Wonder Wheel

(USA 2017)

For whatever difference it makes, I had no idea Woody Allen had a new movie coming out, like, now. Being a fan, I didn’t hesitate to sign onto a prerelease screening of his latest, Wonder Wheel. Now that I’ve seen it, I must say that I’m not disappointed.

Set in 1950s Coney Island — in case the title didn’t cue you in — Wonder Wheel is a tawdry story of multifaceted infidelity told by lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a hopeful playwright attending school at New York University. An unreliable narrator, he warns us up front that he’s prone to drama. He meets middleaged Ginny (Kate Winslet), a waitress in a clamhouse, on the beach. They commence a summer affair. She takes it for more than it is. Then Mickey meets Ginny’s step-daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who’s hiding from her Mafioso husband. He’s smitten. She’s smitten. Ginny senses it, and she’s thrown into blind jealousy. It doesn’t end well.

Wonder Wheel doesn’t feel like a Woody Allen movie, at least not at first. It’s a bit too cute, too hollow, too stiff, and perhaps surprisingly too nostalgic. The acting is forced and hammy, and the writing is…weird. Hang in there — it gets better, and it becomes clear that everything that appears to be a flaw is actually planned.

About a third of the way through, the characters show their true colors. It’s not pretty, but it all comes together nicely, melding seamlessly into a stage play. Plus, the elements of Allen’s best films — characters who are neurotic narcissists, love (or is it lust?) throwing them off, and the unmistakable reference to Alvy Singer’s boyhood home  — become apparent. It’s dark, but it’s engrossing.

Wonder Wheel is Allen’s take 20th Century American playwrights generally, and Eugene O’Neill specifically. The plot involves a fucked up family situation that brings out the worst in everyone involved, except Carolina. Winslet unravels nicely; she’s not as exciting as Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but she’s really close. Both are strong in their own way.

Jim Belushi evokes John Goodman so much that I wonder if his part was written for Goodman. Curiously, Winslet evokes Susan Sarandon. Ironically, the only good person is the one one who digs her own grave: Carolina. The story is interesting. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography, which makes the entire film look like it was shot at sunset, is strikingly gorgeous, tinted in dreamy reds, greens, and blues.

I can’t say Wonder Wheel is even close to Allen’s best films, but I rank it in the upper eschelon of his late period work. It’s not as good as Blue Jasmine, but it’s not far off.

With Max Casella , Jack Gore, David Krumholtz, Robert C. Kirk, Tommy Nohilly, Tony Sirico, Stephen R. Schirripa, John Doumanian, Thomas Guiry, Gregory Dann, Bobby Slayton, Michael Zegarski , Geneva Carr, Ed Jewett, Debi Mazar, Danielle Ferland, Maddie Corman, Jacob Berger, Jenna Stern

Production: Amazon Studios, Gravier Productions

Distribution: Amazon Studios

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.wonderwheelmovie.com/home/

2350 Last Call: The Neo Story

(USA 2017)

I seriously doubt that any documentary about a defunct local dance club from the ‘80s and ‘90s holds much interest to very many outside the city where it was located. With 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story — its title incorporates the club’s address on Clark Street — director and documentarian Eric Richter starts at the “farewell party” in July 2015 and goes backward, telling the story of Chicago’s iconic nightspot Neo’s 36 year history.

Starting as a new wave bar in the early ‘80s, Neo evolved into an industrial goth club and for a long time created its own scene. That alley was the perfect lead in! Neo attracted some famous guests, obvious ones like Al Jourgensen and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, both on Wax Trax at one point. Neo also attracted some not so obvious ones, like Debbie Harry, Trent Reznor, Prince, and David Bowie. Richter lovingly tells about some of the theme nights (like Nocturna), the music, and of course regulars, from bouncer Kimball Paul (R.I.P) to a Mexican guy who looked like he’d be at home on a Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass record cover.

For all his local focus, Richter does something that puts 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story beyond mere local interest: he gets to the heart of club culture and community, something that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

Jaimz Asmundson’s music video “Plastic Heart” by Ghost Twin was a fitting prelude. It’s  irreverent, fun, and over the top with its tongue in cheek goth and satanic sensibilities.

With Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie

Production: Eric Richter Films

Distribution: Eric Richter Films

World Premiere

Screening introduced by CIMMfest cofounder Carmine Cervi and followed by a live Q and A with director Eric Richter and Eric Richter, Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie

46 minutes
Not rated

(Gman Tavern) B-

CIMMfest

http://2350lastcall.com

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution

(USA 2017)

For those who don’t know, queercore (or homocore, as it’s sometimes called — personally, I find that term clunky so I don’t use it) is rooted in the North American punk scene. In an oversimplified nutshell, it’s LGBT punk rock, and its heyday was the mid ’80s to mid ’90s. It developed in response to the homophobic machismo that increasingly characterized the ’80s postpunk scene coast to coast.

Yony Leyser’s Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution is thorough and fun even if it is fairly standard. Using interviews, footage from concerts and other live performances, films, home videos, and a treasure trove of zines and old flyers, he starts in Toronto, where filmmaker Bruce LaBruce and artist G.B. Jones published the queer punk zine J.D.s. They confess that one of their goals was to manufacture a scene, or at least make it sound there was one where it didn’t actually exist. It worked.

LaBruce, Jones, Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8, Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division, Genesis P-Orridge, and others discuss their role in the queercore movement and what it was (and is) for them. Even John Waters has his take. Leyser focuses on more than just bands, getting into the entire culture: zines (elemental to the movement), art, films (particularly LaBruce’s), politics, and AIDS. He also ties in subsequent scenes like riot grrrls and mainstream successes like Green Day, Hole, Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Nirvana.

Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution is a comprehensive, inclusive, and engaging documentary. Irreverent, fun, and at times ridiculous, it’s a fitting tribute.

Incidentally, you can find some queer zines here — you’re welcome: http://archive.qzap.org/index.php/Splash/Index

With Silas Howard, Kim Gordon, Peaches, Kathleen Hanna, Patty Schemel, Justin Bond, Dennis Cooper, Jayne County, Scott Treleaven, Tom Jennings, Rick Castro, Jody Bleyle

Production: Desire Productions, Totho

Distribution: Edition Salzgeber (Germany)

Screening followed by a live Q and A with director Yony Leyser

83 minutes
Not rated

(Davis Theater) B-

CIMMfest

https://www.facebook.com/Queercoremovie/

Suburbicon

(USA 2017)

George Clooney’s Suburbicon probably isn’t going to end up on anyone’s “best” list, nor should it. Too bad, because it’s got all the right elements: an experienced director with a strong point of view and his heart in the right place, a story by Joel and Ethan Coen, and a solid cast. The trailer sold me.

I guess I can see where this was headed. Unfortunately, though, some bizarre calls from the director’s chair drive Suburbicon into the ground. What could’ve been a biting and clever comment about race and the postwar American Dream, isn’t. Instead, Suburbicon is a confused jumble of ideas that don’t seem thought out or placed very well.

Suburbicon, which gets its name from the fictional suburban housing development where the film takes place, involves two concurrent stories that play out separately in late ‘50s suburbia. The main story, the one that the Coen brothers developed over 30 years ago, follows the boneheaded attempts of daft Suburbicon resident Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) at covering his tracks in an insurance scam he perpetrates with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore, who pulls a Patty Duke and does double duty also playing Gardner’s wife, Rose). Gardner is also dodging two amateur hitmen (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) who are trying to reach him. To make matters worse, his grade school age son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), inadvertently threatens to blow his cover. It isn’t long before it’s clear that Gardner’s in way over his head.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, a black family, move into Suburbicon, right next door to the Lodges. This subplot is based on an actual event that happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 (http://ushistoryscene.com/article/levittown/). In fact, the film uses what appears to be real-life footage from it. The residents don’t want a black family living near them, apparently because they think it will cause the neighborhood to go to hell. So, they stage a protest outside the Mayers’ house, chanting, playing instruments all night, and eventually trespassing and vandalizing. In the midst of this brouhaha, Nicky befriends the son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), who’s about the same age.

The residents get louder and more violent as the Coen plot develops into something darker and more violent.

Suburbicon has a few big problems. First, it clearly wants to make a grand statement or observation. It fails because it doesn’t integrate the two plots. We don’t get much about the Mayers. Whatever point this subplot was supposed to make is completely overshadowed by the main plot, and it comes off as merely an ironic parallel. It’s weird, manipulative, and simply doesn’t work.

Second, I have no idea how all that happens inside the Lodge residence does so with the huge mob next door. How does no one notice what’s going on right outside the door? How does everyone in that huge mob miss the people coming and going from the Lodge residence? Some of them are bloody. Hello?

Third, the plot twists are evident a mile away.

Fourth, neither Damon nor Moore pulls off the sinister vibe their characters call for. Somehow Clooney misses the mark on the sheer weirdness of the plot and the characters despite the sharp, exaggerated dialogue you usually get from the Coen brothers. Oscar Isaac is the only actor who nails it; his small part as an insurance investigator, regrettably short, stands out as the only bright spot here — although both Jupe and Nancy Daly as Gardner’s secretary deserve an honorable mention. Overall, though, the end result here is hopelessly flat and surprisingly lifeless. It’s frustrating to see.

I didn’t hate Suburbicon, but I didn’t love it. Its points are muddled. I expected a lot more, and there was so much to work with here.

With Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba, Michael D. Cohen, Steven Shaw, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Cathy Giannone, Allan Wasserman, Mark Leslie Ford, Richard Kind, Robert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Jack Conley, Frank Califano, Lauren Burns

Production: Paramount Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Silver Pictures, Smoke House Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

105 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C-

http://www.suburbiconmovie.com

The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher]

(Israel / Germany 2017)

During a post screening Q and A, writer and director Ofir Raul Graizer said he “love[s] question marks in cinema.” Well, that shows: with his first feature film The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher], he excels in raising questions that he lets his audience answer. Many people don’t appreciate this approach. I’m not one of them.

Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a thirty-something baker who runs his own one-man pastry shop in Berlin. Oren (Roy Miller), a married Israeli man, comes in one morning — maybe he’s really there for breakfast, or maybe he’s cruising.

Turns out, Oren is in Berlin on business, a lot. They begin an affair. Tomas knows about Oren’s wife and son in Jerusalem. Oren has a habit of bringing Tomas’s cinnamon cookies home to his wife as a kind of souvenir. It’s weird.

WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead!

After an unsettling visit, all communication with Oren stops. Confused and upset, Tomas tries to reach him at his company’s office in Berlin. A perplexed receptionist (Tagel Eliyahu) informs him that Oren died in a car crash.

Tomas does what any sensible red-blooded German gay guy would do: he closes shop and heads to Jerusalem to find out what happened — and maybe spy on Oren’s family to get an idea of what his life there was like.

He starts by tracking down Oren’s wife, Anet (Sarah Adler), who’s struggling to get a kosher café up and running. More by omission that outright lies, Tomas slowly works his way into her life, getting closer and more entangled without ever letting on that he knew her husband. Anet’s brother-in-law (Zohar Strauss) is dismayed, particularly when Anet hires Tomas, a gentile, as a baker. Things get complicated when his pastries attract a steady clientele to her café.

The Cakemaker isn’t exactly a thriller, but it’s suspenseful. A clear dread hovers over the whole story because it’s apparent that it’s not going to end well. It can’t, not with Tomas’s deceptions. Graizer’s pacing, slow and deliberate, steadily builds to an effective climax that might not be surprising itself but is still more intense than I expected. This is a quiet movie with some real nailbiter moments.

Graizer does a fine job enshrouding Oren in mystery — or maybe it’s shadiness. Anet reveals a zinger or two about their relationship. Sandra Sadeh as Oren’s mother, Hanna, steals each scene she’s in, a total of three. She subtly lets on that she’s wise to her dead gay son — and Tomas.

With Tamir Ben Yehuda, Stephanie Stremler, Iyad Msalma, David Koren, Gal Gonen, Eliezer Shimon, Sagi Shemesh

Production: Film Base Berlin, Laila Films

Distribution: Films Boutique

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ofir Raul Graizer

104 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B

Chicago International Film Festival

http://filmsboutique.com/movies/the-cakemaker/

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

(USA 2017)

Justice, like morality, is ambiguous. Accordingly, determining exactly how justice should be meted out is mired in a lot of grey. Translation: life is not black and white. Justice, like morality, is ambiguous. Accordingly, determining exactly how justice should be meted out is mired in a lot of grey. Translation: life is not black and white.

This old adage makes people uncomfortable, and it’s exactly the concept that colors Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It works so well because it acknowledges that there is no one right answer. Thankfully, as luck would have it, it’s also kind of funny.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is pissed off and tired. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire, though not necessarily in that order. The police have made no arrests, they have no suspect, and they haven’t uncovered a single lead. The case is precariously close to cold.

