Film review – Trance

Danny Boyle’s Trance is a sub-Nolan twist on the heist movie, employing Boyle‘s visual style of fast cuts, garish colour and humour to tell the story of Simon (James McAvoy), an art auctioneer who suffers a head injury during a robbery and is then captured by the gang, who need to recover the location of the desired painting from his repressed memory. After the usual London industrial-wasteland torture sequence fails to reveal where Simon hid it, they resort to having him choose a hypnotherapist, Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) to dig up the location from his frazzled neurons.

Amid a supporting cast of the usual shouty tough guys, Dawson’s performance as Lamb is the most interesting in this maelstrom of memory. She shifts subtly, from innocent bystander, to vulnerable victim, cool-headed partner and sensual provocateur, teasing our sense of security in that what may or may not be real. McAvoy plays Simon with increasing desperation and volume as we near the end of the film, but not much more. I couldn’t help but feel he would have been interchangeable with the other cheeky-chappy and Boyle alumni, Ewan McGregor. Vincent Cassel as chief villain doesn’t get to do much but sneer with a slightly curled lip-Français as Lamb’s progress proves slow, but to be fair to the cast, the star of this film is Boyle’s plot contrivance, they are merely directed to dance around it in circles.

The problem with Trance is that the narrative is broken up by so many flashback, nay, flash-sideways scenes it is hard to reconstruct everything in chronological order. It left me trying to put the pieces together to make a sensible whole, with half-remembered and slightly muddled character motivations swimming against one another in my head. Ah, you say, that’s the director making you feel like the protagonist. Well, up to a point, but if you make a film heavily dependent on restructuring reality, it must give the audience a reasonable shot at remembering how the threads fit together. The ending is quite unsatisfactory, a soft coda to the jarring aggression that had so effectively been sustained throughout. I can’t even believe that the character in question would have any sympathy for the other. It’s a Boyle trope that he used in The Beach. Why the need for reflection and drawn-out goodbyes?

Boyle’s hyper-real shooting style is always a pleasure to experience and I enjoyed the thrill of being bounced around by the editing and Anthony Dod Mantle’s hallucinatory cinematography, but this time Boyle has reached too far at the cost of telling a coherent story.

Film review – Small Apartments

Many of western cinema’s directors first had a hand in commercials or music videos before moving on to feature films: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Alan Parker and David Fincher to name a few. But for those who go on to make memorable films, there are always a few McG’s out there, employing visual gimmicks with little attention to narrative.

When I saw that Small Apartments was a first feature helmed by Jonas Akerlund, director of Telephone for Lady Gaga and Beyonce to name drop a few of his previous works, I prepared myself for the worst. I’m happy to say, I was wrong to do so.

Adapted by Chris Mills from his 3-day-novel prizewinner of the same name, Small Apartments is a cheeky but darkly comic story of a European sensibility.

Franklin Franklin (Matt Lucas) is a simple, naive man living a hermetic existence in a run-down LA apartment block. Wearing only his huge, white underpants and a series of wigs on trips to the store for bottles of soda, he dreams about escaping to live in Switzerland, where he can wear lederhosen and blow his giant Alp-horn surrounded by frauen, instead of his irate neighbours who don’t appreciate the noise.

In the meantime he pins postcards of the Alps to the wall and tries to make sense of cryptic messages and toenail clippings sent by his brother, his only friend, who is in a mental hospital. He also has the small problem of disposing of his landlord’s body, which is lying on the floor.

Franklin is the subject of a farcical series of events that see him awkwardly dispose of his landlord’s body, while bewildered by the random ills and fortunes of life, among these the cruelty of others toward him. He’s the simpleton, there to reflect how bad and uncaring society can be to the innocent.

It’s not just Franklin who has problems. Mr Allspice (James Caan) is a grumpy artist who moved in temporarily and got stuck for good. Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville) is a convenience store clerk and happy pot smoker who draws up productive “to do” lists each day, but has to deal with his alcoholic to evangelical mother trying to convert him. Fire investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) drinks to forget the wife who shagged his cousin. Everybody has their own form of escape from life, be it fantasy, drink, drugs, religion or suicide.

Small Apartments is a quirky film; quirky in the odd characters that live next to Franklin; quirky in the wide-angle lenses and bright colour grading; and quirky in that short film, oddball quirkiness with a few scenes of brutalism to balance it out. The resolution is itself a self-help platitude, but Lucas gives a vulnerable and moving performance as a child-like man who just wants to things to go right for him. Bar the Benny Hill cartoon sauciness at the end – Akerlund has made a story of great pathos.

Film review – Stoker

Chan-wook Park peeks through his dark looking-glass for Stoker, a tale of family dysfunction, dark secrets and incestuous desire.

India (Mia Wasikowska) is an 18-year-old girl living in the rural setting of a 50s-style Americana, but in the present day. Her father is killed in a car accident on her birthday, leaving her to live with her mother (Nicole Kidman) and housekeeper in the family’s large country house; styled with expensive, but restrained taste. Then her father’s younger brother Charlie turns up unannounced at the wake. His precise, calm manner imposes a quietly compelling presence on India and her mother, but there is something unseemly about Charlie’s fascination with his niece.

