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Review: The Witch

Written and directed by Robert Eggers, “The Witch” is A New England Folktale set roughly in the 1630’s that follows the story of a family cast out from society in the new American colonies for being accused of “prideful conceit”. While we never get the exact details about what William (Ralph Ineson) and his family engaged in to receive a sentence as damning as banishment, that isn’t what the story is truly about anyways. We can surmise that William probably took his own interpretation of the bible to be more accurate than those of the colony. As he claims in the opening scene that he practiced only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels”. Thus the film begins as the family of seven treks out into the wilderness, firm in their decisions, unknowing of their doom to come.

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The family consists of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) the eldest son- though he’s only about twelve, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) the young twins that earn the title of creepiest kids in the film, and Thomasin the eldest daughter, a few years older than Caleb and easily the standout performance of the film- though all are great. Katherine (Kate Dickie) the Mother, who unravels psychologically and spiritually as the film progresses, is at a complete loss once the youngest child, Samuel the baby, is mysteriously abducted near the beginning of the film. It’s always a gamble with child actors, but this may be the best use of little performers since “Jurassic Park” (I’m not dying on that hill- I just rewatched the classic recently and it’s been rambling about in my headspace since). They’re all poise perfect in their period-accurate performances. Thomasin in particular is a fascinating role, as the family crumbles from within Witch accusations are aimed at her, and there is a bit of sly wit hidden subtly in her performance that makes you ask, Wait… is she actually the Witch? The paranoia of the family is infectious to say the least. Though Caleb makes an argument for the best, and most chilling, scene in the whole film- it certainly got to me in the moment.

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See, the beautiful trick of the film is that while the title may indicate that the film is about “The Witch”, and there is indeed some supernatural underpinnings trifling about, it’s more about the effect that the Witch has on this family. They are torn apart as much by their superstitions and fears of damnation as they are of the titular creature’s actions. In fact it is this weaving of the supernatural with the sense of hard realism that makes the film stand out from it’s genre limitations to become something more than the sum of its parts. On a technical level, the film pays homage in cinematography and framing to old religious renaissance paintings, particularly of Goya’s work on the subject of Witches (Even though he lived a century later in Spain). The score is also worth mentioning as it fuels the sense of a tense and bellowing doom. Booming orchestral vocals against a moonlit forest paint the mood for the film, danger lies at the edge of the woods, damnation is afoot, and trust is cast aside.

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Old religious imagery sprinkled in throughout the film with the age appropriate attitudes of the family combine to heighten the dread that would be nearly impossible within a modern setting. We don’t take everything in life as a seriously as those before us had. After giving this film a watch I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, so I read up on what countless others had to say on the matter. There was something particularly unnerving about the film that I just couldn’t articulate efficiently, Was it the acting? The setting? Or simply the unabashed originality behind it? Then I gave the New Yorker’s review of the film a read and Anthony Lane perfectly exemplified what I was missing, “This is, to put it mildly, an uncommon state of affairs for anyone who frequents the cinema, the theatre, or the opera house. How many people, these days, heading out of ‘Don Giovanni,’ are honestly shaken by the mortal terror of the hero, in his final conflagration? Which of us treats ‘The Crucible,’ set sixty years or so after the events of ‘The Witch,’ as anything but a reflection on the political hysteria of the time in which it was written? The problem is simple: we can’t be damned. One gradual effect of the Enlightenment was to tamp down the fires of Hell and sweep away the ashes, allowing us to bask in the rational coolness that ensued. But the loss—to the dramatic imagination, at any rate—has been immense. If your characters are convinced that a single action, a word out of place, or even a stray thought brings not bodily risk but an eternity of pain, your story will be charged with illimitable dread. No thriller, however tense, can promise half as much.” The historical context and how accurately the characters were represented in their actions and fears gave the film an unshakable authenticity- we believe that the characters believe with a steadfast resoluteness. There are no jokes or irony in their performance, no release once the film has you in it’s grasp.

“The Witch” is a fascinating and unconventional horror film that preys upon our past to craft a finely tuned and chilling film. I definitely recommend it if you’re into unique offerings in this genre- though it is slow at times and will definitely not be for everyone (It wholeheartedly earns its ‘R’ rating). I wouldn’t recommend it to new parents- unless they enjoy fresh nightmare scenarios they hadn’t yet considered to keep them awake at night. It’s out on streaming services and physical media at this point, give it a watch if you can- it’s definitely a standout of the genre in my opinion.

Final Score: 1 Black Phillip & 1 damned family

 

Sources:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/29/the-witch-review

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Review: Hereditary

Written and Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the latest horror movie from studio A24. This most recent offering continues A24’s tradition of releasing films that refuse to be average, which results in a storytelling boon for their audiences. “Hereditary” follows the lives of the Graham family as they navigate the loss of their Matriarch, Ellen. The film opens with her funeral as her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) gives a muted eulogy which perfectly preps us (but does not prepare us) with a foundation of paranoia. Ellen, it seems, was a very private person with private friends. So much so that her closest relatives know almost nothing about her life and its many secrets. The family dysfunction that stems outward from Ellen has produced a multitude of psychological and emotional issues in her offspring. Most notably affected by this is Annie, a miniature model creator, wife, and mother, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown- or at least close to one- right from the beginning of the film. Her husband Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) just tries to keep everything and everyone around him afloat amidst the cavalcade of creeps that’s about to descend into his family’s life. They have two children Peter (Alex Wolff), the older teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the very unsettling young girl who makes those creepy clicking sounds that you’ve heard in the advertising of the film.

