Sunday, July 3, 2016

An Undiscovered Treasure - The Horror Film: The VVitch

There are only so many hours in the day. 
Over the years, reviewers of film working for major newspapers or magazines have either lost their jobs or have lost their influence on the audiences they once influenced. And yet, Book reviewers still have power over their readers when they cover the publication of a new book. 

It has something to do with the time one spends in choosing to read a book, rather than watch a movie or a TV show. Reading a 400-800 page book takes time, and this investment usually means that a reader is more open to taking in advice about how they should spend that time. 
We know this to be a factor by also comparing the value of Book reviewers with reviewers of Pop Music. Those who write their opinions about a song/singer pretty much have no sway/say over what your average person will end up enjoying. The investment of time by the audience spent listening to a song is
about four minutes. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to advise the audience for pop music and have that opinion taken seriously. People know what they like when they hear a song and usually only other members of their peer group will change their mind. 

There are other variables that impact the sway factor of a reviewer. An important one is the actual cost the audience must pay for their leisure activity. A major reason critics reviewing Broadway plays still have the power of influence is due to the high financial investment ($100 or more per ticket) one must make when choosing to see a play. 
However, the reason I believe critics (not reviewers) who write about movies/TV/media thoughtfully and insightfully still matter now (and will for years to come) is for an altogether different reason — There are only so many hours in the day.  As time becomes more and more precious in a person's life, spending it wisely becomes an essential issue as well. 

This is why Doug Pratt's DVD Laser Disc Newsletter is
essential reading. His July issue covers more than two dozen home video titles. He not only provides some keen insight on why certain titles are worth taking the time to watch, but his thoughts span a wide variety of home entertainment choices. Let me illustrate my point by highlighting a handful of quotes from his reviews (good and bad) on projects that run across the entertainment sprectrum -- a studio film; an indie movie; two different documentaries; and a video capturing the staging of a musical production at the Royal Albert Hall --  

"The images are so overloaded and cluttered that the film actually deadens your sense of imagination, rather than delivering just enough glimpses to inspire it.  Additionally, since most of the movie is being shot on a bare soundstage with blue screens, there is a subliminal sense that the space the characters are in is actually cramped, even though the feature is supposed to have an epic scope." 

"(The Movie) is filled with subtle moments where just a flicker in the eyes of one of the actors delivers paragraphs of what his character really thinks about
the other.  Maybe if you’re not quite as obsessed with writing as we happen to be, the film won’t seem quite as profound, but it is still an engaging, Amadeus-like tale about the specific nature of American genius." 
"It is true that the Syfy Channel makes more money doing movies about sharks swirling around in the sky, but this ought to be their real mission, to take intriguing science-fiction works that realistically cannot be marketed for the big screen and interpret them as accurately as entertainingly possible on film."  

"The post-War period was a time of fear and paranoia. Audiences responded to films noir because of their dark themes and foreboding atmospheres, a mood that was being reinforced in the media with stories of traitors and imminent atomic destruction, but the artists who created them were responding to the corruption of power and their own victimization, expressing through the movies the force of evil that was using them to whip up a frenzy of fear and hatred.  This seems to happen periodically."

"The reason it deserved the win ( the 2015 Oscar for "Best Documenary") is the same reason that local newspapers reporting on local events that also shake the rest of the world sometimes win the Pulitzer Prize. Poitras was in the right place at the right time, although she was there entirely because of who she was and what she had been doing before."  

"The orchestra and a well-sized chorus are on the stage, and the principle cast members act out the show in the small area in front, a raised area behind, and the aisles between the instruments.  There are also dancers, a large Jumbotron screen that accentuates points in the narrative, and, in one passage, indoor fireworks. It is quite a show." 

This month's Exclusive Excerpt is about a horror movie that somehow slipped underneath my radar during its theatrical release. If not for Mr. Pratt's intervention, I'm pretty sure I would have missed seeing THE VVITCH for years, rather than seeking it out seconds after reading his words.  This is what a great film critic can do when they possess supernatural powers of persuasion. 

  America’s beginnings                      Doug Pratt

An outstanding depiction of America’s beginnings—including an eternal fear of what is not understood—THE VVITCH, has been released by Lionsgate on DVD (UPC#031398227809, $20) and on Blu-ray (UPC#0313-98227861, $25).  Depicting a pioneer Puritan family trying to scratch out a farm in the New England wilderness during the first half of the Seventeenth Century, the 2015 film meticulously reconstructs the speech (some viewers may find
the optional English subtitles come in very handy), the manners, the beliefs, the fashions, the tools, and the day-to-day life of the era, and then spices the whole thing up with a touch of supernatural horror.  Running 92 minutes, the film also examines the dysfunction and breakdown of a family suffering from stress, the result being that while the characters are wearing different clothes and saying funny words, their emotional conflicts are as recognizable and universal as those in one’s own home.  
The natural eroticism that comes from interactions in a cramped living environment is also conveyed.  Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie star, with Anya Taylor-Joy.  The family is ostracized from their community because of differences in how they conduct their beliefs, so they attempt to set up a life for themselves farther out of town.  Once they are settled, something bad happens, and an entity is lurking in the woods beyond their fields.  
There are several good jump scares, sometimes caused simply by a character pulling
an arm into the frame, and the final act builds to a celebratory wickedness that could have come out of Nathaniel Hawthorne or any number of early American folktales, or even the news of the day, which was often heavily apocryphal.  In any case, it is wild enough to make you forget how gratifyingly educational the movie really is, so that its historical lessons can be absorbed by the subconscious, while the conscious is being distracted by the fantasy.  Or, it is a genuine depiction of how America got started, which would explain quite a bit of what you see in today’s headlines.

The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The cinematography is lovely and the transfer is exquisite, despite the many sequences of limited lighting.  The Blu-ray’s DTS sound is super, with many directional effects and a real decent kick, but even the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the DVD has some engaging separations and a strong, enveloping presence.  Both versions have the same special features.  In addition to the English subtitling, there are optional Spanish subtitles, a
terrific still frame collection of design drawings (every one of them seems like they could be hanging on a wall in a New England guest room today) and production photos, a superb for its length 8-minute promotional featurette that really gets to the heart of the film’s many thematic and production dynamics, and a super 28-minute interview with Taylor-Joy, director Robert Eggers and two Salem historians, in front of a live audience, talking about the film’s realism, working with the cast, and the film’s interpretation of witchery.  At one point, Eggers contemplates how much the film can relate to contemporary American society.  “I like archetypal storytelling, and archetypes constantly reconstellate themselves, so therefore it is timeless.  I also, like, didn’t necessarily set out to make a feminist film when I was dug into this, but, like, just feminism is just bursting out of the pages of history, so therefore it’s like bursting off the screen.”
Eggers also supplies a marvelous commentary track, talking about his staging of the production, but also about what life was like in the world he is exploring.  He is painfully aware of every flaw in the film, but shares them eagerly, whether it is a bland camera angle because there was not enough time to get
a better one, or a cinematic compromise on the movie’s historical integrity—the family, for example, could never have afforded to use as many candles as they use in the evening so that the camera can see what they are doing (he also reveals a longstanding movie trick—the candles have multiple wicks); it bothers him as well that they had to use professionally chopped wood in a stack because they needed more than they had at the last minute.  Eggers also learned about history himself by making the film.  “The goat shed is thatched, like all the other buildings, and Plymouth Plantation, where we did a lot of research, when I was a kid, they had thatched goat sheds, and now they have clapboard roofs on the goat shed, and I wondered why the change, but during the course of the shoot, the goats kept eating all of the thatch off the roof.  So that is why you don’t have a thatch roof on your goat shed.”