Thursday, December 14, 2023

Film Reviews: Men of Ambition and Their Follies are Explored in Enjoyable “Wonka,” “American Fiction” and “Maestro”

Wonka (c) Warner Bros

Film: Wonka 
In Cinemas 

Timothée Chalamet, one of the trendier actors of young Hollywood (he introduced his fans to the sequined harness bib and is now declaring vests are back!), is attempting a decidedly retro persona for his latest film, Wonka. Young Timmy has always had a wholesome vibe about him (despite films where he did things to peaches and was also a cannibal), but playing the younger version of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, immortalized on film by Gene Wilder (with a devilish grin) and Johnny Depp (with a misanthropic disdain), he goes full optimistic wonder, almost as if he was a living embodiment of a curious teddy bear. Even though the imagination of this prequel to Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is less than pure, director Paul King’s bright and whimsical attempt at Willy Wonka’s origin story is perfectly fine, if not equal to the joys of his Paddington films (hence the teddy bear reference). As we see from Wes Anderson’s recent Roald Dahl shorts, the author didn’t always present a cheerful look at Britain in his books, yet Wonka seems to be working more off the Charles Dickens formula. When our young chocolate entrepreneur arrives in London, he has only a handful of coins, which he proceeds to either give away or lose. Finding a cold bench to sleep on, he meets the foreboding and appropriately named Bleacher (Tom Davis). He knows of a boarding house run by Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman), who immediately drowns Wonka in legal red tape, so he is now her indentured servant. But with the help of fellow prisoner Noodle (Calah Lane), Wonka is able to sneak out and present his candy creations to London, which raises the ire of the chocolate cabal and their henchman, the chocolate-addicted police chief (Keegan-Michael Key). And there’s also the matter of Lofty, of the Oompa-Loompa tribe (Hugh Grant, settling nicely into his curmudgeon phase), who keeps trying to steal Wonka’s inventions. This is all well done and fun, with plenty of serviceable songs by Neil Hannon to keep us on our toes, but I’m not sure this Wonka origin story is as whimsical and charming as the filmmakers think it is. The production design by Nathan Crowley and set decorations by Lee Sandales are thankfully a delight for the eyes and will certainly enchant the littlest ones in the audience, however will the film become a classic, as beloved as the 1971 film? Only time will tell, but if the dour The Grinch Who Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey can be embraced during the holidays, I can’t see why the wholesome Wonka, with the always intrepid Chalamet at its center, can’t do the same. 

American Fiction (c) Amazon MGM Studios

Film: American Fiction 
In Cinemas 

If your pretentious meter is working correctly, then the main character of director Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction should immediately set it off, not just because his name is Thelonious Ellison and everyone calls him Monk (I guess Ralph would have been too pedestrian). Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is a serious writer, and although he has written some critically acclaimed academic books, he is not seen as an African American writer, like Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose current best seller is called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto. So, after taking a sabbatical from teaching (where he offends, of course, a white student in one of his classes) to take care of his ailing mother (Leslie Uggams), he decides to write a stereotypical black novel called My Pafology and, to the delight of his agent (John Ortiz), the publishing houses are interested in it, moreso than in his actual next book. As much as this plot is the engine that keeps the movie going, it is the more insightful family and personal drama that Monk goes through that gives American Fiction its heart. Along with his mother, who is suffering from dementia, the cinematic disease du jour of older people these days, there’s also his much put-upon sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his flamboyant brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), who has recently come out and is enjoying every second of it, as well as a flirtatious relationship with his neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander). Less satirical than the book plotline, the family’s story really keeps you invested in Monk, although it isn’t that hard when he is played with as much confidence and swagger as Jeffrey Wright gives him. After so many outstanding supporting roles, he is finally given the chance to shine as the lead, which he really hasn’t done since Basquiat. Although the ending of the film (which is akin to the ending of Killers of the Flower Moon) feels like a cop-out, there is a thematic satirical symmetry to it that feels justified, although somewhat unsatisfyingly so. But until then, Jefferson’s adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is an enjoyable and intelligent take on our current climate. 

Maestro (c) Netflix

Film: Maestro 
In Cinemas, Streaming on Netflix on December 20

There is something quite revolutionary about Bradley Cooper’s take on the life of classical composer and conducting legend Leonard Bernstein in Maestro as both the film’s director and the star. Taking the typical episodic approach of the biopic, Cooper starts with young and brash Bernstein making his 1943 Carnegie Hall debut as conductor of the New York Philharmonic as a last-minute replacement for the ailing Bruno Walter and ends with a late-in-life TV interview in 1987, ruminating about everything we have just seen. Unfortunately, Cooper as co-screenwriter, doesn’t seem interested in letting the audience in on important data throughout the film, such as when he’s performing at a party with his longtime friends and collaborator Betty Comden and Adolph Green and they are barely referred to, or when he’s working on a project about WWII sailors on leave in New York City and we aren’t told if it’s his music for the dance piece Fancy Free or the Broadway musical On the Town it evolved into years later. So, if the movie isn’t about the important biographical elements of Bernstein’s life, what is its focus? Cooper insists that it’s about Lenny’s love affair with his wife, Felicia (a solid Carey Mulligan), and for the courtship and the first few years of their marriage portion of the film, this feels true. But once we get to the latter part of the couple’s lives, this lack of factual information makes the relationship feels rather anemic. If this is a Lenny-Felicia love story, then why did Bernstein also have an ongoing relationship with Tommy Corthran (Gideon Glick) during this time as well. There are so many facets to Bernstein’s magnetism that Cooper’s hinting at, but refusing to delve into such a big part of Lenny’s personality seems, strategically, to be his agenda. Perhaps a gay director or star would have explored this more. Another problem is the rat-tat-tat of the dialogue, which seems straight out of a Noel Coward play or a Katharine Hepburn film. It does seem that Bernstein spoke in these grand gestures in public, but I wonder if he spoke the same way when he told Felicia they needed toilet paper. But there is a saving grace to all this and that’s the technical look of the film. From Matthew Libatique’s gorgeous cinematography (especially in the black and white, Academy-ratio scenes) to Kevin Thompson’s meticulous production design to Mark Bridges’ lived-in costume to especially, Kazu Hiro’s make-up design for the many ages of Bernstein, this is the most masterful-looking film of the year. This also includes the famous, carefully recreated Mahler concert in a church that goes on for six minutes—but to what end? The more interesting performance Cooper should have recreated was the Carnegie Hall debut at the start of the film. But since no video of this concert exists, Cooper would have had to create the Maestro’s conducting (whether it was nervous or assured) from scratch. And, where’s the degree of difficulty in that?

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