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

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Robin Hood


Robin Hood

Never tell Russell Crowe that his rugby team sucks.

(Universal)  Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, William Hurt, Matthew Macfayden, Oscar Isaac, Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle, Eileen Atkins, Lea Seydoux, Mark Addy, Douglas Hodge, Simon McBurney. Directed by Ridley Scott

The legend of Robin Hood is central to English mythology. The character has made regular appearances on the silver screen and television, from the carefree bandit of Errol Flynn to the Kevin Costner version, with the heavy-on-the-mystical BBC series “Robin of Sherwood” somewhere in between. So how does this Robin rate?

Robin Longstride (Crowe) is an archer finishing ten years of war in the Holy Land alongside Richard the Lion Heart (Huston), the English King beloved by his people. I use the term “alongside” loosely; Richard is King and Robin is a lowly foot soldier. In most circumstances, the King would never interact with a commoner such as Robin.

However, times being what they are for the King, he can’t resist sacking one last castle, this one in the land of England’s ancient enemy, France. The English coffers are nearly bare after having paid for ten years of constant war. One evening, Robin gets into a fight with fellow soldier John Little (Durand) which is witnessed by the King and the King’s good friend Sir Robert Loxley (Hodge). The King is impressed with the honesty and bravery of both men, but Robin can’t resist speaking his mind when the King asks him to. For his honest criticism, Robin, John and Robin’s good friends Will Scarlet (Grimes) and Alan A’Dayle (Doyle) are put in the stockade for future branding and whipping.

Unfortunately during the siege the King takes an arrow through the throat and expires, throwing the ranks of the English into chaos. Robin, recognizing the situation, has a friend free the four of them from the stocks and they hie themselves hence for the coast to find passage to England before Richard’s army gets there and take all the boats for themselves.

In the meantime, the King of France (an actor who, amazingly, has gone uncredited for the role as far as I can see) is scheming with the vicious Godfrey (Strong) to assassinate the King on his way back to the coast. Of course, this is moot at this point but when Godfrey springs his ambush it is Sir Robert that is caught, innocently returning the King’s crown to England. Robin and his merry men come upon the ambush and force the assassins to flee, but not before Robin sends an arrow whistling Godfrey’s way, scarring him on the cheek. Robin comforts the dying Loxley by promising to return his sword to his father, a sword he had taken without asking. The four manage to make it to the coast and brazen their way aboard the King’s flagship by pretending to be Knights (by stealing the armor and cloaks of the dead men at the ambush) and flashing the crown. While sailing across the channel, Robin notices an inscription on the sword: Rise and Rise Again Until Lambs Become Lions.

Meanwhile back in England, Prince John (Isaac) is cavorting with Isabella (Seydoux), niece of King Phillip, irritating his mother Ellen of Aquitaine (Atkins) no end, particularly since he is married to someone else. For most of the women in the audience this was a clear sign that John is an absolute jerk, although most royals of the time dallied pretty regularly – just another reason why, as Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the King. However, the party really starts when Robin – now masquerading as Robert Loxley – brings the sad news of the King’s demise, which elevates John onto the throne.

Times are hard in England and about to become harder. Taxes have just about bled the populace dry, even relatively wealthy former Knights like Walter Loxley (van Sydow) who, now well into his 80s, is blind and tended to by his son’s wife Marian (Blanchett). She is on the receiving end of the tender affections of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Macfayden) and is concerned that with all the good men of Nottingham away at war, too old, too young or broken, that the town will not survive the winter. With the new Friar Tuck (Addy) taking over the local church from the ambitious Father Tancred (McBurney) who is departing for York with all the seed grain for the town in his possession, which will make the coming harvest difficult with nothing to plant. Things look bad for Nottingham and they get worse when Robin arrives with the news of Robert’s death. However, Walter seems to recognize the name of Robin and in exchange for the sword he had just brought back, agrees to tell Robin about his past.

