New releases 5/17/16

Top Hits
The_WitchThe Witch (New England Puritan Gothic horror, Anya Taylor-Joy. Rotten Tomatoes: 90%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “Written and directed by Robert Eggers, ‘The Witch’ takes place in an America that in its extremes feels more familiar than its period drag might suggest. It’s set a decade after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth and tracks William’s family as it leaves the plantation to settle down alone at the edge of a forest. There, the family members build a farm, grow corn and commit themselves to God, a contract tested by a series of calamities that turn this story of belief into a freak-out of doubt. As the wind stirs the trees and the children taunt one another with talk of witches, you may remember that the movie’s subtitle is ‘A New-England Folktale.’ Something wicked this way comes?” Read more…)

Wildlike (adventure/drama, Bruce Greenwood. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 74. From Daniel M. Gold’s New York Times review: “In ‘Wildlike,’ Mackenzie [Ella Purnell], a 14-year-old from Seattle whose father has died and whose mother is in rehab, is sent to live with her uncle in Alaska for the summer. But when the creep starts molesting her, she runs away, alone and desperate in strange if beautiful country. Scrambling to stay ahead of her uncle, Mackenzie eventually attaches to Bartlett [Bruce Greenwood], a middle-aged backpacker headed to Denali National Park, in the unspoken hope that he’ll help her get home.” Read more…)

Southbound (horror anthology, Chad Vilella. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 58. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “‘Southbound’ is something you don’t see much anymore: an anthology horror film. Its five segments do what they’re supposed to do — unsettle you — but as a bonus, they also leave you wanting more. These are fragments more than complete stories, and the incompleteness is its own kind of creepiness.” Read more…)

Where Hope Grows (faith drama, Kristoffer Polaha. Rotten Tomatoes: 46%. Metacritic: 41. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “Not to be flip, but ‘Where Hope Grows’ has the potential to be a decent inspirational film until God shows up. The movie, written and directed by Chris Dowling, begins with a clichéd character, the failed athlete with a drinking problem. He is Calvin [Kristoffer Polaha], who is brooding about his lost baseball career so much that all his personal relationships are in jeopardy, including the one with his teenage daughter [McKaley Miller]. But he begins to change when he strikes up a relationship with a stock boy at the grocery who has Down syndrome and whom everyone calls Produce… But just when their friendship catches your interest, Mr. Dowling reveals that he isn’t really interested in exploring its possibilities at all; he’s just using it to sell Christianity.” Read more…)

The Program (Lance Armstrong-fueled exposé drama, Ben Foster. Rotten Tomatoes: 53%. Metacritic: 53. From Stephewn Holden’s New York Times review: “Two scenes in ‘The Program,’ Stephen Frear’s patchy docudrama tracing the rise and fall of the disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong tell you all you need to know about this crude cinematic demolition job. In one, the Armstrong character [Ben Foster] studies himself in a mirror while rehearsing different versions of the statement, “I’ve never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.” No matter how he says it, the words ring false.” Read more…)

Dirty Grandpa (raunchy comedy, Robert De Niro. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “Dan Mazer’s crude, mindless ‘Dirty Grandpa’ is like watching a friend’s mediocre improv troupe do an extended spring-break sketch. And your friend just happens to be Robert De Niro… Most of the comedy is along the lines of phallic graffiti on a subway poster. You can’t question Mr. De Niro’s commitment, however: In one of many scenes played for shock value, he does a surprised-while-masturbating gag. Years of talking blue streaks in Martin Scorsese movies make him a natural for playing this alpha-male senior.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
The Witch

New Foreign
TheebTheeb (Jordan, adventure/drama, Jacir Eid. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 80. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “If you were a preadolescent boy stranded in the desert with a sinister grown-up stranger on whom you depended for your survival, what would you do? That question, posed in the spellbinding Jordanian adventure film ‘Theeb,’ drives a story set in the farthest reaches of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The man, who is seriously wounded, and the boy play cat and mouse as they help each other stay alive in a do-or-die struggle.” Read more…)

The Naked Island (Japan, 1960, drama, Nobuko Otowa)

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949, Inspector Maigret mystery, Charles Laughton)

New Television
Orange Is the New Black: Season 3

New Documentaries
Jackie_RobinsonJackie Robinson (Ken Burns PBS bio, Jackie Robinson, baseball, civil rights. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 83.  From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “Part 1 of ‘Jackie Robinson,’ Monday on PBS, revisits this history, with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, the principal guide. It remains one of the pivotal stories of 20th-century America, simultaneously stirring and infuriating, with Robinson blazing a trail despite blatant and entrenched racism. But it’s in Part 2 on Tuesday night that Mr. Burns and his co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon [his daughter and son-in-law], venture into the less clear-cut part of Robinson’s life, when he became more outspoken about civil rights yet wasn’t always viewed heroically.” Read more…)

Last Summer Won’t Happen (1968 post-hippie political documentary, East Village, Abbie Hoffman, activism)
Investigation of a Flame (activism, Vietnam War, draft resistance, Daniel Berrigan)

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/17/16: “The Witch”

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE WITCH (dir. Robert Eggers, 2015)

New England, 1630: a family consisting of a father, mother, and four children are exiled from their Puritan settlement for what are called “prideful conceits.” The father, William (Ralph Ineson), contends that it is they who are the true followers of God.

Pushed out of one remote outpost in the New World into an even more remote waste, they settle, after some time, on the edge of a dark forest. Eventually, another baby is born, Samuel, who, while being watched over one day by the oldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), disappears during an innocent game of peek-a-boo. The camera shows – or seems to show – an elderly female stealing away with the child. The family begins to unravel.

Robin Wood once stated that, in a horror film, “normality is threatened by the monster.” If this reliable formula holds true, then Robert Eggers’s THE WITCH presents a satisfying complication: more slow-burner or folk tale (the film is, in fact, subtitled “A New-England Folktale”) than boogeyman body-count or spine-tingler. Normality is definitely threatened but it is hard to say by whom or even by what.

In spite of its title, the monster here is a remarkably disembodied force. While there definitely appears to be a malevolent being crouching in wait in the woods, at the edge of reason, much of the horror here is committed by one family member against another. For example, to make ends meet, William surreptitiously sells his wife Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) treasured silver cup in order to buy hunting supplies. Though he eventually owns up to the transgression, it is too late to spare Thomasin who has already been withering under the implications of guilt due to Samuel’s disappearance, setting the forces of familial disintegration firmly into motion.

The_WitchLike Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one senses that these regular folk are perched – dangling – over the flames. In an existence built upon faith, the implication seems to be that, once the infection of doubt seeps in, everything civilized goes down like a house of cards. Worse, in a world built upon repression, woe unto those who throw the gates wide open….

Horror is a genre which makes its capital through the building of discordancy and unease on the peripheries of perception: most often through visuals but effectively, as well, through sound (see, for example, THE SHINING or the recent IT FOLLOWS). THE WITCH succeeds in these respects in unexpected ways. While its stark beauty – its unburnished wilderness and murky interiors shot through with shafts of natural sunlight or threatening to swallow up the meager flicker of a candle, its achingly spare score and sound effects – invites the viewer to look, the sense of imminent menace dares the viewer to continue that very act of looking. After all, the truest and most intuitive laws of horror films are that the viewer is only as safe as the present moment allows and that the act of looking, itself, is infused with danger. At its best, THE WITCH attracts as it repels: the camera’s steady, unwavering gaze, classically-framed tableaux, and hauntingly minimal score pulling the viewer in opposite directions, making for a queasily satisfying experience.

His debut feature, Eggers writes and directs this with surprising assurance and with a rigorous naturalism rare in the genre, suggesting more of Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING or Malick’s THE NEW WORLD than THE EXORCIST or THE OMEN. Eggers is aided by an excellent cast, headed by Ineson, Dickie, and the radiant Taylor-Joy, but also including Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays brother Caleb with wide-eyed earnestness, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as a creepy pair of twins, and an equally unsettling goat named Black Phillip in the definition of a scene-stealing animal role (hint: he has some of the better lines in the movie). Great care is taken across the board with costumes (Eggers was a former costume designer, himself), production design, and accurate recreation of New England accents of the time. Expressionistic flourishes appear just frequently enough to make the viewer squirm, offering a superbly understated creep-out factor.

A bit like later Kubrick or Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN, THE WITCH is calibrated like a tonal pitch which builds in intensity to an inexorable conclusion, the hands of fate pushing events forward. This strangely-wrought amalgamation of art film and horror movie may fail to please either extreme, yet is perfectly appropriate to our strange times.