The Witches (2020)


Someone itches to find some witches.

(2019) Family Horror Comedy (Warner BrothersAnne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock (voice), Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Kristen Chenoweth (voice), Stanley Tucci, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Ashanti Prince-Asafo, Eurydice El-Etr, Orla O’Rourke, Codie-Lei Eastwick, Josette Simon, Joseph Zinyemba, Ana-Maria Maskell. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people remember author Roald Dahl for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but he also wrote a book called The Witches which back in 1990 was turned into a movie by director Nicholas Roeg. Thirty years later, a different Oscar-winning director takes a crack at it.

A young boy (Bruno) – whose name we never know but is referred to in the credits as “Hero Boy” – is orphaned in a car crash and sent to live with his down-to-earth Grandma (Spencer) in Alabama. She is loving and hipper than most grandmas, dancing to the strains of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” which sets the tone as definitely the late Sixties in a place where it wasn’t especially pleasant to be African-American.

Grandma as a young girl had discovered that witches are real – demonic creatures that masquerade as women but are actually completely bald, so they wear wigs that give them nasty rashes on their scalps; they also wear gloves because their hands possess only three fingers that end in razor-sharp claws. Their feet are square with a single toe, and their mouths are extra-wide and full of wickedly sharp teeth. When the grandson has an encounter with one in a store, Grandma realizes she can’t protect him and decides to take him on a vacation to a swanky hotel, where the witches can’t find him, right?

You see, witches also hate children with a passion, complaining that they are noisy (true), selfish (true) and smell like dog poo (wellllll…some do, some don’t). The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who turned Grandma’s closest friend (Prince-Asafo) into a chicken, has a plan to rid the world of kids once and for all. She’s going to reveal her evil plan to her colleagues at a witches convention (disguised as a do-gooder organization dedicated to the welfare of children) – which as bad luck would have it, is taking place at the very hotel where Grandma and her charge have fled to.

More I will not reveal about the plot; if you’ve read the book, suffice to say that this version of it follows the plot of the literature pretty closely, certainly more so than the 1990 film. If you’re not familiar with it, then it’s best not to reveal too much because that will spoil the fun, and above all, that’s what this movie is – fun.

Hathaway chews the scenery with grand gusto, deliciously, delightful evil with a mock-Eastern European accent that makes her somehow even creepier. Much of her facial features and body has been redesigned digitally, giving her the look of a witch while remaining still recognizably Anne Hathaway. She camps it up quite a bit, but the role definitely calls for it, and Hathaway delivers. We sometimes forget that the woman is a fabulous actress who is capable of doing just about anything she wants to in front of the camera. Another reviewer posited that she was acting as a kind of surrogate Betsy DeVos, proclaiming she’s doing everything for the good of children while in reality she was out to cause harm to them, particularly those who are poor or members of minorities. That reviewer for Consequences of Sound wasn’t wrong, I think.

Spencer is a diametric opposite; she’s the loving, warm embrace that we need watching the boy suffer the loss of his parents, withdrawing into an uncaring shell; not eating, not engaging, not smiling ever. She gradually wins him over and brings him back to life, and those scenes early on in the film are among the best in the movie.

Zemeckis is a big believer in CGI and true to form, he employs a whole lot of it here. Some works, but there’s some that doesn’t. There are some talking mice in the movie that look awfully cartoonish, like they stepped out of a Looney Toon, and that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

The big question here is how appropriate is this movie for kids. Yes, it’s based on what is ostensibly a children’s book, but there are some scenes that are going to absolutely terrify the more impressionable wee ones in the house. Parents might want to give the movie a bit of a preview before determining if their kids have the maturity to handle it. Also, the first part of the movie concerns how the grandson deals with the death of his parents in a fairly realistic manner, which might also upset kids who are sensitive. Older kids, say into double digits on the age scale, or particularly mature young ‘uns should be able to handle this.

As mentioned in the Trivial Pursuit entry, this was supposed to be one of the fall tentpoles for Warner Brothers this year, but obviously COVID made the studio revert to Plan B. The movie recently debuted on HBO Max here in the States but in other countries that have handled the pandemic somewhat better than we have will be able to see it in theaters as soon as this weekend. Enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Outstanding performances by Hathaway and Spencer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally too cute for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some scary images and difficult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set for theatrical release in October, the release date was moved out due to the pandemic, until Warner Brothers decided to send it direct to streaming on its HBO Max service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hocus Pocus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Somewhere in Time


Somewhere in Time

A better looking pair of people we may never ever see again.

(1980) Romantic Fantasy (Universal) Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Teresa Wright, Bill Erwin, George Voskovec, Susan French, John Alvin, Eddra Gale, Audrey Bennett, W.H. Macy. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Sometimes being with the one you love isn’t an easy task at all. Distance and circumstance can get in the way, as can the disapproval of others. But what if the one you want to be with lived 60 years earlier?

Richard Collier (Reeve) is a budding playwright who is having a play produced at a community college. The future looks bright for this young man – Broadway producers are sniffing around for his work and he’s got his whole life ahead of him. However, at the cast party, something odd happens; an elderly woman (French) walks in, presses an antique pocket watch into his hand and says “Return to me,” then walks out without another word, a strange little half-smile on her face.

