PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998)
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Aidan Quinn
screenplay by Robin Swicord and Akiva Goldsman and Adam Brooks, based on the novel by Alice Hoffman
directed by Griffin Dunne
THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
***/**** Image B+ Sound B-
starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer
screenplay by Michael Cristofer, based on the novel by John Updike
directed by George Miller
by Walter Chaw Some would say, and be correct in saying, that Griffin Dunne's "women's picture" Practical Magic is the perfect distillation of both George Cukor's tradition of gynecological melodramas and Alice Hoffman's assembly-line ladies-relationship novels. Edgeless, in love with its own whimsy, shot through with the sort of autumnal glow more at home in instant-coffee commercials, it could, as sophomore directorial efforts go, be worse--credit for that going mostly to an amiably under-achieving cast of superstars and ace character actors. It's the very model of the classic Studio picture in that sense: a quiet, contract-satisfying flick based on a safe property, set in a picaresque locale with vaguely populist supernatural undertones in which no one's particularly invested. Call it The Bishop's Wife for 1998--one of the oddest years in movies of the last twenty, among which crop this film maintains a comfortable medium-buoyancy. It's possible to try to pull something like a feminist read out of its obsessive focus on women and their sexuality--what else is witchcraft about, after all, than a fear of the Other made manifest as girl parts? But not only is the picture too stupid to bear up under such scrutiny, such a read is also hopelessly complicated by an adaptation courtesy a triumvirate composed of snag Adam Brooks and genuine blights Akiva Goldsman and (not quite worse but somehow close) Robin Swicord. A bad sign when the only female in the creative process is Swicord, who, by working as a Mata Hari, as it were, as the woman behind The Jane Austen Book Club and Memoirs of a Geisha, has arguably done more harm to her gender than Michael Bay.
Beginning as the precursor to shit like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Practical Magic starts in the past, with spinster Weird sisters Fran (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) raising two witchy girls who will grow up into slutty free-spirit Gillian (Nicole Kidman) and soulful, bespectacled, coulda-/shoulda-been-played-by Janeane Garofalo Sally (Sandra Bullock). The conflict, carefully engineered to gratify Oprah's audience of lonely yearners and Faith Hill/Stevie Nicks listeners, is that any man with the deep misfortune to fall in love with a woman from this family will be stricken dead. Gillian runs from the small New England (well, Pacific Northwestern) town where the girls are notorious and hooks up with bad guy Jimmy (Goran Visnjic); Sally stays, gets into a marriage where musical montages happen with lots of group dancing and dog reaction shots and family snuggling, then suffers from "the curse" of domesticity when her schlubby hubby (Mark Feuerstein) gets flattened by a Syd Field truck. This allows for the possibility of some good "Monkey's Paw" shenanigans that are quickly-disappointed. Well, for a while, anyway.
Notable as an early vehicle for Evan Rachel Wood (who, at 11, scarcely looks younger than she does today), what works about the film is the effortlessness of Kidman, Bullock, Channing, and Wiest, no matter how half-baked and malnourished their roles. Indeed, it's arguable that were it not for the Lilith Fair soundtrack (a scene with Gillian singing along to Joni Mitchell should put hair on even the femme-est's armpits), Practical Magic would be good. Dunne has a certain flair for Lifetime Channel visuals, all slick and over-processed, lining his movie with warm doodads the way a bed and breakfast lines its mantles with tcotchkes. Coupled with more seriousness and less lingering--trembling piano chords and children crossing the bucolic street--and the picture becomes a metaphor for sexual violence and gender relationships as opposed to a dating reel for a guy so desperate to prove he understands women that he's essentially made a douche commercial. It of course doesn't help that it's written abominably ("I have a hole in my heart--and sometimes it burns!" = scripting by The Little Mermaid) and has no other ambition than to be a sickening romantic comedy with witches and zombies. It's a formula that works, obviously (see Twilight), but appears to be about a decade ahead of its time, featuring characters that same decade too aged to lure the Titanic set back to the multiplex. (The film did not earn its budget back.) Maybe it's that Hoffman, a mediocre writer, is fucking Shakespeare compared to Stephenie Meyer, and thus limits her own popularity with her baseline literacy.
Hilarity ensues when Gillian and Sally kill abusive Jimmy (twice) in self-defense, reanimate him, and in the process attract the attentions of kind Officer Gary (Aidan Quinn, presumably because Ed Harris was making Stepmom), who is, of course, the key to breaking The Curse. Never mind that the invocation of "the curse" in a woman-dominated film naturally has one thinking thoughts of menstruation; never mind the appearance of fertility images and the glad-handing throughout of an entire community's justified (and fascinating) fear of these single, man-eating women and their daughters. What Practical Magic seems interested in is geeking the retard reaction-shot prostate. It suffers from the same malady as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in that it wants to have its proto-feminist cake and eat it, too--to have women it objectifies while elevating them into a fantasy of feminine, atavistic avatars engaged in the punishment of sexually-repressed women and every single goddamned man. As it happens, in one of those wonderful zeitgeist moments, Michael Almereyda's unbelievably underestimated Trance (released in the United States on video as The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy) from the same year understands how to use real witches in a film about repression, atavism, and feminine power--and it does so with an excess of poetry and menace. It's the exact counterpoint to Practical Magic, in fact: a great movie that's great for every reason Practical Magic is a disappointment.
