16 September 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, Warner Bros, 2014)


Magic in the Moonlight 
2014, 97mins, 12
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast includes: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Jacki Weaver, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins,
UK Release Date: 19th September 2014

In a career spanning almost 50 directorial efforts, it is perhaps unsurprising that one must travel back to 1981 before they find a year which doesn’t have a Woody Allen picture to call its own. The film-maker’s uneven track record is a regular topic of conversation among cinephiles, and not one I’ve ever been particularly interested in continuing. The man generates product at an almost incomparable clip, and so, one must not be appalled to find some of the work falling below par. What is genuinely remarkable to observe is that at the age of 78, Allen can still create great cinema, exemplified wonderfully by last year’s lively and challenging “Blue Jasmine”.  “Jasmine” had Allen working at his best; a stunning compilation of hard truths, savage drama and sparkling dialogue complete with career best work from a gifted muse. “Magic in the Moonlight” is certainly a cut below, although it packs enough old-timey chutzpah to carry the period larks tolerably for 97 minutes. Allen lets his stars and the gorgeous French scenery do the talking, allowing for a mild but fabulously produced helping of cinematic sorbet.

Successful stage magician Stanley (Colin Firth) divides his professional time between wowing audiences and debunking fakes. When peer and friend Howard (Simon McBurney) arrives with news of a young girl supposedly in possession of psychic abilities, Stanley agrees to help expose her, his devotion to rational and science undiminished by Howard’s confession that the act seems genuine.  Stanley arrives in France to find the medium, Sophie (Emma Stone), adored by a selection of foolish expatriates, the girl collecting their financial support in exchange for her talents. Stanley is initially resistant to Sophie’s impish charm, but when her shtick proves fool proof, he finds himself unexpectedly contented by the revelation.  

After the set-up, upon the characters’ arrival in the Cote d’Azur, there is a magnificent panning shot as a motorcar rides the crest of a hill. The vehicle moves across the frame, the camera pausing to imbibe the beautiful shoreline, dappled by a glowing sun. The golds, the blues and the greens combine wonderfully to paint a picture of natural radiance, at which point I slunk down into my seat, fully prepared to enjoy the scenery and spiky Allen asides. These are exactly the positives one gets from a viewing of “Magic in the Moonlight”, revelling in the elegance of Allen’s wit, Darius Khondji’s compositions and the effervescent stars.  The conceit isn’t without substance, but Allen jettisons the deeper philosophical pangs in pursuit of a coy romance, allowing his characters to dilly-dally across the gorgeous countryside as if the entire project were a vacation. Usually I’d bemoan such indulgence, but here it sort of works, thanks to the care taken with production values (the 1920s wardrobe is superb), and the fact any holiday would be vastly improved by Emma Stone’s smile and Firth’s way with a dryly delivered barb.

The drama at the heart of “Magic in the Moonlight” is inconsequential, indeed it’s practically trivial. How does Sophie operate her parlour tricks? Can Stanley overcome the obsession with fact which has rendered him such a grumpy bastard? Will the pair shake off previous romantic arrangements to find joint adventure? All of these questions are answered with the predictability of an obsessive-compulsive’s morning routine, but thanks to the visual splendour and relaxed charisma of the performers, Allen just about pulls the damn thing off. I expect something a little more ambitious from next year’s untitled project, but in a career full of misses, “Magic in the Moonlight” is a pleasant placeholder. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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