Café Society

CafeDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, and Blake Lively

So I preface this, as I do all of my Woody Allen reviews, with a statement of assured objectivity.  Yes, I am a self-proclaimed Woody Allen fan, but I am not above delivering a negative review to projects that are worthy of one.  It just so happens that there are few projects of Allen’s without redeeming quality. The trend continues with Café Society, Allen’s 41st film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film.

In his 81st year of life, the director shows no sign of slowing down. His new deal with Amazon may be a catalyst, as Café Society is his first to be produced by the Internet giant, and it is his best film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine. It also arrives on the heels of his new Amazon produced television series, Crisis in Six Scenes, premiering this fall.  Who would think the hardest working man in show-business would be 80?

For Café Society, Allen (who also narrates the film) takes us back to 1930s Hollywood where an agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is at the top of his game, representing all of the legendary talent of the time.  Stern’s success is as massive as the distance he puts between himself and his family. Stern’s sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) lives in Brooklyn with her husband Marty (Ken Stott).  When Rose contacts Phil with a favor that he give her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Einsenberg) a job in his firm, Phil reluctantly agrees to at least meet him, resulting in a familiar Woody Allen plot construct – “a tale of two coasts.”

Like every good Woody Allen movie, familiar plotting must be countered with memorable and well-designed characters.  The lavishness of the Stern life is beautifully contrasted with the working class Dorfmans. Rose’s daughter Evelyn (Sari Lennick) maintains a middle class life with her philosopher husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and her oldest son Ben (Corey Stoll) quietly runs a pretty active mob syndicate (Bullets Over Broadway-style) unbeknownst to the rest of his family; his scenes are outstanding.   That just leaves Bobby as the lost soul looking for his slice of happiness, and he quickly finds it in the form of Vonnie (Kirstin Stewart), his Uncle Phil’s beautiful assistant. Bobby falls for Vonnie at first sight and his advances towards her do not go unnoticed, although Bobby does have competition as Vonnie has a boyfriend. What follows is a more or less traditional exploration of whether all is truly fair in love and war but with some twists along the way. The predictability is nicely offset by the solid performances.  Look out for Blake Lively in a small role later in the film that channels Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Performances aside, Allen has also made a visually gorgeous film with some beautiful scenery. Café Society marks Allen’s first digitally shot film, and he makes good use of the technology capturing some vintage Allenesque shots but with a new vibrant quality.

One criticism that is often laden on Woody Allen films is that his pace of production can throttle the work, preventing good films from being great due to time constraints.  That may factor in with Café Society, but certainly not to the degree that I’m willing to part with the annual Woody Allen film.  His cinematically nomadic spirit is something to appreciate, and it warms my heart to know that the moment Café Society premiered, his 2017 project was already announced, cast, and in pre-production.  B+

Café Society is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. 

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The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

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“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

Irrational Man

Irrational ManDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, and Parker Posey

Well the word on the street about Irrational Man had me worried that I would have to write my first unfavorable review for a Woody Allen film. Well, fear not! Irrational Man is a moody, dark, twisted little film that proves engaging to even the most discerning Woody Allen-hater, and I can say this because I brought one to the theater with me!

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe, a philosophy professor who has lost his passion for life. Not in the pondering death and its inevitableness kind of way, but in the hey, it’s a college party, I’ll try a little one-man Russian roulette, kind of way. Abe’s past reputation as a great mind in his field quickly captures the attention of one of his young students, Jill, played by Emma Stone. Their relationship “walks the line” of acceptability between teacher and student as Jill becomes more and more infatuated with the brooding Abe. During one of their supposedly innocuous dates, Abe and Jill overhear a conversation from a woman at a nearby table that sends the film spinning in a very different direction leading Abe to ponder taking an action that just may rekindle his spirit and reinvigorate his purpose in life. While I will not reveal exactly what that “action” is, I will say that it is involved in what could be considered a plot twist, something rarely found in a Woody Allen film.

Irrational Man is Allen’s darkest film since the sensational Match Point in 2005, and while it’s not quite at the caliber of that film, Irrational Man does borrow an idea or two from it. In fact, Irrational Man could be considered the fourth volume of an informal morality tetralogy after Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream. Allen has explored morality as a function of many of his films, but these four further his discussion beyond a humble motif. For this film Allen paints Abe as an existential philosopher who spouts Kierkegaard, Kant, and of course Dostoevsky, but seems virtually void of any desire to utilize free will in the search for meaning. It is not until Abe meets Jill that he suffers a truly Kierkegaardian experience forcing him to realize his anxiety truly is the dizziness of freedom. The dynamic between Abe and Jill is highly responsible for the film’s success. Phoenix’s grumpy genius is a perfect foil to Stone’s bubbly inquisitiveness. These two actors share a brilliant and intense scene late in the film that is as powerful a scene between two characters as any Allen has ever written.

