Yesterday(6/27/2019)

When the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film Yesterday was first released I had questions.  This trailer was a pretty straightforward bit of advertising that largely existed to explain the film’s high concept: that the film was about a British street musician named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) who bumps his head and when he wakes up he finds that through some sort of magic The Beatles have been wiped from this history books, appear to have never existed, and are not remembered by anyone except Jack, prompting him to recreate their songs and start a major music career as the ostensible author of all these incredibly catchy pop tunes that no one has heard before.  Not a terrible idea for a movie in theory, but the more I thought about that high concept the more it started to bug me.  As I mulled it over some questions occurred to me, questions like:

  • If The Beatles never existed how can you envision a pop culture landscape where likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Pulp still be around?
  • How would someone, even a trained musician, be able to fully recreate an artist’s catalog from scratch? Even a superfan isn’t necessarily going to know every word of “The Long and Winding Road” after all.
  • Would these song still be marketable and impressive if they’re divorced from their historical context and what made them innovative and new when they were released?

In short the movie had a lot to cover but that’s okay, it’s being made by smart people and I looked forward to seeing how they were going to wrestle with these things.  Unfortunately I must say that I found a lot of their answers kind of inadequate, that is when they bothered to give answers at all.  On the issue of how he was able to recreate the songs from memory for example, they do give lip service to the idea, but ultimately don’t wrestle with it.  He’s basically able to come up with the lyrics off screen for the most part and is able to come up with the rest of them after a quick trip to Liverpool in order to reconnect with Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.  But whatever, that’s mostly just a nitpick.  The much bigger question is how the movie expects us to believe that, given how important and revolutionary it seems to think The Beatles were, that a pop culture landscape where they never existed would basically be unchanged from what we’re experiencing now.  There’s a throwaway joke about Oasis also not existing given how derivative they were, but you’d think the most popular rock band of all time would have more of a butterfly effect than that, and outside of that one little joke the movie basically never questions how popular music managed to just keep on chugging without the influence of the fab four.  The movie also basically just takes it as a given that because the songs are so good they would automatically be just as popular today as they were in the 60s, that the kids who’ve already experienced The Backstreet Boys would still lose their shit for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that someone whose listened to Radiohead’s “OK Computer” would still pop their monocle when they heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  That’s not to say the possibility of these songs to resonate would not exist in the modern day but you’d think “Back in the USSR” would maybe mean something a little different in 2019 than it did in 1968.

So, with the movie more or less refusing to engage with these ideas I actually found myself asking even more questions while watching it, questions like:

  • Would these songs sound different if made using modern production techniques and without the input of George Martin? Could Ringo be replaced by an 808?
  • Would a 28 year old singing “she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” get you canceled in a song written in 2019?
  • Would “Happiness is a Warm Gun” fly in an era where there are regular mass shootings?
  • What does it mean for a guy with roots in the Indian subcontinent to take song from a band that rather famously appropriated a whole lot of ideas and music from that region? Is turnabout fair play?
  • Would the psychedelic imagery throughout The Beatles music connect with to a generation of kids who are going up with Molly and Adderall instead of LSD?
  • Shouldn’t he be releasing all this material gradually over time instead of dumping every damn Beatles song ever all at one time.
  • Further if you’re releasing The Beatles catalog from scratch, would it make more sense to introduce audiences to the simpler earlier stuff first or would it make more sense to jump into the more striking and experimental late sixties stuff even if that stuff perhaps has more signposts of its era?
  • Is Mark David Chapman loose in this world? Would our hero have to worry about him showing up almost karmicly?
  • For that matter did the Manson killings happen in this world given that there was no Helter Skelter to misinterpret? If not, would the fact that that wasn’t weighing on the national psyche when it did allow for flower power to go on for longer… or would flower power have even existed in the first place without The Beatles?

Those all seem like fairly interesting directions that the film could have gone down, and the film manages to address basically none of them.  Of all the major musical quandaries that the movie’s premise brings up, the only one it seems to be even a little interested in tackling with any kind of depth is the ethics of essentially plagiarizing other people’s works and becoming famous off of them.  To me that’s probably the most inconsequential of all the questions they could have gotten into, firstly because it’s basically irrelevant to the fact that he needs to reintroduce an old band to the modern era.  Malick have faced basically the same dilemma if he had woken up to find that it was Drake or Imagine Dragons that had been stricken from the record by this magic.  Secondly, it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking simply because, well, stealing from people who seem to no longer exist is kind of a victimless crime.

Ultimately, I think the issue at the center of all of this is that I seem to have put a lot more thought into this concept than the people making the actual movie are.  On some level I maybe should have expected that.  The film was written by a guy named Richard Curtis, who’s famous for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually .  He’s a writer of romantic comedies, not alternate history fanfics, and Yesterday actually is more of a romcom than the trailers make it out to be.  Jack Malick as it turns out has a manager named Ellie (Lily James) with whom he goes back years and their relationship is totally platonic… can’t imagine if that’s going to change over the course of the movie.  The two leads actually have quite a bit of chemistry even though their arc is very predictable and Curtis still seems to have a penchant for slightly creepy grand gestures.  I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be happy that this is more of a light rom-com than it is a detailed alternate history fanfic with astute observations about pop culture history.  Obviously I’m not one of those people and while this movie passes the time and isn’t unpleasant to watch it still seems like quite the missed opportunity to me.

**1/2 out of Five

Vice(1/6/2019)

When I heard that Adam McKay was following up his 2015 The Big Short with a biopic about Dick Cheney I thought it sort of made sense but also didn’t make sense at all.  On one hand it was obvious from his last movie that McKay was transitioning from making broad comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights to making overtly political satires, so in some ways a Cheney movie seemed like a logical evolution of that, on the other hand who the hell wants to make or see a movie about the W. Bush administration in 2018?  That seems like a bad idea firstly because those years were hell and no one wants to relive them, secondly because enough time probably hasn’t passed to really bring anything new to the story with hindsight, and thirdly because with Donald Trump in office a lot of the awfulness of the Bush years almost feels quaint by comparison.  Truth be told, despite Bush’s slightly better tact and decorum than the current white house occupant, he was in fact pretty terrible and a lot of the worst aspects of modern Republican politics were very much alive when he was in white house as well and a reminder of that might be in order.

Vice does skip around in the timeline here and there but generally the film follows the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his time as a hard drinking your adult in Wyoming to his time working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon white house through to his time as a house representative and as a Halliburton executive until finally landing on the role that would make him infamous to history as the vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).  Along the way we see him interacting with his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and daughters Mary Cheney (Alison Pill) and Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe).

Let’s start with what is clearly Vice’s strongest and most talked about element: Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role.  Bale is a 44 year old Englishman who has very recently been in good enough shape to play Batman who is here playing a noticeably overweight American politician who was at his most famous between the ages of 59 and 67 and he has made is so that you don’t question this at all.  Bale has clearly done one of his trademark absurd weight gains for the role and he’s presumably using a lot of makeup but there is clearly a skill in managing to bring everything together and making these transformative elements still feel human.  Obviously Cheney isn’t the most emotional of characters, especially not in this telling of his life, so you don’t exactly get to see Bale doing any real “Oscar clip” scenes but he does adopt the voice pretty effectively and is generally quite good in the role beyond the obvious physical transformation.

The downside of this is that Bale going above and beyond the call of duty as much as he does kind of makes some of his co-stars look bad in comparison.  In particular I’m thinking of Steve Carrell, who certainly manages to make himself look reasonably like a young Donald Rumsfeld, but who seems completely incapable of changing the sound of his voice for this or any other role.  That seems particularly odd in this role given that Rumsfeld, Mr. unknonwn knowns, is probably most famous for using language to slink out of accountability and just generally feels like should be more complicated than what we see here.  Also probably more complicated than what we see here is the real George W. Bush, who Sam Rockwell depicts as being not just an easily manipulated personality but as someone who borders on being “special needs.”  You don’t really see a lot of Bush in the movie, which is partly by design given that the film is very much of the belief that Cheney was calling the shots through that whole administration, but when he is on screen Rockwell’s performance rarely rises above the level of SNL impression. Amy Adams fares better as Lynne Cheney, in part because she isn’t burdened with doing an impression of an overly familiar face, but the movie doesn’t give her a ton to do either, it’s basically a typical “long suffering biopic wife” role with some kind of contradictory hints that she might be a sort of Lady MacBeth behind his rise.

The film’s view of Dick Cheney will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Bush years.  Back then the theory was always that Cheney was the real brains behind Bush and that he was driving events largely out of greed for oil and in service of Haliburton and other oil contractors.  Given my political leanings I don’t necessarily doubt this narrative but I’ve always assumed it was basically unproven speculation and simply reenacting it in a movie like this doesn’t exactly seem like confirmation.  I might have preferred a documentary that goes into the records and really tried to prove what it going on here.  Instead what we get is something more along the lines of The Big Short: a fourth wall breaking satire which finds amusing ways to lay out political facts that uneducated viewers might not be aware of.  That approach worked well in The Big Short, in part because the financial system is legitimately complicated and it felt less condescending when really simplified metaphors are offered for it and partly because that raucous tone generally fit that story a bit better.  That was a movie about a class of people so drunk off of profits that they refused to see that they were heading for disaster, so all the irreverence kind of fit the mood.  Vice tries to do the same but doesn’t realize that it’s kind of telling the opposite story, that of a master manipulator who was very much seeing the big picture and was allegedly in control the whole time.

As it’s been released Vice has become one of the year’s most divisive films.  Some people really seem to hate it, in part because its satiric tone can come off as glib, and I agree with that to some extent.  There are also just a lot of really little things in the movie that bug me like how it just sort of skips past what got Cheney into politics in the first place with a cut forward in time and I also hated a monolog delivered by Cheney towards the end which might have seemed interestingly provocative in another movie but which made no sense in the movie its attached to which overly contradicts everything that he’s saying.  I also just flat out didn’t find the movie particularly funny despite sort of admiring some of the audacity on display.  Certain parts of the movie do work, which combined with how interesting Bale’s performances was keep me from really hating the movie as much as some people do.  That said, I do think that by and large the movie is something of a failure.

** out of Five

Widows(10/20/2018)

Going “three for three” as a filmmaker, meaning the making of three straight films that are considered to be really important works as a filmmaker, is never easy.  Debut films are often too small to reach a filmmaker’s full potential, and when filmmakers do manage to hit the ground running they’ll often hit a sophomore slump, and when they do manage to make two straight triumphs they’ll all too often stumble on the third.  One of the few filmmakers who have managed to avoid those pitfalls recently has been the English filmmaker Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the actor).  McQueen’s debut film, the IRA prison movie Hunger, was an amazing debut that instantly established him as a major talent.  It didn’t get the degree of attention it deserved upon release but people in the know caught onto it quickly and it also made something of a star out of Michael Fassbender.  His collaboration with Fassbender would continue with his American debut, Shame, a searing drama about sex addiction that has become a bit divisive with some critics but which was undoubtedly very well made.  His profile then took a giant leap with his next film, the Academy Award winning 12 Years a Slave.  The importance of that movie largely speaks for itself but a movie like that isn’t always the easiest act to follow and in the five years since its release many have wondered what he’s been up to.  As it turns out his new plan was to go in a different direction for his fourth film and make a film that has social relevance but a lighter approach called Widows.

The film is set in Chicago and focuses on a woman named Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) has just been killed in a botched robbery attempt.  Veronica had long looked the other way while her husband acquired wealth for decades through large scale heists and built a life of relative luxury for her.  Shortly after Harry’s death Veronica is visited by a man named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who’s currently running to be an alderman in Ward 18 against a guy named Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an old school and corrupt Chicago politician named Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).  Unfortunately for Veronica this aspiring politician is living a double life as the leader of a violent street gang and apparently he’s the one who Harry was robbing when he was killed in a fiery explosion destroying the loot and he’s demanding that she repay him one way or another.  Fortunately for her she does have access to Harry’s notebook, which has his plans for one final score written in it.  Not trusting any of Chicago’s other career criminals she decides to instead contact Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunnar (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of two of the other people who died along with Harry to enlist them to do this final heist along with her.

