Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Le Chef, A Most Wanted Man, Magic in the Moonlight

Le Chef

A Most Wanted Man
Magic in the Moonlight

From the sublime to the ridiculous…

An hour after "Happy Christmas" renewed my faith in cinema, I was back in the theater for "Le Chef," a crass and crushingly predictable French comedy about a veteran three-star chef (Jean Reno) and the culinary prodigy turned painter (irritating Michaёl Youn) who teaches the old dog some new tricks. Director Daniel Cohen aims to cash in on the current food-movie craze with something light and frothy, but I found the pair's endless arguments wearying, the roles for women offensively underdeveloped, a detour into molecular gastronomy obsolete before it begins, and a scene in which Youn dresses up as a geisha jaw-droppingly retrograde. In under 90 minutes, I dozed off no fewer than four times. Is this really why Cohen wanted to be a filmmaker? To turn out a product this prefabricated?

It's not until "A Most Wanted Man" is over that it really hits you. We'll never again get to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a major movie role. Peruse his filmography and you just shake your head at one indelible performance after another, from rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's incomparable "Almost Famous" to Phil Parma, a nurse trying to do one good deed, in P.T. Anderson's brilliant "Magnolia." In this new adaptation of a John LeCarré thriller, competently directed by Anton Corbijn, Hoffman returns to the shadowy world of international espionage he inhabited so memorably as Gust Avrakotos in "Charlie Wilson's War."

Hoffman plays German security chief Gunter Bachmann, whose agency is working with (and possibly against) their American counterparts to determine whether a well-respected Islamic moderate (Homayoun Ershadi) is in fact siphoning money through a terrorist front company. A badly tortured half-Russian half-Chechen immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) shows up in Hamburg with his attorney (Rachel McAdams), seeking asylum and disavowing his late father's ill-gotten fortune, which he wishes to donate to Ershadi's peace efforts.

"A Most Wanted Man" is the sort of movie, like last year's "The Company You Keep," in which almost every significant role is filled by an actor we know and like. Two of Hoffman's operatives are played by Nina Hoss (riveting as an East German doctor reassigned to the provinces after applying for an exit visa in "Barbara," my #9 film of 2012) and Daniel Brühl, to whom I would have given an Oscar nomination for his no-frills, hilariously blunt portrayal of the Austrian race car driver Niki Lauda in "Rush." Robin Wright returns from the taboo environs of "Adore" to give a memorable performance as a U.S. agent who tries to buy Bachmann and his crew a bit more time.

Unlike "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which did nothing for me, you can actually follow the plot of "A Most Wanted Man." It's a stylish and sophisticated adult entertainment that engages your brain with situations and motivations of complexity but not pointless complication. There's a quietude to Hoffman's work here, a heavy and shambling quality tinged with elegiac grace. How sad to have lost this master thespian so young, yet how much we have to look back on with fond gratitude. 

There's not much "Magic in the Moonlight." Woody Allen's latest postcard from Europe - this time the South of France - posits Colin Forth as the snide and self-satisfied Stanley Crawford, a specialist in debunking the claims of spiritualists, who himself tours the continent as Chinese prestidigitator Wei Ling Soo, he of the famed disappearing elephant trick. Stanley's friend and associate, Howard (Simon McBurney), accosts him backstage with a request: come to the Côte d'Azur, where the monied Catledges - wide-eyed widow Grace (Jacki Weaver) and her callow son Brice (Hamish Linklater) -- have fallen under the spell of the seeress Sophie Baker (Emma Stone). Howard's spent a fortnight observing Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), but hasn't yet figured out their scam. Stanley, always keen to demonstrate his superior skill, takes the challenge.

Thus begins a love-hate relationship notable primarily for its picturesque backdrops, as Sophie intuits facts about Stanley she couldn't possibly know and he begins to question the knee-jerk skepticism by which he has defined his existence. I have a few structural problems with Allen's movie. He has Sophie unmask Stanley as Wei Ling Soo too soon, discarding a potentially fertile source of mystery and byplay. He also really ramps up Firth's nastiness near the end. But I found his constant stream of caustic comments less amusing throughout than did those around me. Both leads perform creditably; among the supporting players, Linklater (almost giddy with infatuation) and Eileen Atkins as Stanley's aunt Vanessa, who keeps complimenting him on his wisdom as he very slowly catches up to her, shine brightest. "Magic in the Moonlight" is a very minor addition to the Allen collection, but I've long said Woody at his worst is better than most filmmakers at their best.

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