Contrary to the way this film is portrayed in the trailer, Irrational Man is not a romantic romp. I’d liken the tone to something the Coen brothers might dream up; somewhere between Fargo and The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a recent NPR interview, Allen was asked, “What’s your problem with people?” Allen answered, “I think some of them are wonderful, but [there] are so many of them that are not. I was one of the few guys rooting for the comet to hit the Earth. Statistically, more people that deserved to go would go.” You may say that these are the words of an irrational man, but if you’re willing to concede that he may have a point, go see Irrational Man. B+

Irrational Man is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.

Inside Out

inside outDirector: Pete Doctor

Screenwriter: Pete Doctor, Ronoldo Del Carmen

Cast: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, and Mindy Kaling

No one goes to the movie theater during the summer and expects to see something cerebral. Well Inside Out, the latest release from Disney’s Pixar studios, has decided to bring the brain, literally.

Inside Out is the fifteenth feature length film from Pixar and it is easily the best since 2009’s Up. And that makes sense, since writer/director Pete Doctor is responsible for both films. As far as plot goes, Inside Out is like a cleaner version of the final vignette from Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask). If that’s too old of a reference for you, then it’s like a smarter version of the 1990’s Fox sitcom Herman’s Head. If you’re like everyone else and you didn’t watch Herman’s Head, then it’s about a young girl named Riley who struggles to cope with her parents’ decision to uproot her from her happy life in Minnesota and move her out to San Francisco. The catch is that Inside Out gives us a glimpse into Riley’s brain, where it is revealed that her emotions are actual beings that interact and conflict in order to form her personality. Joy (Amy Poehler) heads up the team, which consists of Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). When an accident causes Joy and Sadness to be ejected from “headquarters,” it leaves Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge causing Riley to experience an emotional crisis.

As readers of mine know, when it comes to children’s movies, I ask myself three questions: Is it enjoyable and appropriate for kids? Is it meaningful? Will it at least amuse adults? Pixar Studios has been uniquely successful at balancing these elements for years, and Inside Out is no exception. In fact, this may be the most adult-friendly film the studio has ever produced, and they made a film with a 78-year-old protagonist! Kids will enjoy the animation, fun characters, bright colors, and surface story, but this is a very intelligent allegory on cognitive process and the complexity of emotion – particularly with the role of sadness. It also has a Chinatown joke.

In a summer bound to be full of emotionally shallow films, here is one that will make you think and make you feel. It will also explain why you can never get that annoying TV commercial jingle out of your head.  I’ll admit, I’ve never been an 11-year-old girl, my parents never moved me across the country, and I’ve never met an emotion in person, but I had no trouble relating to every aspect of this film. This is a cleverly executed film that also has a lesson or two to teach about empathy. If only Herman’s Head had seen Inside Out first. A-

Inside Out is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.

Celebrity

Celebrity1Director: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen

After a favorable reception from my recent vintage review of Crimes and Misdemeanors, I thought I’d strike while the iron’s hot and review another Woody Allen film I’ve come to appreciate.  Celebrity is a comedy about a very topical phenomenon that has reached an even more unbelievable status than it had 17 years ago when the film was released.  That phenomenon?   That anybody, with a little luck, can achieve a celebrity status and find love. Every character in this film is either famous or in search of fame. Director Woody Allen’s main thought that he is trying to convey is that celebrityism is not achieved by people who earn it or deserve it, but rather by people who are lucky or more fortunate.

The story surrounds two paralleling main characters Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and his ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis). After Lee attends his high school reunion and sees that all of his classmates are boring, old, and balding he begins to go through a mid-life crisis and he realizes that he has never actually felt true love. Accordingly after 16 years of being married to Robin, Lee decides to divorce her. Lee then goes on a quest to find love and fame. Allen places Lee in several situations where he conveys his opinion that we, as a society, do not celebrate the people that we should. First Lee meets the seductive, yet married actress Nicole Oliver (Melanie Griffith), whom he is supposed to write an article about. Nicole takes Lee to the house she lived in as a child, and although she states that she is happily married, she still feels it is ethical to service him orally, as long as she does not sleep with him. She denotes this by saying, “What I do from the nick up, that’s a totally different story.” Here, Allen demonstrates how people who achieve a high celebrity status, come up with a moral system that suites themselves, but not necessarily the rest of society. Her statement, besides having the sexual interpretation, also means that whatever she feels is moral in her mind is therefore justified.  Coincidentally, this echos a similar theme explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors as well.