You are defined by your nature, so make your peace with that and life will be easier for you. That is the sentiment offered in voiceover by India at the start of Park’s mesmerising new film. She is a wild child of nature. Brought up by her father to hunt animals with a rifle, she runs free in the grounds of the house and is on the cusp of adulthood, just beginning to discover her power – psychologically and sexually. She claims to hear and see details in the world that other people cannot, and the sound department excel themselves in portraying this with amplified wind, insects, bodily sounds and even a squelching pencil sharpener into sensual soundscapes.

Since birth, India has received a pair of identically-styled shoes for her birthday, gradually marking her progress to womanhood. Suspend your disbelief for she appears not to know who gave them to her, these shoeboxes wrapped in yellow ribbon and hidden for her to find in an outdoor treasure hunt each year. And this female is a hunter, make no mistake about that. For her 18th birthday she receives, not shoes, but an old metal key – substantial and with looped metal fob, pregnant with mystery as to which lock it will fit. There are echoes of the Bluebeard myth here – the pursuit of a young female by a predatory man.

Matthew Goode is hypnotic as Charlie. An inhuman, robotic man with a hint of menace beneath that still exterior. He is a nightmare of preppy perfection; his clothing neat and pressed, his skin a flawless tan colour. He cooks refined meals for India and her mother, espouses on the qualities of wine (“The young wine is not ready to be drunk. It has too many tannins”), but never touches food or drink himself. His eyes gleam at India, producing in her a fearful eroticism. He offers her wine from his glass and she drinks in deeply, but warily. The tension is brought to a crescendo as he joins her at the family piano, playing a rolling bass accompaniment to her high-pitched treble, his hands brushing hers, their obvious synchronicity hinting at something similar in both of them. He’s a character born of Hitchcock, as is this hyper-real world Park has created.

The visual style is glossy, even a little oppressive, but it matches the story well. Chung-hoon Chung, Park’s long-time cinematographer, renders interiors in rich, dark tones; day exteriors in bright, almost celestial light and nights in high-contrast moonlight. The tilt-and-shift split focus in close-ups is quite all-encompassing, drawing the viewer into India’s private world.

If IMDb is correct, this is the first writing credit for Wentworth Miller, star of the TV series Prison Break. It’s an incredible debut.

I love Stoker and was absolutely taken with the sense of forbidding mystery in which it is steeped. It is a film rich in the symbolism of old European folk tales about coming of age, unbound natural forces and the power they endow; a story to be held up against Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for representing the feminine archetype – with a twist. Things are not what they seem.

Late film review – Flight

Contrary to expectations, Flight is less a film about a plane crash, but more about a man forced to confront his alcohol and drug addiction.

In Cast Away, director Robert Zemeckis tore a plane apart in visceral style to maroon a man on a deserted island with nothing but himself for company. In Flight, captain Whip Whitaker (Denzil Washington) survives the directors’ force majeure to land a crippled airliner after some pretty fancy flying. The trouble is, he tests positive in hospital for booze and cocaine, and so is forced to retreat from life as he comes under investigation by the aviation authority. He survived the crash, but can he survive himself?

Washington is superb as a man living life on the edge of functionality – swinging from a drunken stupor, barely able to talk, to an enhanced state of mind where he is supremely confidant and razor sharp. His abilities as a pilot are without question; after a malfunction, he enlists other members of the flight crew to help him perform a daring series of unconventional manoeuvres that ultimately save many lives.

Enabled by his drug-dealing buddy Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s personality oscillates between sobriety and stoned as he feels the turbulence of the law – and possible exposure – on his tail. After the plane crash, it’s a plot intended as a second hair-raising ride as the audience watch him grapple, slip and regain control of his life, only to lapse again.

Hanging in the air throughout is the question of whether being stoned assisted him in recovering the aircraft as he did. What some believe to be an act of God may have been an act assisted by intoxication, saving lives for which he may, paradoxically, be punished. It’s a straight story about the choice of redeeming oneself with great cost, or continuing to maintain a deception at all.

The religious aspect of the film is not as prevalent as some have suggested, but it’s a plot device that was lost on me. The concept of divine intervention is not intrinsic to the final equation, yet Zemeckis continues to sprinkle it here and there. Yes, there is a growing moral conflict within Whip as to whether he should confess to being inebriated at the time of the flight or ride along with the union officials trying to cover up the fact – but, perhaps in an indication of the grip of his addiction – his course is affected not by the religious views and efforts of those around him, but by the previously unknown example of someone else much closer to his heart.

As an aside, there is a question about the opening scene, set in a hotel bedroom after Whip and crew member Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) have secretly spent the night together. While Whip answers the phone, Velazquez is seen completely nude, close to camera for much of the scene as she gets dressed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m red-blooded and she’s a very attractive lady with a great body, but there doesn’t seem to be any narrative reason for it. Compare this to Helen Hunt’s full-frontal in The Sessions, which had context in a story about the normalising of sex for a man who was terrified of it. Yes, the nudity in Flight is realistic of a woman who has had a night of great sex, but Denzel’s chap isn’t given a similar outing and there’s an imbalance in the lingering shots of her, admittedly well-toned body, that seem gratuitous. It would be interesting to know Valezquez’s opinion.

Let’s be clear: I’m not offended. It just seems a little cheap and I just can’t see what it adds to the movie. It would be a shame if a film maker of Zemeckis’ stature felt obliged to include an 80s-action-film titty-and-crotch shot purely for pornographic gratification, because for that, we can go and watch porn. Just tell us the story, Bob.