Thursday, February 16, 2012

Day 78: Season of the Witch

"I serve the church no more."

That makes two of us holmes. Man alive, Nicolas Cage has a real knack for ending up in garbage. It seems like for every Drive Angry, which is a knowingly bad movie, he ends up in at least three outright bad movies. There's a definite streak that runs through his films, and it's undeniable that he balances his work in halfway decent films with work, no less committed mind you, in some downright bullshit. Season of the Witch falls firmly into the second camp, as it has the elements in place to be a good movie, but it's so full of nonsense, particularly the last twenty minutes, that it's hard to see anything good in it by the time it's over.

Cage and Ron Perlman (one of my absolute favorite character actors) play Behmen & Felson, two knigts templar who swore a vow to fight for the Catholic Church in the Crusades. They have lots of witty banter to set them up as friends and badasses, the kind of half-hearted attempt at backstory that George Lucas tried to squeeze into Revenge of the Sith, so people will know they're friends without having to show it. They fight in many battles, but at one particular battle, they storm a castle and find that they've been led to slaughter innocent women and children. Well, Nic Cage is many things, but he's not a kid killer, so he and Felson abandon their duties and flee the war.

They stumble upon a village that has been decimated by the plague, and they are arrested as deserters. They're given an offer by the dying Cardinal (Christopher Lee, in grotesque plague makeup) to accompany a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore, looking like Tobey Maguire in that fake trailer from the beginning of Tropic Thunder) and another knight (Ulrich Thomsen, looking like Sting) to a monastery to deliver a young woman (Claire Foy) suspected of being a witch to the monks there, who can perform an ancient ritual to reverse the plague that has been brought on them. They are also joined by an altar boy (Robert Sheehan, looking like a cross between Shia LaBeouf & James Franco) who's handy with a sword, and a thief (Stephen Graham) who will act as their guide.

Along the way, they have to cross a treacherous bridge, cross through a forest that will drive them mad and is also full of wolves (as if the madness wasn't enough), and they lose the knight that looks like Sting and the thief. When they arrive at the monastery, they find that all the monks are dead from the plague and low-rent Tobey Maguire will have to perform the anti-witch ritual himself. They are then alerted to the fact that the girl is not a witch, but she is possessed by a demon, who takes the form of a typical winged demon and flies off into the church to destroy the ancient manuscripts that deal with exorcism. Short of Henry Winkler showing up and water-skiing over the demon, I don't know how much harder this film could have jumped the shark. It's one thing to make a movie about the unfair persecution of young girls by the church, it's another thing entirely to turn that all on its head in favor of becoming another god-damned exorcism movie.

The film is a jumbled mess. It seems like it's going to be a screed against the church, but then it turns out that the priest was a good guy all along and the devil is really waging a war against humanity, and the film eventually has no idea what message it was trying to get across. It's fine if you just want to make a mindless action movie, but don't set up pins you don't intend to knock over by the third act. Does Behman regain his faith? Who fucking knows, the film forgets all about that in favor of having him battle cgi demons.

I felt sort of hornswoggled because I thought, okay, this will be like Nic Cage, with his ridiculous hairstyle that starts almost at the crest of his head, in some anti-church propaganda dressed up as a medieval action movie. That kind of thing I can get behind, but the film just sort of tosses all of its thoughts on religion right out the window when the demon shows up. It felt kind of like Don't Say a Word, that movie that spent an hour and twenty minutes as a taught, psychological thriller, and then decided to have mild-mannered therapist Michael Douglas turn into John McClane in the last fifteen minutes. Make up your mind people. Don't start a movie in one genre and try to end it in another.

I guess there's some fun to be had here, Ron Perlman is always a blast to watch and Nic Cage does some really committed acting here, for no good reason. I like Nic Cage so much better when I'm not sure how self-aware he is, and he seems entirely too self-aware here for me to enjoy the film. The rest of the cast is populated with some pretty lousy actors who serve no purpose but to remind you of better actors. The direction by Dominic Sena is uninspired at best, and downright clumsy at worst, and the script by someone named Bragi F. Schut is a mess of convoluted gobbledygook and awful, modern sounding dialogue for a film set in the 14th Century.

There are much better worse Nic Cage movies you should be watching Trespass or Wicker Man, so don't waste your time unless you're a completist like myself. And even then, lower your expectations. You'll still fnd yourself wistful for a Nic Cage movie where you're just not sure if he knows how bad the movie around him is. I think he had a pretty good idea about this one, and that ruins half the fun.

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