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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

Not so much ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

As a longtime fan of Woody Allen's films, I was particularly disappointed in his latest work, “Magic in the Moonlight.” The following is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Once Woody Allen started pursuing film direction with a passion, he commenced making films that – even when uneven in tone, plot or character – always seemed to be made with care. From the stark opening credits, plain white letters against a black backdrop, to the stunning cinematography of such artists as Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist, Allen’s movies have been, even when all else fails, wonders to watch.

Until “Magic in the Moonlight,” that is. It’s not often that a Woody Allen movie fails on every level. But it happened here.

Take the storyline. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a world-famous magician obsessed with unmasking fake spiritualists. Called in by a friend to debunk a young would-be medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), Stanley accepts with all the alacrity of one who is self-absorbed to a fault. Stanley’s arrogance is so ingrained that he isn’t aware – or perhaps he simply doesn’t care – when he hurts someone’s feelings. We’re never told why he is this way – one of Allen’s plot oversights – and Stanley’s temperament becomes especially annoying when we are introduced to his beloved Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a kind sort who shows an abiding fondness for her narcissistic nephew.

A hint to what makes Stanley tick comes when, after failing to prove the spiritualist a fake, he does a sudden turn-around. He admits that his obsession with fake crystal-ball-gazers comes from his insistence, reinforced by fear, that nothing exists beyond death. And since this is the case, life holds no, well, magic for him. (A magician who doesn’t believe in magic; Allen clearly hasn’t lost his ability to portray irony.)

And along with magic, Stanley doesn’t believe in love. Until, when he begins to believe that Sophie is the real thing, he finds himself falling for her. Never mind that he has a fiancé, played ever-so-briefly by Catherine McCormack, who is his perfect egotistical match. And never mind that Sophie, a poor young American, is being courted by a ukelele-playing millionaire (Hamish Linklater) who offers her a life beyond her wildest dreams. And never mind that no hint of a mutual affection passes between Stanley and Sophie ever. As Allen has said, “The heart wants what it wants.” And so, clearly, does his screenplay.

But if all that isn’t bad enough, “Magic in the Moonlight” is technically sloppy. Simon McBurney, who plays Stanley’s friend, has a hairstyle that changes in virtually every frame – and it drew my eye to it every single time. In another scene, Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji allows a shadow to fall over an actress’ face. In yet another, the principals go out of focus.

The totality of this – thematic, structural and technical sloppiness – stands in direct contrast to the 78-year-old Allen who, in other recent films such as “Blue Jasmine” and “Midnight in Paris,” had been demonstrating a creative renaissance.

I won’t blame the flaws of “Magic in the Moonlight” on age, though. More likely, Allen — at least here — just stopped caring.

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