The Woman In The Fifth, Pawel Pawlikowski, 83 mins (15)
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 95 mins (12A)

Pick your male fantasy: Writer in Paris pursued by women, or a dead man biking

Pawel Pawlikowski, a London-based Polish writer-director, established himself as a singular talent with his first two films, 2000's Last Resort and 2004's My Summer of Love.

He's been on sabbatical since then, due to a bereavement, but his long-awaited third film, The Woman In The Fifth, shows that he's lost none of his genius for conjuring up ominous atmospheres, not to mention locations so seedy that they make you itch. Whether he can still conjure up unique characters and compelling stories is up for debate.

Adapted from a Douglas Kennedy novel, The Woman In The Fifth stars Ethan Hawke as a dishevelled American author who had one hit novel but never managed a second. He travels to Paris to reconnect with his six-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife doesn't want anything to do with him, and she's got the restraining order to prove it. When his luggage and wallet are stolen, Hawke is forced to work as a night-watchman in a mysterious underground bunker in exchange for an attic room in a grubby hotel. On the plus side, two beautiful women have no qualms about throwing themselves at him, even if he does belong on a list of Paris's least eligible bachelors. One of his admirers is a voluptuous Polish waitress (Joanna Kulig); the other's an enigmatic widow (Kristin Scott Thomas), with a chic apartment in the fifth arrondissement.

It's an intriguing, noir-ish tale, with an unsettling air of surrealism and a vein of black humour. But when it drifts to a conclusion after a mere 83 minutes, you're left feeling that The Woman In The Fifth is a minor film assembled from all-too-familiar parts. To take two examples, Hawke has already played an American novelist in Paris in Before Sunset. And last summer's Douglas Kennedy adaptation, The Big Picture, peddled a similar middle-aged male fantasy about spiriting yourself away to a country where your artistic brilliance is appreciated – particularly by nubile women. Finally, there's a Twilight Zone twist which has been used in a thousand horror films, and which isn't made any more convincing by the veneer of European art-house respectability. It's good that Pawlikowski is making films again. Now it's time he made one that any number of French directors couldn't have knocked out instead.

I know you shouldn't get your hopes up for the sequel to a forgettable superhero movie, but I was looking forward to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It's directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who made the gleefully outrageous Crank films with Jason Statham, and the announcement that they'd be teaming up with Nicolas Cage – who can be pretty outrageous himself – promised a ridiculously over-the-top guilty pleasure. That promise hasn't been kept. By the end, I was wondering how an action movie about a demonic biker with a flaming-skull head could be so dull.

There are a few obvious answers. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is set in drab, grey Romanian locations for no better reason than that they're cheap. The substandard 3D makes proceedings look even dingier. There's a grievous lack of comedy, a piffling story, and an anonymous thug in place of a memorable villain. Worse still, Ghost Rider is a tediously indestructible anti-hero who doesn't do much except stand around with his head on fire. He may look great on a poster, but as a character he's not much cop.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber checks into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy

Also Showing: 19/02/2012

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A young Parisian is expelled from a nunnery and gravitates towards Islamic fundamentalism.

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