Movie Review: “Magic in the Moonlight” (Woody Allen, USA 2014)

Woody Allen is an atheist. He is a melancholic. And Magic in the Moonlight wonders if these things are related. It says that magic and escapism make us happy but are an empty happiness but that logical reality is a truthfully sad existence, one where the world doesn’t give us joys.

But then it says, “Well, even in cold, logical reality, there is one piece of inexplicable magic: love.”

Allen has always been obsessed with the idea that love is mysterious and remarkably varied–his execrable Whatever Works (USA/France 2009) was, after all, saying, “You can’t question another person’s relationship, because whatever makes them happy is fine.” He’s always viewed “love” as some sort of ineffable force, one that brings together people who have little in common and at one point didn’t like each other in Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986), an un-artistic intellectual with a musician in Annie Hall (USA 1977), and a “debunker” with a psychic in Magic in the Moonlight.

What’s frustrating about Magic in the Moonlight is that it spends so much time setting up its punchline and focusing on its plot that it completely forgets to make its point. The supporting characters only matter for the story, not for the point. There aren’t other examples there to make the point (In fact, the couples are weirdly happy for a Woody Allen film.). There’s just the basic main plot, and the film seems very pleased with its own cleverness.

The film tells the story of a magician/”debunker” named Stanley who is clearly based on James Randi with a dash of Chung Ling Soo as he works to expose a pretty young psychic named Sophie Baker. He first starts falling for her act, then falls for her. Then, when he finds out that the act was a trick perpetrated by both Sophie and Stanley’s fellow magician friend Howard Burkan, the feelings do not go away. So, he predictably breaks up with his age-appropriate, entirely logical fiancee in order to be with her.

Unfortunately, as clever as that may sound and as fun as much of it is, the film just isn’t as smart as it needs to be. The con is really obvious and any half-decent magician should have spotted it, and the idea that a hardened skeptic could be that easily turned just because it happens to be a pretty girl is frankly insulting.

Allen and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives us a brightly-lit film with saturated colors, but they don’t do a lot to enhance the film’s point. Instead, the film just looks old-fashioned, befitting its time setting and Allen’s general sensibilities. It’s at least something different from what else is out there, but it’s not particularly interesting.

The acting is typically uneven for a Woody Allen film. Colin Firth’s performance as Stanley is rather a mess–he’s all stagey bravado with no depth or even basic human emotion until after his aunt’s accident. After the accident, he suddenly becomes a deeper, more emotional character, and Firth plays that part better. Emma Stone, meanwhile, is surprisingly excellent as the psychic. When Firth says, “She’s not even a good actress,” it’s easy to nod, because Sophie really isn’t good, and playing a bad actor is something that requires great skill. Jeremy Shamos has a small part, but he’s awful. He’s grinning inappropriately throughout the entire film. Simon McBurney is also pretty poor as Howard Burkan, obviously mugging for laughs even though his character doesn’t have the lines that will get the laughs.

Overall, Woody Allen is far from his best on Magic in the Moonlight. That’s not to say it’s awful–it’s a fun watch and it still has some great humor, but it’s nowhere near as smart or deep as it needs to be to be a great film. It’s a film someone else could have made, and if there is one sin Woody Allen should never commit, it’s to appear ordinary. I’m not sorry I saw it, but it’s far from memorable.


  • “Did you know he started out as an escape artist?” Gee, I wonder where he got that idea.
  • Stanley’s act that we see at the opening is not really that special, but it is fun that it is just so time-appropriate. Of course Allen, a student of magic, knows that.
  • The observatory opening with the telescope was Freudian imagery Hitchcock would have been proud of. It was also quite overdone.

Movie Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy” (James Gunn, USA 2014)

One note to start: There will be no mention of the horrifying event involving Karen Gillan that this film’s production caused. This link will be its only reference.

Comic book movies tend to be things I avoid, especially Marvel creations (I have always thought that Marvel was silly and child-like even compared to other comics, and their palpable self-love and conviction of their own importance is often a gag-worthy addition to the commercials that they label as films.), though they can work. The thing is, they’ve only worked when truly talented directors have “slummed it” by making films like Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2005) or Superman (Richard Donner, USA/UK 1978). Those directors used what their source material gave them to do what made sense: Nolan used the darkness, insanity, and pain at the heart of Batman’s mythology to create a dark, gritty film that, because of Batman’s reliance on intelligence and science, did not need to be too far outside of the real world. Donner built an outsized world of moral absolutes in which the boy scout Superman and his protection of a populace so innocent as to be childlike made sense. It may seem like it’s a matter of either making the source material more realistic or building a less realistic world, but it was really probably more a matter of putting real talents in charge of the projects.

James Gunn certainly isn’t anywhere near Christopher Nolan or Richard Donner’s track record. Truthfully, his track record was one of the biggest reasons to question this film. However, there were still a number of reasons to think this film had a chance:

  1. The light-hearded, fun trailers featuring well-chosen ’70s music. It didn’t seem to be targeting the usual 16-year-old boy demographic of tentpole films, and it didn’t seem to be taking itself at all seriously, which is good for a film with such an outlandish premise.
  2. These superhero films constantly have Official Overqualified Actors, whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014), Morgan Freeman in Batman Begins, or Marlon Brando in Superman. This film had those in Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close, but the rest of the cast was full of people who were either talented actors (Chris Pratt, Djimon Hounsou), impossibly charismatic (Chris Pratt), very good at specific types of roles (Michael Rooker), some combination thereof, or Karen Gillan.
  3. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel were off-screen providing voices, so they could only do so much damage. Hopefully Cooper learned to use more than 10% of his brain.
  4. How bad can a movie that uses “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Spirit in the Sky” in its trailers be? Okay, so maybe that’s not very strong.

So, while I went in with trepidation, I did go into Guardians of the Galaxy with hopes of something worth watching. And it turns out that I got probably the best I could hope for from a superhero movie not helmed by a proven director.

The film opens, rather oddly given what follows, with a scene of a child in 1988 sitting in what is clearly a hospital, listening to a cassette tape conspicuously labeled “Awesome Mix vol. 1,” hearing 10cc’s great “I’m Not In Love.” The nostalgia level of the film and its love of early ’70s pop music is clearly established, but then we watch as the child has his final meeting with his mother before she dies. He runs outside only to be abducted by an alien ship. It’s a dark opening to a very light film.

Then, however, Gunn makes it very clear what kind of film this is: The adult version of Peter Quill arrives on a planet, searching through it for something. When he nears his destination, he makes his way through something akin to Tolkien’s dead marshes, filled with small-bodied, large-toothed creatures that react violently to his presence. It’s a sequence that in most films would be a dread-filled, suspenseful build-up. Instead, Chris Pratt is kicking the small creatures around and using one as a microphone as he dances through to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s a goofy inversion of the typical superhero movie aesthetic, but it’s one that’s fun and more than welcome. And the rest of the film continues in that vein.

Further, the film actually has a unifying point (beyond “Go see more Marvel movies!”)–the power of friendship. It’s a film about a group of outcasts who band together to save a galaxy that has all but rejected them, and every step of the way it’s friendship and teamwork that makes for strength and the loneliness of power-seeking that causes destruction. It’s a little facile and obvious, but subtlety, thy name is not known in the land of comics.

Unfortunately, Gunn and cinematographer Ben Davis let down a film that is otherwise working with their cartoonish visuals. I tend to call everything that has a lot of CGI a cartoon, but this one was over the top even compared to most of those. The distinction between this film and the animated Disney film that played as the last trailer before it was honestly a bit difficult to see. Also, their vision of space is startlingly lacking in imagination and wonder. Gunn should have sat down and watched Cosmos beforehand and maybe his lifeless vision of space would have looked better. If you’re going to go all-in on CGI, at least let your imagination run wild.

Acting-wise, the film doesn’t really require anything of anyone, but everyone acquits himself/herself reasonably well. Even professional wrestler Dave Bautista is fine in a one-dimensional role. Chris Pratt’s acting chops are not really on display here, but his charisma carries the role. Djimon Hounsou is an actor we should see far more often, and even in this cast he lights up the screen whenever he is on. While I still question casting Karen Gillan in a role where she’s going to be covered with CGI and makeup, she played the ice queen character perfectly well.

While the source music is also excellent, Tyler Bates deserves some credit for the score he put together, which is consistently great.

All told, the film works pretty well. It’s a bit dumb and it looks like a cartoon, but it’s one hell of an enjoyable big dumb cartoon.