Driving down a rural road one morning, Mildred spots three abandoned billboards and gets an idea: she’ll shame Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. She rents the billboards for a full year and posts ads that attack him. The problem is, her idea doesn’t pan out as she plans — in fact, it works against her cause.

Not far off from a Coen Brothers venture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a twisted and twisting nailbiter. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a sharp wit, a warped sense of humor, and an impeccable grasp of human nature. The cast is outstanding, with not one subpar performance. At times heartbreaking, this is all around a tightly assembled and enthralling film.

With Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Sam Rockwell, Alejandro Barrios, Jason Redford, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Abbie Cornish, Riya May Atwood, Selah Atwood, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Malaya Rivera Drew, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage , Christopher Berry, Gregory Nassif St. John, Jerry Winsett, Kathryn Newton, John Hawkes, Charlie Samara Weaving, Clarke Peters, Brendan Sexton III, Eleanor Threatt Hardy, Michael Aaron Milligan

Production: Blueprint Pictures

Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Warner Brothers

115 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/threebillboardsoutsideebbingmissouri/

Charleston

(Romania / France 2017)

With the title of his new film Charleston, writer and director Andrei Cretulescu seems to play on late actor Charleton Heston, who comes up during a dinner conversation between recently widowed Alexandru (Serban Pavlu) and his gay brother, Ludovic (Gavril Patru), while the latter’s silent and vacant German boy toy (Vlad Galer) plays a video game. It’s fitting for a movie that explores grief and masculinity.

It’s Alexandru’s birthday. His wife, Ioana (Ana Ularu), was just killed, run down as she crossed the street. A cut to him lounging nonchalantly at her grave, wearing earphones and big sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, raises doubt about how bad he’s taking it.

After his dinner with Ludovic, a surprise knock on the door brings Alexandru face to face with Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), a stuttering hipster metrosexual wimp who introduces himself as Ioana’s lover. A punch in the face starts a strange partnership in which the two men pair up to commiserate separately.

Cretulescu’s premise is promising, and it gets some solid mileage for most of the film. Alexandru’s cynicism and derision contrasts sharply with Sebastian’s unsophisticated neediness and angst. Drinking, stealing, playing records, and constantly bickering, the two lonely men get into some marvelously absurd situations. A certain dance during the “intermission” is out of nowhere. They also learn a few things about the woman who left them behind.

Unfortunately, the story peters out about two thirds of the way through, starting with a plainly weird road trip to a town on the sea that both associate with Ioana. The climax isn’t exactly satisfying. I wish Charleston ended up somewhere as interesting as it seemed to be headed.

With Victor Rebengiuc, Ana Ciontea, Gabriela Popescu, Dorian Boguta, Andreea Vasile, Adrian Titieni, Sergiu Costache, Claudiu Dumitru, Alina Berzunteanu, Letitia Vladescu

Production: ICON, Les Films du Tambour, Kinosseur, Digital Cube, Mille et une Films, WAG Prod, Wearebasca

Distribution: Kinosseur (Romania), Versatile (International)

U.S. Premiere

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with director Andrei Cretulescu

119 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.facebook.com/Charleston2017

It [It: Chapter One]

(USA 2017)

I’ve started a few Stephen King novels during my life, but I’ve never finished reading any of them. I have, however, seen enough movies based on his books to know what I’m getting into.

It is director Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s 1986 novel, which incidentally came out on my 16th birthday. Scary. It tells the story of a group of bullied junior high outcasts who go after a deranged clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one summer, the Summer of 1989, after he kills stuttering Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the fall before.

Pennywise lives in the sewer of their small town (Derry, Maine) and resurfaces every 27 years to prey on children through their worst fears.

The screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is only part of the book — presumably to allow for a sequel. It starts out well enough in the same sweet nostalgic way as, oh, Stand by Me. Muschietti gets deatils of the time period mostly right: the Cure and New Kids on the Block were big in ’89 (even though the former’s “Six Different Ways” was two albums and a compilation earlier), and the reference to Molly Ringwald fits. He goes full on Steven Spielberg, however, about halfway through, turning It into The Goonies with the kids’ “losers club” and all the action switching to a dark cavernous underground sewer. This is to say, It gets cheesy after awhile.

