Wonder Wheel (2017)

Movie Review

Wonderwheel 2

 

One of my many guilty pleasures as a film buff is watching the films of Woody Allen. I know he is a controversial artist but I love his films anyway. Thus, the source of my guilt. Can we separate the art from the artist? I don’t know. But I do love his films.

His latest foray into the cinematic realm is the nostalgia laden Wonder Wheel, which takes place at Coney Island in the 1950’s.

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Kate Winslet as Ginny

The critics have been harsh on this film but unjustly so in my opinion. They have slammed the writing concluding there was not much point to the film. Au Contraire. This is a wonderful piece of entertainment, if a bit melodramatic, but melodrama was indeed the point.

Juno

Juno Temple as Carolina

I think the critics just don’t like Woody Allen, for obvious reasons, and continually judge him by his best work of the past. In Hollywood you are only as good as your last time at bat.

Now here’s the bad part. Sometimes Kate Winslet’s character seems to be channeling Blanche du Bois and sometimes she seems to be channeling Mia Farrow. Definitely heard some Woody Allen coming from Mickey the Lifeguard and what about that red headed step child who was a pyromaniac? Could that be Ronan Farrow burning down the house? And let us not forget the plot twist of Mickey overthrowing the older Ginny for her stepdaughter Carolina. And you thought your had drama in your life.

There is dark humor in this film as well a pathos. Kate Winslet is a wonder in Wonder Wheel giving one of her most emotionally resonant performance in years as an aging would be actress (I coulda been a contenda) stuck in a dead end life as a waitress in a clam house on the boardwalk at Coney Island and living in an apartment in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Jim Belucshi is Stanley Kowalski to her Blanche. Yes, I see echoes of Tennessee Williams here.

The real star of the show is Coney Island as depicted by the wonderful cinematography of famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The the amazing color in Wonder Wheel perfectly captures the time of the period and is achingly beautiful.

Two thumbs way up for this Woody Allen cinematic classic.

Fanny and Alexander

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I had the opportunity to watch the wonderful Fannie and Alexander (1981), written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, last night at the Speed Art Museum Cinema here in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the first time I’ve seen it on the big screen since it first came out in 1981. It is a sheer joy to behold. It is perhaps Bergman’s greatest film, The Seventh Seal not withstanding. This is the most autobiographical of all of Bergman’s films and pretty well sums up his life and work.

Scrumptiously and lovingly photographed by Sven Nykvist, every frame is a visual masterpiece of beauty and composition for which he won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also garnered three other Oscars nods including for Best Art Direction, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Costume Design. Bergman was nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Director.

 

According to the film notes the movie turned out to be extremely expensive and difficult to make. In terms of scale Fanny and Alexander became Bergman’s largest ever production with a cast of 50 actors. He shot over 25 hours of film. A made for TV version was pared down to five hours in length then he set to work putting together the feature film. Bergman’s first attempt came in at four hours. He tried again and got it down to 3 hours and eight minutes. Still long but manageable. The film is shown with an intermission which we did not take at the Speed Cinema.

Bergman said in his autobiography that after Fanny and Alexander there will be no more feature films for him. Feature films are a job for young people, both physically and psychologically.

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According to Bergman the film had two inspirations. One was a picture from the Nutcracker depicting two children huddling together on Christmas Eve waiting for the candles to be lit on the Christmas tree. The other was Charles Dickens. The bishop in his austere and pure house and the Jew in his antique store filled with old furniture and magical incantations and creatures. The Children are depicted as victims.

Fanny and Alexander are brother and sister in a bourgeois Swedish theatrical family. The film starts off on a snowy Christmas eve and is perhaps the most lavish and beautifully filmed Christmas celebration ever. The movie takes place in Swedish provincial town in the early years of the 20th century. The two children, Fanny and Alexander, are growing up in the bosom of a large, happy, extended family.  Their father, who is the stage manager of the theatre the family owns, dies unexpectedly.  Later, their mother remarries a stern, authoritarian clergyman. The juxtaposition of the vivacious theatre family with that of the dour, cold, and authoritarian bishop’s family could not be more stark and has its roots in Bergman’s own history. His father was a clergyman.

 

There are ghosts in the film which only Alexander can see. He is also prone to telling the most outlandish and imaginative lies for which he is severely punished at one point by his stepfather.  Alexander is also the master of the magic lantern with which he enchants his sister on Christmas Eve. It is not too far a leap to see the budding genius of Ingmar Bergman taking shape in the form of the young Alexander.

 

The movie is divided into three parts as in a three act play. We might remember Ingmar Bergman is as well known as a theatrical director  (at least in Sweden) as a film director. In a scene in the third section, Emily says to Helena. “I am reading a new play by Strindberg called A Dream Play and there is a perfect part in it for you.” Oh, no,” says Helena, not that misogynist!” “Oh but this part is perfect for you…” and off they go to talk about their next project and adventure.

I remember reading in Bergman’s autobiography how he struggled with A Dream Play when he directed it. He went on at length about the difficulty he had in staging a certain scene. When he finally found the key to his conundrum he was relieved but he also extolled the virtues of meeting the challenge. When I watched the above described scene I had to smile remembering that passage from his autobiography. I am most certain that no one else got the reference but me but for me it was another piece of the puzzle fitting together nicely and another dot connected.

Everything is here: Love, Sex, God, and Death. Now we know where Woody Allen gets it from. Actually, we knew all along that Ingmar Bergman has been a major influence on the films of Woody Allen.

This is the film against which I judge all others, a bench mark if you will,  and most others pale by comparison. That is why I am mostly disappointed with the current crop of films coming out of Hollywood these days.

Speed continues to bring to Louisville the best of the best movies and I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

CAFE SOCIETY

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I caught a matinee today oh boy! It was Café Society, Woody Allen’s latest. It was just the thing I needed to lift my spirits. It had me smiling all the way through. I thought the acting was very good. Even Steve Carell, who I never really cared for, is starting to grow on me a little bit. Kristen Stewart, who is everywhere, was believable as the love interest. Blake Lively was lively as Veronica, the other love interest. And Jessie Eisenberg sure plays a mean Woody Allen. But the real star of the show was the cinematography. And the cities. It was essentially a tale of two cities. Los Angeles and New York in the 1930’s. Guess who won? New York. Complete with that iconic shot of Manhattan from the Brooklyn side framed lovingly by the Brooklyn Bridge. Not since Manhattan have we been graced by such a beautiful image.

It was photographed by acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, favored cinematographer of Bernardo Burtolucci, for whom he photographed Last Tango in Paris. Mr. Storaro has won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor. This was Woody’s first foray into the digital world.

The plot was pretty standard stuff. Jewish boy goes to Los Angeles to work with his uncle in the movie business, falls in love with a secretary, things don’t work out; he goes back to New York and gets into the nightclub business. Falls in love another beautiful girl by the same name.  Complications ensue. What sets this material apart is the scintillating dialogue which is by turns clever, funny, and hilarious. Music to my ears. Oh, and speaking of music, the sound track is a master compilation of some of the best music from the era, Just wonderful.

Here is an example of some of the tete-e-tete between the characters and or other funny lines.

Bobby: What are you doing later?

Veronica: There is no later. It’s 1:30 am. I am usually in pajamas by 2.

Bobby: I like pajamas. What kind of beds do you like?

The narrator, who is the Woodman himself, occasionally muses: Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. The examined live is no bargain either. Or how about this one:  Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.

Bobby’s big brother Ben is a gangster who gets convicted of murder and is sentenced to be executed in the electric chair. While in prison he converts to Christianity because there is no afterlife in the Jewish tradition. Ben’s mother is lamenting this fact when she says to her husband, “Ben is going to be executed in the electric chair and he has converted to Christianity and I don’t know what’s worse!” Pure genius!

In the last scene Bobby, is celebrating New Year’s Eve at his club while Vonnie and Phil are at a Hollywood party. Bobby and Vonnie in are in New York. Bobby in New York and Vonnie in LA are staring wistfully into the middle distance. More people die of unrequited love each year than of tuberculosis.

Another Woman

Another Woman

“I realize you have been hurt. If I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I accept your condemnation.”

“You are a member of Amnesty International and the ACLU. And the head of the philosophy department. Impossible!”

These are two of my favorite quotes from the Woody Allen film, Another Woman. I like them each equally well but for different reasons. The first is such an outrageous statement by a phony pomposity of an ego so far gone as to defy augury and the other hits a little too close to home with the exception of being the head of the philosophy department. Woody Allen strikes gold here with his study of intellectual angst and mid life crisis. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to declare this film to be a mini-masterpiece.

I ran across this neglected, forgotten and, probably one you never heard of mini-masterpiece while scrolling through HULU one night looking for something decent to watch.  Oh, a film by Woody Allen! Let me check it out. Probably seen it before but what the heck? So I cued it up and started watching. Curiously enough I didn’t remember anything about it and was soon captivated and mesmerized by the haunting voice-over by one of it’s  stars and the brilliant cinematography of one of the worlds foremost cinematographers.

Another Woman was released in late 1988 and runs for 81 minutes. It was written and directed by Woody Allen. It stars Gena Rowlands as Marion Post, a middle aged philosophy teacher who is on sabbatical to write a book.  It is her voice-over we hear as the movie begins. She is describing her life as accomplished and reasonably well settled.

She rents an apartment downtown to work on her book without distraction and discovers that she is able to overhear the conversation between a patient (Mia Farrow) and her psychiatrist through the heating vents coming from the adjoining apartment. At first Marion blocks off the sound with pillows but later she starts to listen in. The patient is despondent, pregnant, and thinking of ending her life. Her name ironically is Hope.

This conversation gets Marion to thinking about her own life and through  series of coincidences, ruminations and, flashbacks, she encounters people from previous times in her life and she discovers she is not as happy as she thought she was.

This is a film of introspection and marvelous performances. A central theme of the film is that people can transform their lives to become more fulfilled. To say the film was Bergmanesque is rather stating the obvious. It has long been known that Woody has been greatly influenced by the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Some say that this film resembles Wild Strawberries but I think it is more Persona like, which was also photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s favored cinematographer.

This is a wonderful film which I highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moon Light (2014) written and directed by Woody Allen is a delightful summer confectionary, light as cotton candy and just as sweet. Colon Firth is excellent as the magician Wei Lin Soo who was brought in to debunk the Emma Stone’s character, Sophie, of fraud. Romance ensues as Firth becomes enchanted with Sophie. Much has been said about the age difference between Colin Firth and Emma Stone, but what the hell? They were antagonists throughout most of the film. Both were engaged to other people. Finally, at the end they got together. So what if there was an age gap? This is not so unusual in Hollywood. One need to look no further than Bogart and Bacall.
The film was beautifully photographed by Iranian cinematographer, Darius Khondji in glorious Color by Deluxe on 35 mm film stock in 2.35:1 ratio. Taking place in the south of France in the 1920’s, Woody out Gatsby’s Gatsby. Wonderful sound track, as usual, it was a pleasure to hear as well as to see.