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.

Friday 11 September 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials review

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (12A/PG-13, 131 mins)
Director: Wes Ball
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Released this time last year, The Maze Runner was one of the more successful examples of young adult fiction properties looking for a slice of the action in the wake of the triumph of The Hunger Games.

Where Divergent started out mediocre and then just got worse, and the likes of The Host and The Giver exploded on the launch pad, The Maze Runner offered a well-realised world while sowing seeds for further exploration. Unfortunately that early promise has been somewhat squandered in this lumpen sequel that does nothing to separate it from the herd.

It doesn’t provide much in the way of re-cap, so the pertinent facts are that a group of youngsters found themselves trapped in a walled area called the Glade, which was separated from whatever lay beyond by a monster-filled maze.

As we join it here, a small band led by Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) have escaped the Glade to learn that they're part of a program run by Patricia Clarkson’s Dr Paige intent on finding a cure for the Flare, a virus which has ravaged the planet.

Where the first movie was keen to promote a mystery, with characters not even knowing their own names at first, this starts us out with a hint of backstory and flashback, as Thomas as a young boy is put into the care of Dr Paige by his mother.

Now he and his friends are at a facility run by Aidan Gillen, which seems as much a prison as anything, immediately raising questions of who can be trusted. It transpires they weren’t the only maze, but just one group among a handful of young people who appear to be immune to the virus. True to futuristic sci-fi tropes, Thomas discovers a conspiracy in which they're being harvested in order to find a cure, leading them to bust out and into the Scorch, a desert world that’s all that remains of our planet.

Where the first film seemed fresh and had a number of distinctive characters to get behind, this feels like Young Adult by numbers, full of crumbling cities and grubby resistance groups. It’s dark and grim and hope is thin on the ground, though that isn’t a bad thing, and it’s probably one of the least youngster-oriented of YA adaptations. With victims of the Flare exhibiting zombie-like behaviour, for a while the movie turns into World War Z, which does it absolutely no favours either.

So not only is it dry during the setup phase, the midsection is just a lot of running and hiding and fighting monsters. Where the first film had a clear selling point, this rambles vaguely between locations and antagonists, presenting scenarios that are much too familiar from other dystopian fantasies.

In fairness the visual effects are first rate, but dialogue is mostly exposition. It’s a big sprawling mess with a couple of good sequences, but lacking the characters groundwork essential to true success. Thomas does prove himself to be a worthy hero on several occasions, but that’s not quite enough and there’s no clear view of what if any end game is in sight.

With one more of James Dashner’s books still to be filmed, let’s hope they wrap the trilogy up in a stronger manner than has been teased with this middle chapter.