Clearly this movie is operating off of a bit of a high concept and from the basic description of the film I had expected these widows’ motives to be a bit more vengeful but as it turns out all three of the main widows had rather complicated relationships to their respective husbands.  In the case of the Elizabeth Debicki character her husband is quickly established to have been physically abusive, in the case of Michelle Rodriguezs character her husband was a bit of a deadbeat who gambled away a lot of the couple’s money, and over the course of several flashbacks we learn that the Viola Davis character’s husband had his dark side as well.  Instead the movie focuses on these women finding their own independence in their new lives, especially the Debicki character who had once been something of a doormat but who is now kind of taking her first steps onto the dry land in standing up for herself.  The Michelle Rodriguez character’s arc is a little less clear, but the fact that she’s the only of the three with children does give her the extra dimention of having to find babysitters while she shows up to heist meetings is interesting.  Of course the Davis character’s plan to have these widows take part in this heist is a bit odd.  Neither she nor her accomplices are hardened criminals with any real experience in the caper business, but the movie doesn’t really emphasize or make a lot of comedy out of the fact that these are supposed to essentially be amateurs playing with guns.  One could easily see the movie turning into something along the lines of The Lavender Hill Mob, but it generally plays things a bit straighter than that.

The parallel story to all of this looks at the alderman race, which proves to be an incredibly cynical look at local politics.  Brian Tyree Henry’s character is of course a cold blooded killer, we’re given no particular reason to think he knows how to run the office, and he explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he wants this job for corrupt and self-serving reasons.  Sounds bad, but we’re given plenty of reasons to be just as suspicious of Colin Farrell’s character, who appears to largely have contempt for the people of his now largely lower class and African American ward despite occasional photo ops to suggest the contrary and we hear that he may have made some very shady deals on a transportation committee he was on previously.  On top of that this character largely seems to have entered politics because he was the son of the ward’s previous alderman, a mean old bastard almost certainly inspired by Joe Kennedy who openly uses racial slurs behind closed doors and seems to largely view politics as a business opportunity.  When not on the campaign trail neither of these candidates show the slightest interest in helping anyone but themselves, and our opinion of both of them basically just goes downhill as the movie continues.  Pretty bleak.  I’m not entirely sure that this “House of Cards” level of cynicism about politics is entirely healthy, it’s the kind of thing that makes people want to “drain the swamp” so-to-speak.

Granted this is Chicago, and that’s not exactly a city that’s known for earnest leadership but I’m pretty sure that the real corruption there is a bit more mundane than what we see here and I don’t get the impression that this movie has a David Simon level of insight into this kind of local politics.  Instead this movie seems to be operating on more on the logic of pulp when it comes to most of these machinations.  It works to tie the plot together but I’m not sure it has anything overly insightful to say about urban politics.  I also wasn’t a big fan of the way the film invoked some fairly heavy #BlackLivesMatter imagery just to have it largely serve as a sort of pop psychology motivation for a character later on.  Ultimately I think this is a movie that’s probably best enjoyed if you’re not taking it too seriously.  I’m not sure that the award season hype of a November release is going to help it as it might lead people expecting a little more out of it than what it aims for.  Looked at more as Hollywood potboiler though and it certainly delivers and enjoyable yarn that’s worth your time.

***1/2 out of Five

The Wife(10/1/2018)

You ever have one of those stretches where you feel like every time you go to the movies you see the same trailer over and over again?  I had that recently with the theatrical trailer for The Wife, which seemed to be in front of every independent or foreign film I saw in the last three to four months.  I’m actually not sure if I consider this to be a great trailer or a terrible trailer.  On one hand it’s a remarkably efficient trailer, one that lays out the film’s plot and themes in a very economical way for a two minute piece, on the other hand maybe economically laying out a film’s message isn’t such a good thing if you want people to buy tickets to the full thing.  Indeed, watching the trailer I was in some ways less interested in seeing the movie, not because it didn’t look interesting but because the trailer made me feel like there wasn’t much left to see.  There weren’t any “spoilers” in it exactly but it gave me a pretty good overlay of what the film was like, what its argument and moral was going to be, and I had a pretty good hunch as to where it was going and how it was going to play out.  There was however one much described aspect of the film which the trailer wasn’t going to give me: Glen Close’s performance.  That performance is a big part of why the film is being talked about so in the end I did decide to give the full film my time.

