Tag Archives: The Witch

The Other Lamb

4 Apr

‘The Other Lamb’: Lesson from cult life in woods is largely that guys are manipulative jerks, Part I

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With the Covid-19 state of emergency and shutdown of movie theaters, we’re highlighting new streaming options for people stuck in their homes by social distancing.

“The Other Lamb” is a twisted tale about a cult in the deep woods, dwelling in yurtlike structures adorned with pagan markings and living off the land, all female but led by a man known simply as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). The Shepherd lives well: His “Handmaiden” flock wash him and feed him, and the young women he selects get the can’t-say-no opportunity to “receive his grace.” The Shepherd, bearded and benevolent in countenance, evokes Jesus, but when things don’t go his way he acts like Machiavelli, relying on his divine righteousness and religiously obedient groupthink to ensure he gets what he wants. And then there’s that flock of sheep always nearby, peppered with a few anxious bull rams huffing and snorting with pent-up sexual energy, as if they want in on the fertility rites too.

In texture, the postured “Other Lamb” feels a lot like Robert Eggers’ 2015 Calvinist tale of the occult, “The Witch,” but at one point early on we get an incursion from the outside world and learn that we’re not toiling in a primitive, pre-electricity era. The main focus of the film is a young woman by the name of Selah (Raffey Cassidy, so good as Natalie Portman’s daughter in “Vox Lux” and a simmering realization here as well) whose mother had been a member of the cult and perished recently amid curious circumstance. Budding on the cusp of sexual availability, she’s eyed continually by the Shepherd, but Selah’s interested in learning what happened and stepping outside the confines of the cult. It’s such coming-of-age anxiety that gives the film a simmering tension beyond the raw sexual energy that’s heaped out there from frame one with “Wicker Man”-esque dankness.

Things meander as the group is forced to find a new Eden. The odyssey builds the character of Selah, and reveals other things at play beyond the Shepherd’s mercurial nature and the ever-present, heavy-breathing rams. Take the cult’s social order, which has the older women (Selah’s mom was one) referred to as “broken things” or “cursed wives,” both mentors and outcasts. And even though there’s the pronounced tang of Puritanism, the scene of the Shepherd baptizing young women in scanty albs would likely set the testosterone tinder of spring break bros afire once the anointed in their little-left-to-the-imagination garb are raised from the watery depths for air. It’s a weird, haunting modulation between austere religious regimentation, the Shepherd’s enigmatic id and the women’s individual freedoms offset and undercut by the power of group coercion. 

The film’s big win, besides Cassidy, is the gorgeous cinematography by Michal Englert (“The Congress”) rendering the vast Irish highlands as both foreboding and liberating. Overall, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska delivers a confident and poised composition, crafting a spectacle of a man justifying entitlement by claims of divine right, even if feels done before.

 

Emma.

27 Feb
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I always find it curious that “Emma” was the last novel Jane Austen wrote before her passing. “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” always felt more mature, wise and insightful. They’re also less gleeful and spry.

It’s important to note that the title of the film by Autumn de Wilde, tackling Austen in her feature debut, is “Emma.” with a period at the end of the title. One might think it’s to not to be confused with the 1996 version staring Gwyneth Paltrow, or maybe to simply inform cinema-goers that this is the definitive celluloid (well, digital) version – period! However you take it, de Wilde’s vision of 19th century English countryside is a rich one, rooted in details, period dress and the title character’s ever alluring array of earrings. One astute detail is the use of folding panel draft screens, each a piece of period art in their own right, positioned by the help to keep their wealthy estate owners warm as they relax in the living room gabbing and imbibing a cordial or, more mundanely, reading. In one scene, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) instructs the helping hands to move two such panels to exact locations to keep her father (the indomitable Bill Nighy) warm. The hyper (draft) sensitive effete is certainly snug and happy, but what Emma has more intentionally done is create space for her and her next-door neighbor (fields and sculpted gardens away), the overly solemn Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), to whisper privately about affairs of the heart.

Emma, it turns out, is a master manipulator, ever so prim on the outside but inside scripting the love lives of the young and unsuspecting roaming the quaint confines of the bucolic burg just a day’s jaunt from London. Those caught up in her matchmaking, besides Knightley, are her tag-along of lower social station, Harriet (a wonderful Mia Goth),  Robert Martin (Connor Swindells), a sensitive, hardworking farmer with a square jaw , the prideful world traveler Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Emma’s de facto social rival, Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson). Most of Emma’s semi-well-intentioned plots (most with a modicum of personal gain attached) backfire with a dour muffled cough. Nothing in Austen’s very staid land ever erupts outwardly, though Flynn’s brooding Knightley feels like a bull in a narrow stall looking to explode. It’s a Heath Ledger-esque performance, understated yet thoroughly compelling. (Interestingly, Flynn in is slated to play rockers David Bowie and Ray Davies in upcoming projects.)

It’s hard to pick a shining star in de Wilde’s opulent period piece. Goth, Nighy and Miranda Hart as Miss Bates, a nonstop chatterbox as sweet as she is annoying, all add perfect bits of garnish to the Knightley-Emma Woodhouse tug-of-war of emotion and desire. Mark one thing: “Emma.” lifts Taylor-Joy over the top as a serious young performer in the ranks of Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace,” “Jojo Rabbit”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird,” “Little Women”). Coincidentally, the name of her occult young woman in her breakthrough, Robert Egger’s “The Witch” (2015), was Thomasin, and she’ll star this year with McKenzie in the Edgar Wright (“Baby Driver,” Shaun of the Dead”) project “Last Night in Soho.” And as much as Joy-Taylor lifts the film with her ebullient, wide eyes that mask mixed feelings, credit for a work that feels like both a fairytale and a master painting goes to de Wilde – amazingly, at nearly 50, notching her first-time shot. The script by “The Luminaries” novelist Eleanor Catton, like Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” metes in just the right amount of modern female gaze without unsettling a single apple in Austen’s cart. Flynn and Taylor-Joy have their trajectories mapped, but it’s de Wilde (who got her detailed eye making videos for Beck and Jenny Lewis) that’s the eye-opener here, and the new hot one to watch.

 

Interview with Robert Eggers

26 Oct

Remote location, relentless weather had effect on ‘Lighthouse’ filming, not just on characters

Robert Eggers reveals at least one secret behind his stormy new movie

Robert Pattinson and Willem DaFoe in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” playing now at Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre.

Don’t spend too much time looking for answers about the meaning of “The Lighthouse,” Robert Eggers’ sophomore film, from Eggers himself.

Eggers, interviewed on a swing through town before “The Lighthouse” began screening Thursday at Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre, said he didn’t set out with a specific theme or statement, but “wanted to raise more questions than provide answers.”

The character study of two clashing personalities (Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson) tending to a New England beacon far offshore during the late 1800s is in throwback black and white, hard to define – it’s not really arthouse horror or a psychodrama, but a dabble of both and then some – and hits some pretty dark depths. It might not have been made had Eggers not caught Hollywood’s eye with his 2015 Calvinist colonial beguiler “The Witch,” which made a splash at Sundance and won him the Directing Award.

Robert Eggers. (Photo: Tom Meek)

“I had to choose very carefully,” Eggers said of his follow-up, invoking the notoriously fickle nature of the industry. Eggers, intentionally vague, mentioned a flirtation with a bigger project that got made by another filmmaker while “The Lighthouse” came to fruition from a script he and his brother Max had worked on years earlier, inspired by an old Welsh poem and the works of maritime penners of the era such as Melville. 

The film, with the provocation, tricks of the light and a dash of the outré now identified as part of Eggers’ signature style, landed two very big fish as its stars with surprising ease. “I didn’t think ‘The Witch’ would find much of an audience, [but] one of its fans was Willem Dafoe, who contacted me and asked me out for lunch – which was like ‘Wow,’ because he was a huge hero of mine. And Robert Pattinson had similarly been in contact with me,” Eggers said. “When they greenlit ‘The Lighthouse,’ I thought, who else?”

Of his journey into film, New Hampshire native Eggers has it down pat: “My dad was a Shakespeare professor at UNH, my mom had a kids’ theater company and I got bad grades – so the only college I got into was an acting school in New York.” Afterward, Eggers joined a theater troupe, where set design became his forte and a skill that ultimately elevated him in the theater and filmmaking industries. Those roots are on display impressively in the “The Lighthouse”; the structure of the title looks like an authentic relic but was built from the ground up for the film. “Anyone who could hold a hammer in Nova Scotia helped out, because we didn’t have a lot of time,” he said.

Because much of the film takes place during a relentless nor’easter that drives the action, that set was erected on Cape Forchu, a rocky peninsula on the southern tip of Nova Scotia that Eggers calls a “the most punishing location we could find that had good road access.” 

“It really delivered, but I had never been so cold in my life. I mean, I had experienced colder weather, but the gale force winds on that rock in the North Atlantic were just so relentless, and there’s no respite with all the saltwater spray coming at you,” Eggers said. Many of the scenes are in driving rain – mostly natural, though sometimes driven by a fan and only occasionally helped by a firehose. The short time on location, weather and physical demands of filming meant there was little time for relaxation.

Aside from Dafoe and Pattinson, who give performances worthy of award consideration, the other big star of the film is a clamorous seagull who menaces Pattinson’s newbie with all the brio of the bullish goat Black Phillip in “The Witch.”

“Actually it was three trained seagulls,” Eggers said. “They’re rescue birds, and they’re so smart and clever.” For the scene where the seagull files up to a window and pecks it three times, Eggers thought he was going to have to cut the elements together and maybe use CGI, but the bird did what was in the director’s head on the first take. 

Next up for Eggers is “The Northman,” a 10th century viking revenge story staring Nicole Kidman, her “Big Little Lies” costar Alexander Skarsgård, Dafoe and Anna Taylor-Joy (the star of “The Witch”). I had to ask Eggers how he became so obsessed with off-the-grid period pieces. “It’s what rings my bell,” he said. “I prefer to understand where we are and where we are going by exploring where we came from.”

