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Schultz reviews: ‘Gretel & Hansel’ and ‘The Rhythm Section’

Schultz reviews: ‘Gretel & Hansel’ and ‘The Rhythm Section’

Carl Schultz

“Gretel & Hansel” Distributed by Orion Pictures and United Artists Releasing, 87 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Jan. 13:

The original story is so familiar that it’s practically programmed into our collective DNA.  

Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor family suffering through hard times. When a famine spreads over the land, the children’s wicked stepmother takes them into the woods and deserts them there. Left to fend for themselves, the children discover in the forest a cottage constructed of gingerbread, candy and other treats, and inhabited by a lonely old woman, who eventually reveals herself to be a witch and imprisons them, with nefarious intentions. But by using their wits to outsmart their wicked captor, Hansel and Gretel manage to escape with their lives and make their way back home.

Possibly the most notable part of “Gretel & Hansel,” the new movie from Orion Pictures that reimagines the familiar children’s tale, is not what it is, but rather what it is not. Never facetious, campy or tongue-in-cheek, screenwriter Rob Hayes recreates “Gretel & Hansel” as a genuinely compelling little morality fable. There are no knowing winks or smirks in the picture, and the cast of seasoned troupers avoids reading double meanings into their lines as a means of providing sly clues to what might or might not occur later. It’s to the credit of the filmmakers that nearly everything that occurs in the picture is a surprise to the viewer.

In the new reading of the source material, instead of becoming a fractured fairy tale or a repeating of the well-remembered bedtime story from a more adult perspective, screenwriter Hayes frames the fable with a template of dark fantasy and gothic horror. And in doing to, the writer manages to shed two centuries of retellings, additions, updatings and gradual revisions, in the process bringing the story closer to the intention of the original authors — a cautionary tale carefully crafted to scare the bejesus out of its audience. 

Directed by Osgood Perkins, the filmmaker behind the acclaimed 2015 psychological horror picture “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” and the atmospheric 2016 supernatural thriller “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” “Gretel & Hansel” employs austere, tableaux-like staging reminiscent of early portrait photography and the dreamlike deep-focus cinematography of Galo Olivares, and gives us an idea of what might’ve happened if Ingmar Bergman had worked for Hollywood’s Blumhouse Productions.

Starring as a maturing adolescent Gretel, 17-year-old Sophia Lillis graduates from her appearances in 2017’s “It” and its 2019 sequel (as well as the misguided 2019 updating of “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase”) and portrays the storybook heroine as a repressed modern heroine, the unwavering protector of her 8-year-old brother Hansel. With an unsmiling demeanor and a pixie haircut that causes her to resemble a rural 18th century incarnation of medieval martyr Joan of Arc, after being banished with Hansel to the wilderness by their mother with the parting advice “Get busy digging your own graves,” Gretel gradually finds within herself the skills to survive, even if the skills are from unexpected sources.

Royal Shakespeare Company-trained thespian Alice Krige in turn interprets the Witch as a supernatural force banished to the shadows of the dark forest wilderness after revealing terrifyingly evil impulses during a previous generation. With a parched, sun-dried pallor and lilting Scotch-Irish brogue, Krige is a witch that’s simultaneously restrained and commanding. At first seeming sympathetic to the children’s tale of despair, the Witch is soon more jailer than benefactor, and a formidable opponent to the increasing independence of the maturing Gretel. At one point after a disagreement the Witch cautions the young girl, “Say that again and I’ll turn your tongue into a flower.” And you get the feeling she means it. 

A clever blending of the Brothers Grimm with “The Blair Witch Project,” and seeming like an epic even with a compact running time of 87 minutes, “Gretel & Hansel” is a storybook containing pentagrams and symbols of foreboding and hallucinogenic mushrooms. This is a bedtime story where rain sometimes falls from a clear sky and a tiny rustic cabin in the forest contains a cavernous dining hall and a morgue in the basement, all combined to reinforce the lessons we were taught as children: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. And beware of strangers bearing gifts, especially if the stranger wears a pointy hat and rides a broomstick.

Released Jan. 31 to some 3,007 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Gretel & Hansel” earned only a little over $6 million in ticket sales during a slow box office weekend. By Sunday, the picture had landed in the fourth-place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, behind the returning “Bad Boys for Life” in first place with $17.65 in additional earnings in its third week of release, the acclaimed World War I drama “1917” in second place with $9.6 million, and the family adventure “Dolittle” in third with $7.7 million. 

A former actor, occasional screenwriter, and maturing filmmaker, director Oz Perkins (billed as “Osgood” in the picture’s closing credits) is the grandchild of esteemed stage actor Osgood Perkins and oldest son of actor Anthony Perkins, the performer best known for playing the iconic role of the troubled Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho.” As a child the younger Perkins played Norman as a child in flashback sequences for the 1983 sequel “Psycho II.”

“Gretel & Hansel” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, thematic content and brief drug-related material (magic mushrooms).

“The Rhythm Section” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 109 Minutes, Rated R, Released Jan. 31:

In “The Rhythm Section,” a young British woman is emotionally devastated when her parents and younger brother are killed in a Pan Am Flight 103-like airline disaster, and spirals into a malaise of despair and substance abuse. But when the distraught woman learns that the plane crash was actually the result of a bomb planted on the airliner, she emerges from her melancholy and begins to train herself as an assassin, with the single-minded intention of avenging herself on the international terrorists responsible for killing her beloved family.

Adapted by Mark Burnell from his 1999 novel of the same name and directed by former cinematographer Reed Morano, “The Rhythm Section” makes the fatal mistake of presuming the viewer is already familiar with the original novel, and is therefore able to grasp the movie’s intricacies without further explanation. Jetting from locations from London to Madrid to Tangier to New York to Marseilles, the picture resembles a collection of the author’s favorite parts from his novel, stitched together with the briefest transitions or reasons possible. The result often leaves the viewer bewildered, on the outside looking in.

“The Rhythm Section” is further complicated by Marano’s often photographing the narrative in a jittery and pasty manner reminiscent of news footage from the front lines of a war zone. The chainsaw editing and visual palette might enhance the picture’s sense of realism and immediacy, but simultaneously interrupts the viewer’s illusion and makes the story that much more difficult to follow. The picture spends so much time trying to be stylish, arty and cutting edge that it forgets to be comprehensible. And the filmmakers never even bother to explain the movie’s intriguing title.

Still, “The Rhythm Section” is almost redeemed by a terrific performance by actress Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick, the central character of Burnell’s series of novels. Wounded, dewy-eyed, drug-addicted, haunted by gauzy memories of happier times and appearing in a succession of wigs and disguises, Lively portrays Burnell’s heroine in flesh-and-blood terms which often elude the film incarnations of Steig Larsson’s similar Lisbeth Salander character. A genuinely talented and surprisingly eclectic actor who’s often the best part of flawed pictures, Lively with her vivid performance provides whatever interest “The Rhythm Section” generates.

Produced on a budget of $50 million by the people behind the megabucks James Bond motion picture franchise, “The Rhythm Section” often seems to be a form of James Bond Lite, a new character for the new millennium, a new age heroine who leaves behind the Bond series’ fabled sexism and implied misogyny for the period of enlightenment and the era of #MeToo. And that’s fine — with three more titles in Burnell’s series of Stephanie Patrick novels, there’s plenty of room for the character’s development and growth. Just find a new director and screenwriter for future installments, but hang onto Blake Lively.

Playing in 3,049 theaters in the United States and Canada, “The Rhythm Section” was expected by distributor Paramount Pictures to generate up $12 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend but is proving to be a major financial disappointment. With box office receipts of only $2.8 million, the picture has set a record of sorts: It’s the worst opening, ever, for a motion picture playing in wide release on more than 3000 screens, displacing the previous champion, a 2006 family comedy entitled “Hoot.”

Also featuring performances by Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown and filmed in Ireland and Spain, “The Rhythm Section” is rated R for violence and language throughout, and some drug use.

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