Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Something Wicked

Potently unsettling tale burrows into your head to where nightmares live

 

The Witch

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie

Directed by Robert Eggers

R

In the modern world, “devils” are mascots for sports teams and witches vex pretty Disney princesses. But once upon a time, such things were much more serious and much scarier.

That’s the serious, scary and seriously scary setting for The Witch, in which a devout family in early 17th century New England is exiled from their settlement—the father (Ralph Ineson, who played Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter movies) is too overbearing in his religious beliefs even for his Puritan neighbors to bear. When their one-horse wagon finally stops, they homestead on a scruffy patch of ground at the edge of a remote, dense forest.

Just as they’re getting into the rhythms of their new life, things start to go woefully wrong, beginning with the disappearance of their new baby boy, giggling in the grass one moment and gone the next. Did a wolf gobble him up? Or was it something more sinister—maybe a shape-shifting, spell-casting, baby-snatching sorceress?

All eyes look to the woods—and to the oldest child, teenage daughter Thomasin (19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in charge of watching the baby. She can’t explain what happened, and her inconsolable mother (Kate Dickie, from TV’s Game of Thrones) can’t forgive her. Her little brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), can’t stop casting guilty glances at her ripening signs of young-womanhood. And her very name itself includes the word “sin.”

Something wicked this way comes, indeed, especially when heinous accusations start to fly, pious prayers fill the air, crops fail, the chicken lays a bloody egg, and and the family goat, ominously named Black Phillip, begins to look, and act, more malevolent ever minute.

This super-creepy, potently unsettling film bowled audiences over last year at Sundance, where it took top honors for director Robert Eggers. It’s being marketed as a horror movie, and it certainly is that, but it has little in common with many other contemporary flicks sharing the label.

It’s a period piece rich in precise historical detail (including language), dedicated to an unflinching depiction of religious obsession driven to unholy extremes. Eggers drills into the same demonic DNA that made such movie classics as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining such disturbing dynamite; some of his images get inside your head and nest deep into cracks where nightmares live and lurk. It’s the first movie I’ve ever noticed a credit for a mental health counselor.

The movie is an eerie, roiling brew of double, double, toil and trouble, to be sure. But it also makes no bones about how Christian fanaticism in early America sometimes ran off the rails and plunged straight into the devil’s playground, especially when fear, superstition, hysteria and the suppression and oppression of females helped stir the cauldron. You don’t have to squint to see, a few decades down the road and just beyond the movie’s frame of reference, the notorious Salem witch trials looming in the distance.

The performances are riveting, especially from the youngsters, all newcomers. The soundtrack’s combination of synthesizers, dissonant orchestral tones and wordless choral pieces gives everything an unnerving underpinning of constant tension and dread. Director Eggers, a former production designer making his feature-film debut, is certainly a new talent to watch.

And The Witch, in limited release, is a knockout of a movie you should seek out—especially if you’re seeking something nightmarishly new that will chill you, and haunt you, like it’s the 1600s all over again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Bat Man

Dracula Untold

Misguided Dracula mash-up has few teeth, even less bite

Dracula Untold

Starring Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper & Sarah Gadon

Directed by Gary Shore

PG-13

Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire, has spread all across the pop-cultural spectrum, from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel and actor Bela Lugosi, to goofball cartoons and the inspiration for chocolate breakfast cereal. Historically, he’s been linked—at least in name—to the 15th century Romanian ruler Vlad III, “the Impaler,” whose grotesque signature touch was decorating the Balkan countryside with the writhing bodies of his enemies stuck on poles.

This misguided monster mash of a movie tries to bring the two legends together, in a tale that seems like a 90-minute episode of TV’s Game of Thrones garnished with lots of computer-generated bats.

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Luke Evans and Sarah Gadon

We meet Vlad (Luke Evans, a “days of yore” veteran of two Hobbit movies, Immortals, Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers, plus Fast and Furious 6) after his “impaling” days are over and he’s settled down as a benevolent monarch, carving out a kingdom and making peace with the neighboring Turks that were once his favorite Pinterest subjects. But when pushed again toward an unjust war, he makes a desperate deal to protect his castle, his people, his wife and his son.

