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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on Movies: Season of the Witch and Country Strong

Season of the Witch (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S., Dominic Sena

It’s good to find a big movie super production that has a little literary-dramatic ambition — and the new Nicolas Cage picture, Season of the Witch, certainly has some of that.

Produced to a fare-thee-well, flashily directed (by Dominic Sena of Kalifornia), jam-packed with lavish technological trimmings, and massive historical recreations, battles and hell-raisings, the movie also boasts an excellent cast (Ron Perlman, Ulrich Thomsen and Christopher Lee, as well as Cage) , spectacular location shooting in vast, gloomy Austrian and Hungarian forests and huge castles, and fantastic CGI supernatural imagery — as well as the best pustules money can buy.

Witch is set during the 14th century in the time of the Crusades and of the Black Plague in Europe, and it‘s the strange, mini-epic tale of idealistic knight Behmen (Cage) and cynical pragmatist Felson (Perlman), two heroic soldiers, decade-long buddies and veterans of the Crusades, and now deserters, who are captured by the guardsmen of the dying Cardinal d’Ambroise (Lee).

The two — whose objections to the war are moral — are summoned to the Cardinal’s deathbed, where he is wasting away, oozing pestilence, surrounded by weirdo doctors in medieval beak-masks. And they are ordered to transport an accused witch (Claire Foy), suspected of having caused the Plague, in a wagon and cage, accompanied by a weird troop that includes Debelzaq, an obsessed young priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), Echhart, another soldier (Ulrich Thomsen), Hagemar, a swindler-turned-guide (Stephen Graham) and Kay, an altar boy who wants to be a knight (Robert Sheehan). Their destination: a distant monastery, where the captive girl will be tried and burned at the stake by appropriate monks.

Now, this is something you don’t often see in a multiplex: a combination artsy medieval quest movie and slam-bang action adventure show. Though the movie‘s extensive press notes never mention it, the major influence on Bragi Schut, Jr.’s script is clearly one of the great art films of the twentieth century: Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish masterpiece The Seventh Seal.

That film also was set during the Plague years — and it also had a quest, a knight and his sidekick back from the Crusades, an accused witch, priests, monks, a seminarian, lots of corpses, a traveling wagon, a castle and a grandiose supernatural heavy. (The demon in Season of the Witch; Death himself, with his chessboard, in Seventh Seal). Cage’s reflective Behmen (the actor’s hairdressing and wig allotment looks like it might rival Seventh Seal’s whole budget), and Perlman’s tough-guy Felson are the new movie’s equivalents for Max Von Sydow’s philosophical Knight Antonious Block and his cynical Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand).

Unfortunately, Season of the Witch is no masterpiece — though the actors and filmmakers, in some ways, treat it as if it were. It’s more like an over-expensive knock-off of Seventh Seal that’s had mad globs of The Exorcist, Kingdom of Earth, The Name of the Rose, The Masque of the Red Death, some Indiana Jones cliffhangers, and The Crucible jammed down its throat, with the wolf scenes in Twilight as a chaser.

If that almost makes Season of the Witch sound like wild, crazy fun, you should be advised that the movie, though quite good-looking (as Sena’s movies usually are) is done with a weird mix of sobriety and gaudy spectacle, and a straight-faced kitschiness that tends to be as grim and cloudy as the heavy Austrian-Hungarian skies above. The movie takes itself too seriously to be all that much fun, and it’s often too kitschy and outlandish to be believably serious.

There are laughs and merriment (and even some wild strawberries) in Seventh Seal, believe it or not — and also one of the cinema‘s all-time sexiest actresses in Bibi Andersson. But, in Season of the Witch, the only (intentional) comic parts among the traveling ensemble are Hagemar the grinning swindler-guide (played by Stephen Graham, who actually looks like the roguish Plog, played by Ake Fridell in The Seventh Seal), and Perlman as the hard-guy, wised-up Felson.

Graham’s part seems to get almost lost somewhere — he’s established almost immediately as comic relief, but his jokes seem to have mostly died of the Plague. Perlman though gets his chuckles — at several points, he bets Behmen a lot of post-battle drinks he‘ll kill more hundreds of soldiers that day — and the movie would be poorer without him. Perlman gets a mood of jocular, soldierly irreverence, and it matches well against Cage’s dreamy, far-away wonderment. They’re a good team, if understandably dwarfed by the memories of Max and Gunnar (who had better lines).

Cage has been mocked by some critics for those meditative far-away looks, and for his blonde wig, but actually he establishes the kind of rapt mood the movie could use if the story and the script made more sense. Screenwriter Schut has some good ideas, and he‘s obviously seen some good movies. (The opening ten minutes — the witch-hangings and the battles, are quite exciting.) But he takes too many short cuts. The script of Witch seems incomplete and a little skimpy, even though it won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy.

How are we supposed to handle the idea that Cardinal D’Ambroise, faced with a decision that he thinks might actually end the Black Plague, recruits as the witch’s main guards to her trial, two deserters who don’t believe in witches? And then backs them up with a swindler, a wispy priest and an altar boy who wants to be a knight? That‘s about as buyable as the movie’s main cliffhanger: with that 3,000 pound wagon pulled by Behmen gingerly across a ragged suspension bridge menacingly waving between two mountains — a loose, swaying, wind-buffeted span that looks as if it couldn’t survive Elle Fanning, skipping. That scene though, at least does have some wild and crazy fun.

