In the Dark with Melanie Dishman: More of the same from Woody, and a last look at Hoffman

In the Dark with Melanie Dishman: More of the same from Woody, and a last look at Hoffman

‘Magic in the Moonlight’

Starring: Colin Firth, Emma Stone

Directed by: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Continuing his tour of the continent after a brief return stateside for “Blue Jasmine,” Woody Allen sets this delightful trifle along the romantic coastline of the French Riviera in Côte d’Azur. It is here that world famous magician Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth) is invited by his old friend Howard (Simon McBurney) in the hopes he can help the very rich Catledge family before they are completely taken in by a fake occultist, Sophie Baker (Emma Stone).

Known onstage as Wei Ling Soo, Stanley’s real life pursuit is debunking spiritualists, and he all but promises he can prove Sophie is a fake. To his surprise, he finds himself succumbing to Sophie’s charms and her magic even though the youngest Catledge, Brice (Hamish Linklater), woos her persistently mostly by serenading her with his ukulele.

While this banal little story is not Allen’s best by any means, it’s still worth a look, mainly for the gorgeous cinematography by Darius Khondji that imparts the look and feel of the 1920s, as do the lush costumes of Sonia Grande. Firth fares the worst by giving the impression he’s not entirely comfortable burdened with a character that is an egotistical prig. Stone is delight as the wide-eyed innocent with a dash of coquette lurking beneath those amber curls.

For Allen fans, the themes he revisits in this movie are familiar ones and rather shopworn at this point. Still, as they say, “It’s a Woody,”— his 44th one to be exact.

Playing now at Landmark River Oaks Theater in Houston.

 

‘A Most Wanted Man’

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams

Directed by:Anton Corbijn

Rated: R

This seriously underplayed spy thriller may not be thrilling enough for most audiences, but for those seeking an intelligent look at how international spy craft works in the post 9/11 world, this will do.

Sadly, this will also be remembered as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. How weary he looks here as Gunter Bachmann, a chain-smoking, scotch-swilling old school spy who, after a barely mentioned debacle in Beirut, is relocated to Hamburg where he heads up a hush-hush anti-terrorism unit focusing on the Islamic sector of the city.

When a Chechen dissident with known terrorist ties, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), enters Hamburg illegally, the game is afoot as to who will get him first. Gunter’s team is really working to expose a Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who may be funneling charitable dollars to Islamic extremists. Gunter hopes to use Issa to get to him in an elaborate plan that relies heavily on two civilians — human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and private banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). But he also meets resistance from other German agencies and the meddling of CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright).

Taken from the 2008 John le Carré novel, this is as fascinating and it is frustrating. Today’s spy game is more hide and watch and connecting paper trails rather than the martinis and romance of the James Bond era, and there are long periods in the film that move at a plodding pace.Under Anton Corbijn’s directions, this is a gritty, deglamorized story that is tautly drawn yet requires you to pay attention to the many subtleties found within. For example, there’s the relationship between Gunter and his right hand, Irna (Nina Hoss). Do they just admire each other’s spy skills a lot or is there something more going on? The film keeps you guessing until the final minute as to who will be betrayed because in le Carré’s world, there are few happy endings.As a last legacy to Hoffman’s talent — and he was one of the best actors working when he died earlier this year — it falls a bit short. Hoffman gets the German accent and demeanor of this world-weary spy, but the film itself seems almost too prosaic for its own good.

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