Emma Stone and Colin Firth in Magic in the MoonlightMAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

It would be wonderful to say that Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, the lighthearted tale of a stuffy British magician (Colin Firth) who attempts to disprove the gifts of a convincing psychic (Emma Stone) in 1928 Paris, was a throwback to the auteur's oft-referenced early, funny movies - the ones, such as Sleeper and Love & Death, that we fans enjoy returning to again and again. (In the case of Love & Death, for me, "again and again" multiplied by about 20.) Unfortunately, it's more of a throwback to the writer/director's less-referenced early-autumnal period, and its not-so-funny movies - the ones, such as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, that even we die-hards didn't really care about the first time around.

Being a Woody movie, it certainly looks great. Cinematographer Darius Khondji lights the Parisian estates and winding hillsides (and the suitably wistful costuming by Sonia Grande) with exquisite handsomeness, and one scene flows into the next with a smooth, satisfying confidence that brings to mind a summer day spent picnicking in a lightly breezy meadow. Magic in the Moonlight is a completely pleasant viewing experience. It's also so lacking in energy and inventiveness and laughs that, if you're a true devotee, our latest annual Woody offering can make you a little depressed even while you're enjoying it.

In the filmmaker's seemingly umpteenth screen argument about the internal battle between rationality and faith, his exposition is atypically clumsy and his telegraphing of narrative design obvious and awkward, and the solid one-liners are in scant supply; Stone's character being labeled an "irritating Lilliputian" is conceivably the only patch of dialogue I'll remember a week from now. Poor Firth, who delivers a strained and mannered portrayal, is forced to play his spirituality-is-hogwash and, later, spirituality-is-divine routines with so little variation that you quickly lose interest in both the magician and Firth himself. And he and Stone, who is uncharacteristically lackluster here, develop no discernible chemistry, especially when the threat of true love rears its ugly and (considering the visible age gap) slightly off-putting head; Woody's latest is the rare rom-com in which you feel both potential partners would be much better off a few hundred yards away from one another.

Among a promising supporting cast headlined by Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver (who do have one delightful early scene together), only Eileen Atkins, as Firth's lovingly passive-aggressive aunt, makes her ho-hum material sound legitimately witty. Even the frisky period music doesn't much help; the soundtrack is reminiscent of Bullets Over Broadway's, but Lord how this film could've used some of Chazz Palminteri's and Jennifer Tilly's and Dianne Wiest's comic snap. Magic in the Moonlight is hardly a career low, or even a millennium low, for Woody Allen. Yet after his knockout three-fer of Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, and Blue Jasmine, it's somewhat heartbreaking to be reminded that the man is professionally fallible after all.


Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush in The GiverTHE GIVER

Novelist Lois Lowry's YA touchstone The Giver, which concerns one youth's rebellion against a futuristic fascist society, was first published in 1993, meaning that director Phillip Noyce's screen version of the tale almost can't help but feel like an ex post facto warm-up to the likes of The Hunger Games and Divergent. That's what I enjoyed about it. Without question, there are performances, lines, and even whole scenes that feel almost childishly simplistic. Yet Noyce's bare-bones approach meshes beautifully with the elemental, storybook quality of Michael Mitnick's and Robert B. Weide's script, and the resulting film boasts a purity of feeling that The Giver's more technically proficient YA precursors have mostly lacked. It may be Divergent-lite, but as a movie experience, it's at least twice as satisfying as that springtime hit.

Brenton Thwaites is our protagonist Jonas - the heroic 18-year-old who discovers that his totalitarian (and black-and-white) community has been withholding from its citizenry little things such as color and music and emotion - and he's just good enough to suggest that his dreary turn as Maleficent's Prince Charming figure was an aberration. Gazing at his newly expanding world with an awe that feels entirely genuine, Thwaites is ideal casting as a teen who is, in many ways, like a newborn, and at its best, Noyce's film exudes a similar freshness of spirit. (This is especially true of the wondrous reaction shots of the three-, six-, and 12-month-olds recruited to play the baby Gabriel; whatever off-screen trickery was required to get these kids to so brilliantly express Gabe's fear, curiosity, and joy was totally worth it.) The vibrantly hued flashbacks to earlier days on Earth practically burst with immediacy and, even better, the sense of possibility, and the filmmakers' clear-eyed sincerity makes even its most manipulative moments feel honest. (In one particularly harrowing sequence, Alexander Skarsgård - whose character really, truly isn't villainous - casually murders an infant twin, and the horror of the moment is all the more affecting for being so unforced.) There are definitely clunky passages and portrayals; I'd argue that Katie Holmes is all-too-well-cast as a blandly menacing Stepford wife. But Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep blessedly lend their skills without appearing to slum, and at a quick 90 minutes, the film makes its mark and doesn't dawdle. Many of us may be starting to feel YA-ed out at the cineplex. In this case, however, I'd argue that it's better to Giver than to recede.


Damon Wayans Jr. and Jake Johnson in Let's Be CopsLET'S BE COPS

A friend recently remarked that, in his words, I'd grown "way too lenient" in my reviews of recent movies, referencing, I presumed, the kind of traditional, desperately formulaic Hollywood product that I used to more mercilessly attack. (And that, thanks to the Happy Madison line, I'm still occasionally able to.) At first, I found this a little surprising, considering that of the 100 or so movies I've thus far seen in 2014, I've only truly enjoyed about a third of them. But I soon realized he made a good point. Having reviewed, over the years, so many Hollywood comedies and thrillers and so on that are pretty interchangeable and so oftentimes bad, I have become more half-full than I used to be. I'd like to think, though, that by "lenient," my friend actually meant "generous." Because the truth in recent years is that, with so many gifted performers unable to land movies they actually deserve, even the crummiest Hollywood releases generally showcase at least one actor who makes everything around him or her a little bit better, even if that actor seems to be on- and off-screen in the blink of an eye.

Take, for instance, Let's Be Cops. (Please.) Director Luke Greenfield's slapstick is about two career-stalled best friends who mistakenly wear policeman gear to a masquerade party they presumed was a costume party, and wind up posing as actual cops after L.A. hotties start licking their lips every time the guys pass. Scenes involving bro bonding, bro hissy fits, Russian arms dealers, a requisite love interest, and an inexplicable naked Asian giant commence, and nearly all of it is unfunny, with leads (and co-stars on TV's New Girl) Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. clearly enjoying themselves but denying us much reason to enjoy them. Yet halfway through this inane, repetitive, predictable insult, Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key shows up as a heavily tattooed weirdo named Pupa, and for a few minutes, everything is suddenly right with the world. Popping his eyes and prattling on in a riotously indecipherable accent, Key is so outlandishly strange and hysterical in his small role that he's almost reason enough for the movie to exist, and his arrival seems to inspire Wayans, who eventually does a bug-eyed Key impression when his character is hilariously high on crank. Don't be mistaken: I think Let's Be Cops is terrible. But for a brief while, it boasts Keegan-Michael Key. There's your half-full.

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