Thursday, December 14, 2017

Gary Oldman's finest hour

An actor's portrayal of Winston Churchill carries Darkest Hour to victory.
The most striking thing about Darkest Hour, the story of how Britain teetered on the edge of defeat in World War II but regained its moral resolve, involves Gary Oldman's make-up and performance as Winston Churchill. Although he seems the least likely of actors to tackle Churchill, Oldman and makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji pull off a near miracle. They give us a Churchill who's domineering, insecure and witty, but also a man sagging as the weight of decision falls on his shoulders.

There aren't many sure bets these days, but it seems certain that Oldman will be nominated for a best-actor Oscar for what he has done in a movie directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina).

Wright directs with a sure if somewhat heavy hand, underscoring the momentous nature of nearly everything that happens in Darkest Hour. The major question before Churchill and his war cabinet: Should Britain negotiate some sort of peace agreement with Herr Hitler, as Churchill refers to the Austrian paperhanger?

The alternative: battle until victorious or until the last British warrior falls.

We all know how the story turns out, but at its best, Darkest Hour -- which depicts some of the events leading up to the civilian evacuation of British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk -- reminds us that history only looks inevitable when viewed through a rearview mirror.

In 1940, it was by no means certain that Britain could withstand the German onslaught. The US had yet to enter the war, and Hitler's armies were toppling one European country after another.

Audiences that have seen Dunkirk already are prepped for Wright's movie, which recreates behind-the-scenes haggling among the anti-Churchill forces. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who Churchill replaced as Prime Minister, wanted to stave off destruction by negotiating with Hitler. Stephen Dillane appears as Viscount Halifax, a Chamberlain ally who was even more anxious to capitulate than his friend.

King George VI (in a fine, subtle performance from Ben Mendelsohn) had doubts about Churchill, whom he both feared and mistrusted -- at least during the early days of Churchill's Prime Ministership.

Wright doesn't pay a great deal of attention to the women in Churchill's life. His wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) bolsters Churchill's ego when it begins to flag. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's secretary, a young woman he initially intimidates but whom Churchill eventually sees in human terms.

Some scenes are as hokey as Churchill is bombastic. Besieged by doubts late in the movie, Churchill takes a ride on the underground (supposedly his first ever) to mingle with the people, listen to their views and draw on their strength.

Of course, Churchill was a large man -- both physically and in importance. The movie is at its best when Oldman delivers important Churchill speeches ("We shall fight on the beaches, etc.") and when peppering his performance with Churchill's many peculiarities: He couldn't abide single-spaced typing, drank whiskey with his breakfast and throughout the day and seldom could be seen without a cigar.

So the verdict is mildly mixed. Darkest Hour isn't as great as the historical moment it depicts but Oldman's performance certainly rises to the occasion.

A Syrian refuge in Helsinki

Time was Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki was one of the hottest names of the festival circuit, having made his big splash with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), a movie he followed with the equally praised The Match Factory Girl (1990). No longer the next big thing in international cinema, Kaurismaki -- now 60 -- has been plugging along for several decades, building a filmography that consists of movies that support his distinctive voice. Almost every description of a Kaurismaki movie involves the word "deadpan." His cigarette-smoking characters are people whose muted emotional responses make them difficult to read, and Kaurismaki supports them with a stable camera that doesn't attempt to examine every corner of every room. Kaurismaki survives as an artist because, in his case, deadpan isn't the same as moribund. Life in a Kaurismaki movie may be drab and dreary, but it's still life. In The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki examines the relationship between immigrants and their often reluctant hosts. Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Helsinki hoping to be granted asylum. Khaled's story contrasts with that of the dour Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a man who leaves his alcoholic wife, unloads his shirt business and -- thanks to some luck at the card table -- puts together enough money to buy a restaurant. It's obvious from the start that the restaurant qualifies as a loser, but Wikstrom persists, even -- at one point -- trying to go trendy by serving sushi. The joke: He doesn't sushi from a Baltic herring. The restaurant's meager staff and its various failed attempts to reinvent the business are presented in Kaurismaki's dryly funny style. The movie's two threads (a refugee looking for a home and an established man trying to create a new life) come together when Khaled, having been denied asylum, escapes a detention center and lands a job at Wikstrom's restaurant. Kaurismaki dealt with issues of immigration in La Havre (2011), but he's clearly not done with the subject. Credit Kaurismaki with dredging compassion and even a bit of heroism from places where we least expect to find it and from people who, at first blush, don't seem capable of breaking through their isolation.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A welcome 'Star Wars' addition

Director Rian Johnson takes the reins for Last Jedi and the result mostly satisfies.

