Wonder Wheel

WheelDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi

I’ve been enjoying attending annual Woody Allen theatrical releases since Celebrity was released in 1998; that’s 19 of his films in 20 years that I’ve seen in the theater. Today, that streak comes to an unfortunate end with Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel. Wonder Wheel is the first Woody Allen film to ever be released in December (December 1st actually, which is Allen’s birthday), and while reviews were mostly poor, the holiday and Oscar films marginalized it within seconds, and it just never opened in any major way. Therefore, as a little birthday present to myself, I rented it on Amazon, and I will turn the frown upside down by making it the first post-theatrical release film I have ever reviewed.

The title Wonder Wheel refers to the Ferris wheel attraction at New York’s Coney Island, the main setting of the film. This is one of Allen’s most minimalist films in years or perhaps ever.  It feels and looks like a play, even more so than films Allen has directed based on his own stage plays! I am unsure if he shot Wonder Wheel at an increased rate, but it’s entirely possible. This decision to go full-Tennessee Williams, or maybe more appropriately full-Eugene O’Neill, is at first rather distracting, and I’ll admit, the film may be an homage to the stage, but perhaps a better story would be more worthy of this treatment.

Wonder Wheel is another mid-20th century period piece for Allen. It’s also another Coney Island backdrop, harkening back to Allen’s childhood, explored in several of his other films like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Radio Days, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Sweet and Lowdown among others, but this is the first completely set within the amusement destination, especially in its heyday. Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a waitress at a Coney Island clam shack who lives with her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi). Ginny ruined her first marriage by being unfaithful, and now she and her pyromaniac son live on the boardwalk with Humpty who also works at Coney Island as a carousel operator. Humpty was also previously married and had one daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who married a mobster displeasing Humpty and causing him to disown her and kick her out years ago. Suddenly, Carolina shows up on the boardwalk looking for Ginny to help her as she’s on the run from her mob husband and needs a place to hide. She also hopes Ginny can help her patch things up with Humpty. Complicating things one step further is our fourth-wall breaking narrator, Mickey, a Coney Island lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake. Mickey is our narrator, but he also involves himself in the lives of the characters finding himself attracted to Ginny. Ginny returns his favor and enjoys his attention, but she finds herself suspicious and jealous when on a chance meeting, Mickey also meets Carolina. The layers of drama unfold rather predictably, but that’s not to say there’s not an enjoyable arc to everything. Carolina’s immediate danger is nicely balanced with the complicated and adulterous love triangle involving Mickey, Carolina, and Ginny.

Wonder Wheel is definitely sub-standard Woody Allen. Kate Winslet is the main appeal, and her performance is actually quite strong. However, she is still the most developed character in a film full of caricatures. Allen’s three central characters are an adulterous divorcee, an alcoholic divorcee, and a mobster’s divorcee, and most of the time they are as one-dimensional as that. At the end, the story manages a brief bit of poignancy, albeit a duller sense than Allen is capable of creating. This is not the bomb it was made out to be, but like Coney Island itself, it could use a few more thrills. C

Wonder Wheel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes.

 

Divergent

ImageThere is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, the film based on the massively popular Veronica Roth novel ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

The film opens a la Twilight with a brief and information-rich voice-over that gives us the low-down on a dystopian and futuristic Chicago. Society has been segmented into five personality-based factions: Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation from which our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) hails. At the age of 16, Beatrice, later known as ‘Tris,’ must take an aptitude test, which all young people must take in order to discover which faction they would be most apt to join. The test results in a recommendation, but it is ultimately the decision of each individual to select the faction they want to join. The catch is that once a person selects a faction, there is no going back and a rigid training session begins that if not passed results in that person’s dismissal and the shameful label of being “factionless.”

After Tris’s aptitude test comes back inconclusive, she resolves to join the Dauntless faction, dedicated to fearlessness and bravery. If this process sounds similar to another YA novel’s “categorization” element, that’s because it is absurdly similar to the sorting ceremony in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s uniqueness is a cause for one particular recommendation by the sorting hat in The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet he disregards it to declare his allegiance to another house. Tris’s “inconclusive” test is actually code for her being a unique anomaly within society called a Divergent. Simply put, this means that her aptitude is not wholly within one faction but a combination of them all.

The film’s opening act is relatively interesting and does a passable job of explaining the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that there is not enough “newness” to this story and while the film is just another adaptation of another beloved young adult novel, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be held to the same originality standards as any other genre. Furthermore, once the Tris enters the world of the Dauntless, a whole new bag of issues emerges that sink the film even farther.

Most of the film from this point forward is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Tris’s struggles at Dauntless are pitted against her secret identify as a Divergent. Will she be discovered? Are there other Divergents? Will she hook up with the hunky “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four (Theo James)? These questions will be answered, just don’t hold your breath. The film gets so caught up in its own mythology, that it never really even considers convincing the audience why these “Divergents” are so dangerous. Divergents are people who can think for themselves and have multiple skills and talents. It becomes increasingly clear why Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is not fond of Divergents, but why does the rest of society view them as dangerous? A few tacked on lines of dialogue towards the end attempt to answer this, but not to any satisfaction.

A few words about Shailene Woodley. She has emerged on the scene with great success in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. In Divergent, Woodley’s performance is quite bland and well, wooden. She broods, she emotes with deep and hyperventalative breathing, she conveys confusion at the right times, but she never quite achieves a connection with the audience worth rooting for. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for this flavorless and wishy-washy performance. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. Woodley gives a very controlled performance and unfortunately the one in control is a strong candidate for being factionless!  D+

Divergent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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