Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2010's Best Films (of interest to Pagans, Witches, Occultists, et al) PART 3

And now the final installment of 2010's Best Films (of interest to like-minded pagan folks)!

This time we're looking at documentaries released in 2010. Given the nature of documentaries, some of these may have yet to make it to your local arthouse cinema, and some of them are not yet available on DVD.

One film that has generated a fair amount of buzz in the pagan community, thanks to some excellent coverage on The Wild Hunt Blog by Jason Pitzl-Waters, is American Mystic by Alex Mar. The Wild Hunt has featured an interview with the director and coverage of the film's screening at this year's Pantheacon event in San Jose.

The film is one that does not offer any specific narrative point of view or narration by anyone except the three main subjects: Kubai, a Spiritualist-in-training from New York state; Chuck, a Lakota Sioux Sundancer, and Morpheus, a pagan priestess who lives on a sanctuary in progress in California. Following each subject through their everyday and extraordinary experiences, we hear how the three of them all came to their respective paths and their struggles and challenges along the way. The film seems to have three distinct tracks, but eventually seems to blend these three worlds together as the music and sound from one segment blend into the visuals from the next: a very haunting and evocative technique.

Perhaps most pagans would be interested in the segment on Morpheus Ravenna, a young redhead who lives at the Stone City Pagan Sanctuary with her artistic handyman husband. She is an initiate of Victor Anderson's Feri tradition and performs and teaches within the pagan community. By choosing to focus on relatively young subjects, Mar shows people who are not elders or trained teachers, but seekers who have found their path and continue their deeper engagement through practice. The traditions range from the psychism of the Spiritualists at Lily Dale in western New York, to the ancient tradition of sundancing practiced by Chuck and his community, to the ever-evolving pagan and Wiccan traditions of the California pagans. No doubt many pagan viewers will consider the pagan rituals portrayed to be different from their own, and some may disagree with Morpheus' views on witchcraft and its origins. But it's fascinating to be privy to another person's tradition and practices, to be able to compare it with our own and that of others; this is the first time such an intimate look at modern witchcraft has occurred in a documentary film to my knowledge, and that fact alone makes American Mystic a stunning achievement.

My second pick for documentary of interest to pagans is Marwencol, a beautiful and very moving intimate portrait of a man who lives in upstate New York. Directed by first-timer Jeff Malmberg (my interview with the director appears here and a longer review here) and several years in the making, this is the story of Mark Hogancamp, an artist who is beaten senseless outside a bar one night, and after being in a coma for more than a week, awakens with severe physical and emotional trauma, and very little memory of his previous life.

Mark works through his trauma and physical handicaps caused by the attack by building a miniature scale model village of WWII Belgium called "Marwencol." He uses Barbie and Ken dolls, scraps and detritus found in the trash, and supplies from the local hobby shop to craft his village (which includes soldiers, female bartenders, and a blue-haired witch named Deja Thoris). Mark's amateur (but very artful) photographs of his village catch the eye of some New York artists, and Jeff Malmberg suggests filming his process. The result is as creatively inspiring and stunningly beautiful as any film I can recall seeing in years: it is a triumph of the resilience of the human spirit, and the healing powers of art and friendship. You can see many stills from the film and follow the story of the characters on this website, maintained by the film director, producer and Mark. Marwencol will be released on DVD April 12, 2011.

My third documentary pick is the very ambitious and impressive Sweetgrass, a gentle and unassuming film that is nevertheless an astounding feat of filmmaking. The film follows what is to be the last sheep drive through the Montana mountains, following the animals as they move from summer to winter pasture and back. It is a way of life that has all but disappeared in America, because so few of us eat wool or eat lamb (except me and you, right?), and it's obvious it's also a demanding and skilled occupation. The film took several years to make, and Ilsa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the husband and wife filmmaking team, experience some dramatic hardships as they followed the shepherds. I had the good fortune to interview the filmmakers for the Boston Phoenix and it also is reprinted on the film's website. The scope of the images and the simplicity of the action is mesmerizing, while at the same time evoking thoughts of the importance of animal husbandry and the traditional ways of living on the land that are becoming distant memories. If you're someone who believes our connection to the land is important and sacred, you need to see Sweetgrass.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

THE EAGLE: Oh, those bloodthirsty pagan Celts!

Happy Lupercalia, everyone! In honor of this ancient Roman festival, today's review seems particularly appropriate. Stories about the Romans in Britain and Hadrian's Wall are part of a strange and growing cinematic micro-trend. It's, odd, isn't it, in an age where we are so terribly modern, with our portable technology and whirlwind mental stimulation, that we should be seeing so many stories drawn from ancient history. We saw a taste of Roman Britain in Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur several years ago: in which both Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and Merlin (Stephen Dillane) are portrayed as being part of a tribe of forest-dwelling Druids. That particular incarnation of the story was based on "exciting new" archaeological findings suggesting that Arthur may have been of Roman, and thereby Christian, origin. Arthur (played by Clive Owen) is portrayed as a Crusades knight whose faith and allegiance are conflicted between his British origins and his Roman military service. A very provocative thesis, really, though not a very likely one.

Kevin Macdonald's story of Roman Britain The Eagle, which opened last weekend, is based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, about the legendary Roman legion that invaded Britain in the 12th century. If this storyline sounds familiar, you may have managed to see Neil Marshall's Centurion (it was one of the lowest grossing films of 2010), starring Michael Fassenden and Imogen Poots. (If you didn't see Centurion I highly recommend it; a brief review appears here.) This version also pits Roman warriors against Pictish tribes, but the story line differs slightly, and there is no romantic intrigue with a female character (like Poots' sexy exiled witch, Ariane, in Centurion).

In fact, The Eagle barely has any women at all. The main characters are a young Roman commander named Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum, who resembles a young Josh Hartnett (same pinch-faced fratboy look) and his Brigantian slave Esca (Billy Elliott's Jamie Bell). Aquila rescues Esca from death during a gladiator death match by encouraging the crowd to cheer his bravery, and the slave, despite his tribal hatred for the Romans, pledges loyalty. When Aquila, against the advice of his elders (including his doting uncle, a war veteran played by Donald Sutherland) decides he must travel north, beyond the safe barrier of Hadrian's Wall, to retrieve a lost war relic (the golden eagle that topped his father's sword), he brings Esca as a guide. But the tables are turned when Esca's Celtic language skills and tribal connections allow him to gain the upper hand.

Despite the occasionally silly dialogue that makes this feel a bit like a collegiate buddy romp, I liked the look and feel of this film. All of the visual and cultural trappings (costumes, music, Celtic languages, pagan rituals) are nicely authentic, although the northern Pictish tribes are a bit over the top, like refugees from Burning Man. Painted with chalk, and with hairstyles that combine baldness and long dreadlocks, these muscular tribesmen and women prove themselves to be ruthless and bloodthirsty, even with their own children.

The same was true of the Picts in Centurion: and a female Pictish tracker (who never speaks) accompanies the lone Roman also on a pilgrimage to restore lost honor. The decision to make the Celts ruthless and the Romans noble is not just arbitrary; after all, the main documents we have from history that describe the Celtic peoples (including the Druids) were mostly written by Romans. A well-known pre-Raphaelite painting ("A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids," by William Holman Hunt) that depicts the Druids as savages hunting down Roman citizens was obviously what Christine O'Donnell (remember her?) was referring to when she claimed, on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect back in the 1990s, that the origin of trick or treat at Halloween was based in the fact that "the Druids would go door to door, looking for a human sacrifice." Clearly a more sympathetic portrayal is needed on film. Come on, you pagan screenwriters!

The Eagle doesn't condemn all pagan Celtic tribes: just the Picts. The Brigantians (like Esca) come off fairly well, and the various Northern peoples of Scotland are portrayed as rustic, peaceful shepherds. And the film doesn't shy away from admitting that the Romans have brutally invaded this green and pleasant land and deserve what they get. Thankfully, there is not an abundance of violence or gratuitous fighting here; just enough to be convincing (unlike other medieval era films of 2010, like Robin Hood), and the final battle scene is grand, reminiscent of Lancelot's heroic return in John Boorman's Excalibur. Interestingly, Boorman is also tackling this same story in his forthcoming Memoirs of Hadrian, which will star Antonio Banderas and Charlie Hunnam (star of the excellent FX series Sons of Anarchy). A wonderful article on Hadrian and Boorman's forthcoming film appeared in The Guardian in 2008, showing how in-depth and involved this project is.

The Eagle is beautifully photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle (who worked with Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire), shot on location in Great Britain and Hungary. Tatum is somewhat wooden, but the diminutive Bell holds his own, and the many extras that people this ambitious film look straight out of central casting, which is nice to see, given recent failures in this area on the part of TV shows like the BBC's Robin Hood (where the dialogue, costumes and hairstyles are unintentionally and embarrassingly anachronistic).

I hope this new trend of ancient history in film will continue, even with younger and less literary audiences guiding the profit missiles of Hollywood. Maybe we can see stories of other nations, their folklore brought to rich life on the silver screen. Certainly two films on the ninth Roman legion in one year feels legendary.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Don't Look Now...

And no, I don't mean the wonderful 1973 paranormal thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that was just named the number one British film of all time in the list of the 100 Best British Films compiled by Time Out London and a panel of industry experts.

I mean, don't look now! Just when you thought maybe there had been enough films dealing with the Church and the occult to hold us for a few years, now we have several more on the way. There's The Seventh Son starring the amazing Jeff Bridges, the second film (after Revenge of the Witch) in the series based on the popular children's (children's? really?) book series The Last Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, according to the Film Stage website. The film will also star Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar-nominated lead actress from Winter's Bone, as a witch. Film Stage says Bridges will play a mysterious character named Spook (and says the book's original "non-American title" was The Spook's Apprentice; apparently this word does not have a negative racist connotation in the UK) encountered by a young man named Tom Ward with paranormal abilities who is training to be an exorcist.

