Pick of the Week:
The Witch (Lionsgate)
Following considerable build-up after a successful run at film festivals, The Witch, the first film from Robert Eggers, debuted in theaters to a curious response: Some viewers complained it wasn’t scary. That’s an odd response to a film that’s soaked in dread from the first frame to the last, to say nothing of one in which (mild spoiler) a baby is ground into a paste before the end of the first reel. Maybe it’s just a matter of horror fans having become conditioned to a certain type of scary movie, the type that uses a set of time-tested tricks to jolt the audience. This isn’t that. And it’ll terrify anyone with the patience to get on its wavelength.
Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale” and set in the Calvinist-dominated colonial America of the 17th century, it takes the era’s fear of witchcraft at face value. When a family splits with their church and tries to make it on their own deep in the forest, they meet one misfortune after another and look to the supernatural for an explanation.
Eggers, whom we spoke to when the film was released, is trying nothing less than to immerse viewers in the mindset of the time, capturing the fear and repression that came hand-in-hand with Calvinist righteousness. It’s a masterfully austere film — Eggers has cited The Shining as a touchpoint, but also the films of Carl Dreyer — and it builds to a conclusion that’s horrific and liberating in equal measure. It’s a horror movie with a lot more on its mind than cheap jolts and it’s going to be talked about far longer than those that depend on them.
The Naked Island (Criterion)
Anyone drawn to this movie by the titillating title will walk away disappointed. Released in 1960, The Naked Island brought international attention to Japanese director Kaneto Shindo. With words limited to intertitles and song lyrics, it focuses on the everyday routines of a family of four living on an island so devoid of resources that even finding fresh water for crops involves rowing a boat to another island with fresh water and carrying it back two back-bending buckets at a time. Shindo, who would go on to direct supernatural favorites like Onibaba and Kuroneko and kept releasing films almost up to the day of his 2012 death at the age of 100, masterfully combines images of natural beauty with the sounds of island life and a lovely score, creating drama out of the simple, arduous tasks the family must complete to survive. In an age of cinematic overstimulation, it’s the ideal palate cleanser.
Dirty Grandpa (Lionsgate)
Dirty Grandpa‘s trailers made this Robert De Niro/Zac Effron comedy look like a truly awful comedy. The reviews pretty much confirmed it. But isn’t there a part of you that wants to see it for yourself to find out? Be honest. It’s a safe space.
I Saw What You Did (Scream Factory)
The prolific producer/director William Castle set himself up as a low-budget answer to Alfred Hitchcock and seemed perfectly happy to occupy that niche, turning out one quickly made thriller after another in the ’50s and ’60s. Often they had some sort of gimmick attached as with The Tingler, which Castle presented through the magic of Percepto (essentially buzzers attached to the seats that would be set off at appropriate moments in the film). Thing is, while Castle can’t be called a great director, he has a great sense of fun, and his movies hold up pretty well even stripped of their gimmicks. I Saw What You Did came later in his career, and later in the career of stars Joan Crawford and John Ireland, who struggled to find good roles as they got older.
The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1 (Cohen Media Group)
French director Maurice Pialat wasn’t the most prolific director of his generation, turning out just 11 features in a 30+ year career. But the films he did make have made him a favorite of those who appreciate his particular style. Pialat’s films haven’t always been easy to track down, which makes this collection — which gathers together Loulou, The Mouth Agape, and Graduate First and the Pialat documentary Love Exists — all the more welcome.