Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension review

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (15/R, 88 mins)
Director: Gregory Plotkin
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The advertising for the latest found footage spook-snooze in the Paranormal Activity series boasts that for the first time you will see the activity. Basically if anything at all were to happen on screen it would be an exponential increase in excitement from the thoroughly dull and lifeless affairs that the franchise has devolved into. The first was a nice surprise and for a while they were being knocked out at one a year, at the cost of about £6.50, and therefore to healthy box office returns even as audience interest started to wane. They’re less frequent now, but this one follows the same template of a family in a house being bothered by poltergeisty antics. When they find a bunch of old VHS tapes featuring two young girls who seem able to see what they're doing, they set up cameras at night to record the mysterious goings on in their daughter’s bedroom. We then get to watch that footage in all its glory, and in fairness we do get to see the activity, consisting mostly of fuzzy shapes and sudden loud noises. It’s all relentlessly, criminally boring and riddled with more plot holes than there’s room for here - do they never actually look at what they’ve filmed afterwards? And worst of all because it’s supposedly being filmed on an old 80s camera, we’re forced to watch it through a headache-inducing blur. Almost as bad is an exhausting gimmick where the 3D only kicks in when the ghost does its thing, but at least constantly putting on and taking off the glasses is a nice distraction from watching the movie.

The Last Witch Hunter review

The Last Witch Hunter (12A/PG-13, 106 mins)
Director: Breck Eisner
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

When you’re the star of what is currently the most lucrative franchise in cinema and can pretty much take your pick of projects, it looks like an odd choice for Vin Diesel to pitch himself front and centre in a hokey-looking fantasy horror.

There have been no shortage of duds involving witches and their ilk of late, and anything with a whiff of Dungeons and Dragons has been roundly rejected by audiences. And yet The Last Witch Hunter, while by no means particularly good, sets its sights on a low bar and clears it with some style. By maintaining a sense of fun and of its own silliness it stays on just the right side of ripe, and Diesel more or less manages to sell it, even through the nonsense he's forced to speak.

A meaty prologue gives us medieval Vin, where he and his beardy, leather-clad pals tackle a witch queen who has been terrorising the lands and is responsible for spreading the plague. The only way to deal with her is, of course, by sticking her through the heart. Diesel’s character, named Kaulder, manages this, but in the process the witch curses him with immortality.

There can be only one, and 800 years later we're in modern day New York where Kaulder functions as a guardian, keeping an eye on witches and making sure they stick to their code of not bothering the humans. Given that the title conjures notions of him spending most of the running time, well, hunting witches, it’s not the all out action fest that might have been expected.

Instead there’s a lot time devoted to details and backstory. There’s an old priest and a young priest, played by Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, who are known as Dolans, an order of aides who have been by Kaulder’s side through the centuries. With Caine’s Dolan 36 about to hand over the reins to Wood’s 37, he comes under attack, leading Kaulder to investigate what some bad witches may be up to in the city.

When it comes to plotting The Last Witch Hunter is largely gibberish, particularly in a final third that grows increasingly undisciplined. But there are still some worthwhile developments along the way and in terms of the mythology created, it actually contains one or two original ideas.

It's not been put together on the usual mega budget but the special effects and production design are of an accordingly decent standard, and it really does look very nice. It has a sense of humour, Diesel is a competent star, and for daft undemanding fun you could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Zurich Film Festival - Miss You Already

