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.

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War Games

So, what haven’t I done a post on in a while. Hmm…

Film reviewing?

WarGames was always going to struggle to age gracefully; even in 1983 setting one’s plot against the backdrop of the Cold War was something of an old idea, and the fear of the unofficial conflict degenerating into armageddon had certainly lessened since the ‘Red Scare’ days of the 50s and 60s. Then there’s the subject matter and plot- ‘supercomputer almost destroys world via nuclear war’ must have seemed terribly futuristic and sci-fi, but several years of filmmaking have rendered the idea somewhat cliched; it’s no coincidence that the film’s 2008 ‘sequel’ went straight to DVD. In an age where computers have now become ubiquitous, the computing technology on display also seems hilariously old-fashioned, but a bigger flaw is the film’s presentation of how computers work. Our AI antagonist, ‘Joshua’, shows the ability to think creatively, talk and respond like a human and to learn from experience & repetition, all features that 30 years of superhuman technological advancement in the field of computing have still not been able to pull off with any real success; the first in a long series of plot holes. I myself spent much of the second act inwardly shouting at the characters for making quite so many either hideously dumb or just plain illogical decisions, ranging from agreeing on a whim to pay for a flight across the USA to a friend met just days earlier to deciding that the best way to convince a bunch of enraged FBI officers of that you are not a Soviet-controlled terrorist bent on destruction of the USA is to break out of their custody.

The first act largely avoided these problems, and the setup was well executed; our protagonist is David (Matthew Broderick), a late teenage high school nerd who manages to avoid the typical Hollywood idea of nerd-dom by being articulate, well-liked, not particularly concerned about his schoolwork and relatively normal. Indeed, the only clues we have to his nerdery come thanks to his twin loves of video gaming and messing around in his room with a computer, hacking into anything undefended that he considers interesting. The film also manages to avoid reverting to formula with regards to the film’s female lead, his friend Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), who manages to not fall into the role of designated love interest whilst acting as an effective sounding board for the audience’s questions; a nice touch when dealing subject matter that audiences of the time would doubtless have found difficult to understand. This does leave her character somewhat lacking in depth, but thankfully this proves the exception rather than the rule.

Parallel to this, we have NORAD; the USA’s nuclear defence headquarters, who after realising the potential risk of human missile operators being unwilling to launch their deadly weapons, decide to place their entire nuclear arsenal under computerised control. The computer in question is the WOPR, a supercomputer intended to continually play ‘war games’ to identify the optimal strategy in the event of nuclear war. So we have a casual computer hacker at one end of the story and a computer with far too much control for its own good in the other; you can guess how things are going to go from there.

Unfortunately, things start to unravel once the plot starts to gather speed. Broderick’s presentation of David works great when he’s playing a confident, playful geek, but when he starts trying to act scared or serious his delivery becomes painfully unnatural. Since he and Sheedy’s rather depthless character et the majority of the screen time, this leaves large portions of the film lying fallow; the supporting characters, such as the brash General Beringer (Barry Corbin) and the eccentric Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) do a far better job of filling out their respective character patterns, but they can’t quite overshadow the plot holes and character deficiencies of the twin leads. This is not to say the film is bad, far from it; director John Badham clearly knows how to build tension, using NORAD’s Defcon level as a neat indicator of just how high the stakes are/how much **** is waiting to hit the proverbial fan. Joshua manages to be a compelling bad guy, in spite of being faceless and having less than five minutes of actual screen time, and his famous line “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play” carries enough resonance and meaning that I’d heard of it long before I had the film it came from. It also attempts the classic trick, demonstrated to perfection in Inception, of dealing with subject matter that attempts to blur the line between fiction (the ‘war games’) and reality (nuclear war) in an effort to similarly blur its own fiction with the reality of the audience; it is all desperately trying to be serious and meaningful.

But in the end, it all feels like so much add-ons, and somehow the core dynamics and characterisation left me out of the experience. WarGames tries so very hard to hook the viewer in to a compelling, intriguing, high-stakes plot, but for me it just failed to quite pull it off. It’s not a bad film, but to me it all felt somehow underwhelming. The internet tells me that for some people, it’s a favourite, but for me it was gently downhill from the first act onwards. I don’t really have much more to say.

The Sting

I have twice before used this blog to foray into the strange world of film reviewing; something that I enjoy, given that I enjoy cinema, but am usually unable to make a stable source of material since I don’t generally have the time (or, given a lot of the films that get released in my local cinema, inclination) to see too many of them. My first foray was a rather rambling (and decidedly rubbish) examination of The Hunger Games, with a couple of nods to the general awesomeness of The Shawshank Redemption, whilst I felt compelled to write my second just to articulate my frustration after seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Today, I wish to return to the magical fairy kingdom of the big screen, this time concerning something that I would ordinarily have never seen at all; 70s crime flick ‘The Sting’

The Sting is quite clearly a film from another era of filmmaking; I am not old enough to remember the times when a stock ‘thump’ sound byte was inserted into the footage every time an object is put onto a table, but this film contains such cinematic anachronisms in spades. Similarly, this is the first film I have ever seen starring Robert Redford and my first from director George Roy Hill, but age should be no barrier to quality entertainment if it’s there to shine through and thankfully it’s basic plot and premise lend it to a graceful aging process.

