Skip to main content

Do you want to remember or do you want to forget?


Trance
 (2013)

National Treasure Danny Boyle is currently riding a wave of goodwill. The feting he received for his work on the Olympics cemented a reputation that evolved from slightly arty populist to establishment darling (in the wake of his Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire). Despite the distracting surface details of his penchant for genre hopping and a magpie attitude to sound and vision, he’s known as a filmmaker informed by social conscience and, by consequence or distinct sensibility, the impulse of a provocateur.  


He gains credibility for turning down a knighthood and remaining entrenched in Britain (despite the occasional flirtation with Hollywood, such as his disappointing adaptation of The Beach). In that respect he could be marked out as a very different fish to (Sir) Ridley Scott who, in the last decade or so, had redefined himself as a commercially viable studio workhorse. The only telltale sign of Ridley’s early innovations is a now identikit visual sheen that drenches his every shot. But Boyle is nevertheless closer to Scott in narrative instincts and temperament than he is to, say, a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. As a motivation, he is all about aspiration even when his subject matter is dark and downbeat. But Boyle vaguely attempts to keep one foot on the ground in deference to social realist, or maybe just realist, roots, rather than completely floating off into the formalist clouds with Ridley.


But the trait that most links Boyle and Scott is one of narrative weakness. Time and again in their work they have cranked up the surface elements of their movies, almost as an unvoiced recognition of the inherent problems with the material. Neither director has even begun recapture the quality of their early work. Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner convey a verisimilitude in their world building that throws much of his later work into sharp relief as uninspired mimicry. Those films are so immersive (see the next paragraph) that story deficiencies have been unable to dent the impact of the overall picture. Boyle hit the ground running with his first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but since then he has the perfect marriage between his restless visual energy and a supportive, fully-formed, narrative has elude him.

Boyle frequently cites Nicolas Roeg as a major influence, and has commented upon the  “total immersion” that comes with his best work.  He also praises Roeg’s non-linear, fractured approach to narrative, where time is fluid. Crucially, Roeg inspires Boyle as a mainstream filmmaker who unceasingly explores his experimental instincts. When Boyle praises Roeg as the greatest British filmmaker, above Lean or Hitchcock, I’m inclined to agree with him. But recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into practice, and Boyle’s desire to associate his latest film with the director’s oeuvre seems at best misguided, at worst blinkered.


Even the mid-stage movies he refers to as influenced by Roeg, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are overtly designed such that their playing with time and memory are embedded in the construction of the narrative itself. Both of those films are outstanding pieces of work, but it couldn’t be said that either conveys the organic, synchronicitous approach to character and story that Roeg consistently explores. And yet, both films much, much more acutely represent this “total immersion” than Trance.

Because Trance is a cold, calculated piece of work in every respect. It is as clinical and mechanical as Ridley’s Hollywood product, but made on a limited budget that allows Boyle to flourish his credentials as “still edgy” and “still credible”. What it really illustrates is how staid and predictable his approach has become, how cocooned he now is within a formula he cannot escape. At a number of points I was put in mind Sir Ridley’s token confrontation with a tricky narrative with Matchstick Men; flawed as that film is, it’s an altogether more interesting, and relatively successful, piece of work than Trance.


Boyle also doesn’t appear to acknowledge that this type of twisty construction is ten-a-penny, and was over-familiar a decade ago when Scott delivered Matchstick Men. Unless you’re going to deliver something truly innovative and inspired you will find yourself running through a tired collection of tropes and tricks that will quickly exhaust an audience; the danger is, ironically, that the relentlessly hyperactive mind games will become dull.

And this art heist thriller is so self-consciously, and transparently, dedicated to style over substance, that it does exactly that. What Boyle seems to completely miss is that you can get up to all manner of narrative hijinks, but if you are not invested in the fates of the characters it is all to no avail.


The director is seemingly transfixed by the plot’s Russian doll layering, as various parties attempt to get to the root of where James McAvoy's auctioneer has secreted a stolen painting. McAvoy’s character, Simon, heavily indebted due to a gambling addiction, suggests the theft of a Goya to crime boss Frank (Vincent Cassel). Simon double-crosses his partners in crime but they refrain from retribution due to his amnesia regarding the location of the painting. So, Rosario Dawson’s Harley Street hypnotherapist (Elizabeth) is called upon to get to the bottom of things.

Boyle plasters on the flashy camera work and wall-to-wall dance soundtrack. In that sense he's taking his cues directly from 127 Hours and. Let’s face it, much of his other work. The glib approach to plotting reveals recalls Slumdog Millionaire, but at least that film had characters to root for. Here, the intricate clever-clever attitude is hollow at the core, leaving the viewer unmoved by each progressive revelation (and less and less inclined to swallow the more and more unlikely contrivances). There’s no veneer of thematic or emotional depth to disguise the shallowness (one might point to Elizabeth, but her backstory is pure convenience, at the service of how devious the writers think they are being).


