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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Magic in the Moonlight’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Intriguing

Woody Allen is legendary for his writing about and often portraying neurotic characters who bumble through crazy and exotic tales. In his more recent films, he has ventured beyond his favorite New York haunts to include Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love and Blue Jasmine, which was based in San Francisco. This time he brings us first to Berlin and then to the south of France during the 1928 heady days of the Roaring Twenties.

Magic in the Moonlight is a confection filled with tasty morsels of intrigue, romance and beautiful vistas of the French coastline. Like most of Allen's movies, every scene provides a cornucopia of characters whose faces, costumes, mannerisms and witty insights create a constant smile on your face. This is, after all, a farce, and not to be taken seriously.

Leading the cast is Stanley (Colin Firth), who performs magic on stage under the name and costume of the mysterious oriental Wei Ling Soo. Stanley is a legend in his own mind. He not only sells himself as the greatest illusionist on Earth, but he fancies himself as one of the greatest debunkers of fraudulent magicians that he believes prey on the rich to gain their favor and wealth.

Stanley is approached after one of his performances in Berlin by his dear old friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), who solicits Stanley's help in rescuing a rich friend of his from the clutches of a beguiling young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone).

Sophie and her mother have wormed their way into his wealthy French friend's family and twisted their heads with séances to communicate with their deceased relatives. Howard knows that if anyone could see through Sophie's tricks, it would be Stanley. Stanley bites the bait and joins Howard for a weekend with his friends, and the mystery begins.

Without giving away the story, Stanley is amazed at Sophie's skill, and she openly challenges Stanley to try to either expose what she is doing or accept it for what she claims it to be — namely, the mysteries of life beyond the grave. Not only is Stanley taken by Sophie's skill but also with her beauty. For the first time in his life, Stanley questions the premise he has held all his life that there is no "afterlife," and that people who believe in such things are the weak and gullible.

Needless to say, nothing is as it seems. There are frauds to be exposed, but not the ones we had come to expect. There are metaphysical and spiritual questions to be answered, but only to the depth that will engender a good laugh. Love is in air, but it requires letting go of a life of self-importance that has fueled Stanley's sense of self-confidence.

Recognizing that this is a comedy, a farce, gives one the freedom to enjoy the laughs for what they are. Nevertheless, it is an interesting insight into human behavior to see how often people will reject traditional Judeo-Christian religious beliefs that have had 2,000 years of teaching and testimony, and then accept without question someone's mysterious interpretation of mystical and magical tricks. A Ouija board or tarot cards chosen at random are a simplistic substitute for centuries of sacrifice, prophetic insight, and stories of grace and love lived out in the lives of transformed people.


» The maturation of wisdom moves from magic to law to faith. How have you experienced the difference between magical thinking, the laws of science and transcendent faith?

» Why do you think humans have a fascination with magic even when the individual explains it is all illusion? What is it within us that seeks for the miraculous?

» Love has the ability to find us in our deepest places. How has that been true for you?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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