Sunday 3 November 2013

Letterboxd: WORLD WAR Z (2013); MAGICIANS (2007); THIR13EN GHOSTS (2001)

Sunday 3 November 2013
★★★ (out of five)

I don't have a problem with fast-moving zombies. The DAWN OF THE DEAD remake wasn't ruined by evolving George Romero's undead into sprinting flesh-eaters, and 28 DAYS LATER positively thrived on this tweak. WORLD WAR Z is a big-budget thriller that wants its audience to feel heart-pounding panic during its succession of set-pieces, and having zombies that appear like swarms of writhing bodies more than justifies their use.

Anticipated as one of 2013's summer flops, WORLD WAR Z proved everyone wrong by becoming a hit (on a $190m budget it grossed $540m) and drew largely favourable reviews. I hate labelling something a success because it simply wasn't as terrible as everyone expected (based on spiralling costs, a rewritten final act, a delayed release, and a derided trailer), because it's a back-handed compliment, but suffice to say WWZ was perfectly entertaining with a few impressive action sequences up its sleeve.

Based on the celebrated novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel), WWZ has almost nothing in common with its source material beyond the memorable title. Essentially, an outbreak of "zombies" (kudos for using the z-word, which isn't the norm these days) brings the world to its knees in mere days, and only former-UN employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) can save the day. He does this by circumnavigating the globe to try and come up with a plan to end the zombie uprising, taking him from Philadelphia to South Korea, Israel and, um, Wales.

WWZ has moderate ambitions despite a world view that's actually worldwide for once. The story is simple, but the execution by Marc Forster (QUANTUM OF SOLACE) is decent, and Brad Pitt (the rich man's Chris Hemsworth) keeps the whole thing on-track with his innate charisma. WWZ is basically just a string of set-pieces, but they're bloody good set-pieces—even if the money-shots were ruined by the trailers to get folks through the door.

Above all, it maintains a palpable sense that death is often seconds and inches away because these zombies are a kinetic force to be reckoned with. (Look, I love slow-moving zombies for other reasons, but you have to admit they're often difficult to make look threatening because you can outrun them without breaking a sweat.)

It's a really nice surprise then, even if the zombies don't stand for anything and it has nothing much to say on a deeper level... so that's a shame, because a 4-star rating would have been on the cards.

Mind you, I have no idea what the WORLD WAR ZEEQUEL could ever hope to be...

★½ (out of five)

It's the expected disappointment; mostly because MAGICIANS was made during PEEP SHOW's heyday, and comes from that show's creative team. The film tells the story of a professional breakup between conjuring double-act Harry (David Mitchell) and Karl (Robert Webb), after Karl sleeps with Harry's wife/assistant Carol, and a stage accident later decapitates her with a guillotine.

It's a surprisingly grim set-up for a comedy, but while Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain deliver a few amusing moments in their script, there's nothing that sticks in the memory. MAGICIANS is that innocuous Sunday afternoon film you find charming for 20-minutes, but nothing keeps you hooked so you leave the room (perhaps to return later, surprised it's still on and, yes, ending exactly the way you though it would).

For British audiences, there are lots of small-screen celebs to spot (from SPACED's Jessica Hynes, to future DOCTOR WHO star Peter Capaldi), but when noticing them becomes half the fun of a movie you know you're in trouble.

Mitchell & Webb work well together (as one would expect a genuine double-act to), but because the story's about their characters splitting up... they don't get enough chances to interact.

MAGICIANS was a flop at the box-office (it made £885k) and exactly the kind of weak British film I tend to dislike--i.e. one that trades heavily on the appeal of TV stars, poorly directed by someone without film-making talent. (That would be Andrew O'Connor; erstwhile illusionist, former TV presenter, and latter day TV producer.) It feels like he was only chosen because of his magic background and fact he's the managing director of Objective Productions, who make PEEP SHOW for Channel 4.

One hopes this hasn't terminated the film careers of Armstrong and Bain, a writing partnership who deserve a second chance at cracking the big screen. They worked on FOUR LIONS in 2010, but their involvement wasn't a selling point (Chris Morris quite rightly took centre stage), so hopefully another project will come along soon. I just hope Mitchell & Webb steer clear, because MAGICIANS strongly suggests movie stardom is beyond their reach.

★★½ (out of five)

THIRTEEN GHOSTS was Dark Castle Entertainment's second William Castle remake, having launched in 1999 with HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. It feels largely the same in terms of tone and production values, with a clear intention to be a 'cinematic thrill ride' and have as much fun as possible with its juicy, ridiculous concept. That it fails is down to a few key problems, but it's an entertaining misfire.

Widowed loser Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) inherits a house from his late uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham), the black sheep of the family who squandered their fortune. Arthur immediately relocates his impoverished family—daughter Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth), son Bobby (Alec Roberts), and nanny Maggie (Rah Digga)--to their new abode, only to realise it's actually an infernal clockwork machine designed to imprison captured ghosts and use their energy to open a gateway to Hell.

Doesn't that sound like a ridiculous amount of fun? I just wish THIRTEEN GHOSTS capitalised on its own idea, but it only succeeds in terms of its handsome production design (the glass house is an incredible sight) and some excellent make-up effects for the many spirits (the type of insane-looking spooks you'd see on an expensive ghost train). I also really liked Tony Shalhoub as the schlubby hero struggling to keep his family safe from this "contraption" they're stuck in, and Matthew Lillard gives the film some humour and life away from its glossy visuals (playing a highly-strung psychic called Dennis).

Unfortunately, it becomes clear THIRTEEN GHOSTS is a missed opportunity as a feeling of repetition slowly overwhelms things. Of particular irritation is how most of the ghosts aren't proactive and don't do anything very scary, which begins to rob the film of some fun. They simply have a dozen people in amazing Halloween costumes, standing around looking bored half the time. The sense of threat dissipates, despite the fact these ghouls can kill the living and are only kept at bay using enchanted glass.

Steve Beck (an ILM visual effects whiz on the likes of THE ABYSS and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) only made one other film the following year: GHOST SHIP. I've seen far worse directorial efforts from people with Beck's background (SPAWN, STARSHIP TROOPERS 2), but it's true that Beck falls prey to a similar problem his peers encountered: visuals overshadow the storytelling.
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