The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2


Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

(2012) Romance (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Chaske Spencer, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Maggie Grace, Jamie Campbell Bower, Christopher Heyerdahl, Lateef Crowder, Lee Pace, Omar Metwally, Dakota Fanning. Directed by Bill Condon

Our Film Library 2015

All things come to an end – even the Earth one day will flicker out of existence, the victim of our sun’s own demise. For fans of the Twilight Saga, the approach of the final movie in the franchise was met with a bittersweet mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that once the movie was viewed that the series would be done forever and yet looking forward to seeing the climactic chapters in the book come to life.

Following the conversion of Bella Swan (Stewart) to vampirism by her new husband Edward Cullen (Pattinson) in order to save Bella’s life while giving birth to their new daughter Renesmee (Foy and ten other actresses not to mention CGI babies) life has resumed normalcy in the vampire household of the Cullens but it won’t stay that way for long. The vampire ruling class, the Morituri, have been informed of Renesmee’s birth and have decided that the child is an abomination that will never age, will become exceedingly powerful and dangerous and must be destroyed. They don’t like her name much, either. Then again, nobody does.

So leader Aro (Sheen) and an army of vampires from throughout the world come to Forks to do battle. Meanwhile, werewolf Jacob (Lautner) has been imprinted upon by baby Renesmee, which means that the two are destined to be lovers which is kind of creepy when you think about it. The feud between Jacob and Edward is more or less resolved, although neither Bella nor Edward are all that keen on having a werewolf as a future son-in-law. However, with Jacob imprinted by the vampire Jacob’s wolf clan reluctantly agrees to aid clan Cullen in the coming fight, which they know about because Alice Cullen (Greene) is, as everyone knows, psychic. Convenient, that is.

Anyway, it’s all going to culminate in one big battle in the snow with vampires and werewolves alike getting their heads torn off like so many cheap action figures. Bella, however, is now one mother of a badass and no longer needs to be the weakling relying on the protection of Edward and his family. Can the Cullens defeat the numerically superior Morituri clan or will the Morituri succeed in destroying the Cullens and the new baby once and for all?

Well, I’m sure you can figure out the answer to that one even if you aren’t familiar with the series. I have to admit that I actually enjoyed the first movie in the series but they’ve gotten progressively worse as the series has gone along. The fifth and final cinematic opus in the saga is unfortunately the very worst of the lot.

The cast is as a whole excruciating to watch. Even eminently watchable actors like Sheen and Dakota Fanning overact so shamelessly that the union might have considered revoking their membership. Worse still are the special effects, which for a movie with a $75 million production budget are unforgivably bad. More on that in a minute.

Despite their poor performances, I do feel for the cast because quite frankly, there are no actors good enough to elevate the script which contains dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. Mostly you get the sense that the producers wanted the cast members (particularly the main characters) to look cool to the tween audience and their moms that make up the core of the Twihard nation. Tweens and moms are generally not the most trustworthy arbiters when it comes to cool.

Even so, I can even feel for the screenwriter because the little of the Twilight books I’ve read have been uniformly poorly written. They are a soap opera on a page, a lily white telenovela that shamelessly pushes buttons but doesn’t have the grace of self-awareness. Everything that happens in this movie lands with a mind-numbing dull thud.

I will say this, however. The movies have as rabid a fanbase as any in the history of books and movies. Those who love this franchise do so with all of their heart and soul and their loyalty is kind of touching. They don’t care whether the books are great literature. They don’t care that Pattinson and Stewart are spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by an alien who has never spoken with an actual human being ever. They don’t care if the CGI wolves move like wolves, or if the decapitations look realistic, or if the wire work of the actors is graceful.

None of that matters to them. What they care about is the fantasy that the love story gives them, and it certainly appeals to the target audience without question. One thing you can say about author Stephanie Meyer – she truly understands what the audience she’s writing for wants and gives it to them. Many authors would kill for that kind of knack and I can’t really condemn her for doing what many writers dream of doing – connecting to her audience in a meaningful way.

I really can’t recommend the movie to general audiences, but that’s okay. This is a movie made for a specific niche audience and at the end of the day, it serves them well. I look at the Twilight series much the same way I look at rap; it’s not written for me, I was never meant to relate to it and it’s okay if someone else relates to it and it’s certainly not a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing to feel a strong connection to something, whether it be to a book, a rap song, or a movie. Saying merely that something sucks is to not only to judge the book/song/movie in question but also the person who connects with it deeply and doing so betrays a certain amount of arrogance. Certainly I can be critical of the cinematic missteps that I found here in the movie and I have to be true to myself when I say I can’t encourage anyone who isn’t a fan of the series already to go see it. That doesn’t mean that I hate this movie or what it represents; clearly there are people who are truly inspired by the Twilight books and films. Even if I don’t share that connection, I can’t deny that it exists nor can I entirely say that the series is unsuccessful because clearly it has not only made the filmmakers and the author a whole lot of money but a whole lot of fans as well and who am I to object to that?

WHY RENT THIS: Twihards will want to see this again and again.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Horrible special effects, bad acting, worse writing and a sense that the studio just punched this out without support or care in order to make as much money as possible.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent battle sequences, some disturbing images, a little sensuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the highest budget of any of the films in the series, and also was the only film in the series that had a complete opening credits sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a feature that allows you to jump to either Edward or Jacob-centric scenes. The making of feature is surprisingly good and Condon proves to be an interesting subject as he talks about the pressures of meeting fan expectations and staying true to the book while remaining cinematically viable. It’s really a lot better than most of these. There’s also an interesting featurette on the logistical issues that came from shooting two movies simultaneously.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $829.7M on a $75M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romeo + Juliet
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Our Film Library concludes!

Neighbors


Are you talking to Zac Efron?

Are you talking to Zac Efron?

(2014) Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Brian Huskey, Carla Gallo, Halston Sage, Craig Roberts, Ali Cobrin, Kira Sternbach, Steven Michael Eich, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Mantzoukas, Liz Cackowski, Randall Park, Natasha Leggero. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Before the Second World War, the desirable places to live were in the cities. After all, they were close to jobs and all the cities had to offer in terms of entertainment and culture. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Postwar era – people began to move out of cities and into the suburbs. They wanted yards. They wanted families. They wanted space.

Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) Radner want all that. And, at last, they have it. With a beautiful baby daughter named Stella, a gorgeous house in the ‘burbs of a small college town and a bright future ahead, they have everything they’ve always wanted and more.

Then their new neighbors move in and it turns out to be a fraternity house. Gamely, they decide to meet their new neighbors and show how “cool” and “down with it” they are which is the reality of a 30-something trying to impress a 20-something with how knowledgeable they are about current trends, slang and culture which, as everyone who’s ever been a 30-something knows, is doomed to fail miserably. The president of the frat, Teddy (Efron) is amiable enough and advised by his best bro and right-hand vice-president Pete (Franco) decides to make nice with the neighbors, inviting them to a blow-out party. They leave the next morning, promising to call Teddy first if they get too loud.

Of course, the next time they get too loud Mac and Kelly’s repeated phone calls go unanswered and they are forced to call the cops in the form of perhaps the most incompetent policeman ever, Officer Watkins (Buress) who rats out the chagrined couple to the frat. From then on, it’s war.

It becomes an endless barrage of escalating pranks. It gets to the point that the couple desperately attempt to sell their house but as the supercilious real estate agent (Cackowski) informs them, nobody will buy a house next to a frat. They even go to the university for relief, but the snooty dean (Kudrow) is more concerned with headlines than actual issues and the headline “Frat keeps couple and baby awake” isn’t likely to cause problems for the University. Finally, Mac and Kelly decide to go on the offensive with the emphasis on “offense.” They become aware that the frat has two strikes against them and should there be another incident, they’ll be dissolved. It’s time to pull out all the stops.

Seth Rogen has been making a career out of playing the amiable, good-hearted stoner and there’s no reason for him to deviate from that course here. What’s different is that he’s a little older now and that guys of his generation are becoming husbands and fathers and are having to forego the life of partying that is part of being young and without responsibility.

And that is the crux of the matter here. Both Mac and Kelly are facing a turning point in their lives; they have a life and a responsibility to provide for someone completely dependent on them. They are moving kicking and screaming into adulthood and they are taking one last wistful look at the life they once had. It is to their credit (and the filmmakers) that they end up embracing their responsibilities rather than running away as is often the case in Hollywood (and in life as well). The frat represents freedom to a certain extent and who wouldn’t be tempted?

The lion’s share of the funny stuff go to Rogen, Efron (who shows surprisingly deft comic touch here) and Byrne. Franco and Teddy’s inner circle – Scoonie (Mintz-Plasse) and Garf (Carmichael) – have little to do except look…er, stoned. And therein lies some of the movie’s great failings.

The movie can be funny and some of the pranks, although not always realistic as in the case of the funniest one involving an automotive safety feature. The problem here is that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony – Rogen consumes enough weed to make Bill O’Reilly’s intake look like both Cheech and Chong. I’m okay with stoner humor but one of the issues I have with it is that there is such an overreliance on repetition. It’s a whole lot funnier when you’re baked.

Some critics have been giving this a pass and far be it for me to dispute matters of personal taste but I don’t see anything really innovative here. I’m one of those killjoys who think that a good comedy shouldn’t only be funny when you’re stoned. Call me a philistine if you like.

REASONS TO GO: Some really funny moments. Captures the moment of maturity nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill on weed humor. One-trick pony. Adds nothing new.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of crude content, foul language, sexual content, drug use and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real life couple Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman filmed a cameo as Scoonie’s parents but it was left on the cutting room floor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The ‘Burbs

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dom Hemingway

Life As We Know It


Life As We Know It

Josh Duhamel is only glad there's no poop on HIS face.

