Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine

Advertisements

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio