FILM FORTNIGHT: Trance

OK, I know that technically I’ve already done my scheduled fortnight, but shush; at time of writing I only saw this yesterday, and wanted to get my thoughts off ma chest.

This film is… different, but then again I did kinda expect it to be. Psychological thrillers are rarely simple affairs, but most tend to generate their weirdness from either a confusing, tangential plot or by employing every trick of cinematography in the book in an effort to mess with your brain. Trance does neither of these things, but nonetheless this is most certainly not your average mid-afternoon popcorn film.

The plot centres around an art heist; our main protagonist is Simon (James McAvoy), a young art auctioneer who gets himself mixed up in a plot to rob a Goya painting, ‘Witches In The Air’. However, for reasons that can’t really be explained without giving away any spoilers (the film’s somewhat odd storytelling structure makes it a veritable spoiler minefield), and in some respects are never fully explained at all, the painting manages to go missing. Blame for this falls squarely on Simon, who is suffering that old cinematic trope of amnesia, leading him to not remember what has happened to it. Indeed, one of the characters even puts in a subtle meta-commentary to this effect- but I’m getting sidetracked. Suffice it to say that the group, or more specifically their leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) pick hypnosis as a potential solution; and here the word ‘psychological’ rapidly prefixes itself onto the tag of ‘thriller’.

Amnesia as a plot device is a cliché seemingly as old as the hills, but here it gets the Danny Boyle treatment, and a subsequent new lease of life. Other reviewers have frequently compared the film to Inception for its superficially similar subject matter of the human mind, and it could be argued that what Inception did with dreams Trance attempts to do with memory. However, the comparison is not an especially valid one; whereas Inception was a fast-paced action film that perfectly showcased Christopher Nolan’s talent for scope and grand gestures, Trance is a far smaller affair that plays to Boyle’s strengths of bringing out the little moments. Here, the concept of memory is not only used as the core plot concept, but after being taken as it stands, it is summarily twisted, bent, lost, found, stamped all over, made to run around in circles for three hours, soaked, wrung out to dry and then left in a tangled mess that renders the simplicity of the original concept almost unrecognisable. Suffice it to say that this film most certainly does not take the obvious route with its subject matter.

Tinkering on the minute level is also evident in the film’s plot, an equally twisted affair that makes a marked departure for the more straightline storytelling of the other Boyle films I’ve seen. This might have something to do that this is the first of Boyle’s films for a while not to be based on a pre-existing book (see Trainspotting, Millions, Slumdog Millionaire & 127 Hours) have been based on screenplays adapted from existing books, but here we have an entirely fresh script, co-written by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge. The latter, I glean from a little research, was something of a Boyle regular during his early career (this is their fifth film together), and some stylistic similarities between this and their most famous collaboration (Trainspotting) become clear once you realise the link exists.

For the film’s first hour, Trance doesn’t offer much that could be said to be special; it’s an unconventional but perfectly understandable film that is written, directed and acted well, but doesn’t seem like it’s going to break any major rules. The first and second acts establish a few character relationships, a few ideas that look like they’re going to become important later on, nothing especially out of the ordinary. Indeed, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll think you’ve figured out what ‘The Big Twist’ will be somewhere around the hour mark, and will be just about ready to start feeling smug when the third act kicks in. And kick in it does; not only are the pace and tension each cranked up several notches, but the plot’s initial strangeness begins to give way to mayhem as chronology shifts back and forth, the worlds of hypnosis and reality begin to converge and the film’s themes and story really begin to twist themselves into the aforementioned tangles. Everything made out to be some important concept, a feature that we are sure will turn out to be important, is left by the wayside, and all the small details, slipped in so subtly and hidden so well, take on new significance- a peculiar reversal that, when I think about it, I’m surprised ever worked. That it does is testament to the way every contributor to the film begins to show their class during this period; James McAvoy puts the finishing touches on a stunningly versatile acting performance that covers just about every emotion and character trope known to humankind, whilst co-star Rosario Dawson (who plays hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb) begins to show the character beneath all the subtle woman-of-mystery stuff from the second act. Boyle too puts himself on show; all the careful execution of the first two acts, all the subtlety and false leads, all the things only hinted at through the minutiae of character behaviour, all are finally paid off in his chaotic finale, and it shows his skill off marvellously.

However.

I can appreciate an awful lot of things about Trance. I can appreciate the fantastic acting, I can appreciate the clever, intriguing storytelling, I can certainly appreciate the directorial skill. But somehow… I find I can’t quite enjoy it. Maybe it’s something to do with having unsympathetic characters, nobody we can ever think of as a hero (or, for that matter, antihero), maybe it’s that the plot doesn’t really have any consistent underlying emotional scenes, or maybe it’s just that all the things that really matter by the end are not given enough time to make themselves feel meaningful, amidst the mayhem of the third act. Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but it’s a shame, frankly; Trance is smart, quirky, exceptionally well done and tells a story like nothing else. I only wish it could feel meaningful too.

