Wonder Wheel

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some sexuality, language and smoking
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, drinking, references to alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and off-screen violence, references to mob killings
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
Writer/director Woody Allen continues to explore questions of fate, chance, and choice he has addressed with much more art and understanding before in “Wonder Wheel,” a dreary, dull story set in 1950’s Coney Island. Unlike the character who talks about responsibility, Allen tries to duck his own failures by having his stand-in narrator tell us that the story is filled with metaphor and symbolism. That stand-in is Justin Timberlake as a lifeguard named Mickey who wants to write big, dramatic plays like Eugene O’Neill, and he addresses us directly in an unsuccessful attempt to make the story appear more meaningful.

Mickey, who is going to school on the GI bill after his service in the navy during WWII, is having an affair with a married older woman, Ginny (Kate Winslet). She is a waitress at a clam joint on the boardwalk, but she tells him she is a former actress who is just playing the part of a waitress. Her husband, Humpty (a blustery Jim Belushi) runs the carousel. She has a young son from her first marriage who lies, steals, and sets fires everywhere. And Humpty has a daughter named Carolina (Juno Temple), estranged since she married a mobster five years earlier, who shows up because she is on the run. She has left her husband and shared some information with law enforcement, and now goons want to kill her.

All of this could be set up in a few brief scenes, but this is a movie where everything has to be said at least twice, just to drag it all out. Slate’s Sam Adams writes that Allen is trying to justify some of the highly-controversial choices of his personal life and attack his former partner (and mother of his current wife) in this film. It is equally possible to read it as a mea culpa, with Ginny’s confession that she destroyed her one chance at personal and professional happiness when she betrayed her first husband, belatedly realizing he was the love of her life, but just could not help herself. Is this fate? A recurring character flaw? Allen does not seem interested enough to follow through.

The production design gorgeously brings to life the look of 1950’s Coney Island, the beach, the boardwalk, and the rides. Ginny and Humpty literally live under the ferris wheel that gives the film its title, reminiscent of Alvy Singer’s family living under the roller coaster in “Annie Hall.” Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives a romantic glow to many of the scenes, perhaps making a link between Ginny’s red hair and the fires set by her son. The actors do their best to bring the characters to life, but with a repetitive, underwritten script and sour, dreary tone, it is as though instead of putting his characters in a story he tossed them like pennies in search of an I Ching fortune. In life, we can debate the role of destiny, fatal flaws, and choice. But a writer is in control of all three for his characters, and no amount of visual flair or acting talent can obscure the failure to make those choices meaningful.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, adultery, strong language, drinking and alcoholism, references to domestic abuse and child abuse, smoking, and references to mob violence.

Family discussion: What symbols can you identify in this story? What does the ferris wheel mean? What about the fires?

If you like this, try: “Crimes and Misdemeanors”

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Copyright A24 2017

The Disaster Artist

Posted on November 30, 2017 at 5:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fictional depiction of suicide and violence, some scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017

Copyright A24 2017Let’s face it. Failure is more fascinating than success. There are innumerable movies based on true stories about real people who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination, vision, and talent to accomplish extraordinary achievements in sports, the arts, and shaping public policy. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “The Big Short” help us to understand huge, complicated tragic failures through the prism of small victories. But there are also movies like “Florence Foster Jenkins,” with Meryl Streep as the legendarily awful singer and “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp as the legendarily awful movie director, that explore with some affection the stories of terrible failures, and they do it with vastly more skill than the people they depict could have imagined.

In fact, that is part of what led to the failures in the first place — Florence Foster Jenkins and Ed Wood were exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less competent people are, the more likely they are to be unable to evaluate their own competence. It isn’t the terrible end product that enthralls us as much as the buoyant optimism and imperishable self-regard that keeps these people going while the rest of us are consumed with doubt and insecurity.

The Room,” from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau, has been called “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of bad movies.” It is in that rare category of films that transcend “so bad it’s good” and “suitable for Mystery Science Theater commentary” into genuine hit, with well-attended midnight showings filled with fans who come to see it again and again. Like the midnight “Rocky Horror Show” screenings, fans come in costume and with props. An arty picture of a spoon in a frame that appears in many shots provokes a flurry of plastic spoons thrown at the screen. The crowd yells “focus” whenever someone should have reminded the cinematographer that the camera needed to produce a sharper image. And some people get happily tipsy taking a drink whenever any of the movie’s characters say “Hi.”

The film is based on a book co-written by Greg Sestero, who co-starred in “The Room.” For multi-degreed master of literary analysis James Franco, who directed and stars in the film, “Disaster Artist” is not an oxymoron. In his mind, Tommy Wiseau is an artist because he has a singular vision so urgent that he will realize it, no matter the cost, in the most literal terms. Wiseau is said to have spent six million dollars in making “The Room,” much of it as poorly decided as every other choice that went into making the film.

“The Room” tells the story (I use the term loosely, as the script is a mishmash of many unexplained developments and characters, with a plot even more out of focus than the camera) of Johnny (played by Wiseau, and Franco as Wiseau in this version), a successful banker who has a fiancee named Lisa (portrayed by Ari Graynor), a best friend named Mark (played by Dave Franco as Greg Sestero), and a teenage protegee of some kind named Danny (played by Josh Hutcherson). Lisa is bored with Johnny and begins an affair with Mark, though her mother pushes her to stay with Johnny because he is rich and treats her well. The film has extended soft-core-style sex scenes, a weird, inexplicable confrontation between Danny and a drug dealer, and another odd scene with guys in tuxedos tossing a football.

“The Disaster Artist” begins with Greg and Tommy meeting in acting class in Northern California, becoming friends in part because of their shared love for James Dean (coincidentally once played by Franco himself in a breakthrough performance) and dreams of being stars. They move to LA together, with Greg staying in Tommy’s apartment. Tommy is quite mysterious about his background (he has a strange eastern European accent), his age, and his source of income. He is supportive of Greg but also possessive. The decision to cast his own brother as Greg is Franco’s exploration of a mirrored duality in their relationship and there is more than a hint of some boundary issues that may reflect homoerotic feelings.

Frustrated by his lack of success in Hollywood and jealous that Greg is getting some work, Tommy decides to write and produce his own movie. And so we see how many bad decisions go into creating the “Citizen Kane” of terrible cinema. But we also see a very rare example of a film, usually the ultimate artistic reflection of teamwork, that is a genuinely singular vision. As muddled and incoherent as it is, it is exactly the movie he had in his head and exactly the movie he wanted to make. Franco clearly respects that, as Tim Burton did with “Ed Wood” (with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Orson Welles as his stand-in showing one director saluting another). The audiences in the midnight shows are there to jeer and feel superior. Franco, in his performance and direction, is sympathetic, giving Wiseau and his story the film he was not able to give himself.

NOTE: Be sure to stay through the credits for some uncanny side-by-side re-creations of scenes from “The Room” with the cast of this film.

Parents should know that this film includes nudity, sexual references and situations, depiction of suicide and violence, alcohol, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What does it mean that something is “so bad it’s good?” What does this movie tell us about the decisions that go into making a work of art?

If you like this, try: “The Room,” of course, and the book by Sestero, and the bonkers “Beaver Trilogy” documentary

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Dan Stevens and Bharat Nalluri on “The Man Who Invented Christmas”

Posted on November 29, 2017 at 4:06 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool

It was a great pleasure to interview actor Dan Stevens, who plays Charles Dickens in “The Man Who Invented Christmas” and the director, Bharat Nalluri.

Dan Stevens shared his thoughts about A Christmas Carol:

It has a lot to say about those in positions of power and wealth and influence and how they wield that in the world around them and how much they’re prepared to overlook in the society around them. That has not changed, and neither has the possibility of redemption. In Dickens’ time, though, it was very unusual to have a character that time travels and went through his own life. It’s almost sci-fi in a way the way he travels back. But also he’s able to go from the archetype of a really not very pleasant character, overnight he’s transformed. And that goes back in the history of theater and literature. You have these archetypes and they pretty much stay bad. The fatal flaw is ultimately fatal. The bad guy comes on stage and we know who he is and he stays pretty bad; he might learn a lesson but here there is more because there is redemption. He has a second chance. He goes through this transformation. It’s so epic and so full of hope that somewhere inside there must be good in this man and that gives us hope about ourselves and the people around us and the possibility of change.

And Bharat Nalluri told me how A Christmas Carol taught him the meaning of Christmas:

When he was writing A Christmas Carol, Christmas celebrations were pretty austere. He wrote a book that gave you a picture postcard idea of Christmas as a time for kindness and generosity. I think the reason it resonates over the decades upon decades and never been out of print is because it actually says something about the human condition. Personally he did invent Christmas for me. I was born in India and my parents brought me into the north of England and Christmas wasn’t a thing that was always huge in my family. I didn’t really know what Christmas but I was surrounded by people in the north of England on the Scottish border where Christmas was just huge and it was a really joyous time for people. I couldn’t quite get it because it just didn’t register with me and then when I was about 10 or 11 I read A Christmas Carol and it completely clicked. I completely got what it was. So in a weird sort of way Dickens really did invent Christmas for me. We all look back and we have this wonderful image of what Christmas should be, that combination of everything we want. We want family life, we want to be around a roaring fire, we want to be roasting chestnuts, we want to hear snow falling but we also want to be good to each other in the human spirit. It’s that combination which is combined so beautifully in Dickens’ book and which we pay tribute to in our film.

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Coco and Mexican Culture

Posted on November 29, 2017 at 3:57 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool

Slate has a great guide to the cultural references in “Coco” that people who are not of Mexican heritage might miss. (Note that co-director Lee Unkrich has responded to one of the points in the Slate article, saying that the use of both Dia dos Muertos and Dia de los Muertos was intentional to reflect the support for both they found in their research.

And this piece by Manuel Betancort about watching “Coco” with a Spanish language soundtrack made me sorry I don’t speak Spanish. He says that “Coco” is “Pixar’s most culturally specific movie in their lauded pantheon.”

Here at last was the kind of dubbing that didn’t feel like it was mangling, or weirdly bending the original into something it was not. It just had its characters talking (and singing) in the very language they were meant to speak. There’s a difference, for example, in hearing Miguel’s family talk about ofrendas (a word that always feels like it’s being italicized by its voice performers when speaking English, eager as they surely are to make it clear it’s a Spanish expression many may not be familiar with), and quite another to see that word just roll along in dialogue that doesn’t needlessly highlight it.

That’s perhaps even truer when it comes to Hector, the bumbling skeleton that Miguel befriends while in the Land of the Dead, and to Ernesto de la Cruz, the famed musical legend the musically inclined young boy admires and hopes to find while in that fantastical world. The former may be voiced by García Bernal in both versions (he’s one of a handful of actors who made good use of his bilingualism to score a double gig) but the latter, played by Benjamin Bratt, was dubbed by Marco Antonio Solís. And not to diminish Bratt’s singing abilities, but it truly is something else to hear the Pedro Infante-like character be portrayed by one of Mexico’s most recognizable voices.

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AWFJ’s Movie of the Week: The Dancer

Posted on November 28, 2017 at 10:13 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool

The Alliance of Women Film Journalists has picked “The Dancer” as the MOTW (movie of the week). The recreations of Loie Fuller’s stunning performances are dazzling.

Betsy Bozdech writes:

Chances are, even people who wouldn’t describe themselves as “into dance” have heard the name Isadora Duncan and know something about her career and tragic death. But what about dancer and performance artist Loie Fuller, the innovator of modern dance who helped propel Duncan to superstardom in the early 20th century? Stephanie Di Giusto’s drama “The Dancer” remedies that by telling the story of Fuller’s complex, fascinating and often-heartbreaking life and career.

I’m proud to be one of the critics quoted by AWFJ in support of the film.

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