REVIEW: “Wonder Wheel”

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Calling the results of Woody Allen’s annualized blueprint to filmmaking ‘wildly hit-or-miss’ is a colossal understatement. Each year the 82 year-old Allen pops out another quirky postmodern exercise in human reflection. When they stick their landing they can be nothing short of delightful. But when they don’t they can be tedious, uninspired and generally unpleasant to watch.

Unfortunately Allen’s latest film “Wonder Wheel” falls in the latter category. It’s set in 1950s Coney Island and puts us in with a mostly flawed and disagreeable lot of characters. The story’s centerpiece is Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam shack waitress married to carousel operator Humpty (Jim Belushi) and with a pyromaniac son from a previous marriage. Their household is misery personified. The fragilely sober Humpty is occasionally sensitive but mostly loud and abusive. Ginny (one time an aspiring actress) hates her job, wants out of her marriage, and doesn’t mind sharing her unhappiness.

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To make things even more unsavory, Ginny begins having an affair with a younger man named Mickey (Justin Timberlake). He’s a Coney Island lifeguard and wannabe dramatist who also happens to be the movie’s narrator. It’s hard to figure out how the the film wants us to feel about Mickey. You could say Allen treats him as his protagonist and in some ways he’s the one character who comes out of this mess unscathed. Could it reasonably be taken as an indictment on Allen’s perspective? Me, I thought Mickey was a slime.

The one small twinkle of light is in Juno Temple’s character Carolina. She is Humpty’s estranged daughter from his first marriage who shows up after being gone for five years. Turns out her family disowned her after she ran off with a known gangster. Now she is ‘marked’ by the mob after talking to the feds and she seeks help from her father. It’s an absurd angle but Carolina is a nice break from the constant toxicity we get elsewhere. She’s actually sensible, pleasant and ambitious.

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You can’t help but notice Allen once again drawing from Tennessee Williams, but at times I saw it as cheaply ripping from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s in Allen’s dialogue and in how he squeezes some of his characters. Take Belushi who has some impressive moments, but his dial is almost always cranked up to 10. Same for Winslet who gives it her all, but is rarely given any softer moments. As her character steadily unravels she’s hardly given room to breathe. It’s a suffocating task for a really good actress.

I have no problems with movies that focus on deeply flawed people or that put us in the company of an unlikable cast of characters. In fact I enjoy those explorations. “Wonder Wheel” has its moments where you begin to see what makes its characters tick. The problem is it doesn’t have an ounce of temperance. And despite its teases of intrigue and some good images from new Allen collaborator Vittorio Storaro, the movie never keeps its footing and becomes little more than an aimless endurance test. But there’s always next year, right? Or is there?

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Café Society”

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With each year comes a few certainties – taxes, a new model iPhone, a Woody Allen movie. For decades now the 80 year-old Allen has maintained his ‘movie-a-year’ formula with varying degrees of success. His films have shown signs of evolving from tightly wound, exploratory character studies to more free-flowing, nostalgia-soaked wanderings. How it plays with audiences is always up for grabs.

“Café Society” is Allen’s 47th picture and you could say it’s about a lot of nothing. We nose in on the lives of a handful of people, listen to their conversations, witness their quirks, watch their unfolding relationships. That’s basically it. But there are things to glean from these seemingly insignificant interactions. Saying it’s about ‘nothing’ is a little strong, but no one will ever call it deep or profound.

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The story is set in the 1930’s and its centerpiece is a young man named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s the youngest son of a Jewish family from the Bronx who wants no part of his dad’s jewelry business. So he packs his bags and heads to the star-studded wonderland of Hollywood.  Once there he seeks out his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a pompous and powerful movie star agent. Phil gives him a menial job and introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby instantly falls for her.

Eisenberg and Stewart have a sparkling chemistry and Allen wisely milks it for much of the film’s first half. Their sprightly, youthful banter as they tour local movie palaces and quaint coffee shops is infectious. But it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie without some sort of weird relationship contortion which in this case leads to a pivot back to New York for the second half of the film.

