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OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

After the huge amount of weaponry shipped to other nations in the world, perhaps the worst US export nowadays consists of political consultants who debased American elections with their unsavory methods and are now busily engaged in doing the same in foreign climes. Their baleful influence is the subject of “Our Brand Is Crisis,” an effortful picture that doesn’t do justice to its promising premise either as comedy or as drama.

The picture, written by Peter Straughan, is a fictionalized version of a similarly-titled 2005 documentary by Rachel Boynton about the 2002 presidential election in Bolivia. In that campaign, James Carville worked on the staff of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who had been president in the mid-nineties. Lozada was elected over populist Evo Morales but resigned the following year (Morales later became president in 2006; interestingly, Lozada is explicitly mentioned here as a former president.)

In Straughan’s revision, the Carville character is ”Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock), a burned-out consultant who has retired to a remote cabin after a succession of defeats and what was apparently a nervous breakdown; she makes pottery to maintain her equilibrium. (Interestingly, the character was originally written as a role for George Clooney, one of the producers.) She’s visited by Nell (Ann Dowd) and Ben (Anthony Mackie), a couple of consultants working for Pedro Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), a senator who was once president but is running well behind several other candidates, most notably a populist named Rivera (Louis Arcella). She agrees to lend a hand, but upon her arrival in Bolivia suffers a prolonged bout of nausea caused, it’s said, by the altitude, though it might as well be the result of her candidate’s blasé attitude. She looks, frankly, a bit like somebody who’s wandered in from the set of “The Walking Dead.”

Her mood isn’t improved by the revelation that Rivera has a US consultant, too—and it’s Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, physically channeling Carville), her nemesis. It’s not until Castillo is the target of a egg attack by a protestor and responds by punching him that Bodine springs to life. That spontaneous burst of energy on the candidate’s par energizes Bodine as well: she sees a way of positioning him as a fighter at a time of crisis, and that becomes the campaign’s theme. It also brings her into a series of direct confrontations with Candy as the two old enemies trade dirty tricks and acerbic insults (the ultimate example coming in the form of a wild chase down a mountain road by competing campaign buses).

The picture is obviously intended to be a sharp satire, but for the most part it’s an oddly muted one that occasionally switches to rambunctious slapstick and more often veers into soapy drama, not only in its saccharine treatment of a young Castillo volunteer, Eduardo (Reynaldo Pacheco), whose idealism suffers a cruel shock in the end, but in its bookending interviews with Jane herself, for whom, it appears, the campaign becomes a road-to-Damascus moment. On the one hand it’s laudable that a major-studio film should risk being different from the pack; the shifting tones are evidence of its ambition—and probably of the influence of director David Gordon Green, whose previous pictures have taken similar chances, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In this case, unfortunately, the risk doesn’t pay off. Instead of being tantalizingly disarming, “Our Brand Is Brand” simply comes across as messy and disjointed.

Still, one has to give Straughan and Green points for effort, even though the result falls short. The same is true of Bullock, who’s playing a character as mixed-up as the movie she’s in. Dour and drab at one moment and a bundle of ferocious energy the next, cunning but with a deeply vulnerable side, Bodine is a complex figure, and Bullock wrestles to make her comprehensible. She doesn’t fully succeed, because frankly the script doesn’t reveal enough of her background to allow for that, but at least she’s not a cookie-cutter heroine or villainess, and Bullock gets across the ambiguity. Thornton slides slickly through another Mephistophelean role—even alluding to the devilish figure at one point, and Almeida, too often stuck playing drug dealers, seems to enjoy playing a person of stature for a change, even if Castillo is hardly an unalloyed good-guy. The remainder of the cast, especially Mackie and Dowd, feel underused, though Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan have their moments as other members of the Castillo brain trust. And Arcella strikes the right pose of empty populism.

One of the strongest points of the picture are the locations; the backgrounds look genuinely authentic because most of them are, and cinematographer Tim Orr takes full advantage of the local color they provide. The other technical credits are unostentatiously solid.

