Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

"Magic in the Moonlight"
*** 1\2  (out of ****)

Woody Allen comments on the meaning of life and finds magic in it in his latest comedy "Magic in the Moonlight" (2014).

Looking over the cannon of Woody Allen films of the last 10 years or so one notices age has neither slowed down or mellowed the old master. When compared to other giant filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa, Allen is a much more pessimistic director and individual.

Generally speaking age has a way of making us more reflective and softer. We lose our harsh edges. Take a look at the movies Ingmar Bergman was writing towards the end of his life; "Best Intentions" (1992), "Private Confessions" (1999) and "Faithless" (2001). Bergman was writing movies about his youth, his family and his private secrets. He had become more reflective. Knowing death stared him in the face, Bergman decided to empty his closet so to speak and free his demons. Take a look at what Kurosawa was doing in "Dreams" (1990), "Rhapsody in August" (1991) and "Madadayo" (1998). These were personal stories also told by a man who knew death was staring him in the face.

Born in 1935 Woody Allen knows death is staring him too in the face. Yet, that knowledge has not dulled his senses. It has not changed his world view. Some might turn to religion to explain the explainable. In a certain sense it provides comfort. Religion may not answer all of life's questions but it attempts to put our life in perspective. It attempts to give us meaning. It tells us, some things in life cannot be explained but through faith we must not only accept this fact but must also accept there is a plan created by God.

Allen has always described himself as an atheist, a non-believer. But, within the past 10 years he has forcefully push the notion in his films, life is meaningless. Take a look at "Match Point" (2005), the movie which re-introduced Allen to the public and brought him acclaim and box-office he had not experienced in decades. One of its underlying messages was luck. There is no divine plan. Life is a series of coincidences. Our lives are what we make of it and with a bit of luck, good things may happen to us. Then look at "Cassandra's Dream" (2007) and last year's "Blue Jasmine" (2013). They told us not to worry, all things will end badly. Life is tragic. And finally there is the movie I feel "Magic in the Moonlight" resembles closest, its companion piece, "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010), a movie the public and sheep (movie critics) sadly condemned and ignored. These movies tell us life is what we make of it. Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. We chose to interpret what life throws at us to our benefit. We find our own happiness. Life may not have a grand meaning but in order to survive we hold on to what little our daily lives offer and embrace it and that is what gives life meaning. That is what allows us to get up in the morning and face the day.

This material can lend itself to drama; "Blue Jasmine", "Match Point" or it can be the basis of comedy; "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger", "Magic in the Moonlight", but, even if Allen takes the comedy route it doesn't diminish the theme. Unfortunately many in the public believe comedy equals lesser value. Comedy is not as "important" as drama. But, in Allen's comedies, especially ones like "Magic in the Moonlight", he is observant and clever. He makes strong commentaries and hits on interesting interpretations of the world around us and tries to expose the facade of our lives.

However, having seen "Magic in the Moonlight" three times now (twice in a movie theatre and once on DVD) I also believe there is a romantic streak in Allen and "Magic in the Moonlight". Yes, life is meaningless. All that exist is what we can see. But, the distraction which we chose to carry ourselves away with and provide us with pleasure is love. Love can make us happy. Love can take away our worries. Love can give the illusion of meaning to our lives. There is a sweetness I find in this message and throughout 'Magic in the Moonlight". Love gives us hope and changes our perception of the world around us. And because of this, because of the happiness love can offer, we then say, "life isn't so bad". And, so through the misery of our daily existence, we find happiness, or, if you will, an illusion of happiness.

In "Magic in the Moonlight" Colin Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a world famous magician, who goes by the named Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese illusionist. Stanley is a skeptic of the world. He does not believe in God and constantly proclaims life has no meaning. All that we can believe in is what we can experience with our five senses. Anyone that tells you differently is trying to con you.

After one of Stanley's performances, an old friend and fellow magician, Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) calls upon him back stage and asks for his help. Howard, has been staying with a wealthy American family, the Catledges, in the south of France, during their holiday. Howard was brought by some of the family members to verify the accuracy of a psychic, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has convinced the family she is genuine. Already the head of the family, Grace (Jackie Weaver) is ready to invest her money into a foundation for Sophie to teach her ability, and Grace's son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) has fallen deeply in love with her and serenades her with Rogers & Hart and Jerome Kern songs.

Howard, so far, has been unable to disprove Sophie's psychic powers and would like Stanley, who has gained a reputation for calling out swindling, fraudulent psychics, to come with him to meet the Catledges and Sophie and expose her as nothing more than a fake. Stanley, intrigued by the challenge, agrees.

But, things aren't easy for Stanley either. Sophie is able to tell Stanley about past family secrets involving himself and family members Sophie hasn't even met. Could she be the real deal? What if Stanley is wrong not just about Sophie but everything? What if life does have meaning? What if there is a God?

I find nearly everything about "Magic in the Moonlight" charming. The south of France locations are beautiful to look at, the 1920s jazz score consisting of songs such as "You Do Something To Me", "Thou Swell" and "It All Depends On You" is wonderful to listen to. It is a pleasure to listen to Firth and Stone deliver Allen's lines. I sensed chemistry between the two. Allen hints at a Pygmalion relationship between them. And Allen very entertainingly gets his point across. The film's theme and final message is told quite clearly. Allen finds a nice metaphor in magic to express his views. Nothing is quite what it seems. We can all be deceived if we allow ourselves to be.

Colin Firth would not have been my first choice to play the "Woody Allen" role in a Woody Allen movie but Firth handles the comedy nicely and knows how to deliver the punch lines. From the audience's perspective, Firth is a much more believable leading man than Allen. Firth seems to have a causal-ness to his performance here. I never felt he was trying too hard. Everything seems natural about his performance.

Emma Stone has moments to shine as well. She almost plays a kind of ditsy, Annie Hall, kind of character, Allen usually writes neurotic, less intellectual characters for females. Stone's Sophie character fits the bill nicely. Allen's camera accentuates her beauty. On a critical note you could say she is not a fully fleshed out character and serves more of a purpose as a figure of beauty than a fully functioning human being.

Still it would seem to me Allen is going through a very strong creative period ever since "Match Point". I have been impressed with the majority of his films; "Cassandra's Dream", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), "Midnight in Paris" (2011) and "Blue Jasmine". His films have been received by a wider audience which responds more positive to his work then they had prior to "Match Point".

For its charm, witty observations, terrific jazz score, beautiful locations, entertaining performances and romantic notions "Magic in the Moonlight" is one of the year's best films.