• Wonder Wheel

    Released by: Universal
    Release date: March 6, 2018
    Directed by: Woody Allen
    Cast: Justin Timberlake, Kate Winslet, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi, Jack Gore, Tony Sirico, Steve Schirripa, Debi Mazar, Thomas Guiry, Max Casella, David Krumholtz
    Year: 2017
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    Ginny Rannell (Kate Winslet) is a frustrated former actress who is now married to Humpty (Jim Belushi). She works as a waitress at the Clam Shack, on the boardwalk near where she and Humpty live and are raising her son, Ritchie (Jack Gore), whom Humpty mistreats. Dissatisfied with life, she meets and begins an affair with Mickey Rubin (Justin Timberlake), a life guard near the same boardwalk. Despite her marriage, Ginny falls in love with the young, would-be playwright and imagines a future life with him, away from her verbally and sometimes physically abusive husband. There’s one big obstacle, however; Mickey has fallen for Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter who has recently escaped her marriage to a mobster. Humpty had originally disowned her after her marriage, but now that she’s back, he quickly relents and lets her move in with him and his wife, much to his wife’s chagrin.

    Humpty insists that Carolina build a better life for herself, and in the meantime, he will hide her from her husband’s mobster buddies, who want her dead for ratting them out to the feds. Ginny gets Carolina a job as a waitress, but when Carolina confesses her interest in Mickey, Ginny’s jealousy gets the better of her, though Carolina doesn’t understand why. The situation is exacerbated by Mickey’s refusal of a gift from Ginny, an expensive watch Ginny bought with money stolen from Humpty. Unfortunately, everyone’s not-so-well-laid plans are upset when two mobsters, Angelo (Tony Sirico) and Nick (Steve Schirripa), show up to learn Carolina’s whereabouts.

    In 2015, Amazon head honcho Roy Price and writer/director/producer Woody Allen struck a five-picture deal, with Amazon paying for Allen’s films in exchange for exclusive distribution rights. It was intended for each film to have an arthouse theatrical release, followed by streaming through Amazon Prime, followed by a conventional home video release on DVD and Blu-ray through Universal. The deal, which was allegedly to the tune of $80 million, included a television series as well. That series, titled Crisis in Six Scenes, starred Miley Cyrus and was released in 2016 to terrible reviews and poor viewer reception. The first film in the deal, Café Society (2016), was considerably better, despite being far from the critical or commercial hit Amazon needed to justify the deal’s hefty price tag. Wonder Wheel is the second film to come out as part of the deal, though it likewise failed to find the kind of audience that flocked to Midnight in Paris in 2011. It certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that, by this time, Allen had become swept up in the #metoo movement, a crusade designed to liberate the victims of sexual assault from their aggressors, who continue to work without reprisal. (In the early 1990s, Allen had come under fire when he separated from his longtime companion, actress Mia Farrow, and married her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, whom he had helped raise from the age of 9. Farrow and her biological daughter Dylan, whom Allen had adopted, then accused Allen of child molestation.)

    Whatever the facts in the case, the accusations were never corroborated in a court of law, and Allen was never convicted or even brought up on charges despite a police investigation. For years, he was the butt of tasteless jokes on the subject, but until the #metoo movement, he had remain largely unscathed by the scandal, drawing major actors willing to work for peanuts to star in his creative and often witty films. With the movement in full sway, however, Allen’s past possible indiscretions returned to the spotlight just as Wonder Wheel was hitting movie theaters. Whether it had an impact on the film’s (lack of) financial success is hard to say, given Allen’s fans and the back-and-forth nature of his past success. Shortly after, actors began to abandon or condemn Allen, including some who had recently worked with him (such as Timothy Chalamet).

    Regardless of the reasons, Wonder Wheel is as much an aesthetic failure as a commercial one. While Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, and Jim Belushi give it their all, Kate Winslet, the real star, phones in her performance; her dialogue, lacking the spirited realism necessary to make it come alive, sounds like a recital for an animated movie soundtrack. Even Allen’s usually spot-on writing suffers with a story that lifts too much from past successes. Allen’s films tend to fit into one of a handful of subgenres and styles, with this one belonging to that group set in the first half of the 20th century and containing gangsters, a favorite trope of the director’s. Too bad it’s among his leas interesting and accessible films, despite his startling use of color.


    Universal has released Amazon and Allen’s Wonder Wheel on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode, in 1080p high definition, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.00:1. The image is exceedingly sharp, as is borne out by the opening shot of a crowded beach near the Coney Island boardwalk. There is no part of the frame that isn’t sharp and clear and containing a ton of excess detail. The innumerable parts of each and every carnival ride, the blocks and sewing patterns of multi-colored quilts, the tiny grains of sand and ripples of gray water, the aged lines and wrinkles of every face… this is a release that’s so sharp its images practically jump off the television screen. Colors are also striking in a way that one doesn’t normally associate with Allen. Allen has had many phases in his career, with most of them containing either Bergmanesque schemes or very earthy or autumnal tones. Here, Allen bathes individual scenes in specific colors such as reds, blues, oranges, or yellows; on occasion, he mixes colors to startling effect. Pastels haven’t been this powerful in a film since Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977. Yet, there are also moments when he temporarily drains the color, opting for a desaturated and modern tone reflecting a given situation or character’s emotional state. In short, this is the perfect visual representation of a movie that’s best aspects are wound up in its imagery. All of this is helped, no doubt, by the fact that Universal has placed the film on a single BD50 with a high bitrate not swallowed up by extras.

    For the film’s soundtrack, Universal has opted for Allen’s original English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It’s a flawless presentation, perfectly melding Allen’s usual assortment of aural pleasures, from the dialogue to the sound effects to a score that’s often accentuated by the hit songs of the 1920s and ‘30s. The surround mix is decent enough, but this isn’t a film that relies heavily on sound effects, so this aspect is of limited appeal, though it never sounds boxy or flat. Dialogue is usually mixed front and center and is always clear and discernible. For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, Universal has included optional English subtitles. There are no commentary tracks per Allen’s usual mandate.

    The only extra, a featurette titled “The Cast and Crew Discuss the Making of Wonder Wheel,” lasts a mere 3:11 and features Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, and Justine Timberlake as they are interviewed on the red carpet or as part of a press tour. They talk about their performances, the cinematographer, the locations, and more, at least as much as the short running time will allow. As with a commentary track, any other extras are forbidden by Allen, who prefers that viewers know as little about the behind-the-scenes of his films as possible so as not to destroy the fantasy of the films themselves.

    The disc comes with a code for digital download.

    The Final Word:

    Woody Allen has a mixed track record, with roughly half his films showing excellence while the other half are dull and inconsequential. Unfortunately, Wonder Wheel falls into the latter category. Despite this, Universal offers the film in a superb presentation on Blu-ray: crystal clear, sharp, and beautifully colored.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!