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

Whiteout


Kate Beckinsale

This is Kate Beckinsale looking concerned. Later, she'll look perplexed.

(Warner Brothers) Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Columbus Short, Tom Skerritt, Alex O’Laughlin, Shawn Doyle, Joel Keller, Jesse Todd, Arthur Holden, Erin Hickock. Directed by Dominic Sena

In space, no one can hear you scream; by the same token, at the South Pole, nobody can see a maniac coming either. At least, not in this movie.

It all starts with a plane full of Soviet Russians circa 1955 transporting a mysterious box over the South Pole to God knows where (Ummm…not to make too fine a point of it, but isn’t the USSR closer to the North Pole? Just asking…) when a gunfight breaks out on the transport plane. As anyone who knows airplanes can tell you, a gunfight on an airplane in midflight is usually a very bad idea. This scene would bear that out – so remember the next time you feel the urge to shoot someone on a plane, no matter how irritating they are.

Fifty years later another body turns up, and like the Russians, this one was killed on purpose but nobody knows who it was or what the body was doing all the way to Hell and gone. U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Beckinsale) has maybe the cushiest and worst job in the U.S. Marshall service – the most she ever has to deal with are a couple of geologists arguing about whose theory about igneous rocks is more accurate. Now, she has to deal with a murder – and only two days to solve it before the researchers fly north for the winter.

She will be aided by the wise, kindly Dr. Fury (Skerritt) who has nothing to do with Nick Fury other than they both originated in comic books, an FBI agent (Macht) who shows up conveniently, a wisecracking pilot (Short) and umm…other guys. As other bodies start turning up and an investigation of the original crime scene turns up that Russian transport plane from the prologue, it appears that the murders have something to do with whatever was in that mysterious box. What was so valuable that people would be killing for it fifty years later? The Ark of the Covenant maybe?

The movie started out life as a tautly written graphic novel that was way more suspenseful than this mess. The fact that it was shelved for nearly a decade before it was made, then sat on the studio shelf an additional two years after it was made should have told you something; well, obviously you took it to heart because this bombed at the box office in a hailstorm of negative reviews.

Part of the movie’s problem is endemic to the location, which is ironically one of the things that sets this movie apart from other thrillers. The whiteout conditions at the conclusion of the movie make it nearly impossible to tell who’s fighting who, or see what the characters are doing. I’ve seen plenty of movies so underlit that you can’t make out what’s going on; here, the action is obscured in a blizzard of studio snow.

The other problem is that much of the tension that made the graphic novel so enjoyable is largely missing here. Beckinsale, who can be a strong actress when given the right material (see Snow Angels), has been given absolutely nothing to work with here. Oh, there’s a backstory about a near-death experience while working for the Marshall Service in Miami that Haunts our Heroine Even Now, but largely she is given no personality and spends most of the movie looking perplexed, surprised, bundled up beyond recognition in fur jackets or stripping down for a gratuitous shower.

Likewise, most of the other characters are given no personalities and all kind of blend together with the exception of Skerritt’s Doc Fury who comes off a bit like a skinny Wilford Brimley. As such, you’re given no reason to care a whit about any of them, even after the maniac with the pickaxe comes calling.

There were four writers credited with the screenplay, which makes for patchwork screenwriting. This was a difficult graphic novel to translate to the motion picture medium at best for the reasons outlined above, but it basically had no chance with so many fingers in its pie. Hopefully, the studios and producer Joel Silver will have learned a lesson; avoid action sequences in a snowstorm and focus on character development if you want the suspense to really go off the scale and in the future, try to inject a little suspense into a suspense movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Kate Beckinsale is a beautiful woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a lot of suspense and quite frankly some of the action is hard to see.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence but not to excess, some rather grisly images and a bit of nudity. Probably not for the kids, unless they’re crazy mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lake Manitoba exterior location was occasionally colder than the South Pole it was doubling for.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Expendables