Friday, April 8, 2011

"The Craft" Has No Skills

Some movies really face an up-hill battle. It's like doing a cover of a well-loved song; if a few things don't go perfectly, it's all over. That wasn't the case with 1996's "The Craft," which was often badly-executed, made poor use of its assets, and featured inferior covers of well-loved songs.

Attractive-but-troubled Sarah (Robin Tunney) has just moved from SF to LA. She's put into a Catholic School, I guess because plaid skirts look hot. On the new kid's 1st day, classmate Bonnie (Neve Campbell) spots Sarah doing something in French Class - moving a pencil with her mind!

Bonnie, however, doesn't have a freak-out. She quickly tells her friends, Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True), that Sarah is perfect as the fourth witch needed to complete their coven. Yay! Alas, the way of the witch is never easy, or mentally stable...

It's nice that the movie sort of starts before the opening scenes. It's good that the roles have lives and motivations and plans that are already underway - this helps establish internal credibility. Nor do I hate that "tC" was cast like a perfect "WB teen show." But the delivery is poor and wildly off-key.

Still, her "we are the weirdos, Mister" is a great line.

When the new coven finally gives it a shot, the special effects are fine. Three of the leads are all steady actresses and "capable of being capable," at the very least. I don't know anything about Rachel True, so I can't say anything either way. Hell, Skeet Ulrich, Christine Taylor, and Breckin Meyer are the 2ndary roles!

Yet everything happens too suddenly and too over-the-top. The very first time the quartet uses their power, it's the sort of thing that would shake people up quite a bit. Not here, tho, Nancy immediately goes straight into telling the newbie what their ultimate goal is: invoking the greatest possible power,  the spirit Manon. It's not related to a real spirit, and I have no idea why it's French-named, but it sounds sillier every time it's said.

"...all the power of Manon." "...invoking the spirit? It's when you call him... Manon." "Manon. He came to me." I don't think knowing French would make it less silly; I can't help but think, "'mais non?' No 'Man-on?' Wait, do they mean female goalie Manon Rhéaume? She's pretty, but..."

Getting back to it: since this movie is on speed, the girls almost immediately graduate to casting big-time (if cliched) spells - beauty, revenge, love, and power. Wow, ladies, way to pace yourselves with this thing that you've only done for 15 minutes.

The occult shop that shows up earlier is a set that they return to, as if LA had only one occult store. And Nancy finds a book to help contact Manon, which is odd because she already knew about the shop and this has been her 3/4s of a coven's plan for a while. I guess she never really looked around until they got their 4th...  Anyway, the book is used that very same night for that very same purpose.

In fact, the film gives us shots of the quartet looking like they "rule the school" - and it does this way too soon. It's not that a movie can't pull any or all of this off, it would just need more development and dialogue. As it is, there's a sort of fever-dream senselessness here. "The Craft" is 101 minutes long, so it's not as if the director was trying to make a brisk picture...

"tC" is very rare, a female-centric film that's not a drama like "Fried Green Tomatoes" or "Steel Magnolias." That in itself is so uncommon, the pic has an immediate appeal. Clearly, it's expecting to win the young female market, yet the movie was aiming (mostly) at the same audience that "Scream" would capture later that year, with Neve Campbell as the lead.

In fact, "Scream" might be a good measuring stick here. Wes Craven's work is far better, but it makes sense when you consider the time, the cast and setting, and the psychologically "dark" tone used in both of these "scary movies." Each movie had to make up its own familiar world and nearly-mythological backstory, and each had to express to the viewer.

So I think the comparison is solid. It's just that "Scream" was frightening, and fun, and good. Perhaps most importantly, "Scream" is effective at fleshing out its characters and giving them good segments for advancing the plots and the parts. "The Craft" is content to give us a slo-mo walk-down-the-hallway scene for the "coven o hotties..." I guess those plaid skirts are supposed to distract me from how dumb and undeserved this moment is...

See, all "The Craft" characters need more depth. For starters, everything is pitched too high, too soon. The quiet moments here often play nicely enough, and some on-screen quirks do work well. Too frequently, though, people leap from slight disagreement to full-on hatred. "Can I have some gum?" "That was my last." "Well then I hope your pet dies!"

I wish I were kidding, but it actually sort of gets that bad. Other factors help highlight the problem.

Fairuza has a look that was born for freak-outs, and she's also so clearly OTT that it could make you laugh (I did). Sarah is one of those female leads that's troubled and good, but has to learn to stand up for herself.

These two characters are clearly central to the "theme" of the movie. So self-confidence, responsibility, and being positive/benevolent are the "morals" here, right? Then wouldn't it be more effective if her friends and their use of magic had more grey areas? Further still, going from "good intentions" to "hell spiral" should take a bit longer.

Of them all, Rochelle seems to be a promising part. She even gets a nice moment of clarity scene. I was already giving this movie extra points for doing something with "the token black friend." Of course, the role doesn't live up to it, anymore than the film did. Rochelle SPOILER turns into a evil flunky at the end; she's immediately, fully, capable of the worst. END SPOILER So, I guess "no" to that whole development thing.

Everything and everyone here is condensed. It certainly feels that way, which isn't a good sign for a nearly 2-hr movie. They had a budget, a fine fx team, a perfectly good cast - I don't know why they could make the parts and story more credible, more engaging... Sadly, the occasional "jump" moment aside, "The Craft" is pretty low on ideas.

Since witchcraft was "a thing" again in '96, there should've been plenty of motivation to toy with any of these questions: whether such power is always going to be dangerous in the hands of people going through puberty/high school; whether there really can be a good use of such abilities; whether power would corrupt no matter who is in charge of any group, like the coven here.

At most, we get some babble that all spells have a negative consequence. While we see this a few times, we'd don't always - and sometimes it's immediate payback. Why? No idea...

That rule also implies there's a price to pay even for using magic to save a life; that's a pretty heavy, possibly fatalistic idea. Still, I saw the whole movie & I think that it's ok to save someone/yourself with magic.

Yes, even I am not sure - it's my best guess since I didn't see someone get spanked for doing magical life-saving. I don't care about the topic one way or the other - but anyone who's interested in magic/witchcraft must've been disappointed. For an old set of beliefs, this is spare and starkly simplistic. The film-makers give the audience too little info on the topic, instead of too much. The writers could have pulled it off, but didn't.

And no matter how much/little you know about it, you would never think the film-makers know anything about Wicca/witchcraft/whateversuch. Except for Balk; just look at her...

While the "WB teen show" cast and setting might not bother you, then the attempt at a best-selling teen movie soundtrack might do the trick. A fairly good selection of music is used here, all to support a pretty unsupportable movie: Juliana Hatfield, Jewel, Elastica, Spacehog, Portishead (!), and Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, among others. The true crimes lie in Our Lady Peace covering "Tomorrow Never Knows" and Love Spit Love's version of "How Soon is Now?" Heresy, I say!

It's silly to call a high school witchcraft movie shallow, but it's even shallow on the subject it chose. All this, despite everything "The Craft" had going for it. Also, unless you really turn your brain off, or don't mind a long moves-too-fast movie, you won't be able to enjoy this. 47% on RT can almost seem a bit generous. I won't put this into the "awful" tag, but this is very below-average in most every way.

In closing, let me add: I've made all sorts of changes to my schedule this week, so I want to improve my batting average here. As such, next week I'll post one review, one article, and one recommendation. They're already written and waiting for you to read them.

I was going to see "Your Highness" this weekend, but the reviews have been dreadful. It's a shame, as I looked forward to seeing a comedy, to seeing Natalie Portman in a comedy, and to seeing swords & sorcery with a screw-up named "Thadeous."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!