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/

Dick Tracy

(USA 1990)

“You better get over here fast. They’re gonna find out we’re not together.”

— Dispatcher (from Dick Tracy’s watch)

Dick, that’s an interesting name.

It took 15 years for Warren Beatty to achieve his vision of Dick Tracy, Chester Gould’s hard-boiled square-chin (and nose) comic strip detective in the hideous yellow trench coat (http://www.newsweek.com/tracymania-206276). I skipped over him in favor of lighter and friendlier (not to mention more current) stuff like Peanuts, Hägar the Horrible, Hi and Lois, Marmaduke, The Far Side, Life in Hell, and later Calvin and Hobbes and, um, Crankshaft. Good times!

I remember the media blitz during the summer of 1990. It included Madonna — I’m Breathless, an album of music from and “inspired by” the film, and a landmark world tour (Blond Ambition). I guess it makes sense coming a year after Tim Burton’s mega successful Batman that the studio would push Dick Tracy to be the next big blockbuster. This one cost more and made less, but it still made a mark at the box office.

Dick Tracy (Beatty) is dying to bring down mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), the city’s most notorious criminal. He may have found a way through femme fatale lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), Big Boy’s new girlfriend. She knows a thing or three. Now, if only Dick can get her to talk. The problem is, she’s more interested in Dick.

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the screenplay is adequate: it doesn’t knock your socks off, but it certainly holds your interest. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the story is secondary.

Dick Tracy is a sensory feast. Rick Simpson’s sets are gorgeous and elegant art deco cityscapes punctuated with primary colors and Depression Era practicality. Makeup designers John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler concoct memorably grotesque prosthetics that define each villain — there are many — and actually help you keep track of who’s who. Vittorio Storaro’s camera work pulls the whole thing together like an Edward Hopper painting.

Finally, there’s the music. Danny Elfman’s score is cool, but throw in some Stephen Sondheim songs — three of which Madonna performs — and you’ve got a winner. In fact, “Sooner or Later” won the Oscar for Best Original Song (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). Bonus: Dick Tracy is the closest you’ll get, at least up to now, to seeing Madge perform “More,” an overlooked classic from her catalog that to my knowledge she has never done live. Ever.

Dick Tracy isn’t perfect. A few moments teeter dangerously close to overboard on cuteness and camp, but fortunately Beatty knows when to pull back. This is not an essential film, but it’s an enjoyable one. I like it.

With Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, James Keane, Seymour Cassel, Michael J. Pollard, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Campanella, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, James Tolkan, Mandy Patinkin, R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, Lawrence Steven Meyers, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Robert Beecher, Mike Mazurki, Ian Wolfe

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, Mulholland Productions

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

105 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

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/

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/

Foxy Brown

(USA 1974)

“That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lot of woman.”

— Link

 

“Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.”

— Foxy

To use a term straight from Willie Hutch’s theme song, director/screenwriter Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown is superbad. It’s definitely not something to see for technical or artistic excellence, but it’s cool nonetheless. A sort of reworking of Coffey, it’s a sexy vigilante revenge tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a bodacious woman on a mission to track down the goons who shot and killed her boyfriend (Terry Carter), a government agent who just had plastic surgery to change his identity, right outside her door. Obviously, this is the work of a Los Angeles drug ring.

Foxy quickly figures out who the rat is: her own brother, Link (Antonio Fargas). He identifies her boyfriend’s killers as affiliates of a “modeling agency.” The agency is run by fixers Miss Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and Steve Elias (Peter Brown). Their clients are crooked high profile men of the law like judges and politicians who trade favors for girls.

Posing as a prostitute, Foxy gets inside the operation and does some major damage. It gets her in serious hot water when she’s exposed, bringing her into the center of a lesbian bar brawl and then onto a coke ranch as a junky sex slave. Fortunately, she’s tough and resourceful. No one gets the best of Foxy.

Built on sex parties, chase scenes, shoot outs, and boobs, the plot is structured like a sitcom, and it’s about as complicated and predictable. Naturally, Foxy gets what she wants in the end. Except for the very cool opening titles, there are no effects to speak of. The acting is average at best. However, the action is surprisingly steady, leaving very few dull spots. Plus, there’s real sas here, mostly from Grier, that keeps the whole thing interesting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxy Brown a feminist work, but Foxy is a badass heroine with her heart — and her head — in the right place. It’s a thrill watching her take control, especially in heels and those fabulous frocks. I wouldn’t want to piss her off.

With Harry Holcombe, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown, Sally Ann Stroud, Bob Minor, Tony Giorgio, Fred Lerner, Judy Cassmore, H.B. Haggerty, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Jack Bernardi, Brenda Venus, Kimberly Hyde, Jon Cedar, Ed Knight, Esther Sutherland, Mary Foran, Jeannie Epper, Stephanie Epper, Peaches Jones, Helen Boll, Conrad Bachmann, Russ Grieve, Rodney Grier, Roydon E. Clark, Don Gazzaniga, Jay Fletcher, Gary Wright, Fred Murphy, Edward Cross, Larry Kinley Jr.

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Sociedade Importadora de Filmes (SIF) (Portugal), Film AB Corona (Sweden), Cinema Mondo (Finland)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) C+

The Great Train Robbery

(USA 1903)

The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.

The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Great Train Robbery “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Shadrack E. Graham, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Robert Milasch, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

11 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C

Good Time

(USA 2017)

Good Time is not a film to see for the plot. Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, the storyline is not all that novel, complicated, or interesting — in itself. I can sum it up in a single sentence: Queens bad boy Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) spends a night fleeing cops while trying to get his mentally handicapped younger brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), out of the mess he put him in after a bank robbery they commit goes sideways. It sounds like a comedy, but it most definitely is not.

Good Time is a movie to see for the mood it creates — and man, is it intense! More or less a character study, this could have been a disaster in someone else’s hands. As it is, the whole thing soars thanks to the directing by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie and the acting, which is all around great. Pattinson is particularly terrific — forget Twilight. I’ve heard comparisons to Al Pacino’s best work in the ’70s, and I’ve got to agree; Pattinson conveys a natural nervous energy just under the surface so well that you feel it watching him. I found myself more and more jittery and paranoid with every move and bad decision Connie makes and every character he encounters. I noticed hints of Dog Day Afternoon, Cruising, The Godfather, and even The Graduate in Pattinson’s performance.

Taking place almost entirely at night, the settings are familiar but eerie: a hospital, the crammed TV-lit apartment of a Jamaican immigrant (Gladys Mathon) and her weed smoking teenage granddaughter (Taliah Webster), an empty amusement park. Add a skittish techno score by Oneohtrix Point Never, a pallet of neon-colored light, and a nonstop chase, and you’ve got Good Time. Roller coaster ride or drug trip, take your pick — either way, this is a film that drags you along for the ride and zaps you, in a really satisfying way. I don’t know if Good Time is Oscar material, but it’s definitely memorable.

I almost missed Good Time, which opened for what appeared to be a very short limited run in Chicago. I made my own bad decision to see it Friday night after dinner with lots of cocktails. The film became a big blur that my drunk brain couldn’t handle. I went back for a Sunday matinee by myself. I left impressed, and actually pissed that I wasn’t present the first time I caught it.

With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Barkhad Abdi, Necro, Buddy Duress, Peter Verby, Saida Mansoor, Eric Paykert

Production: Elara Pictures, Rhea Films

Distribution: A24

99 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) B+

http://goodtime.movie

Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan]

(France 1959)

In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.

Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.

The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.

Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.

With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.

Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.

With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo

Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films

Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Disco Godfather [The Avenging Disco Godfather]

(USA 1979)

Dear God the Father! Some movies are so terrible, you love them for everything wrong with them—what’s bad is exactly what endears them. Other movies…well, they’re just terrible. It’s a thin line. Sadly, Disco Godfather falls into the latter category.

J. Robert Wagoner and Cliff Roquemore’s screenplay stars Rudy Ray Moore as Tucker Williams, an L.A. cop-turned-DJ at the trashy-ass Blueberry Hill Disco, which looks like a repurposed Denny’s. The plot involves Williams’s nephew, Bucky (Julius J. Carry III), who’s gotten hooked on “angel dust.”

One word: YAWN! What were they thinking? Disco Godfather is so boring, I’d rather watch reruns of 2 Broke Girls. The only thing that saves it from total failure is the wardrobe—Felice Hurtes, Jimmy Lynch, and Kimberly Sizemore deserve major kudos for finding the cool Goodwill stores. Fuck this bullshit: watch Dolemite and call it a day. They could have tried a little harder here.

With Carol Speed, Jimmy Lynch, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, Hawthorne James, Frank Finn, Julius J. Carry III, Bishop Pat Patterson, Pucci Jhones, Howard Jackson, Yetta Collier, Pat Washington, Doc Watson, Leroy Daniels, Melvin Smith, Ronny Harris, Dolorise Parr, John Casino, Keith David

Production: Generation International

Distribution: Transvue Pictures (USA), Xenon Pictures

93 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) D-