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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Rest. Season of the Witch, Hobo With a Shotgun, The Fearmakers, Rope of Sand, The Cocoanuts

Season of the Witch (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S., Dominic Sena, 2011 ( 20th Century Fox )

It’s good, or at least encouraging,  to find a big movie super production that has at least a little literary-dramatic ambition — and the new Nicolas Cage show, Season of the Witch, certainly has some of that.

Produced to a fare-thee-well, flashily directed (by Dominic Sena of Kalifornia), jam-packed with lavish technological trimmings, and massive historical recreations, battles and hell-raisings, the movie also boasts an excellent cast (Ron Perlman, Ulrich Thomsen and Christopher Lee, as well as Cage) , spectacular location shooting in vast, gloomy Austrian and Hungarian forests and huge castles, and fantastic CGI supernatural imagery — as well as the best pustule makeup money can buy.

All that, and a story inspired by Ingmar Bergman. Witch is set during the 14th century in the time of the Crusades and of the Black Plague in Europe, and it‘s the strange, mini-epic tale of idealistic knight Behmen (Cage) and cynical pragmatist Felson (Perlman), two heroic soldiers, decade-long buddies and veterans of the Crusades, and now deserters, who are captured by the guardsmen of the dying Cardinal d’Ambroise (Lee).

The two — whose objections to the war are moral — are summoned to the Cardinal’s deathbed, where he is wasting away, oozing pestilence, surrounded by weirdo doctors in medieval beak-masks. And they are ordered to transport an accused witch (Claire Foy), suspected of having caused the Plague, in a wagon and cage, accompanied by a weird troop that includes Debelzaq, an obsessed young priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), Echhart, another soldier (Thomsen), Hagemar, a swindler-turned-guide (Stephen Graham) and Kay, an altar boy who wants to be a knight (Robert Sheehan). Their destination: a distant monastery, where the captive girl will be tried and burned at the stake by appropriate monks.

Now, this is something you don’t often see in a multiplex: a combination artsy medieval quest movie and slam-bang action adventure show. Though the movie‘s extensive press notes never mention it, the major influence on Bragi Schut, Jr.’s script is clearly one of the great art films of the twentieth century: Bergman’s 1957 Swedish masterpiece The Seventh Seal.

That great film was also set during the Plague years — and it also had a quest, a knight and his sidekick back from the Crusades, an accused witch, priests, monks, a seminarian, lots of corpses, a traveling wagon, a castle and a grandiose supernatural heavy. (The demon in Season of the Witch; Death himself, with his chessboard, in Seventh Seal). Cage’s reflective Behmen (the actor’s hairdressing and wig allotment looks like it might rival Seventh Seal’s whole budget), and Perlman’s tough-guy Felson are the new movie’s equivalents for Max Von Sydow’s philosophical Knight Antonious Block and his cynical Squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand).

Unfortunately, Season of the Witch is no masterpiece — though the actors and filmmakers, in some ways, treat it as if it were. It’s more like an over-expensive knock-off of Seventh Seal that’s had mad globs of The Exorcist, Kingdom of Earth, The Name of the Rose, The Masque of the Red Death, some Indiana Jones cliffhangers, and The Crucible jammed down its throat, with the wolf scenes in Twilight as a chaser.

If that almost makes Season of the Witch sound like wild, crazy fun, you should be advised that the movie, though quite good-looking (as Sena’s movies usually are) is done with a weird mix of sobriety and gaudy spectacle, and a straight-faced kitschiness that tends to be as grim and cloudy as the heavy Austrian-Hungarian skies above. Season takes itself too seriously to be all that much fun, and it’s often too witch-kitschy and outlandish to be believably serious.

Cage has been mocked by some critics for those meditative far-away looks, and for his blonde wig, but actually he establishes the kind of rapt mood the movie could use if the story and the script made more sense. Screenwriter Schut has some good ideas, and he‘s obviously seen some good movies. (The opening ten minutes — the witch-hangings and the battles, are quite exciting.) But he takes too many short cuts. The script of Witch seems incomplete and a little skimpy, even though it won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy.

How are we supposed to handle the idea that Cardinal D’Ambroise, faced with a decision that he thinks might actually end the Black Plague, recruits as the witch’s main guards to her trial, two deserters who don’t believe in witches? And then backs them up with a swindler, a wispy priest and an altar boy who wants to be a knight? That‘s about as buyable as the movie’s main cliffhanger: with that 3,000 pound wagon pulled by Behmen gingerly across a ragged suspension bridge menacingly waving between two mountains — a loose, swaying, wind-buffeted span that looks as if it couldn’t survive Elle Fanning, skipping. That scene though, at least does generate some wild and crazy fun.


And what of Foy’s task as the nameless alleged witch, who spends a lot of energy vamping Behmen? The movie sometimes acts a bit like Michael Reeves‘ 1968 Vincent Price horror movie,  Witchfinder General (or The Conqueror Worm), suggesting, for an uncomfortable amount of time, that Foy’s character might actually be a witch, or at least witchy, or that witches are all around us, somehow. The opening lynching scene, where three alleged Handmaidens of the Devil are hanged with chains and drowned, begins as tragedy and then turns into Hammer Horror.

And without going into too much detail, the movie’s last Apocalyptic brawl, with Priest Debelzaq chanting the rites from a huge holy tome, monks bursting into flame, Behman battling devils and Felson head-butting Satan, is ludicrous without being enjoyably hilarious. It actually might have worked better with Donovan’s original song Season of the Witch, with its killer vamps and wails — which I kept waiting for and missing — was played over it.


I’ve liked some of Dominic Sena’s movies — Gone in Sixty Seconds as well as his Cannes prize-winner Kalifornia — and he can be quite a snazzy pictorialist, though he also suffers from the habitual music video director’s addiction to zap. Here, thanks to the film’s spectacular, windswept European scenery, he almost always delivers something eye-catching, from the sandy sieges of the opening Crusades scenes, to the sight of that disintegrating bridge, laden with that huge wagon, slats popping, rope fraying.

Prize or no though, the script needed work. But what else is new? Scripts usually need work, more than the deal. As Donovan Leitch once said (I finally got it in): “Oh No…Must be the season of the witch!” Anyway, Season of the Witch has its moments, just not always the right ones. I could have watched Cage and Perlman Von Sydowing-and-Bjornstranding it up some more, maybe in another movie, with a different ending. And I wish Ingmar Bergman had, once or twice or several time more in his life, gotten a few budgets like this one, or even a healthy fraction of this movie‘s. Then we might have gotten more than one Fanny and Alexander, and maybe seven more like The Seventh Seal. We could have used them.

Hobo With a Shotgun (Collector‘s Edition) (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Jason Eisener, 2011 (Magnolia)

This one started as a throwaway gag of Quentin Tarantino’s: the supposed subject of a spoof` grindhouse movie trailer. Maybe it should have stayed that way. As it is, we get to see, as if we wanted to, ninety minutes of neon-lit, bloody, trash-in-the streets mayhem, with super-hobo Rutger Hauer dropping off a train and wandering into a corrupt city, which he soon decides needs a shotgun pointed at it, badly.

Corrupt leaders, nepotistic killer-creeps, sexy hookers, gigglingly bad actors, and, oh yeah, some kind of local street game, played too often, where some poor schmuck who’s displeased the local mad dictator gets his head jammed into a manhole cover, then jammed into a manhole, to await the piece de resistance: his head getting yanked off by a truck or car with a chain. (It’ll never replace stickball or ringolevio.)

Hauer’s Hobo is subjected to this indignity, among many others, including the whole damned movie. But at least he gets to fight back. (What can the poor audience do?) Shotgun in hand, precious minutes ticking away as more and more citizens get abused and more and more heads are yanked off, the Hobo awaits Hobo Valhalla and the revolution of the young and incensed, which arrives, sort of, by the last act. (Don’t worry about the gore level, by the way. Insanely violent as Hobo With a Shotgun tries to be, the special effects are so inept that these manhole decapitations look as if some litterbug art teacher were staggering around town, littering the streets with bad sculpture.)

An obvious inspiration for Hobo with a Shotgun is Rutger Hauer’s (and director Robert Harmon‘s and writer Eric Red’s) mad-vagabond-on-the-loose highway thriller The Hitcher (1986), a bad, mysteriously overrated movie that has now been remade twice. (Twice! Think of it!) Oddly, Hauer was pretty good in the original Hitcher, and he’s better here, in this gory but knowing lower-budget shocker-schlocker — which is even odder. The fact that the great blonde replicant of Blade Runner can retain a scrap of dignity appearing in a yuckfest like this is a testament to the power of acting. Do the guy a favor and catch him instead in the current Dutch period drama Bride Flight. He’s even better, and his scene is scarier.

By the way, Hobo With a Shotgun is so awful, it makes Drive Angry 3D look good. Maybe it was good. At least they didn’t put Nic Cage’s head in a manhole cover.

Extras: Digital copy.

The Fearmakers (Two Stars)

U.S.: Jacques Tourneur, 1958 (MGM Limited Edition Collection)

It’s been said, almost certainly by someone French, that the ideal film directorial sensibility would combine the grace of Jacques Tourneur with the force of Robert Aldrich. Depends on the movie, though. As great as Out of the Past, The Cat People, and I Walked with a Zombie all are, and as near-great as Nightfall and Canyon Passage are, and as much as I admire Tourneur’s graceful, tasteful, atmospheric direction of them all, they won’t give you a good idea of the badness to come in the tepid Cold War anti-Commie thriller, The Fearmakers, which seems to have been written by idiots, produced by brainwash victims, acted by zombies, and directed during a cat-nap.

 Dana Andrews (the stalwart movie star of Laura, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Ox-Bow Incident, and also the radio star of “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.”) plays, without apparent interest, a returning Korean War vet and brainwash victim. (Was that why Andrews agreed to The Fearmakers?) After a near pickup by a suspiciously friendly left-wing professor on his returning plane, Dana tries to go back to his old public relations firm, only to discover that it’s been taken over by a nest of Commies: well-dressed Red thugs, not as articulate as the prof, who plan to conquer America with public relations.

Dana is curious. A helpful U. S. Senator has a tete-a-tete to warn him of the PR gap, and also of the red storm risig to come. Also lurking around are a pretty anti-Commie secretary, Veda Ann Borg as a Red Landlady Slut, plus Mel Torme as a Likable Doofus Fellow Traveler. Eventually there’s a fight by the Lincoln Memorial, which our side wins. A small boy watches this inspiring defeat of the Red Menace by Laura’s lover, kicks his little red wagon, and walks off to grow up to become Roger Ailles. (No, I just made up that last part. But it would have been a killer ending.)

I’m against alcoholism, but I think if I’d known Dana Andrews when he was starring in this, I would have handed him a bottle. And I’d have asked him to pour a shot or two for Jacques Tourneur — who actually directed this movie in the same year that he and Andrews together made that low budget near-masterpiece of horror Curse of the Demon, but who directs The Fearmakers as it he just didn’t give a damn, as if he weren’t Jacques Tourneur at all, but some other Jacques: Inspector Jacques Clouseau maybe. (“Sacre bleu! Idiots! You don’t understand! You are the Fuurmakers! You must arouse Fuur!”)

No extras. Made on demand, from MGM archives.  

Rope of Sand (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: William Dieterle, 1949 (Paramount/Olive)

Three of the key actors from the great cast of Casablanca  — Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre — team up with Burt Lancaster (in a Bogie-ish role), Corinne Calvet, Sam Jaffe, Mike Mazurki  and Kenny Washington, in a Casablanca-ish tale of diamonds, romance, revenge, gambling  and corruption in Africa. Henreid plays the villainous part here, and, though he has fun with it,  he’s better as an idealist (which he was in real life). Rains, as a corrupt cynic, Lorre, as a sly hustler, and Lancaster, as a force of nature, are just right.

