Monthly Archives: October 2020

Witchy Women

Young necromancers make new sparks fly in Gen-X update of ‘The Craft: Legacy’

Lovie Simone, Zoey Luna, Cailee Spaeny and Gideon Adlon star in ‘The Craft: Legacy’

The Craft: Legacy
Starring Cailee Spaeny, Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simon & Zoey Luna
Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones
Not Rated

Available Oct. 28 Amazon Prime and other digital retail platforms

“Raven hair and ruby lips, sparks fly from her fingertips,” sang the Eagles in their Top 10 hit “Witchy Woman,” back in 1972. “Woo-hoo, witchy woman, see how high she flies.”

Sparks do indeed fly from the fingertips of the witches in The Craft: Legacy, but these teen sorceresses don’t fly—they float, or at least levitate, and they can slam a high school bully up against a locker just by thinking about it.

You don’t have to be a fan of the 1996 cult hit The Craft to pick up and go with this lively and likeable “continuation” story, but there are several throwbacks to the original movie in this one, including a sock-o surprise cameo and a couple of quips too good to leave behind.

Like, “We are the weirdos, mister.”

And the basic premise is still much the same. Teenager Hannah (Cailee Spaney) relocates across country to a new town with her mom (Michelle Monaghan) to move in with mom’s long-distance bf (David Duchovny) and his three teenage sons. But Hannah feels like an outsider, both in her new blended family and at her high school—until she finds a connection with a trio of fellow-misfit girls (Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone and Zoey Luna), who happen to be a coven of young wannabe witches.

And the neophyte necromancers were just waiting for the right newbie to complete their “craft,” to be a fourth element in their mystic ceremonies summoning the spirits of air, fire, water and earth.

Zoe Lister-Jones, best known for playing Jen in the Colin Hanks sitcom Life in Pieces, is also a budding filmmaker; not near enough people, alas, saw her charming 2017 romcom Band Aid, in which she also starred with Fred Armisen. Here, completely behind the scenes as writer and director, she leans into the fem-centric elements of the tale, as Hannah asserts herself against toxic masculinity at school and at home, and the girls of the “craft” grow in their bonds of sisterhood and the rituals of their shared spirituality.

Things start out light, lively, fun and frisky, as the girls discover the power that is, quite literally, at their fingertips; it’s pretty cool for blasting away defamatory locker graffiti or freeze-framing lunchroom pranks just for yuks. But the movie takes a more serious turn when it dives into some darker emotional issues, including a character’s difficulty dealing with gender identity, and Hannah’s search for answers about her past.

And sometimes spells, the craft discovers, can spell trouble.

The young cast is solid, smart and spunky, with built-in Gen X appeal. Spaeny rocked her roles in the movies Bad Times at the El Royale and On the Basis of Sex; Adlon was great in The Mustang and Blockers; Simone is a breakout on the Amazon series Selah & the Spades; and newcomer Luna played Lacy in Pose.

Witches have, of course, been a part of legend, folklore and literature practically forever—they’re mentioned in the Bible, they stir up double-double-toil-and-trouble in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and Hollywood loves them.

But witchcraft has a much more troubling side, historically, particularly in how it’s been used to label anyone, particularly women, whose behavior did not conform to local norms—with often terrible consequences. Pop culture, from Bewitched and Hocus Pocus to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, puts a happy face on a tragic past whenever it gets playful with modern-day witches. At least The Craft: Legacy holds a dark mirror to its ancient roots. Lister-Jones depicts a “society” aggressively intent on keeping its male-dominated heirarchy intact—and marginalizing, or eliminating, the young women of the craft.

The soundtrack snaps with tasty hip-hop and pop from a playlist that includes snippets from such contemporary acts as Sa-fire, Litty Kitty, Nadia Rose, Kikbak and Bette Lemme. At a house party, everyone’s excited to hear a tune by Princess Noika. In a musical nod to its predecessor, the movie opens with Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know,” a No. 1 flashback hit from late 1995 that would have still been on the radio when the first Craft movie hit theaters in May the following year.

More “seasoned” viewers will enjoy seeing Monaghan, recognizable from nearly 50 TV and movie appearances over the past two decades, including memorable roles in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Patriot’s Day, Gone Baby Gone, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 2014’s True Detective and Hulu’s The Path. Duchovny, who starred as Mulder in The X-Files, its reboot and a spinoff movie, looks a bit bored and worn down; maybe after the mind-bending, paranormal threats he faced as Mulder, these teenage-hoodoo hijinks don’t faze him much.

Occasionally tense but never really scary, certainly not gory, and sometimes even quite sensitive and sensual, The Craft: Legacy is a magic-sprinkled Halloween trick-or-treat mainly for girls who’ll harken to its timely theme of youthful female outsiders finding each other, bonding together and harnessing their strengths to confront a world trying to quash them. The movie also presents positive, timely messages of inclusion, anti-bullying, LGBT acceptance and the responsible use of power—and how those who abuse and misuse their positions of dominance don’t deserve to have them.

The Craft: Legacy may be Hollywood’s latest check-in with teenage witches, but it’s clearly got something bigger than bedknobs and broomsticks on its mind.

