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 Salesman [Forušande]

(Iran 2016)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman [Forušande] [فروشنده] is a marvelously dark and brooding study of a married couple that shifts smoothly from a domestic crisis drama to a revenge flick. His approach is a lot more subtle than one an American director might take, but this is precisely what makes The Salesman so satisfying.

While working out the finishing touches of a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in which they play the Lomans, community actors Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are forced out of their apartment just days before the play opens when a construction mishap next door weakens the building’s foundation. The cracks in the walls become a metaphor for what’s about to happen to their relatively peaceful marriage.

A fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi), sets them up in temporary digs, a recently and hastily vacated apartment that still contains the previous tenant’s belongings: furniture, bedding, dresses, tons of high heel shoes, a kid’s bike. One night when she’s home alone, a stranger attacks Rana in the shower. She can’t identify him, and she doesn’t want to go to the police. She won’t even say exactly what happened.

Rana starts to go off the deep end; the more unsafe she feels, the less secure Emad is in his own ego. He stews as he pieces together what might have transpired. A set of keys and a delivery truck parked on the street seems like a promising lead to tracking down the stranger, which becomes something of an obsession for Emad.

Farhadi has a straightforward, minimal style. Although he draws a few parallels to Death of a Salesman, he doesn’t beat us over the head with them. He does a nice job dropping us into the story and letting us figure out what he’s getting at. He has a lot to say about male aggression, turning the tables from Rana as the victim to Emad—his masculinity takes a beating as the film progresses.

With Farid Sajadhosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Pirzadeh

Production: Memento Films Production, Asghar Farhadi Production, Arte France Cinéma

Distribution: Amazon Studios (USA), Cohen Media Group (USA), Filmiran (Iran), Memento Films Distribution (France)

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Regal Webster Place) B+




(USA 2016)

Not a lot happens in Jim Jarmusch’s new film Paterson—it is, to borrow from Seinfeld, a show about nothing. Starting on a random Monday, the story follows Paterson (Adam Driver)—a Paterson, New Jersey, city bus driver and closet (or in this case, basement) poet—through his daily routine for a whole week. He finds inspiration in the simplest things: passengers, barflies, Ohio Blue Tip matches. He works it all into his “secret notebook” of poetry, scribbled in sidebars onscreen. Some of it is interesting, some not so much.

Jarmusch throws a lot out there: never mind the recurring parallels between Paterson and those he encounters—there’s imagery of twins, waterfalls, circles, and fireballs. Attempting to infer a weighty point in all of it, though, is probably an exercise in futility; this is fluid stream of consciousness. The story is more a string of vignettes: Paterson’s wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), orders a guitar online and later serves Brussels sprout and cheddar pie for dinner; the bus Paterson drives breaks down; a situation arises in the bar where Paterson has a beer every night when he walks his wife’s dog, Marvin (Nellie, who, sadly, passed away before Paterson came out: http://www.indiewire.com/2016/05/the-2016-palm-dog-posthumously-awarded-to-nellie-the-dog-from-jim-jarmuschs-paterson-289094/).

The characters Paterson encounters are plentiful and colorful: defeatist coworker Donny (Rizwan Manji); a rapper (Method Man) in a laundromat; a young poet (Sterling Jerins) waiting for her mother in the bus yard; Marie (Chasten Harmon) and her sensitive beau, Everett (William Jackson Harper), whom she’s trying to dump; a nameless gangbanger (Luis Da Silva, Jr.) who warns Paterson about dog-jacking (not that it stops him from tying Marvin to a spigot outside the bar every night); anarchists, old ladies, and braggarts on the bus.

Perhaps the most accomplished thing about Paterson is its rhythm: the plot moves slowly but in a purposely metered fashion. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes creates a dreamy and downright poetic look. The relationship between Paterson and the world has its own set of rules. This film reminds me of Dead Man, which I haven’t seen in two decades: quietly contemplating routine and rut, Paterson ultimately celebrates the poetry in the mundane. The unnamed traveler and angel (Masatoshi Nagase) at the end literally gives us the “a-ha” moment. With nearly no outside sound, not even music, I thought of one thing: if James Joyce’s Ulysses were made into a movie, it would feel a lot like this. Unlike Leopold Bloom, though, Paterson’s wife isn’t cheating on him, and no one except Marvin seems to mind his presence.

Side note: for some reason, the screening I caught included Spanish subtitles, unintentionally adding another layer of what-the-fuck. Paterson is not a movie for everyone, but I definitely see a following here. I liked it.

Also starring Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Johnnie Mae.

Produced by K5 International, Le Pacte, Animal Kingdom, and Inkjet Productions

Distributed by Bleeker Street Media and Amazon Studios

118 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B-