Miss You Already (112 mins)
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Lifelong friends Jess and Milly (Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette) live in London in those ludicrous houses you only ever get in movies; Milly and her husband (Dominic Cooper) live in an East End conversion, Jess and her husband (Paddy Considine) live on a boat. It’s a friendship that’s somewhat foisted on us, told in montage and never feeling organic, but tested early on in this tawdry weepy when Milly is diagnosed with cancer and faces bouts of chemotherapy. To its credit it doesn’t desperately overplay the cancer card, but the problem is that’s the only card it has, though when it keeps attempts at humour it doesn’t fare too badly. Beyond the illness stuff it’s just a bland, soap-standard domestic drama, filmed with handheld cameras to make it appear edgy when it so clearly isn’t. Most of the conflict comes from Milly treating everyone around her badly, and that’s an acceptable angle which comes off thanks to the excellent Collette, far more convincing than the limited Barrymore. Obviously things need to come to an emotional head, and while it attempts to be this generation’s Beaches, there’s no danger of that.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Zurich Film Festival - The Walk

The Walk (123 mins)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

If you’re wondering why the plot of The Walk sounds familiar it’s because documentary feature Man On Wire covered the same ground in Oscar-winning fashion in 2008. It was told with such style and vigour that it worked as a thriller in its own right, further raising the question of the need for this dramatisation of how Philippe Petit attempted to tightrope walk between the World Trade Centre buildings in 1974. The only real way to justify it is to show us things that the doc couldn’t, and this is where The Walk triumphs, albeit only once we hit the final third or so. Director Robert Zemeckis has always been something of a visual effects pioneer in his films and he takes us on an astounding ride here as Petit balances on his wire and the camera glides all around him, with stomach-lurching drops to the streets of New York below, and if doesn’t exactly look realistic, it certainly looks amazing. Up until that point scenes are mostly variations on someone telling Philippe he’s crazy and him agreeing with them and saying he has to do it anyway. As such there’s not exactly a surfeit of great drama, although once Petit and his accomplices reach the States it takes on the mantle of a heist movie and offers some tense moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt adopts a convincing French accent to play Petit and is an agreeable lead, while the film makes the most sensible use since Inglourious Basterds of characters not speaking their own language.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Zurich Film Festival - A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods (104 mins)
Director: Ken Kwapis
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

When American writer Bill Bryson set out to walk the Appalachian Trail in the mid 1990s and then wrote the subsequent book of his adventures, he was somewhere in his mid 40s.

Robert Redford, pushing 80, may seem an unusual casting choice to play Bryson, but he’s been in possession of the rights to A Walk in the Woods since the 90s and has finally realised his long-cherished ambition of getting it to the screen.

With the film being set in the present day, Redford is essentially playing Bryson now, a man in his mid 60s. As such the casting isn’t too much of a stretch and actually rather works, with Redford instantly capturing the facetiousness of Bryson’s one-liners.

It can’t be an easy job to fictionalise a travelogue, and this film will never take the place of the book in terms of the detail and depth that can be covered. So the only way to make it work is as a light comedy, and it more or less succeeds in nailing the tone and Bryson’s way with language.

Dramatic impetus needs to be created, so an associate’s death is the spur for Bryson to plan to walk the AT, over 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. His wife (Emma Thompson) tries to talk him out of it of course, but he needs someone to go with him. Everyone says no expect his old buddy Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who turns up wildly out of shape and with a craving for doughnuts.

So off they set from Georgia, Bryson ahead, Katz behind struggling to keep up, puffing and moaning, and the grizzly and grumpy Nolte is also a nice bit of casting. Their prickly relationship is at the centre of most scenes, and their age does add a certain poignancy the film wouldn’t necessarily have had with younger men.

Lines are lifted directly from the book, and some of Bryson’s exchanges read like great comedy dialogue anyway, so it translates nicely to the screen. Unfortunately it’s a crying shame the whole thing just wasn’t in the hands of more talented filmmakers. Episodes feel rushed and side characters barely get a look in, while the addition of knockabout pratfalls isn’t really a successful one and half the time the joke is botched through poor execution.

Nor does it really give a sense of the mile after mile trudging that’s captured in the book, or the hardship. It all seems a bit quick and easy, with too many hotels and not enough squalor, but then you can’t just watch them walk for minutes on end.

But it’s perfectly pleasant and gets most of the important stuff right, like the majesty of nature. Bryson fans should find stuff to enjoy, newcomers should get a few easy laughs, and everyone can dwell on the notion that it could all have been so much better.

Zurich Film Festival - Life

Life (111 mins)
Director: Anton Corbijn
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

In 1955 Los Angeles, photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is trying to make a name for himself, working mostly on movie sets and at premieres when he’s introduced to a young actor named Jimmy Dean (Dane DeHaan).

This initially intriguing but largely dull drama takes place just before Dean hits the big time. He’s already shot East of Eden though it hasn’t been released yet, while Warner Bros are in the process of deciding whether to offer him the lead in Rebel Without a Cause.

A few months later he’d be dead, his persona immortalised forever by just three movies. But in the meantime he’s more or less unknown and Stock thinks he can help them both out. He sees the potential star in James Dean and, realising he won’t be unknown for long, wants the big photo-shoot break that will get an assignment with Life magazine.

They strike up a friendship but Dennis has a hard time getting him to commit, and they circle around each other for what must be a good half of the film. Will Dean let him take the pictures? Won’t he? It’s a long time to wait covering much of the same ground, yet they come across as reasonably compelling presences all the same.

Early moments look like we might be getting a real insight into a legendary figure. Dean wants to be a great actor, and comes across as cool upfront but insecure in private, and unsure how to play the showbiz game. The movie is correct to focus on a specific period of his life rather than go the full biopic route, but there needs to be more going on than this, and it becomes apparent after a while that this is a one scene film, with that scene played out over and over.

DeHaan doesn’t look especially like Dean, particularly once the film cuts to Stock’s actual photos of him, but he captures his laconic, mumbling manner in reasonably convincing style. Pattinson is unfortunately lumbered with trying to dredge up audience interest in a guy where there may not be any to be found. With Dean you can at least see the hook.

A lot of scenes pass without us getting any further forward, or offer any clear notion of why we’re watching it. And the longer it goes on, the less interesting it becomes. It does that thing you get in Hollywood biopics as characters offer awkward introductions to real people, but scores a few points in displaying the power of movie moguls back then. Ben Kingsley as Jack Warner wanting to control every aspect of Dean’s life, and the inanity of the publicity machine is revealed.

But while the film manages to avoid the clumsy early need of having to spoon-feed us who Dean is, it later negates that by filling in his details with on-screen text, the laziest device available to movie biographers.

Zurich Film Festival - Sicario

Sicario (121 mins)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent whom we first meet discovering a house full of dead bodies as she leads a kidnap response team working in Arizona.

Catching the eye of her superiors, she volunteers for a cross-agency task force taking on Mexican drug cartels. This brings her into contact with another pair of agents (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro), who may be DEA or CIA or something else entirely, such is their reluctance to share information with Kate.

They take her into Mexico where she’s thrown into the midst of a big operation with no clue what she’s getting into or with whom. It’s as an expose of the grim reality of the effect the drug trade has had on Mexico where Sicario really scores, sparing no punches in showing the violence and vengeance tearing apart a country overrun with criminality.

Of slightly less interest is Macer’s concern that they have no jurisdiction over the border and that her two associates seem to have agendas of their own, and the question of motives and trust hangs over Sicario. The title comes from the Mexican word for hitman and it’s a solid and grown up drama, muscular and hard hitting.

Other than one very well staged shootout, much of the first hour is Kate shadowing and learning and events are seen through her eyes as she observes and questions. The tension comes from her and us not knowing anything though it starts to labour that point a bit in the middle, but there’s always a feeling that everything is under control and it’s heading in the right direction.

The problem is we’re led in to it in the belief that it’s Macer’s movie when in fact many of the best scenes feature Brolin and Del Toro, with the latter in particular growing to dominate the story. And a question begins to surface of whether Macer is actually much of a character and not simply something of a sideshow in a bigger picture, a passenger in her own movie. In many ways that’s fine, because fortunately the men played by Brolin and Del Toro are highly compelling, and this trio of excellent performances carries it through.

As an exercise in finely tuned craftsmanship, Sicario is certainly very impressive, and Denis Villeneuve continues to be a director to keep an eye on. There’s no real template for what it is as a movie, being very much its own beast which is definitely a good thing.

If it’s a standard cops and drugs thriller you’re after then Sicario is not that kind of movie. But if you go in prepared for something other than what you might be expecting then there’s a lot to take away.

Zurich Film Festival - Mississippi Grind

Mississippi Grind (109 mins)
Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
For the first few minutes there’s some promise in this gambling drama that displays a confident directorial style as sad-sack Ben Mendelsohn and fast-talking Ryan Reynolds meet at a poker table. Impressed with his new pal, Mendelsohn takes a shine to his style and they team up, travelling along the Mississippi to New Orleans, picking up whatever action they can along the way because, as is always the way with these things, Mendelsohn owes some money to some people. Reynolds talks and talks, telling stories like he’s Verbal from The Usual Suspects, and it seems like there are bound to be some intriguing developments down the line. But it starts to emerge that this is a story with nowhere to go, and no one particularly interesting to get us there. It never really makes it clear what the stakes are, so it’s not much more than a meander from one casino to the next. An air of desperation hangs over it, and that much glumness is fine if there’s a spark or a purpose, but Mississippi Grind largely drifts despite the best efforts of its leads.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Zurich Film Festival - The Program

The Program (103 mins)
Director: Stephen Frears
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong was fairly well covered a couple of years ago in Alex Gibney’s probing doc, The Armstrong Lie. But, just as The Walk from last week re-trod the ground of Man On Wire, here now is a dramatisation of those events that works reasonably as a companion piece.

Beginning in the mid 90s, Armstrong (Ben Foster) is the new kid on the cycling block, taking part in his first Tour De France and presenting us with an ambitious and determined individual. Everyone knows the winners dope so Armstrong approaches an Italian doctor asking to become part of his programme, where he’s administered a performance-enhancing drug called EPO.

Though fairly simplistic, the film does well to focus on the cycling and the attendant controversies, with Chris O’Dowd as the journalist who digs into the scandal of the endemic doping and the code of silence that protects a rancid sport and its riches.

The cycling footage gets right in amongst it, throwing in some archive stuff too to really get a sense of the crowds. It rattles through Armstrong’s cancer treatment and recovery while sensibly leaving out plenty of personal life material that could only have made this an even more functional biopic than it already is.

It also works by presenting several sides of Armstrong - the public adore him, and undoubtedly his charity work that raised millions for cancer research was a good thing. As a character he’s able to overcome the limitations of the film and Foster is very good, capturing well this persona of manipulation and self-belief. It’s those very flaws and contradictions in Armstrong that keep The Program interesting even if in many regards it’s A to B stuff. It’s by no means a great movie, but it’s about such a compelling man that by having this guy at its centre it more or less succeeds despite the uninspired filmmaking.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Zurich Film Festival - Regression

Regression (106 mins)
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Supposedly inspired by real events involving satanic rituals that took place in the States in the 90s, this decent thriller stars Ethan Hawke as a cop investigating the case a young woman (Emma Watson) who is suspected of being abused by her father. The father believes he’s guilty but doesn’t actually remember anything about it, leading the authorities to try regression hypnotherapy to unlock his mind. What follows is not a possession horror, thank goodness, because we’ve certainly had enough of those recently. All the same, some of the regression stuff is quite creepy when it comes to visions of black masses and the like, though the investigation doesn’t exactly rattle along and a few too many scenes are just people being interviewed. But Hawke is on good form, going for a forceful earnestness that recalls Tom Cruise, and the effect the case has on him is well handled. So while Regression is by no means great, the film’s ability to develop in unexpected directions is probably its strongest card and its cumulative power is eventually more than the sum of its parts.