Practical Magic: Sally and Gillian Owens are sisters hexed by a centuries-old curse...and coping with a witches brew of events involving a possible love match for one, a zombie for the other and a need to resume the age-old witchcraft taught by two doting aunts.
The Witches of Eastwick: Alex, Jane, and Suki are three bored New England woman left to live without their husbands. They innocently conjure up a mystery man, who could satisfy all their desires. A new man moves into town - and he fits the bill perfectly.
In popular culture and media, witches represent two drastically different roles of womanhood. On one end, we have decrepit old hags of fairy tales, hovering over a cauldron, often depicted with a black, pointed hat, a broomstick and a hideous face. These mythological creatures are the generally accepted image, commonly associated with black magic and the supernatural. On the flip side, we have other fictional representations many might consider as more positive. While not fully adopting the witch persona as the proto-feminist archetype it truly is, these stories offer images of strong and passionate female empowerment that, when not tempered, can run amok. The women of such tales practice the pagan arts so as to escape societal norms and expectations. And by consequence, they discover liberation and a sense of self.
As part of their Blu-ray double-feature series, Warner Home Video has put together two comedies with similar themes and motifs, and both coincidentally viewed as positive depictions of witchcraft. They are also both adapted from novels drastically different in tone and moral dilemma. While 'Practical Magic' places more stress on the romance and a longing for acceptance, 'The Witches of Eastwick' is a sort of gothic morality tale on selfish desires. Still, each film carries an emphasis on self-discovery and the strong bond of sisterhood.
Based on the novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman, 'Practical Magic' follows two orphaned sisters as different as they come. Living with their magical but eccentric aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), the two girls learn about the history of their hereditary powers, an old family curse that looms over their love-lives, and having to face the cruel, intolerant contempt of townspeople. And herein lies part of the movie's problem — too many issues with little focus on one cohesive narrative arc. Even the two sisters in their adulthood seem at odds with these different aspects of the plot, jumping from one predicament to the next as the story moves hastily along.
As the responsible, conscientious, and naturally-talented witch, Sally (Sandra Bullock) grows to resent her family, especially after the death of her husband, vowing her daughters will live a normal life without witchcraft. Of course, the girls already know about their family thanks to their ever-so-adorable aunts and living in this small New England-type town, where everybody knows everybody, the chances of them growing up like everyone else are pretty much nil. So, is this a drama about Sally confronting her new widowed life, but eventually finding love again with a State Investigator (Aidan Quinn)? Or, are we dealing with Sally's desire to be accepted as an average citizen but eventually embraces her family's uniqueness? Further complicating matters are her sister's own problems.
Gillian (Nicole Kidman) is the opposite of Sally in every way. She's stormy, impulsive and rebellious. One visual cue I found particularly clever is the character's fiery red hair to reflect her unruly and rowdy nature. In the novel, Gillian is supposed to be a blonde, but with Kidman in the role, the woman is a firecracker. She welcomes the wild and unexpected of life, until it leads her to the violent tempers of Jimmy and his accidental death. This, then, introduces a supernatural element with minor features of a mystery thriller. Later, we end up with a bizarre drinking game of truth-telling, rapidly growing rose bushes, toads spitting out rings, and an emotional exorcism.
While a majority of the script fails more than it succeeds, I have to give credit to actor/director Griffin Dunne ('An American Werewolf in London,' 'After Hours') for keeping the story brisk and intelligible. Any loose ends are quickly and smoothly tied together by film's end, however effortlessly and somewhat manufactured. 'Practical Magic' has its charm as an easy diversion by being more original than most romantic comedies. Unfortunately, it's not all that funny either. The cast, especially Channing and Wiest, do terrifically well in their respective roles, and Bullock definitely possesses a magnetism that attracts a large female audiences. With a little attention to focusing the plot, the movie would have benefited greatly. But as it stands, the magic isn't all that impressive. (Movie Rating: 3/5)
The Witches of Eastwick
Set in the fictional town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, three unsatisfied women unwittingly conjure up the ideal man that can satisfy each of their needs and desires equally. And like the John Updike novel upon which the film is loosely based, this story about a coven of women discovering their hidden magical powers is meant as an outlandish social satire on the modern culture. Alexandra (Cher) is a self-assured, outspoken artist who would like a partner who understands and accepts her for who she is. Recently divorced music teacher Jane (Susan Sarandon) longs for a man who can inspire and encourage the passion hidden deep within. Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a timid single mother of six who just wants someone who will listen to her without being made to feel dim-witted or simple.
Soon after their latest Thursday night get-together, where they inadvertently set their spell in motion, a mysterious but oddly enchanting stranger, Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), arrives in the small town and buys a large estate believed to have a history with witchcraft. Folks are quickly in a flutter and creating scandal as Nicholson flexes his acting chops to steal the show. Although not often mentioned, this is one of Nicholson's best over-the-top performances, bringing that sinister, wry sneer of his to a role of absolute ridiculousness and farce. The only actor to match wits is Veronica Cartwright's splendid and memorable portrayal of the town's busybody. As the hilarious Felicia Alden, her character shows that sometimes a liberal woman's worst enemy is another woman, especially one who holds true to traditionalist, outdated modes of thinking.
In 'The Witches of Eastwick,' George Miller ('Happy Feet,' 'Twilight Zone: The Movie') delivers a wonderful, whimsical tale where the female leads subtly question their role as women and their dependency on men — even when that man is their ideal. The writer and director of the 'Mad Max' films provides an excellent, bewitching mix of fantasy horror and slapstick comedy with plenty of smarts. One very memorable scene that displays Miller's talent as director takes place immediately after a music recital when Nicholson's character is finally introduced. The sequence is marvelous at revealing how quickly townspeople gossip while also adding to Daryl's devilish origins. Miller even throws in a couple of nods to 'Double Indemnity' with the Walter Neff character, 'The Omen,' and Nicholson's impersonation of Buster Keaton from 'Steamboat Bill Jr.'
With performances and actors faultlessly in tune, 'Eastwick' also comes with one of John Williams' most memorable musical scores. Still heard in contemporary films and trailers, his music is the perfect blend of lighthearted humor and cheer with a child-like wonder for the silly. It's a terrific complement to an already very funny movie. From Miller's fun, slapstick style behind the camera to the splendid, witty performances of Nicholson and Cartwright, 'The Witches of Eastwick' is by far one of the most imaginative and wildly comical films on the battle of the sexes. How better for a woman to fight for her liberation than from the most vilely sexist chauvinist of them all: Jack Nicholson's devil. (Movie Rating: 4/5)
Only twelve-years-old and already, 'Practical Magic' is showing its age. Apparently, Warner doesn't think it necessary to give this coven a new makeover, meaning a remaster, because the movie isn't looking all that sprightly. I kept waiting for the opening sequence to finish, but the 1080p/VC-1 transfer (2.40:1) didn't improve. A light veneer of grain washes over the image, but the picture is unexpectedly soft with average resolution levels. Contrast tends to run a bit hot though it's evenly balanced for the most part. Blacks are accurate and very deep, so much so that they often obscure details in the darkest shadows. Colors are generally in good standing, yet some scenes look much too saturated while others are dull and unnatural. Although flesh tones appear warm and healthy, they are regularly on the redder side. Ultimately, the video never feels like an HD presentation and sadly looks no better than an upconverted DVD. (Video Rating: 2/5)
The Witches of Eastwick
Only two years shy of its 25th anniversary, a remaster of 'The Witches of Eastwick' is really what's in order, because this 80s gothic comedy looks nice on Blu-ray. Softness is, of course, understandable and easily forgivable, but the 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1) also shows several sequences of poor resolution. While contrast is pleasantly well-balanced and crisp, blacks tend to fluctuate between average and accurate. The image sometimes displays appreciable depth with strong shadow delineation, and then suddenly feels flat a minute later. On a positive note, the transfer comes with many beautiful moments of high-def greatness and attractive detailing, chiefly in the bright, sunny exteriors. The color palette is quite vibrant and bold with particular attention given to primaries, and the faces of actors appear natural and healthy. Overall, it's an acceptable video presentation, but I can't help wonder what it would look like with a true remaster. (Video Rating: 3/5)
Though it fares much better than the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for this romcom offers a pleasant listen, appropriate for the genre. The lossless mix simply delivers what is expected of it, and it does it well. A few nighttime scenes expand the soundfield a bit with some mild ambient effects in the rears, like the sounds of distant crickets, toads, or beetles. However, the track is generally front-heavy with strong vocals lucidly delivered in the center and some good movement between the channels. The soundstage is incredibly wide and welcoming with a surprisingly warm mid-range. Bass is much more active than initially expected, giving song selections and the bit of action some power. All in all, the audio makes for an attractive stereo presentation. (Audio Rating: 3.5/5)
The Witches of Eastwick
Similar to the picture, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has some great moments. It even makes entertaining use of the rear speakers, however sporadic it may be. Certain scenes worth noting are the tennis match and a few roars of thunder which nicely enhance the soundfield from a front-heavy mix with well-prioritized vocals. The mid-range is clean and sharp, even at the higher peaks, and low-frequency effects are mild but accurate to the on-screen action. John Williams' musical score is highly attractive, filling the soundstage with great warmth and clarity while subtly bleeding into the back channels.
But the one sequence which really caught me by surprise, demonstrating the quality of the imaging, is a private conversation between Daryl and Alex, just as she's about to storm out of his mansion. Jack Nicholson's voice moves from right to left and back again with such convincing fluidity and effortlessness that it almost seems as if he's in the room. Unfortunately, this is later countered by another heated exchange between Daryl and Alex towards the end of the second act when he's ironing a shirt. When he raises his voice, his echoes should logically surround the listener as it fills the empty halls of the mansion. Instead, his fuming speech is restricted to the center of the screen as if in mono. All things considered, however, this an enjoyable lossless track for a great 80s comedy. (Audio Rating: 3.5/5)
Seeing as how Warner Home Video is offering two motion pictures on a single Blu-ray disc, there is little room left for special features. This is a barebones release.
Two films for the price of one appear to be the trend here, as one Blu-ray disc carries two similarly-themed comedies. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman star as two magical sisters struggling with a family curse and looking for love in 'Practical Magic.' The second feature is the 80s horror comedy 'The Witches of Eastwick' about three women, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, battling wits with Jack Nicholson as a sexist, horny little devil. The Blu-ray comes with an average picture quality, but a better audio presentation. Unfortunately, there is no room for any supplements, so those expecting a packaged deal might want to look elsewhere. Unless you're a devoted follower of both films, I suggest waiting to participate in the next incantation.