Flash forward eight years. Collier’s now a successful playwright living in Chicago but his life is lacking something. He has no girlfriend, no love life and he is having a hard time writing his next play. He decides to take a breather and goes out on a weekend trip – he has no idea where he’s going, he just gets in his car and drives. He eventually winds up on Mackinac Island – a beautiful island in Michigan (note to purists: while cars aren’t allowed on the island, the production team got special permission to use them just this once). He espies the gorgeous, Victorian-era Grand Hotel and something about it calls to him. He pulls into the hotel and checks in.

He is escorted to his room by Arthur (Erwin), a bellman who has been at the hotel since he was five, back in the 1910s. The view is magnificent from his room and the ambience is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Collier goes down to the hotel dining room only to discover they won’t be open for another 45 minutes. He decides to wander around the lobby and discovers the Hall of History, dedicated to preserving artifacts from the hotels storied past. That kind of thing is of interest to Collier so he browses, but he feels something behind him, beckoning. It turns out to be a photograph of a beautiful woman, the nameplate for which has fallen off.

It turns out her name is Elise MacKinnon (Seymour), a renowned turn-of-the-century actress who once appeared in a play in the hotel’s theater. She became something of a recluse in her later years. Collier becomes obsessed with her. He checks out everything in the library that’s ever been written about her, which isn’t much. However, he discovers that she had a local woman as a caretaker, so he decides to visit her. That’s where he discovers that MacKinnon was actually the elderly woman who visited him with the pocket watch, on what would turn out to be the night she died.

He notices a book on time travel in her collection that an old college professor of his wrote. It turns out that if you hypnotize yourself properly, you can actually send yourself back in time where you will stay – so long as you don’t break the “spell” by seeing something anachronistic. So, he buys himself a turn of the century suit, fills his pockets with coin of the era and starts talking to himself. However, it works – he finds himself back in 1912.

He does manage to meet the lustrous MacKinnon who asks him “Are…you…the one?” to which he replies, “Why, yes…yes I am” which is the right answer, even if you aren’t the one. It’s love at first sight which is big trouble to MacKinnon’s Svengali-like manager W.F. Robinson (Plummer). However, despite all Robinson’s best efforts it appears obvious that MacKinnon is destined to be with Richard forever. However, fate has a cruel twist in store.

There are many who consider this one of the best romantic fantasies of all time, if not the best. French director Szwarc directed this from a nifty screenplay by Richard Matheson who adapted it from his own book “Bid Time Return” (Matheson is best known for his “Twilight Zone” scripts, although he is also an accomplished writer who has had several of his books adapted into movies, including Psycho, The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am Legend). As I mentioned, this is very well-written with a nice twist at the end.

Reeve was then fresh off his Superman: The Movie success and was one of the most sought-after actors in the world, but he did the movie for a considerable discount on what he could have commanded (his agent apparently refused to let him read the script because the producers couldn’t afford to pay him the salary the agent wanted) because he loved the script, which the producers slipped into his hotel room. He comes off a little bit too earnest here, a bit more like Clark Kent than Superman.

Still, his chemistry with Seymour is undeniable. Seymour is absolutely at her best here. She was very much the virginal romantic lead that seemed to be her stock-in-trade back then. She would later go on to “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” which remains her best-known role but at this time, she was still one of Hollywood’s hottest ingénues.

Almost as a third character is the gorgeous Grand Hotel itself. It was then and remains now one of America’s most beautiful hotels, and the movie has only cemented that magic – even today fans of the film flock to the Grand to stay in the place where the movie was made. It is largely unchanged since then, which makes it even more desirable for fans of the movie which are legion.

Which is a bit funny, considering the movie flopped when it was released. Part of that is due to the fact that there was a Screen Actors Guild strike on at the time, preventing the stars from doing any publicity for the film. It also got butchered by reviewers, who called it “overly sweet” and “too serious about itself.” I can see the criticisms, but this is certainly in many ways a Harlequin Romance novel onscreen and while that may have negative connotations to it, is meant to be complimentary here. The movie is not supposed to be anything but the portrayal of an epic romance and of the lengths a man in love will go to in order to be with the object of his affections.

Now if you want to talk about schmaltzy, let’s talk about the score. The late John Barry is perhaps the greatest film score composer ever (some might argue for Max Steiner but I prefer Barry, particularly for epics) but this score missed the mark. He pulls out Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini nearly every time the lovers are within earshot of one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific music but it should have been used more sparingly to preserve its impact.

Nattering aside, the movie remains one of my favorites. I do have a sentimental attachment to it; my late father loved this movie. He was a romantic man, far more than his son – I certainly wish that I had more of that in my personality. Still, I can appreciate a good romantic fantasy – heck, I love a good romance movie too, when it’s done right. For all its faults, it’s a pretty good story and that it reminds me of my dad is icing on the cake.

WHY RENT THIS: A glorious premise and Reeve and Seymour make a magnificent couple. Beautiful Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is a star. Well-written, with a very clever ending.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A surprisingly schmaltzy score by John Barry, and a bit too serious about its epic love affair for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations but otherwise pretty mild, even for its day.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In scenes with both Plummer and Reeve, Szwarc referred to the former as Mr. Plummer and the latter as Bigfoot because of the confusion of their identical first name. This was also William H. Macy’s first movie (he is credited under the name of W.H. Macy).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD has a featurette on the film’s very rabid fan club, as well as an excellent hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (I know, there’s one of those on every DVD but this one is a little less of a commercial than most).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie reportedly flopped.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Day 3 of Cinema365: From the Heart