THE WITCH — Review by Patrick Lindsley

THE WITCH

Review by Patrick Lindsley

The Witch is about Puritan family living in New England circa 1630. After they have a disagreement with religious leaders a farmer (Ralph Ineson), his wife (Kate Dickie) and their four children are exiled from the confines of the settlement. The leave and live in a cabin on the edge of the  woods.  After settling in a remote area, crops mysteriously fail. Their newborn baby is then snatched while the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)  is with her, but she has no recollection of what happened. Twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) suspect Thomasin of witchcraft. The family bickers and begins accusing each other of witchcraft.  The question is, is there really a witch in the woods terrorizing the family? Or is it all in their minds.

The movie starts off with a couple scares and glimpses of what may be the witch.   The resulting hysterics from glimpses of the real or imaged witch  grow tiresome and fail to move the story along.  The movie soon falls flat when the scares stop and the movie slowly drudges on. Any tension that is built up is killed by painfully slow pacing as events are dragged on far too long.  What we get  is never ending dialogue about the strange things happening, but little to no substance of what actually happens.  Director Robert Eggers uses Old English dialogue and accents in this movie.  The dialogue is incoherent and abstract.  Worst still Eggers has directed the actors to speak in hushed and muted speech.  We as viewers end up with a muddled storyline with no coherent plot from actors that are difficult to understand.  Once we are painfully dragged through to the end of the movie it appears out of nowhere. It doesn’t make sense or follow what happens in the preceding 85 minutes of the movie. It’s a  squandered ending that does not answer any questions.  This movie was a huge missed opportunity that had a lot of real religious and mythical folklore to work with. We see very little to any of this in the move.  Do not get me started on the sound design/mix in the movie.   It was painful at time.  Loud and grating. It felt like an amateur was in charge of the sound mix.  As it turns out this is Robert Eggars first feature movie.  He comes from a background as a production designer and director on several short films. This movie felt more like a student film than one put together by a group of professionals.

Despite my misgivings there are some great acting by the cast.  Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin was a  bright spot in my opinion. She is a great actress and I look forward to seeing her in better movies.  Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke is the other.  He creates a dreary background that feels like a painting come to life.  I can only image what  he can do on a bigger budget movie. The Witch made for a reported $3.5 million dollars.  Look for Jarin Blaschke to go on to bigger and better things. I am not as sure about Robert Eggars.

They marketed this as a horror film, but I would describe it as a period drama with horrible things in it. It starts out promising, but soon descends into sermon about sin. This is an arty movie that landed Robert Eggars best director/writer at Sundance.  The film was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.  Did they watch the same film I did?  apparently not.  This was an awful movie.  It was one of, if not the worst movie going experiences I ever had. I don’t think anything in my theater walked out happy with what they saw.  Watching The Witch is like watching a sculptor spend meticulous hours sculpting a statue. then shattering it into a million pieces.  It all seems like a complete waste.  This movie wasted an 90 minutes of my life that I can never get back.  Recommendation: Avoid it at all costs.

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IN THE HEART OF THE SEA- Written Review

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA 122 min

Director: Ron Howard

Cast:
Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleason, Michelle Fairley

The long beginning of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “In The Heart Of The Sea, THE TRAGEDY OF THE WHALESHIP ESSEX,” (2000, Penguin Books) is, to be honest, a little boring. Academic boring.

Philbrick is a bona fide Nantucket nautical nerd. He frustrates all sea adventure geeks by choosing first to unleash a torrent of factual particulars so vast it smothers the reader in expository excess. There is a page with a list of the crew of the Essex and two diagrams of the ship itself, with 27 features of the ship labeled for your review. And review you will, through much of the book. If you’re expecting the first chapter to seize the your imagination with some extraordinary heroic scene- like from an Horatio Hornblower novel- you’re SOL. of It’s a work of non-fiction, after all.

But I’m not a book critic. And I got through the book. You know what? Philbrick made the right choice.

There comes a time every book ( and every movie ) when you realize who or what the antagonist is. Sure, there’s a whale. Yes, it’s big- too big to be believed- and yes there is also lots of unfortunate open sea weather. Quick moving squalls, heat, wind, high waves, rain etc. We all know what can happen “out there.” Yes there are characters who don’t get along and who have malevolent intentions. But those are smaller ingredients in a larger recipe. In The Heart Of The Sea- *The Book*- has one dominating antagonist: Nantucket’s arrogant Quaker whaling culture.

Guess what? This movie barely acknowledges that. And that’s where it all went wrong. This is a romanticized mess of a film. In fact, it should never have been a two hour cinema film. Wrong format. It should have been adapted as an eight to ten episode limited series with plenty of time given to exploring the Quaker foundation of Nantucket’s whaling industry. Why? Because besides being really interesting (the secret lives of the Nantucket’s wives for one thing) it is key if one is to understand how Quakers used their religion to legitimize such a brutal industry for the love of profit.

Okay- I know what you’re saying. “the book is always better than the movie.” If you think I’m punishing the movie because it’s not as good as the book you are wrong. So let’s talk about the movie. It won’t take long.

The gimmick of the film, where key character Tom Nickerson dramatically narrates the tale of the Essex thirty years after the event to young writer Herman Melville, is flawed from the start. There are so many reasons why it doesn’t work. Mainly, there are parts of the story he could never, ever know. Nickerson was a cabin boy on the Essex. The overall account of the Essex is a historical collection of narratives from a few key survivors. Nickerson was just one of those survivors. Although the film tries to show us Nickerson listening in on several important conversations between the captain and his officers, it’s a struggle to overlook his coincidental and convenient location during these conversations just to satisfy the restrictions of the narrative. A cinema trope at its worst.

This film could have benefited from a Rashomon – type point of view. There are certainly enough characters to go around. Without a legitimate point of view and a believable Quaker inspired motivation behind the behavior of key characters, the film becomes a forced series of disconnected scenes highlighted with CGI spectacle.

It feels like a strange thing to write when talking about a Ron Howard movie. Howard has always been able to ground his films in reality in spite of using, or even needing, CGI to drive that reality. Think of Apollo 13, a superb survivor film that has fifty times the tension and dread that this film has. Plus, don’t get me started on how the sound effects muffled the dialogue. My hearing’s not that bad.

***

The formula looked good I’m sure. Interesting book. True story. Chris Hemsworth. Up and comer and new Spiderman Tom Holland just to bring in the teens. Whatever.

Every time Hollywood makes me spend very hard earned money on a film that should never have been made (think Fantastic Four, Jupiter Ascending, or any “dystopian” young adult book turned movie) I get a little more pissed off.

Can I have my $14.00 back?

Jim Bruno
There Be MOVIES

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SPOTLIGHT **WRITTEN REVIEW

SPOTLIGHT

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Cast:
Mark Ruffalo
John Slattery
Liev Schreiber Michael Keaton Rachel McAdams Stanley Tucci
Billy Crudup
Brian d’Arcy James

Spotlight is a film about how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” feature reporters stand up to Boston’s powerful Catholic Archdiocese and expose decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Described as such, you would think it sits comfortably side by side with movies like All The Presidents Men. In fact, Spotlight never pretends to be a story about intrepid reporters who employ unflinching guile to “get the story” or other journalistic tropes.

All The Presidents Men had a romanticized righteousness about it, but Spotlight instead shows us, from the very first scene to the last, how so many of Boston’s loyal Catholic culture, deeply embedded in Boston’s legal institutions, media, and community, diverted attention away from the Catholic Church’s protection of pedophile priests and enabled abuse to go on for decades.

As more and more of the story unfolds, there is a creeping, shameful awareness by the reporters that they themselves may have played a part in the cover-up to some extent by being more Catholic than Journalist.

Any comparison to the “Journalist As Hero” movie ends right there.

Also, if anyone tries to pass this off as a “procedural” they are missing the point. This film transcends the “procedural” genre and is something entirely different under the surface. You might as well call a Bugatti Veyron “just a car”

Because this is based on a true story, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy ( and writer Josh Singer ) had two very big problems. First, despite an almost un-digestible amount of events, dates, and names, they had to establish an easily understood and cohesive narrative for the audience without pulling them out of the story. Follow the bouncing ball, cinema style.

Anyone who thinks this is easy to do should watch Interstellar. Chris Nolan couldn’t quite get it right, and Interstellar suffered for it. Here, McCarthy and Singer nail it. Those famous “reporters questions”— who, what, where, when, how, why— are used to increase the action and the tension. The audience learns at the same time the reporters do. We are invested in learning more and want to connect the dots as much as the reporters do. We are a participant and not just an observer and remember everything.

The other major problem is the need for an organic reason to justify the Spotlight investigation. After all, if the Catholic Church was covering up decades of abuse, how was it that no-one at the Globe, or any paper for that matter, ever caught on? Why is it different now? The answer is Marty Baron, played with unflappable stillness by Liev Schreiber.

Since I don’t know the source material for the film I can only assume the hiring of editor Marty Baron was an actual event. In any case, Baron is the rational behind the investigation. He is new to Boston. He is not Catholic, he is Jewish. He stands away from the long shadow of the Catholic Church. He is an outlier and asks the Spotlight crew to re-examine the tale of an abuser priest and drill deeper into the story. His instincts tell him there is more there to see. The Spotlight reporters show little interest and so he gently insists and, in the process, reminds them they are journalists and they should go be journalists. It’s a stinging barb delivered not with emotion but with calm, measured authority.

McCarthy often shoots Baron alone and at a distance, often filtered by objects or people that clutter our view of him. He could have a sign on him that says “not from Boston.” Anyone used to seeing Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan will be amused for sure.

In many ways, this is a movie without a lead actor. It’s an ensemble movie. In order for us to believe these characters we must see them engage in the little details of life. Washing the dishes, eating pizza, waiting — and more waiting, ( apparently journalists do a lot of waiting ). Close ups are rare and used only to punctuate a reaction to something we need to remember. There are some deep space shots, some tracking shots, crane shots- but nothing that says “look at me, aren’t I inventive and clever.” This movie relies on solid writing and strong acting and not conspicuous use of cinematography.

Rachel McAdams continues to show us why she deserves to be considered one of the best character actresses working today. Sure, she can play a lead. But her real strength is dominating the small parts of a film. She was an unpretentious joy to follow.

We see Michael Keaton, leading the Spotlight crew, tactical and holding back. We wonder what is beneath the surface of this character which seems so ready to evolve and risk it all. He’s doing his best work here. Keaton may get an Oscar nod.

Stanley Tucci, ever the master of quirky unconventional characters, ( no disrespect to Steve Buscemi ) plays the attorney dancing on the razors edge that is the Catholic Church. The long suffering lone soldier in a years long war against a machine he can never defeat. Until, perhaps, now. Tucci must be able to show us how it’s possible to go from defeated to hopeful with few scenes and little dialogue. Perfect casting.

Rounding out the cast, among others, are Billy Crudup, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James, all of which give convincing performances.

If there is one actor in this film than can be called Lead Actor it is Mark Ruffalo. It will be a strange and petty omission by the academy if he does not get a nomination for BEST ACTOR.

In the films most gripping- and only scene of intense anger- Ruffalo crumples his face and delivers a monologue so full of frustration it was like watching a strangled man trying to cast off his strangler. He’s almost religious in his desire to rush the story to print.

Spotlight contains scenes of unflinching honesty. Descriptions of abuse were hard to listen to, not only because of our empathy towards the abused, but because the recounts highlighted the language and methods the priests used to persuade and trick their victims. Stories are told factually and without melodrama. Once we hear our second story of abuse the movie is no longer just about the strategy of crafting a core shaking expose— now we want justice.

Spotlight is a modern triumph for anyone who believes cinema can inspire and shape social justice. Also, it’s a great movie. So go see it now, at your local cinema. It’s money well spent. Beware— you may think about this film long after you’ve seen it.

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