Now, where were we?

If you're among the zillions of Star Wars enthusiasts, you know that the last chapter (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) concluded with young Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding her way to a remote island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) had withdrawn from all things Jedi, including battling whatever evil currently had harnessed the dark side of the series' fabled Force. Luke, we learned, had hung up his Lightsaber.

Now comes Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the next installment of what's billed as a Star Wars sequel trilogy -- and the plea for Luke to shake off his funk continues.

This edition should please fans as it deftly barrels its way through two and half hours with only a few lags as the screenplay fulfills expositional obligations.

Director Rian Johnson (Brick and Looper) picks up the reins from J.J. Abrams and gives us a Star Wars with a bit of nuance, flashes of humor and plenty of well-crafted action.

What brings the whole enterprise to life -- aside from the generosity of its spectacle -- are the inner torments of characters who embody the great Star Wars theme: the tension between the light and dark sides of the force. This clash, of course, includes the knowing acknowledgment that even the most morally superior characters might be a hairsbreadth away from answering the dark call.

In a way, the plot of any Star Wars movie could be its least important attribute. You already know that Rey has found Luke Skywalker, so the only remaining question is whether she persuades him to leave his island retreat -- formally known as the planet Ahch-To -- and return to action as an inspiration for the Resistance, which is busy fighting the First Order.

The First Order, of course, is run by Supreme Leader Snoke, a cadaverous-looking creep played by Andy Serkis with the usual CGI boost. Snoke has great power, but looks so decayed, you half wonder how he lifts himself out of bed in the morning.

Disney, which has taken charge of the Star Wars franchise, has cautioned critics against revealing spoilers. I don't consider it a spoiler to tell you that unlike its 2015 predecessor, this edition includes more than a cameo appearance by Hamill. His Luke quickly establishes himself as a cranky, bearded figure who has shed every bit of the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his character's youth.

A bit of sadness tempers the fun. The Last Jedi marks Carrie Fisher's last performance. Fisher appears as General Leia Organa, head of the Resistance, and yes, Fischer's presence is more than ceremonial. (Fisher died a year ago this month.)

Johnson does a good job of weaving new characters into a mix that brings back Adam Driver, who digs as deep as he can as Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren tops Snoke's list of prospects to become the new Darth Vader. Ren, you'll recall, killed his father, Han Solo, in the last episode.

Look for Laura Dern, with purple hair, as Vice Admiral Holdo, evidently the second in command of Resistance forces after General Leia. Benicio del Toro plays DJ, a hacker who knows how to disable a device that figures heavily in the plot. Del Toro gives Last Jedi a sly, juicy boost. Finn (a returning John Boyega) and Rose Pico (newbie Kelly Marie Tran) are forced by circumstance to trust del Toro's genially larcenous character.

As you can tell, many characters populate this increasingly complex story. Oscar Isaac returns as the dashing pilot Poe Dameron. Also returning: Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, another First Order purveyor of evil, and Lupita Nyong'o, the goggle-eyed pirate Maz.

Ridley already proved herself a worthy addition to the Star Wars fold and does nothing here to convince us that we weren't right to welcome her for what evidently will be a long run.

Johnson and his production team gives us plenty of visual diversion -- from Luke's monkish stone hut (it looks like something sculptor Andy Goldsworthy might have created) to the imperially sized vessels of the First order to the obligatory trip to a bustling casino planet -- it's called Canto Bight -- where rogues, aliens, and intergalactic swells meet and mingle.

New creatures pop up, notably cute little Porgs, a type of seabird that inhabits the planet Ahch-To. Thankfully, the Porgs are used sparingly enough not to create an overdose of cuteness, the dreaded Ewok effect.

Look, directing a Star Wars movie requires an ability to juggle a large cast of characters without creating too much confusion, as well as a commitment to preserving Star Wars mythology without miring the series in undue reverence for its past. Every new Star Wars movie must earn its own stripes.