At one point, the young women of the craft fear they’ve gone too far, that their magic has careened dangerously out of control. Hannah’s friends want to “unbind” themselves from their sorcery. She urges them to instead reconsider—to realign, refocus and regroup.

“You shouldn’t run from your power,” Hannah tells them. “None of us should.”

In a world that just celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights, and a recent Pew research poll in which 61 percent of American women identified themselves as “feminists,” women everywhere continue to push—to march, mobilize and work—for advancement. Like Hannah, none of them want to run from their power.

Sparks fly from her fingertips, indeed.

Without a Hitch

Specter of Alfred Hitchcock lingers of Lily James and Armie Hammer in Netflix’s new version of classic ‘Rebecca’

Starring Lily James, Armie Hammer & Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Oct. 21 on Netflix

First of all, Lily James isn’t Rebecca.

There isn’t actually a Rebecca in Rebecca, not in the sense, at least, that you expect in movies with someone’s name in the title.

Based on the classic 1938 novel by British writer Daphne du Maurier, this twisty psychodrama is about a pair of young newlyweds who can’t get escape the memory of his former wife, whose toxic presence continues to dominate him—and almost everyone else.

The story has been adapted numerous times over the years for stage, television and screen, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Hitch’s film, his first American project after more than 15 years of making movies in his native England, won him an Oscar for Best Picture, the only Academy Award he’d ever receive. (It received an additional Oscar, for its cinematography, and was nominated for nine others.)

Du Maurier’s tale certainly makes for fertile storytelling fodder: It’s got love and romance, mystery, crime and misdemeanor, and hints of some things so spicy they landed Hitchcock in hot water with the Hollywood morality police.

James, the British actress appeared as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey and then starred as Disney’s most famous fairytale princess, Cinderella, also takes center stage in this new version. She’s the main character, and also provides the film’s narration, which opens the movie (and the book).

Lily James

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Manderley is the ancestral home of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), the aristocratic widower that James’ character meets on the French Rivera, where the story begins in the mid 1930s. He’s recovering from the untimely death of his young wife; she’s the paid traveling companion of a haughty American tourist (Ann Dowd, of The Handmaid’s Tale).

After a breezy, breathless courtship—with Maxim whisking her up and down the sun-dappled coast of the Mediterranean—he marries her and brings her back to England, to his sprawling countryside estate.

Situated high on a windswept seaside cliff, Manderley is staffed with servants who run the massive manor, supervised by the icy Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas). It’s filled with pricey treasures dating back to Henry VIII and the Tudors, and with precious keepsakes of Maxim’s marriage to Rebecca, his former wife, from her handwritten notes and her clothes, to the dark hairs in her hairbrush, still on her nightstand.

It’s impossible for Mrs. de Winter No. 2 to escape the feeling that she’s always being compared to Rebecca, always hearing about how beautiful she was, how perfect she was. She begins to question herself, her looks and her marriage—how can she ever measure up? She starts having nightmares about this woman she’s never seen; Maxim is so troubled, he sleepwalks through his massive house, and around the grounds of his estate.

And what exactly happened to Rebecca? That’s at the dark heart of the story, and anyone who’s read the novel—or seen Hitchcock’s movie—will of course know. But everyone else, well, you’ll have to find out, along with the new Mrs. de Winter, as she explores the shadowy, Gothic hallways and forbidden rooms of Manderley, catches shade from the creepy staff and gradually gets a fuller, more troubling picture about the power that Rebecca continues to wield from beyond the grave.

Hammer and James make an eye-candy couple, but they never generate any sweet heat; it’s hard to understand why they fall in love, much less why they remain that way as the dramatic vice tightens in the movie’s second half. Kristin Scott Thomas, however, is absolutely galvanizing as the devious, duplicitous Mrs. Danvers; she’s a matronly movie monster, and the veteran actress seems to relish the devilish delight of biting into this juicy rotten apple of a role.

Director Ben Wheatley—known for his violent 2016 action flick Free Fire (also with Hammer) and the dystopian drama High Rise, with Tom Hiddleston—seems a bit out of his league here, even while dressing up the screen with gorgeous on-location scenery, lots of dandy-looking Brits with dapper haircuts, and a parade of sumptuous fashion getups.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Mrs. Danvers

But something is missing, something that a more masterful director could have brought to a tale brimming with sexy subtext and wicked, deep-dish character nuance—a director like, say, Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, for instance, knew how to orchestrate Rebecca’s buildup of tension, dread and criminal collusion with consummate craftsmanship and finesse; how to navigate the tale’s simmering undercurrents of twisted, psychosexual manipulation; and just how important it was to build upon its beguiling ambiguity about the shifting sands of good and evil. Stronger direction, especially in a contemporary remake, could have fleshed out the dueling feminist dynamics of its two pivotal characters, Mrs. de Winter No. 1 and No. 2, one of which never seen, but all-powerful, even in death; the other as the star of the story, but invisible in another way—unnamed, other than in relation to the man she marries.  

