The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong

Review written By Andrés Rosende

I’ve always been a fan of The Hunger Games. In this age of superhero franchises and young adult fantasy movies, Katniss Everdeen stands out as a feminist heroine who challenges traditional narratives about women: she carries a bow, kills and survives, is not emotionally available and prefers to act instead of speaking. She hunts while her male counterpart bakes, speaks about feelings, and encourages her to open up and share. And while her biggest competitor in the franchise war, Bella Swan from Twilight is a clumsy, helpless girl willing to sacrifice everything – her family, her friends and her life – to be with her vampire love, Katniss sacrifices herself to save her sister and eventually becomes the leader of the rebellion against the totalitarianism of the Capitol. At the end of Twilight, Bella is pregnant, married and refuses to go to college, opting to have a baby that might kill her. The message is clear: abstinence leads to marriage and motherhood to the apotheosis of a woman’s life. Katniss, on the other hand, is a refreshing girl. She is strong, smart; doesn’t follow the rules and proves she doesn’t need Prince Charming to protect her. In short, Katniss is a good role model for teenagers.

All that said, Mockingjay Part 1, one of the most anticipated films of the year, is not a good movie. It’s actually a clear example of commercial interests being put ahead of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common in Hollywood these days. And it’s too bad because it could have been a great finale for a very entertaining and interesting franchise.

Dividing the final book into two movies makes no narrative sense but follows what the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas did (not to mention what Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit). And it is a strategy that works in the box office. Mockingjay Part 1 made more than $121 million on its first weekend and it’s getting close to $600 million worldwide. The problem with the film is that it feels like a huge set-up, full of exposition, for something we have to wait a year to see. To put it plainly: nothing happens in this film.

Lets imagine for a second that you are reading Little Red Riding Hood to a kid but instead of telling the full story you stop when Little Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf. Still you have to tell the story in the same amount of time. What would happen? Well, you would maybe describe a day in Little Red’s life: school, friends, games, homework, etc. We would go into depth about her relationship with her mum and her grandmother. We would make clear how far her grandmother’s house is from theirs; maybe she will study a big map of the forest…Then, her journey begins: she would have to stop to smell the flowers, listen to the birds and talk to the neighbors. She would probably have to take a couple of detours to meet some colorful creatures until she would finally encounter the Wolf. And now that the story starts to get exciting, we tell the kid to go to bed and that tomorrow we’ll finish the story, promising the ending is amazing. That’s exactly how I felt watching Mockingjay Part 1.

The film starts a few days after the close of Catching Fire with a tormented Katniss Everdeen living in an underground bunker, which is all that’s left from District 13, the military base of the rebellion against the Capitol dictatorship. Its leaders want to use her popularity to create a propaganda campaign. However, Katniss only wants to get back Peeta Mellark, her sidekick/love-interest. She agrees to become the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of hope and resistance for the propaganda campaign, but she is a terrible actress and the ads have no soul…until she sees with her own eyes the cruelty of the Capitol. And then, for a second, we get to see what Katniss will become in the final chapter of the saga. Unfortunately, this and a few other interesting moments are not reason enough for this film to exist. The movie becomes a drag and should have been the first act, the first 30 minutes, of a full film.

Francis Lawrence has a good feel for portraying the post apocalyptical world of Hunger Games but there is nothing a director can do without a screenplay. The most interesting – I should probably say the only interesting – thing about Mockingjay Part 1 is its political satire in the era of mass media manipulation that resonates so well in our present world. But it’s the amazing performers that are the main reason the film is watchable. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those people I can watch breathe and find interesting, but she delivers one of her weakest performances. For most of the movie she just stares in anger and despair. Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci Natalie Dormer, Julianne Moore and the unique Philip Seymour Hoffman (cinema is really going to miss you) raise the film from mediocrity, although it has the feel of a director who was given a bunch of Ferraris and just a suburban street with a lot of speed bumps to drive in.

Mockingjay Part 1 ends with a great plot twist (meeting the Wolf) and promises us an epic conclusion full of action and fireworks where, maybe, Katniss will get a full character arc and become the feminist leader of this revolution. We’ll know in 12 months.

Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava

Review written by Mike Fishman

Set in an imaginary early 19th Century England, this feature animation from Laika Studios (Coraline, ParaNorman) is another step forward for stop-motion animation, a painstaking process in which it can take filmmakers a week of work to create four seconds of footage. For The Boxtrolls, the creative team at Laika incorporated 3D printing to create literally millions of character’s faces, many of which were only used once. The payoff is apparent from the first frame, with character’s faces more expressive than we’ve seen before, particularly the eyes, generally the weakest aspect of animated characters. As is often the case with animation it’s the little touches and degrees of improvement that make all the difference. And particularly in stop-motion it’s the details that enthrall: tiny buttons on sleeves, shoes with laces, the character’s pushed and pulled faces. This being England in the 19th Century, one of the running gags is characters sporting horribly crooked teeth, bared so often and with such relish they practically earn their own credit, adding not just dark humor but a sense of realism, albeit exaggerated.

The film is a visual delight and several big scenes are truly exhilarating, especially a set-piece that takes us deep beneath the city streets to the boxtroll’s lair. The story (based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!) concerns an infant boy who is saved from danger by boxtrolls, grayish creatures who live underground and use discarded boxes to hide their bodies and from which they get their names: Shoes, Fish, Eggs, etc. Archibald Snatcher, an evil exterminator voiced with ghoulish flare by Ben Kingsley, strikes a deal with the city to destroy the boxtrolls in exchange for membership into the mayor’s cheese-obsessed council, even though Snatcher is allergic to cheese. His denial of the allergy, even when his face puffs up horribly, is one of several ironic touches running through this witty film; he is determined to become part of the upper class even if it kills him. A wicked wit is apparent as well in the absurd scenes of Snatcher dressed as a female chanteuse and performing a ditty for the public demonizing the boxtrolls. Yes, that’s right, a cross-dressing performance voiced by Sir Ben.

Of course, there’s a girl (Elle Fanning) who helps save the boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright); it is after all the very rare animated film that doesn’t feel the need to include or base their story upon a young romance. Contemporary classics Brave and Frozen are certainly changing that and refreshingly, the female character in The Boxtrolls is a feisty fiercely independent girl who is more curious than frightened of the creatures and the one doing the saving. Upon arriving in their lair and finding them surprisingly timid she wonders aloud where the storied bones of dead children are, disappointedly exclaiming, “I was promised rivers of blood and bones. Lots of bones.” More humor comes in the form of Snatcher’s henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade), dressed and speaking as if they were waiting for Godot, constantly questioning whether they are good or evil and riffing hilariously during the closing credits about the possibility of being controlled by some unseen forces or hands (!) as the filmmakers use time-lapse photography to reveal a puppeteer manipulating the characters. It’s a wonderfully self-referential, tongue-in-cheek scene, and part of what makes The Boxtrolls so smart.

The Boxtrolls will be available for streaming and on DVD in January 2015.
Visit the official website: http://www.laika.com/

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

X: The Human Condition, directed by Michael Nova

A love story of a different kind…Two alienated artists, each trapped in their own surreal existence, believe that no one else feels their feelings of alienation and loneliness, yet still retain some hope that there is someone out there who understands. Each is mysteriously driven to create the ultimate work of art, one that will make a difference.
Desperate, they each create something magical… living, breathing works of art that take over where they left off, inspiring other lonely people to come together…

X: The Human Condition draws on Michael Nova’s own past experience of feeling alienated while facing and overcoming life challenges, and this film is his inspired mission to speak for and help those who are experiencing their own personal challenges. X: The Human Condition is the allegorical story of two individuals searching for human connection in their increasingly cold, technologically-driven lives. A timely story, as studies show that people feel more alone than ever despite being more connected than ever, it is already resonating with people worldwide (it’s received rave reviews from Mexico to Australia).

As president of Nova Music Productions, Inc., Michael was featured in the New York Times as a pioneer in offering multiple services to independent artists in the music industry. Educating his clients to “do it yourself,” Michael followed his own advice and completed X: The Human Condition as a D.I.Y. undertaking. With no previous film industry experience, he fully funded, wrote, directed and co-edited the film portion of the project while composing and co-producing the music. Despite losing his sight and being stricken with chronic kidney disease, Michael worked for 12 years and completed X: The Human Condition on a shoestring budget. He’s written an article to help other indie filmmakers that is available free for download at: http://hypnoticalentertainment.com/keys-to-successful-filmmaking/.

You can see the film trailer at http://hypnoticalentertainment.com/media/.

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

Review written by Andrés Rosende.

There are not many big Hollywood directors whose work I’m always impatient and excited to see. Christopher Nolan is one of those directors. The only thing I knew about Interstellar before walking into an impressive IMAX theater was that Steven Spielberg – Zeus in that Olympus of directors I’ve worshipped since I was a kid – had worked on it for a while, which only made the film more appealing to me.

When I came out, three hours later, I did it with a big smile on my face, feeling Interstellar was not only a stunning film of epic proportions but also an art piece that dares to ask big important questions about life, survival, love and time.

When I got home, I decided to read what people were saying about the film and, to my surprise, the reviews were not only mixed but most of the time talked about a different film. That reminded me of when I was in film school and a writer would present an idea for a story in class. The first reaction was not to understand what that writer wanted to do and help him achieve that but to take his idea to create a completely different film with it. “Yeah, I guess that is an interesting idea but I’m making a horror film here and not a political drama.” I feel with Interstellar critics have done the same thing. Some of them were expecting a very cerebral, metaphysical movie, closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Others said it was too cold and were expecting a Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Too much scientific talk; too much Dylan Thomas; too ambitious, etc. Well, Interstellar is neither Kubrick nor Spielberg but that doesn’t mean it is not deep or emotional.

In a distant future, Earth is dying. Men were too greedy and exhausted its resources. There is no place for technology or science, only farming. Dust storms cover everything and the last crops of corn are dying. Starvation or suffocation will be the only destiny of the human race unless they find another inhabitable planet where they can start over. But time is of the essence. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey proving 2013 was just the beginning of a new career), a NASA pilot and an engineer working as a farmer, will lead the expedition that can save the human race. By accepting this mission he has to leave his children behind, a decision that will torment him forever. And because, following Einstein’s theories, time is relative and an hour in a distant planet could be 23 years on Earth, Cooper’s children’s lives will slip through his fingers like water. In one of the best scenes in the film, Cooper sits in front of a screen to listen to the messages his son has left for over 20 years. In that touching moment, a superb McConaughey is able to portray regret, loss, happiness, despair and guilt, but also hope.

Time is something that Nolan worries about and this is not the first time he’s explored its compression and dilation (2010′s Inception). I don’t need to understand the scientific talk and the Relativity Theory to understand that time is relative. Nor does anyone else. Don’t the hands of your watch move very slow the week before a first date? Don’t you count the minutes to get out of a boring class? On the other hand, haven’t you come back home after a year abroad to notice your parents are older or your niece is suddenly talking and wonder where were you? Haven’t you looked back to see that 5 years or 10 years just went by? That our lives will be over in the blink of an eye? Like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, we are prisoners of time. At least, here on Earth.

The other idea that seems to throw people off is that love is a big part of the scientific solution to a very complex equation that could eventually save us. At the same time, when we talk about leaving a better planet to our children or when we talk about the survival of the species, what are we talking about if not the people we love? I personally could care less about some genetic material that could create human life on another planet. I care about my family and my friends, the people I love. And it’s Cooper’s love for his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain) that brings us to the most amazing and visually striking scene in the film: a three-dimensional representation of the fourth dimension, time, in which Cooper can access a specific location simultaneously at all possible times. This is how he is able to travel in time to deliver a message to his daughter.

Besides its thematic ambition, Interstellar is also a film of a scale we rarely see anymore. The beautiful imagery that Nolan creates (please go see it in IMAX 70 mm. if you can) and its relationship with sound is one of the most cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. On top of that, the film has powerful performances; analogue and hipper realistic visual effects; amazing robots… and Hans Zimmer’s best score since The Lion King and Gladiator.

In the final twist of Interstellar we learn that those “beings” that helped humans understand how to escape Earth were none other than the humans of the future. As if Nolan was a humanist from the Renaissance believing in Protagoras’s statement of “men are the measure of all things,” he seems to believe that if we ask the big questions, if we explore and wonder, we can accomplish anything. And that is a beautiful way of seeing the world.