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Charles Dance from TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’ places an ancient vampire.

That “deal” is the back story of how Vlad became count Dracula, and it involves an encounter in a bat-filled cave with an ancient über-vampire (Charles Dance from Game of Thrones), who offers him a “test drive” of supernatural powers—with a devil of a catch-22. If Vlad can last three days without feeding on human blood, all is well. If not, he’ll become an undead bloodsucker for eternity.

Vlad’s new powers include super-strength, super-speed, super-hearing, super-sight, and the ability to summon bats, control bats, become a swarm of bats, or un-become a swarm of bats.

One of the movie’s major misfires is trying to meld “historical” Vlad into “mythical” Dracula. It just doesn’t work—the handsome Evans makes his character seem way too nice to ever be convincing as someone who terrorizes his opponents by putting them up on pikes by the thousands. First-time director Gary Shore never finds the right tone—be it frightful, funny, funky, horrifying, shocking or sexy—that viewers would expect from a modern flick about the most neck-fetish-ed, nocturnal daddy-o of them all. The whole production looks pieced together from murky videogame graphics, cable-TV soundstage sets and leftover Lord of the Rings costumes.

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The mostly British cast also includes Dominic Cooper (from Captain America: The First Avenger), Zach McGowan (TV’s Black Sails), Sarah Gadon, and young Art Parkinson (another import from Game of Thrones). The movie ends with a couple of jarring leaps, one of them into what’s reportedly intended to be the beginning of a new modernized “monster squad” franchise based on the iconic beasties of Universal Studios, which also includes the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.

“Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero,” says Vlad. “Sometime it needs a monster.” And sometimes it needs a monster movie—hopefully one with a bit more bite than this one.

 —Neil Pond, Parade and American Profile Magazines

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Fire & Ice

High-flying DreamWorks sequel grows along with its young audience

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, & Cate Blanchett

Directed by Dean DuBois

PG, 102 min.

 

A follow-up to the animated 2010 DreamWorks hit about a young Viking boy and his flying dragon, this soaring sequel has grown along with its audience.

This new Dragon reunites director Dean DuBois with most of the original vocal cast (Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and takes place five years after the events of the first movie, as Vikings have learned to coexist with dragons instead of slay them. Now, as we see in the movie’s high-spirited opening, the feisty fire-breathers have become part of the everyday life of the mythical island of Berk, where they’re used for transportation, recreation, companionship and commerce.

“With Vikings on the backs of dragons,” says Hiccup (Baruchel), the son of the Berk’s burly tribal chief (Butler) grooming him for an eventual leadership role he doesn’t really want, “the world just got a whole lot bigger.”

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

And certainly a bit more complicated and dangerous—at least compared to the first movie. As Hiccup, now a gangly teenager, sails through the skies on his trusty night fury, Toothless, with his female friend, Astrid (Ferrera), he discovers a place where the inhabitants don’t see things—or treat dragons—the way they do back on Berk.

Hiccup’s discovery puts his entire village in peril and leads to yet another, even more startling revelation, an Armageddon-like, fire-and-ice showdown, and a life-changing decision. (I won’t reveal much more, but it’s connected to having Oscar-wining Cate Blanchett aboard as the voice of a new character.)

