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



(USA 1977)

I learned of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, his first feature length film, during my freshman year in college (thank you, U.D.). Somehow, seeing it escaped me until it screened at a recent Lynch retrospective.

The basic premise is easy to follow: Henry Spencer (John Nance, later Jack) is a schlubby factory worker who learns he fathered a mutant baby out of wedlock. At the insistence of her mother (Jeanne Bates), his freaked out girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), moves into Henry’s tiny one-room apartment with the baby, who looks like a diseased E.T. wrapped in gauze. The baby cries constantly, driving Mary out of the apartment and leaving Henry to care for it. His neighbor, Beautiful Girl Across the Hall (Judith Anna Roberts), serves as an ever-increasing temptation and torment.

Really, it’s not the plot but Lynch’s presentation that makes Eraserhead unique. To be clear, it’s not his best film—not even close. It isn’t exactly representative of his work, either. Still, it’s interesting to see his trademarks in their infancy: a horrific and surreal atmosphere, bizarre imagery that here includes lots of spermatozoan objects and seemingly random scenes, spooky characters like the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), and of course Lynch’s dry and twisted wit. The sets and costumes are assembled with early 20th Century industrial junk. The soundtrack is essentially white noise in the background. Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell’s cinematography is rich and textured, using black and white to create a look and mood that resembles a silent film. Their camerawork sets up a sense of claustrophobia that lingers for the duration of the film.

Like most of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead is open to interpretation. In simplest terms, it’s a horror story about the demands of the family on the individual, from small talk and dinners with in-laws to appeasing a partner to child rearing to straying from the family unit. In the tradition of great American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and August Wilson, Lynch focuses on the pains and dysfunction that often make familial burdens difficult to bear.

I didn’t quite grasp everything here—how pencilmaking fits into the big picture, for example. Regardless, Eraserhead is infinitely interesting. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but it definitely leaves an impression—I guess in that sense it’s a haunting tale. It’s a weird and original film. Here’s the weirdest thing about it: I actually felt something emotional for that mutant baby. Go figure.

In 2004, the United States Library of Congress deemed Eraserhead “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 Allen Joseph, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Hal Landon Jr., Gill Dennis, Darwin Joston, Jennifer Lynch, Peggy Lynch

Production: American Film Institute (AFI), Libra Films

Distribution: Libra Films International (USA), Creative Exposure (Canada), Mainline Pictures (UK), Toei Yoga and Comstock (Japan), Chapel Distribution and Umbrella Entertainment (Australia), Eye Film Instituut (Netherlands), Potemkine Films (France)

89 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective


The Long Voyage Home

(USA 1940)

Normally, a movie loaded with dirty seamen spread all over a wet, slippery poop deck might be something to see. The Long Voyage Home is not that movie. Based on a slew (four to be exact) of one-act plays strung together like a pearl necklace and reset during WWII, The Long Voyage Home is a nautical drama about a group of mostly illiterate sailors aboard a ship, the Glencairn, that seems to have a Nazi spy on it. Spoiler: it doesn’t, but we find that out about halfway through. The rest of the film follows the crew to shore to see off oafish Ole (John Wayne) and his parrot to Sweden before a debaucherous detour through a dank English city changes the plan. Arrrrrgh.

I learned two key facts from this film: not everything Eugene O’Neill wrote is great, and John Wayne made a sucky Swede. Definitely a work of another time, The Long Voyage Home was toture not just because of the boring story but everything else: style, pace, acting, speech. The characters were one-dimensional, and the events that took place were disjointed. I found it difficult to get involved or care about what happened. Add a schmaltzy ending complete with a newspaper blowing in the wind, and I’m overboard. The clothes were cool, though.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) F