THE WITCH. A few things built my expectations for The Witch. First, of course, was the trailer, which cut together some of the more striking visual elements and off-putting moments into an unnerving little straight shot of devilishness, overlaid by pull quotes declaiming it as the new scariest movie ever made. But we've all been taken in by effective marketing before, and the job of the trailer is to draw us into the theater anyway. Related but perhaps even more pointed is the fact that The Witch joins a growing group of arty, independent horror pictures that have found their way to market in the wake of the minor mainstream horror boom we experienced a couple of years ago, thanks in large part to director James Wan. I became a happy, unsuspecting participant in that boom, finding joy, surprise and art in a genre I had previously neglected. That pleasant surprise has subsequently presented problems, elevating my hopes whenever a new indie horror offering punches through. And while I celebrate new storytellers with talent and fortitude presenting their hard work to a wider audience, I worry about the undercurrent of sepulchral seriousness that increasingly defines that work. A straight comparison is unfair, but by way of clarification, I enjoy The Conjuring and You're Next because they offer artistic competency, old-fashioned scares and humor in satisfying, refreshing balance. Granted, to compare The Witch to either of those is apples and oranges, and the picture is certainly sure-footed and composed in its aesthetic and its sense of narrative. But it is also deathly humorless, and that's where it loses me.
In a desperate New England settlement in the 17th Century, a family of five is ostracized from the community. The opening sequence in which this event occurs is rather elliptical, so while we know it's a matter of religion, whether it's that the family is too pious or not pious enough is unclear. The upshot is that they are forced out into the wilderness to start anew. The land is unyielding, their crops wither on the vine and there is little game to be had. In a place and time that, with the benefit of historical perspective, seems awful, these folks have it even worse. And that trend only continues when the youngest child, an infant boy, disappears while being watched by his oldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This sparks much wailing and accusation within the household and sets Thomasin at odds with her justifiably devastated mother. It is only the inciting incident in a series of events that will erode the family's trust, faith, health and sanity, though.
Writer-director Robert Eggers creates a pleasantly unnerving atmosphere in the early going, combining long, static takes with ghostly choral music and orchestral stabs. His devout adherence to the language and tonality of the time are admirable (a title card at the end informs us that much of the dialogue is drawn from first person accounts). The cast gives raw, relatable performances in keeping with the air of smoldering dread. As the story really begins to take shape, though, it loses its hold. The characters become unsympathetic, the menacing aesthetic doesn't pay off and a number of themes (truth in religion, sanctity of the family, gender roles) are only tentatively explored before being left aside. In the end, I like that The Witch got made more than I like The Witch. R. 93m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
RACE. A sort of Disney-light treatment of a watershed event in American history, sports-related and otherwise, Race describes Jesse Owens' training for and participation in the Nazi-hosted 1936 Olympics. Jason Sudeikis is enjoyable, if unsurprising, to watch as Owens' coach, and Stephan James is innocuous in the role, though there's not much in it for him. The production is well detailed enough to be convincing, if slightly antiseptic in its feel. The major failing here is its toothless handling of institutionalized racism, both at home and abroad. The filmmakers miss an opportunity to tell this story, warts and all, and really examine a tough question in an appropriate moment. Instead, this is a pleasantly forgettable biopic about overcoming adversity that doesn't require much of the audience. PG13. 134m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Richards's Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
EDDIE THE EAGLE. A picked-last underdog (Taron Egerton) makes the British ski jump team with the help of a grumpy pro (Hugh Jackman). PG13. 106m. BROADWAY.
GODS OF EGYPT. A pyramid-load of CG action and bronzer in a gods-and-mortals adventure with Gerard Butler and Brenton Thwaites. PG13. 127m. FORTUNA.
TRIPLE 9. Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Winslet in a heist movie with dirty cops and Russian mobsters. R. 115m. BROADWAY.
DEADPOOL. A bloody, clever, distinctly adult Marvel vehicle for Ryan Reynolds' weird charisma. A fun break from the steady flow of grim comic adaptations. R. 108m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HAIL, CAESAR! The Coen brothers' ensemble comedy about an old-Hollywood fixer isn't their best, but it's still full of period back-lot fun and intrigue. With Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Scarlett Johansson. PG13. 106m. BROADWAY.
HOW TO BE SINGLE. New York rom-com with Dakota Johnson as a dating newbie and Rebel Wilson as her bawdy Yoda. R. 110m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
KUNG FU PANDA 3. Jack Black returns to voice the buoyant Dragon Master, who reunites with his bio dad and trains fellow pandas to fight a supernatural villain. An enjoyable take on the hero's journey with some genuinely pretty animation. PG. 95m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE LADY IN THE VAN. Maggie Smith stars as the eccentric and troubled woman who parked in playwright Alan Bennett's van for 15 years. PG13. 104m. BROADWAY.
THE REVENANT. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a frontier survivor Hell-bent on revenge in a gorgeous, punishing Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu film that offers little beyond beauty and suffering. R. 156m. MILL CREEK.
RISEN. Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton play Romans on the hunt for Jesus' body after the crucifixion, hoping to dispel resurrection theories. R. 107m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. The writing and visuals are a bit too faithful to the original, but they work in this nostalgic return. Leads John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are as compelling as more familiar faces. PG13. 135m.
ZOOLANDER 2. Like a male model, the trademark winking dumbness hasn't aged well. Mugatu (Will Ferrell) once again provides the comic highlight, but it's not nearly enough. Starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. PG13. 102m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill