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.

Notes

  • “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.
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Movie Review: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria 2012)

Amour won the National Society of Film Critics Best Picture award and seemingly every foreign-language film award there was for 2012. While Michael Haneke’s last film, Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (Germany/Austria/France/Italy 2009) was a pretentious, lackluster effort, his Cache (France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005) was a truly excellent film. As a result, I went into Amour expecting the best film of the year. Sure, 2012 was not a phenomenal year—I still see Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012), an excellent film that would not rank in the top 20 of the last decade, as the clear best film of the year—but it still had a number of strong films, and I was expecting that Amour could be the masterpiece that the year was sorely missing.

I think Haneke came up a bit short, but he did provide quite a good film that was simply missing some special piece of originality to put it over the top.

Amour is about the inherent selfishness of love, a point which it makes through the tale of an elderly married couple dealing with the wife’s strokes and subsequent illness by retreating into a wretched, disgusting existence that they hide from the outside world until eventually the husband commits an ultimate act of both love and selfishness. It’s a powerful, evocative plot and well-constructed as a narrative, and it makes the point quite clearly. Haneke is a bit too interested in telling his story and allows some meanderings away from his point, but he stays focused well enough that it’s not a major problem.

We watch Anne deteriorate and Georges respond by trying to take care of her but as a result retreating from the rest of the world, as much because of his own desires as because of hers. She becomes physically and psychologically destroyed, left bedridden and delirious and with no will to live. George is willing to accede to her wishes that she not go to the hospital and play the music she wants, but he cannot accept her desire to die and selfishly keeps her alive until he cannot stand it any longer and then smothers her as she fights against him what little she can. It’s a painful story, and Haneke does not hide just how horrendous her deterioration is or how much Georges is affected by it, highlighted by a painful scene as Georges uses his wife’s unwillingness to return to the hospital to try to force her to eat when she is refusing in order to hasten her own demise. It’s a tragic and pained love story, the type of love story Hollywood is generally not interested in telling.

Visually, Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji provide a film that is rather basic in its style but still effective in what it seeks to do. The couple’s apartment is a bare space with simple dark woods, white walls, and clean, high-key lighting. They don’t play around with any high contrasts or particularly interesting color choices, keeping the backdrop antiseptic in a way that accentuates the emotional power of what is going on between the couple but also does not draw attention to itself. It’s not the most interesting or even the most effective of techniques, but it works well enough that the film can hold up. The problem is that Haneke and Khondji just don’t do anything that makes the film stand out visually, through movement, color, or anything else. It’s oddly dull in that way even though the basic techniques enhance the emotional tone of the film.

As far as the acting, we have a tale of two leads. Emmanuelle Riva is truly riveting as Anne, the wife of our lead couple. As she declines, she loses her ability to express herself clearly, and yet Riva’s performance makes her feelings and situation clear at all times. It’s a triumphant performance, the type that should get far more attention than it did. Meanwhile, the real lead of the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not effective at all as her husband. He’s flat and wooden with no real emotion appearing on his face from start to finish, and it seems all the worse for Riva’s presence. The only supporting role with any kind of substance is Isabelle Huppert’s turn as the couple’s musician daughter. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time or much complexity to play, but she does what she’s given as well as anyone could. Her pained, almost disgusted reaction at Georges locking Anne away during the day adds real pathos to a moment that could easily have been laughably over the top, and she is similarly believable in a restrained fashion in every moment on screen. Not being a lead performance limits what she’s allowed to do a bit but she wrings everything out of what she gets.

All told, this is a very well-made film that has two significant problems: a lack of anything terribly interesting visually and simply being a tough watch. It’s not as much that it’s depressing as that it’s physically and psychologically painful. It’s definitely worth a watch, but it’s not the masterpiece that I was hoping for and it’s a bit of a difficult journey to go through. Looper remains the king of 2012.