Nicolas Cage and his hair from The Sorcerer's Apprentice re-team with director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) for Season of the Witch, a film whose trailer has been playing for so long that I think the first time I saw it was before I started writing about movies.
Cage (sorta) plays Behmen, a 13th-century knight of the Crusades who, after years of hacking up vaguely Arabic peoples with his best bud Felson (the always welcome Ron Perelman), decides he's had enough of killing for God. Behmen and Felson desert their unit and strike out alone, travelling the hinterlands and trying to go unrecognized, but it isn't long before the need for supplies forces the experienced, battle-hardened warriors to find a city and provisions -- so they pick the one with thousands of crows ominously circling above it.
Fall from Grace. Nicolas Cage and Ron Perelman play 13th-century knights and deserters who hack, stab
and wisecrack their way out of imminent execution in Season of the Witch.
Turns out, the Black Plague is running rampant, or so they learn from another Knight, Eckhardt (Ulrich Thomsen of the recent, and better, hack-and-slasher, Centurion) who recognizes the fugitive pair as deserters. Under arrest, Behmen and Felson face execution.
Or at least they would but for a plague-ridden Cardinal (a near unrecognizable Christopher Lee), who offers clemency to the (sorta) wisecracking pair in exchange for them escorting a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to a far-flung monastery to be tried and presumably killed, since the conventional wisdom boils down to "the plague is all her fault". Behmen doesn't believe the girl is a witch at all (despite her occasional near superhuman strength) and decides to fall in to protect her from the rough justice of Debelzaq (Stephen Campell Moore), the Cardinal's protégé and the girl's chief accuser.
So Behmen, Felson, Eckhardt and Debelzaq set out with a (sorta) wisecracking guide, Hagamar (Stephen Graham) and a wannabe Knight, Kay (the Robert Pattinson-browed Robert Sheehan) on a dangerous quest to deliver the alleged witch to the monks and put a stop to the Hell-spawned plague.
That trailer for Season of the Witch made the film look fairly awful and after seeing the preview more times than Star Wars there wasn't a lot to look forward to, unless it turned out to be campy bad. Season of the Witch isn't really campy at all -- in fact, it takes itself almost too seriously --but (possibly due to impossibly lowered expectations) it turned out to be not terribly bad either. It's just not particularly good.
In a way it suffers from a small slew of recent High Middle Ages hack-fests, namely the propulsive and action-packed Neil Marshall film, Centurion and the jaw-droppingly bizarre, dreamlike, Herzog-inspired, barbarian-art film, Valhalla Rising. Season of the Witch doesn't come close to the action quotient of the former while it's slow-paced--yet-brief 95-minute runtime isn't filled with the heady meditations on survival, existence and death of the latter.
But being an old D&D geek, there was something about the proceedings that hearken back to the early '80's, and its wealth of cheesy sword-and-sorcery flicks. Season of the Witch (sorta) excels with some nice production design and some often-lovely location photography that sometimes lends a truly foreboding atmosphere, particularly during the Wormwood forest sequence. But the film is often marred by sub-par CG work that is, thankfully, relied on as little as possible -- at least until the pixel-raping climax. Still, for them most part Season of the Witch is rather good looking thanks to the adept cinematography of big budget vet Amir M. Mokri (last seen lighting Cage in National Treasure).
Speaking of Cage, his performance is all over the place, veering between solemnity and forced affability as if he'd rather be doing something else. In only a few scenes does he ever seem to let loose. Since the inherently goofy (and plot-hole ridden) story takes itself seriously to a fault, Cage playing it mostly straight doesn't help lighten the tone; sort of a letdown since he shot this right after Bad Lieutenant and if Season of the Witch needed anything it was a dose of Crazy Cage.
Perelman fairs better (he's an old hand at these sorts of things) as Felson, with his silly wisecracks and a mug that was prophesied to be in movies by Nostradamus. Hellboy III can't happen fast enough. Supporting turns vary from solid work by Ulrich Thomsen as Eckhardt to serviceable by Robert Sheehan as Kay to the borderline silly turn from Claire Foy as the witch (or is she?). They're all navigating a script that doesn't make much sense, and is predictably on the rails, but Sena pulls it all together into a something that, while often ill-fitting, wasn't as terrible as it could have been.
Hardly an endorsement, but Season of the Witch (sorta) has its heart in the right place.
All Good Things -- Not Great
It's annoying when a film mistakes ambiguity for gravity and assumes that allusions make its narrative enigmatically compelling. That's the chief mistake director Andrew Jarecki makes with his loosely-based on a true story, All Good Things, which is odd since I heard such good things about his 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans.
With All Good Things, Jarecki blends documentary elements into his tale of David Marks (Ryan Gosling) the discontented son of a successful, 1970's New York real estate magnate (Frank Langella) and whose mother jumped to her death in front of his eyes when he was a child. Disinterested in going into the family business with his condescending, distant father, David instead strikes up a courtship with a gorgeous, free spirit named Katie (Kirsten Dunst), whom he quickly marries despite the elder Marks clear disapproval.
The newlyweds decide to move up to Vermont to open a health food store but, while all seems well, the financial purse strings that keep them afloat are held firmly by David's father. Eventually he acquiesces to his father's demands to earn his allowance by engaging in vaguely nefarious acts to forward the family business and transform 42nd Street into the Time's Square we know today (as opposed to the awesome prostitution and drug-riddled den of inequity it was in the '70's).
Damaged Goods. Ryan Gosling tries to rein the free spirited Kirsten Dunst in All Good Things, a
documentary-like film that doesn’t pull off the dark mystery.
But the pressures start building up in David, driving a rift between him and Katie, and it becomes apparent that witnessing the death of his mother has left scar tissue that can't be seen. As Katie begins to strike out on her own by getting into medical school, David becomes increasingly calculating and eventually dangerous, casting suspicion on him when Katie suddenly disappears without a trace.
It feels like All Good Things is aiming for the same sort of dark mystery vibe that David Fincher captured pretty masterfully in 2007's underappreciated Zodiac, but which Jarecki isn't seasoned enough to pull off with as exacting an eye for detail and narrative. True, he's using a more documentary-like, flashback approach, but the similarities are there. All Good Things' basis on the real-life story of Robert Durst and the incertitude of his responsibility for his wife's disappearance kind of mirrors the unresolved nature of the Zodiac killings; they are both stories that stretch out over a couple of decades -- employing plenty of period design--and they both aim to generate an aura of fascination around mysteries that essentially have no resolution.
But where Zodiac nails all that with a propulsive, compelling --and, more importantly, detailed--script and Fincher's amazing cinematic skill, All Good Things falters under Jarecki's matter-of-fact direction and the ambiguity of its narrative, which loves to allude to the events that drive David's character, be it the death of his mother, or the dark skeletons that occupy closets of a family that made their millions in shady business deals. But none of those allusions really inform David's character, and worse, the vagueness only contributes to the films lack of tangibility, instead of drawing the viewer in. As a narrative it's like a series of events that doesn't really breathe, which isn't helped by its fairly clichéd extended flashback structure. It's a shame because in more adept hands this story could have been far more compelling.
None of the fault lies with the performers, though, as Gosling is typically fine as David Marks, portraying him as a sympathetically likeable black sheep, slowly peeling back the layers of a damaged core. The great chemistry he shares with Dunst (though not to the degree he reached with Michelle Williams in the must-see Blue Valentine) gives the dissolution of their sweetly loving union a tangible sting that the film's execution could not have achieved alone.
Dunst is in rare form here, falling into the role of Katie in a way that had me re-evaluating my estimation of her talents. Maybe it's residual Spider-man resentment, but I never much appreciated her stony, waifish wallflower style. But All Good Things showcases Dunst at her best, and between Dunst and Gosling -- with a nice, if brief turn, from Kristen Wiig as Katie's best friend, Lauren -- and Langella's chilling role, the film at least enjoys a group of damn fine performances. Phillip Baker Hall rounds out the list of people I can't get sick of seeing in movies.
But the fact is All Good Things packs no real punch. The story of Robert Durst is an interesting one but the films insistence on vagueness robs you of any real opportunity to understand him, or even much care that you didn't.
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