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.

Strings Attached

Trolls World Tour

by George Wolf

They may sing songs we already know in a sequel that’s often thematically simple, but to quarantined families longing for an escape from re-runs, these new Trolls will feel like a cool blast of freedom.

Just as Branch (Justin Timberlake) is working up the courage to break out of the friend zone with Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), trouble invades the Pop Troll world of endless singing, dancing and regular hug appointments.

Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls, daughter of King Thrash (Ozzy Osbourne!), has set out on a Mad Max-style rampage through Troll Kingdom, collecting the magic strings from each of 6 different musical villages in a quest to make everyone bow to power chords and devil horns.

Poppy makes a pinky promise (a pinky promise!) not to let that happen, so she heads out with Branch and Biggie (James Corden) on a shuffle through the Troll playlist.

Like the first film, World Tour brings exuberant splashes of sound, color and enthusiasm. But while this latest adventure salutes more types of music, it somehow makes all them feel more bland on the way to its evergreen moral of appreciating differences.

What elevates these Trolls, though, is their funny bone. One of the directors and two of the writers return from part one, but this film is much funnier, especially for the parents sitting down for movie night.

From the struggle to grasp “Hammer time” to the deviousness of yodeling and the futility of fighting smooth jazz, this script-by-committee lands several solid gags. A new group of all star voices (especially a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell as Hickory the cowboy) helps, too.

And really, where else are you gonna hear Ozzy mumble through “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?”

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.

 





The Brothers’ Soulful Look Inside

Inside Llewyn Davis

by Hope Madden

In some circles, a new Coen brothers‘ film is more hotly anticipated than the next Batman. Those are my people. Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted among the most impressive set of movies of any American filmmakers. Though there are certain thumbprints that mark a film as theirs, they never cease to surprise in the art they produce – which, as often as not, is art for art’s sake. And this is the very theme of their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis.

An immersive experience that takes you directly to the heart of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, the film shadows the titular, beleaguered artist for just a few days as he tries to survive both winter and his chosen field.

The film opens onstage, as Llewyn (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) sings in the smoky Gaslight Club. It’s an intensely intimate segment, and Isaac performs not a snippet, but an entire number. His performance is exceptional, and it tells you more about Llewyn than the next 90 minutes are bound to share.

Isaac and the brothers offer a superbly nuanced character study, so understated as to be almost hypnotic. Isaac’s world-wearied stare and infrequent songs do the majority of the work, but his adventure – as brilliantly written as anything you’d expect from the Coens – captures your attention.

Enough can’t be said about Isaac’s performance, both as an actor and as a musician, because the role requires much from both. He shoulders nearly every second of screen time, offering enough self-destructiveness, tenderness and ego to keep you believing in his trials and almost reluctantly rooting for him.

He’s aided by enigmatic performances in wonderfully odd roles. Coen regular John Goodman adds color as an aging jazz man, while Carey Mulligan spits inspired insults, and Justin Timberlake plays convincingly against type as the group’s square.

It’s not just the performances or the writing that make this film so languidly watchable, but the magically depicted setting – so unerringly authentic that you feel you’re inside a Bob Dylan album cover. Between that and the music – so, so many points made simply with the music – the film shines.

But what sets Llewyn Davis apart from the rest of the Coen stash is its lack of cynicism. Sure, with some battered years under his belt as a musician, not to mention his deeper scars and struggles, Llewyn holds a defensively cynical outlook. But he’s hopelessly true to his art. Can’t imagine where he got that.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars