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Babes in the Wood

Gretel and Hansel's empty feast

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GRETEL AND HANSEL. There is much to be mined in Western fairy tales but few are as adaptable to horror as Hansel and Gretel as set down by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, with the shunned children falling prey to a cannibalistic witch. In the end, Hansel's cleverness only goes so far and it's Gretel who must shove the witch into her own oven to burn as they escape to the sound of her howling. What better formative horror story for children? Reading the English translation as children, my brother and I, half raised on Japanese folk tales in which children appear as longed-for gifts, absorbed its shocking lessons: that hunger and poverty can break family bonds, adults are not to be trusted and nothing is free.

Director Osgood Perkins (yes, as in Anthony, his late father) delves into these warnings, telling the story, as the title indicates, with Gretel at its center. With The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016), he has carved out his own horror subgenre focusing on the eerie loneliness of girls and women, bereft after possession, haunting and death. In Gretel and Hansel, he delivers otherworldly dread and gorgeous/ghastly visuals to flesh out the fairy tale, but the pacing is slow and self-indulgent, and its resolution does not satisfy.

We begin with a story, though not that of the title characters. Instead, it's the tale they've grown up with, the story of the Beautiful Child, a little girl in a pink wool cap on whom I'd put my money in a fight against the twins from The Shining. Her desperate parents save her from illness in her infancy with the help of a faceless sorceress. Soon the girl manifests supernatural powers and a violent streak that leaves her family no choice but to abandon her in the woods, where she dwells alone, luring other children to their doom. It's a story that lingers in the mind of teenage Gretel (Sophia Lillis) as she makes her way, round-faced brother (Samuel Leakey) in tow, through autumn woods to see about a job as a maid. The employer, a grotesque old man, is mostly interested in her virginity so she leaves without work. Her mother, mad, grieving and starving, casts out the siblings, punctuating her order with the sudden swing of an ax. And so they set off, Gretel a stoic guardian undeterred by haunting visions of the Beautiful Child and the sorceress. After a kindly huntsman (Charles Babalola) comes briefly to their rescue, sharing food and sending them on a safer path, she wonders at her own unease at the sudden arrival of help when it's needed — how it feels like a trap. Soon they come upon a spooky A-frame (which I'm sure I've seen tucked way back in Sunny Brae) that, while not made of gingerbread, is packed with food. The old woman inside (Alice Krige), her fingers stained soot-black, welcomes them with a feast, though Gretel, ever distrustful of gifts, insists they work for room and board. As days pass, she teaches Gretel about herbs and the girl's nascent powers, how they will both sustain her and alienate her from the world of men. It's this hunger — to be valued and mentored — that temporarily tamps down Gretel's suspicions until her brother's peril awakens her.

Unfortunately, the steady dread Perkins so artfully creates grows plodding halfway through (unlike in the swiftly paced flashbacks) and the anachronisms and mismatched accents start to wear rather than intrigue. Still, Gretel and Hansel is packed with beautiful shots: the bare forest carpeted with golden leaves; the pale witch emerging from a pool of black liquid; a plume of red smoke from a stone house; and the insect-like silhouette of the sorceress. It also makes some interesting observations about the dizzying power of literal hunger, as well as ambition and emotional need, though it could have gone further into the last. The relationship between Gretel, her options narrowing as she enters womanhood, and the old woman who urges sacrifice to achieve her full potential is meaty stuff, but when they face off, it falls away. Emotional moments are flattened toward the end of the film and one wonders if Perkins' reliance on the numbed-out faces of young women isn't more habit than choice. If cutting attachments grants one power it has to come with heartbreak we can feel, not a tearless choice. Nothing, especially magic, comes for free. PG13. 87M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Opening

BIRDS OF PREY. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) make DC Comics mayhem with director Cathy Yan. R. 109M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

TITANIC (1997). Starts on a cruise, ends on a cruise, amirite? PG13. 194M. BROADWAY.

Continuing

1917. Director Sam Mendes' single-shot World War I drama tells the story of British soldiers crossing the horrors of No Man's Land with urgency and dream-like continuity. R. 119M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

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THE GENTLEMEN. Director Guy Ritchie's return to British crime comedy brings back cheeky performances, action and problematic GQ masculinity. A clunky narrative underwhelming climax-to-denouement keep it from being too triumphant. R. 113M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

HONEYLAND. A documentary about a beehunter in rural Europe and the visiting itinerant beekeepers whose methods conflict with hers. 90M. NR. MINIPLEX.

JOJO RABBIT. Director Taika Waititi's satire about a Hitler youth recruit (Roman Griffin Davis) whose goofy imaginary friend is Hitler (Waititi) and who struggles with his beliefs when he finds his mother is hiding a Jewish girl. PG13. 108M. MINOR.

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are literally back in the game, which is glitching. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY.

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OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: ANIMATED. Animal Behaviour, Bao, Late Afternoon, One Small Step and Weekends. MINOR.

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: DOCUMENTARY. Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at the Garden and Period. End of Sentence. BROADWAY, MINOR.

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: LIVE ACTION. Detainment, Fauve, Marguerite, Mother and Skin. MINOR.

PARASITE. Writer/director Bong Joon Ho's entertaining, explosive drama about a poor family scamming its way to employment with a rich one is stunning in its sudden turns and unflinching mirror on capitalist society. Starring Kang-ho Song and Woo-sik Choi. (In Korean with subtitles.) R. 132M. MINOR (color and black and white version).

THE RHYTHM SECTION. Blake Lively stars as a woman hunting down those responsible for the plane bombing that killed her family. With Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown. R. 109M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. J.J. Abrams steers a tremendous cast, fantastic effects and a few rousing sequences but this wrap-up of the Skywalker saga is visually and narratively cacophonous enough to drown out emotional moments. PG. 141M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE TURNING. Henry James' horror adaptation about the worst babysitting gig ever. PG13. 94M. BROADWAY.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Related Film

Gretel & Hansel

Official Site: gretelandhanselthemovie.com

Director: Osgood Perkins

Writer: Rob Hayes

Producer: Fred Berger and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones

Cast: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Sammy Leakey, Charles Babalola and Ian Kenny

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