Somewhere between the two falls 1987's The Witches of Eastwick, which, working from a John Updike novel, crafts a film about witches that deals with the male ego in that intensely introspective Updike way. The MacBeth-ian trio here consists of virginal Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), slutty Alexandra (Cher, pre-Oscar), and motherly Jane (Susan Sarandon), who, over a drunken night of woman-talk that only really happens in the movies, opine about the size of men's penises and inadvertently discover their magic powers in summoning the distinctly demonic Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) to act as the antidote to their unfulfilled sexual desires. As directed by George Miller (who would, in 1998, the year of Practical Magic and Trance, produce the inestimably brilliant Babe: Pig in the City), the picture hums along with a distinctly surreal cant. The possession of Betty Parris/Abigail Williams finger-pointer manqué Felicia (poor Veronica Cartwright) is a particular highlight, as is the semi-legendary church-freakout for Van Horne that still, for all that, isn't as good as Richard Burton's church-freakout from Night of the Iguana. (That film also about male sexual desire and feminine repression, incidentally.) It's a surreality--a hint of the comic book--that forgives The Witches of Eastwick its long longueurs during which Miller diddles around with prehistoric CGI to animate a tennis ball in an interminable doubles match (longer-seeming even than a real tennis match) and extended stretches in which a collection of male imaginations construct a series of "resurrections" around what a good fucking can do for a woman.
At the least, The Witches of Eastwick allows that if it goes along with its puerile treatment of gender relationships, these three women will have their sex, have their children from said sex, and then have nothing whatsoever to do with the sire in their idyllic, Lilith and Eve-ruled Eden. The performances are good--especially in light of late-in-the-game switcheroos amongst a cast that apparently did not get along--and Jack, as Jack often is, finds another "perfect" role as the literal, self-described "horny little devil." I liked Michael Cristofer's screenplay, rife with faux-frank sexual come-ons and suggestions of a debauched, swingin' household of four; and I liked that it ends honourably, with the man banished and the women seeming to need no men in their support of one another and the evolution of their girl-based powers. What I didn't like is how dated it now seems--how clearly it's a vanity piece for not only the vainglorious Cher, Sarandon, Pfeiffer, and Nicholson but Miller as well, who seems a little too delighted by his own cleverness. Maybe it's just desperation at trying to contain Updike's solipsism in order to craft a piece that would appeal to someone other than Updike's dick and navel, manifesting as this sweaty running in place. Miller's métier is stuff like the Mad Max films and Babe 2, not--no matter how grounded in fantasy they might be--Updike adaptations and Lorenzo's Oil. Material too self-aware is his kryptonite; his superpower is mining veins of subtext from otherwise inconsequential ore. The Witches of Eastwick is an improvement over Practical Magic, it goes without saying (and for all his peccadilloes, Updike is a Writer while Alice Hoffman is merely a writer), but at the end of the day, it's just too obvious.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Practical Magic and The Witches of Eastwick come to Blu-ray from Warner on one of their double-feature discs. Both films look pretty great in matching 2.40:1, 1080p/VC-1 encodes that let Dunne's film glow like an antique spittoon and Miller's pop like a dry-run for Pig in the City. The movie ten years younger, Practical Magic, is cleaner, more saturated stuff, although they each appear to have been shot with an eye towards the softer-focus fantasy palette. Miller's excesses, in fact, may contribute to The Witches of Eastwick not aging in the same way as other films from 1987 on the format--note the sequence on the church lawn with Jack in a candy-striped suit as a lovely example of an image that looks at once modern and "filmic." In the end, Practical Magic may be a bit too murky and The Witches of Eastwick a bit too grainy, but call it a draw. The two films also receive 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks that render the foundations-shaking of Eastwick's last reel and the resurrection sequence in Practical Magic with a gratifying rumble. Though it's crickets, mainly, that occupy the directionals in Practical Magic, I did enjoy all the gagging and growling in The Witches of Eastwick. One series of Felicia's cherry-pit regurgitations was loud yet intimate enough to make me breathe deeply through the nose for a couple moments. Gross. And great. Unfortunately, the dialogue is inclined to fluctuate, necessitating constant adjustments in volume, especially during the first hour. Too bad. There are no special features. Originally published: September 29, 2010.