PRACTICAL MAGIC / THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK - Blu-ray review

The Witches of Eastwick comes off best, wittier, funnier, and it alone is worth the price of the disc.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

When Warner Bros. released their Clint Eastwood double features on Blu-ray, they did so by mastering each film on a separate dual-layer disc. Now, the powers that be at the studio have decided they can put two films on a single BD50 if they eliminate all the extras. How this will go over with consumers, we'll have to wait and see. In the case of the present disc, WB call it a "Comedy Double Feature," which, I suppose, it is, since both movies are humorous. The fact that "The Witches of Eastwick" is by far the funnier film is probably of little consequence. I would have called it a "Supernatural Comedy Double Feature" since both films involve witchcraft. Close enough.

PRACTICAL MAGIC
Filming a popular novel always has its ups and downs. On the up side, there's a built-in audience for the show. On the down side, there's the expectation that the film should be exactly like the book, and if it's not, it will disappoint fans. Alice Hoffman's 1995 novel "Practical Magic" was a modest, unpretentious, and beguiling little fantasy. The 1998 film version follows the book's plot but applies a layer of Hollywood gloss, sentimentality, and hyperbole to the proceedings. Maybe one should not compare a book to its film incarnation but instead take the film purely on its own terms. That's hard to do, though, when one has already read and enjoyed the book, as I have. I suggest to the book's readers that they should not go into the film expecting too much. I further suggest that if you have not yet read the book, you might visit your local bookstore before rushing to the video shop.

The story concerns three generations of the Owens family: Two maiden aunts, played by Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing; their two nieces, Sally and Gillian, played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman; and Sally's two young girls. Together, they reflect the picture-perfect American family, living in a picture-perfect New England seaside town. Barring one thing: They're all witches. Witchcraft, you see, runs in the Owens family, ever since the community tried and convicted a distant ancestor as a witch and banished her to the little island where her descendants have lived ever since. But it hasn't been easy. The townsfolk don't particularly like the Owens clan, having an understandable aversion to things unnatural.

For their part, the Owens people keep to themselves, using their spells only for good. The plot thickens when Sally, the wilder of the two nieces, decides to take off and broaden her horizons after being raised most of her life by the aunts. Gillian remains at home, marries, has two children, and becomes a widow when an automobile runs down her husband. (Trouble always seems to follow the men who marry an Owens woman.) Meanwhile, Sally heads West and gets involved with a no-account Transylvanian cowboy (played by Goran Visnjic) who tries to murder her. Gillian goes to her rescue and, in the process of trying to help, accidentally kills the guy. Now, things really heat up. They take the body home and bury it in the front yard of the aunts' old Victorian house. But he won't stay dead! Worse, a nosy cop (Aidan Quinn) shows up to investigate the fellow's disappearance. And so on.

In the book, all of this had a simple charm, much like Broadway's "Arsenic and Old Lace," the play to which this story bears more than a passing resemblance. But the film can't leave well enough alone. The filmmakers exaggerate and hammer home every nuance. The aunts are ever so eccentric and ever so cute; the nieces are ever so beautiful and ever so cute; the two girls are ever so sprightly and ever so cute. And to nail things down, the soundtrack subjects us to incessant musical interludes that become quickly tiresome. Popular music works to advantage in some films, as it did in the fantasy "Beetlejuice," but in this picture it's just loud and annoying. I mean, do we really need to see the family dancing around the kitchen table for no apparent reason except to show us how sweet and endearing they are? The film already made that point.

What's more, the whole supernatural element that worked so well in the book here seems merely banal through overstatement. It isn't enough for people to see the dead body haunting the yard; it has to come back and possess Sally's body, with only a full-scale exorcism, complete with special effects, as a cure. Yes, less can be more.

Film rating: 6/10

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK
The companion film on the disc, "The Witches of Eastwick" (1987), fares better than "Practical Magic," thanks largely to a cast--Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Veronica Cartwright, Richard Jenkins--who seem to be relishing every minute of the absurdity; and a director--George Miller (the "Mad Max" movies, "Babe: Pig in the City," "Happy Fee")--who isn't afraid to let out all the stops. So, yeah, the movie is over the top; that's the fun.

Screenwriter Michael Cristofer adapted the script (loosely) from the best-selling novel by John Updike about a trio of divorced or widowed ladies living in a small New England town who subconsciously conjure up the Devil himself. Maybe that's what you deserve for getting what you wish for.

The story centers around three unmarried women: Alexandra Medford (Cher), a sculptress with a young daughter; Jane Spofford (Susan Sarandon), a part-time elementary school music teacher and cellist in a string quartet, with no children; and Sukie Ridgemont (Michelle Pfeiffer), a newspaper reporter for the "Eastwick Word," with a whole brood of kids. They are good friends and visit one another often. They are also partly psychic, and one evening sitting around playing cards they discuss their most-intimate wishes, in this case their desire for a mysterious stranger to arrive in town and sweep them off their feet. No sooner said than done; a mysterious multimillionaire shows up in Eastwick and buys the old Lenox mansion.

No one can remember the stranger's name. It's Daryl Van Horne. Try an accent over the final "e." Nicholson plays him, of course, in full-on, demented, diabolical Nicholson mode, the Nicholson of caricature and parody. But he's perfect for the role. It's "The Shining" gone berserk. His initial appearance in town is laugh-out-loud funny, and it's only the first of many such moments. Who is he, really? As Van Horne puts it, he's "just your average horny little devil."

The movie is also sexy and profane, rated R for language and innuendo. Van Horne's silver-tongued devil is quite persuasive, and it isn't long before he makes the women feel wanted, needed, useful, fulfilled. He seduces each of them in turn.

In addition to the main characters, Veronica Cartwright plays one of the town's councilwomen, a lady who senses that evil has invaded their community, and she's determined to do something about it. As the personification of Puritanism, her character is probably the funniest and scariest person in the story. And the much undervalued Richard Jenkins plays her husband, Sukie's boss, the local newspaper editor.

"The Witches of Eastwick" is at its best whenever Nicholson or Cartwright are on the screen, and except for an exaggerated and prolonged final sequence, it moves along with a manic and stylish forward pulse. Maybe it's not as subtle or as elegant as Updike's book, but it should keep most audiences occupied with its exuberant, supernatural battle of the sexes.

Film rating: 7/10

Video:
I worried that cramming two films onto one side of even a dual-layer BD50 might result in some loss of video quality, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Both films show up in their native aspect ratios of 2.40:1, both films preserve the natural grain inherent to the prints, and both films appear free of edge enhancements or other transfer manipulations. In the case of "Practical Magic," the image is somewhat soft, probably part of the director's intent to provide a dreamy, fantastical atmosphere, but colors are appropriately vivid. Maybe too vivid, though; faces are a tad too dark for my liking.

In regard to "The Witches of Eastwick," the image looks more subdued, still soft, but more natural in appearance. Facial tones are not so dark, yet colors remain rich and realistic. A fine film grain brings out the textures in objects, clothing, and people. To find any edge enhancement, one has to look hard and close, and then one will only find it in occasional scenes. While this is not the best high-definition picture a person will see on Blu-ray disc, it is among the easier on the eye.

Audio:
In both films we get lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. While the tracks have little to do most of the time, they add some nice musical ambiance enhancement on occasion and contribute dramatically to the climactic scenes in both movies. However, it is again "The Witches of Eastwick" that wins the prize, having the best sonics and wider stereo spread. A more robust musical score (by John Williams) shows up strikingly throughout the movie, with more bloom in the surrounds than "Practical Magic" offers. What's more, in "Witches" the surrounds display more fury during storm sequences, rain, and wind, and they especially show off their stuff during a very funny tennis match.

Extras:
Presumably, in order to fit both movies onto a single Blu-ray disc, the producers had to eliminate all the extras that came on the DVDs. So, gone are the audio commentaries, featurettes, games, cast and crew information, production notes, filmographies, etc. What we have left are thirty scene selections for each movie; English as the only spoken language for both; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Count having two movies on the same disc the biggest bonus you're going to get.

Parting Thoughts:
Look to the film version of "Practical Magic" for a dash of warmhearted silliness and a good deal of stereotypical sentiment--basically innocuous, sugarcoated Hollywood fluff. Fortunately, the companion film, "The Witches of Eastwick," comes off better, wittier, funnier, and it alone is worth the price of the disc.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
3
Film Value
7