In the end, though, “Our Brand Is Crisis” is a film with a great deal of potential that doesn’t quite gel. Interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, it has to be categorized as a near-miss.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION

The original 2009 “Paranormal Activity”—the “Blair Witch” of its time—has been sequeled and copied so often by now that the latest installment in the franchise, “The Ghost Dimension,” would probably have worked better as a parody, so long as the Wayan brothers weren’t involved. Unfortunately, it’s being played straight, and the result is a deadly bore. The hapless priest who’s an obligatory presence certainly gets it right when, after opining that an exorcism would be useless, says “What we need is an extermination,” because the series has by now become the cinematic equivalent of an infestation that really needs to be wiped out.

The four installments preceding this one (not counting last year’s one-off “The Marked Ones”) have constructed, in shards, a fractured narrative involving a demon that haunts houses and targets those unlucky enough to live in them. But they’ve left important elements of the story out, or fudged them. This, purportedly the final picture in the series, tries to draw the fragments together into a complete explanation, but darned if the denouement doesn’t turn out to be both prosaic and irritatingly inconclusive.

But that’s only the last failing in a movie that for the most part just plows over the same well-worn ground as the earlier ones. Cheerful couple Ryan and Emily Fleege (Chris J. Murray and Brit Shaw) move with their little girl Leila (Ivy George) into a house in Santa Rosa that seemed like a real bargain. They’re joined by a couple of guests—Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill), still nursing a broken heart after a bad breakup, and Emily’s chum Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley). It’s just before Christmas, and all are ready to celebrate.

But among the former occupants’ stuff Ryan finds a box of junk that includes an old video camera and a collection of family tapes. He gets the camera operating again, but finds that while he’s looking through the viewfinder it reveals strange, bubbly bits of energy in the house that can’t be seen with the naked eye. And the tapes show two girls being inducted into witchcraft by a strange man; these are obviously the younger Katie and Kristi from the previous films, who were trained by their coven-leading grandmother Lois. The house must be a rebuilt version of her place.

At the same time Leila begins acting strangely, exhibiting a predilection for creepy symbols and talking to an invisible friend named Toby, a name familiar to fans of the PA franchise, and poltergeist-like phenomena begin to occur throughout the house. So the Fleeges set up video cameras to capture the phenomena while protecting Leila. They even go so far as to call in that priest, Father Todd (Michael Kravic), whom they think might be able to help. But he explains that simply moving won’t solve anything, since demons follow their victims. And it’s pointed out that Leila, born 6/6/05, represents the devil’s number 666, since 2005 was the sixth year of the decade.

So what’s going on? It seems that everything the poor Fleeges are experiencing goes back to Grandma Lois’ arrangement with Toby, which involved providing him with the children he needs to assume human form (though why he should want to do that is never made clear). And with the acquisition of Leila—who’s seduced by a hallway that appears through the wall above her bed—he’ll have all the children he needs.

Most of what happens in “The Ghost Dimension” is overly reminiscent of the previous pictures, but though the bad acting and slovenly editing are constants, a couple of differences are apparent here. One is that first-time director Gregory Plotkin and his cinematographer John W. Rutland lean less on the series’ signature gimmick—those static camera shots that show manifestations occurring around the frame; here one gets more often the frantic camera-follows-action technique that’s in line with “Blair Witch.” (It doesn’t help.) The other is that for the first time the 3D format is employed. It adds a bit to the earlier instances of supernatural doings in the house, but it’s not until the big finale that the makers go for broke with it. Unfortunately, they wind up with swirling apparitions that are no more frightening than what you’d find in a chintzy carnival attraction. Otherwise the scares are meant to come from sudden bursts of paranormal exhibitionism that appear throughout the picture, always accompanied by a crack of sound. These interruptions are by now so commonplace that they don’t cause even a flinch, let alone a gasp.

Even the most dedicated fan will find this a soporific conclusion to a series that has been careening downhill since the first installment and now reaches a dead end in more ways than one.