Johnson gets the job done and, in the bargain, makes us the beneficiaries of his success.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water, a romantic fantasy about a cleaner and a "monster.''
Guillermo del Toro chases dreams, attempting (and often succeeding) in mixing horror and romanticism as he allows his ample imagination to invade reality. In his great 2006 movie, Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro produced a dark fantasy about Franco's Spain. Now in The Shape of Water, del Toro turns to American shores, for a fairy tale about the love between a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) and a creature who has been brought from the depths of the Amazon to the US by government officials who see him as a threat.

The second half of del Toro's conception -- the part involving an attempt by a government agent (Michael Shannon) to destroy the creature -- might be the weakest part of the movie, flirting with cliches about the way officialdom inevitably becomes the enemy of beauty and mystery.

But this creature is different. Called Amphibian Man in the credits (Doug Jones under a ton of make-up), the creature has the physique of a man but also has scales and the ability to be fierce when threatened. In the Amazon, natives thought Amphibian Man was a god. Rather than trying to trample his strangeness, they elevated it.

Perhaps never quite as poetic as its wonderful title, The Shape of Water nonetheless allows del Toro to give full vent to an imagination into which movies flow, cinematic tributaries that fuel his sense of invention. It's not coincidental that Hawkins' Elisa lives above a theater called the Orpheum where The Story of Ruth is playing or that her neighbor (a gay artist played by Richard Jenkins) obsessively watches old movies, preferring them to the news of the day.

Set in Baltimore during the 1960s, the movie alternates between two major locations: Elisa's apartment and her place of employment, a government installation where Amphibian man is being held prisoner.

Elisa and her co-worker (a down-to-earth Octavia Spencer) learn that the creature is being tormented by Shannon's character. An authoritarian jerk, Shannon's Strickland becomes the real monster, a self-justifying sadist disguised as a "normal" man. Shannon's Strickland lives in suburbia, indulges himself by buying a Cadillac and pounds away (literally) during sex with his mildly libidinous wife.

Michael Stuhlbarg makes an appearance as a scientist who wants to preserve the creature. He believes that it would be a crime to destroy Amphibian Man. Stuhlbarg's Bob has a double identity. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that Bob is also a Russian spy and that the Russians have their eye on this creature. They, too, would like to harness its powers.

Hawkins excels in her performance as a silent woman who gradually reveals her strengths. From the beginning, del Toro establishes Elisa's affinity for water. For Elisa, water and sexuality are intimately connected. And, yes, Elisa not only has a romantic interest in the creature; she has sex with him. She explains to Spencer's curious Zelda how this union is possible in one of the movie's giggly joking moments.

Del Toro delivers on the promise of the title. There's a lot of water in The Shape of Water, arriving in the form of flooded rooms, downpours and the tank in which Amphibian Man languishes. Water is life and, as such, can't always be contained.

The movie's romanticism extends to its elements that in the 1960s might have been considered "subversive," a woman who can't speak, a gay man, and a black woman. It falls to these outsiders to appreciate Amphibian Man in all his scaly glory. It is only in union with Amphibian Man that Elisa finds her true identity. She's finally complete.

Those familiar with del Toro's work won't be surprised at the movie's visual mastery, greatly aided by the cinematography of Dan Lausten and the production design of Paul D. Austerberry; they help the movie live in a world all its own.

The Shape of Water doesn't quite reach the magical heights at which del Toro must have been aiming, but it stands as a work in which sweet and sour tones bump against one another with del Toro insisting that only in the full embrace of those we deem alien do we find our deepest humanity -- or maybe he's just telling a small story about a woman who deserves more than life has given her.

Either way, The Shape of Water brims with strange charm.

He made the world's worst film

James Franco directs a comedy about the making of The Room, an awful movie about a comedy that has developed a cult following.
All through the preview screening of The Disaster Artist, I found myself looking for James Franco's face, a strange preoccupation because Franco's in nearly every frame of the movie. We catch glimpses of what we know as Franco's face but he's mostly unrecognizable as Tommy Wiseau, a wannabe film director who made The Room, a movie so awful it has acquired cult status among those who enjoy unadulterated badness.

Often shown at midnight, The Room probably is best appreciated in the company of audiences who feel liberated to hoot and holler at the screen. In real life, Wiseau frequently attends screenings of his movie, which has been called the worst movie ever made.

I don't know if The Disaster Artist will rock your world, but I do know that I laughed at the comic touches that Franco, who also directed, brings to the subject of dismal failure.

As is the case with most good comedies, Franco and his fellow actors play things straight. Wiseau had no idea that he was making a bad movie; in fact, he seems to have had a wholehearted belief in the quality and importance of his effort.

In dead-on fashion, Franco replicates scenes from The Room as the production is being filmed. He also replicates Wiseau's shoulder-length hair and odd manner of speaking; his accent has a marble-mouthed, eastern European flavor. Wiseau says he's from New Orleans.

Given the outrageousness of the subject, there's no need for Franco to veer from straightforward narration in a screenplay that has been adapted from a book written by Greg Sestero, another wannabe actor who traveled to Hollywood with Wiseau to pursue fame, fortune and a career in movies.

Sestero (Dave Franco) met Wiseau in 1968 when both were attending a San Francisco acting class. Sestero saw Tommy do a balls-to-the-wall, completely insane version of a Stanley Kowalski speech from A Streetcar Named Desire. He was impressed by Tommy's willingness to go "raw."

No one knows where Wiseau got the money to support himself and Sestero in LA or how he financed a movie that he believed would put him on the map. A deluded Wiseau also says that his work has a Shakespearean quality, a comparison that, to say the least, represents a stretch.

The Room, the picture Wiseau's making, centers on Johnny (played by Wiseau) and includes some ridiculous sex scenes which Franco shows us as he chronicles the shooting of the movie with an actress (Ari Gaynor), a script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and a small crew.

Jacki Weaver appears as one of the film's actresses, a woman who claims that even a day on the set of the world's worst movie beats a day of longing to act.

It's impossible to make a movie like The Disaster Artist without a bit of condescension toward the movie's woeful cast of characters. We laugh at them precisely because it's so obvious that Wiseau's project is doomed from the start. Nothing would (or could) redeem it.

Franco fully immerses in Tommy's life, presenting it with the same cockeyed seriousness with which Wiseau seems to have lived it. Wiseau released The Room in 2003 and claimed that he always intended it to be funny.

I'm not sure what Wiseau really had in mind, but unlike a lot of other would-be comedies, Franco's rendition of this real-life story actually is funny.

Watching Wiseau try to throw a football, for example, presents a moment so void of athleticism, it's close to astonishing. And that's the whole joke in a nutshell. From the outset, it's clear that nothing about The Room will succeed, yet -- to the amazement of everyone involved -- Wiseau persists.

And, no, you don't have to have seen The Room to go along for this enjoyably nutty ride.

She copes with hard times in Kinshasa

You think you're going through a rough patch. Consider the fate of Felicite, a woman living amid the corruptions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Felicite, the title character of Alain Gomis's latest movie, must raise money so that her son can have his broken leg surgically repaired. Felicite also has been robbed by a person posing as a do-gooder and, to add aggravation to insult, her refrigerator is perpetually broken. To fully appreciate Felicite, the movie about this beleaguered but defiant woman, you need tolerance for hand-held camera work, but the technique makes sense because Felicite lives in a chaotic world. Felicite (Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu) sings at a local nightclub and proves a force with which to be reckoned, a woman of ample girth who meets trouble head-on when she learns her 14-year-old son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been taken to the hospital. As she tries to gather money for the boy's surgery (the doctor won't operate without a substantial down payment), Felicite takes us on a journey that brings her into contact with a variety of people from whom she hopes to raise money. She also strikes up a relationship with Tabu (Papi Mpaki), a boozer who spends a lot of time trying to repair Felicite's refrigerator. Gomis obtains a fine performance from his lead actress, a singer in her first acting outing. We also are shown glimpses of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra playing in interludes that provide a stark contrast with the rough-and-tumble life of the city's nightclubs and streets. In all, Felicite strikes a powerful chord, taking us into a society in which every reward feels hard won. The language (Lingala and French with subtitles) also has a distinctive quality. At one point, Felicite tells Tabu that she likes his way of being in the world. It's not the only expression in Felicite that opens the eye while pleasing the ear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Broadcast Film Critics nominees

The Shape of Water tops list of nominees for the 23rd annual Critics' Choice awards.
I know. You've hardly digested Thanksgiving dinner and you're already being inundated with talk of year-end movie awards. Well, here's another awards alert: The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a voting member, has announced the nominees for its 23rd annual Critics' Choice Awards.

The Shape of Water led the list with a total of 14 nominations, including best picture. Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Lady Bird and The Post followed with eight nominations each.

At some point, I'll publish my 10-best list for 2017, but for the moment, I offer the BFCA list as a way to get you started on your own year-end thinking.

