Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT         B-                  
USA  (97 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Woody Allen             Official site

After a brief return to the United States with the brilliant aberration that was 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, Woody returns to his earlier form of making lighthearted, fair to middling films, insulated again from the world around him, writing exclusively for the super affluent, where the extravagance of their luxuriated lifestyle may as well be his reason for living these days, as he hones in on the life of the 1%, alienating a good portion of his audience that find these films little more than escapist fantasy.  From ANNIE HALL (1977) to MELINDA AND MELINDA (2004), Allen’s characters bore some resemblance to real life, showing a distinct preference for the intellectual middle to upper class of New York.  But all that changed with MATCH POINT (2005), one of his most commercially successful films of the decade, moving the setting to the moneyed upper class of London, capturing the places and lifestyles of the super rich where Allen continually shoots in luxurious mansions and upscale hotels as he moves through the British aristocracy, shooting his next films in idyllic European locations.  This time Allen is back in the south of France, set on the Côte d’Azur in 1928, the same period alluded to in Midnight in Paris (2011), beautifully shot by Darius Khondji, accentuating the delightfully sun-drenched afternoons where the idle rich sit around as everyone is overly pampered and catered to, living in mammoth estates, where it all plays out like a dream, written for people that live in a penthouse.  All that aside, however, this is yet another Hollywood film casting a leading man old enough to be the leading lady’s father, where the viewer also has to take into account the Woody Allen factor, as he was 56 when he entered into a romantic relationship with his 19-year old stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn (though not legally married to Mia Farrow at the time), eventually getting married 6-years later, claiming the relationship is still going strong after 17 years and helped him end 37 years undergoing psychoanalysis.  This follows a long Hollywood tradition, as Colin Firth is 53 to Emma Stone’s 25.  Humphrey Bogart was 44 to Lauren Bacall’s 19 when they met on the set of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), marrying two years later, while in SABRINA (1954), Bogart was 54 to Audrey Hepburn’s 24.  So at some point the viewer has to come to terms with Woody being Woody, as he stopped casting himself opposite beautiful young actresses, but his feelings for much younger women, perhaps most perfectly reflected in MANHATTAN (1979), haven’t changed a bit.   

Following another Allen tradition, this is another film in love with its musical soundtrack, featuring plenty of “hot jazz” from the 20’s, though some of the popular songs were written “after” the period in question, nonetheless Allen has been jamming this music down the audience’s throat literally for decades.  This film prominently features jazz renditions by cornetist Bix Beiderbecke (who died at age 28 in the early 30’s), while Ute Lemper appears briefly as a period version of herself singing a traditional Berlin cabaret song, “It's All a Swindle (Alles Schwindel)” (1931) Ute Lemper - It's All a Swindle - YouTube (4:11), which is the actual theme for this film, making a much better title, as this one continually gets mixed up with the King Harvest hit song “Dancing in the Moonlight,” Dancing in the Moonlight - King Harvest - YouTube (2:53).  But enough on that.  The film pays tribute to one of Allen’s childhood loves, as he was a magic buff and amateur magician, opening the film with Colin Firth playing Stanley, stage name Wei Ling Soo, a celebrated London illusionist (in yellowface and long Fu Manchu moustache) who makes an elephant disappear before an adoring crowd.  Based on 19th-century Brooklyn born magician William Robinson (aka Chung Ling Soo), who was a Houdini-like stage presence, eventually undone by his failure to catch a fatal bullet during a live performance.  Robinson maintained his faux Chinese identity, never spoke onstage, and used an interpreter whenever he spoke to journalists.  He was the author of the book Spirit Slate Writing and Kindred Phenomena (1898), which exposed the tricks of psychic slate writing, a practice of producing written words without consciously writing them, words supposedly arisen from a spirit or supernatural force, exposing a number of devices that fraudulent mediums use to pretend to contact the world of the dead.  Oddly enough, that is the subject of the film, as Stanley is approached backstage by a fellow illusionist Howard (Simon McBurney), who turns to his childhood friend as he is the ultimate authority on debunking sham mystics of all sorts, “from the séance table to the Vatican and beyond.” 

Howard has been in contact with a wealthy Pittsburgh industrial family living in the south of France, where the lady of the house (Jacki Weaver) is being fleeced by a mysterious young American clairvoyant, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), with claims that she can contact her dead husband, while her grown son Brice (Hamish Linklater) is romantically smitten by the young lady, continually wooing her with poetry and love songs.  Despite his best attempts, certain she is a scam artist, Howard has been unable to expose her as a fraud.  Stanley never met a challenge he couldn’t resist and rises to the occasion, thinking of it as little more than a much needed vacation in the Côte d’Azur, passing himself off as some unscrupulous businessman named Taplinger, certain he will expose this sham artist before the night is done, already making evening plans after dinner.  Sophie is living on the grounds of the estate with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), where she’s quick witted, but also something of a scatterbrain with something always catching her attention, taking Stanley by surprise when she psychically reveals things about himself that no one else knows.  All his brass and bluster are thrown off track, normally demonstrating an air of invincibility, driven by his super-sized male ego, where he can’t pin down her secrets, concluding “A pretty face never hurt a cheap swindler,” but he’s certainly beguiled by her feminine charm and enthusiastic zest for living, inviting her to join him on a visit to Province with his battle hardened Aunt Vanessa, Eileen Atkins in her best performance since Altman’s Gosford Park (2001).  Atkins is the surprise of the film, where she’s the real deal, adding plenty of spit and polish to her own character, always two or three steps in front of Stanley, wise beyond her years, and quite taken by Sophie as well.  The enjoyment of the film is playing along with the game, figuring out —Is she or is she not a fake?  Is it or is it not love? — and seeing how it all plays out, where it’s Aunt Vanessa who seems like the clairvoyant one.  Perhaps the real key to Allen’s success these days is providing such terrific acting, which has become a staple in Woody Allen films, where everyone in the business wants to work with him.  While it’s old-fashioned and well-mannered, where everyone has to play by the rules of erudite politeness, Colin Firth never talked so much in a film, taking on the Woody Allen persona of an incessant talker, turning to mush and mindless chatter after awhile, quite a contrast to the pompous arrogance of his character.  Perhaps the most obvious comparison are the seemingly mismatched lovers from Allen’s own A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), where the bombastic egotistical hubris of José Ferrar as Leopold finally meets his match in Dulcy, Julie Hagerty, a free-spirited nurse chosen purely at random.  In both cases, love ensues, or is it the illusion of love?

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