selected from Starburst #245
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Practical Magic

Blade: Wesley Snipes and Traci LordsThere's practically nothing magical about Practical Magic at all. Director Griffin Dunne takes a decidedly routine stroll through the pages of Alice Hoffman’s best-seller to conjure up a half-hearted Witches of Eastwick-lite that amiably ambles along to an aimless conclusion. No rescue attempt comes from the weak script either. But when one of the three writers listed is Lost in Space’s Akiva Goldsman that fact shouldn’t come as any real surprise. What does is why two good actresses like Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (both looking sensationally gorgeous) would want to waste their time on such an insipid piece of fluff amounting to nothing except sugar-coated homilies about folksy feminism.

They play sisters, Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) Owens, raised by their dotty, but devoted, aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing) in a small New England town after their parents’ tragic death. Both aunts, like all the Owens ancestors before them, are keen advocates of ‘Practical Magic’ – petty sorcery and harmless spells aimed at improving their quality of life and eccentric habits. However, the use of such innocuous witchcraft has carried a price – the men the Owens’ women fall in love with are all doomed to die an untimely death, and their standing in the community is treated with fear and suspicion.

While Sally wants to distance herself from her inherited powers, get married and be normal, the more fiery Gillian embraces the craft, and the pull it gives her over men, to leave a trail of broken hearts all over America. The basic story locks in when Gillian has a tempestuous affair with malevolent drifter Jimmy (Goran Visnjic) and calls for Sally’s help to extricate her from the abusive relationship. Jimmy’s accidental death from belladonna poisoning, and the girls’ hopeless attempts to cover their tracks, brings cop Gary Hallett (Aidan Quinn) to the door of their aunts’ home unleashing a swarm of supernatural forces in the process.

Part Hocus Pocus, part Beetlejuice, part The Exorcist and completely unsatisfying on every weird level it inconsistently embraces, the down-home campy charm Dunne aims for sits awkwardly with the low key Horror of the special effects driven side of the feeble mystery. Yet it’s that Horror element which proves to be the most interesting aspect of Practical Magic. When Jimmy is impractically revived from the dead (please don’t ask!) he has the best zombie/ghost look in ages, one inspired by those darkly silver mirrored daguerreotype photos of the mid 19th Century.

Elsewhere the special effects match Dunne’s lackadaisical direction. The final exorcism ends the bumpy journey on the same unfocussed note as it began with virtually no tension evoked, confusing imagery, schmaltz thickly laid on with a trowel and little sympathy raised for any of the characters’ tiresome problems or daft motives. With two ludicrous musical montages papering over the ever-widening cracks in the story and even Bullock and Kidman’s remarkably resilient luminescence wearing off pretty rapidly (no thanks to their deathless dialogue), this five finger exercise in psychic feminism fails to cast even a slight spell.

Starburst rating: 3 out of 10
Practical Magic picture copyright Warner Brothers

'Practical Magic is completely unsatisfying on every weird level it inconsistently embraces’

Practical Magic: Producer, Denise Di Novi. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen & Bruce Berman. Co-producer, Robin Swicord. Director Griffin Dunne. Screenplay, Swicord, Akiva Goldsman & Adam Brooks based on the novel by Alice Hoffman. Music, Alan Silvestri. Special effects supervisor, Burt Dalton. Visual effects & animation, Cinesite Digital Studios. Visual effects supervisors, John Scheele & Jay Riddle. Additional visual effects, CIS Hollywood. Starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest, Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn, Goran Visnjic, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexandra Astrip & Mark Feuerstein. 105 mins. PG-13/12. Released America: October. Britain: December 26.
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