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Thread: Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen)

  1. #1

    Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen)

  2. #2
    Given my comments in the Magic in the Moonlight thread in the Upcoming Film Emporium, it’s probably clear that I'm a Woody Allen fan. Naturally, then, I went into this with a fair amount of optimism -- or, to borrow from the language of the film, I was something of an easy "mark." My initial thought, however, is that I will likely be more inclined to revisit several of Allen's recent and past films over this one, as a great number of them are more wholly satisfying as narrative experiences (for example, I prefer Whatever Works -- which, like Magic in the Moonlight, samples Beethoven's ninth symphony to great effect). Even so, I don't want to suggest I had a bad time watching this; quite the contrary, actually. While Magic in the Moonlight doesn't strike me as one of Allen's more remarkable efforts, it would be insincere to claim that I didn't enjoy the film in its capacity as a delightful romp, replete with the kind of wit and thoughtfulness that is the distinction of Allen's work. A few spoilers follow:

    The second shot of the film is also its most ostentatious. It begins with a striking close-up on an elephant's inscrutable eye -- emoting alarm, perhaps, or bewilderment, or maybe even boredom. At any rate, the ostensible aim is to briskly elicit spectatorial fascination. From here, Allen quickly amplifies the effect, pulling back to reveal the impressive majesty of the gargantuan mammal, which, as it turns out, is standing idly on stage and awaiting its own disappearance via the performative magic of Wei Ling Soo (the stage name of Colin Firth's character, who is otherwise referred to as Stanley). Thus, narrative content and cinematic style harmonize in a spirit of ceremony and showmanship, thereby disclosing the clear links between text and author -- or, more specifically, between the morose, onscreen magician and the filmmaker with whom he shares very similar talents and torments.

    Curiously, these camera movements are echoed later on, when Stanley has lunch with the beguiling Sophie (Emma Stone). Here, the proximity of the initial closeup is not nearly as close as before, but the effect is certainly familiar. Allen once again zeroes in and then pulls back, so as to ceremoniously accentuate, in this case, a very different kind of marvel: his leading lady. His admiration for Stone and her sui generis qualities as a performer is patently clear; in interviews, Allen has noted her unusual appeal, and has described her as "a natural movie star [...] beautiful, in an interesting way," and one of those cherished "oases" from the cruel fact that we're apparently hurtling toward certain nothingness. Magic in the Moonlight bears the traces of this keen sensitivity to the peculiar fascination of Stone's screen presence.

    These rhyming shots therefore indicate a transference of magnetic energies: from the vivid, elephantine wonder of the opening, which handily captures our attention, to Stone's winning performance as Sophie, which lends the film a great amount of verve. Magic in the Moonlight subsists on Stone's magnetism, on her distinct élan as performer and spectacle, as well as on the wit and raillery that is so capably exchanged between her and Firth.

    This correspondence of scale and camera movement is also a visual correlate to a running gag: at one point, Stanley begrudgingly compliments Sophie by suggesting that she might be rather striking if she had the help of the precise theatrical lighting he uses on his elephant. Of course, given Stone's dainty and lithe frame, the comparison is especially preposterous, but that's part of the joke. Through his echoed camera movements, Allen seems to subtly suggest that the real equivalence lies elsewhere -- not in Stanley's backhanded compliment, but in the sense that Stone is another natural marvel of sorts, whose atypical radiance and distinct performative talents also easily command our admiration and attention.

    Darius Khondji's cinematography serves as another salient attraction. An aesthetic of considerable resplendence envelops the proceedings from beginning to end; one stunner follows another, and even the most routine shot reverse shot exchanges (i.e., the lunch scene I mentioned earlier) are rendered achingly luminous and exquisite. While the narrative may not be extroadinary, Khondji's contributions elevate the experience, generating a cascade of splendid visual rewards. See, for instance, Stone and Hamish Linklater dancing in the muted, misty splendour of the background, while Firth glowers in the foreground under crisper illumination. Or consider the way blacks and soft golds commingle during the formal spectacle of the outdoor ball at night, which, incidentally, is a striking set piece of elegant, romanticized pageantry (i.e., the density of lovely costumes, the architectural beauty of the background in contiguity with the more verdant and natural surroundings, the suggestion of the pleasant temperatures of a summer's night, etc.). This film could be described as the unspooling of a succession of impressively gorgeous, bucolic wonders. The sustained sumptuousness of the visuals is a source of great delight.

    There's also an especially wonderful moment where the vivid surface of a swimming pool is allowed to overwhelm the frame, as Allen patiently follows Sophie's graceful swim toward the edge, where she will come to rest and quietly contemplate nascent romantic stirrings -- the startling sublimity of such bits is precisely what I'm talking about when I refer to Emma Stone's capacity as a kind of onscreen marvel. In this latter example, the compulsively watchable spectacle of her performance and screen presence colludes with camera movement and aesthetic sensibilities, and the results are mesmeric.

    As for the narrative, this is a decidedly breezy dramatization of familiar concerns: anyone who has watched a few of Allen's films, or come across some of his wry sound bites concerning the cruelties of existence and the "bad deal" of life, will easily recognize Magic in the Moonlight's thematic heft, such as it is. In this film, the sublunary and the sublime collide, and a kind of casual delight ensues rather than the morose anguish that might be expected (Allen delivers plenty of the latter, but so much of it is accented with sardonic wit and playfulness). Firth and Stone make great fun out of the schematic tension, which Allen stokes, deflates, and then reignites throughout the course of the ninety-seven minute running time. The acerbic and sportive wit of their repartee emerges as one of the film's most endearing attractions.

    Thus, while Allen soberly engaged with the pathos of Blue Jasmine's story, in the case of Magic in the Moonlight, he's up to something far more blithe and cheerful. Even as the film evinces an incorrigible obsession with the miseries and inequities of life, he ultimately gestures toward the compensatory mysteries and "magic" of romantic discovery. Such ideas, along with the aforementioned delights of aspects like the visuals and the repartee, underwrite a film of lighthearted energies and considerable optimism. I suspect that many will still dismiss Magic in the Moonlight as a trifle, or worse -- I think the degree to which this will work for others depends on how receptive they are to the kinds of pleasures (of performance, dialogue, and cinematography) that I've described.

    At one point, another character offers an elaborate description of Stanley's miserable disposition, noting, for instance, that he's "a perfect depressive with everything sublimated into his art." Given the extent of the despair thus described, this inspires our empathy, especially given the obvious imbrications between Stanley and Allen himself (in other words, here, Allen once again manages to memorably disclose just how profoundly and irrevocably troubled he is by the inevitable cruelties of our mortal coil). Yet this description curves suddenly at the end, tapering off into a ironic zinger: as it turns out, this woeful account was only meant to buttress the character's beaming regard for Stanley: "I like him!"

    The torment of existence, that "bad deal" that Allen has so often lamented, has never felt lighter.
    Last edited by Gittes; 05-07-2015 at 10:15 PM.

  3. #3
    Moderator TGM's Avatar
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    Dec 2010
    So I thought this was decent. It has a bit of a Much Ado About Nothing vibe to it that I was able to appreciate more so in hindsight than while I was actually watching it, but for the most part this is alright. The acting is mostly good, the story is decent, if at times predictable, and the visuals were really nice to look at throughout as well.

    However, the one aspect I absolutely abhorred about this movie was the music. It uses a very old timey style of music with a very old timey sound and quality to it throughout, like listening to a very old and tired recording. And this wouldn't necessarily be a negative aspect, except that this music is in stark contrast to the very modern looking visuals throughout. It flat out didn't fit with the rest of the movie at all, and stood out as a constant, nagging distraction throughout the entire duration whenever there was music playing. The worst offense of this being anytime there was supposed to be live music playing in the scene, and yet we're still treated to the poor, old timey sound and quality instead of a more appropriately live sound.

    Now, had the movie also gone for an old timey look to match its music, then I honestly probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But it didn't, and so it stands as a major hindering aspect. It was grating, and while I otherwise fairly enjoyed this movie and ultimately gave it a mild yay, the piss-poor and quite frankly surprisingly amateurish use of music will keep me from ever wanting to revisit it again.

  4. #4
    pushing too many pencils Rowland's Avatar
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    Nov 2007
    Only two MCers have watched this? I liked it better than expected, its very charming surface pleasures masking one of Allen's more resonant recent disquisitions on his usual thematic preoccupations.
    Letterboxd rating scale:
    The Long Riders (Hill) ***
    Furious 7 (Wan) **½
    Hard Times (Hill) ****½
    Another 48 Hrs. (Hill) ***
    /48 Hrs./ (Hill) ***½
    The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (Besson) ***
    /Unknown/ (Collet-Serra) ***½
    Animal (Simmons) **

  5. #5
    A Platypus Grouchy's Avatar
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    Nov 2007
    The involution of Woody Allen is kind of tragic. I just can't believe how terrible the story and the dialogues are here. I don't think I could name any other storyteller this lazy at introducing character traits and exposition.

    The actors and the cinematography are the only things that keep this more or less alive.

  6. #6
    Moderator TGM's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2010
    The thing that sticks out the most to me anytime I recall this movie anymore is how bizarre that scene is where Colin Firth lays down on that bench in the most uncomfortable looking position in order to just randomly take a nap when he's out on his little date with Emma Stone. I mean just, what the hell is up with that, lol?

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