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Season of the Witch

dir: Dominic Sena
[img_assist|nid=1394|title=Serious face means seriously important foolishness|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=304|height=450]
There used to be, in my arsenal of movie reviewing weapons, a basic metric for assessing generally the likely worth or shiteness of a flick Nicolas Cage was in. This basic metric came down to this: The shittier the hairpiece or wig, the shittier the performance and the crappier the overall film.

Of course, past a certain age, every flick Cage was in ‘required’ the usage of skilled hairpiece technicians, teams of them, working around the clock, and separating Cage’s crappier performances from his decent performances proved a mission impossible in its scope and objective.

As such, his every flick has a hairpiece now, and most, if not all, are terrible in new ways previously unimagined by the hackiest of Hollywood hacks.

And yet, and yet, he still occasionally puts in semi-decent (but still completely lunatic) performances in semi-decent (but ludicrous) flicks. I’m not thinking of Adaptation, the Kaufman / Spike Jonz flick, which was a class act all around, but of more recent fare like the very strange Bad Lieutenant remake.

Of course, for each Bad Lieutenant, considering how prolific the guy is, there’s dozens of Ghost Riders, National Treasures, Sorceror’s Apprentices and every other permutation and combination of wretchedness and villainy you can sorrowfully imagine.

Season of the Witch is a very strange film, only in that despite being set in ye olden times, and having, as its premise, Cage playing a world-weary Crusader tired of slaughtering innocents and infidels alike for Mother Church, and witches and demons and stuff, it’s a fairly mundane flick. It’s strange that Nicolas Cage is in it, I mean.

For reasons I can’t really pinpoint, this feels like more of a 1980s flick, in that its view of the supernatural, and the plagues of yesteryear, feels somewhat anachronistic for this enlightened day and age. And Nicolas Cage doesn’t overact at all, which is quite worrying.

When I point out that the flick isn’t as horrible as I’d heard it was, that’s not to say that it’s good. Not horrible does not automatically equal very good. It’s just that in these crazy turvy topsy times, with parts of Japan lying in ruins as Godzilla threatens to stride across the earth once more, the most we can hope for from Nicolas Cage is flicks that don’t completely suck. And that, almost, is the flick’s saving grace.

What it also means is that this flick isn’t as catastrophic a disaster as his other flicks, and, therefore, is nowhere near as interesting. Perverse, I know, but there it is.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (the always reliable Ron Perlman) are two Crusaders who grow weary of the slaughter, and also they get tired of wearing these really stupid helmets when they’re fighting. They, or at least Behmen, see that the Church is simply grabbing land and slaughtering people, period, with none of that holy this or sacred that stuff really mattering. When he and Felson, his loyal fellow knight, abscond from the field of victory (as in, desert from the army), they end up being forced to take on another sacred mission for the Church and for the good of all mankind. For, you see, these are troubled, plague-ridden times, and people are catching the kind of plague that makes them swell up and go purple in such a delightful way.

I neglected to mention the ‘cold open’. For those not used to such terminology, it’s when a flick starts with a scene for which there’s no preparation or explanation, no easing in to the story for the viewer, mostly used for setting the tone and the mood of the flick without giving anything further. Think of the opening shark attack in Jaws, or Trinity kicking the cops arse’s in The Matrix.

This flick’s dark age equivalent is a priest and some burly guards picking on some poor lasses who’ve been pinged for the almighty crime of being female. In the cruel logic of the time, of course there could be no proof that you were a witch, but there was also no defence to the charge, so to declare someone a witch meant they were a witch. These poor three women are thrown, with a noose around their necks, off a bridge, with a neck-snapping gusto. The priest insists, even after the lasses are dead and dangling, that he read some words from a book called The Key of Solomon over their bodies to really rub it in that they’re dead.

Nyah-nyah-nyah. Some folks are just sore winners.

But hark! What’s this? When he tries to do it to the third witch’s corpse, he gets his holy child-molesting arse murderised. But by what? A witch, or something less likely, like a unicorn, or a smurf or a garden gnome?

Where Behmen and Felson end up, during this epic time in human history, is a time where soap is unknown, dirt covers everything and ignorance walks hand in hand with the iron grip of the Church on the hearts and lives of the common folk. So when a creepy, plague-stricken bishop (an unrecognisable Christopher Lee, who looks to be at death’s door away from the screen as well as on it) tells people that a witch (Claire Foy) is responsible for the plague, and that she has to be sent to a monastery where the monks can stop her using their special Jesus magic, instead of laughing, people take him seriously.

Instead of mocking him for his all-encompassing idiocy, a journey is planned and staffed by the cohort of the damned. Mostly, this breaks down to a lot of ugly old guys, one hot young guy, and the alleged witch travelling across a bleak countryside, being picked off one by one.

The witch herself, (who couldn’t possibly be a witch, could she?) vacillates between being a waifish damsel in distress to looking like the cat that fucked the canary. Innocent and fragile one second, nasty and creepy the next.

Yeah, so she is a lot like your ex-girlfriends/boyfriends/stalkers. What she isn’t, couldn’t be, no way Jose, is responsible for the Black Death. The film couldn’t be so, so, so historically hysterical, could it?

I’m afraid it is. Usually, and maybe this is in some way to the flick’s credit, usually the ignorance and superstition of times past is held up for our disgust or ridicule in these enlightened times, with us wonderful contemporary viewers shaking our heads from side to side marvelling at how foolish people were way back when they were oppressing and murdering women just for looking and smelling better than everyone else.

So these premises usually go “Superstitious hicks believe something is supernatural, enlightened hero debunks mystery, saves the oppressed / accussed, kills the bad guys, everyone lives happily filthily ever after”. This flick goes the other way, reminding me of the recent Tsui Hark flick Detective Dee, which posited a supernatural mystery, and solved it with an even more supernatural solution.

Well, Season of the Witch succeeds in finding a solution to the mystery set probably to delight the only people I can imagine would buy this story, being Evangelicals and the Exorcism Unit at the Vatican.

The film maintains a gloomy and dour tone throughout, and, look, who’s to say it’s not appropriate. This is a swords and sorcery kind of flick (hence the 1980s label I referred to earlier, when the cinema screens and video shops were filthy with these kinds of flicks), and people walk around in armour killing stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you’re after. No one involved with this flick pretended it was Ghandi or Lawrence of Arabia or Babette’s Feast.

Of course the ending is, how shall I put this, uh, totally insane, but it’s a decent enough way to finish things off, since the flick isn’t overflowing with action sequences, and has a fairly flat, if not clinically depressed feel to it. It’s also probably more of a horror flick than an action flick, though people and wolves do get chopped up with swords. And why not?

Nicolas Cage is fairly low-key throughout, but it suits the character, such as it is. Be careful what you wish for, people who lament Cage’s chronic overacting and scenery-fucking-chewing. He does ark up at one point, only one point, and even that is subverted by events at the end, with a plot twist to rival the revelation in a political drama that Richard Nixon is the bad guy. Don’t expect the story to make any sense, because, let’s face it, expecting a 2011 flick about plague, demons, witches and priests with Nicolas Cage in it to make Earth sense means you’re the fool, not them.

It’s not an entirely horrible flick, but then, I can’t imagine who they thought was the audience for this flick.

Except maybe Joseph Ratzinger. That’s Pope Benedict XVI to you, peasant breath.

5 times Nicolas Cage’s wig wasn’t too bad in this flick, though it did make me think of Motley Crue for some reason out of 10

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“We’re going to need more holy water.” – try some holy soap as well – Season of the Witch

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