Review by Ken Burke Magic in the Moonlight
Set in 1928, Woody Allen’s latest is about a haughty magician and the young woman psychic that he’s trying to expose … except her strange powers seem to be real.
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Magic in the Moonlight is Woody Allen’s 44th feature film as a director, stretching back to What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966—which is more like conceptual art in that he shot very little of it, just overdubbed silly dialogue about the world’s best egg salad recipe onto what was originally a Japanese spy movie [International Secret Police: Key of Keys (Senkichi Taniguchi)]; I’ve never seen all of this one because I attended a late-night-screening once but the projector broke down about midway [performance art, I guess] and I never got around to finishing it), with usually 1 per year since then. When you pump out that much quantity in a medium that doesn’t encourage such rapid turnaround (because of the time required for every stage of the preparation, production, and post-production processes), you’re bound to turn out some examples of your art that don’t qualify as masterpieces; I’ll have to say that this latest effort from one of the arguably-most-significant-filmmakers of the last half-century is one of those non-qualifiers, even though it offers a solid dose of humor, romance, and aspects of the mysterious. While this is no Annie Hall (1977)—few are, no matter the director (that’s one of my all-time Top 10 purely American films, which puts it, at #6, in the company of such greats as my first 3, the Godfather trilogy [Frances Ford Coppola; 1972, 1974, 1990], Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980], and Malcolm X [Spike Lee, 1992], although 4 from the U.S. make it to my pure Best All-Time Top 10 [Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) at #1, Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916) at #4, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) at #8, and City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) at #9] so that Allen’s tribute to Ms. Hall ranks with some of the all-time-masters of cinema, a recognition I feel he also deserves)—Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Deconstructing Harry (1997), nor Blue Jasmine (2013), it has a lot going for it, especially the anchoring-acting-presence of Colin Firth, the bewitching persona of Emma Stone, and an intriguing concept that almost gets us into the loftier realms explored in Allen’s best work as noted above but then pulls back to being just a nice romantic comedy instead of either an exploration of the deeper issues of existence (as in Crimes and Misdemeanors) or at least a more probing look at the often-bedeviling-limits that timing and personality can put on our desires for love (as in Manhattan).
What begins in 1928 (the last year of real-life romantic fantasies about economic opulence, post-WW I-peace, and the security of the status quo prior to the crises to come, beginning in 1929 with the NY Stock Market crash) as a challenge to master-magician Stanley Crawford (Firth), as requested by his life-long-friend and professional colleague, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney, shown here on the left with Eileen Atkins as Stanley's Aunt Vanessa), to expose seeming-psychic Sophie Baker (Stone), a young American woman from a hardscrabble milieu, just to verify that amateur tricksters should never disturb the aura of old masters of the trade (a bit hypocritical because as Stanley’s professional persona, Wei Ling Soo, he performs on stage in costume, wig, and mustache that implies he’s from China with no one—except Howard—knowing his true identity; however, he does make elephants disappear so I suppose he’s entitled to a level of respect) turns into first a possible probe into mysteries of life never previously considered by rational, cynical (downright obnoxious) Stanley, then an unexpected twist on established-romantic-comedy-conventions along with the sense that long-suffering-agnostic-artist Allen does believe in something beyond the physical world (even if it’s just a cosmic “maybe” as he explains to us through a marvelous scene from Hannah and Her Sisters, illustrated with visual accompaniment from the Marx Brothers’ satirical/anarchic Duck Soup [Leo McCarey, 1933]), but it's all lost at the last minute to what seems to be simply "the power of love," that is when Woody's characters are lucky enough to find it as in Midnight in Paris (2011) and here in Magic in the Moonlight.
For much of the film, we’re given reason to believe that charming Sophie is truly possessed of metaphysical powers of insight and connection to the spirit world, as she’s able to tell the other characters aspects of their past that shouldn’t be readily available to a stranger such as herself as well as conduct a séance that gives us reason to accept the presence of the departed (with a floating candlestick and loud knocking replies to questions asked of a dead loved one) within her circle of seekers (she can’t foretell the future—for obvious reasons, it turns out—although she never claimed the power of prophesy). Her “gift,” we learn after an inspired bit of trickery from Stanley, is all an elaborate ruse orchestrated by Howard in order to finally trick (and discredit) Stanley, simply because he’s tired of being in his more-famous-friend’s-shadow all of their lives—a rather crass motivation for the plot but one that is carried off well until the Agatha Christy-like revelations disclosed by Stanley after his “spirit”-lifting-belief in Sophie’s abilities is suddenly halted in the midst of a prayer on behalf of his beloved Aunt Vanessa, injured in a car crash late in the film. Until this time, we’d have every reason to think that 78-year-old-Allen has finally come around to a sentimental need for something more secure than confusion to look forward to after death (“Not for many years,” to steal a line from The Godfather Part II as a cabal of gangsters celebrate Hyman Roth’s birthday), but then the sudden decision that “She's a fake!” in the midst of his pleas to the unknown Almighty for the recovery of his relative slaps us back to the reality that neither Woody nor Stanley is ready to embrace some other-worldly-answer to life’s most vexing questions, although Stanley does admit that believing in mysteries beyond rationality and deterministic physics has given him a more life-affirming-outlook on existence than he’d ever known before, part of which he retains even in his triumph of exposing Sophie as a cunning confederate of Howard’s because he realizes that he’s grown enamored of this engaging young woman, another reversal of his previous position of never needing anyone else to help him feel that his life is complete (despite being engaged, but more on that situation in a minute).
With the “seer scam” behind them, Stanley and Sophie still are faced with the reality of their attraction for each other (which we had assumed all along, given the obvious romantic-comedy-movements of this story, despite the quips and insults they trade almost to the very end of the film being reason enough for a duel or fistfight in any other genre), even though there are the complications of her having accepted the marriage proposal of the smitten son of her benefactors, Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater), a wealthy American family living in southern France (providing marvelous landscapes to further enhance the dreamy renderings of this whole minor-league Great Gatsby-like atmosphere—with none of the tragedies that brought that long-desired-dream to a crashing halt); the public humiliation of the backtracking that Stanley will have to do in admitting that he was duped enough by Sophie and Howard‘s scheme to endorse her paranormal abilities at a press conference (unless they want to maintain the ruse within their newly-found relationship, thereby forcing him into complicity with clandestinely-arranged-situations to “prove” his lover’s special talents); the needed-friendship-repairing with Howard in order to put this entire incident behind them as they all move on together beyond the boundaries of Allen’s carefully-constructed-bait-and-switch, which might leave some of us just as embarrassed in our embrace of this crafty romantic tale as was Stanley when he first figured out how Howard and Sophie had carefully set him up… oh, and there’s also that matter of Stanley being engaged himself to Olivia (Catherine McCormack), but their relationship seems more of an arrangement between compatible professionals than lovers so she’s not likely to be nearly as devastated as Brice will be (but we don’t want our lovely scenario to be sullied with such tragic stuff, so neither displaced fiancée is shown again after the romantic connection between Stanley and Sophie is acknowledged).
Nothing in Magic in the Moonlight should be dismissed simply because it sets us up for something seemingly-more-significant than a puppy-love-that-comes-true-despite-stated-obstacles-plot-situation, although Sophie’s quick turnaround after first having been disappointed that Stanley’s emotional “conversion” was just in awe of her supposed abilities rather than any attraction toward her, then her irritation with him that when he does come to confess his love his explanations come off as so abstract and eruditely-remote concerning her that she’s frustrated once again to the point of stating her acceptance of Brice‘s proposal, which is what sets us up for a concluding scene with Aunt Vanessa that appears it will take us back into Allen’s more mature territory about how certain of his characters have understood too late what their limitations are (Isaac Davis in Manhattan; most everyone in Husbands and Wives , even though one of the primary couples reconciles even as the other one separates), or they never understood it at all, as with the Blanche DuBois-like tragedy of Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis in Blue Jasmine (review in our August 16, 2013 posting). However, all of that is quickly brushed aside when Sophie suddenly appears at Aunt Vanessa‘s home (reprising the mysterious knocks on wood from the séance), ready for love with overjoyed Stanley, followed by a quick cut to the end credits to assure us that there’s nothing of any real substance to be explored any further here, that we should just appreciate the clever dialogue, 2 very attractive lead-actor-faces on screen for the entire film, a pleasant-enough-mystery solved in a manner that’s easily understood in hindsight, and a warm, romantic wrap-up that assures us that deeper questions about the full nature of life will just have to be put aside in favor of a “love conquers all” conclusion, even though a lot of the well-conceived, well-executed aspects of the film (using Allen’s usual approach of wider shots, quite long takes that force the actors to convince us of the plausibility of their characters, no matter how extreme they may be written) up until the end are quite intriguing and (for a time) thought-provoking.
I’ll admit that within his prodigious output Picasso painted some canvases that weren’t as impactful as his best ones and that even when more-restricted-output-artists such as Chaplin (for his features, although he did a lot of shorts at the start of his career) or Kubrick are given all the time they need between projects so that the result has the potential of always being stunning such a reception from critics or the public doesn’t necessarily follow (after—although some would say including—Monsieur Verdoux  Chaplin’s late work is generally considered almost insignificant—except for that marvelous duet with Buster Keeton in Limelight ; Kubrick likewise got his fair share of scorn, although mixed with praise, Oscars, and other awards, for such offerings as Barry Lyndon  and Eyes Wide Shut ), so it’s no great disappointment that Magic in the Moonlight is “merely” charmingly-entertaining and sweetly-romantic all-in-all, but with the impact that Allen’s had in recent years with Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine (the last 3 continuing the many Oscar wins either for Allen as writer [Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, …Paris, from a total of 16 screenwriting nominations, the most ever for that cinematic skill] or director [… Hall, his 1 win of 7 nominations] or for his actresses in both the lead [Diane Keaton, … Hall; Cate Blanchett, … Jasmine] and supporting categories [Dianne Wiest, Hannah …, Bullets Over Broadway (1994); Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995); Penelope Cruz, Vicky …)] along with Michael Caine for Best Supporting Actor in Hannah …), there was justifiable reason—especially with the door slightly opened toward metaphysical explorations from a filmmaker not known for accepting such options in a serious manner within his narratives—to think that Magic in the Moonlight would be a bit more substantial in content than it is.
Early returns from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have been harsher than my evaluation but based on smallish samples so you might want to check back with those links suggested far below after the film has been in wider distribution to see if it’s risen above the mid-50s% level with my critical brethren. As for my usual Musical Metaphor, to cap off Magic in the Moonlight, how about Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman (1964) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8x2tG4X0cdc (Roy in a regular top-40-type performance, but we can also get more lavish and extended with http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=_PLq0_7k1jk, from the celebrity-packed Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night concert tribute from 1988) in response to Emma Stone’s distinctive beauty (just ask the heartbroken Peter Parker from this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2; review in our May 8, 2014 posting), the disappointment from the singer that his hoped-for-dream was walking away to another destination, and the sudden surprise ending that everything’s going to be alright after all. Roy would be proud of you, Woody, even though it took him only about 3 min. to get the same result that you needed 97 for, but every art form has its own requirements and limitations so we’ll just celebrate the result more so than complaining any further about the process.
I’m sticking to my (previously-noted-in-past-postings-but-inconsistently-followed) guns this week to only do just the 1 primary review, but I did want to make brief (for me, that’s anything short of the length of a Sunday edition of the New York Times) comments on a couple of other films that I’ve seen recently—with the Spoiler Alerts not so crucial here because the first one’s been out for about a month and the other one’s very hard to find anyway—that first being Begin Again, a straightforward romance (rather than a romantic comedy, although it does have some laughs in places) with a lot of music (rather than a true musical, where the songs take the place of dialogue in advancing the storyline, unlike here where the music simply showcases the talents of 2 of the leads, necessary in the story because they’re both recording artists). John Carney’s direction is active and engaging as he blends the life stories of a couple of souls adrift—Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), the drunken loser A(rtists) & R(epetoire) Man as well as co-founder of a struggling record label who’s just been cut loose by his colleagues for failing to find any successful new talent over the last 7 years (he’s also separated from his wife, Miriam [Catherine Keener], not very popular with his 14-year-old-daughter, Violet [Hailee Steinfeld], whose current focus is trying to attract boys by dressing like a slut)—and Gretta (Keira Knightley), the now ex-lover, ex-songwriting partner of rising-star Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, the real musician of the bunch [Maroon 5, much more famous in the rest of the world than in my consciousness]) who ruins his relationship with Gretta by having an affair with one of his producers soon after the pair relocate from England to NYC—who encounter each other in a bar on the night of the day that Dan’s fired and Gretta discovers the infidelity. He convinces her to record an album with him as producer (using musicians rounded up from various sources, necessary $$ from famous rapper Trouble Gum [CeeLo Green] who owes his fabulous career to Dan’s support, and recording locations all over NYC to avoid studio costs—why Trouble Gum wouldn’t have paid for that isn’t discussed because that would eliminate the charm of the recording scenes in an alley where noisy local kids are recruited as background singers and on a rooftop where Violet joins in with her previously-unknown lead guitar ability, setting her and Dad [along with Mom] back on a reunion path that takes precedent over the implied connection growing between Dan and Gretta). Meanwhile, Gretta leaves a Taylor-Swift-like (in content, probably not in tempo, but that’s not much a part of my consciousness either) breakup song on Dave’s phone which gets him hot to reconnect also, as they almost do when she sees him in concert. He tries to get her on stage but she just leaves the venue, aware that even with his best intentions the mob of female fans will never let her feel comfortable with his career. For her parting shot, she declines the contract with Dan’s label, releasing the album instead on the Internet for $1 a pop where it’s an instant hit but seems to result in Dan’s rehiring being sunk again (OK because we sense that Dan and Gretta are now confident in their abilities,other options will come their way, even as this first triumph provides needed cash).
Begin Again is charming enough, the music is quite pleasing (there’s a mellow-rock-soundtrack-album available if you’re interested, but you’ll have to pay a bit more than $1 for it), and Knightley’ soothing voice holds her own with Levine in her performance ability at the microphone (with solid acting from her as well, an admirable accomplishment in my jaded eyes because I’ve always found it disappointing to realize in a preview for a new movie of hers that it’s actually Knightley in the role rather than—in my opinion—the more talented Natalie Portman [I’ve noted previously that they look so much alike that Knightley was hired to play Portman’s Queen Amidala decoy double in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)]), so the whole thing is pleasant to watch although you can generally see the plot movements from a mile away. Carney does a fine editing job, though, with mixing in past, present, and future scenes to avoid a strictly linear flow, and he offers a marvelous juxtaposition early into the movie of the first time Gretta is called to sing solo with just her guitar accompaniment in that opening small club location (to a fading-interest-crowd), then shows it again a bit later from Dan’s perspective where he imagines added backup instruments (played by themselves on screen, with no added musicians) that give the performance the needed dynamics to make it a truly engaging aural experience. More of that sort of innovative filmmaking throughout would help Begin Again transcend its generally likeable but mundane nature (81% positive with Rotten Tomatoes, 62% score from Metacritic; if this were an official review I’d say 3 of 5 stars). You can explore more if you like with the the official site (be patient or maybe go out for lunch while you wait; this one seems to take its sweet time downloading, at least for me) and/or by watching the trailer.
In a completely different vein from the 2 above, but touching on the connections to successfully-classic-cinema which I’ve set as the context for what’s worked better in the past for Woody Allen, I’ll also note classic-cinema-connections for Siddharth (Richie Mehta), a bitter story about a father’s desperate search for his missing 12-year-old-son in modern-day-India, a marvelously-moving-yet-simply-conceived-and-executed-excursion into the pieces of shattered human hearts that reminds me in certain ways of another of my 10 Best All-Time (#7 to be specific), Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948—Ladri di biciclette, also known for many years by the mistranslation of The Bicycle Thief, although that version of the title does take on more resonance when you think about the evolving story of a victim-turned-would-be-thief himself). In both the older Italian and contemporary Indian films there are structural analogies: something precious is taken from a family (the bicycle required for the father’s long-sought-job; the missing son of the Saini family), a father is distraught in attempting to set right the devastating wrong (find the thief who took the bicycle; find the missing boy, Siddharth [Irfan Khan]), both mothers turn to a spiritualist for help in locating their family’s missing treasures (but to no result in either case, although Papa Antonio [Lamberto Maggiorian] in the earlier film does stumble upon the thief but is never able to recover his bike), neither film ends with the desired resolution, leaving their audiences in an uncomfortable-but-sobering-encounter with the emotional punch often to be found in Realism approaches to cinema (the bike-dependent-job seem to be the Ricci family’s last hope; when we leave Siddharth there’s no trace of the boy, who likely has been abducted for use in the black-market sex, begging, or organ-harvesting trades that plague India and many developing countries—and the ghettos of the more-developed-ones). There’s also the cinematic similarity of shooting on location in both of these stories, further enhancing the harsh reality that these families face in their separate but related situations as we see the crowded, disheveled environments that both societies cope with in their times of specific struggles, with no help to found from government agencies (the police are overwhelmed with similar thefts in both cases, with little ability to aid the victims of the crimes that surround them; further, in Siddharth father Mahendra Saini [Rajesh Tailang] gets lectured by the only policewoman recommended to help him, reminding him of the child labor laws and that he should be availing his son of the country’s free educational system) or social networks (Antonio has hocked his last valuables, although in Siddharth Mahendra at least gets a loan from a friend so that he can travel from Delhi to the Punjab factory where his son has gone missing, then to Mumbai where lost children often find themselves relocated, but with no results in either place).
Tensions rise between husband and wife (Suman Saini, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee), both because of the ongoing plight of the missing child and the cruel reality that Siddharth essentially exists as an income-opportunity for a poverty-burdened-family where the piece goods work in a Levis’ factory brings in only 250 rupees per day (about $4.25) for Mahendra (along with freelance-zipper-repairing-jobs), so they’re barely able to survive, let along pay for “luxuries” such as a bus trip to find their boy (another class comment comes in the form of that bus having to wait at a crossing for a speedier—but more expensive—train to roar past, but even when Mahendra is able to take such a train to Mumbai he’s still in a hopeless, dispossessed underclass, a man startled and ashamed that he has no photos of his son nor can even describe him in a manner that doesn’t sound like every 12-year-old-boy in India). Siddharth is a grim story, founded in worldwide-realities but inspired by a specific true situation, to which I’d give 4 of 5 stars if this were an official review (it’s gotten excellent comments nationwide as well, although from a limited number of critics at this point); you can learn more if you like at the official site, along with watching the trailer. If you can handle the unresolved sadness, I recommend watching the film as well, assuming you can find it because it’s playing in a precious few theaters so far with a slim likelihood that it will expand to very many more in the U.S. given the dual curse of tragic content and subtitled dialogue.
If you’d like to know more about Magic in the Moonlight here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffA_6XmjhQM (3:21 interview with actors Emma Stone and Colin Firth) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQEAmLKbeHk (3:54 interviews with director Woody Allen and actors Jacki Weaver, Emmy Stone, Colin Firth, even TV personality Regis Philbin briefly)—neither of these are very substantial but there’s not much else available, as Mr. Allen prefers to keep most of the content of his films to himself until it's ready for release.
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