Sunday, December 11, 2011

Which Witch?

Now, I know what you're thinking: Mr. Anderson is gone on a week-and-a-half-long hiatus and when he comes back it's just with a stupid rental review? Yeah, I agree. But my week removed from film came at a time when the industry as a whole seemed to take time off, sitting back and letting The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn's box office run go unmolested. The few "important" movies out that I hadn't seen (chiefly The Descendants and My Week with Marilyn) were not ones I was terribly excited to watch, and this past weekend's wide releases were also more than a bit underwhelming, as the star-boasting New Years Eve and R-rated comedy The Sitter don't exactly nicely follow in the footsteps of truly great 2011 films like Hugo, Arthur Christmas, or The Muppets. Fortunately, with much anticipated films Shame, the Sherlock Holmes sequel, and others finally making their ways onto the big screen this month, I'll be back to seeing so many new releases that getting around to renting older titles will surely be stopped for the near future.

But enough exposition! Season of the Witch combines a number of bad cinematic elements that at first glance look like an easy contender for the year's (if not decade's) worst film. Star Nicholas Cage's run of surprisingly successful crap shoots finally hit a snag this year when he managed to bomb what should have been a likable effort in Drive Angry, breaking records as the lowest-grossing wide release 3D film to that point. And that was the option most likely to be successful! There really should have been no way that Season of the Witch was going to be any better, as it transplanted Cage's penchant for cheesy dialogue and grim stoicism to a Middle Ages setting, making for a genre that doesn't on paper seem deserving of much attention. And yet those who sit down and watch this particular film might find themselves surprised at the entertainment level of the film, especially if they've also sat through Cage's 3D farce this year.

Nic Cage: the same bed head since 1983
Teutonic knights Behman von Bleibruck (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) return to their home country after years fighting in the Crusades, weary and angry at the church that ordered them to murder innocent women and children in His name. Fearless warriors, they find themselves in yet another war, one in which their sword skills will have no impact. The Black Death has ravaged the land of Styria, and the church leaders blame the arrival of a young woman (Claire Foy) for it, calling her a witch. They want Behman and Felson to escort the accused woman to a monastic church where she can be properly judged as to whether or not she is unholy. And so, with a small group behind them, the duo travel on a holy quest, ironic since neither has much love for religion at all.

"Oh, my God" takes on a whole different meaning
Naturally, it's this conflict of faiths that is the underlying tone of Season of the Witch, and the one taken most seriously by the film's script. In the beginning, Behman was an unquestioning follower of God, glad to do battle against His enemies. When the slaughter of innocents forces Behman to take a close look at what he has done, he rejects God, as he believes no real god would allow these atrocities to befall people. It is this mindset with which he agrees to escort the young woman, practically daring the church to prove their argument. The balance is well-regarded, as each member of the group has their own preconceived notions of what is good and evil as the quest begins, and the survivors learn to change their ideas as they go along. In short, this is one of the better "crisis of faith" plot lines I've seen committed to film in recent years.

Soap: it's what's for dinner
It's a shame then that the story and dialogue surrounding this idea are almost laughable in the face of judgment. Director Dominic Sena, who hasn't seemed to grow as a director since his 1993 debut Kalifonia (and arguably has diminished since then), is utterly unable weave tension into what is supposed to be an action movie. While the film does fine concerning the interactions between characters, this doesn't translate to the precious few action sequences, which are supposed to be the linchpin that brings the whole thing together. There's only so much "is she or isn't she" that we can take before it gets old, but Sena didn't get the memo, and focuses more on that than creating compelling battles. Even Conan the Barbarian did a better job of creating a viable universe of potential battle.

And here's where YOU'LL die...

Doing anything worse than Conan would be unforgivable in itself, but in the film as a whole there isn't a whole lot to appreciate here. Dialogue is delivered in dry, emotionless monotones, or at least it is when done so by Nicolas Cage. Cage actually turns in a decent performance given the material he's saddled with. Cage is no longer the wunderkind he was in his heyday, or even the modestly talented performer who could surprise you with films like 2002's Adaptation. These days his starring roles mainly consist of doing exactly what he does in Season of the Witch: enough. It's easy to see the roles that have been written for him; pithy catchphrases throughout with just enough wit sprinkled in to take advantage of his deadpan stares and straightforward delivery. It's difficult to really criticize him for slacking off on a movie, since I've seen him in worse THIS YEAR. As it is, when he states that "I serve the Church no more", even other characters make fun of him. At least some of the others seem to be having a good time, especially Perlman as Felson, lover of drink and women. Perlman does well in these types of roles, delivering each line of dialogue with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, or an overly dour grimace when the situation calls for it. Stephen Campbell Moore also manages to stand out, and is even given a few choice quips in order to earn a chuckle from the audience. Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen and Stephen Graham do serviceable jobs, but barely transcend their meager character attributes. Foy however is easily the most talented, the English TV star showing quite a bit of talent in her first Hollywood role. She really makes you wonder whether or not she is a force of evil, and is the most flexible, interesting character in the mix. Not bad when you consider that she spends almost the entirety of the movie locked in a cage.

No, this isn't some "babes behind bars" exploitation flick
Of course, one great performance doesn't make for an amazing movie-going experience, and when you consider the dearth of a special effects budget (which also hampered Sena's last attempt at moviemaking Whiteout) and a ridiculous twist that has to make the most of the aforementioned SFX, there isn't much to recommend Season of the Witch as anything more than an unintentionally funny trash film. If you really, REALLY want to see a historically-inspired "action" film that you will enjoy entirely based on how stoned you are - or if you just want to see any Nic Cage film - then Season of the Witch can be entertaining on that level alone. If however you actually want to see a GOOD film, you should slowly put this title back on the shelf, take a couple of steps back, and search elsewhere.

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