31 Days to Scare ~ The Witches

2

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches.  How much do I love it?  At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990.  Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it.  The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film.  A rare treat in those tricky times.

Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite.  Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.

Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it.  It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis.  Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.

When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother.  At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk.  Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known.  Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything.  Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day.  Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.

Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her.  The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb.  I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies.  Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.

In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile.  These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild.  All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work.  This is absolutely, positively, not for young children.  For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.

Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time.  She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes.  She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch.  The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices.  Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.

It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on.  It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back.  The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up.  Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life.  Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection.  A truly wonderful remake.

Movie Review ~ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Kazakh funnyman Borat risks life and limb when he returns to America with his young daughter to take on a pandemic as well as politics.

Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudolph Giuliani

Director: Jason Woliner

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s almost fitting that in a month where I’m running a series called 31 Days to Scare I’d also happen to screen a movie with a premise that makes me squirm more than any horror film out there.  There’s something about watching normal, everyday people being interviewed or at the center of an elaborate set-up where they aren’t in on the joke that makes me incredibly uncomfortable – it’s just not a space I like to live in, though I know it’s a sweet spot for a number of viewers.  Still, I watch through the kind of splayed fingers that I imagine many would screen a slasher film or gooey alien science fiction picture, feeling my blood pressure rise the longer the gag goes on.

Fourteen years ago, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen brought Borat Sagdiyev, his popular Kazakh journalist character that came to prominence on Cohen’s lightening rod program Da Ali G Show, to the screen.  That film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was made on a miniscule budget but was a runaway hit that saw its box office grow week after week and it’s title character’s quotable catchphrases enter the vocabulary almost instantly.  It also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, not too shabby for a film that featured large chunks of improvisation and introduced many audience members to the mankini.

Since that time, Baron Cohen has found ways to bring Borat back but he’s such a recognizable character that it was next to impossible to make a follow-up and capture that same innocence.  His subsequent attempts at new creations or taking the same route with other of his sketch eccentrics haven’t caught fire the same way, though Baron Cohen has gained some ground in feature films that allow him to stretch in other ways, most recently in The Trial of the Chicago 7 for Netflix.  Throughout the last year there had been rumors of Borat sightings and news of Baron Cohen’s run-ins with the law at key events gave the impression he might be up to something.

It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to have seen the announcement that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (shortened from, well, something longer) was not only a go but already done, edited, in the can, and ready for release on October 23 through Amazon Prime Video.  In the past, Baron Cohen said that if he did release another film that followed in the same footsteps as the original Borat it would be closer to an election to better highlight the failures of democracy and after viewing the sequel under a veil of steely secrecy I can see why.  No mistake should be made about the timing of this release, and if you’re reading this in the future remember that the third presidential debate is scheduled for October 22, the election is less than two weeks away, and someone in this film working for the Trump administration has been desperately trying to stir up trouble for the opposition in advance as a way to distract from an incident captured here that will surely come back to haunt him.

My first reaction to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that it’s missing the lightness that made the original have such near universal appeal.  In creating a character that was so misguided and culturally insensitive, Baron Cohen was able to represent a large swath of the world having their eyes opened at the same time – and in 2007 that still meant something.  Consider that since the first film was released the musical The Book of Mormon debuted to astounding acclaim and it covered similar ground using reverse satire and shockingly un-PC language to skewer topics of race and religion.  There’s an attempt to create a similar reaction in this sequel film but viewed through the 2020 lens it just doesn’t have the same impact because we’re not in that headspace of easy alignment, our division has grown too far and the message already conveyed via better methods.  So the abnormalities he’s shining a light on seem less vital and easier targets than what had once been interesting underground groups before.

Disgraced after his previous trip to America resulted in a film that embarrassed everyone in his country, Borat has spent the last decade breaking rocks in a grueling prison.  However, now that the government is pleased that “Obama’s reign of terror” is over, they are interested in making friends with their favorite supreme leader Donald Trump and, more importantly, Vice President Mike Pence and they decide to send Borat to offer a bribe of sorts to gain back the trust of the US.  Without his right-hand man (funnyman Ken Davitian is sadly missed here), Borat has only his stowaway daughter (Maria Bakalova) who becomes the back-up gift intended for Pence after the tragic demise of the first present. (Don’t ask).

Together, Borat and daughter move throughout America encountering locals who barely (unbelievably in some cases) bat at eye at the ludicrous situations a disguised Borat/Baron Cohen introduces them to and making over the daughter into a “Melania”.  A number of these sequences have the requisite effect of laughs but more than a few are in such poor taste even from a social commentary standpoint that you just feel awkward for everyone involved.  There are two people (women, naturally) that seem to take the antics seriously and, more importantly, to heart.  The time they take to have an actual conversation with the Bakalova and Baron Cohen are the most genuine moments in the film, the reinforcement of the good in our communities.  It’s worth nothing one of these women passed away after and the family is suing the producers for false representation, though I think she’s the one that handles herself with the most grace.

The moment that is sure to be talked about, though, and which I’m not going to spoil for you comes near the end of the film and it involves Bakalova’s interview with a certain former Mayor of a particular city known for its Broadway shows and Yankee baseball team.  It’s the part of the film I thought I was going to have to leave the room or not watch at all because it was too stressful…and then it takes things a step further and I was truly, completely, stunned.  If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was looking to be part of the conversation leading up to the election…this is the scene that will make it happen.  And it should be talked about.  It’s right there on tope. That’s all I’ll say.

I still find the film lacking in an overall point, though.  The observations aren’t fresh and even the gags in the storyline (a whopping eight writers contributed to this) don’t feel that inspired.  Are period jokes, Holocaust deniers, and abortion riffs still the most shocking things that will get Americans going?  I hate to say that the production lucked out with the onset of COVID-19 but it definitely gave them more material to work with and exploit, not to mention it provided them with a key plot point that feels like the late-in-the-process script change it most certainly was.  What this feels like to me more than anything is Baron Cohen and his team having a thin idea for a plot but when they landed on something of importance within one of their typical ‘gotcha gags’ the rest was rushed to completion, forgetting to add the same creativity springing from curiosity into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.