SPOILER ALERT

And what of Foy’s task as the nameless alleged witch, who spends a lot of energy vamping Behmen? The movie sometimes acts a bit like Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General, suggesting, for an uncomfortable amount of time, that Foy’s character might actually be a witch, or at least witchy, or that witches are all around us, somehow. The opening lynching scene, where three alleged Handmaidens of the Devil, are hanged with chains and drowned, begins as tragedy and then turns into Hammer Horror.

And without going into too much detail, the movie’s last Apocalyptic brawl, with Priest Debelzaq chanting the rites from a huge holy tome, monks bursting into flame, Behman battling devils and Felson head-butting Satan, is ludicrous without being hilarious. It actually might have worked better with Donovan’s original song Season of the Witch, with its killer vamps and wails — which I kept waiting for and missing — was played over it.

END OF SPOILER

I’ve liked some of Dominic Sena’s movies — Gone in Sixty Seconds as well as his Cannes prize-winner Kalifornia — and he can be quite a snazzy pictorialist, though he also suffers from the habitual music video director’s addiction to zap. Here, thanks to the film’s spectacular, windswept European scenery, he almost always delivers something eye-catching, from the sandy sieges of the opening Crusades scenes, to the sight of that disintegrating bridge, laden with that huge wagon, slats popping, rope fraying.

Prize or no, the script needed work. But what else is new? Scripts usually need work, more than the deal. As Donovan Leitch once said (I finally got it in): “Oh No…Must be the season of the witch!”

Anyway, Season of the Witch has its moments, just not always the right ones. I could have watched Cage and Perlman Con Sydowing-and-Bjornstranding it up some more, maybe in another movie, with a different ending. And I wish Ingmar Bergman had, once or twice or several time more in his life, gotten a few budgets like this one, or even a healthy fraction of this movie‘s. Then we might have gotten more than one Fanny and Alexander, and maybe seven more like The Seventh Seal.

Country Strong (Two Stars)

U. S.: Shana Feste, 2010

Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly. The Midnight train is whinin’ low. I’m so lonesome, I could cry,”
-Hank Williams

It’s hard to put your heart on your sleeve, and make it stick. Buffeted by memories of that brilliant 2009 Country & Western tearjerker Crazy Heart, — and other similar movies from Tender Mercies to Sweet DreamsCountry Strong tries to muster up the same sense of simple homespun beauty and back roads music and sometimes hellbound self-destruction, and doesn’t really make it.

I think it’s too obvious, formula-bound, twisted up in standard-issue heartstring stuff. The actors are very good (at both acting and singing). But they’re trapped in telegraphed heartache. It means well. It’s a movie with good moments, and some moments that seem like they should be good, and one great scene that delivers what the rest of the movie should but doesn’t: that sweet-chords-in-a-dark-bar knockout blow that is obviously part of Country Strong’s game plan.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the star — and she should have been a knockout, sometimes is. Paltrow plays (and sings) the part of alcoholic six-time Grammy winning country star Kelly Canter– recovering from a catastrophe at a Dallas concert, enduring a stay in rehab and forced back on the road for a comeback tour by her loving but pushy husband James. (She also has a hurt little bird that she takes care of.)

James (played very well, but frustratingly, without a song, by country star Tim McGraw) is a good man who’s learned too well to play the game, and maybe becomes more concerned with Kelly’s career than he is with Kelly.

There are two younger players who complete the quadrangle. Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy) plays (and sings) a part time (but extremely good) C&W singer named Beau Hutton who works at Kelly’s clinic and has an affair with her. Leighton Meester (Gossip Girls) plays (and sings) Chiles Stanton, a self-conscious beauty queen prone to stage freeze-ups, who’s trying to start a C&W career, and who becomes James‘ protégé and has an affair with him.

All four of them wind up on the comeback tour, where three of them sing, sparks fly, concerts are canceled, and hearts are, well, put on sleeves. (I never found out what happened to that hurt little bird. Anybody catch something I missed?)

Director-writer Shana Feste — a seemingly very good-hearted filmmaker who also made the 2010 domestic drama The Greatest, just couldn’t have asked for a better cast. The songs are good. The singers move us. The actors are all good and sincere, even when the scenes don’t quite work, or slide into cliché. This is Feste’s vision of country music — as we’d maybe like it to be.

And she’s right. This country world has two sides. It is sad. It does hurt.

Unfortunately, I mostly didn’t believe a word of this movie, or at least most of the words. I didn’t believe the relationships, the affairs, the crises, the instant reactions of the crowd to the two new-comers, didn’t believe the final resolution (which I won’t reveal, spoiler-alerted or not). I didn’t believe Kelly’s loving husband and friends and interested co-workers would leave Kelly alone so often, at such crucial moments. I didn’t even believe I was in Texas. (I wasn’t; the movie was shot in Nashville.)

Now, I don’t want to make fun of Country Strong. I’d like movies like this to be tried and to be made far more often. But better.

I should say though that Country Strong has one great scene. In that scene, Kelly goes to an elementary school on a “Make a Wish” visit and sings to a little boy who has leukemia. The boy is quiet and frail-looking, but still feisty. She lifts him in her arms, dances with him, sings sweetly. It’s wonderful — exactly that the rest of the movie should have been. It may sound like something a little forced, sound like obvious heart-tugging, my problem with the rest. But it works. I believed it.

And you know, I believed Hank Williams. I believed Patsy Cline. I believed Tammy Wynette. I believed Johnny Cash. I believed Waylon Jennings. I believe Willie Nelson. I believe Merle Haggard. I believe k.d. lang. I believe Kris Kristofferson. Hell, when the lights are low, and the beer spills a little, and the jukebox is playing a real sad song with a slide guitar, I want to believe ‘em all.

“The silence of a falling star lights up the purple sky. And, as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

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