31 Days to Scare ~ Witch Hunt

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a modern America where witches are real and witchcraft is illegal, a sheltered teenager must face her own demons and prejudices as she helps two young witches avoid law enforcement and cross the southern border to asylum in Mexico.

Stars: Gideon Adlon, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Echo Campbell, Lulu Antariksa, Ashley Bell, Sadie Stratton

Director: Elle Callahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Warts on noses, pointy hats, green skin, broomsticks, cauldrons boiling over with toil and trouble, and black cats as their only companions…boy, witches have sure had it hard over the years and that’s just in the plain old nursery rhymes and kids’ stories that are told time and time again.  In the movies, they’ve gotten a real bum rap and it’s been awhile since the spell casting dames have had a film that took them somewhat seriously released widely (or to widespread acclaim).  An updated take on The Craft was better than expected and while it disappointingly came and went without much more than a puff of smoke, with its diverse casting it did signal there was space being made for different kinds of stories to be told.

In this new era that bolsters post-modern feminism, it would seem that Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt would make for a good entry into this canon of new witchy business but alas, the high concept devised is rendered null because while it attempts holding a mirror to important subjects through the supernatural, it only winds up fogging it up thanks to its own hot and heavy breathing.  Undone but its own thesis, despite game performances and so-so production values, Witch Hunt dissolves faster than a love spell cast by the harvest moon’s dying light. 

High school student Claire (Gideon Adlon) is having recurring dreams of a woman being burned at the stake and it’s no wonder why she’s on edge with this dramatic horror foretold.  Her mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, The Purge: Election Year) has made a practice of using their out of the way California country home to harbor witches being hunted down by ruthless government agents (including head bad guy Christian Camargo, Europa Report) who has banned their kind.  The arrival of two new young witches sparks something in Claire, awakening powers deep down that she’s been too scared to admit were growing.  Grappling with wanting to lead the life of a normal teen but knowing she has a responsibility to protect her family, Claire learns more about history to secure her future.

No one should have to point out the kind of appalling blunders Witch Hunt makes drawing parallels between a fictionalized modern world where magic is all around and witchcraft punishable by death and real events like abolitionism and the Holocaust. (Hello! Hiding people persecuted by the government in walls and smuggling them through secret networks.) Adding insult to injury, the movie is painfully white so the connecting of these dots is all the more cringeworthy. 

One shouldn’t fault the actors for these stumbles, and all make a decent showing throughout.  Callahan, who also directed the at-first intriguing but ultimately flat thriller Head Count, should have explored more outside the box and been as creative with her cast as she was in concept.  Even with a limited budget this could have worked better with more of an overall recognized conscience.  While it’s not all together scary per se and does stray into aimless territory halfway in, the production quality is higher than you might expect.  If only it wasn’t so problematic in its execution.

Movie Review ~ The Mustang


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A violent convict is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.

Stars: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Bruce Dern, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Josh Stewart

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t blame you if you happened to let The Mustang trot on by you as we start to approach the jumping off point of the summer movie season. It’s not a flashy movie with superheroes dueling it out in a grand finale of a popular franchise (Avengers; Endgame) nor is it a horror film out to spook you (Us, Pet Sematary, The Curse of La Llorona) and it definitely isn’t a family film like Dumbo, though I’d argue that’s not a family film either. It doesn’t feature actors that can open a movie on their name alone and the film has been marketed accurately as a heavy drama with a main character often hard to root for.

I saw The Mustang right after taking in Captain Marvel for a second time and the experience was different though some of the feelings were the same. Both films featured strong examples of emotional resonance but whereas Captain Marvel is designed to have you sort of blasted backwards in your seat, The Mustang’s quiet grace made it a film you wanted to lean into and sit a little further forward for.

In a Nevada prison, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl) is serving a long sentence for a violent crime we only get bits and pieces of information about. Used to serving his time in his preferred solitary confinement, he’s brought back into the general population and given a roommate (Josh Stewart, Interstellar) for the first time in years. Barely speaking more than a few words to anyone in a given day, Coleman starts a prison job maintaining the grounds but is intrigued by the horses being watched over by other inmates. He becomes fixated on one particular horse too wild to be broken and is recruited by the salty program lead (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to try to see if he can have any luck taming the beautiful horse.

Now, it isn’t hard for the audience (or Coleman) to see the obvious parallels between the prisoner and the horse and that doesn’t seem to concern director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre in the slightest. In fact, I feel the filmmakers almost go out of the way to show us how closely tied in personality the man and mustang are. Stubborn and willful could describe Coleman or the horse he names Marquis and over time the two form the bond we expect but in ways we can’t quite predict. The path isn’t easy and the film features several unsettling acts of violence (not always directed toward the horse) that don’t feel like cheap devices to gain sympathy.

At a sleek 96 minutes, The Mustang is mostly muscle and is led by a stellar performance from Schoenaerts. Over the last several years Schoenaerts has proven to be a dependable presence in films but he’s yet to truly break through to the next level of stardom in the US. His performance is as good as any Oscar nominee last year (even better than at least one) as is Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell (Contraband) memorable supporting turn as a fellow inmate that shows Coleman the literal ropes of the horse ring. A sidewinding subplot concerning Coleman’s prison visits with his estranged daughter (Gideon Adlon) skate the edge of maudlin but the two actors are so good in their strained meetings that you begin to feel just as uncomfortable in their presence as they are. Featured in just two scenes, it’s never a bad day when Connie Britton (This Is Where I Leave You) appears onscreen as a prison psychologist.

Financed with monies awarded by the Sundance Institute, The Mustang has the distinct feel of an indie drama that would go over well at the Sundance Film Festival before playing at your local art house cinema. It’s likely a bit too small to become a breakthrough hit and its release date so close to highly anticipated blockbusters will all but push this one out of your local theater quickly. So after you see Avengers: Endgame, consider saddling up to this one. Or, make this one your first choice because it won’t be around for long.