To get around censors 80 years ago, Hitchcock had to alter some of his movie—specifically its hints of lesbianism, and one character’s “morally objectionable” actions—before it could be released. Hitch certainly knew the dark, subversive power of Rebecca. He’d make two more movies based on books by du Maurier, including The Birds.

This Rebecca too often feels like a pleasant-enough cross between a posh, British period drama and a primetime network crime procedural, maybe like a special episode of CSI: Downton Abbey. It’s pretty, but it plays too polite to have very much punch.

“She’s still here,” Mrs. Danvers says, sadistically taunting the new Mrs. de Winter about the ever-present specter of Rebecca at Manderley. “Do you feel her?”

Ah, the poisonous power of the invisible Rebecca: She’s still here, and so is he—Hitchcock, whose impressive shadow continues to loom over this classic tale, 80 years later, in a movie version he didn’t even make.

Riding With Bill

Bill Murray drives the smooth comedy of director Sofia Coppola’s new Big Apple tonic for our troubled times

On the Rocks
Bill Murray, Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans
Directed by Sofia Coppola
In select theaters Oct. 2 (Available Oct. 23 on Apple + TV)

In trying to find out if her marriage really might be falling apart, a young New York woman reconnects with her father—who certainly has some experience in that area.

Director Sofia Coppola’s sparkling, stylish, smart new Big Apple comedy reunites her with Bill Murray, 17 years after their collaboration in Lost in Translation won her an Oscar (for writing) and him an acting nomination.

In On the Rocks, Rashida Jones plays Laura, a harried, 38-year-old mom and freelance writer raising her two young kids in a trendy SoHo apartment with hubby Dean (Marlon Wayans). Only Laura is doing most of the raising, while Dean spends days—and often nights—at his new start-up company, flying to meetings in far-off places, wooing new investors, going to dinners, celebrating at parties…and maybe doing something else.

She gets a bit suspicious when she finds a women’s toiletry kit in his open suitcase. Dean has a ready excuse, and it’s believable enough…

Felix (Bill Murray), Laura’s ne’er-do-well, bon vivant dad, offers to take her to lunch. He breezes up to her apartment door in a chauffeured sedan, rolls down the back window, and grins.

“Feel like hoppin’ in?” he asks.

Felix knows all about cheating husbands; his serial infidelities broke up his own marriage to Laura’s mother. He’s a world-traveling, roguish flirt, an irrepressible cad, a prankish playboy who loves women—and loves to be loved. And he’s convinced that Dean is cheating on Laura.

Can Felix and Laura catch him in the act?

Murray, who’s played almost everything in a career that began four decades ago, has nonetheless never before played a movie father, much less a grandfather. On the Rocks is somewhat new comedic ground for him, but he makes Felix feel like a natural progression, all the way back to the goofballs of Saturday Night Live, Stripes and Caddyshack, now just a bit older, a lot more worldly, certainly more wealthy, but just as incorrigibly puckish.

As Laura, Jones is terrific, with most of her performance funneled into her expressive face—as when we watch her elation subtly turn to deflation at a botched birthday surprise. Wayans, usually cast in broader comedic roles, shrewdly plays Dean as a straight-up, nice-guy, hard-working dad—to keep us, as well as Laura, guessing.

Felix obviously loves his daughter, and he also loves a good caper. Which is why they end up all over Manhattan, and later beyond, on their rolling surveillance mission—where, in slack moments, Felix imparts to Laura some of his not-so-enlightened observations on mating rituals, marriage, monogamy and the biology of attraction.

“The bangle is a reminder,” he says, admiring Laura’s bracelet, “that women were once men’s property.”

Felix’s property includes a collection of fine art and a bunch of celebrity friends—his mantle has photos of him playing golf with President Obama and chumming with Andy Warhol. He picks Laura up one evening in a vintage cherry-red Alfa Romeo convertible, which he stocks with champagne and caviar for a late-night reconnaissance mission as they race across the city to keep up with a taxi carrying Dean and his leggy assistant (Jessica Henwick). Felix seems to know everyone in New York—doormen, waitresses, maître d’s, even the cop who pulls them over for running a red light.

He charms the policeman and his partner into giving the convertible a push to get it re-started.

Filmed pre-pandemic on location in New York, On the Rocks—its title a double entendre to the fragile state of Laura’s marriage, as well as the copious drinks she and Felix consume in a variety of iconic nightspots—is also a paeon to the grandeur of Manhattan. (At one point, Felix treats Laura to ice cream at a restaurant “at Bogart’s table—where he proposed to Bacall.”) Coppola treats the city almost as a character itself, its buildings standing tall and proud, its profile majestic and sprawling, its lights twinkling like a panoply of urban fantasia.

Most of us can’t directly relate to Felix’s globetrotting world of fine art, celebrity pals and pricey Italian sports cars. But everyone can probably connect, in some way, when Laura tells him that her “life could just be falling apart.”

Especially right now.

A smooth comic elixir for our very troubled times, On the Rocks basically comes down to Bill Murray—aged like a fine wine—pulling up in a red sports car, asking you a simple question.

“Feel like hoppin’ in?”

Yes, yes, yes, we do!