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Sprinkled in among the chronicles of Bobby and Vonnie are short scenes highlighting his family. Some are dinner table conversations between his parents (wonderfully played by Jeanne Berlin and Ken Stott). There is a reoccurring neighbor issue with his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her high-strung intellectual husband (Stephen Kunken). And there are the antics of his gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll). The injections of the scenes can be a bit jarring, but I liked the characters and enjoyed their screen time.

Allen’s film wallows in nostalgia which is actually a strength. The set designs and costumes scream 1930’s authenticity. In the Hollywood segment we get numerous fun Golden Age name drops – Paul muni, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, just to name a few. And the New York social scene of the time bubbles with pomp and energy in the second half.

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And you can’t talk about “Café Society” without mentioning the cinematography. The film was exquisitely shot by the great Vittorio Storaro. Film buffs may remember his first American film being “Apocalypse Now”. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and Vittorio Utilizes every ounce of the technology. It’s filled with gorgeous framing and vibrant colors that burst from the screen. It falls right in line with Allen’s recent emphasis on visually capturing location and time.

Perhaps “Café Society” strolls at its own pace and perhaps Woody Allen is in cruise control with his latter films. Still I had a lot of fun with this one. He once again drew me into his time capsule, caught me up in the nostalgia of the era, and surrounded me with characters who I simply enjoyed following. I certainly can’t defend this as some deep, layered character study. But I can call it a well-made and well acted piece of entertainment that I would say easily falls into the ‘good’ category of Woody Allen pictures.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Magic in the Moonlight”

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There is no doubt that Woody Allen falls into the ‘hit or miss’ category. The 79-year old Allen is still writing and directing his films and we get a new movie every year. This self-imposed annualized system of his had led to several fairly rotten films. On the other hand, when Woody Allen is on his game, he can deliver some of the sharpest and wittiest character-driven movies you’ll find. His latest picture is “Magic in the Moonlight” and the big question was which Woody Allen were we going to get?

I have to admit my expectations for this film were pretty tempered. Critics seem to be split down the middle on it and even the positive reviews rarely featured high praise. So I sat down to watch the film preparing to be disappointed to some degree. But an interesting thing happened. The film hooked me after its first few scenes. As it went on I found myself more interested in its characters, more taken by its charms, more amused by its humor, and more satisfied with its simplicity. As it turns out I really liked this movie.

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As with many of Allen’s films, “Magic in the Moonlight” follows a very eccentric lead character. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a famous traveling illusionist in late 1920s Europe. He is a smug, snarky fellow who we quickly learn to dislike. His arrogance really shows itself in his obsession with mortality, specifically debunking any notion of mysticism or an afterlife. When describing himself and his perspective on the subject Stanley states “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world. Any other way lies madness.” His close-minded cynicism and innate stubbornness won’t allow him to entertain the possibilities of there being more beyond what we see.

One of Stanley’s side pleasures is exposing psychics as frauds. He is recruited by a childhood friend (Simon McBurney) to travel with him to the French Riviera where a young American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has wooed a very wealthy family. No one has been able to disprove Sophie’s “mental vibrations”, but that doesn’t deter the overly confident Stanley. After arriving at the Côte d’Azur, insulting most of the people he meets, and sitting in on a séance, Stanley finds himself baffled at Sophie’s abilities. Complicating matters even more, he soon finds himself smitten with her.

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When Allen’s material is clicking he can give us some truly fascinating characters. Stanley is a pompous and pretentious jerk. He’s insulting and confrontational, but there is another layer to the character. He’s also a miserable man whose facade of self-assuredness can’t hide his neurotic insecurities. The wily Colin Firth is fabulous and he handles Allen’s dialogue like a fine sculptor with clay. He delivers a character that is detestable, sympathetic, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Much of it is due to the signature sharp writing, but a big part is all because of Firth. The man is incapable of a bad performance.

But it’s Eileen Atkins who almost steals the entire show. She plays Stanley’s wise and straight-shooting Aunt Vanessa. She practically raised him since birth and knows him better than anyone else. She’s a subtle firecracker and her frank but loving dealings with Stanley offer up some of the film’s best lines. I was a little less enthusiastic about Emma Stone. She certainly isn’t bad by any means, but in some scenes she just doesn’t quite feel right for the part. It may be that she clashes with portions of Allen’s writing style. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

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One of the true stars of the film is cinematographer Darius Khondji. This is the fourth film he has shot for  Woody Allen and his work is fabulous. More and more locations are becoming bigger characters in Allen’s films. Here the gorgeous French Riviera setting is vividly captured. Sometimes it playfully lingers as a backdrop. Other times Khondji seems to be framing a beautiful postcard right up until someone enters the frame. And then there is the percolating 1920s setting. I loved the conscientious attention given to the many period details.

I can see where “Magic in the Moonlight” would be too lightweight for some people. For some it may not be funny enough. For others it may not be romantic enough. Overall it has underwhelmed a lot of people. I found myself happily wrapped up in its setting, its humor, and its simplicity. Now don’t misunderstand me. This doesn’t have the magic of “Midnight in Paris”. But it is a film I enjoyed getting lost in, and when the final credits rolled I had a big smile on my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Blue Jasmine”

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Each year has its share of certainties: we grow a year older, we have to pay our taxes, my sports teams disappoint me, and Woody Allen puts out a new movie. Now that doesn’t mean that every one of Allen’s films are masterpieces (ala “Midnight in Paris”). In fact some of them are just dreadful (ala last year’s “To Rome with Love”). But one thing about the bad ones, you always know the next film is only a year away. And maybe, just maybe, Allen will land one of the real gems he’s capable of making.

Here’s the good news – “Blue Jasmine” is one of the good ones. This character study touches on a number of subjects from business ethics to family troubles to rabid consumerism. At the center of it all is a captivating performance by Cate Blanchett. She plays Jasmine Francis, a New York socialite whose posh lifestyle collapses when her crooked husband is arrested and loses their fortune. Penniless and without a place to go, Jasmine flies to San Francisco and moves in with her estranged working-class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). It’s here that she must learn to start a new chapter of her life or drown in her despair of leaving the affluent upper crust.

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To go further, Jasmine is a wreck. She’s coming off of a nervous breakdown, she pops anxiety pills like candy, and she has an affinity for heavy drinking. She still carries her spoiled and privileged attitude which clashes with her new destitute reality. And all of this is brought on by her lousy husband. We see the events leading to Jasmine’s fall from luxury through several cleverly incorporated flashbacks. We watch her husband Hal (Alec Bladwin) and his penchant for women and shady business deals while she lives in a diamond-studded state of naïveté. She’s content with living high on the hog while asking no questions whatsoever. That proves to be a costly mistake, both mentally and monetarily.

Jasmine’s snooty ego doesn’t fit well with the circle of people she is introduced to in San Francisco. This class clash is the prominent focus for most of the film. This is also where we meet the film’s fantastic assortment of side characters. Hawkins is great as Jasmine’s kindhearted sister and I really liked Bobby Cannavele as her blue-collar beau hunk boyfriend. We get Michael Stuhlbarg as a lovestruck dentist and Peter Sarsgaard pops up as a wealthy businessman with political aspirations. But the biggest treat was Andrew Dice Clay. Yes you heard me, Andrew Dice Clay. Gone is the loud obnoxious standup routine. Here he plays a humble, hard-working fellow that you can’t help but sympathize with. And it’s all because of the unbelievable turn from Dice Clay. He was completely natural and restrained. Brilliant work.

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But the true star is Cate Blanchett who undoubtedly gives one of the year’s finest performances. There are bits of subtle humor that are sprinkled in throughout her story. But she’s more of a sad, self-destructive woman who has no sense of direction or belonging. Blanchett visualizes her struggles through every fidget, every bead of sweat, and every outburst. She’s not a likable character by any stretch but she’s simply mesmerizing. Blanchett gives a performance that is getting some Oscar hype. Personally I think it demands an Oscar nomination.