As a return to the thriller genre, he seems to be willfully summoning comparisons with his debut, Shallow Grave. But for all the misanthropy of the characters in that film, they were compelling. Curiously, Boyle has seized on a 12-year old TV movie to adapt, one originally written and directed by Joe Ahearne. Ahearne is probably best known for his 1998 TV series Ultraviolet (also adapted into a movie). Frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge was brought on board, but this is Hodge of the pedigree of his work on A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach (but not quite flatlining as on The Sweeney); certainly nothing like the brilliance of their first two films together.

Shallow Grave cleverly employed several switches in allegiance as it progressed, but Hodge and Boyle spent a significant amount of time getting to know the characters at the outset (in a film a good 10 minutes shorter than the pacy Trance). Here, they are required to engage in several crude shifts in perspective that telegraph some of the revelations to come. It’s actually the kind of plot you might expect Hitchcock to go for, or maybe De Palma, but both would have taken the opportunity to embellish. They would have expanded upon any given set piece in a quest for visual elegance and artfulness, rather than stirring it all up into a hyper-kinetic stew.


McAvoy and Cassel provide fairly standard turns; they’re doing the kind of thing you’ve seen them do before, and are as proficient as you’d expect. More impressive is Dawson, mainly because I've not seen her in many notable roles. That said, the justification for showing off her shaved nether regions is the sort of gratuitous exploitation that would make Paul Verhoeven giddy with delight; if he’d made the film, at least there’d have been a direct and honest answer to, “What attracted you to Trance in the first place?” It’s all the more scurrilous because the scene’s presence is borderline incoherent as a “vital” plot device (surely the most likely reason for a male character preferring his ladies bare is a diet of internet porn?) It’s almost amusing in an inept kind of way, but it most suggests that this is a middle-aged filmmaker short of inspiration beyond a lovingly framed hairless snatch.

There’s also something slightly queasy about the way Boyle tries to pump-up his tawdry tale with a euphoric dance soundtrack (from Underworld’s Rick Smith). Again, he appears to be tugging on the hem of past glories. But his use of music in Shallow Grave and (particularly) Trainspotting defined the zeitgeist. Here, he is just pasting upbeat ephemera onto characters you are unable to identify with and a plot whose darkness struggles uncomfortably with such zesty orange juice infusions.


In the closing scenes that he appears to be attempting something approximating the breezy, confident tone of The Thomas Crown Affair (the remake). What he’s actually come up with is an iPad-assisted (its ridiculously prevalent in the movie, so I hope Apple contributed to the budget) mess, where character motivation is so confused that relationships appear to be redrawn out of desperation (to enable a final piece of communication/exposition). Also, any supposedly “clever” film reduced to OTT car smash spectacle most definitely reveals itself as running on empty.


Perhaps Boyle and Scott should team up in a quest for decent screenplays. There’s no doubt about Danny Boyle’s skills as a director, even if his last two pictures suggest that restraint is sometimes better than beating your audience into submission. I’d concluded at one point that the Andrew Garland was the malign influence preventing him from beating a path back to strong material. Sunshine, in particular, is probably the closest Boyle has come to the kind of film he admires Roeg for… in the first half, before it falls apart completely. But his collaborations with Simon Beaufoy have done nothing to rebalance him, and now not even John Hodge can set him straight.


Maybe he should go and make a Bond movie; it might be a much-needed enema that gets him motivated to find really strong material and a different approach to his screen craft.  He definitely needs to quit with his oft-mentioned desire to make Porno. I may sound like I hated Trance. I didn’t; it’s an entertaining but insubstantial, over-familiar, head-trip movie.  Distracting enough to make 100 minutes pass with energy and verve, but so superficial that you wonder why Boyle bothered at all.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Are you drinking the water?

A Cure for Wellness (2016)
(SPOILERS) Well, this is far more suited to Dane DeHaan’s slightly suspect shiftiness than ludicrously attempting to turn him into an outright action hero (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). It’s not, though, equal to director Gore Verbinski’s abilities. One of Hollywood’s great visualists but seemingly languishing without a clear path since he was cast adrift from collaborating with Johnny Depp, unfortunately, he must cop most of the blame for A Cure for Wellness, since it was his idea.

There’s a whiff of Shutter Island’s pulp psychodrama tonally, as DeHaan’s unscrupulous finance company executive Lockhart is sent to a Swiss health spa to fetch back a board member vital to pressing ahead with a merger. No sooner has he reached the alpine wellness centre, resplendent in the grounds of historic castle with a dark past, than he’s involved in a car accident, leaving him with a leg in a cast and “encouragement” to recuperate on site, taking the waters …

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.

Star Trek (2009)
(SPOILERS) If JJ Abrams’ taking up the torch of the original Star Wars trilogy had been as supremely satisfying as his Star Trek reboot, I’d have very little beef with it. True, they both fall victim to some incredibly ropey plotting, but where Star Trek scores, making it an enormously rewatchable movie, is that it gets its characters right – which isn’t to suggest it’s getting The Original Series characters right, but it’s giving us compelling new iterations of them – and sends them on emotional journeys that satisfy. If the third act is somewhat rote, its achievements up to that point put it comfortably in the top rank of Trek movies.

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…