One last thing; how in the name of hell this film was given a 15 rating I have no idea. I don’t really have an opinion on the BBFC rating system, whether it’s appropriate and so forth, but I do have an opinion that if you have an 18 rating and a film with torture, nudity about as blatant as it comes, rather graphic gore, enough corpses to keep a coroner busy for a month and it doesn’t get it… well what the hell is an 18 then?

OK, I quite liked doing this, so I think I might make film reviews a bit more of a regular thing. I might even get round to making a category for them. Might.

FILM FORTNIGHT: Ocean’s Eleven

Any film with ‘Eleven’ in its title is giving itself rather ambitious goals; eleven of anything, be it targets, bad guys, explosions or, as in this case, lead characters, is always going to be difficult to fit into a film without at least the last four losing any touch of something special. Even the original Ocean’s Eleven, made back in 1960 (did you know this film was a remake? I sure as hell didn’t) apparently made do with just five main leads and a few bit-part players to act as manpower for the con, and by introducing eleven distinct characters each with a well-defined role, the risk of the whole film turning into a screen time contest is ever-present. Thankfully, everybody knows their place; the film is plenty long enough for everyone to get their five minutes of character definition so we know who the hell this guy is when he shows up an hour later, and the film has the good sense to be plot- rather than character-driven to allow it to stick to what it’s about; the heist.

Yes, it’s another organised crime/massively-overblown-way-of-nicking-a-ton-of-money film; our protagonist this time is George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, recently released from prison and instantly deciding to go back into business as a career criminal (because laying low is for wusses). His partner in crime is old friend Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and their plan is hardly lacking for ambition; rob the vault that serves three of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas when at its fullest. This is a typical feature of modern big-budget film-making; building tension and a sense of ‘this really means something so I should care about it’ by virtue of sheer scale, rather than emphasising the importance of the con itself.

But ho-hum, the film tells us, this is not merely an exercise of scale; this con does have a special meaning for our characters. This comes in the form of Ocean’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) and Rather Unnecessary Romantic Subplot™ which, since it takes the form of a ‘big reveal’ halfway through the film I shall choose not to spoil here. Not that it matters especially, since it is a rather extraneous feature; it doesn’t serve to make the protagonist’s actions any more realistic since it is so bloody stupid, and its only real reason for being is so that the filmmakers could put Julia Roberts’ name on the promo material. In 2001 Roberts was the undisputed female star of the film industry, the first woman ever to be paid $20 million for a film, and her name sold cinema seats.

Anyway, back to the actual con, where the film now tries to build scale through complexity; to pull it off, Ocean and Ryan decide to build a the stereotypical ‘crack team’ to handle the job. To this end, they recruit nine fellow crewmembers, each with their own special skill and stereotype revealed in their scheduled two minutes of exposition. We have the socially awkward pickpocket (Matt Damon), the incredibly cockney explosives nut (Don Cheadle, executing what is often regarded as the worst British accent in cinema history), the gifted but infighting brothers (Casey Affleck/Scott Caan) and the Oriental super-acrobat (Shaobo Qin), to name but the most interesting, and all have their requisite one moment of usefulness in the resulting con itself.

However, even if the film has the good sense not to focus on its protagonists, the sheer number of them still presents issues. Of the film’s two hour running time, what feels like three-quarters of it is made up of pure setup, with no action, no fun, no heist; nothing to keep the pace up and the film interesting. In a genre where pace and tension are everything, having no actually interesting subplots to keep the ball rolling for the first hour or so is sheer directorial madness. It seems as if the film was relying on the Clooney/Roberts romantic subplot to cover this period, but since this whole dynamic never feels either especially real nor purports to be meaningful it’s not enough to carry the whole shebang. Steven Soderbergh is not exactly delivering a vintage directorial display here.

The number of actors presents problems in other ways too; there are some pretty good bits of acting on show here, with Clooney being realistic if not particularly emotional and Pitt bringing some characteristic personality to his role. Carl Reiner’s Saul, an old-school con man with one of the more significant roles in the film, also works as a consistent and compelling character, helped by a generous portion of screentime, but these turns are so restricted for space that none of them are ever able to mean anything, only serving to highlight the flaws in the film’s plot. It doesn’t help that pickpocket Linus Caldwell has the misfortune to be played by Matt Damon, who doesn’t appear to function terribly well when not leading a film. His performance here is somewhat uninspired, which would be more forgiveable were his character not meant to be particularly significant. Between these character flaws and those in the film’s storyline, by 80 minutes in I was getting positively bored.

Soderbergh does manage to, somewhat belatedly, partially redeem himself with the execution of the film’s central con, when it finally turns up; the deception employed is as multi-layered, clever and effective as a good on-screen heist should be. It also manages to be totally unexpected without resorting to any of the deus ex machina that inexplicably turned up in the sequel, instead relying on a supremely well-set up piece of criminality that would be far more effective if it had the good grace to turn up at the end of a film I was actually emotionally invested in.

In my review of The Sting, I described it as ‘Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations’. Whereas The Sting is a proper old-fashioned crime film, Ocean’s Eleven only tries to be one for the last half-hour, and is significantly poorer for it. Still, could be worse; Ocean’s Twelve proved that.