“Do not go gentle into that good night / Old age should burn and rage at close of day/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Dylan Thomas)

Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Wound and The Gift, directed by Linda Hoaglund

Last weekend saw the 5th annual DOC NYC film festival in Manhattan fill the IFC Center, Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas and the SVA Theater with more than 130 films and events. Among the unusual highlights was Linda Hoaglund’s beautifully-crafted The Wound and The Gift. Focusing on a handful of sanctuaries for animals that have been abused, neglected, are in danger of being put down or facing extinction, this 80-minute documentary makes a subtle case for animals giving back to their caregivers as much as they receive. Stunningly lensed by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, the film provides brief portraits of several natural reserves dedicated to animals ranging from wolfdogs (wolves bred with dogs) to circus animals referred to as “surplus” by their owners to white cranes in Japan that stand five feet tall and were facing extinction before being saved by villagers, themselves struggling for their existence. Ending with the cranes in Japan was a nice touch by Hoaglund as throughout the film she weaves an animated Japanese fairy tale narrated by Vanessa Redgrave about a wounded crane being saved by a poor peasant and attempting to give back to the peasant, hence the film’s title.

Although the fable and its accompanying vivid animation from illustrator Victo Ngai (http://victo-ngai.com/) adds an enjoyable element of fantasy and folklore, it’s the moments between the animals and the humans in the very real world that are most memorable and often powerful, though to Hoaglund’s credit she never hits the viewer over the head with pronouncements. But she certainly leads them to inevitable conclusions, surely including the realization that any individual who would breed dogs with wolves in a selfish attempt to create a “wild” domestic pet (that will become unmanageable once it reaches maturity) is not only foolish but harmful to the balance between humans and animals. What happens to these innocent creatures when they show their natural inclination for independence? They are generally shot, disposed of like some misguided minor experiment. Such manipulation of animals is in direct contrast to the trust and reciprocal nature of the relationship that can exist between humans and animals, whether it’s dogs or cats in the comfort of our homes or an adult tiger or lion saved from an abusive circus owner.

Perhaps the most arresting segment in the film focuses on a ranch for old race horses where prison inmates with an aptitude for it are given the opportunity to learn about caring for the horses, potentially gaining a skill they can use to find employment upon release. More to the point, working with the horses allows them to regain a sense of purpose and a place in the world outside the prison walls. Just as the inmates may otherwise be treated as expendable, the animals have a place on this planet and an awareness of themselves, though their communication comes in a language people must work to comprehend. Ultimately, The Wound and The Gift serves as a reminder that we are not the only inhabitants of this planet but as the dominant species we owe something to the other occupants, if only in hopes of living on a more compassionate plane of existence.

Visit the film’s website and watch the trailer: http://www.thewoundandthegift.com/

Learn about DOC NYC: http://www.docnyc.net/

Review written by Mike Fishman

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University, has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival and the Columbia University Film Program, and developed the website, IndependentFilmNow.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Trigger, starring Courtney Birk and Ashleigh Coffelt

Film synopsis: Trigger is an experimental film about a woman in the midst of a relapse where wakes up disoriented on the beach, while her caretaker searches to find her before it’s too late.

Watch: https://vimeo.com/111705906

From Courtney Birk: Ashleigh Coffelt and I have been making experimental short films for about a year now. After two full length features, and 15 shorts later we are now sponsored and have moved over to California to continue making our dream happen. I always told myself that I could be anything that I wanted to be, but never did I think that an independent filmmaker would be in the mix somewhere. I have finally found my passion. I just hope that everyone who watches this short appreciates it as much as I do.

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

10,000 KM, directed by Carlos Marqués-Marcet, written by Carlos Marqués-Marcet and Clara Roquet

The AFI Film Festival always brings a breeze of fresh air to the movie landscape in Los Angeles. Among the many outstanding films at the festival, I loved Carlos Marqués-Marcet’s opera prima 10,000 KM (Long Distance). With a special award for its acting duo at SXSW and swiping the top prizes at the Malaga Film Festival in Spain, this moving film will be one of the most remembered indies of 2014 and a strong candidate for the Spanish Academy Awards.

10,000 KM is not another love story. It is a love story for the age of globalization and social media dependence. Alex and Sergio live happy in Barcelona. He is a teacher; she is an artist. They are in love and planning to have a baby. Life is simple. Life is good. Until she receives an unexpected artistic residence in Los Angeles. Can their relationship survive a year 10,000 km apart?