  • Did I just miss it or did they not explain what happened to Nebula? She took that other ship and started flying up toward Gamora again and then we didn’t see her again. Is that going to be the story thread for the second film? Would that mean that Karen Gillan gets more screen time next time??!!
  • I was really afraid that the music gag was going to be a long build-up to him listening to “A Space Oddity” as he took off at the end, especially since the Collector really seemed like a role tailor made for David Bowie (Benicio del Toro played it, but something about it made me think that Bowie would have been perfect. I’m glad it didn’t.
  • About 20 minutes into the film, I was thinking, “Okay, why on earth is Peter’s music like 20 years out of date for his age? I assume that the deal is that he’s just listening to this same tape forever–it’s probably all the earth music he has. Is it that his mother made him the tape?” When he revealed that his mother did make him the tape, I felt rather smug.
  • It felt a little weird the way Zoe Saldana was supposed to be the sex symbol in a film that includes Karen Gillan.
  • Why on earth did they spend the money it must have cost to get Vin Diesel to do Groot’s voice? Did that strike anyone else as weird?
  • When Nebula started to give a typical movie villain speech and Drax cut her off by just shooting her was a great moment.
  • A significant amount of the film is very reminiscent of the Mass Effect series. While being similar to a video game would usually be bad, Mass Effect is awesome–my two favorite video games of all time are the first two Mass Effect games for a reason.
  • Did they cast Karen Gillan just because she’s tall and looks good in skin-tight clothing? It did give her an intimidation advantage over Zoe Saldana that she’s four inches taller, but it just seems rather a waste of what Karen Gillan brings to the table. Yeah, I have a problem.
  • Read this bit of “trivia” from the IMDb page for the film. Heartbreaking and very telling.
  • Using the mask to give Chris Pratt a star entrance was a great idea.
  • I hate, hate, hate, hate Marvel Studios’s self-important, self-indulgent nameplate animation. Everyone else puts those at the opening, but Marvel instead waits a few minutes–you know, so it’s where the star’s name usually is, because Marvel Studios is convinced that it is actually the star of its films. It’s also very busy and longer than usual. The ugly 20th Century Fox logo with its over-the-top fanfare and the severely outdated MGM lion have their issues, but at least they don’t pretend you went to the movie to see the studio’s name up there. Marvel seems to think you did.

Movie Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, USA 2013)

Since 1990, Martin Scorsese’s career has been maddening. Up to that time, he was one of the great American directors of all time, producing masterpieces like Taxi Driver (USA 1976), Raging Bull (USA 1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (USA/Canada 1988), and of course Goodfellas (USA 1990) and rarely making a major misstep. Then, his career apotheosis, the film he seemed destined to make, still didn’t win him the Oscar that had eluded him through a two-decade career (and to make matters worse, he lost out to Kevin Costner of all people).

He spent the next two decades repeating the tricks that, when new, made him such a great filmmaker, with varying success, rarely traveling far beyond his favorite subjects and never attempting something new. Much of the time, he seemed interested in just repeating his past. Then, bizarrely, The Departed (USA/Hong Kong 2006), another one of his exorcises in re-creating Goodfellas (and one of his less successful efforts in so doing at that) finally won him that Oscar.

His next full-length non-documentary, Shutter Island (USA 2010) did not receive the critical praise he was used to but I considered it an excellent film and more importantly a sign that Scorsese was willing to try some new things, venturing into completely different thematic territory, a new subject, and even some new visual techniques. He followed that up with the acclaimed Hugo (USA 2011), an even larger departure from Scorsese’s history that seemed to signal that the Oscar had freed him up to be the great filmmaker he had once been.

Fresh off of two signs that he had finally progressed beyond the demon of Goodfellas losing the Oscar that had stalked him for two decades, I was excited to see what Scorsese did next. However, while The Wolf of Wall Street has received considerable praise, it has also been dogged by complaints that it was a repetition of Scorsese’s past, even drawing direct complaints that it was a retread of Goodfellas again. Unfortunately, the complaints were accurate, and Scorsese’s film was yet another competent-but-repetitious attempt to recreate Goodfellas, leaving me wondering why on earth anyone would watch this instead of just watching the earlier film again.

