The Last Witch Hunter

For F*** Magazine

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER

Director : Breck Eisner
Cast : Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Julie Engelbrecht, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 22 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Something wicked this way comes, and the only thing that can keep it at bay is the last witch hunter. Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, a warrior of the Order of the Axe and Cross who has dedicated his life to pursuing and incarcerating practitioners of dark magic. Kaulder lost his wife and daughter to the Black Plague and, having been cursed with immortality by the Witch Queen (Engelbrecht), has walked the earth for 800 years. His loyal scribe and handler, the 36th Dolan (Caine), is retiring and passing the torch to the rookie 37th Dolan (Wood). As the evil Belial (Ólafsson) carves a path of destruction through New York, Kaulder must team up with a witch, something he never thought he’d do. The “good witch” in question is Chloe (Leslie), the proprietor of a “witches only” nightclub. As he uncovers an ancient conspiracy, Kaulder must battle the powers of darkness to prevent a new plague from being unleashed in New York.

A “did you know?” factoid about Vin Diesel that always pops up is that he is an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and his old D&D character Melkor was a witch hunter. This might be the ultimate form of wish fulfilment for its star, but few others are likely to get anything worthwhile out of The Last Witch Hunter. A ho-hum urban fantasy adventure film that is content with trying nothing new, this is the very definition of uninspired. Recalling the Nicolas Cage duds The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season of the Witch, this tale of a mystical warrior waging a secret war that the hoi polloi are oblivious to is as rote as they come. Director Breck Eisner, whose most high-profile film so far is the 2005 flop Sahara, comes off as little more than a hired gun whose ambitions here do not extend past making Diesel look cool.

We’ve seen many films laden with heavy-handed exposition. In The Last Witch Hunter, practically every other line is heavy-handed exposition. The history of the secret order, the different powers witches possess, the tragic backgrounds of various characters, it’s all spelled out with much laziness and little finesse. The film’s screenwriters have a track record of hokey supernatural action flicks: Cory Goodman wrote Priest while Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless penned last year’s Dracula Untold. The solitary hero, the ancient council of elders, the long-dormant evil about to rise again, it’s all frustratingly derivative. There are plenty of computer-generated creatures and landscapes and technically-speaking, the film is fine, with veteran cinematographer Dean Semler keeping the movie from looking too cheap. The practical makeup effects on the Witch Queen are detailed and creepy, but whether it’s swarms of bugs, swirling flames or thorny roots springing forth out of the ground, we’ve seen this all before in some form or another and there’s nothing really worth getting excited about.

Diesel doing the tortured action hero thing is as yawn-inducing as it sounds. Unlike the character of Riddick, there is scarcely any mystery to Kaulder. This is meant to be someone with a richly storied past, having witnessed things few would believe over his 800-year-long existence. Instead, Kaulder comes across as pretty boring and for an old hand at this witch-hunting business, he falls for some basic traps throughout the film. We get a sense of how noble he is through an offhand comment about how the Salem Witch Trials were wrong, and there are also frequent dream sequence flashbacks to Kaulder in happier times frolicking with his late wife and daughter in an effort to make us feel something for him. It doesn’t work.

Leslie’s Chloe fulfils the role of the woman who gets pulled into the hero’s quest by dint of possessing an item or skill he requires. There are moments when the alluring feistiness Leslie brought to the part of Ygritte on Game of Thrones can be glimpsed, but the character is mostly perfunctory. Through Chloe, Kaulder comes to learn that “not all witches are evil”, yet another shop-worn plot device. Leslie and Diesel also have no chemistry to speak of.

Caine is only in very little of the movie, playing the mentor figure in all but name because Kaulder is of course a lot older than he is. Diesel calling Caine “kid” is kind of amusing the first couple of times, but this dynamic doesn’t get fleshed out. A film of this type needs a charismatic villain, perhaps someone larger than life, but Engelbrecht and Ólafsson are non-presences as the Witch Queen and Belial respectively. Thanks to his perennially youthful demeanour, Wood is still playing the fresh-faced kid sidekick at 34. This is probably the most conventional project he’s taken on in his quirky post-Lord of the Rings career.

A tepid production line affair, The Last Witch Hunter is an attempt at spinning yet another franchise for Diesel, because the tiny indie project that is the Fast and Furious films apparently isn’t paying the bills. The mythos is half-baked and this doesn’t feel like a substantial world waiting to be explored. The Last Witch Hunter isn’t based on a series of books, comics or video-games, but it still smacks of a crippling lack of originality and audiences will return from this hunt empty-handed.

Summary: Vin Diesel fails to conjure up any magic with this generic urban fantasy adventure flick that ought to be far more entertaining than it actually is.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Grand Piano

For F*** Magazine

GRAND PIANO

Director : Eugenio Mira
Cast : Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
Genre : Thriller, Suspense
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Elijah Wood trades in his fuzzy feet for dextrous fingers to play pianist Tom Selznick in this suspense thriller. Selznick, a prodigious young talent who crashed and burned after failing to complete an “unplayable” piece five years ago, reluctantly puts on a comeback performance at the behest of his wife, actress Emma (Bishé). Everything is in place, especially the customized Bösendorfer grand piano that belonged to Selznick’s late mentor. In the middle of his performance, Selznick finds a threatening message in the sheet music, and is warned by his would-be killer Clem (Cusack) that one wrong note will result in a bullet through the head. All eyes are on the pianist as he gives the most important performance of his career – and tries to keep it from being his last. 
From the opening titles in which the inner workings of the titular instrument are shot as if they were components of a trap from the Saw movies, audiences will know what they’re in for. Grand Piano is a pulpy thriller that is earnestly Hitchcockian; composer Victor Reyes channelling Bernard Herrmann in his soundtrack. Produced by Rodrigo Cortés, it bears a similar ominously theatrical feel to Red Lights, which he directed. That aesthetic is certainly more overt here, the colour palette predominantly blood red. While it is a look that draws one in, there’s also a degree of artifice exacerbated by the rather out-there premise. 
The film does have a pretty neat logline – “Speed with a grand piano”.  There are also shades of Phone Booth (Box Seat?). It’s one of those things that’s either completely ridiculous or utterly brilliant and, intriguingly enough, director Eugenio Mira bounces the movie between those two extremes with marvellous precision. Yes, there are moments that strain suspension of disbelief and the dialogue is oftentimes quite awkward (the conductor tells his orchestra to “ready (their) weapons”, for instance). It is also expertly paced and effectively taut. In spite of the smatterings of Grand Guignol bombast, there’s a credible sense of danger established and we feel trapped alongside Selznick, caught in the crosshairs and still having to focus on his craft. 
Elijah Wood has picked some quirky films over the last few years and his refusal to be pigeonholed after starring in a successful blockbuster franchise is admirable. Wood makes for an adequately convincing master pianist, his perpetual youthfulness upping the “child prodigy fallen from grace” quotient. Working with coach and hand double Héctor Eliel Márquez, Wood does actually look like he’s playing, and does actually look like he’s good. We wish that the trailer (and the poster) didn’t give away that John Cusack was the villain as it would’ve been a nice surprise reveal. He spends most of the film off screen, present in the form of a menacing voice in Selznick’s ear. While this is yet another case in which the revelation of the antagonist’s motive is at least a bit of a let-down, Cusack is still solid opposition to our heroic pianist. Shout-out to Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame who shows up as a suspicious theatre usher. Excellent, dude! 
Grand Piano is an entertaining affair that isn’t afraid to dip into silliness and thanks to some assured direction, isn’t overcome by its preposterous premise, instead gamely running with it. While far from wholly satisfying, it’s a slickly-crafted, well-acted suspense thriller packed with pizzazz and flourish, Lang Lang-style. 
SUMMARY: Elijah Wood goes pedal to the metal in a slightly different way than Sandra Bullock did in this occasionally silly but consistently exhilarating flick.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong