Films I Neglected To Review: Only The Young

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/30/20 01:45:16

Please enjoy short reviews of "Spell," "Us Kids" and "The Witches."

Have you ever found yourself reading the Stephen King classic "Misery," or watching its equally impressive 1990 film adaption, and thinking that, as good as it was as is, it could have easily be improved with the addition of black magic and plenty of it? If so, then the extremely awkward programmer "Spell" should be right up your extremely peculiar alley. Having escaped a childhood of poverty and paternal violence in rural Appalachia, Marquis (Omari Hardwick) is now living a life of such bourgeois comfort with his wife and kids that when he gets word that his estranged father, who was at the center of the abuse he faced as a child, has passed, he elects to fly himself and his family in his private plane back to his childhood home for the funeral. This proves to be a bad choice as the plane crashes in the inevitable storm and when he wakes up, he finds himself in the attic of the elderly Elouise (Loretta Devine), a seemingly kindly woman who lives with her husband, insists that he was alone at the wreck and cares for his injuries with remedies that soon prove to be less than helpful, at least where his health is concerned.

I think that the idea behind "Spell" was to tap into the recent upsurge in horror cinema from black filmmakers such as Jordan Peele but it misses the mark by a mile. For starters, the influence of "Misery" hangs heavily over the proceedings and Kurt Wimmer's screenplay doesn't really bring anything of interest to the proceedings--there are way too many scenes involving Marquis surreptitiously sneaking around the house and then trying to get back into bed before being discovered and the black magic aspect is handled more like a heavy-handed gimmick than anything else. There are plenty of gruesome bits here and there--the standout being the one where Marquis discovers the true source of his injured foot--but virtually nothing in the way of tension or suspense. The performances are all over the map as well--while Hardwick goes about his work in as straightforward a manner as possible under the circumstances, Devine goes all out with an eye-rolling, scenery-chewing turn that is so over the top that there are times when it drifts uncomfortably close to caricature. I also confess to being a tad disturbed by what seems to be the ultimate message of the film, which appears to be designed to point out that those who try to escape the circle of violence are doomed and only those who resort to it can possibly succeed and survive. Granted, it could be argued that maybe I am putting too much thought into something like "Spell," a film clearly designed only to lure in Halloween audiences before quickly fading from view. My response to that would be to say that if those involved with it had themselves put more thought into it, perhaps these issues wouldn’t have turned up in the first place.

If there was one bright side--and I know that is far from being the correct phrase in this circumstance--to the horror that befell Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018 when a mass shooting claimed the lives of 14 students and three staff members and injured 17 others, it was the fact that the aftermath did not follow along the lines of what occurred with other school shootings. Instead of having the calls for change being drowned out by the deeply insincere "thoughts and prayers" of politicians in fear of becoming targets of the NRA until the whole incident simply faded away, the very same students who were victims--the ones who were themselves wounded or saw their friends dying before their eyes--decided that enough was enough and led a charge for change that, thanks to their righteous anger and social media skill, turned into a worldwide movement that would indeed change things to the point that the once-powerful NRA has been damaged to the point that they are not even a minor fact in the current presidential election. Kim Snyder's "Us Kids" is a powerful documentary that follows a number of the Parkland students, including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Samantha Fuentes as they channel their trauma and heartbreak into action that could not be ignored in the face of politicians who condescendingly suggest that they should leave these matters to the adults and gun supporters who feel perfectly comfortable with threatening them for having the audacity to ask for sensible gun laws. It is inspiring to watch them as they channel the attention that they receive through their activism and events like the landmark March for Our Lives rally to bring attention to other young people whose stories of being touched by gun violence have largely gone ignored in the media. The most moving parts of the film come during the moments when we are reminded that they are still kids and who, if they had the choice, would probably rather be doing normal teenage activities than lobbying and protesting in the hopes that no one else has to undergo what they went through. They may not have necessarily chosen the paths that they find themselves on but as "Us Kids" amply demonstrates, they have proven themselves to be the right people for the task at hand as well as an inspiration for future generations to look at and emulate.

The 1990 film version of Roald Dahl's creepy-kooky children's book favorite "The Witches" was hardly a flawless adaptation of the book--most notoriously, it transformed Dahl's comparatively dark and sober conclusion into a more conventional happy ending (much to Dahl's very public displeasure)--but it was still a lot of fun thanks to Anjelica Huston's marvelous performance as the villainess of the piece, the creature designs courtesy of Jim Henson's company and the ability of director Nicholas Roeg (a very offbeat but ultimately inspired choice) to mostly capture the amusingly malevolent tone of Dahl's work in cinematic terms--the kind of film that would give little kids nightmares and then become a cherished favorite as they got older. Now it has been given the lavish remake treatment by Robert Zemeckis and the results are unlikely to cause nightmares or be remembered by most anyone who encounters it.

Although the screenplay by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro (who was once scheduled to do a stop-motion animation version of the story) relocates the action from Europe to Alabama circa 1968, the basic premise is still the same. A recently orphaned boy whose name is never disclosed (Jahzir Bruno) is taken in by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) and after an unsettling encounter with a strange woman offering candy, Grandma informs him that the woman in question was a witch--not only do they exist, they hate children and are determined to kidnap them and turn them into animals. The boy and his grandmother go off on a trip to a fancy old hotel but unfortunately, it is also the site of an international witches convention. Inevitably, the boy runs afoul of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who transforms him and another kid into mice, which she and her minions plan to do to children throughout the world. After getting back to Grandma and convincing her of what has happened, they race against time to stop the witches from their dastardly plan and hopefully finding a way to reverse him back into human form.

This version of "The Witches" has three things in its favor. Although she never suggests the casual menace that Huston brought to the role of the Grand High Witch, Hathaway certainly throws herself into the part headfirst and her performance is oftentimes a cheerfully outrageous hoot. Additionally, this version does restore the original ending of the book, though it then immediately undercuts it by tacking on a disco dance party before the end credits. (Don’t ask.) Finally, Zemeckis has made worse films than this, as the poor souls who somehow made it through "Welcome to Marwen." Other than that, the film is an occasionally competent but more often innocuous work that is long on special effects but short of the kind of charm and excitement that cannot be generated with an array of state-of-the-art computers. By comparison, the effects in the earlier film may seem relatively tatty by today's standards but since that film also made room for plenty of charm and style--not too mention just enough creepiness to stick in the mind for a long time afterwards--contemporary viewers are not likely to notice. If you are looking simply for a film that will easily distract little kids (though perhaps not too little) who have been denied trick-or-treating this year for a couple of hours, this new version of "The Witches" will more or less fit the bill. Now if you are more concerned with finding a film that those kids might genuinely love and embrace, even if it does terrify them at times, then you should seek out the 1990 version and forget this one entirely, which I suspect most people will be doing before too long anyway.

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