Karen Martin’s HomeMovies

December 19, 2014


Magic in the Moonlight,

directed by Woody Allen

(PG-13, 97 minutes)

The problem in cranking out a movie (sometimes two) every year, as Woody Allen has been doing for 34 years, is that some of them are going to be bad. Does someone have a gun to the filmmaker’s head, forcing him to proceed with half-baked, joyless comedies such as Magic in the Moonlight instead of tossing bad ideas out and starting fresh? This is, at best, a 20-minute TV episode extended to feature length, and the stretch marks show.

Last year’s Blue Jasmine, a study of a pampered woman under duress, won Cate Blanchett a well-deserved Oscar, and Allen won a Best Original Screenplay award in 2011 for Midnight in Paris. But before and after we also got To Rome With Love, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works and Cassandra’s Dream, all with interesting elements but in clear need of a rewrite or two.

Magic in the Moonlight, set in 1920s Paris, feels like a rushed first draft Allen started shooting before he had finished writing the last page. You have to go back to 2003’s Anything Else, starring Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci (apparently Allen’s way of going after a younger audience), to find a picture as lame as this one.

The setup is promising: Stanley (Colin Firth) is a renowned British stage magician who, while disguised as a mysterious Chinese performer, wows audiences with skillful tricks of levitation, disappearing acts, and sawing a woman in half.

Stanley is arrogant, successful and pompous. So when his friend Howard (Simon McBurney) tells him of Sophie (Emma Stone), who’s causing an uproar in Paris with her psychic powers and ability to communicate with the dead, Stanley immediately travels there to attempt to debunk the young upstart. He knows there’s no such thing as real magic, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let some American scam artist steal the spotlight from him.

But when he sees Sophie at work, Stanley can’t explain how she knows personal facts and details about people she has never met. She really does seem to be able to read minds. And most of all, she’s beautiful. Instead of trying to bring her down, Stanley begins to fall for her.

The film hits all the director’s trademarks, from a leading man in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter to gorgeous cinematography by Darius Khondji, whose sun-kissed images add the pleasure of a travelogue. But once the premise has been established, the film goes absolutely nowhere.

Allen throws in some useless debate about whether it’s better to have faith in something, no matter how mysterious, but it all feels like lip service to inflate a leaky balloon. Firth’s yammering, stammering character is insufferable. Stone is a delight, but her character is so ill-defined, we’re constantly trying to figure her out. Supporting players such as Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver are wasted in nothing roles, and as Allen tries to fill up 97 minutes with this silly, dull effort, you’ll wish you had some magical powers to make yourself disappear from the theater.

The Equalizer (R, 131 minutes) Brutal, exciting and surprisingly realistic, The Equalizer follows retired government intelligence officer Robert McCall (Denzel Washington in a compelling performance) who, despite being determined to live a new, quiet life, forms a friendship with Teri (a rather grown-up Chloe Grace Moretz). She’s under the control of Russian gangsters, and McCall decides to use his combat skills to help shake her loose from their powerful grasp. With Marton Csokas, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo; directed by Antoine Fuqua.

In addition to six making-of featurettes, Blu-ray bonus features include “Vengeance Mode,” a breakdown of action choreography sequences by Washington and Fuqua.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (R, 114 minutes) Set in New York, this gutsy, well-wrought mystery thriller stars Liam Neeson in a powerful performance as borderline-renegade private investigator Matthew Scudder, hired by a heroin dealer (Dan Stevens) to find who kidnapped and horrifically murdered his wife. With David Harbour, Ruth Wilson, Patrick F. McDade; directed by Scott Frank. Based on Lawrence Block’s bleak 1992 crime novel.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (PG-13, 101 minutes) From producer Michael Bay comes this excessive Transformers-style action comedy that’s loaded with citywide destruction, lame wisecracks, and Pizza Hut product placement. Twenty-four years after the first Ninja Turtles film — featuring four mutated humanoid turtles named Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael who are on confrontational terms with a criminal gang of ninjas that include Shredder and his evil Foot Clan — New York City is under siege as Shredder exerts control over everything from the police to the politicians.

The Turtles (unappealingly weird-looking as ever) must work with intrepid reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) and her wisecracking cameraman Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) to save the city and unravel the diabolical plans of Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). With Johnny Knoxville, William Fichtner; directed by Jonathan Liebesman.

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