Earning Your Wings

Palmer

by George Wolf

Palmer has Justin Timberlake, an adorable little kid and a heartwarming message. Heck, it’s not much more than some sexytime and a few beers away from being an afterschool special.

Yes, you can guess where it’s going. No, you will not be sorry for the trip.

J.T. is Eddie, who prefers you just call him by his last name. He was once a hot shot Louisiana high school quarterback with a scholarship to LSU. But after injuries ended Palmer’s career early, his quick temper got him sent away for 12 long on attempted murder.

But he’s served his time, so now Palmer has come back to his small, “church and football” hometown to move in with Grandma Vivian (June Squibb). Once there, it doesn’t take Palmer long to notice Shelly, the trailer train-wreck next door (Juno Temple).

Shelly leaves town a lot, and when she does, her son Sam (Ryder Allen in a perfectly lovable debut) stays with Viv. Sam doesn’t like football. Sam likes princesses, having tea parties, and dressing up in costumes that come with wings and tiaras.

Director Fisher Stevens fleshes out Cheryl Guerriero’s script with a fine instinct for knowing we don’t need to be led by the nose. There will be bonding, bullies beaten down and lessons learned, plus Sam’s pretty teacher (Alisha Wainwright) is single, so, you know.

Timberlake is gritty and finely understated, letting Palmer’s feelings for Sam unveil themselves with a gradual, and ultimately authentic depth. Palmer has scars from his childhood, too, but as expected as his kinship with Sam is, it seldom feels mawkish.

And Allen, well this kid just skips away with the movie tucked inside his glittery backpack. When Palmer tells Sam there are no boys on his favorite TV show and Sam confidently responds that he will be the first, all the hate that the world throws at kids like Sam seems – if only for a moment – miles away.

There is contrivance and familiarity at work in Palmer, no doubt. But there’s also enough heart, and pure hopeful innocence, to earn this film some wings.

Island Life

Wonder Wheel

by George Wolf

The sheer number of films Woody Allen continues to churn out almost guarantees that some will hit (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and some will miss (Cassandra’s Dream, Magic in the Moonlight).

Wonder Wheel is more of a pop foul.

Allen’s latest (I think…what time is it?) is wrapped in nostalgia for 1950s Coney Island, lovingly photographed and peppered with characters that never quite become as interesting as Allen intends.

Ginny (Kate Winslet) works as a waitress in a Coney Island seafood joint, frazzled by the antics of her budding arsonist son and disenchanted by life with husband Humpty (Jim Belushi – surprisingly good), who runs the Wonder Wheel carousel. Lately, Ginny has begun a secret affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a younger lifeguard whose fourth-wall narration is awkward and unnecessary.

The arrival of Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) only adds to Ginny’s frequent migraines. Not only is Carolina on the run from some mobsters (The Sopranos’ Tony Sirico and Stephen R. Schirripa – nice!) but she might be catching Mickey’s eye as well.

Winslet is sensational, tapping squarely into Ginny’s maniacal desperation for any shred of hope for the future. Initially, Allen seems intent on building the film from Winslet’s performance outward (much like he did with Cate Blanchett in the sublime Blue Jasmine), only to over-indulge with repetitious dialog and pointless diversions.

Though set in the heart of Coney Island’s summer sun, Wonder Wheel’s mind is never far from stage nor screen. Ginny had dreams of being an actress, while Mickey fancies himself a writer, and we’re often reminded that life is a series of parts being played by characters with a succession of fatal flaws.

Allen’s story arc may be aiming for grand tragedy, but it can never move past bittersweet melodrama. Well-acted throughout and often striking to look at, Wonder Wheel ends up as an aimless kid at the amusement park, running in too many directions at once.

 





Sympathy for the Devil

Horns

by Hope Madden

“Who’s the new girl at church?”

It’s a line brimming with innocence and temptation, filled with the possibilities of good versus evil, predator v prey. It’s a nice start to a crime drama steeped in surreal, Miltonesque imagery.

Along with a good line, Horns boasts quite a fantasy/horror pedigree. Helmed by French horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension), written by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, and starring Harry F. Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), it’s sure to draw the attention of – let’s be honest – nerds. Like me. The beguiling if flawed effort can’t quite become greater than the sum of its parts, though. But it is a wild ride while it lasts.

Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) is commonly believed by his community to have murdered his much-beloved girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). It’s a bit like Gone Girl, except that Ig’s crisis is compounded by the fact that he’s begun sprouting bony horns from his forehead. More than that, in the presence of the be-horned Ig, people compulsively confess their dark secrets.

Overripe imagery and symbolism inform a film that is comfortably over-the-top. It’s a glorious mess riddled with stiff dialog, and so tonally discordant – leaping from thriller to comedy to horror to mystery and back – that the effect is dizzying. Yet somehow Horns is utterly watchable.

Much credit for the film’s successes sits with Radcliffe, who seems utterly at home in a supernatural environment full of demons, tragedy, angst and earnestness. Temple also strikes the right innocent nymphette cord, and the young cast of the childhood flashback is especially strong.

The storyline itself carries the unmistakable odor of Stephen King, with the small town crime and flashback to the innocence of youth and the many untold dangers therein (Stand By Me, It, etc.) But King Senior never dove headlong into such blasphemous territory, while his son toys with recasting Satan, if not as hero, then as anti-hero.

Aja struggles gleefully to strike the right tone, and though his cast seems game, no one can quite overcome the symbolism gimmicks or stilted dialog.

Dense with color and texture, Horns invites you into a wild, often poorly acted and weakly written yet sumptuously filmed world of dark magic. It’s a fascinating mess.

Verdict-2-5-Stars