The first Dragon, praised by both critics and audiences, combined a rollicking, family-friendly story (adapted from Cressida Cowell’s British book series) with marvelously rendered, high-tech animation, plus a cast of colorful, amusing characters—and some dazzling scenes, especially if you saw it in 3-D. Dragon 2 upholds those high standards, even pushing them up a couple of notches. The whole movie looks fantastic—fluid, textured and alive.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2The dragons are things of whimsy, wizardry and wonder, intended to make you think of the bonds between people, nature and animals—at various times they mimic characteristics of puppies, ponies, birds, and butterflies. The returning supporting characters are a gaggle of loveable oddballs (Wiig, Hill, Mintz-Plasse), and a couple of new additions—especially hunky, comically inept Eret, Son of Eret (Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington) and the war-mongering dragon slave master Draco Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou)—both add depth and dimension to a story that’s grown up a bit over the elapsed years, just like many of its young audience members

But the real beauty of the first Dragon, and now this one, is how director DuBois and his team never approached them as purely “kids’ movies.” They always aimed higher than that, without ever losing sight of the children who’d find the most resonance in the fantasy-storybook-adventure elements of the tales. Witty, rousing, heartwarming, sensational-looking, and at times touching, uplifting and even moving, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is another fine feather in DreamWorks’ cinematic cap, and proof that it is, indeed, still possible for Hollywood to make movies that virtually all ages can enjoy, appreciate and admire.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Evil (?) Woman

Disney puts girrrl-power backspin on ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale

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Maleficent

Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning and Sharlito Copley

Directed by Robert Stromberg

PG, 97 min.

Disney turns one of its own stories inside out in this inverted fairy tale back-story about the “mistress of all evil” who put the deep sleep on Sleeping Beauty.

Long before slumbering princess comes along, we meet the tiny winged creature who’ll grow up to become Maleficent, “the strongest fairy of them all,” protecting her idyllic land of fluttering pixies, gnarled tree warriors and mischievous, mud-slinging gnomes from the greedy, marauding humans in the neighboring kingdom.

maleficentwingsAngelina Jolie plays the adult Maleficent, a baroque sight—with bright red lips, gleaming white teeth, jutting prosthetic cheekbones, a gigantic set of wings, and a pair of imposing dark antlers—as the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the cartoon character many grownups will recall from the classic 1959 Disney version of the age-old Brothers Grimm folk tale.

A cruel betrayal hardens Maleficent’s heart and sets her on a path of vengeance toward the vile new king (Sharlito Copley), which leads to the famous curse she puts on his infant daughter: When the princess turns 16, she’ll prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning loom and fall into a deep, death-like slumber from which she’ll never awaken. The only way to break the curse is with a kiss of “true love.”

MALEFICENTBut here’s the movie’s big twist: As princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) ages and becomes more adorable every year, Maleficent finds her own maternal instincts. Instead of waiting in wicked anticipation for the princess’ fateful 16th birthday, she begins to regret the horrible hex of doom she’s placed on the innocent girl.

A trio of fluttering fairy nannies provides comic relief, a fire-breathing dragon is as fearsome as you might expect, and there’s a shape-shifting young man (Sam Riley) who, depending on when you see him, may be a bird. And as the title character, Jolie is a campy composite of theatrics, costuming, makeup and special effects that create the movie’s swirling center of dramatic gravity.

Disney has shaken things up before, most successfully in last year’s Frozen, which stepped out from the company’s decades-old template to feature princesses that didn’t need princes to save them, complete them, or even make them interesting. Maleficent has a similar girrrl-power spin, but plays even looser with its own mythology and the possibilities for what “true love” can really mean.

First-time director Robert Stromberg is an award-winning set decorator and visual effects artist for major movies including Avatar, The Life of Pi and The Hunger Games, but his directorial inexperience shows. The movie practically spills over with lavish, flashy things to see, but overall it’sDisney's "Maleficent"..Ph: Film Still..?Disney 2014 a bit of a muddle, a Game of Thrones-meets-Lord of the Rings bedtime story with a confusing tone that will likely puzzle many younger viewers accustomed to clearer, cleaner motives for characters, and needing more distinct lines separating heroes and villains. And too often, the special effects seem like cartoons, or computer-game graphics, at odds with its live action.

“There is an evil in this world, and I cannot keep you from it,” Maleficent tells Aurora at one point. Alas, neither can Angelina Jolie’s star power stir up enough magic Disney pixie dust to keep this big fractured fairy tale from falling into its own cracks.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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