The kids are all decent actors, and they keep It moving along. Sadly, though, there aren’t any real surprises here. More creepy and icky than outright frightening, Muschietti relies greatly on special effects; they’re good and a lot of work went into them, but they get tiresome after awhile. Plus, some editing would’ve been a good idea; It is too long.

As It is, it’s not a stinker. However, I wasn’t moved by It, either. It is a big budget Hollywood movie aiming to be a blockbuster, and that’s It.

With Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Beverly Marsh, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Elizabeth Saunders, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee

Production: New Line Cinema, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, KatzSmith Productions

Distribution: Warner Brothers

135 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C

http://itthemovie.com

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

(Japan 2017)

This theatrical cut of director Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel [東京ヴァンパイアホテル] (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/tokyo-vampire-hotel-sion-sono-amazon-1201808369/) is a fast-paced stylish and colorful bloodbath, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Manami (Tomite Ami) is a nice girl who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend (Saito Takumi) in Tokyo. Just after she arrives for dinner with her friends on the evening of her 22nd birthday, a crazy gun-toting assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) in a fuzzy pink mink shows up and takes out everyone in the restaurant — except Manami, whom she came to kidnap.

Manami flees, only to be picked up by another kidnapper, the mysterious K (Kaho). K in not so may words explains that Manami is a pawn in a war between two vampire clans, the Draculas and the Corvins, who have been enemies for centuries. Unbeknownst to Manami, she’s the target of a worldwide vampire hunt. K takes her to the glamorous Tokyo Vampire Hotel, which is run by a creepy geisha empress (Adachi Yumi) who needs blood.

The end of civilization is coming, but the empress has a plan: use the hotel to trap a healthy supply of humans to serve as food. Things don’t pan out as planned when the humans figure out what’s happening and the Draculas show up to crash the party.

This photo sums up what you’re getting into here:

Tokyo still.jpg

Tokyo Vampire Hotel is quirky, sexy, lavish, and fun. Sono serves up an imaginative feast of dazzling eye candy and nonstop action. His use of Christian symbols adds a nice touch. The sets are fantastic, and the action moves from the streets of Tokyo at night to inside the hotel to Bran Castle in Transylvania, and back. The editing works to make nine episodes flow seamlessly into a feature length film. However, the story wears thin after a little while, and it can’t sustain the interest I started out with. The gore gets old, too. The length, nearly two and a half hours, is a problem. It demonstrates why Tokyo Vampire Hotel is probably better in smaller doses.

With Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Yokoyama Ayumu, Kagurazaka Megumi, Shibukawa Kiyohiko, Takatsuki Sara, Tsutsui Mariko, Sakurai Yuki

Production: Amazon, Django Film, Nikkatsu Pictures

Distribution: Nikkatsu International Sales

142 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

The Line [Čiara]

(Slovakia / Ukraine 2017)

Director Peter Bebjak’s The Line is an Eastern European testosterone flick, a less cheeky sort of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels set at the Slovakia–Ukraine border. It’s a genre flick, and a good one: excellent performances all around boost Peter Balko’s tight, vigorous screenplay.

A lot is going on with Adam Krajnak (Tomáš Maštalír), the head of both his household and a gang of organized cigarette smugglers. His oldest daughter, Lucia (Kristiná Konátová), is about to marry a clueless petty thief (Oleksandr Piskunov) he doesn’t care for. His Ukrainian partner (Eugen Libezňuk) is going weird, possibly on the verge of going rogue.

Then there’s ruthless Ukrainian gangster Krull (Stanislav Boklan), who’s co-opted Adam’s crew for a new product, meth. Adam wants no part of it. Things are heating up to a show down that crooked police chief Peter Bernard (Andy Hryc) facilitates. It all comes to a head during Lucia’s engagement party.

With far and few still moments, The Line grows increasingly complicated as its story progresses. This is a quick and constant thriller loaded with curve balls. A scene where the police raid Afghans illegally crossing the “green border,” a wooded area, is a standout. So are a few at a ravine where Krull dumps bodies; Martin Ziaran’s underwater shots are beautifully eerie.

With Emília Vášáryová, Géza Benkõ, Zuzana Fialová, Filip Kankovský, Milan Mikulcík, Veronika Strapková, Rimma Zyubina

Production: Wandal Production, Garnet International Media Group

Distribution: RTVS

Screening introduced by and followed by a live Q and A with Andy Hryc

108 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.ciara.sk/en/