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…

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…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

I don’t need to be held together, I’m fine just floating through space like Andy.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Or, to give it its full subtitle, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – The Story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton. Carrey’s in a contradictory place just now, on the one hand espousing his commitment to a spiritual path and enlightened/ing state, on the other being sued in respect of his ex-girlfriend’s suicide and accompanying allegations regarding his behaviour. That behaviour – in a professional context – and his place of consciousness are the focus of Jim & Andy, and an oft-repeated mantra (great for motivational speeches) that “I learned that you can fail at what you don’t love, so you may as well do what you love. There’s really no choice to be made”. The results are consequently necessarily contradictory, but always fascinating.

Nothing in the world can stop me now!

Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode Three

Episode Three is pretty much 25 minutes of filler, revolving around a kidnap attempt on Zaroff and Sean encouraging the fish people to engage in industrial action. But, laughable (intentional or otherwise) as the plot mechanics may be, this is never dull. Smith keeps the action zipping along. She has limited space at her disposal, but ensures the action scenes are tightly shot and well-edited. This means that, even when the staging isn’t especially convincing (the crowded market square, all 30 feet of it, the fight between Jamie and Zaroff), it’s a million times better executed than any comparable studio action set piece from the Davison era that isn’t directed by Graeme Harper.

No, by the sky demon! I say no!

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straig…

For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
(SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie would evidently have liked to make a Bond film as much as his former producer Matthew Vaughn, and either would undoubtedly add more spark to the franchise than current darling Sam Mendes (lush cinematography or no lush cinematography). While Vaughn brokered his fandom into a patchy but violent and vibrant original earlier this year (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and won considerable box office as a result, Ritchie picked up Steven Soderbergh’s discarded menu items and went with refashioning an existing property, one he had no yearning interest in. Sometimes that shows in the result, but mostly The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, playful exercise in period spyfare. As such, it’s a shame this looks destined to remain a one-time only outing.

Which isn’t to say there’s necessarily much else left to do with it (one can imagine desperate approaches like throwing them into the ‘70s a la Austin Powers and X-Men), but the amount of fun Ritchi…

You can’t be in England and not know the test score!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
(SPOILERS) Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate UK-based picture, The Lady Vanishes can be comfortably paired with The 39 Steps as a co-progenitor of his larkier suspense formula (watch these two and then jump to North by Northwest and the through line is immediately obvious). Part of its great blessing is Hitchcock being handed a screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, latterly directors themselves, and knowing to make the most of the very funny dialogue, including arguably the picture’s greatest gift (well, other than Hitch himself): Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as ultimate English cricket enthusiasts – to the exclusion of all else – Charters and Caldicott.

This place sure isn’t like that one in Austria.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professedchild of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.

This is how we do action in Uganda.

Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010)
Uganda’s first action movie”, Who Killed Captain Alex? is a cheerfully ultra-low budget, wholly amateur picture made by Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey. It’s the kind of thing you and your mates would make and (rightly) expect no one else to ever watch (aside from a few hundred hits on YouTube). But stick a frequently hilarious running commentary over the top from VJ (video joker) Emme, and it this home-ish move takes on something approaching the spoofy quality of What’s Up Tiger Lilly?