At The Movies: The Witches unlikely to cast a spell on audiences

The Witches is at best a perky but forgettable kid's adventure and, at worst, an unnecessary update of the 1990 film version. PHOTO: WARNER BROS. SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - The movies opening this week include The Witches and Waiting For The Barbarians.

The Witches

(PG, 105 minutes, opens Nov 5, 2 stars)

Hollywood loves the children's writing of Roald Dahl, but doesn't love their trademark anxiety and low-key maliciousness.

In his world, kids who worry that some adults hate them as a species are proven correct. Step out of line even a little and grotesque punishments await.

The urge to sanitise has scrubbed this adaptation of the 1983 novel clean of anything memorable. It is at best a perky but forgettable kid's adventure and, at worst, an unnecessary update of the 1990 film version.

The nameless Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno, with Chris Rock taking over his voice as an adult) is an orphan, housed with Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in her Alabama home. There are flashbacks to her youth when an early encounter with witches gave her a lifelong wariness of them.

Thus forewarned, the boy meets a congress of them in a fancy hotel. Through a lecture delivered by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), he learns of their plot to turn all children into mice so unwitting adults can kill them.

It appears that the primary reason for the remake - the same reason that drives Disney to remake its animation features as live-action movies - is technology.

Modern computer graphics can do a lot, as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005) showed. It was director Tim Burton's take on a Dahl book that a generation ago was adapted into the much-loved Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971).

Director Robert Zemeckis is known to be nutty for visual effects (the fantasy Beowulf, 2007 and the adventure The Polar Express, 2004) so he appears to be a natural fit for a romp filled with talking animals and hideous enchantresses.

Anjelica Huston, the High Witch in the 1990 version, talked about how the three-hour sessions needed to apply her witchy facial prosthetics left her in tears.

The only tears to be shed this time might come from those seated in cinemas. Hathaway and Zemeckis opted to give her a Slavic accent from 1970s cartoons, a campy touch at odds with the rest of the picture, which strives for tear-jerking Alabama earthiness. That is, when it is not desperately showing off what can be done with frantically scampering computer-drawn creatures.

A visual tour-de-force perhaps but emotionally, about as deep as a layer of pixels on a monitor.

Waiting for the Barbarians

(NC16, 114 minutes, opens Nov 5, 2 stars)

Stripped of the specifics of history and culture, imperialism is exposed for the brutalising, inglorious experience it truly is in Waiting for the Barbarians. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The 1980 novel on which this work is based was written by J.M. Coetzee. It tells of a nameless Magistrate, a representative of an unnamed Empire dealing with barbarians of the title who prowl its frontier.

Stripped of the specifics of history and culture - the Empire might be British, French or Belgian, the barbarians the indigenous of Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, Australia or South-east Asia - imperialism is exposed for the brutalising, inglorious experience it truly is.

As in the book, the film opens with the Magistrate (Mark Rylance, giving a stellar performance), a bureaucrat in charge of a sleepy outpost on the edge of civilisation. The time period looks to be the 19th century. Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp, with a steely glare and set jaw), a visitor from the capital, is taken aback by the Magistrate's policy of peaceful co-existence, believing the tribal people will see it as weakness. Joll's tougher stance includes the use of torture.

The novel on which the film is based might be postmodern in how people and places are nameless and therefore universalised, but its framework, carried over in the film, feels tragically out of date in 2020.

For example, it is the Magistrate's point of view that dominates when a nameless tribal woman (Mongolian actress and model Gana Bayarsaikhan) is, as they say, right there. She serves as the mute vessel for his kindness. The enlightened bureaucrat recognises her humanity, a habit that fills dinosaurs like Joll and his lieutenant Mandel (Robert Pattinson) with disgust. They view him as yet another of their kind who has "gone native", a master who has sullied himself by consorting in public with a slave mistress.

There is the usual Heart Of Darkness-Apocalypse Now message, with the real barbarians appearing to be the men with guns and uniforms. Beyond that obvious reference, not much else is apparent. With the savages established as uniformly noble and the imperialists as nuanced in character and morality (and capable of becoming white saviours, if they choose), this cautionary tale of colonial hubris descends into contradiction, or at least, incoherence.

The talented Colombian director Ciro Guerra, who helmed the excellent modernity-versus-folkways dramas Birds Of Passage (2018) and Embrace Of The Serpent (2015), cannot save this.

The film is an anti-Rudyard Kipling story that wants to tear down the Empire-loving writer's romanticised notions of non-Western cultures, but does not quite know how.

The Silent Forest

(M18, 108 minutes, opens Nov 5, not reviewed)

Nominated for eight Golden Horse Awards this year, this Taiwanese thriller based on a true story features Liu Tzu-chuan and Buffy Chen as students in a school for the hearing impaired. Chang Cheng (Liu) is a new student who is shocked to discover a culture of abuse that no one is willing to acknowledge, much less admit exists.

Voice of Silence

(PG13, 99 minutes, opens Nov 5, not reviewed)

Hong Eui-jeong makes her directorial feature debut with this indie South Korean crime drama, which she also wrote. Yoo Ah-in and You Chea-myung play crime scene cleaners who are dragged into a case involving a kidnapped child.

Hong's screenplay was picked for development at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and also made the top 12 list of projects at the Venice Biennale College-Cinema in 2016.

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