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Movie review: 'Magic in the Moonlight' casts a vibrant romantic comedy spell

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Magic in the Moonlight

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"MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT"-- 4 STARS

Say what you will about how the man carries himself inside and outside of the film industry, but four-time Oscar-winning writer and director Woody Allen is nothing short of an "actor's dream" as a filmmaker. Time after time, he assembles stellar ensembles of eclectic talent from all levels of Hollywood's tiers and alphabetical lists. Just last summer in "Blue Jasmine," you had stand-up comedian fossil Andrew Dice Clay sharing the screen and shaming two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett. There are dozens of examples like that throughout his cinematic history. People flock to work with him and his "who's who" filmography can trump any "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game to represent a river basin of tributaries connecting limitless acting talent.

Even further, Allen's broad project choices and his award-winning screenwriting (most Oscar nominations in screenwriting than anyone is history) challenge actors and actresses to leap out of their comfort zones and raise their game. If my math is correct, his films have netted 17 Oscar nominations for acting and 7 wins, including Blanchett this year. Woody Allen has the Midas touch of artistic credibility. Non-actors become notable presences. No-name actors become discovered somebodies. Name actors look better than they normally do and great actors get even greater, even when the films aren't that great.

In his latest film, "Magic in the Moonlight," Allen bestows that touch on one great actor and one name actress with Colin Firth and Emma Stone as his leads. Firth, who can easily get by as a man of few words, gets a richly vibrant leading man role full of words and well-guided bluster while Stone gets to showcase a rarely scene subtlety to balance her looks and charisma. Both are quintessential Woody Allen-style roles.

Firth plays Stanley, a legendary English stage magician of the 1920's who dons oriental makeup to become the powerful mute character of Wei Ling Soo. Unmatched in popularity, he's the best in the business and tours the world over captivating audiences. Outside of his character, Stanley is a rude, pompous, self-absorbed, and self-anointed prick, genius, and pessimist. He believes in all things rational and finds people that believe in faith, spirituality, and other forms of whimsy to be as gullible as those who fall for the magic tricks in his act.

Fellow magician and friend Howard Burken (theater veteran Simon McBurney) offers Stanley a proposition that piques his interest after attending a show in Berlin. Howard has come upon an American girl named Sophie Baker (Stone) that is posing to be a spiritual medium and psychic that can talk to the deceased. She and her handler mother ("Pollock" Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) are getting rich families in the French Riviera to believe Sophie's gifts and pay for her services. Worst of all, Sophie even has Howard believing in her supposed powers.

Howard knows that Stanley is a true student of the misdirection game and has, time and again for him, exposed countless frauds that sully the idea of magic with teases of spiritual connection and talent. Since he cannot debunk Sophie, he convinces Stanley to come to Cote d'Azor where she is residing with a rich widow (Jacki Weaver of "Silver Linings Playbook") and wooing her son (Hamish Linklater of "42" and "Battleship"). Upon arriving and seeing Sophie for himself, even the over-confident Stanley can't seem to see how she's pulling off her rouse.

As a romantic comedy, "Magic in the Moonlight" might come off as easy and predictable on paper at first, but the movie puts the "is-she-or-isn't-she" game of Sophie at the forefront as an equal means of cinematic redirection parallel to what's happening in the film itself. The movie casts a fun spell over us the way it does to Stanley as well. With dialogue dashing back and forth from sprite and coy to acidic and comedic, the clash between the spiritual and logical lead characters makes for excellent banter and breezy chemistry.

As aforementioned, Firth is his usual great self and then some while Stone successfully keeps up with a seasoned veteran like "The King's Speech" Oscar winner. She more than wins a few scenes from Firth, but he's still our eccentric center focus for "Magic in the Moonlight." Allen gave each of them room to work and they succeed, despite their age difference. As with so many Woody Allen films, this became an entertaining actor's showcase.

Beyond the performances, there's certainly a worthy twist or two to the spell Allen is casting to heighten the entertainment value. Gorgeous costume work from designer Sonia Grande ("Midnight in Paris") and period-perfect jazz and swing music add to the decadent allure. Topping it all off, the stunning French Riviera locales will also win you over in a hurry. This is one pretty and intoxicating film. In my opinion, "Magic in the Moonlight" is the best Woody Allen film since 2011's "Midnight in Paris" after last summer's disappointing "Blue Jasmine" and the wayward "To Rome With Love" the year before that in 2012. Fans of "Midnight in Paris" will gladly reacquire their Woody Allen fix from "Magic in the Moonlight."

LESSON #1: THE CLASH WHEN LOGIC AND RATIONALITY MEET THE SPIRITUAL AND METAPHYSICAL-- Part of "Magic in the Moonlight" opens the floor, albeit a dated one of 1920's sensibilities, to the debate between science and faith. We have a mix of characters that having their convictions challenged toward their usual way of thinking, whether it's the belief in something more beyond this world and the side that sticks to the facts of what you see is what you get. It's a heady and intriguing competition built into this film.

LESSON #2: WHEN THE SOUL OF ONE'S HEART COUNTERS THE LOGIC OF ONE'S BRAIN-- Within the ongoing debate discussed in Lesson #1 comes the moments where stalwart and fundamental opinions within people get changed, corrected, or justified. More often than not, thanks to Sophie's convincing abilities, the heart is winning over the brain. People, and Stanley in particular, begin to forget the facts and go on the emotions stirring within them.

LESSON #3: LOVE IS NOT RATIONAL-- Hammering home the winning streak of the heart from Lesson #2, love, the biggest emotional experience and investment we make in our lives, cannot be fully explained by rational logic. One can try and scientifically talk about pheromones, hormones, and carnal attraction, but love stirs from different parts of the brain and body. Love, in all of its components and details, cannot be defined or equated on paper. No two types of love are the same and variables of randomness are everywhere.

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