“The Witches” (US-rated PG)
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Chris Rock, Stanley Tucci,
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
In 2020, we’ve had a number of fevers to be concerned about: the terrible ones associated with COVID, and the cabin fever that can come along with being cooped up at home, while trying to prevent the former.
But while those two are getting a lot of attention, even the insidious “remake fever” that has ravaged Hollywood for years hasn’t let up in this annus horribilis.
The latest: “The Witches” – based on Roald Dahl’s classic 1983 children’s book – gets a fresh update, exactly 20 years after it first made it to the big screen in 1990. Initially slated for release in theaters before COVID changed everyone’s plans, Warner Bros. pictures instead handed it over to corporate sibling HBO Max late last month.
Legendary, Oscar-winning Director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), known for “Cast Away” and his visual effects masterpieces like the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, is at the helm here. He also wrote the screenplay along with fellow Oscar-winning Director Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), and acclaimed writer/director/producer/actor Kenya Barris (“Girls Trip”, TV’s “Black-ish”).
Together, they’ve crafted a unique spin on Dahl’s original story, eschewing an unnecessary wholesale remake. Moving the setting from England to rural Alabama provides an interesting backdrop for the action.
In this version, it’s late 1967, and a young orphaned boy goes to live with his loving grandma in the town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks him away to a seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world’s Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe, undercover, to carry out her nefarious plans.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the book or the original film, there’s a lot to like with this latest version of “The Witches”. Its strengths lie in the performances.
Hathaway is a blast as the Grand High Witch. With her wonderfully, indecipherable accent – Is she Russian? German? Polish? Swedish? All of them? – to her over-the-top and exaggerated gestures, Hathaway is clearly having a lot of fun being evil.
Spencer’s Grandma character is an enjoyably saucy yet comforting trip, too. Also, of note, the always great Stanley Tucci, and the mainly voice-over work of narrator Chris Rock and Tony winner Kristen Chenoweth.
Young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno also makes a stellar film debut as “Hero Boy”.
The movie might lean a little heavily on visual effects, but it doesn’t distract from what is a highly entertaining and fun family film that’s perfect for this time of year between Halloween and Christmas.
And while it may lack the visual punch and gravitas of the 1990 film – which spooked the daylights out of me as a pre-teen – this remake has enough heat to at least renew interest in the book and everything to do with “The Witches” and this genre.
“On the Rocks” (US-rated R)
Cast: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans
On the surface, this may seem like another story about a marriage “On the Rocks”. But it’s as much, or even more, about rocky family connections than anything else, particularly parent-child relationships.
Rashida Jones (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) plays Laura, a young mother who reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father (Bill Murray) on an adventure through New York. Laura, an author and married mother of two, has become suspicious that her career-driven husband (Marlon Wayans) may be having an affair with a coworker – a speculation encouraged by her caddish, bon vivant father.
Murray re-teams here with Sofia Coppola, who previously directed him to an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win for “Lost in Translation” in 2003. And “On the Rocks” provides a perfect vessel and outlet for Murray to be Murray.
And so, there’s plenty of what seems like ad-libs and extremely unforced and natural-feeling reactions to comments and actions from the other cast members. It’s as if Murray isn’t really acting, or like he didn’t even read the script; perhaps he was given just a little background on the character and told to run with it. It is a sight to behold, and the most special thing about the film. Jones and Wayans give relatively decent performances as well, but it is definitely all about Murray.
Otherwise, “On the Rocks” – available exclusively on Apple TV+ – is a quiet little film. It’s entertaining and inoffensive, but feels like a lightweight. Sadly, in a few years from now when you hear the name, you may struggle to remember whether or not you’ve actually seen it.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.