USA Today announces a new series to premiere on the Discovery Channel, The Exorcist Files (get it? kinda like The X Files?), that will follow real exorcists investigating supposed cases of demonic possession. Inside TV details the close involvement with the Vatican that will occur to create an authentic series, and the Huffington Post thinks Romania might be a good place for the show to do some filming.

It may not have to do directly with exorcism, but the forthcoming sci-fi film Priest stars Paul Bettany as a man of the cloth in a post-apocalyptic world full of vampires who wields his special powers to fight evil. The film has a promising cast: New Zealand-born actor Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), veteran film actor Christopher Plummer, Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks), and Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings film series).

There are also some very exciting pagan films coming our way this spring...more on these very soon.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

2010's Best Films (of interest to Pagans, Witches, Occultists, et al) PART 2

The first part of this article featured some of the more popular films related to the occult and paganism. But often the most interesting films of interest to pagans and witches fall outside the realm of Hollywood and the big box office, in the world of documentaries and smaller independent films. Motion picture piracy is a serious issue and is definitely affecting how long films stay in theatres and whether they play in certain markets. If you want to support a film, going to see it in a theatre is the best way to do so; especially if you can get there in the first weekend, since these box office figures often can make or break a film's run there. Take Centurion, for example: a film very people saw, and which made very little money at the box office. But it was one of the best films I saw in 2010, out of dozens.

Another case in point: George Romero's Survival of the Dead, which I was asked to review for Cinefantastique, and which allowed me to score an interview with George Romero. But when the studio decided to make the film available for online purchase (for about $20), reviews went up all over the internet and my review was usurped by the editor, who felt a need to get something posted immediately. Initial reviews were fairly negative, unfortunately. My interview got pushed back and we never managed to reschedule (Mr. Romero was exhausted and doesn't like doing phone interviews much in any case; maybe next time, George!), and I think this was in part due to the stress from the early online release.

The film itself picks up where Diary of the Dead left off (in which the zombie apocalypse is chronicled by bloggers and those who still have access to Youtube and social networking: An ingenious conceit, really). In Survival of the Dead, two feuding families face off on a remote island, apart from civilization at large and proving that the worst part of the zombie apocalypse is the idiots who are still alive (the new and promising AMC show The Walking Dead also explores this premise). The patriarchs of the two families are reminiscent of a family of old school Texas sheriffs and folksy Irish outlaws. The old white collar world is seemingly obsolete and people do what they can to survive and meet their basic needs. One patriarch decides to enchain the dead and keep them "alive" for reasons unclear even to him; they go through the motions of their living selves, chopping wood, planting seed, never understanding why. There is also a desire for the dead to learn to eat something other than human flesh, which they eventually do. In the final stunning shot, the two patriarchs, now ghouls themselves, face each other with guns at the top of the world (Nova Scotia perhaps?), an enormous full moon behind them.

The film is less a horror gorefest than a sort of allegory of what it means to have a world populated with beings who are neither dead nor alive. Mr. Romero is slowly losing his eyesight and perhaps feeling the need to make films more quickly, and some critics think he may have run out of ideas with Survival of the Dead. But I disagree with this assessment; I think he is exploring the implications of this mythology with increasing freshness and vigor.

Another film about the undead is a remake of a Swedish film, Let the Right One In. Often an American remake of a successful foreign film can be disappointing (as with the remake of the Norwegian thriller Insomnia), but Let Me In is not only a great remake but a wonderful film in its own right. It reinvents just where it needs to. The film is set in a nameless city, possibly during the 1970s, in the middle of winter. A teenage boy (Kodi Smit McPhee, of The Road) who is bullied at school and can't seem to connect with his mother or estranged father befriends a strange girl (Chloe Moretz, of Kickass) who lives in his building. He eventually figures out that she is a vampire, that her father (Richard Jenkins, from Six Feet Under) is not her father, and that his future lies with her. It's an intimate and unusual film, not for the faint of heart, but not a typical horror film, either. It's subtle beauty is haunting.

Devil, produced by M. Night Shyamalan, is also an intimate thriller, with a spooky punchline. A group of people (covering a range of ages, races and socioeconomic statuses, naturally) are trapped in a city elevator together, and one by one they experience mysterious injuries. They all suspect one another, form alliances and turn against each other, and finally the true killer is revealed to be, you guessed it, Satan (in the guise one might least expect). It's a fairly intriguing study in human behavior and the nature of evil, and the idea that "demonic possession" is not just an involuntary phenomenon, but a cosmic one. Given the current obsession with possession, exorcism and the religious implications of the occult, we'll probably be seeing a lot more films containing this theme.

Coming in Part Three: The documentaries Sweetgrass, Marwencol and American Mystic, plus a few surprises forthcoming in 2011.