Starring Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood
Directed by Breck Eisner
Walking into a movie marketed as “Vin Diesel hunting witches,” it’s not unreasonable to say that you probably have a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into. There will likely be a handful of paper-thin characters, clunky dialogue galore, and — of course — lots of explosive action. With this knowledge in mind, it always baffles me to see critics who so flagrantly criticize Diesel’s films for delivering on such uninspired expectations. At this point, we all remember the xXx and Riddick films well enough to know what this guy is going to unapologetically serve up in his genre efforts. You would think the majority of viewers would either just agree to take the ride as is, temper their expectations in advance, or hop off the bus altogether at this point in time.
Alas, The Last Witch Hunter is still very much the kind of movie that critics will love to rip apart. It features the excessive CGI, heavily expository scripting, and an overall air of silliness that will provide many opportunities for verbosity-laden tirades about how mainstream movies continue to grow more lifeless and contrived. People would do better to lighten up when approaching a film like this though, which is hardly great, but is most certainly not the atrocity it will be made out to be. Truth be told, The Last Witch Hunter is actually quite spirited in its execution. Heavily flawed, it is, but it’s also pretty damn fun.
The film tells of Kaulder (Diesel), a 13th century witch hunter who loses his family to a powerful plague curse placed upon the people of his land. With a crew of other hunters, Kaulder strikes back by infiltrating a den of witches and killing the Witch Queen (a wonderfully made up Julie Engelbrecht), but is ultimately cursed with immortality in the process. Forced to live out centuries of loss and isolation, Kaulder spends his days in the present policing the world for witches who have broken the longstanding truce of peace between our kind and theirs, all under the watch of the Axe and Cross organization. After his current Axe and Cross appointed handler is stricken by a powerfully malicious curse, Kaulder fears that someone may be seeking to unleash the Witch Queen once again. He sets off on a mission to uncover the source of this new evil plan, receiving some help in his new handler (Wood) and a young witch named Chloe with “dream walking” abilities (Leslie, “Game of Thrones”).
If you cannot already tell, the story here teeters into expectedly silly territory in its particular fantasy tropes at points. In the present day, witches openly interact with the general public, but are apparently living in constant fear of Kaulder, the one living witch hunter in all the world. It’s a goofy setup for Diesel in this fantastical world on the surface, but the mythology actually becomes quite engaging if you let yourself buy into it. There are touches of Underworld, Harry Potter, and even a dash of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” here, and Esiner does an admirable job establishing his own unique world here in its visual and narrative aspects. This world is not as intricately realized as those in the aforementioned works, but genre fans looking for a night of easy-on-the-mind fantastical amusement will find a lot to like here. Story-wise, it is evident that many hands have handled the script over its development, but ultimately it is refreshing to see an original fantasy story like this pop up amidst an overabundance of adaptations and rehashes. As it unfolds, it becomes clear that The Last Witch Hunter also has the potential to develop more committed fantasy elements in future sequels, and ultimately, that is really what this film is trying to make happen. Again, it has no qualms about appearing so transparent in its franchise-centric intentions.
That’s not to say that this looming intent hampers one’s enjoyment of the film, because it still is more fun that most people might expect it to be. The fight scenes are well choreographed, showcasing Diesel’s strong suit as the action-packed leading man. The major action sequences are also decently executed for the most part, save for some shoddy CGI and a barrage of dizzying and rather dark quick-cut edits in the final battles. The CGI is not nearly as offensive as might be expected, although some effects used for a mystical witch prison guard known as The Sentinel get a bit cartoonish for my liking. In any case, you get just about what you might expect here as far as the quality of visuals and action go, although there is a particularly noteworthy scene involving a man lodged in a tree that features surprisingly well executed make-up and practical effects.
Vin Diesel gives an expectedly “Vin Diesel” performance here as Kaulder, nailing some of the snappier moments of dialogue, but struggling to convincingly emote otherwise. Heavier moments for Kaulder that involve clunky exposition or overtly emotional turns of plot provided some of the film’s more unintentional moments of humor. Elsewhere though, many of the quips and one-liners, particularly as delivered by Leslie, Wood, and Michael Caine (whose presence here still baffles me), work to keep the air reasonably and effectively light here. Wood particularly has some great comedic moments with Diesel early in the film, but vanishes for most of the rest of it and is weighed down by a rather ridiculous third act twist. The ultimate letdown though is the underutilization of Leslie in the film’s latter moments; I was particularly left wishing Chloe would have come into her own as an ass-kicking, spell-wielding witch, as her contribution to the final showdown against the Witch Queen and her latent coven is less than thrilling here. Granted, the final act is rather disjointed and indistinct altogether, and further development of interest for Chloe appears to be put on hold until a potential sequel is greenlit. Still, while Leslie is punchy and enjoyable in the film throughout, never truly reduced to a distressed damsel role, it would have been nice to see her land a well-placed punch.
On this note, I have seen the film criticized thus far for apparently reveling in a stew of misogynistic themes masked by a fantasy-laden plot about a man killing evil women. This is an understandable argument to an extent, I suppose, but I never once sensed any flagrantly sexist offenses here. The film is – at its most offensive – a cookie-cutter product of studio execs seeking to bank on a potential franchise featuring its well-known male star. Sure, this approach never usually results in the highest kinds of art or greater statements on the world around us, but The Last Witch Hunter never pretends to be anything more than the overblown fantasy-action tale it is. This attribute is hardly a signifier of the perceived “sexist agenda” that has been mined by some critics; at its core, this film is far too harmlessly shallow to ever be so malicious.
The Last Witch Hunter will certainly not be the critical darling of the fall season, and it is not the most memorable fantasy-action entry of the last few years, but it is a commendably original genre effort that mainstream audiences will likely enjoy. Admittedly, Eisner’s latest effort suffers most at the hands of a rushed and occasionally inane final act, and the drearier moments here are indeed enough to affect one’s overall view of the film. In all earnestness though, I do still see promise in Kaulder and Chloe’s continued story as a franchise; I’d be quite curious to see their characters further developed (especially Leslie’s) and the fantastical world beneath the surface here explored to a greater degree. Fervent witch aficionados and fantasy hounds are sure to feel the same way.
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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