Summer Movie Reviews: A Most Wanted Man, Begin Again, Magic in the Moonlight

It’s been well-documented that 2014 has not been the best summer for movies. How many terrible comedies, bad sequels, mediocre action movies and lackluster comic book/Transformers sagas can Hollywood release until the major studios realize what they’re doing wrong? Spending tons of money on marketing and casting famous stars does not guarantee that people will go see your movie.

There are actually a few very interesting and intelligent movies out right now that didn’t have the budget of Transformers 4.

A Most Wanted Man

At times it’s hard to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role in a movie because tragically, this is his final act. The role of talented and determined yet burdened German intelligence agent Günther Bachmann is a great fit for Hoffman. He plays it so perfectly that it elevates the whole movie to a different level. There’s no question that he was one of the best actors of his generation, if not the best.

Based on a book by John Le Carré, “A Most Wanted Man” tackles the war on terrorism and the world of espionage in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Bachmann plays the head of a small unit of roguish spies operating in Hamburg, a city under intense scrutiny because it was the home of 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta. As someone who is fascinated by these operations, I loved this movie and will definitely read the book.

Germany, who is afraid of harboring someone like Atta again, is taking an extremely close look at anyone entering Hamburg. When a suspicious Chechen enters the city illegally, he becomes the focus of Bachmann’s group, other German government entities and U.S. intelligence officers. The question remains, is he really a bad guy or is it just conjecture?

The suspense continues as intelligence officers untangle a web of Russian mafia, terrorists and otherwise upstanding citizens/possible sympathizers giving money to terrorists to buy weapons. It’s a very muddled crowd and frequently it is not clear who they should be following.

Robin Wright has a standout role playing CIA officer Martha Sullivan, who is Bachmann’s sometimes friend, sometimes foe, while evoking shades of House of Cards’ Claire Underwood. Willem Dafoe has a great turn as wealthy banker Tommy Brue whose help Bachmann needs.

Overall, this a great spy movie with a strong Le Carré plot and outstanding acting. The plot ends relatively abruptly but it closes with a haunting final scene of a frustrated Bachmann walking off the screen one final time.

Begin Again

John Carney, best-known for Once, returns with another movie that mixes music into the plot seamlessly. I actually enjoyed this movie more than Once because I found the plot and characters more relatable.

A British songwriter in her 20s Gretta (Keira Knightley) visits New York for an extended stay with her up and coming rocker boyfriend (played by first time actor Adam Levine). Dave, who Adam Levine embodies perfectly since he’s pretty much playing himself) inevitably cheats on Gretta the second he finds stardom. It leads to a heartbroken Gretta singing a song at an open mic night that is attended by a down on his luck record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who immediately recognizes her potential. It takes a while for Dan to convince Gretta that she should step outside of her comfort zone and record an (outdoor!) album with him but when she does, the results are beyond anyone’s expectations.

It’s a hopeful movie with a very strong cast and soundtrack. Keira Knightley, who I think is a really underrated actress, surprises everyone with her singing talent. Her songs “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home”, “Lost Stars” and “Like A Fool” are highlights. She really owns the role of Gretta and makes her believable as a young woman going through a scary major life change and finding hope in the struggle. In the past, Keira has said that she usually chooses period movies because they offer better roles for women and Gretta is a character as worthy as her past roles.

Mark Ruffalo really stands out in this movie too. He brings a warmth and charisma to Dan’s character that makes him trustworthy. It definitely would not have been the same without him.

I highly recommend this movie and it will find a bigger audience through word of mouth.

You can listen to the music from the movie here:

Magic in the Moonlight

Once I heard that this movie was about a man trying to debunk a spiritualist medium and it starred Colin Firth and Emma Stone, I was sold. Woody Allen is a controversial figure but his ability to write and direct movies with original plots starring great actors is unparalleled. Especially in the age of the remake, sequel, trilogy, franchise, etc.

Colin Firth stars as a grouchy upper-class British magician named Stanley whose stage show involves him dressing as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo. The fact that the movie is set in the 1920s makes it a little easier to believe that Wei Ling Soo is a world-renowned performer. A fellow magician and old friend Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney) enlists Stanley’s help to debunk a spiritualist named Sophie who has captivated a wealthy American family and is now living with them in the South of France. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns from there as Sophie’s talents eventually capture the imagination of the famously skeptic Stanley.

This isn’t the best movie in the world but it’s enjoyable and worth seeing if it interests you. The art direction is amazing. The costumes, sets and settings are so gorgeous that you don’t want the movie to end because you feel like you’re on a fantasy vacation. The plot kept me hooked and Colin and Emma both have great comedic timing.