The CW Network will broadcast the Critics' Choice Awards show on Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., eastern time. The BFCA, by the way, represents more than 300 television, radio and online critics.


BEST PICTURE
The Big Sick
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger
Tom Hanks – The Post
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour


BEST ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS (under 21)
Mckenna Grace – Gifted
Dafne Keen – Logan
Brooklynn Prince – The Florida Project
Millicent Simmonds – Wonderstruck
Jacob Tremblay – Wonder

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
Dunkirk
Lady Bird
Mudbound
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST DIRECTOR
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Steven Spielberg – The Post

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – The Post
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jordan Peele – Get Out

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist
Dee Rees and Virgil Williams – Mudbound
Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game
Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, Stephen Chbosky – Wonder

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison – Mudbound
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – Call Me By Your Name

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin – The Shape of Water
Jim Clay, Rebecca Alleway – Murder on the Orient Express
Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis – Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola – Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer – Beauty and the Beast
Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery – Phantom Thread

BEST EDITING
Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar – The Post
Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver
Lee Smith – Dunkirk
Joe Walker – Blade Runner 2049
Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Renée April – Blade Runner 2049
Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
Lindy Hemming – Wonder Woman
Luis Sequeira – The Shape of Water

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP
Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
I, Tonya
The Shape of Water
Wonder

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Breadwinner
Coco
Despicable Me 3
The LEGO Batman Movie
Loving Vincent

BEST ACTION MOVIE
Baby Driver
Logan
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

BEST COMEDY
The Big Sick
The Disaster Artist
Girls Trip
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
Steve Carell – Battle of the Sexes
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Chris Hemsworth – Thor: Ragnarok
Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Adam Sandler – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Zoe Kazan – The Big Sick
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Emma Stone – Battle of the Sexes

BEST SCI-FI OR HORROR MOVIE
Blade Runner 2049
Get Out
It
The Shape of Water

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
A Fantastic Woman
First They Killed My Father
In the Fade
The Square
Thelma

BEST SONG
Evermore – Beauty and the Beast
Mystery of Love – Call Me By Your Name
Remember Me – Coco
Stand Up for Something – Marshall
This Is Me – The Greatest Showman

BEST SCORE
Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
Dario Marianelli – Darkest Hour
Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049
John Williams – The Post
Hans Zimmer - Dunkirk




Monday, December 4, 2017

This 'Wonder Wheel' turns lame

Woody Allen's latest sinks toward the bottom of the director's large filmography.

At times, Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel feels more like a play than a movie -- and not a very good play at that, something along the lines of cut-rate Eugene O'Neill.

As with most Allen movies, a nicely composed surface masks the paucity of the drama. Put another way, the peripherals are top notch. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's production design skillfully blend beauty and nostalgia in creating the world of Coney Island during the 1950s. Visual competence goes only so far, and the overall effect of Wonder Wheel tracks toward abiding unpleasantness.

Allen breaks little new ground as he tackles familiar themes in this aggressively retro setting: love, betrayal and the way sexual desire and love can blur, creating uncomfortable emotional smudges for all involved.

If you want to spend time wondering how all this relates to Allen's well-publicized private life, have it. But taken on its own terms, the movie represents a misbegotten journey into a lower-class hell of the 1950s. The movie feels strained, artificial and tawdry.

Wonder Wheel revolves around a massively disappointed woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). After a disastrous first marriage (she cheated), Ginny married Humpty (Jim Belushi). Humpty provides Ginny with stability and safety. He more or less tolerates Ginny's young son (Jack Gore), who happens to be a pyromaniac. The kid likes to set fires.

The arrival of Humpty's daughter (Juno Temple) from a previous marriage upsets Ginny's applecart, which isn't all that sturdy to being with. Humpty, a raging alcoholic who's no longer drinking, still manages to rage. He's Ralph Kramden without the laughs.

Juno's Carolina has been estranged from Humpty, but she fears reprisals from the mobster husband she's fleeing. Humpty warned his daughter against marrying a mob guy, but Carolina didn't listen. It doesn't take long for Humpty to crack; he loves Carolina too much permanently to reject her. Besides, she has no place else to turn.

All of these characters are penned up in a shack overlooking the Coney Island boardwalk, where Humpty operates the merry-go-round and Ginny works as a waitress in a clam house.

Allen sets us up for a kitchen sink drama that's intermittently narrated by a Coney Island lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), a dreamer. Timberlake's character aspires to be a playwright. He also starts an affair with Ginny, who once had acting ambitions and who imagines that she might find a better life with Timberlake's Mickey. She separates herself from reality by claiming that she's only "acting" the part of a waitress.

The actors are often stuck with dialogue that might better have suited Allen's contemporary New York characters, but, in this instance, turns them into labored fictional creations. Temple does her best to be young and flighty. The usually wonderful Winslet elbows her way into an unappealing version of a Blanch DuBois-scale unraveling. Timberlake does his best to portray an Army veteran who dropped out of NYU but doesn't take easily to the role. Belushi either pleads Humpty's case or bellows like a wounded ox.

I'd put Wonder Wheel near the bottom of Allen's abundant filmography. The story isn't very good and it leaves a bad aftertaste when it's done. I'd call that a double whammy of badness.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A caustic look at the art world

Sweden's The Square takes us into a world where art and basic human values seem constantly to clash.

You could spend a couple of hours unwinding the many subjects addressed in Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's The Square. Ostlund, who shook up the art-house world in 2014 with Force Majeure, takes on the pretensions of the art world and the split between purported cultural values and simple expressions of humanity. He also tackles class divisions and the way a hopelessly elitist art world pushes itself toward weird extremes.

The Square of the title refers to an art space created outside of a museum of modern art in Stockholm. Inside the space, which actually is quite small, the atmosphere is supposed to be one of helpfulness and toleration, a tiny retreat devoted to trust and caring. Not surprisingly, the world outside the square turns out to be ridiculously corrupt.

Ostlund builds his story around the museum's curator. Claes Bang portrays Christian, a museum executive whose hypocrisy will be exposed as the movie unveils a series of episodes that sometimes amuse, sometimes confound and sometimes seem a little too on the nose to be as provocative as Ostlund may have intended.

If you're the sort of person who believes the art world is hopelessly out of touch with anything that concerns "normal" experience, you'll probably side with Ostlund as he poses a series of arty jokes. The main exhibit at the museum consists of piles of gravel assembled in the shape of small pyramids across a gallery floor. It's silly, of course, but just plausible enough to make us see why visitors to the museum might spend hours trying to tease possible meanings from these piles of rocks.

You may do the same with The Square. The movie is ambitious, scattered, funny, flawed and disjointed.

Say this, though, as the curator of the museum, Bang proves an able ringmaster as he presides over Ostlund's circus of a movie. American audiences also will recognize Elisabeth Moss, who turns up as a TV reporter doing a story on the new exhibit. Later, she climbs into bed with Bang's character.

Post sex discussion between the two characters hardly leans toward sweet talk, degenerating, instead, into an argument about who's going to throw away the condom the couple used. Perhaps a suspicious Christian thinks that Moss's character wants to set him up for a Lewinski-like dress moment. Who knows?

Did I mention that before the reporter and her subject have sex, a chimp wanders through Moss's character's apartment, creating both laughs and consternation? It’s one of the film's several WTF moments.

During the interview with Moss's character, Christian reveals that his major (and possibly only) concern centers on raising money for the museum.

That's not the only money-oriented moment in The Square. At a fund-raising dinner, a performance artist pretends to be a gorilla and winds up terrorizing the guests. This bizarre twist presumably is meant to show how much abuse viewers will tolerate if they believe they’re looking at art. The scene also exposes the ruthlessness that afflicts the art crowd. Under those tuxedos, monsters lurk. The whole scene would have made a spectacularly unnerving short.

Earlier, a couple of hip marketing geniuses persuade the museum’s staff that tolerance and compassion never will draw attention to The Square. To spice things up, they create a promotional video in which a girl is blown up. They wanted to give the project an edge.

Perhaps to knock Christian out of his protected cocoon, Ostlund includes a mugging in which Christian loses his wallet, his phone, and a pair of prized cufflinks. The resultant developments expose his silliness, as well as his inability to get beyond his own preoccupations.

So what to make of all this? Clearly, Ostlund has skills. He's a filmmaker who's interested in morality and responsibility, subjects that need plenty of attention at the moment. But in The Square, he's got so much on his plate that it takes him all of 2 1/2 sometimes taxing hours to unravel the movie's many threads.

As a result, The Square stands as a triumph of ambition that results in a wildly mixed achievement, water balloons dropped by a prankish director on the art world's many targets of opportunity.