Film review – Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen since my late teenage years, when I chanced upon a film called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid To Ask)’, following the release of a similarly-titled compilation album by record label Twisted Nerve. It was a vignette film that made a huge impression on me, utilizing comedy in a way I wasn’t really familiar with at the time.  The final short ‘What Happens During Ejaculation?’, which featured Allen as a sperm ready for deployment but nervous about his chances, was a masterclass in absurdist comedy.

There’s still a lot of his work that I’m yet to see, but his most recent films are always a welcome joy and haven’t failed to impress me in recent years, even when they have been poorly received by critics.

‘Wonder Wheel’, Allen’s latest feature, is a solid entry into his filmography with all the charm you’d expect from a master of his craft. It’s inevitable that a pairing him with Kate Winslet in a lead role is a success. This is only improved by a brilliant supporting cast of Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple.

Set in the 1950s on Coney Island in New York, the story revolves around Ginny (Winslet), who works in a cafe on an amusement park. Her husband Humpty (Belushi) is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. She is secretly having an affair with Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach. The film opens with a 4th-wall-breaking monologue from Mickey, and we’re soon after introduced to Carolina (Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter who has shown up because she is on the run from her mobster husband.

This certainly feels like a play that’s been turned into a film, and with a few tweaks you’d only need three settings to stage this with no compromise to the story. It’s a classic four-person play, with each  getting plenty of character development. Bu in reality this is Winslet’s film and she is on top of her game from start to finish. Her character is desperate for her life to change and sees her affair as her way out. When this is compromised, the film starts to really draw you in and it allows Winslet to yet again prove she is one of the finest actors of her generation.

A recurring effect Allen utilises is in the colour washes used to reflect Ginny’s changing moods, reminiscent of a technique used by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (notably in 2015’s Journey To The Shore). Her emotions towards her husband tend towards a blue wash, whilst her dealings with Mickey are paired with brilliant oranges and blues to signify the hope and warmth she feels around him. It’s a simple technique that isn’t used subtly, but it’s very effective.

My only reservation is that it lets itself down with an ending that fizzles out rather than resolving itself either way, and the final scenes feel compromised somehow, like they rushed the writing and filming to meet a deadline. This doesn’t make it a terrible film, it just means it isn’t an excellent film.

This may prove to be the last regular entry into the Woody Allen filmography, with continued controversy discouraging actors to take part in projects headed up by Allen. His next, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’, is yet to have a release date. It appears unlikely that any more films will see the light of day. He has just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

I’m able to separate the allegations from the art, which is something I am aware sits uncomfortably with a great many people. For me it’s a shame that the final film may never be released and will inevitably serve as a tainted bookend to an illustrious career.

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)

Interesting fact – Woody Allen has directed and written a new feature film every year since 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. And that break – that one year break – was well deserved. Between 1972 and 1980 he managed eight feature films in a purple patch of creativity that included Manhatten, Bananas, Annie Hall, Sleeper and Love and Death. This industrious approach to churning out films from the Woody Allen cinema factory of course means that some releases are better received than others. Going to see his latest film doesn’t seem to guarantee you’ll see a great film.

In recent years, though, he has had a critical and commercial renaissance, which started with 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, and he has been introduced to a whole generation of cinema-goers. Indeed, watching his recent films they all seem to be of the same universe. The fonts and designs used for the title sequences are always identical (though admittedly he has used the same Windsor font for around forty years now). The music is of a similar style, albeit usually stylised to the area in which the film is set. The locations have tended towards beautiful, luxurious areas of famous European cities with histories rich in romance, barring 2009’s Whatever Works and last year’s hugely successful Blue Jasmine. It’s almost like Woody Allen is using his films to enjoy these beauty hotspots.

So, whilst seeing Woody Allen’s latest might not guarantee you’ll see a great film, it will guarantee you’ll see a quintessentially Allenesque film, one you will immediately recognise as belonging to this most unique of directors.

And so it is with his latest.

Magic In The Moonlight stars British heavyweight Colin Firth and relative newcomer Emma Stone, both of whom are highly gifted and currently very sought-after actors. The story centres around Firth’s Stanley Crawford, a world-renowned magician whom we join as he journeys to the French Riviera to witness and debunk Stone’s Sophie Baker, a self-professed spiritual medium who Stanley is sure is as fake as the rest of her peers.

Firth plays the stubborn Stanley perfectly. The character is a dislikeable person, one we see slowly fall for a girl many years his minor but refusing to admit it, doubly bad as he has a fiancé-in-waiting back home. Even when Sophie starts to show feelings for him, he rebukes her in the most insulting of manners. Firth is an inherently likeable person so that he pulls this is off so well is to be admired. Emma Stone, too, is brilliant in playing a seemingly innocent girl with an extraordinary gift. The play between these two highly talented actors is something to behold. Throw into the mix a fantastic support cast including Eileen Atkins and Simon McBurney, some beautiful scenery and a well-crafted script and you have another excellent entry into the Allen catalogue.

In many ways, I do wonder what the enduring fascination with Allen is. Especially in the UK where, in light of Operation Yewtree and a seemingly never ending chain of accusations and court cases against the stars of yesteryear, any kind of indecent relationship will be dragged through the press. It seems decidedly odd that Woody Allen’s popularity remains completely intact. There doesn’t seem to be any resolution on the horizon for his ongoing feud with Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter, who claims she was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. It seems bizarre that so many renowned actors would flock to be involved with his work with this hanging over his legacy. Yes, I understand that we should treat people as innocent until proven guilty, but that is frankly not the society we live in, where often trial by media is the preferred route. I don’t truly believe that these films are so good they overpower his potential loss of reputation if these allegations were true. Perhaps it’s just that his reputation as an excellent director precedes him and people are desperate to work with him as he sits in the twilight of his career. Who could turn down the opportunity to work with a bonafide legend of cinema?

So, is Magic in the Moonlight as good as Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine? Probably not. But it is a uniquely Allenesque picture and one that certainly won’t go down in the future as a flop; yet another water tight story told brilliant by one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema.

Magic in the Moonlight is on release at selected cinemas in the UK now.