It’s clear that “Blue Jasmine” was influenced by other films. For example if you listen closely you can hear “A Streetcar Named Desire” passing in the distance. But Woody Allen has always been a filmmaker who treasures inspiration and when he is on his game he can truly deliver. This is really good material handled by an excellent cast including a surprise performance from Andrew Dice Clay and some of the best work of Cate Blanchett’s career. “Blue Jasmine” may not stay with you for a long time nor be considered among Allen’s very best by the bigger fans of his work. For me it really worked and it’s definitely good Woody Allen.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Midnight in Paris”

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Without a doubt the romantic comedy is one of the weaker movie genres and has been for years. But sometimes we get a special gem that reminds us of just how fun these types of movies can be. “Midnight in Paris”, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a crash course in the art of making a romantic comedy. It is loaded with heart and feeling and doesn’t trudge down the same path as so many failed films of this genre. It’s a movie that captures the magic of it’s location and the inner workings of it’s characters. It’s clever and unique while maintaining a true romantic feel and sense of humor.

“Midnight in Paris” opens with a picturesque three-minute montage focusing on the beauty of Paris, France. It gracefully moves from one exquisitely framed shot to another, showing us historical landmarks, museums, cafes, and more all set to the lovely “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere”. It elegantly sets up the city of Paris as not only a central character in the film, but an enchanting and magical force whose influence is seen throughout the picture. In many ways Woody Allen is celebrating Paris. He wants us to love the city and appreciate the mystique of it’s rich history just as much as his main character does. Allen’s desire works. I was instantly grabbed and found myself totally lost in what I was seeing on the screen.

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While Paris is at the heart of the story, the main character is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a hack Hollywood screenwriter who is visiting the city with his fiancée and her parents. Gil loves everything about Paris and to this day regrets his decision not to move there when he had a chance several years ago. He feels he was meant for more than writing screenplays but he struggles with confidence. He doesn’t feel comfortable in today’s world and believes he would be a better fit in the 1920s. His fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) is a spoiled momma’s girl who spends more time insulting Gil than supporting him. There is clearly a disconnect between the two. He loves Paris and she doesn’t. He’s working on a novel that he thinks will change his career and she thinks he’s wasting his time. He enjoys the small details in life while she would rather milk it for it’s benefits.

While in Paris they run into Paul (Michael Sheen), Inez’s old friend and self-proclaimed expert on everything from art to French culture to fine wines. Inez seems infatuated with Paul’s knowledge regardless of how many facts he gets wrong in his efforts to impress everyone. Needing to get away, Gil takes off on a late night walk. After getting lost, he is picked up by a group of partiers in an old classic car who magically transport him back to 1920s Paris. Here he meets many of his literary and artistic heroes such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Stein. He also meets the lovely Adriana (played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard) who he grows more attracted to with each midnight visit.

The fantasy turn of Allen’s story did feel a bit out of the blue at first but it didn’t take long before I was enthralled with what I was seeing. Gil’s golden age is recreated flawlessly from the music and atmosphere to the careful attention to detail. I loved seeing these authors, painters, composers, and filmmakers of old fleshed out through some fantastic performances. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill are absolutely brilliant as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. I also loved Marcial Di Fonzo Bo as Picasso and Adrien Brody as Dali, both in smaller but fun roles. And then there’s Corey Stoll as Hemingway who steals many of the scenes he’s in. The supporting cast is such a wonderful ingredient to the film’s charm.

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But in terms of acting it’s Owen Wilson that really blew me away. In many ways he plays a character that really fits him. We’ve seen elements of this performance in other roles of his but here everything is perfectly measured and controlled. Even though Woody Allen has stated he gave Wilson a lot of room to work, it’s clear that Allen has a solid influence on his performance. I’ve been really lukewarm concerning most of Wilson’s past work but he really, really impressed me here. He dials it back a bit and never allows his performance to drown out the material.

