I once asked Woody Allen why he had never moved to California, and he looked at me with astonishment: "I couldn't live in a city where the only cultural advantage is making a right turn on a red light." My Huffington readers may recall that I have reviewed the last half-dozen films directed by Woody, mostly favorably, with special praise for last year's Blue Jasmine. I go back a long way with the Woodster, back to Midwood High School in Brooklyn, New York. When I was a senior, there was a funny, bespectacled freshman named Allen Stewart Konigsberg writing jokes for the school's newspaper, The Argus. He went to the same public school as me, PS 99, and lived one block from me on Avenue K. I used to read his funny stuff aloud and predicted he might have a future in show business. I advised him to submit some jokes to columnists like Earl Wilson and Leonard Lyons, which he did...and they were printed. A start. Some years later I was production V.P. for a film company named Palomar Pictures, financed by the ABC network. By then, the comedy writer's name went from Heywood Allen to Woody Allen and he had graduated from doing standup routines in the Duplex Club in the Village to becoming a successful TV writer. I often went to Michael's supper club to hear him play clarinet with his jazz group. He once joked to me that he was expelled from NYU for cheating on his metaphysics exam after being caught looking into the soul of the student sitting next to him.
In 1966 he wrote a Broadway show called "Don't Drink the Water." One day my partner in the film company, Ed Scherick, came in after seeing the show and told me he had gone backstage and committed to making a film of Woody's show. I protested that I had seen it on opening night and didn't think it would work as a movie. (It was about an American embassy behind the Iron Curtain; later it was filmed and didn't do well.) My associate then said to me, "Okay, you know him, fix it." I visited Woody and we decided to instead film a screenplay he had written called "Take the Money and Run," a bank-robbing comedy. He wrote, directed and starred in it. I recall that the film cost about $600,000 to shoot in San Francisco and received excellent reviews. One critic said that it was the funniest gangster movie ever made. It showed a tidy profit for us and an amazing film career was born.
Which may explain why I was at the Landmark Theatre Friday afternoon for one of the first screenings of his new endeavor, "Magic in the Moonlight." In it, Colin Firth ("The King's Speech") plays a character named Stanley Crawford, a famous English magician in the 1920's. We see him at the opening wearing gold-and-scarlet robes, a droopy moustache, winning his audiences as Wei Ling Soo, a Chinese illusionist. (The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern today reveals that this is a riff on Chung Ling Soo, the stage name of an American, William Ellsworth Robinson, who also exposed fake psychics, and who died on stage from a bullet wound when a trick went disastrously wrong.) Side note: I remember that Woody used to do magic tricks early in his career and has always been fascinated by magicians, especially Houdini. In the film, Firth makes a practice of denouncing fake mediums who pretend to receive messages from the spirit world. Early in the film, his grouchy behavior is quickly established. Here is a man who only believes in science, the evidence he can see and feel with his five senses. "The gullible are so stupid they deserve it," is his mantra.
His best friend and fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney), who describes him as "A genius with all the charm of a typhus epidemic," brings him to the south of France to denounce a beautiful, young American clairvoyant medium, Sophie Baker (played by the radiant Emma Stone) who is residing with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) at the spectacular country home of the wealthy Catledge family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The well-paid Stone is delivering spirit messages via séances to Grace Catledge (Jackie Weaver), the happy widow of the deceased Mr. Catledge, while the family son, Brice Catledge (Hamish Linklater) is avidly wooing Sophie by serenading her on his ukulele. Enter Colin, posing as a businessman, who rages at the young girl, then is baffled and amazed by some of her revelations about him. Hoist on his own petard, if you will. Emma Stone is so enchanting that any man (and woman) in the audience who doesn't fall for her charm is dead from the neck up (and down). I loved the way she raises her arms wildly and flutters her eyelids when she has a vision...and yes, she is a vision. I kind of wish she had more depth as the film - and romance - progresses. Incidentally, the most satisfying secondary character is Colin's Aunt Vanessa in the film, played by Eileen Atkins, a sophisticated older woman of great charm. Wonderful performance.
The French Riviera/Cote d'Azur settings of 1928 are so exquisite that I asked around to find out where they were filmed...and learned the Catledge home was shot at the Villa Eilenroc in Cap d'Antibes and another home in Mouans-Sartoux (a village I have never heard of). Glorious, glamorous, such delights to watch. The brilliant cameraman, Darius Khondji ("Midnight in Paris"), shot the film on 35mm film with old CinemaScope lenses, which achieves a soft, mellow effect. (Perhaps a message here for fellow filmmakers to reconsider their digital moves.) There was a scene where Firth and Stone are driving in an old red Alfa-Romeo and I turned to my companion, Penny McTaggart, and reminded her of the famous Cary Grant-Grace Kelly ride along the same Corniche road 60 years ago in "To Catch a Thief." The chemistry between our two actors here is so palpable. Toward the end of the film, Firth's performance began to echo that of Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," even sounding a bit like him.
Woody has won four Academy Awards and received an astonishing 24 Oscar nominations, including six as a screenwriter of original works, the most anyone has ever received. Then there are seven nominations as Best Director. Quite a record. The Broadway musical version of his "Bullets Over Broadway" is about to close after a nice run. What is interesting is that Woody, in the guise of Colin Firth, is exploring here some deeper issues....the meaning of faith, reality, superstition, the paranormal. Woody will turn 80 next year, and this is his 44th film! It's not his best work (think of "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall") but it is so entertaining and interesting that I found myself smiling and feeling good as the film progressed in an orderly way. Watch the scene where the skeptical Firth prays to God/or a universal being, for the first time, and then is disgusted with himself for so doing. As best I can recall, it's the first time anyone has prayed to God in a Woody film. Woody still plays clarinet with his musical group, and the bluesy-score of upbeat period songs is wonderful. His sister, Letty Aronson, is one of the several producers. The gorgeous period costumes by Sonia Grande add to the pleasure, while the upper-class settings by production designer Anne Seibel intrigued me mightily. As I write this, Woody is shooting his next untitled film in Rhode Island, with Emma Stone, Parker Posey and Joaquim Phoenix.
At a recent advance screening in San Francisco, Woody sent a taped message, which distributor Sony Classics has passed on to me: "I am sorry that I can't be there tonight, but thank God I had a prior engagement. We all worked very hard on this film, living for three months on the French Riviera, forced to have meal after meal of French food and French wine." He then concluded: "It was hell. I hope you have a good time with the movie and that you like what we did, but in the event I screwed up and you hate every frame, don't panic - I am already at work on another one, and who knows, it could turn out better." Funny man. This film is not the best of Woody but is well worth seeing.
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