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I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, or at least keep them to a minimum. There are essentially two sides to this film. There’s the story you think you’re watching for the first half of the film, and then there’s the second story that you won’t likely fully grasp the details of until the film very deliberately tells you what’s happening in the final shot of the film. In retrospect, there’s a very well thought out string of breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film that do hint at the supernatural underpinnings that are taking place just out of frame. There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s throwbacks to classic horror cinema from the mood and tension building of “The Shining” to the wild shock and awe of certain scenes from “The Exorcist”. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend going into any movie with your expectations rampant and out of control- the film simply cleverly pulls from those icons while greatly remaining as its own unique experimentation.

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The greatest thing the film accomplishes is its’ execution of tension and unsettling mystery. There’s one, maybe two, jump-scares in the entire film and that is a huge benefit. There is no release here, once the film has entrapped you, it has your undivided attention. There are words scrawled on the walls of the Grahams’ house, only ever seen by Annie who seems to become more and more untrustworthy and unraveled as the film progresses- which makes us question if she’s actually even seeing them. Not to mention Charlie, who is unquestionably disturbing in nearly every scene she’s in- and even in a few she’s not. Charlie has visions of her dead grandmother, cuts off a dead bird’s head for unknown reasons (a prelude to all the beheadings later in the film- there’s more than you would expect from this film’s pretenses), and she exponentially keeps making that freaky clicking sound that I keep thinking I hear when it’s too quiet around the house. Curiously Peter isn’t all that focused on in the first half of the story, until about the mid point when THAT SCENE happens and it affects Peter so much that he begins to slowly lose his mind. Then there’s these visual clues, symbols, and red herrings all over the film- everything that happens or is shown seems to have a reason and action behind it, but it does help to keep the audience out of the conversation and thereby cleverly distracting us to keep the intrigue high. It keeps building this ever creepy crescendo of madness until it reaches the boiling point.

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Everything about “Hereditary” was crafted with horror loving hands. The score is effectively distressing and alarming when it needs to be, the way the film is edited is pure unease, and the progression of the characters is downright unnerving. There’s so much more I could discuss, but by doing so I would ruin the fun of the mystery. I highly suggest seeing this film if you enjoy good horror films. I don’t even really care all that much for the genre, but this film got to me. It still wanders into my mind days later and turns lovely afternoons into insidious hours of peeking around corners and occasionally getting scared by the cat.

Final Score: a Dozen creepy cult members

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Review: Swiss Army Man, or “Undead Harry Potter farts a lot; Paul Dano talks to him about it”

Are you sitting around wondering what to do with yourself? Have some time to kill but are tired of the same old thing at the box office? The answer you’re looking for is “Swiss Army Man”. Co-directors and writers Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, both presented here simply as “Daniels”, have created something truly unique. This is by far the most original film I have seen in ages. It’s quirky nature may not be for everyone, but I suggest checking out if only for the fact that you’ve never seen anything quite like this before.

Okay, so, in short, this movie is about a suicidal guy teaching a dead man that life is beautiful. I know, but trust me, it gets weirder. The film opens with Paul Dano’s character Hank about to hang himself as he’s stranded on a small island. Right before he does so he spots Daniel Radcliffe’s, or Manny as Hank later dubs him, dead body washed up on shore. He investigates the corpse and finds it to be full of flatulence. From there Hank rides Manny away from the island like a jet-ski, powered solely by Manny’s farts. Now, if at this point you’re asking why I would recommend such a film, I would say to you that this film is almost indescribable. It doesn’t necessarily sound “fresh” on paper. However what Daniels achieved in this film is the weirdest, and oddly most heartfelt, combination of what could be considered trash, or low brow art, and elevating it, or mixing it with high class art.

Hank and Manny reach the mainland and try to reach society throughout the rest of the film. The hook is when Hank begins to talk to Manny a la Tom Hanks and Wilson in “Castaway”, and Manny begins to talk back. From there Hank begins to teach Manny, who actually is dead-yet also alive.. sort of, about life, people, and how the world works. Manny has no memories of his past life and he’s almost alien like in his understanding of how things work. He constantly asks questions and points out the illogical tendencies of human social acts, like how if you want to talk to a girl, you should just talk to her. Hank soon finds that Manny may be dead but his body has even more odd abilities as the story unfolds. I won’t go further into all of the details as I find it best to seek out the story here for yourselves mostly because to elaborate further would ruin the surprise.

This film is a standout for me because all of the weird pieces come together with a unique voice that hasn’t been heard until now. The writing is solid, the cinematography nicely shot, and the acting by both Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano is superb. This film has heart, saddness, truth, and a pretty cool soundtrack that matches the film’s wild changes in tone and sensation. It also has erection jokes, good use of body humor, and a whimsical spirit that defies the mainstream love of grit and darkness. The film rejects the stifled society norms of what is acceptable and what kinds of story that can be told. This film is deeper than it has any right to be, and that’s amazing in itself. Not to mention the elaborate practical effects that showcase the Daniels’ skill for original and entertaining sequences onscreen.

Personally I adored this film, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it unapologetically is what it is, and it’s okay with that. Be warned though, just because Daniel Radcliffe is in this doesn’t mean it’s for all ages. I doubt children would be okay with seeing a dead, farting, Harry Potter being dragged through the dirt by Paul Dano.

Final Score: 4.5/5

 

Check out this interview with Daniels