SEASON OF THE WITCH
For one of my New Year's resolutions, I thought I'd attempt a pretty tough one: To not accidentally (or intentionally) doze off during any 2011 movies. Mind you, this isn't something I do at a lot of screenings - a Skyline here, a Speed Racer there. But falling asleep at the cineplex is, for me, rather like snoozing while in your office cubicle; it seems the least I can do during a stretch of daytime work is stay conscious. And as a test for my new resolve, what trickier challenge could I have asked for than the very first 2011 feature out of the gate: Season of the Witch?
This medieval action flick, after all, promised to deliver just about everything guaranteed to make my eyelids heavy, beginning with the fact that it's a medieval action flick - all those cloaks, all those browns and dark grays, all that formally stilted "period" dialogue, all those long woodland treks on horseback ... zzzzzzz ... . Add to this the cheap-looking CGI effects in the film's trailers and the threat of Nicolas Cage giving another of his achingly boring he-man performances, and director Dominic Sena's outing suggested a no-win situation in my no-napping-allowed experiment, like visiting the Hershey's factory the day after deciding to give up sweets. I'm pleased to say, though, that not only did I remain awake during Season of the Witch, but conking out wasn't even a consideration, mostly because movies this abjectly ridiculous don't come along every day. My miniature double-takes and the constant dropping of my jaw kept me more than alert.
The silliness begins with its very first scene, in which a trio of women accused of witchcraft are tossed off a bridge, hanged, drowned, and their corpses recovered ... at which point it's revealed that one of the victims, now angrily undead, actually is a witch! (Now there's a bit of historical revisionism for you.) The goofy, eyebrow-raising antics continue with the introduction of Cage's Behmen and Ron Perlman's Felson, two knights preparing to engage in a battle of the Crusades; gazing at thousands of advancing CGI armies, the men exchange comic banter about the skirmish being a piece of cake, and agree that whoever dispatches the fewest enemies buys drinks that night. (Following this noisy, incoherent siege, Cage and Perlman are next seen raising their goblets in a local tavern, and perversely, we're neither told nor shown which of them pays for the mead.) And eventually, Season's witch and knight themes converge in a storyline that finds Behmen, Felson, and some hangers-on escorting a presumed sorceress (Claire Foy) to a remote monastery, where a coalition of monks will exorcise, from her, the demon that initiated the Black Plague. I'm not kidding.
To both its credit and its detriment, though, Sena's movie oftentimes is. Surely there's no way to get through this material without tongue somewhere in the vicinity of cheek, and for all of its grim determination, Season of the Witch is at least smart enough to play numerous bits for yuks, obvious though they may be. (There's even a weirdly lighthearted sequence that finds Cage telling his men a lengthy joke around the campfire; I can't recall whether any of them was roasting s'mores at the time, but it wouldn't have been out of place.) I also appreciated that no one on-screen was bothering with one of those forced, phony European accents that tend to waylay productions of this ilk, especially since screenwriter Bragi F. Schut's dialogue is already a distracting blend of the stolidly portentous and the wisecrackingly cute. (At one point, Cage admonishes his sidekick by reminding him, "I've saved your ass a hundred times." So maybe Perlman bought the drinks.)
Yet unfortunately, this profoundly nutty, somewhat laughable bad movie doesn't even fall into the so-crummy-it's-kinda-great category; overall, it's just really, really ... odd. Why attempt to build suspense as to whether Foy actually is a witch when her supernatural abilities are clear from the outset? Why does this creature indirectly knock off (and in depressingly predictable order) Behmen's and Felson's traveling companions when, as we learn, she wants to arrive at the monastery in one piece? Why, after all these years, can't CGI effects be employed to make a convincing wolf? Why does the most tension-filled sequence in the film feature Perlman literally head-butting a demon? Twice?!? I never dozed, but Season of the Witch may have wound up making more sense to me if I had; then, at least, I could've blamed my confusion on my own narcolepsy, and not on the filmmakers being asleep at the wheel.
Gwyneth Paltrow was so electrifyingly entertaining in her recent episode of Glee that I was totally jazzed about seeing her play a boozy country-western singer in writer/director Shana Feste's Country Strong. What I'd forgotten, of course, is that if you're going to cast the role of a washed-up, adulterous Southern legend with a serious addiction and heavy eyeliner, Gwyneth Paltrow is maybe the last name that should come to mind. It's not that the actress is at all awful in this song-filled soap opera, one that concerns a Grammy winner just out of rehab, the two alternately doting and enabling men in her life (Tim McGraw, as her husband, and Garrett Hedlund, as her lover), and an adorable upstart (Leighton Meester) just off the pageant circuit. But while she looks great, sings admirably, and gives her readings as much honesty as they deserve (which, admittedly, isn't much), Paltrow is just too refined and patrician a presence to be convincing as damaged, salt-of-the-earth goods. Wailing and weeping and waving her Smirnoffs in the air, with her runny mascara making her resemble an extra in Saving Private Ryan, Paltrow can't help but turn the ostensibly dramatic proceedings into pure camp.
Her supporting cast fares better. After shaking off the cartoon broadness of her introductory scene, Meester emerges as a sweet and unexpectedly thoughtful charmer; Hedlund, who's wholly believable as a soulful country crooner, gives a focused, frisky portrayal that completely makes up for his dull work in Tron: Legacy; the understated McGraw (Hedlund's abusive father in 2004's Friday Night Lights movie) is consistently solid and has moments of startling poignancy. Yet the actors, and the pleasant soundtrack, can't quite make up for the formulaic plotting, or the aggressive blandness of Feste's staging, or our being given so little understanding about character motivation that the film borders on the senseless. Is Meester's pop-country princess naïve or calculating? Is McGraw's hubby willfully malicious or just criminally stupid? (He sees no problem with his wife swilling copious amounts of pills, so long as she doesn't mix them with alcohol.) And prior to the on-stage tragedy that forced her into rehab, what made Paltrow's mega-star so dependent on the bottle? Feste's film shouldn't have to deliver black-and-white answers to such questions, but it should at least provide enough clues for us to make up our own answers; you leave the movie not knowing what to make of all the retrograde misery and possible guile. Country Strong is like a chart-topping heartbreaker that's all choruses and no verses.