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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Practical Magic and Fallen (review)

The Curse of the Movie Critic

[Spoilers]

No, it’s not a hex reviewers cast over Hollywood executives to punish them for the awful movies they spew forth onto unsuspecting audiences. It’s a doom critics bring upon themselves: When one sees too many movies, eventually only the extraordinary films can thrill anymore.

The vast majority of the moviegoing public, I heard somewhere or other, attends only a few movies a year. I see at least a hundred, between new films and videos, and full-time critics see several times that many. Before long, you’ve seen all the variations on all the visual clichés, you’ve met all the stock cardboard characters dressed up and dressed down, and you’ve endured enough hackneyed plots to the point where you can predict 90 percent of the time what’s gonna happen next.

When a moviegoer sees only a few films a year, he or she is easier to amuse. Despite my general misanthropic attitude, I don’t mean this as a criticism of the typical moviegoer. It’s merely a fact. Plots and characters are fresh when one hasn’t been subjected to them hundreds of times. But when one has… Well, suffice to say I’ve been really hard to please lately.
Smoke and mirrors
Practical Magic is a perfect example of this problem. I suspect that much of the general public would find this a delightful and witty little film. Sandra Bullock, for reasons I cannot comprehend, appears to have everyone thinking she’s America’s girl next door. Magic — and anything supernatural — is very au courant at the moment. And the movie has a few nice performances. But the seasoned movie fan will be sorely disappointed.

Sally Owens (Bullock) and her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman), orphaned at a tender age, were raised by their batty old aunts (Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing) in their family’s heritage of white witchery. Widowed Sally (a family curse dooms all men who love Owens women to untimely deaths) and her young daughters live with the aunts in their big old house in a small coastal town. Trampy Gillian is off sleeping her way around America — until disaster strikes.

You’ve heard the joke: Friends help you move; good friends help you move bodies. Well, Sally and Gillian are the closest of sisters. When Gillian’s weird boyfriend turns weirder and violent, Gillian turns to Sally for help. They kill him — accidentally — then magick him back from the dead, then kill him again — this time deliberately. The sisters bury the creep’s body in the yard, but he won’t stay dead. The plot thickens when a police detective (Aidan Quinn) comes snooping around after the boyfriend — it seems he’s a serial creep the cop’s been after for a while.

Channing and Wiest obviously had a lot of fun with their characters — their aunts are the kind we all should have had as children. Kidman, too, infuses Gillian with a lot of life and handles nicely the challenge of portraying the spirit of the creep boyfriend occupying her body.

But there’s where the fun ends for serious moviegoers. Bullock, as usual, is without charisma. Lovely and talented Quinn is wasted, his role a minor one. There are a few bits of visual humor (and you’ve seen them all in television ads and previews), but the possibilities the film’s magical elements could have presented are simply ignored.

But most offensive of all is the use of a hoary old plot device. The Owens family has been reviled in its hometown since time immemorial. Children today still spit at Sally’s daughters, taunting them with cries of “Witch, witch, you’re a bitch!” and take seriously the danger of being targeted by a nasty spell. But in an hour of need, the women of the town, who two seconds before wanted absolutely nothing to do with the Owens women, rally around them and come to their aid. The sudden and unexplained reversal of heart rings false, occurring merely because the plot requires it.

That may not bother a casual movie fan, but I find that kind of laziness inexcusable.

I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up
Fallen, another supernatural thriller, also fails to distinguish itself, but in much more subtle ways.

John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) is a Philadelphia police detective who thinks he’s closed the book on his big case when he witnesses the execution of notorious killer Edgar Reese. But when more murder victims turn up under Reese’s M.O., Hobbes has to reconsider: Is it an accomplice at work? A copycat? Obscure clues — a riddle Reese posed just before his execution, the killer’s mumblings in an archaic biblical tongue — lead Hobbes to a cop who committed suicide in 1965, the cop’s theologian daughter (Embeth Davitz), and the possibility that an ancient evil spirit inhabited the body of Reese, survived the execution, and is now stalking Hobbes.

Fallen has some nice, unusual touches. A chase scene plays out rather differently when it’s a spirit doing the chasing — while our corporeal theologian is forced to push her body along a crowded sidewalk, the demon spirit merely passes itself along from body to body, moving with frightening speed toward its prey. Fallen avoids the typical romantic entanglements movies like this often resort to as a means of threatening the hero (how many girlfriends/wives have been held hostage by a bad guy?) by giving Hobbes a live-in brother and nephew, changing slightly the usual dynamic. And in a very un-Hollywood move, the film has a bummer of an ending.

The obvious problem with Fallen is that it plays like an indifferent episode of The X-Files, without the quirky humor and pseudosexual byplay of Mulder and Scully that can save even a boring episode of that series. That’s not a fatal flaw — everything is inspired by something.

But as a whole, Fallen just never gels. Washington — a fine actor and oh so cute — does his best, but he doesn’t have much to work with — Hobbes is a fairly undefined character. Even worse, the bad guy — the evil spirit — is just too nebulous to focus on. Paradoxically, part of the problem may be that we always know which body the spirit is inhabiting. If we had been left wondering which of the folks around Hobbes is actually hosting the spirit — as we finally are at the climax — Fallen might have been more suspenseful.

Ultimately, Fallen fails to spook, and creepiness is what it should have had to offer in the first place.

Practical Magic
viewed at a public multiplex screening

Fallen
viewed at home on a small screen



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