Next, Lee meets a supermodel (Charlize Theron in one of her first major roles) that is popular solely because of her jaw-dropping good looks. Theron’s character remains nameless throughout the film. Allen purposely did not give her a name in order to stress how people who see these beautiful people are not concerned with who they are, just what they look like. This goes the same for Leonardo DiCapro’s character Brandon Darrow. Although he is a drug abusing, woman beating, hotel-trashing brat with no creative vision, he is still considered a huge star because he has got a pretty face.

After the supermodel leaves Lee, he becomes serious with a more practical and logical woman named Bonnie (Famke Janssen). Bonnie is made to seem virtually perfect; she is beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and nice. However, Lee loses interest in her and feels that he has to move on. The importance of Bonnie’s character, besides the fact that she shows what a shallow and low man Lee is, is that she is responsible for destroying Lee’s ticket to stardom, which is also directly related to the destruction of Lee’s chance for love.

Lee leaves Bonnie for Nola, (Winona Ryder) a woman who has been in and out of his life for some time. Nola is an actress with her own career on her mind. She is not willing to commit to a relationship and can not reach an emotional bond with Lee because she is on her own quest for fame, much like Lee.

Lee’s acts are strongly contradicted by the transformation of his ex-wife Robin. Robin, at first, is shown as a shy, sexually frustrated, Catholic woman. After Lee leaves her, Robin’s friend books her a session with a famous plastic surgeon that ends up examining her while he talks to a TV camera and interviewer. Robin’s transformation begins here when she meets Tony (Joe Mantegna) a television producer. Tony shapes her and makes her into a celebrity reporter on an Entertainment Tonight like show. No sequence shows Robin’s changed lifestyle better that the one near the film’s end where Robin is shown rushing around the tables of a restaurant, interviewing various stars. She eventually stops and talks to Donald Trump. Trump tells her that he is going to tear down a cathedral and put up a “really tall building.” At the beginning of the film, Robin’s Catholic upbringing would have come through and caused her to become highly upset by this statement, however, here Robin simply says, “Oh, that’s nice.” Here we see that although Robin has accepted love and been rewarded by fame, she has lost her identity.

Robin attains fame without even looking for it while Lee never reaches a celebrity status after all of his attempts. This again restates the film’s statement that love and fame are attained purely by luck.  Allen drives his theme home in an ending scene that is crucial in establishing the film’s meaning.  First of all it re-introduces the characters to the audience, so we can see where many of them finally end up.  Allen’s techniques used throughout the entire film prove to be some of his most ambitious. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s eloquent shooting in black and white requires a creative use of lighting. The music is always soft and relaxing. Beethoven’s 5th and the “…So You Want to be in Pictures,” song are heard throughout the film in different situations. One more solid technique is Allen’s relaxed cutting rhythm throughout the film. Most of the film’s shots are long and relaxed. There are very few short or fast paced scenes.  Allen seems to have a lot to say on this subject and with a running time of 113 minutes, this is one of his longest films.

At the end, this is another vibrant and beautifully rich film from Woody Allen both contextually and artistically.  His career is one of reinvention and sometimes that can result in films that are a little ahead of their time.  This is likely the case with Celebrity.  Agree or disagree with Allen’s theory on love and fame, but to me, this film plays much better today than it did in the late 90s.  A-

Celebrity is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes.  

Crimes and Misdemanors (1989)

CrimesDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston

Given the relatively poor month for movies March has turned out to be, I have once again delved into the vault to review a film that is not a new release.  For this “vintage review,” I have decided to take another look at one of my favorite films form my favorite director.  If you follow my blog, you’ve probably noticed the eagerness that accompanies my reviews for Woody Allen’s films.  Since I started this site, I’ve been able to review To Rome With Love, Blue Jasmine, and most recently Magic in the Moonlight.  The merits of these films alone can be debated, but when one looks at the career and accomplishments of Woody Allen over time, one sees the maturation of an artist, of a genius. It is this maturation of Allen’s techniques, subject matter, and films in general that I find most interesting. Thus, of all of the films Allen has made over the years, I am always surprised how engaged I am with his film Crimes and Misdemeanors. I see this as one of Allen’s most mature films, utilizing his broad knowledge of literature and film as well as exploring a whole range of moral ambiguities while accomplishing the difficult task of combining comedy with drama.

As in many of Allen’s films, the themes of Crimes and Misdemeanors are derived from a classic work of literature, in this case Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, this film is certainly not a remake of the classic novel. Instead Allen shapes it and molds it into a much different story told through the mind of Woody Allen. His knowledge of literature allows him to create an intellectually stimulating discussion on morality, basing it on the famous novel. The most obvious changes between Dostoyevsky’s tale and Allen’s film are seen in Allen’s altering of the title. First of all, Allen completely omits the word “punishment.” Crime and Punishment is about a man who suffers terrible guilt after committing a double murder. He is finally driven by his guilt to confess and goes to prison where he eventually does find redemption. Allen twists this “punishment follows crime” ideology and gives a contrasting view of a financially successful man who gets away with the murder of his mistress and finds solace without formal punishment. Guilt is the device that Allen recognizes as the force that is responsible for a crime’s outcome. In Crime and Punishment the protagonist is haunted by guilt at no end until he has no choice but to confess. However, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah (Martin Landau) is at first plagued with guilt, however as time passes so does his guilt. Here Allen says that guilt is a passing phenomenon and that people are overall morally detached and indifferent. The second change Allen makes to Dostoyevsky’s title is his addition of the word “Misdemeanors.” In law, a misdemeanor is usually a lesser charge for which one accused of a crime can plea. This addition of the word “Misdemeanors” suggests that although a crime is committed, it can be rationalized and categorized until it is no longer a crime and is now only a “lesser charge.”

Furthermore, it is with the addition of the word “Misdemeanors” that the character of Lester (Alan Alda) is introduced. Crimes and Misdemeanors constantly suggests similarities between Judah and Lester just as the title ties the word “Crimes” with “Misdemeanors.” Lester, like Judah, is a successful and smart member of upper class society. Both Judah and Lester have trouble keeping promises. Judah promises Delores (Angelica Huston) his mistress that he will leave his wife for her and Lester seems to entice women to bed with promises of success. However, guilt, again, marks the one main difference between Judah and Lester. While Judah is tormented with guilt after committing his “crime,” Lester hurts people, or commits his “lesser crimes,” without feeling any guilt; an example being the scene when he yells at one of his writers, who happens to have Cancer, on the basis that his jokes are not funny. Allen, thus, with the addition of Lester, has created a second separate plot. The first plot is a serious dramatic story of crime and guilt. The second is a series of comedic elements which allow the audience to relax their views of the harsh realities brought up in the first plot, thus further demonstrating Allen’s point on how people can eventually live with these harsh realities.

Mixing comedy with drama is how Allen successfully gets his point across, and it seems rather likely that Allen is speaking directly through Lester’s character. There is a scene where Lester makes the insightful statement that “comedy is tragedy plus time.” He follows this statement up by saying that “the night Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t joke about it. Now time has gone by and it’s fair game.” These statements seem to sum up Allen’s argument that time erases guilt and emphasizes a kind of moral neutrality and indifference in humankind.  One could further pontificate that Allen supports this view in his personal life as well, but this is a movie review, so we’ll leave it at that.

This second subplot also revolves around another character Cliff (Woody Allen). However, if Lester is Allen’s voice in Crimes and Misdemeanors, then what is the purpose of Allen’s presence in the film as the lovable loser Cliff? I think Cliff is Allen’s way of poking fun at his own (Lester’s) “crimes and misdemeanors.” It is through Cliff’s documentary that the audience learns about Lester’s bad qualities. Before the audience is shown Cliff’s finished product, they are exposed to very little of the pretentious behavior Lester exhibits. I think that Woody Allen is making fun of the pretentiousness that he has been accused of by critics in real life. However, his character of Cliff offers a look at the “real Woody Allen” just like Cliff’s documentary offers a look at the “real Lester.” Cliff, like Allen himself, remains an outsider for the entire film. He is constantly unhappy with the world around him, but he is also completely aware of how that world is pretentious and reliant on glitz and glamor.

Allen uses his knowledge of film to organize and eventually fuse these two plots together. Firstly, Allen literally uses other films to move along his narrative. Allen creates a parallel of the comedic subplot and the dramatic subplot with the other films he showcases within his film. Cliff watches somber Hollywood movies with his niece that include such subject matter as adultery and disloyalty, an obvious parallel between the themes of his own film. However, in order to make him feel better about life, Cliff says that he “…watches Singin’ in the Rain every few months.” This once again echoes the theme that comedy and laughter helps obscure the harsh realities of life in order to make them livable. Thus, Allen creates a subtle connection between the two subplots by using movies.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is a powerful and mature look at modern-day morality. Allen utilizes his knowledge of the genres of comedy as well as drama to create this well organized and structured story.  Allen’s ability to parody himself and to voice his opinions through other characters is impressive, and his knowledge of literature, film, and life emphasizes his ideas, helping to create a charged and engaging film.  A

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s directorial career can be described as nothing less than industrious. While some would agree with this term due to his ability to “churn” out a movie year after year, I choose to use it because of his ability to diligently construct such beautiful films that always build towards something truly worth thinking about. In fact, Allen even appeared not as a director but as an actor in John Turturro’s film Fading Gigolo, released earlier this year. This industriousness is something unmatched by any filmmaker working today.

Magic in the Moonlight is Allen’s latest film and the 39th feature length film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film. This uninterrupted string dates all the way back to 1977’s Annie Hall! Of course, some of these films are stronger than others, I hesitate to call any of them failures.  On a Podcast interview with Josh Horowtiz, Allen confesses that he is always displeased with the final product but that “if you just keep working, you’ll have your share of good stuff over the years.” Advice-wise, it doesn’t get much more simple and sweet than that and as movies go, they don’t get much more simple and sweet than Magic in the Moonlight.

Following last year’s tragically comic Blue Jasmine with a tour-de-force performance from Cate Blanchett that won her an Oscar, Magic in the Moonlight has a far more breezy and light tone. Set in Europe in the late 1920s, Colin Firth plays Stanley, a tightly wound and cynical magician who performs in disguise as the mysterious illusionist of the orient, Wei Ling Soo. Stanley is excellent at his craft and has made a habit in his spare time of exposing false mystics and people claiming to be psychics. One such character is a young American woman hired by a wealthy widow Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver) in the south of France to help her contact her dead husband. When Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) asks Stanley to accompany him to the Catledge estate in order to judge the authenticity of this so-called medium, Stanley takes the challenge. Unexpectedly, Stanley is taken off guard by the allure and inexplicable talent of this clairvoyant beauty named Sophie (Emma Stone). The film spends its remaining time building an unlikely bond between the two as Stanley begins to doubt his certainty in the non-existence of the spirit world. The relationship between Stanley and Sophie is further complicated by the relentless wooing of Lady Catledge’s wealthy and persistent son, Brice (Hamish Linklater) who promises Sophie a life showered in luxury.

On the surface, Magic in the Moonlight is a simple love story and while it certainly is that, there is also a more serious story beneath the surface about skepticism and its role in the concept of existence. Stanley is so abruptly tugged back and forth between the joys of fantasy and the doldrums of certainty that it becomes clear that Allen himself as writer/director may be using this film as a somewhat veiled exploration of his own existence. The writing at times has a ring of Mark Twain in it especially in its tongue-in-cheek assault on hypocrisy and ease in defrauding the foolish. These serious subtexts, however, are quite subtle; this is an entirely sweet film overall.

And a beautiful one as well. Allen’s photography of the Southern region of France is absorbingly beautiful. Full of sunsets, landscapes, and lush picturesque locations, the setting comes alive and functions as a character of its own. As usual, the acting is crisp and alive. Firth’s bravado as a stubbornly conceited Englishman is impeccable and enjoyable and Stone’s appealingly goofy American psychic is charming. The element that is so curiously minimal, however, is magic. Of course the magic does refer to the metaphorical sense of connection between the leads, but in a film with so many magicians as characters, I expected more of Allen’s trademarked prestidigitations! The film opens with Firth’s Wei Ling Soo performing one of his illusions, but that is simply to establish him as an expert in the trade. I would have also liked to see some of the defrauding and debunking of con-artist illusionists that Stanley so often brags about. Still this is another well crafted entry into Allen’s immaculate resume and Stone appears to be his next go-to leading lady as she is already cast as the lead in his next project. This is a slighter movie than his previous effort, but it is not without charisma! B+

Magic in the Moonlight is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes.