Friday, August 1, 2014


New this week:

Magic in the MoonlightColin Firth plays Stanley, an English stage magician, in this latest from Woody Allen, set in the late ‘20s. Stanley buries himself in the disguise of a stereotypical Chinese—he looks like Henry Brandon in Drums of Fu Manchu—and performs his spectacular tricks in high style, to the strains of Stravinsky or Ravel or Beethoven. But, like many of his trade, he doesn’t buy into magic in any sense beyond the theatrical. He’s a hardcore nonbeliever when it comes to the metaphysical, and he’s sneeringly contemptuous of faith in any form.

Stanley is invited to the south of France to debunk Sophie, a young American clairvoyant played by Emma Stone, who has enchanted a wealthy American family there. Sophie’s manner is corny and unconvincing, but her revelations are startling, and Stanley finds his skepticism beginning to waver.

It’s a perfectly good set-up for a romantic comedy, and, as usual with Allen’s work in this mode, there’s much to like in the movie. The period detail and settings are sumptuous, Firth and Stone are funny, and the supporting cast is full of capable types like Simon McBurney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Eileen Atkins, who’s especially good as Stanley’s doting aunt. Also memorable, as the ukulele-strumming rich kid infatuated with Sophie, is Hamish Linklater, who seems to be flawlessly channeling the young Bradford Dillman.

But Magic in the Moonlight isn’t quite magical. It starts off wonderfully, and for about a half-hour looks like it’s going to be a real gem. And Allen does come up with some inventive flourishes. But the dialogue dithers and dawdles, and the romantic connection between Firth and Stone never becomes urgent or convincing. Allen’s movies don’t always come off, but I can’t remember one, at least in the last twenty years or so, that was this uneconomical.

Guardians of the GalaxyThis is the movie with the talking raccoon you’ve been seeing TV ads for recently. It’s based on some Marvel comic series I never read, and is about a motley quintet of minor league space fugitives who band together under that rather grandiose title.

Chris Pratt, excellent in Moneyball and as the voice of the everyman hero of The Lego Movie, is the earth-born leader, a bland, less-than-brilliant ladies man with a fondness for ‘70s-era soul-funk-pop connected to a trauma he suffers in the film’s prologue. Zoe Saldana is the gorgeous and much smarter green-skinned warrior-woman, and Dave Bautista is a literal-minded strongman seeking revenge. There’s a guileless ambulatory tree voiced by Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper is the fast-talking raccoon. There’s a talking raccoon in this movie.

The villain is a standard, growling Darth Vader type. The McGuffin they’re all chasing, called “The Orb,” is staggeringly uninteresting, and the long, explosion-filled climactic battle is almost—but only almost—as tedious as the similar finales in the Thor and Iron Man movies and The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the other superhero flicks of recent years.

But I still found Guardians of the Galaxy, co-written and directed by the gifted James Gunn, very entertaining, because of its central joke: The unassuming, colloquial manner of these characters against the backdrop of all this cosmic bombast. It would be hard for me to dislike any movie in which the hero dances to “Come and Get Your Love” on the surface of a distant planet under the opening credits. Or, for that matter, a movie with a talking raccoon. Did I mention that this movie has a talking raccoon?

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