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

Café Society

(USA 2016)

“First a murderer, then he becomes a Christian! What did I do to deserve this?”

—Rose Dorfman

Those who aren’t fans of late-period Woody Allen are unlikely to change their mind with Café Society, a stylish period piece set in Depression Era Hollywood. It lacks the bite of his best work; in fact, it shows him in a far more nostalgic state of mind than ever. As a summer release, though, Café Society is a competent, engaging comedy with a lot of charm.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a bright, affable, ambitious, and angsty young New Yorker. The problem is, he hasn’t got a plan—which is probably the source of his angst. With little more than good manners, a strong work ethic, and hope, he leaves Brooklyn for ostensibly greener pastures in Los Angeles, where his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a big time agent to the stars. Bobby tracks down his uncle, who dodges him for a week before hiring him as his personal assistant.

Uncle Phil shows Bobby the ropes around Hollywood, promoting him to different, better positions in a short time. They kind of bond. While this is going on, Bobby gets friendly with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). They hang out. A lot. She has a beau, she tells Bobby, and they’re on the D.L. because he’s married. Bobby falls for her, anyway, but she keeps him at bay. Vonnie tells Bobby only that her beau works as a reporter, and is older than she is. She also mentions the gift she gives him for their first anniversary: a picture of Rudolph Valentino.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

L.A. is sunny, but not really Bobby’s thing. He longs for New York, and decides to go back. Meanwhile, we learn that Phil is having an affair—with Vonnie. Phil vascilates about leaving his wife, decides he can’t do it, and dumps Vonnie on their first anniversary. Vonnie quits her job and dates Bobby, seriously. They plan to move to Greenwich Village and get married. Phil changes his mind, and decides he can’t live without Vonnie. He wants her back. A turn of events reveals the triangle to Bobby, and the real story begins.

Café Society deals with fame, fortune, and fidelity. The plot is nicely layered: interesting but not overly complicated. It doesn’t even take long for the “Big Reveal.” Every character is likable but hardly innocent. The sets are gorgeous. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is crisp and glitzy—at times, the color palette and grade resemble Lawrence of Arabia. Odd, but cool.

The cast is excellent, which for a Woody Allen film is par for the course: Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Blake Lively, Paul Schneider, even Parker Posey. Eisenberg channels Allen really well—the way he speaks, his body language and hand gestures, even his facial ticks. A hilarious exchange between Bobby and a girl-for-hire named Candy (Anna Camp) who shows up late at his apartment is nothing short of genius. As good as Eisenberg is, though, Stewart is the star, and she steals every scene she’s in: she’s cool, mean, flip, vulnerable, and ultimately a sellout. She’s also beautiful. Berlin is another scene-stealer as Bobby’s Jewish mother, Rose.

Surprisingly, Steve Carell is the weak link. I don’t buy him as an agent, a ball-busting businessman, or even a Jew. Not for a second. He’s too soft. Harmless. Cuddly, even. He comes off as Michael Scott from The Office more than anything. I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in, even The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This one, however, doesn’t work.

96 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) B

http://www.cafesocietymovie.com