Sunday Movie Roundup (7/24/2016)


Here’s a quick summary of some recent movies.

The Witch (2015)

Director:  Robert Eggers

One of the best experiences a movie lover can have is to stumble on a new talent or underappreciated gem.  I had this experience when watching this carefully-made art-house horror film; it’s the debut effort of Robert Eggers.

I was not able to find out anything about Eggers’s background; his Wikipedia page reveals almost nothing at all.  But interviews that accompany the DVD of The Witch present him as a serious, scholarly director who knows what he’s doing.

Maybe it’s just because I grew up in New England and was raised on folk tales of ghosts, Puritanism, Cotton Mather, storms, shipwrecks, and the whaling industry; or maybe it’s just because I appreciate finely-crafted work of any sort. Whatever the reason was, I enjoyed this film a great deal.  It is a period piece set in rural New England in the 1600s.

Attention to detail is everything here:  Eggers gets the dialogue just right, the language, the costumes, and the mentality.  He’s done his research, and it shows.  With an initial budget of only 1 million dollars, the film grossed over $30 million so far.  That is impressive for an independent, low-budget specialty horror film.  This is the kind of movie that Stephen King would love.

A family is exiled from the rest of the plantation (settlements were called “plantations”).  They slowly become aware of mysterious, evil forces lurking in the forests around their house.  And it turns out that witchcraft really does exist, after all.  The spirit world was something very real to the old Puritans, and Eggers is able to make us believe in it also.  The world he conjures up has its own rules, and its own terrifying logic.  And on that level, it all makes perfect sense.

Not only does Eggers get the period just right, but he manages to maintain an atmosphere of surreal horror that reminds me of some of Nicolas Winding Refn’s works.  You can just feel a cloud of evil hanging over this family, but it is not clear until the very end the precise dimensions of what is happening.  Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy adds just the right amount of sexual suggestion and innuendo to keep viewers guessing.

There are some minor flaws here, but nothing that really upsets the apple-cart.  There is some overacting by the wife character as well as the son, who both overdo the screaming and wailing.  But these are minor imperfections that are easily overlooked.

All in all, a brilliant creation, and one not to be missed by serious film-goers.

Cruel (2014)

Director:   Eric Cherrière

This is a French crime drama and character study.  Loner Pierre Tardieu has trouble connecting with people; he’s not exactly a misanthrope, but he definitely doesn’t want to spend time around idiots and dunces.  In fact, he prefers to kill people when he is so inclined.  When not pursuing his hobby of serial murder, he takes care of his invalid father, daydreams at work, and scribbles musings in his journal.

Into this idyllic life comes a woman who might be able to bring him some joy.  But she turns out to be connected to Tardieu in a way that only he is aware of, and he can’t decide if he should let her in on his secret.

The film has excellent production values and cinematography.  It is the type of cynical, sophisticated character study and commentary on contemporary society that only the French know how to do well.  When it comes to philosophical depth and sophistication, French cinema has no rivals.

Zipper (2015)

Director:  Mora Stephens

A federal prosecutor becomes addicted to using paid escorts to satisfy his sexual cravings.  His secret threatens to consume him when the agency itself comes under investigation for racketeering and wire fraud.

When all is said and done, this film doesn’t amount to much.  We are treated to some salacious scenes of sexual intercourse, as well as the obligatory scenes of domestic bliss, but it all goes nowhere.  There was some potential here, and the director could have turned this into a nice parable, but the whole show never really takes off.

The director seems to be edging close to making some sort of statement about corruption, politics, and human weakness, but nothing really congeals into a coherent message.  The viewer is left with just another story that could be taken from today’s headlines about sex and politics.  We’ve heard it all before, and Stephens adds nothing new to the discussion.

There is a small role here for the always watchable Richard Dreyfuss.  He still has that look of bemused, smirking mockery that no other actor can replicate.  It’s just what is needed to bring some humor to the party here.

I wish he was in more movies.  But at least I know he’s still active.  Zipper is only worth seeing to get a look at how he looks after all these years.  And actually, he looks pretty good.