Director William Dieterle, almost a decade or so`past his prestige Warners bio period (Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Juarez),  directed this the same year he made,  with Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten, and for David Selznick, the  jewel-like romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (one of Luis Bunuel’s all-time favorite movies), and it has a similar dark lush pictorialism. Not a totally successful movie but, if you have a taste for Casablanca-style international noir, and I do, you should enjoy it. No extras.

The Cocoanuts (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929 (Universal)

Groucho! Harpo! Chico! Zeppo! Gummo! (Gummo must have been around there somewhere.) This is the very first Marx Brothers movie, based on their hit Broadway show (with songs by Irving Berlin and script by Morrie Ryskind) — and you can see why, according to their fellow ex-vaudevillian ex-music hall vet Jack Benny, no one ever wanted to follow these guys on stage. The Marxes left audiences weak with laughter, They left their fellow cast members desperately trying not to break up. They left each other flying on wings of sheer comic hysteria. They cracked up the house, any time they wanted to.

So: Cocoanuts. We’re in Florida, in the land that will some day host three hot babes on the lam in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. (Imagine Groucho, by the way, in Joe E. Brown’s part.) Here, Groucho is a crooked hotel manager/owner, trying to unload his lemon of a Florida hotel on some sucker. Harpo and Chico are professional vandals and swindlers. Zeppo is a pre-Allan Jones musical loverboy. Zeppo sings and woos, Harpo plucks the harp-strings. Chico shoots the piano keys. And Groucho, with his painted-on glasses and his big overgrown hairbrush of a black moustache, takes the English language and, along with Chico, turns it into a weapon of mass destruction. (“These plans are so simple a child of five could understand them. Run out and find me a child of five; I can‘t make heads or tails of them!”)

Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s great unstraight straight woman, is here in all her glory too, as the grand ma-dame of all snobbery, and the watermelon of Groucho’s eye. Whatever the provocation, she will never crack up. She will never even titter, even when Groucho clasps them in his arms and tells her he loves her. My God! She deserves a medal, that woman: the Croix du Mont.

Even though The Cocoanuts was co-directed (with Joseph Santley) by the French-born cine-stylist and sometime avant-garde experimentalist Robert Florey (who made, in 1927, the classic short  The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland), the non-Marx Brothers parts of this movie — and, I would guess, of the play — are so obviously, even nose-thumbingly bad, so stilted and phony and herniated with clichés, that, when the Brothers come charging on, funny bones erect and blunderbusters blazing, it’s as if they’d declared war on their own movie. And in a way they have. The Cocoanuts, a film greatly admired by Parisian theatrical rebel Antonin Artaud, is a guerilla attack on theatre, on movies, and most of all on sanity. (“You can’t fool me! There ain’t no sanity clause!”)

If the U. S. Senator of Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers had heard of the Marxes, with their suspicious family name and their suspicious jokes and their suspicious beep-horn and their untrammeled lechery and Harpo’s suspicious habit of dropping his leg over people‘s arms and swinging it, the whole family would have been undoubtedly put under investigation — especially Mama Minnie Schoenberg (Marx), who was responsible for it all.

And maybe it’s true! Good God, how incredibly obvious, Mandrake! Groucho was a limousine liberal. Harpo was a com-simp. Chico was a fellow traveler. Zeppo was…Well, what was Zeppo anyway? (He was subversive, whatever it was; maybe he was the menace you can’t spot.) As for this movie, which had 1929 audiences rolling in the aisles, and maybe even rolling all the way down the aisles against the stage and piling up like oranges, screaming with laughter, well (as Jack Benny would say), I make no apologies for giving it three and a half whole stars, when so much of it (the lovers’ duets, the exposition, any scene without a Marx) stinks to high heaven. Remember. Jack Benny was right. Nobody can follow the Marx Brothers. Including their own movie.

Anyway, listen, you want to know the biggest reason why you’ve got to watch The Cocoanuts? I’ll tell you in one word. Viaduct.

Extra: Trailer.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon