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Good news: Your moviegoing needs have been simplified. Every Thursday morning, our What To See guide will highlight the new releases .
Tired of all those recent haunted house horror movies? If so, get ready for some first-class witchcraft…
The Witch (2016) and BAM's "Witches Brew" series
Director (The Witch): Robert Eggers
Stars (The Witch): Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
What ever happened to black magic in horror? Zombies are dominating TV, thanks to AMC's The Walking Dead, while sexually perverted quasi-zombies killed it in 2015 through the indie sensation It Follows. Haunted houses and other ghostly phenomena have cornered the big screen market via movies like Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring. Good old-fashioned witchcraft, however, has all but melted away, Margaret Hamilton style. Rob Zombie tried to give witches their mojo back in 2013 with The Lords of Salem, but its acid-trip freakishness didn't connect beyond genre fanatics.
But that's all about to change. More than a year after it owned Sundance, rookie writer-director Robert Eggers' amazing The Witch is finally hitting theaters, and it’s completely deserving of its 365-day-long pre-release hyperbole parade. Eggers won Sundance’s Best Director Prize, a rarity for a horror filmmaker, and one look at The Witch justifies why. Steeped in impeccable 1600s period details, right down to authentically vintage language and dialogue, Eggers’ dread-laced and audaciously unique debut watches an extremely religious family's disintegration following their banning from a New England community and subsequent relocation into a secluded woodland area. Their only neighbor, it turns out, is the eponymous antagonist, and the ways in which she destroys teenager Thomasin (an excellent Anya Taylor-Joy) and her fam tap into classic mythology, vintage "old hag" witch imagery that's Disney's antithesis, and primal terror.
To celebrate The Witch's opening, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has launched "Witches Brew," a two-week series of the best "hocus pocus" cinema dating back to the 1920s, including, yes, the kid-friendly favorite Hocus Pocus. But we're talking scares here. BAM's program shows the many ways that witches have frightened audiences in contrast to Eggers' singularly restrained approach, from the elaborate psychomania of Dario Argento’s brilliant Suspiria (1977) to the witch-movie-without-an-actual-witch minimalism of the 1999 found-footage smash The Blair Witch Project and the unabashed '90s-ness of The Craft (1996). —Matt Barone
Read our behind-the-scenes feature on The Witch, including interviews with Robert Eggers and Anya Taylor-Joy, here.
Where to see it: The Witch opens in wide release Friday, February 19.
"Witches Brew" will be held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; more info here.
It's time to get familiar with one of African-American history's most remarkable yet least discussed figures…
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Stars: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt, Carice van Houten, Amanda Crew, Jeremy Ferdman, Glynn Turman, Barnaby Metschurat, David Kross
Ironically, Race, the first-ever Jesse Owens biopic, is paced like a movie about a long-distance runner, not an Olympian known for his lightning-quick bursts of speed. Owens’ story is undeniably remarkable. He won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, a masterful feat in and of itself, but one made all the more triumphant when you consider that he was an African-American athlete in a Nazi-occupied Germany, competing directly in front of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and being looked at as a beacon of hope and America’s proverbial foot being jammed right into the Third Reich's proverbial ass. And when director Stephen Hopkins’ overlong film (length: 132 minutes) gets to those Berlin Games, it’s the best kind of traditionally on-the-nose crowd-pleaser.
Just be prepared for the prefacing long haul of biopic staleness. In Race's early going, Stephan James (Selma) struggles to distinguish Owens beyond the biographical clichés that reduce the story of the "fastest man alive" to lightweight fluff. The first half's bright spot is Jason Sudeikis, playing slightly against type as Larry Snyder, Owens' tough-loving track-and-field coach at Ohio State University. Once Owens and Snyder step foot into Berlin, though, Race gains a sense of urgency and a clearly defined purpose. Racial issues are handled with two-sided honesty (i.e., showing Goebbels coldly shunning Owens shortly before Germany’s top Olympian heartwarmingly embraces him), and Hopkins gets the best out of James and Sudeikis, whose chemistry evolves from potential "white savior" hokum into an opposites-attract fluidity that never feels like The Blind Side hokum. —Matt Barone
Where to see it: Opening in wide release
That rare cross-section between WTF history and Oscar-caliber cinema…
Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Director: Ciro Guerra
Stars: Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolívar, Jan Bijvoet, Brionne Davis, Luigi Sciamanna
Ciro Guerra’s Best Foreign Language Film nominee Embrace of the Serpent is many films we’ve seen before: a breathtaking foreign epic, a bracing action-adventure, a somber historical drama, a national reckoning, and even a stomach-turning horror show during some of its grislier detours. And yet, the cumulative impact of these potentially overwhelming filmic impulses result in a truly spellbinding moviegoing experience. This is a remarkably tangible dreamscape of a movie that eases you into its striking milieu and then dares you to question every image and appearance.
The film braids together two stories, each centered around an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (played by non-actors Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolívar in young and old incarnations, respectively), who embarks on separate missions with two scientists, the ailing, turn-of-the-century German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) and, some decades later, the American biologist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), as each searches for the mysterious yakruna, a rare, sacred, and supposedly curative plant.
The interwoven narratives meet up at gripping and unexpected junctures, taking us from fiercely protective indigenous tribes to overzealous Christian missionaries and one terrifyingly delusional religious cult, all captured in black-and-white photography that aims for stark panorama rather than lushly filtered prestige. Guerra's overarching intent is clear: nature's capacity for magnificence and man's capacity for monstrosity have always coexisted, but Embrace succeeds where so many films before it have faltered because Guerra takes great pains to imbue his indigenous characters with both drama and dimension, plumbing their histories, ideologies, and practices with enthusiastic investment.
"This concept [of private property], which is so rooted in our culture, is really just a concept," says Guerra in an interview with Remezcla. "I wanted the film to portray this, and I realized when I was with the indigenous people that they take what they need from whatever culture. They don’t have this idea of a culture being pure, they don’t have this idea of races being different. A man is just a man, no matter what his skin color is." In Embrace, Guerra is both ambitious filmmaker and eager student, two roles imbued with an intrinsic curiosity that bears some gorgeously unadulterated visions, but also, and even more rewardingly, a storytelling approach that is at once deeply humane but also refreshingly unbiased. —Matthew Eng
Where to see it: Film Forum
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