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


The Godfather

(USA 1972)

“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”

—Don Vito Corleone


“My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power. Like a president or a senator.”

—Michael Corleone


“And may their first child be a masculine child.”

—Luca Brasi


“Hey Mikey, why don’cha tell that nice girl you love her? ‘I love you with all a-my heart. If I don’t a-see you again a-soon, I’m a-gonna die!'”

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

—Peter Clemenza

Pretty much perfect, The Godfather was almost a different movie. Based on Mario Puzo’s insanely popular best selling 1969 novel, studio executives conceived a pulp gangster drama for its film adaptation. Good thing they wanted a “real” Italian-American to direct so it would be so authentic that moviegoers would “smell the spaghetti” (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/03/godfather200903). Several unsuccessful attempts were made to attract a director, including Warren Beatty. Paramount “settled for” unknown Francis Ford Coppola, who took it somewhere else.

The Godfather is universally held in high esteem as one of the greatest films of all time—as it should be. It’s a a movie showered in superlatives—like the bullets that shower, well, most of the characters. It’s impeccable. We caught an anniversary screening.

Coppola’s morality play is a masterpiece, more complex than it seems at first and full of contrast and contradiction. A solemn and ominous mob drama that centers on Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his family business, The Godfather boasts one riveting career-defining performance after another—Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, and Abe Vigoda, to name a few. The characters are great, and the dialogue—perfect! Not a single second is wasted here, not even that long ass wedding scene.

The observations about human nature are astute, and the spin on assimilation and the American Dream is clever. The dramatic arc involving the descent of younger son Michael (Pacino) into a moral apocalypse is something you can’t shift your eyes away from. Black as its promotional poster, The Godfather leaves so much to chew on. This is what cinema is all about.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Godfather “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 Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Rudy Bond, Al Martino , Morgana King, Lenny Montana, John Martino, Salvatore Corsitto, Richard Bright, Alex Rocco, Tony Giorgio, Vito Scotti, Tere Livrano, Victor Rendina, Jeannie Linero, Julie Gregg, Ardell Sheridan, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti, Corrado Gaipa, Franco Citti, Saro Urzì, Sofia Coppola

Production: Paramount Pictures, Alfran Productions

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (International)

175 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) A+

Fathom Events

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet

(USA 1996)

“My only love sprung from my only hate.”

—Juliet Capulet

I don’t usually read reviews when I write my entries here, but sometimes I can’t resist checking what critics had to say about older movies when they first hit theaters back in the day. Roger Ebert did not like this one, which he called “a mess” and “a very bad idea” (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/romeo-and-juliet-1996). I respectfully disagree; Baz Luhrmann’s overblown and over the top take on Shakespeare’s (probably) best known play is, in a word, awesome—even with 20 years’ wear.

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet definitely is not your lit teacher’s Shakespeare: set in hyper-paced, decaying fictitious Verona Beach on the verge of the Millennium, Luhrmann reimagines the feuding Montagues and Capulets as two family corporate empires embrolied in a turf war. They act like cartels: Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Dash Mihok) and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (John Leguizamo) brawl at a gas station, wrecking havok in the city. Instead of knives, their weapons are guns with brand names “Dagger” and “Sword” embossed on them. Chief of Police Captain Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) warns family heads Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy) and Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) to get their boys under control, or there will be hell to pay.

That evening, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio), Benvolio, and Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) take ecstasy and crash a costume party at the Capulet mansion, where prima donna Mrs. Capulet (Diane Venora) has arranged an introduction between Juliet (Claire Danes, who you oughta know emulates Alanis Morissette) and governor’s son Dave Paris (Paul Rudd dressed as an astronaut). Drawn to a blacklit aquarium in the bathroom, rolling Romeo, literally a knight in shining armor, sees Juliet in angel wings on the other side. Thus begins the fateful downfall of the star-crossed lovers, aided by Fr. Laurence (Pete Postlewaite).

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet injects new life into a classic. Laying the groundwork for 2000’s Moulin Rouge!, everything about it is bold and flamboyant—especially the choice to stick mostly with the play’s original prose. Luhrmann mixes a headspinning cocktail of English literature, Alexander McQueen, Quentin Tarantino, and MTV to create an apocalyptic assault on the senses. He combines outrageous sets (including a crumbling movie theater on the beach that provides the perfect stage for some of the action), religious imagery, sexy thugs, car chases, a drag performance, newscasts, and hip tunage into a whirl of color, noise, and poetry. Donald M. McAlpine’s cinematography is downright decadent. The soundtrack is strong: it boasts, among other acts, Radiohead, Everclear, Garbage, Butthole Surfers, and of course the Cardigans with their only U.S. chart hit, “Lovefool.”

I can see why purists and old fogies will pass on this adaptation. I, however, love it. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet isn’t perfect, but it’s wickedly clever, fun, and never dull.

120 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+

Bullets Over Broadway

(USA 1994)

“The world will open to you like an oyster. No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina.”

—Helen Sinclair

Apparently, I’m not the only one who holds 1994 in very high regard as a landmark year for film: http://wtop.com/movies/2016/01/best-years-ever-movies/;
http://ew.com/article/2009/08/05/which-was-the-best-year-for-movies-1977-1994-or-1999/; http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/10-movies-prove-1994-was-best-year-film-history; http://twoguysonemovie.com/editorial-1994-the-best-year-for-movies-ever/; https://www.quora.com/Was-1994-the-best-year-in-the-history-of-film-making-in-Hollywood; http://luminarydaily.com/no-huffington-post-1993-wasnt-the-best-year-for-movies-1994-was/. Seriously, here’s what I saw that year: Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, Shawshank Redemption, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Killing Zöe, and of couse Bullets Over Broadway. I think I saw Schindler’s List that year, too—at least, by the time it opened where I lived. Fuck yeah, what a year! If this were a report card, I’d have straight A’s.

Now for Bullets Over Broadway: I suspect that once we as a culture got to the ’80s, complete artistic control became a pipe dream. This is because by that point, entertainment already was a bona fide industry with backers, lawyers, trademarks, and a human resources department—a mix of commerce that sometimes can but most of the time just doesn’t mix with art. Let’s be honest: how could it?

This is what makes Bullets Over Broadway so much fun! Set in 1920s Manhattan, Woody Allen—himself an artist by this point in his career—is making fun of, well, artists. And commerce. And you know what? The whole thing is fucking brilliant! I mean, if anyone knows how that works…

John Cusack is David Shayne, the Broadway playwright du jour. His agent (Jack Warden) gets his play produced—but it requires a series of concessions, some of which literally are do or die. You see, a mafia kingpin (Joe Viterelli) agrees to finance the play as long as his girlfriend, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), is cast as the lead. OK, but…Olive has no talent. And remember: this is Prohibition. Who’s going to say anything—especially when Olive arrives to rehearsals with a bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri)? Bueller?

You’d be surprised—like an asshole, everyone has an opinion. Some, particularly those with artistic credibility (but not necessarily looking out for the best interests of the play), get David’s attention more than others—lead actress Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), for one. Never mind that she pretends she wants to sleep with David—she’s got his ear. Too bad David writes off the ones with the best ideas—and the best intentions. Who’s the artist now?

With excellent appearances by Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, and Tracey Ullman, Bullets Over Broadway is one of Allen’s best films. For some strange reason, it’s damned near impossible to find on home video—DVD maybe, if you get lucky; but definitely not a download. I don’t understand why.

98 minutes
Rated R

(Home via DVD) A-


Date Night

(USA 2010)

I love me some Tina Fey, I usually like Steve Carell, and I certainly won’t complain if Mark Wahlberg is shirtless in every scene. Add James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, and even Common, and you’d expect to have a winner on your hands. Right? Wrong.

Date Night is a cute adventure film, but it’s certainly not an adventurous undertaking. It’s formulaic, predictable Hollywood milquetoast aimed at married suburban couples—director Shawn Levy’s specialty. Fey and Carell play the Fosters, a normal, middle-aged, overworked New Jersey couple whose longtime marriage has lost its mojo. They do date night periodically to keep things alive—it doesn’t seem to be working. One night, they decide to be adventurous and head to Manhattan. When they learn that the wait for a table at an exclusively hip restaurant will be a few hours because they don’t have a reservation, they pretend to be another couple, the Tripplehorns, to snag theirs. The Fosters end up with way more excitement than either of them bargained for after a pair of mobsters (Common and Jimmi Simpson) confronts them about a jump drive their boss (Ray Liotta) wants.

Fey and Carell have a sort of chemistry, but it’s benign. They do this thing where they imagine the conversations that patrons at other tables are having—it’s cute and very Seinfeldian. The Maitre D’ (Nick Kroll) is funny because he is such an asshole—in a David Spade way. Other than that, the laughs here are far and few between. The problem isn’t the actors—it’s Josh Klausner’s lame script, which plays out like a bland and weird ripoff of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting, and True Romance. Date Night has a few good lines and a few good scenes, but not enough to make it funny for very long.

88 minutes
Rated PG-13

(TBS) D+

Dead End

(USA 1937)

I never heard of the Dead End Kids until I saw this film. Long before West Side Story and The Outsiders, the Dead End Kids served as a Depression Era vehicle for social commentary on American urban life. Living in tenements along the East River as the moneyed started to convert Manhattan’s slums into upscale properties, the Dead End Kids demonstrated some of the pains of change and the kinds of decisions necessary to avoid going down a road to ruin (i.e., a life of crime). The ensemble held on in different incarnations well past its shelf life until the late 1950s, when the actors were in their mid-30s and had become more of a comedy act.

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s successful 1935 play, Dead End is the one that started it all. It goes through a day in the life of a street “gang” led by Tommy Gordon (Billy Halop). The kids are rough around the edges and have names like Dippy (Huntz Hall), Spit (Leo Gorcey), and T.B. (Gabriel Dell). They openly mock their rich neighbors across the street in the co-op that abuts the slum (the windowless door to the co-op clearly states “service entrance”), steal, fight, play cards, shine shoes, and spend a lot of time swiming in the river at the end of the block. A slick neighborhood expat gangster, “Baby Face” Martin (a young Humphrey Bogart), who apparently made it as a hit man elsewhere, returns with his thug, Hunk (Allen Jenkins). No one, not even his low-talking mother (Minor Watson), wants him around. Meanwhile, Tommy’s sister, Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a mother figure who’s off work striking for better wages, is trying her best to keep Tommy on the right path. She mentions a few times that the extra $3.50 a week (!) she’s fighting for would get them to a better place. She’s all into Dave (Joel McCrea), an unemployed architect with his eye on a rich girl (Wendy Barrie) who lives in the co-op.

Loaded with subplots, the story is okay even with its old school melodrama. Some of the performances—specifically Bogart, Sidney, McCrea, and Watson—are decent. The surreptitious way syphilis is slipped into the story is interesting. Otherwise, Dead End has issues. It may have been edgy in the ’30s, but in comtemporary eyes it reads as silly, even campy. The set is too tidy and ordered to be a real street. The kids’ exaggerated fake Archie Bunker accents get annoying after awhile—I expected to hear the word “murdalize” at many points (I didn’t). The story is moralistic in an unsophisticated way that even the ABC Afterschool Special never was. Still, Dead End depicts a world without a middle class and criticizes gentrification, points that ring familiar today. I didn’t hate Dead End, but it’s completely forgettable.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

A Most Violent Year

(USA 2014)

Not gratuitously violent as the title might imply. A Most Violent Year is not entirely what I expected, but I liked it. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a gangster who’s not a gangster, runs a “clean” operation selling gas. Someone’s got it in for him, though, and a mystery unfolds slowly and deliberately with a few nail biting turns.

It’s a film that makes one think, and I left trying to define “clean.” A Most Violent Year did an outstanding job capturing without going overboard the look and feel of the really early still-70s 80s– before big hair, funky sunglasses, and shoulder pads. Props to Jessica Chastain, who played Morales’s wife with dead-on Jersey mob daughter fabulousness.

(AMC River East) B+