Witches have had it hard as of late. With pop culture cooing over Edward-ian vampires and Jacob-ian werewolves, with zombies showing up in every other film and ghosts all the rage among TV hunters and adventurers, the coven has been sent to the supernatural showers. A couple of decades ago, we had Sabrina and Charmed and The Craft. Now we have Wiccans worried about the public's perception of their beliefs. Until the day that some no talent writer like Stephenie Meyer reinvents the basic broom rider, we have to rely on relics from the past to keep those twisted sisters in perspective. You could go back as far as that seminal '60s sitcom Bewitched (Ahhhhh...Elizabeth Montgomery) or just cozy up to a pair of movies from Hollywood's hit/hack factory. In 1987, a red hot George "Mad Max" Miller turned John Updike's controversial novel into the Jack Nicholson vehicle The Witches of Eastwick. A little over ten years later, Griffin Dunne delivered the Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman stinker Practical Magic. In both cases, the concept of "witch" is more figurative than literal - even when the hexes and vexes are flying.
Practical Magic (**)
Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman) and her sister Sally (Sandra Bullock) are cursed. They are witches, and each one knows that if they ever find true love, said potential paramour will soon die an untimely death. Casting spells on themselves as little girls, hoping to avoid their awful fate, they now live with their quirky aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Diane Wiest). Before, Sally was married (thanks to some magic) and had two kids. Naturally, her husband but the big one. She has now sworn off spells. Gillian's abusive boyfriend is also killed, coming back to haunt the gals for their part in his demise. When an investigator (Aiden Quinn) arrives, looking for the lost man, the ladies decide to break the curse once and for all - but they will need an entire coven to do so, and an exorcism of this sort can be tricky...or even fatal.
The Witches of Eastwick (***1/2)
In the small town of Eastwick, three women - artist Alexandra Medford (Cher), cellist Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon), and single mom Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfieffer) - all need a man. Sadly, they can't find one among the local rabble. So one night, in a drunken humor, they "call" upon the cosmos to answer their plea. Enter Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), a slovenly toad of a lothario who just might be the Devil himself. As he woos each of the lonely ladies, he unleashes their inner divas - much to the chagrin on burg busybody Felicia Alden (Veronica Cartwright). She's suspicious of all the free love and flaunting falderal going on. When the girls discover the price they must pay for their newfound sexual happiness, they begin to balk as well.
So this is what nine Oscars get you - one half-assed attempt at supernatural schmaltz and a hilarious A-list vehicle forged by a man who does a much better job of making Max mad. All little gold statues aside (as well as the numerous nominations also present) Practical Magic and The Witches of Eastwick couldn't be more different. The former wants to make the black arts into something bouncy and bedazzled while the latter turns the Dark One into a horndog with bad hair issues. The differences are as obvious as the men sitting behind the lens. George Miller, he of ass-kicking Outback action fame, fuels The Witches of Eastwick with a kind of weird, wonky energy that often threatens to undermine the movie's Lifetime TV tenets. He gets gratifying work out of his cast, allowing Sarandon and Nicholson to chew up the scenery and spit it out with vitality and vigor. Similarly, poor put upon Veronica Cartwright gets a sequence of potent projectile vomiting that only F/X whiz Rob Bottin could make work. Miller is all invention, circling his cast with a camera that rarely stays still. Even a last act race between the gals and their mangoat Romeo has snippets of Road Warrior bombast.
Magic can only offer up Griffin Dunne. Don't recognize the name? Well, he was David Naughton's zombie best buddy in An American Werewolf in London, played the lead in Martin Scorsese's dark comedy After Hours, and helmed such underperforming films as Addicted to Love, Fierce People, and The Accidental Husband. There is no questioning his ability behind the lens - he can make a movie. But Practical Magic is so twee, so precocious and obvious, that it just makes you want to scream sugar dates. Dunne adds no edge here, deals with issues like murder and monsters in the same way he handles tea and crumpets. We are supposed to sympathize with Gillian and Sally, unable to truly love and jinxed with the ability to manipulate matter to their own will. Wow - sounds real depressing. With Channing and Wiest flitting around like refuges from an asylum staging of Arsenic and Old Lace and the men mere conduits to more double X chromosome contrivance, everything remains flat. We are never invested in the romance or the witchery. Instead, we sit back and marvel at how so many talented people can pass off such piffle as viable. Perhaps Ms. Cartwright's nausea was a reaction to her disc mate's mediocrity as well.
By sticking them on the same Blu-ray disc, side by side, the argument regarding approach becomes all too clear. Miller understands the tepid nature of his tale and so he jazzes it up any way he can. A confrontation between Daryl and Jane becomes a frisky fiddler's hoedown, while Nicholson's rant in a crowded church is a real pleaser. Sure, he spices up stuff that probably doesn't need (or deserve it), but at least he doesn't overdo the Ladies Home journalistic nature of his tale. Dunne only has the homespun and the whimsical on his side. Kidman and Bullock try like titans, but they've got nothing to work with. The script is sloppy, frequently applying happenstance where depth or the dramatic would normally reside. Even worse, Dunne he to bring any real pizzazz to the piece. These women are witches and yet everything is so holistic and hokey. You'd never know it was based on a book. Put simply - Practical Magic is a hen night that no one would want to stick around for. The Witches of Eastwick is a much better bachelorette party, even if the main attraction is a paunchy, over the hill superstar who's as sexy as a sitz bath. While neither does the world weary witch any good, both are eager to please. Only one actually does.
Let's dispense with one myth right up front, shall we. Just because a favorite film is ported over to the latest digital format doesn't mean it's been given a new high definition overhaul. In most cases, the studio releasing said product will dig through its drawers, find the best (and cheapest) print transfer possible, and slap that bad boy on the Blu-ray, sans remastering. Luckily, both Practical Magic and The Witches of Eastwick are "new" enough to not suffer greatly from the lack of tweaking. Each has a 1080p image with a nice amount of detail. Eastwick is older and filmed in a far more hazy manner, yet the picture is sharp and precise. Magic is more natural, lacking the kind of post-production processes Miller added to the mix. While one could easily argue that placing two VC-1 encoded films on a single disc would dampen the output, it is clear that Warners has offered the best 2.39:1 presentation they can.
In the sonic department, Witches wins handily. Both films are given a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, and thanks to Miller's manic Hellsapoppin' style, the aural attributes from the 1987 effort really shine. This is especially true of the last act chase, where zooming automobiles, hallways footfalls, and group incantations come across with channel challenging polish. Practical Magic doesn't have such motion picture majesty (let alone a booming John Williams score) but it offers some decent atmospheric touches. We get directional swoops, a delicate country lane feel, and a full bodied delivery of the Alan Silvestri plaintive soundscapes. While it would never be considered reference quality, both movies do provide excellent auditory experiences.
One Blu-ray loaded with two full length films equals NO bonus features. Sorry.
This is the problem with double feature releases. One movie might be amazing. The other might be awful. Both could be bad or good, but that's usually not the case. When it comes to the pairing of Practical Magic and The Witches of Eastwick, it's no contest. The former film is lame. The latter is a high energy hoot. So instead of going the Rent It/Highly Recommended route here - and since the system can't accommodate same - we will revert to that age old practice of averaging. So all the scores above reflect the coming together of both films - visually, audibly, and artistically. Therefore, a score of Recommended in the result, though Magic is really riding on Witches wonderful coattails. Maybe someday, those ornery oracles with the broom fetish will find a new foothold in the mainstream media. Until then, we have The Witches of Eastwick to remind us of why they were once considered commercial - and Practical Magic to prove how pigheaded such a sentiment could often be.
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