step feeling more refreshed than I have at other Coen films.  Like all of their films it’s a quiet affair best taken in in some small dinky theater with sticky floors and non-stadium seating…exactly the opposite of the refurbished classic theater I saw it in.  Even so, this earns a recommendation for Isaac’s strong leading performance and a soundtrack you’ll want to get your ears on pronto.

The Silver Bullet ~ Runner Runner

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Synopsis: When a poor college student who cracks an online poker game goes bust, he arranges a face-to-face with the man he thinks cheated him, a sly offshore entrepreneur.

Release Date:  September 27, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s a film that has some good potential thanks mostly to the two male leads that headline the thriller.  It’s actually interesting Ben Affleck (Argo) is playing the heavy here because I’d imagine had this movie been produced, say, ten years ago he might have taken on the role that’s being played by Justin Timberlake…Mr. Affleck is definitely growing up.  While the movie looks to have a nice gloss, I can’t help but feel like it’s a retread of any countless number of harmless double cross films that were so ever popular in the mid 90’s.  Director Brad Furman gave us the unexpectedly solid potboiler thriller The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011 so perhaps there’s life yet in this old warhorse formula.

The Silver Bullet ~ Inside Llewyn Davis

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Synopsis: A singer-songwriter navigates New York’s folk music scene during the 1960s.

Release Date:  December 6, 2013

Thoughts: Just hearing the Coen Brothers names sends most cinephiles into a delirious ecstasy of some certain magnitude.  The oddball films the brothers have created over the last three decades have scored high points with critics and audiences alike and though each film isn’t a winner (I’ve found they have a 50/50 success rate) there’s something to be said for their particular style that’s instantly recognizable.  Their newest feature is Inside Llewyn Davis and if the first preview is any indication, it’s classic Coen through and through.  Though John Goodman (Flight, Argo, Stella) gets some nice laughs I found myself sinking lower and lower in my seat because I feel it’s a film I’m going to enjoy in a sideways sorta way – one I’ll appreciate but not love.  Highly anticipated, expect this one to be on the Oscar watch list when it’s released in December.