The point of this film is the ability of capitalism to justify horrible actions. It could easily begin with, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a Wall Street cheat.” It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a middle class kid who finishes school wanting nothing but to be rich and so heads to Wall Street seeking his fortune as a stockbroker. He learns some of the ins and outs of the business from a disturbing and disgusting successful broker only to see his firm fall apart just as soon as he starts, then adopts the worst elements of that broker in creating a new, illegal stock firm and of course builds an empire of wealth, debauchery, and drugs before the FBI finally brings him down. All along the way, he justifies himself by pointing out the amount of money he has given to down-on-their-luck people needing the help and seeing himself as the more reasonable member of his partnership with Donnie Azoff. He repeatedly claims that his nonstop search for money and drugs is “the American way.”

The plot is a good enough way to make Scorsese’s point, but he is so interested in Belfort’s drug problems and debauchery that he spends fully half of the movie just establishing those elements again and again. He’s so busy showing us Belfort’s amusing attempt to drive himself home while high on Quaaludes that he makes no attempt to connect that scene to his overall point. He is so excited to show us the repeated orgies and various other debaucheries of Belfort’s firm that he doesn’t bother to explain somehow that Belfort’s dissatisfaction with his beautiful, sex-crazed wife is driven by his obsession with money and constant stimulation. It’s as though the film is more interested in pushing the envelope and getting as close as possible to an NC-17 rating than it is in making its point, which is why it ultimately fails.

For most of his more recent work, Scorsese has worked with cinematographer Robert Richardson, but this time he instead turned to Rodrigo Prieto, who has a long history of solid-if-unspectacular work in his past, and it’s difficult even to tell that there is a change. The film uses more of a full color palette throughout than Scorsese’s normal use of washed-out color that becomes more saturated as the film continues, but that is essentially the only difference from Scorsese’s offerings of the last two decades. The film also repeatedly attempts unusual shots to explain to the audience the altered perception of a high person, but they frankly consistently fall flat. Announcing that the Quaaludes are having their effect on a character and then having him move in slow motion just doesn’t do much for appreciating what they do, and makes that trickery completely unnecessary and almost laughable.

The acting is rather uneven, with an excellent lead performance supported by smaller performances that range from good to bad. DiCaprio is the only person who gets a lot to do, and he really knocks it out of the park, portraying his charismatic salesman as he progresses from an eager-to-please ingénue to an arrogant, selfish prick. The transformation he goes through is sudden, not subtle, but it is amazing seeing the ambitious but somewhat reserved young man adopt the mannerisms and activities of his mentor, and he has to portray widely varying emotions throughout. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill, a guy who we’re apparently supposed to think is hilarious while he is doing nothing and great anytime he’s not in a broad-as-can-be comedy (seriously, why have the critics all decided he’s brilliant?) is so bizarre and off-the-wall that it’s difficult to believe him even as an insane drug addict, and seems to have the same look on his face 90% of the time. Matthew McConaughey deserves some credit for an excellent cameo as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor, a performance that seems more real than many of the supporting roles. Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s seductive wife every bit as greedy as her husband, albeit in a different way, with aplomb, though she doesn’t have too much to do.

As always, Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (I’ve never been clear on who should get the credit.) do a masterful job finding music to suit the film. That ability to use extant music as such a strong cue has long been one of Scorsese’s great strengths, and it was just as present in this film as it famously was in Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a decent film, but it’s really another attempt to retread the ground of Goodfellas that doesn’t do it as well and adds another 40 minutes of sex and nudity. It’s not a terrible way to spend a few hours, but you would be better off just watching Goodfellas again and spending a half-hour reading.


  • I don’t know about everyone else, but where I grew up, a two-accountant family would not be “middle class.” Nor could “middle class” people afford Belford’s education.
  • It’s interesting that Scorsese comes out with another re-tread of Goodfellas the same year that David O. Russell skewers it.
  • The voice-over was annoying and unnecessary throughout the film. There are times when a voiceover fits well and times when it just gets overused, but this time was one when it could have been cut completely without losing a thing.
  • There were a number of funny moments throughout the movie and some really good dialogue. It was more enjoyable than it was good.
  • Interesting trivia: Robert Richardson, Scorsese’s usual cinematographer, also shot Wall Street (Oliver Stone, USA 1987). I wonder if that fact has something to do with Prieto shooting this one.