The Lighthouse

18 Oct

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“The Lighthouse” is a senses-riveting immersion, aurally awash in the sonorous sounds of the sea, the pelt of torrential rain and the soul-shaking roar of the title structure’s bullhorn. It’s also brilliantly composed in austere black and white, in a retro-cropped format (practically, a neat square at 1.19:1) by Jarin Blaschke, who also shot director Robert Eggers’ debut, “The Witch” in 2015. “Roma,” another bold black and white gamble, walked off with the Academy’s best achievement in cinematography last year – and rightly so – but I must say, much of what Blaschke and Eggers conjure up here is more vital to their film’s core and registers an overall surpassing grade. Hard to imagine, but yes, it’s that stunning.

The narrative the ambience hangs from isn’t quite as sure, but what’s to worry when you have Willem DaFoe and Robert Pattinson? The setup, based on writings by Melville and sea-obsessed others of the era, has two men keeping the flame on a remote isle somewhere far off the New England coast. It’s circa 1890, so there are no cell towers; there’s also no Morse code from the island should something go wrong. The pair are dropped off on the rock for a four-week shift. Dafoe’s Thomas is a salty old tar, Pattinson’s wide-eyed Ephraim the newbie in his charge. The order of things gets laid out early on: Thomas does the all the attending to light, which is kept under tight lock and key, as well as the cooking, while Ephraim pretty much does the backbreaking rest – scrubbing the floors, hauling heavy loads of coal across jagged rock outcroppings, emptying the piss pots and painting the structure from a rickety harness that would make any OSHA official cringe. 

Thomas proves to be an Ahab-like taskmaster, though just what his white whale is never surfaces. The first rub between the mates comes over the consumption of booze (Ephraim won’t partake) and later the quality of those scrubbed floors. What Eggers begins to simmer here (as he did in “The Witch”) is a slow descent into madness as things fall apart, with faint hints of perhaps something bigger and more divine at play – fog-impaired siren sightings, booze-addled images of sensually writhing tentacles and even the incarnation of Neptune himself. The existential horror story gets triggered by a vociferant gull with all the brio and menace of the devil-eyed goat Black Phillip in “The Witch,” and the arrival of a nor’easter that could hold up their relief by weeks, if not months. The stranding ultimately becomes an opportunity for the actors to really dig in and Act – and boy do they, as alcohol, sexual tension and stormwater rain down upon the splintering shingles of their characters’ relationship with the mystery of the lighthouse tower and Thomas’ journal (also conspicuously under lock and key) ever pulling at Ephraim.

The chemistry between the two, well at the top of their games, couldn’t be any more perfect, and it’s a pretty physically taxing slog, to boot. Pattinson, so good in such offbeat, gritty ditties as “Good Time” (2017) and “High Life” this year, pours himself into the part, never flinching as torrents of wind-driven rain or fecal matter pelt his face. But this is Dafoe’s flick, his mercurial changeups and old sea dog affect behind a beard so thick and mangy it rivals that of Edmond O’Brien’s old coot in “The Wild Bunch” (1969), sells and seals both the authentic air of the period and the reality-warping mayhem. 

The film’s finest moment, echoing the “Indianapolis” scene in “Jaws” (1974), has the marooned liquored up and singing and dancing gaily. In the cloistered quarters, the choreography and execution are pure bravura. Of course there’s no shark to break the interlude, just the specter of loneliness, haunted pasts and the unmistakeable boundary of taboo. Other cinematic borrowings from “The Shining” (1981) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) may raise a brow, but are otherwise unnecessary distractions. 

The other bright spot is the titular structure itself. The isle-perched beacon looks a legitimate relic, 150 years old, but truth be told, it was erected to house Eggers’ haunted hall of personal demons. There’s also some eye-grabbing visual effects with the use of white burning light and an eerie score by Mark Korven that deepens the whole, beguiling experience. Like Pattinson’s deep space cruiser en route to a black hole in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” “The Lighthouse” is less about liftoff or landing and more about the tormented sojourn.

The Witch

19 Feb

There’s plenty that beguiles in Robert Eggers’ moody film “The Witch,” the Sundance Film Festival hit that opens widely in theaters on Friday, February 19. Masterful in composition and imbued with a deep sense of intimacy, dread and gritty authenticity, it takes place in the 1600’s — sometime between the arrival of the Mayflower and the onset of the Salem witch trials — in a New England highland that is bucolic but harsh. There, a family of settlers are banished from the main plantation for vague religious reasons and then struggle to make a go of it. Their cupboards are bare and the fields are barren. Clearly the dream of a better way of life in the New World has listed for these folk.

It doesn’t help that William (Ralph Ineson), the able family head who works nonstop in a futile attempt to provide, is saddled with a wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), who’s on the verge of dead weight. She frets incessantly and retains an unproductive desire for all things England. Their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a blonde ingénue on the cusp of womanhood, helps out by tending to the twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and the infant Samuel while her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) accompanies William in his daily work on the farm. A hunting sojourn underscores the frailty of their existence, as William’s musket misfires when trained on a lone hare. That ominous rabbit and many other things from the woods come back to haunt the exiled clan.