“Midnight in Paris” does call for the audience to just buy into it’s fantasy angle and if you struggle with that you may struggle with this picture. It also turns out to be fairly predictable in places. But these small gripes do nothing to kill the magic of this picture for me. This is certainly a love letter to Paris, but it’s also a lesson on living in the present. Allen reminds us that the golden age so many long for isn’t that different from where we are now. It’s a beautiful film both visually and structurally and it moves along at an almost poetic pace. Better yet, “Midnight in Paris” is a film that gives us hope for a struggling genre. I love this movie.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

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THE 5 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2012

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Monday is the day where I do The Phenomenal 5. But honestly, it’s kinda hard to fit the word “phenomenal” in with this list. Just as every movie year has its great films, every year also has its movies that fell short, disappointed, or simply missed its mark. 2012 was certainly no different. For this list I’ve picked five movies that just didn’t work for me. Now I’m not claiming that these are the worst films on 2012 (more on those later). Nor am I including movies like “The Master” which I feel is overrated but that has some undeniable strong points. These five films are movies loaded with potential and high expectations but ended up as real letdowns. (Click on the names of each movie for a link to my full review).

#5 – “BATTLESHIP”

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I almost left “Battleship”off this list entirely. It wasn’t a movie that I had huge expectations for therefore it wasn’t a major disappointment. On the other hand, I bought into the flashy, action-packed trailers that showed off the cool technical side of the film. Unfortunately that’s about all this movie had to offer – lots of explosions, cool alien technology, and nothing more. Even more, I was really surprised at just how lame the script really was. It’s completely predictable, filled with clichés, and features an absolutely absurd rise in military rank for our protagonist. Look, I get that “Battleship” was a mindless, summer popcorn flick. But even those have to execute better than this movie does.

#4 – “TAKEN 2”

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I really like the first “Taken” film. It was one of the first films featuring the new tough guy Liam Neeson. I ignored all of the bad reviews and made my way to the theater to see “Taken 2”. Sigh! There were moments that I liked in the movie. But there weren’t many of them. “Taken 2” completely dropped the ball in the end. It’s a lazy, check cashing effort that seems to have worked judging by the box office numbers. But I found myself frustrated at the film due to its poor camerawork and absolutely absurd moments. Some of Neeson’s tough guy techniques are ridiculous and I’ve rarely seen a stupider bunch of the bad guys. And then there’s the climactic fights at the end where the camerawork is so bad you have no idea what has taken place. One thing I do know, “Taken 2” definitely qualifies as a disappointment.

#3 – “CLOUD ATLAS”

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I was completely unfamiliar with the source material for “Cloud Atlas”. But after hearing all of the excitement from many others, I became pretty enthusiastic about the movie adaptation. I came out really disappointed but I’ve also grown more disenchanted with it as time goes by. There’s a lot of ambition tied into this film. It also takes chances and I always like that. But this is a mishmash of incomprehensible nonsense, self-indulgent style, and heavy-handed sermonizing wrapped up as a groundbreaking, science-fiction epic. Now I can see where people may buy into it but I saw it as a lot smaller than it tries to be. A couple of the storylines are interesting but as a whole it just didn’t come together and I have no interest in seeing it again.

#2 – “TO ROME WITH LOVE”

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I was never a big fan of Woody Allen, at least not until I saw “Midnight in Paris”. I remain mesmerized by that movie both due to its heart and it’s incredible witt. Allen’s European cinematic tour continued with “To Rome With Love” and how could it not be good, right? Sadly the movie flies off the rails at the halfway point and never captures any of the locational magic that made “Midnight” so great. Now I will say the movie starts off promising and I was starting to think Allen had struck gold again. But things take a ridiculous turn and the second half of the movie is about as sloppy as anything I saw all year. I was really hoping Woody Allen would do for Rome what he did for Paris. Instead he left it just short of a disaster area.

#1 – “TOTAL RECALL”

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Many of us have questioned the barrage of remakes coming out of Hollywood these days. But “Total Recall” was one film that seemed primed for a modern day makeover. And while I did have questions, I back-burned any skepticism. Unfortunately there were a lot of reasons to be skeptical. I watched the original “Total Recall” tons of times after its release. This flashy remake not only fails to capture the fun, sci-fi action and adventure of the original, but it leaves out much of what made the first film so good. The glaring creative changes and omissions decimate the story so much so that the fantastic visuals and great special-effects can’t cover it. This is a really good looking movie. But it’s also a complete drag and it fails to capitalize on what should have been a surefire formula.

There are my five biggest disappointments of the 2012 movie year. Agree or disagree? Please let me know. Also take time to share some of your biggest disappointments of this past year.