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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Can You Dig This


Hosea Smith testifies.

Hosea Smith testifies.

(2015) Documentary (Gathr Films/Gravitas) Ron Finley, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, Kenya Johnson, Quimonie Lewis, Randy Lewis, Hosea Smith. Directed by Delila Vallot

There is something soul-enriching about going into the yard and planting a garden. The serenity that comes from working with the earth, watching seeds sprout into life and grow into plants bearing fruit and vegetables that we take for nourishment; few things are as wonderful and as satisfying as eating something you’ve grown yourself.

In South Central L.A., one of the most dangerous and violent neighborhoods in the country, that isn’t always an easy proposition. Ron Finley, a local resident, was tired of having little more than fast food available to him as a nutrition option and with grocery stores selling mainly prepared or unhealthy items and no alternatives for healthy organic vegetables, he chose to grow his own. His garden, on the verge in front of the house, grew to enormous heights which turned into an oasis of beauty in a neighborhood of vacant lots, barred windows and trash. When he was cited for violating an ordinance preventing residents from planting anything but grass on the city-owned verge, he fought  the ordinance  which attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez’ articles would eventually help turn the tide.

Other residents of the area were also inspired. Ex-convict Hosea Smith, living in a halfway house after being paroled from a thirty year manslaughter sentence, helped himself reintegrate into society by planting his own garden, along with his roommate Henry, also an ex-con. The two men formed a common bond by their love of growing things.

Kenya Johnson, an orphan, and Mychael “Spicey” Evans, a drug dealer, were both affiliated with gangs in South Central which is pretty much infested with them. The two found some relief through the Compton Community Gardens through a youth pastor there. Eventually the two, who had adjoining plots in the garden, became close friends and maybe more.

Quimonie Lewis, a precocious eight-year-old girl, likes planting things and wants to eat healthy things. With the help of her father, the Housing Project President where they live, she puts together a garden of her own, planting things like cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers – all things she likes to eat. Her father, who has a heart condition, insists on eating an unhealthy diet, eventually being stricken with a serious heart attack. Quimonie sees her garden as a means of saving her dad’s life as well as a means of earning extra income for the family.

All of these stories are told through the warm eyes of director Vallot, who has a background as an actress and a dancer. Her camera movements are graceful as you would imagine a dancer’s would be, catching the jet planes that fly over South Central in mid-flight, going places most of the people who live there will never see. The sounds of gunfire, police sirens and jets are the constant soundtrack of South Central.

This is a gentle documentary, one that tells a story that actually can bring the viewer a feeling of inner peace as we watch how these people are directly affected by working with the soil and the sunshine and the water and the seeds, all that is needed to bring about life. As Hosea puts it, we all come from the soil and feel a connection with it.

Finley comes off as the most eloquent advocate. His efforts landed him a speech at a recent TED conference which has millions of YouTube views since it was posted; he isn’t what you’d call polished but the passion is there and so is the wisdom, although it is wisdom gleaned from the streets of South Central.

There’s an inspiring message to be had here; we can change the environment around us by something as simple as planting a garden, but it can go beyond that as well. For those who feel powerless and without any control, these are people who persevered and got something impressive done. Even Spicey, who was without work for more than two years, finds a job.

The editing could have used a little bit of work; some of the stories don’t flow as well as they should and in places we find out background information near the end of the movie that we could have used to put the film in context from the get-go, which makes for frustrating viewing; even the reveals have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I did like the documentary, although I felt it could hav used a little more time in the editing bay. With a defter touch, this could have really been something special but even so, the story is compelling and the film overall is inspiring. Not a bad way to be remembered if you ask me.

REASONS TO GO: Laid back and serene. Finley and Smith are compelling advocates.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Profanity throughout and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers on the film is singer John Legend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Garden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bone Tomahawk