“Magic In The Moonlight”, another New Film from Woody Allen. Yeah…

Magic in the moonlight.

Magic in the moonlight.

The lead single off the second, best and alas last album from Girls Father, Son and Holy Ghost was called “Vomit” (reviewed earlier here). The title refers to a Bible story where a thief’s need to return to the scene of his crime is compared to a dog’s compulsion to examine its own vomit.

This seems to be the only possible explanation as to why it is that Woody Allen keeps going back to make yet another film. It would all make sense if the reason he were in such a hurry to produce a new film every year was because the last few had been so disappointing.

That’s what made his last film, Blue Jasmine (reviewed earlier here) so refreshing. It suggested the beginning of a new phase. His latest, Magic in the Moonlight is sadly more of the same, and we’re back where we were.

Vicky Christine Barcelona.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Since his last genuinely funny comedy, Bullets Over Broadway in 1994 Allen has made 20 films. That’s one a year. And the only two that merited watching all the way through were Sweet and Lowdown in 1999 and Match Point in 2005 – Vicky Cristina Barcelona (’08) doesn’t count. You could film Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz pairing their toenails and it would still be electrifying.

What you think of his latest film will depend on whether you’re old enough to remember how exciting the prospect of a new Woody Allen film used to be.

Annie Hall (’77), Manhattan (‘79), Zelig (’83), The Purple Rose Of Cairo (’85) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (’89) are all serious, substantial, significant films. And they’re funny. The last time I laughed during a Woody Allen film was Bullets Over Broadway.

It’s not as if they’ve become more serious. On the contrary, they’re ever lighter and more and more insubstantial. And they’re less funny. All of the themes that were once explored, painfully, are now breezily ticked off, as if on some sort of existential shopping list.

Poor old Colin Firth and Emma Stone doing their best.

Poor old Colin Firth and Emma Stone in “Magic in the Moonlight” doing their best.

Ironically, the only thing that make his films watchable these days are the cast he still manages to attract. Everybody used to fall over themselves to be in the new Woody Allen film because the scripts were so good. They still do. But the scripts are so sloppily cobbled together these days that were it not for their stellar casts, they’d be unwatchable.

None of which will bother you if all you are looking for is a poor man’s Downtown to watch on your new iPhone, as you keep your eye on Strictly leafing through the Sunday papers as you check your messages. As ever the cast are all exemplary, considering. But for the rest of us, Magic in the Moonlight makes for decidedly depressing viewing.

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Blue Jasmine; Finally A New Woody Allen film Worth Seeing.

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine".

Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”.

After making a handful of genial comedies in the early 70s, Woody Allen shot Annie Hall in 1976. Which was supposed to have centred around the comedic figure of Allen. But when test audiences responded so warmly to the romantic chemistry between he and Diane Keaton, they scheduled significant re-shoots and the whole film was re-edited as a romantic comedy.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall".

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”.

And for the next 20 years, Allen made a succession of intelligent, personal, warm and occasionally poignant personal dramas, the vast majority of which were romantic comedies, with the emphasis, as it always should be, on the Romance. These were interspersed with the occasional pure drama, centred around a series of female protagonists.

Films like Zelig (’83) The Purple Rose Of Cairo (’85), Hannah and Her Sisters (’96) and Bullets Over Broadway (’94), and then September (’87), Another Woman (’88) and Alice (’90). Nearly all of them were wonderful. Manhattan (’79) was a masterpiece. And Crimes and Misdemeanors (‘89) a minor one.

But from Mighty Aphrodite in 1995 on, his muse deserted him. Sure there was Sweet And Lowdown in 1999. And Vicky Cristina Barcelona is lovely to look at.

Vicky Christine Barcelona.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

But for the last 20 years or so, we’ve all been waiting in the vain hope that it might, just might belatedly return. Or that at the very least, he might slow down and think a bit more clearly and carefully before embarking so pointlessly on his next film.

Incredibly, and to pretty much everyone’s complete surprise, he’s done exactly that. Blue Jasmine isn’t just the best thing he’s done in 20 years, a barbed compliment if ever there were one. This could comfortably sit with any of those films he was making in the mid 1980s.

It’s an occasionally rye but mostly poignant portrait of a society woman, Cate Blanchett, who has fallen spectacularly from grace. We move back and forth between the present, and the events that led to her fall in the past, as she tries to pick herself back up off the floor and start all over again.

Blanchett and Baldwin in Blue Jasmine.

Blanchett and Baldwin in Blue Jasmine.

Whilst not an actual adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film shadows Tennessee William’s iconic play almost scene by scene. And yet curiously, far from detract from the film, this merely serves to further add a sense of doom and foreboding.

All of the cast are foot perfect. Blanchett, obviously. But Alec Baldwin too, as the Bernie Madoff type that she was married to, Sally Hawkins as her sister and Bobby Cannavale as the latter’s latest beau.

Very unusually, this is a film that actually delivers on all the hype it’s been generating.

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“Frances Ha” a Hopeless Bore.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha

Poor Brooklyn. Whatever did it do to merit the sort of musicians and film makers that have lately come to sully its streets with such studied insouciance? And so little to show for it.

Noah Baumbach is part of that group of terribly clever indie film makers that includes Wes Anderson, Spike Jones and a couple of the Coppolas. After his fourth film though, the genuinely charming The Squid and the Whale (’04) it looked as if a serious film maker had arrived on the scene.

But the three films he followed that up with, Margot at the Wedding (’07), Greenberg (’10) and now Frances Ha all have that irritating air of being far too clever by half.

Jesse Eisenberg and Anna Paquin in "The Squid and the Whale".

Jesse Eisenberg and Anna Paquin in “The Squid and the Whale”.

You can see what’s he done. He’s taken three classic, indie film scenarios, but instead of then producing the sort of whimsical, offbeat but quietly charming story that the set up suggests, he’s taken the protagonists and workshopped them to death. Every time you expect them to go one way he forces them in the exact opposite direction. It’s a sort of test, to see how far the audience will go along with it, and how much they’ll put up with.

So Frances Ha is the story of a late 20 something who is forced to make the journey from adolescence into adulthood. But instead of in any way moving on, romantically, job-wise or on any level, by the end of the film she’s in exactly the same place. And instead of any scenes that might be deemed either charming or humorous, they’re all just quietly embarrassing. Geddit?

If he wants to alienate the audience, as Todd Solondz does, brilliantly, then he should do so properly. But he clearly has a gift for making romantic comedies that manage to be genuinely engaging. And that deal seriously with the trials and tribulations of adult life in a sophisticated and nuanced way.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in "Annie Hall".

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”.

Baumbach needs to go back and have another look at Annie Hall and Manhattan. And especially at the way in which the former was re-shot and edited when Woody Allen saw how much more interested the audience were in the relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton.

Because if you can make films on that kind of level – and he seems to be able to – then that is not a gift to be squandered lightly. When you sacrifice warmth for specious cleverness like this, all you end up doing is annoying the audience. And that’s not funny or clever.

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