Season of the Witch/Green Hornet: 2011 Begins With a Thud

With Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken doing well two years ago, and The Book of Eli raking in the dough last year, January has become a home where genre flicks hope they can sneak in amongst the Oscar fare and find an audience. Season of the Witch boasts a fantasy spin and two great actors, and Green Hornet has the very funny Seth Rogen and visually inventive Michel Gondry taking on the superhero genre. Despite knowing that truly great movies in these genres would be summer tentpoles, I still hoped there would be some fun in store to kick off this new year. My hopes were dashed pretty quickly: Season of the Witch could have been either passable entertainment or epic silliness, but it’s far too content to play it safe and dull for much of the middle of the movie. The Green Hornet, which had much higher potential for success, is even more disappointing– an incredibly long and dull affair, with a shockingly low number of exciting scenes or interesting visuals for a Michel Gondry. The first good film of 2011 has yet to arrive– there’s a number of reasons not to waste money on these.

Season of the Witch begins in the Crusades, with the operatically dramatic Behmen (Nicolas Cage, of course) tearing through infidels with his best friend, the gruff fighter with a one-liner always at the ready, Felsen (Ron Perlman, of course). When Behmen kills a woman in the heat of battle, he realizes that murdering thousands of women and children isn’t God’s work– took you long enough, Behmen! He and Felsen desert, and in their travels realize the Black Plague has struck Europe. A young priest named Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore)– whose name certainly got him beat up in medieval kindergarten– tells the two soldiers that the Black Plague has been caused by a witch (Claire Foy), and they need to take her to a holy city where the last remaining book that can destroy her is kept. Think Lord of the Rings, but with a witch. And worse effects. And worse dialogue and characters.

I’ll be honest, the first chunk of the movie, while certainly not good by any stretch of the imagination, at least made me smile, with Cage and Perlman killing people and cracking wise, as the town where the witch lives plays host to some cheap jump scares. Then, I saw Christopher Lee in some nasty plague makeup, and I was really hoping that this movie would at least be an enjoyable future-SyFy-channel flick. Alas, it stops being funny and starts taking itself a bit too seriously. You’d think it would note the conventions of the genre it’s employing, like the foggy forest and the rickety bridge of rotten planks, and milk these moments for some silly thrills (okay… the bridge moment, while utterly predictable, made me smile solely because of the presence of the bridge in this otherwise dreary section of movie, like the sun of goofiness peeking out from behind the clouds). Now, when they reach the holy city, the movie goes beyond absurd, with tons of special effects– all of which are terrible– and outrageous plot twists that will make you laugh out loud, with Cage and Perlman hamming it up. If this had been the entire flick, I would have gladly recommended it to the C-grade fantasy/sci-fi lovers out there. Instead, it’s mostly dull and dreary. (Note: it does earn a special award for its closing narration, which scoffs at science and claims we now know the “true story of the Black Plague,” which sent me from the theater guffawing.)

If only the Green Hornet, a movie which aims for laughs, was anywhere close to as amusing as the last fifteen minutes of Season of the Witch. We begin with a young Britt Reid being chastised by his father (Tom Wilkinson) for fighting in school. There is no point to this scene whatsoever– it merely adds five minutes to the film and establishes what we could have done later with one moment of good acting, that Britt and his dad don’t get along. (The best acting in this scene might be the kid for not laughing at Tom Wilkinson’s black hair wig, as if that convinces us he’s twenty years younger.) Flash forward– Britt (Seth Rogen) is a party animal, and we repeat the same scene of the father chewing him out for not fighting corruption like he does. Then the father dies, leaving Britt in charge of his father’s newspaper and his number two man, Kato (Jay Chou). After drunkenly saving a girl from being mugged, they realize they can be heroes instead of useless bums. They’ll pose as bad guys, because good guys always end up getting screwed when the bad guy they face threatens to kill innocents if they aren’t allowed to escape. Apparently all villains have an inherent disdain for the sinless.

The Green Hornet has a very promising scene early, when James Franco as a young villain faces off with Christoph Waltz’s Chudnofsky, who he mocks for not dressing or looking scary enough. This scene fits nicely within the genre while also parodying its conventions. Unfortunately, Seth Rogen’s character is an unlikable brat and Jay Chou’s character alternates between being a well-meaning guy and a selfish jerk. Worse, the movie thinks everything that comes out of their mouths is amusing. The only character that I liked watching was Waltz, as the underdeveloped villain, but at least he gets to have fun with his lines and ham it up. Rogen and Chou labor in their banter– about halfway through, they get into a fight that feels interminable. I checked my watch and saw that, to my dismay, there was still a whopping hour of film left. We had barely even gotten to know Cameron Diaz’s completely useless character, and since we saw great character actor David Harbour in passing as the district attorney, we knew he had to eventually turn back up to either save the day or turn evil (take a guess).

And therein lies the problem with both of these movies– they don’t give the audience what they want. The aforementioned January hits– Paul Blart, Taken, The Book of Eli– didn’t try to operate under false pretenses. With Paul Blart, we wanted a lovable fat guy acting goofy, and we got it. With Taken, we wanted Liam Neeson saying tough guy one-liners and karate chopping people, and we got it. With The Book of Eli, we wanted Denzel slicing bad guys up and Gary Oldman frantically hamming it up, and we got it. Here, we are denied exactly what we want when we approach these films. We wanted Nic Cage hamming it up with lots of fantasy silliness, and we only get it in small doses. We wanted a charming Seth Rogen with lots of cool Michel Gondry visual whimsy, and we get it in even smaller doses. These movies try desperately to fit in, to try to be as conventional as possible and toe the genre line with no variation from the most standard plotline around. With “witch” and “hornet” in the title, it’s ironic that these films not only fail to fly, they never leave the ground. Catch up with Oscar bait films or peruse the Netflix Instant Watch selections– wait until farther into 2011 before seeing anything the new year has to offer.

Both films:

~ by russellhainline on January 20, 2011.

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