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.

Film review – Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)

There is a moment in Café Society where the magic of 1950s Hollywood romance is really captured: a chance glance, an excited exchange, the promise of unfolding romance recognised instantly. That this exquisite one-shot involves not Kristen Stewart – the woman we need to believe is Jesse Eisenberg’s raison d’etre – but rather Blake Lively, reveals everything we need to know about why this Woody Allen effort fails to hit the heights of his more recent successes. That is, Kristen Stewart simply isn’t a believable love interest. At least not in this kind of film.

The 1930s-set story centres around Bobby (Eisenberg), a young Jewish man who has moved to Hollywood to pursue new career opportunities under the supervision of his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful and well-connected film talent agent. He instantly falls in love with Veronica (Stewart), an assistant at Phil’s office,  unaware of the fact that his uncle is on the verge of breaking off his marriage to pursue his affair with Veronica.

The film hangs together on Jesse Eisenberg’s shoulders, as he starts off by doing his best Woody Allen impression and progresses towards his final position that is ever-so-slightly more alpha male than that. It is genuinely an excellent performance, bringing energy to the screen whenever he graces it.

He works best playing off against the plethora of supporting characters who never fail to exude the feel of the time and he’s clearly having fun under the supervision of one of the greatest living film directors. It’s a beautiful homage to the heyday of Hollywood, as Bobby develops into a socialite, bouncing from party to party first in Hollywood and then later on his return to New York.

Whenever Stewart appears on screen, she feels like a woman out of place in the era and unable to match the authentic performances of those around her. This goes against some excellent post-Twilight performances that have given her a route out of potential typecasting (American Ultra is a great example of this), but a classic Hollywood leading starlet she is not.

The film is not a complete failure. A hilariously delivered exchange between Bobby and a first-time prostitute is just one example of the smart comedic dialogue we’ve come to expect in Allen’s recent film. The jazz-centric score heightens the positioning in the era.

It’s just a shame that I was routing for he wrong girl.

Cafe Society is available now on DVD, along with the sumptuous Vince Giordano soundtrack.

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015)

Another year, another Woody Allen film. It must be getting tiring, all this. Coming up with excellent idea after excellent idea, living with the pressure of high expectations. Sickening then that despite this film being another example of style over substance, the substance is unquestionably absorbing and the style is abundant. Much like all of his other recent films, then.

This is the tale of university philosophy professor Abe Lucas, who arrives at a Braylin College, New England with a reputation for being both an alcoholic and a womaniser. He immediately attracts the attention of married chemistry professor Rita (Parker Posey) and philosophy student Jill (Emma Stone), the former of which is married and the latter of which is in a long term relationship to which she is seemingly dedicated. He strikes up  an intellectual friendship with the Jill that eventually leads to the suggestion of more. However, lacking enthusiasm for life, Abe seems lost until an unexpected twist of fate turns his life around and with it his attitude towards it.

A fantastic screen couple.

A fantastic screen couple.

There are six listed cast members here, but there really are only two stars here. Phoenix and Stone make a formidable pairing. He may have put on some weight for this role, but Phoenix’s allure is still very much there and his convincing lost soul act is enough to make his appeal to the much younger Stone quite believable. The conversations she has with her family, friends and an increasingly frustrated boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) are so natural they could be eavesdropping. The ability Woody Allen has to enter the mind of a young and impressionable individual is uncanny. It’s subtle but enchanting.

When the twist arrives there is inevitably a risk that it will derail the film, drawing away from the realism of the first act as it blossoms into a full-blown thriller. Thankfully it doesn’t stray too far from the mark, walking a fine line but concentrating on Abe’s irrational justifications of his actions rather than spiralling out of control, which probably would have been the easier option.

It doesn’t quite reach the joyful heights seen in Midnight In Paris, though is streets ahead of the unfathomably popular Blue Jasmine. Well worth checking out if you can find it.

Irrational Man is at UK cinemas now.

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.