Carlos Marqués-Marcet takes us on this emotional journey with a pulse we rarely see in first-time directors. And that is clear from the first frame of the film to the last. The movie opens with a 20-minute long take –a continuous shot that captures the action without cutting- and usually the stamp a director wants to be remembered by. From the famous opening of Orson Wells’ Touch of Evil to the ones in Robert Altman’s The Player, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and Alfoso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Gravity, long takes are shots meant for critics to discuss and point out. But why are long takes so interesting? Well, usually because of its technical complexity and beautiful choreography. But sometimes, something else lies underneath these virtuoso shots.

Let’s take, for example, one of my all time favorites: Scorsese’s Goodfellas. In it Ray Liotta introduces Lorraine Bracco to his world at the Copacabana. The reason I love that shot so much is because of how well it works in the context of that particular story. Henry (Liotta) seduces Karen (Bracco) by showing off his connections, his wealth and his power through a beautifully designed choreography that takes us from outside of the club to a front table inside, going through the back entrance and labyrinth kitchen. At the same time Scorsese seduces his audience with an “oh my God, look how good I am at this” kind of shot. It’s the perfect symbiosis of form and content.

In 10,000 KM, Marqués-Marcet does something similar. The happy, solid couple is introduced to us with a solid one shot that takes us from them making love in bed, to brushing their teeth, to eating breakfast. As if we were watching a play, the complicity between the incredible performers Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer, unfolds organically and in real time in front of our eyes. Again, form and content together.

After that, the film will take a u-turn. The rest of the scenes will be very fragmented, like Alex and Sergio’s relationship. Through text messages, e-mails, Facebook updates, Google Maps and, especially through Skype calls, we follow the conversations of the couple as distance, like water penetrating rock, slowly erodes their relationship. And when we get to the final (and strongest) shot of the film, we are led to turn our eyes inward, to our own experiences to ask ourselves about the decisions we’ve made in our relationships, because distance is not only a spatial measurement.

Besides the mentioned aesthetic qualities of the film, its greatest asset is the touching performance by both of its protagonist. What could have been a claustrophobic and even boring film becomes a beautiful, intense and bittersweet portrait of love in the digital era. Produced by Lastor Media and LA-based LA Panda Productions, 10,000 KM will hit the theaters January from Broad Green Pictures.

View the trailer for 10,000 KM here: https://vimeo.com/88695931

Review written by Andres Rosende

Andres Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Men, Women and Children, directed by Jason Reitman, written by Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson

Once upon a time, people wrote letters to each other and didn’t feel the need to share photos of their breakfast with the world. Cell phones and the internet changed that and now it’s normal (if we can call it that) to see a couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant, heads bowed down and fingers tapping away, occasionally nodding to acknowledge the person allegedly with them. Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children (based on the novel by Chad Kultgen) attempts to explore how our technology-driven reality affects our relationships. Of course, as soon as a filmmaker focuses on the technology of the day he risks creating a film that is dated upon release. And indeed, we’ve all been dealing with screen pop-ups for so long that when they’re portrayed populating a porn-watching character’s virus-ridden computer we chuckle in recognition but it already seems almost quaint. What makes Men, Women and Children interesting despite the familiarity of its particulars is the way Reitman skillfully weaves several separate storylines that span the generation gap from high school to middle-aged and finds ways to portray solitary internet activities, such as the use of text balloons for texting.

From a stage mom (an excellent Judy Greer) crossing the line into exploitation if not soft-core porn via a website designed to propel her daughter into stardom to an overly-anxious parent (Jennifer Garner) trying to control her daughter’s online life with near tragic results to a frustrated couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) seeking sex outside their stalled marriage, the film does an effective job of exploring how we constantly create and re-create our internet identities and how that affects our daily lives. The chief irony of today’s over-connected world is that despite being able to share anything in an instant, communication is so brief and fleeting it’s easy for people to delude themselves into thinking they are connecting when it’s mostly just ripples on the surface. Facebook especially, seems adept at allowing people to convince themselves that the mundane is dramatic when truly, the mundane is still just the mundane. Of course, solid information is there for the taking and Facebook can be seen as an instantaneous version of yesteryear’s pen-pals. The question is, what information do we put out there and what do with the varying levels of power that can engender? And the more sophisticated the tools the more cruelly they can be wielded, such as in a scene involving three high school girls, two of them texting brutally about the third in front of her oblivious face.

Although weighed down by an unnecessary voiceover narration (a prim Emma Thompson) and an air of predictability, Reitman’s sixth feature film refreshingly leaves room for ambiguity in the various storylines, not tying everything up too neatly. When the meddling of Garner’s well-meaning but overzealous mother leads to the near-suicide of her daughter’s emotionally-tortured boyfriend (an impressive Ansel Elgort), her face registers both the realization of her misdirection and her helplessness in a world in which actual internet predators do exist. That the scene avoids becoming maudlin is a testament to Reitman’s touch at controlling both the camera and Garner’s often over-the-top earnestness. Similarly, when DeWitt’s guilt-ridden wife starts to confess her hotel room dalliances to Sandler’s equally guilty husband, his reaction that it’s better if they “don’t go there,” just move on and have breakfast in peace, avoids the expected confrontation to touch on the perfunctory communication that can occur between two close individuals. This little plot swerve may stretch believability but is at least thought-provoking if not satisfying. That they both used the noisy internet to engage in wild flings yet now long for a quiet breakfast with each other gives hope that they can, in fact, move on and save their marriage. Sometimes the best communication between two connected people is an agreeable silence.

Review by Mike Fishman

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

Reading of The Raven, directed by and starring Matteo Pascale

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

Magic in the Moonlight, written and directed by Woody Allen

Seeing a new Woody Allen film in the theater has been a yearly ritual for so long it’s natural to go in with high expectations and setting aside the misgivings left over from the occasional misses among the hits. Magic in the Moonlight, unfortunately, now joins Mr. Allen’s small collection of misses. Thankfully in this, his 45th feature-length film as director, we are spared the Woody Allen surrogates of recent years and we get Emma Stone being mostly Emma Stone (though at times her facial expressions and enunciation can feel a bit too contemporary for the 1928-set film) and Colin Firth inhabiting the British upper crust that fits him like a glove in a story about Stanley (Firth), a celebrated magician traveling to the south of France to debunk Sophie (Stone), a young psychic allegedly attempting to bilk a wealthy naïve widow longing to connect with her dead husband.

The film opens on a whimsical note with Mr. Firth’s magician in Asian make-up complete with Fu-Manchu mustache on stage in Berlin making an elephant disappear and performing other staged tricks for a rapt audience. Afterwards he is approached by an old friend (Simon McBurney) who tells him of Sophie, whose talents as a medium are apparently impressively convincing. Off to France they go, the dyspeptic Stanley nearly rubbing his hands together in glee in anticipation of un-masking the fraud. The French countryside provides stunning scenery and, as usual with Mr. Allen, the film’s pacing, framing, editing and camera work seem effortless. The sets and props are seductive and the use of period music is mostly entrancing although the choice of a snippet of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for a heavy scene feels, well, heavy-handed.

In fact, much of the film is heavy-handed and filled with dialogue that is more often than not expository. Characters are constantly telling each other what they think and feel, allowing for virtually no subtext or subtlety. Despite a theme concerned with, ultimately, the existence of God, the film never delves beneath its glossy surface. Mr. Allen has often mined the after-life for humor, poking fun at life’s meaning in Love and Death (1975) and presenting a memorably blunt assessment of how Jesus would react to contemporary society in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). But in Magic in the Moonlight there is no winking at the camera and few real laughs. And the about-face Firth’s character makes, falling in love with Stone’s con artist after dismissing any kind of affection for her feels too convenient, leading, disappointingly though not unexpectedly, to the moment when they kiss, which comes off as forced and only highlights the glaring age difference between the two actors (28 years).

In the end, Magic in the Moonlight feels rushed and, as with the few other of Mr. Allen’s failed comedies (Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 2001, and Whatever Works, 2009, come to mind), a film that is enjoyable to a degree as a work of entertainment but disappointing in its weightlessness given the talent, themes and resources involved. Such disappointment can morph into irritation, given the many classics Mr. Allen has produced over the years. We enter into this particular audience-filmmaker relationship knowing that this is the writer/director who gave us Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days and, just last year, the startling Blue Jasmine. So take what pleasure you can from the visuals and hang on to the hope that Mr. Allen, an amateur magician in his youth, will pull a true magic trick from his sleeve next time.

Mike Fishman

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

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