In order to keep the crown from seizing their property (because in England at the time only sons could inherit and with Walter’s dead, Marian would lose the farm as it were), Walter asks Robin to masquerade as his son and Marian’s husband in order to maintain the illusion that there was proper succession for the property. Robin agrees, having taken a shine to Marian (who of course doesn’t care much for Robin) and things get idyllic for a little while.

However, John has made the critical mistake of trusting Godfrey with the chancellorship of England, after sending the current chancellor William Marshall (Hurt) back home. Godfrey, who aims to start a civil war by using extreme brutality in the North, takes an army to cause mischief. He does this by importing a small army of Phillip’s men. Once England is in chaos, Phillip will invade and take the divided country with a minimum of fuss. England needs a leader more than ever – and a legend will be born.

This is the most unusual Robin Hood you’re ever likely to see. There is no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and very little of Sherwood Forest. There is no swashbuckling or derring-do; Russell Crowe is not the first name I’d call for actors who do that kind of thing. Crowe is more of a brooder and his Robin of the Hood does a whole lot of that; at least when he’s not perforating, slicing or dicing the French.

However, Blanchett makes a marvelous Marian, full of spunk and steel. She essentially runs the Loxley estate and takes no crap from anyone; if anyone tries to touch her, she’ll emasculate them as she tells Robin (or worse, as one of Godfrey’s men finds out later). She is elegant when she needs to be, rough and tumble when she has to be and feminine throughout.

Von Sydow is terrific in his role as the aging Knight, bringing his career full circle in some respects – you may be reminded that he once played a knight of the crusades who plays chess against death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and while the roles are nothing alike, I was reminded of it somewhat perversely. Regardless, von Sydow is nearing the end of his own career and yet remains as much a force as he has always been.

Strong, for my money, is the best villain working in the business today (although Danny Huston may give him a run for his money). Bald and scarred, he just looks terrifying without saying a word. Ambitious and amoral, his Godfrey would sell his mother if it would get him ahead – not that there’s much of a market for that sort of thing.

There are some very good action sequences, particularly the climactic battle between the French and the English. The movie is well over two hours long but still felt like it was missing some pieces; I got the distinct impression that there were some scenes that might have better explained things in the movie that were left on the cutting room floor, although if there are they will certainly wind up on the “Director’s Cut” edition that is sure to follow on the home video front.

This is more of an origin story than any Robin Hood to date, and more or less sets the tone of the times. There is no Errol Flynn leaping out of a tree, giving a jaunty salute and exclaiming “Welcome to Sherwood” with a twinkle in his eyes. This is a cross between Braveheart and Gladiator with a healthy dose of Kingdom of Heaven; the last two of which, not un-coincidentally, were directed by Scott as well. Like most films of the 21st century, this version of the character wallows in the dark side, brooding like the Renaissance Faire edition of Bruce Wayne. That’s okay by me, even if it’s becoming a little cliché. Still, I can’t fault a filmmaker for trying a new take on a venerable character as long as the essence of who that character is remains intact and I think Ridley Scott succeeds in that regard. This may not be your father’s Robin, or even your grandfather’s but it is Robin Hood nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A different take on the Robin Hood legend with a bit of political intrigue. Blanchett is magnificent as Marian, and von Sydow is delightful in a supporting role. Mark Strong may be the best villain in the movies at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: You get the feeling a good deal of exposition hit the cutting room floor. Crowe broods too much at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, particularly of the battlefield variety, as well as some suggestion of sexuality and rape; there’s enough here that I’d think twice about bringing the impressionable sorts but most mature teens should be able to handle it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tune whistled by Godfrey as a pass code to the French soldiers is “Frere Jacques.”  

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the climactic battle should be seen on the big screen, but much of the movie foregoes the epic scope.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Cinema365 will be on temporary hiatus while I am vacationing in China. We will resume our daily movie reviews, previews and features starting on Friday, June 4th with a review of Soul Men.