(Warner Brothers) Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas, Hayes McArthur, Christina Hendricks, The Clagett Triplets, Sarah Burns, Jessica St. Clair, Britt Flatmo, Kumail Nanjiani, Will Sasso, Majandra Delfino, DeRay Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Rob Huebel, Andrew Daly. Directed by Greg Berlanti

Is there a secret to life? Most people agree that if there is, it is elusive at best, but there is one secret that’s fairly graspable; change is inevitable.

Uptight upscale bakery owner Holly Berenson (Heigl) has just exited from a long-term relationship that went nowhere. Her best friend Allison Novack (Hendricks) has set her up with her husband Peter’s (McArthur) best friend Eric Messer (Duhamel).

It would have been the date from hell had it even gotten that far. The laid-back lothario Messer (who prefers to be addressed by his last name) arrives an hour late, sans dinner reservation and to top it all off takes a booty call that he sets up for the same night. Amused at first, Holly is at last infuriated and storms back into her apartment, having not even pulled away from the curb.

Three years later they are celebrating the first birthday of little Sophie Novack (Clagett). While the date went sour, Messer and Holly still remain best friends to the Novacks and while Messer annoys Holly terribly, they remain civil for the most part for the sake of their friends. All that goes by the wayside when they get the phone call that Peter and Allison were killed in an auto accident. However, that’s almost equal to the shock they receive when they find out that their friends named them as guardians of little Sophie in the event of their demise.

The will specifies that Sophie remain in the suburban Atlanta home…or maybe estate would be more accurate…that the Novacks lived in. With the mortgage pre-paid for a year, the two godparents take up uneasy residence in the house and try to somehow be parents.

It’s a rough go, as they are completely clueless about childcare and they still get along like Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, only less violent. However their love for little Sophie and their feelings of obligation towards their dead friends keep them plugging away, despite Messer’s attempts to seduce half of Atlanta, Holly’s ambitious expansion plans for her bakery and her own romantic interest in Sophie’s handsome pediatrician whom Messer names, not unkindly, “Dr. Love” (Lucas).

While there is clearly tension between Holly and Mess, there is also just as clearly attraction between the two as the social caseworker Janine (Burns) notices. However, what little connection they have is stretched to the breaking point when Messer gets a job offer for his dream job – which will take him out of Atlanta and into Phoenix if he accepts.

This is a movie that careens from romantic comedy to drama, sometimes in a jarring fashion, but I get the sense that overall the filmmakers saw this as the former. Somewhat ironically, I think the dramatic sequences tend to work much better than most of the comedic ones, which rely on baby poop, baby vomit and sleep deprivation for most of the gags. Had the movie steered itself away from the romance, toned down the comedy and concentrated on the bringing up baby aspects a little bit more, I think this would have been a really great movie.

Unfortunately, the romantic comedy formula is followed nearly to the letter; boy and girl meet, dislike each other intensely, come together and then are split apart before coming back together in the final reel. It seems like every studio romantic comedy follows the same bloody formula without exception and I for one am tired of it, but it seems the appetite for such formula romcoms is endless so until Hollywood stops making money hand over fist with them we will continue to see them churned out one after the other into multiplexes all over the world.

That said, the chemistry between Heigl (who is the mistress of uptight professional women roles) and Duhamel, who has become a pretty decent romantic lead in his own right, is undeniable. The two are believable as a couple which is at the heart of any romcom. Lucas, who is one of those actors who just does a good job every time out but never gets the credit he deserves, is solid as the third part of the romantic triangle.

I am not big on babies in the movies, but I will say that Sophie may be the most charming baby I’ve ever seen onscreen. She is portrayed by triplets (and then at the film’s conclusion by twins as she ages in the film) and they all seem to have a fairly expressive facial palate.

While I would have liked to have seen either less formula in the romantic comedy aspect, or more of the serious drama of picking up the pieces after the death of the parents, the filmmakers seem to settle for a little bit of both and wind up with a playing-it-safe mish-mash that ends up curiously unsatisfying, despite all the items on the plus side of the ledger. I don’t know if Berlanti and his writers went the taking-no-chances route of their own volition, or if studio bigwigs hamstrung them but I wish they had been a bit bolder in their choices.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Duhamel and Heigl; the baby may be the most charming movie baby ever.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is awfully formulaic and doesn’t really send any surprised the audience’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of bad language, a little bit of drug humor and a good deal of baby poop. Pretty much acceptable for most reasonably mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who stay to the very end of the movie will hear a currently unreleased Faith Hill song (“All I Needed”) on the soundtrack.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly this is a movie that will make you want to cuddle with your loved one; definitely worth seeing at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Amreeka