The film begins with an aged couple in bed waiting on a phone call, when that call comes the couple hear the news they’ve been waiting for their whole lives: the husband, an acclaimed author named Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), had been selected as that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  His wife, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), is thrilled to hear this and the two start jumping up and down on their bed chanting “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!”  Soon the two of them are on their way to Stockholm along with their adult son David (Max Irons), who is also an aspiring author, and while on the plane they are approached by a writer/journalist named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who has been trying to write a biography of Joe for a while.  Bone has been doing some research into Castleman’s past and has questions about him and his work, which could put a bit of a pall over his Nobel reception and the challenge the seemingly happy marriage between the two Castlemans.

The Wife is something of a rumination on that phrase “behind every great man is a great woman.”  That’s a phrase I’ve always found a little strange.  Are there no great men who were bachelors?  Or great men who were gay?  Or great men with not so great wives who held them back?  And what of the great women?  Were there always great men behind great women or did that phrase only go one way?  Even in the exact situation that the phrase was intended to refer to the phrase always seemed a little condescending, is it suggesting that what makes a woman great is merely their ability to give moral support and the like to the right man?  Isn’t that a little insulting to the great women who achieve greatness from actually doing great things instead of by proxy to great men?  The title character here is certainly regarded as one of those “great women” behind a “great man” and she seems to embrace this role outwardly while clearly questioning it internally.  We get flashbacks to her past in which she met her husband as a writing student and appeared to have a great deal of her own writing skill, but this appears to have been put to the wayside as her husband became an acclaimed novelist.

Those flashback scenes are some of the film’s weakest, in part because they work in a lot of rather unsubtle shorthand to explain how Joan was discouraged because of her gender and also because the actors in these scenes are nowhere near as strong as Close and Pryce, but I still would have liked more of them as that seems to be where the real explanation for the film’s central mystery of “why did this lady let herself become sidelined” lies.  Female authors certainly were facing a great number of disadvantages in the late 50s as they do now but they were hardly unheard of and Mrs. Castleman never even seemed to run into a glass ceiling so much as she never even tries to run at all.  Then there’s her jerk husband, a man who certainly goes through the motions of gratitude while generally behaving like a narcissistic asshole who had multiple affairs while rarely acknowledging her talents.  At one point during an argument he shouts at her something along the lines of “if I’m so awful why did you marry me?”  She doesn’t really have an answer for this and I’m not sure the movie does either.  Close’s character certainly seemed to have “outs” that she didn’t take and she does bear at least some responsibility for her lot in life.

I’m not the biggest fan of a twist the film presents in the third act which places the husband in even lower regard than he was previously.  If we are to deconstruct the idea of the “male genius” I think it’s probably best to at least acknowledge the “genius” part to make things a bit more difficult.  The film tries to sidestep this and ends up simply asking other less interesting questions in the process.  The film is also I think a bit guilty of concentrating all of its energies on a few places, namely its central performances, at the expense of other elements.  I did not like Max Irons as the son of the film’s central couple and found the scenes with the character to be rather poorly written and the actors playing the younger Castlemans during the flashbacks weren’t great either.  Björn Runge also rarely brings the film to life with his visual style and the film rarely rises above the level of average in terms of pure filmmaking.  Close’s performance is pretty damn good though and Pryce is also pretty great and while the screenplay isn’t always great it does still offer some food for thought.  Ultimately I think I was kind of right about the trailer giving the audience most of what they needed from the movie, but it’s still a mostly worthy effort.

*** out of Five

We the Animals(9/9/2018)

In 2011 a film came out which was perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie of the 2010s: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  I remember the anticipation for it: the trailers looked great, the buzz out of Cannes was intense, and Malick had pretty much never disappointed previously, at least not in my book.  Finally on that faithful summer day I went to see the movie and… I liked it but didn’t love it.  It was kind of a weird feeling, I was bedazzled by the film’s crafts and was fascinated by the film’s aims but then by the second half it just kind of felt like it wasn’t going anywhere.  There were just these endless passages of kids playing in the woods and the various conflicts and family dynamics at the center of it felt like they were left sort of unresolved despite a lot of the Sean Penn sections implying a degree of catharsis that never really connects with the rest of the movie.  Upon repeat viewings I warmed to the movie but not entirely, in many ways it’s something I appreciated a macro level (I appreciated the vision) and on a micro level (damn near every shot was gorgeous) but which failed for me on the levels that lay between in which it is meant to act as simple drama.  So why am I talking about this seven year old movie now?  Well, in part it’s because that movie’s influence has loomed large in the years since its release and no film has quite seemed as much like an echo of Malick as the debut feature from director Jeremiah Zagar called We the Animals.

Set in update New York the film looks at a Puerto Rican family consisting of a mother (Sheila Vand), a father (Raúl Castillo), and three brothers.  The film largely focuses on the youngest of these brothers, Jonah (Evan Rosado).  Early on we see that Jonah is the only of the three brothers who can’t swim, which establishes as a theme that he’s a little different from his more rough-and-tumble older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel).  The family is not very wealthy and the relationship between the mother and father is rocky to the point of being violent at times.  Jonah’s one escape from this occasionally rather sad life are the cartoons he occasionally draws late at night in secret for fear that his family would not understand them.

Indie debuts are often autobiographical, and this one sort of is as well even through it’s not based on the childhood of its director and is instead an adaptation of a novel by a guy named Justin Torres and is loosely based on his childhood.  The writer/director of the film is Jeremiah Zagar who is young but who isn’t entirely a novice as he’s been making short films and documentaries for over ten years.  That experience shows as he has a clear grasp of how to make a confident film with a consistent tone and some fairly striking imagery.  Compared to 95% of English-language films this is fairly stylistically bold and yet I can’t quite help but feel like there’s something a bit passé about it.  It’s not that there have been some massive number of films told from a child’s perspective via Malickian camera movements and occasional forays into magical realism, but there have been enough like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Summer 1993, and to some extent The Florida Project and even Beasts of No Nation, that the stylistic choice here doesn’t have quite the impact it might have had last decade.  That isn’t to say it isn’t still fairly compelling of course

We the Animals is certainly not much of a plot oriented film.  If you were to describe the story of the film to someone you would spend more time telling them the gist of it than you would recounting a series of events that lead from one to another.  Instead this is more of a character piece but it’s a character piece about someone who doesn’t have that defined of a personality by virtue of his being a ten year old.  We know that Jonah is a bad fit with his brothers, and late in the film we get some insight into why, but aside from the fact that he’s depressed by his family situation I’m not sure we ever really get that much out of him.  This is perhaps the same problem I had with The Tree of Life back in the day; it was beautiful, it captured a feeling, but at the end of the day there didn’t quite seem to be enough meat on the bone to make a feature film fully engaging.  Of course that movie had certain advantages over this one, namely the fact that it invented this style rather than followed it and it also had greater ambition in its sweep.  We the Animals has its moments of magical realism but it certainly never stops to recount the dawn of time in full detail and while the filmmakers involved are very talented they aren’t quite Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki and on a scale of “pure cinema” this can’t really compete.  So what we’re left with with We the Animals is a movie I certainly admired for its craft and what it was going for but which just didn’t seem to quite have that last narrative hook that would really grab me.  It’s certainly a movie worth seeing but I’m not sure it quite grabs that extra bit of import that it needs.

*** out of Five

Wonder Wheel(12/10/2017)

Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment.  This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations.  Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender.  Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways.  His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants.  I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.

The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction.  At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel.  This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father.  At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film.  Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay.  Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen.  Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.

So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario.  Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago.  That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be.  That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously.  If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was.  What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life.  Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.

Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated.  The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing.  The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here.  I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points.  The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it.  In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing.  There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have.  Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well.  Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast.  I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.

If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made.  The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to.  This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him.  The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters.  You can certainly see the budget on the screen.  There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment.  I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away.  Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one.  That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.