The plot can be fairly summarily described as uncomplicated; a young confidence trickster who ends up accidentally making a small fortune from a fairly routine con is pursued by the mob boss whose money he has now lost, so teams up with an experienced ‘old head’ to bring him down. So Ocean’s Eleven with a simpler character base and more realistic motivations. Where the two differ, however, is in their dedication to their subject material; whilst the Ocean’s films are generally content to follow some rather formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting, placing their emphasis heavily on interpersonal relationships and love interests, The Sting goes out of its way to be a true crime story to its very core. Set in the golden age of organised crime (1930s prohibition-era Illinois, real-life home of Al Capone) with a memorable ragtime soundtrack to match, every stage (illustrated explicitly through the use of old-fashioned title cards) of the film’s overarching ‘big con’ plot takes the form of a classic confidence trick, from an old-fashioned money switch to a large-scale rigged betting house, incorporating along the way possibly the finest played (and cheated) game of poker ever to appear on screen. Every feature, facet and subplot from the cheated cop to the seemingly out-of-place love interest all has its place in the big con, and there was nothing there that didn’t have a very good reason to be. Not only did this create a rollercoaster of a focused, central plot without unnecessary distractions, but the authenticity of the tricks, characters and terminology used built a believable, compelling world to immerse oneself in and enjoy. Combine that with a truly stellar portrayal of the seen-it-all genius conman Henry Gondorff by Paul Newman, and Robert Redford’s evident gift for building a very real, believable character in the form of naive youngster Johnny Hooker, and we have the makings of an incredibly immersive story that you often have to remind yourself isn’t actually real.

However, by putting such focus on its central con, The Sting puts itself under an awful lot of pressure, for without any extraneous components (hell, there aren’t even any proper action scenes, despite the not infrequent bouts of gunfire) it has got nowhere to fall if its central plot fails. Thus, the success of the film very much rests on the success of the con it centres around, not just in terms of execution itself but in making its execution fit its style. The Sting is not about coming up with something on the fly, about something unexpected coming up and winning through on the day- it is an homage to planning, to the skill of the con, of hooking in the mark and making them think they’ve won, before turning the ace in the hole. To turn successful planning, what was intended to happen happening, into compelling drama is a task indeed for a filmmaker.

And yet, despite all the odds, The Sting pulls it off, thanks to the extraordinary depth director Hill packs into his seemingly simplistic plot. Each subplot put into play is like adding another dot to the puzzle, and it is left to the viewer to try and join them all to formulate the finished picture- or alternatively watch to see the film do so all with staggering aplomb. Every element is laid out on the table, everyone can see the cards, and it’s simply a matter of the film being far smarter than you are in revealing how it pulls its trick, just like a conman and his mark. You, the viewer, have been stung just as much as Robert Shaw’s mob boss of a mark, except that you can walk out of the room with your wallet full and a smile on your face.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have problems. Whilst the basic premise is simple and well-executed enough to be bulletproof, its ‘setup’ phase (as the title cards called it) spends an awful lot of time on world-, scenario- and character-building, filling the early parts of the film with enough exposition to make me feel decidedly lukewarm about it- it’s all necessary to remove plot holes and to build the wonderful air of depth and authenticity, but something about its execution strikes me as clunky. It also suffers Inception’s problem of being potentially confusing to anyone not keeping a very close track of what’s going on, and one or two of the minor characters suffer from having enough of a role to be significant but not enough characterisation to seem especially real. That said, this film won seven Oscars for a reason, and regardless of how slow it may seem to begin with, it’s definitely worth sticking it out to the end. I can promise you it will be worth it.

An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.

The Dark Knight Rises

OK, I’m going to take a bit of a risk on this one- I’m going to dip back into the world of film reviewing. I’ve tried this once before over the course of this blog (about The Hunger Games) and it went about as well as a booze-up in a monastery (although it did get me my first ever comment!). However, never one to shirk from a challenge I thought I might try again, this time with something I’m a little more overall familiar with: Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

Ahem

Christopher Nolan has never been one to make his plots simple and straightforward (he did do Inception after all), but most of his previous efforts have at least tried to focus on only one or two things at a time. In Dark Knight Rises however, he has gone ambitious, trying to weave no less than 6 different storylines into one film. Not only that, but 4 of those are trying to explore entirely new characters and a fifth pretty much does the whole ‘road to Batman’ origins story that was done in Batman Begins. That places the onus of the film firmly on its characters and their development, and trying to do that properly to so many new faces was always going to push everyone for space, even in a film that’s nearly 3 hours long.

So, did it work? Well… kind of. Some characters seem real and compelling pretty much from the off, in the same way that Joker did in The Dark Knight- Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (not once referred to as Catwoman in the entire film) is a little bland here and there and we don’t get to see much of the emotion that supposedly drives her, but she is (like everyone else) superbly acted and does the ‘femme fakickass’ thing brilliantly, whilst Joseph Gordon Levitt’s young cop John Blake (who gets a wonderful twist to his character right at the end) is probably the most- and best-developed character of the film, adding some genuine emotional depth. Michael Caine is typically brilliant as Alfred, this time adding his own kick to the ‘origins’ plot line, and Christian Bale finally gets to do what no other Batman film has done before- make Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting part of the film.

However, whilst the main good guys’ story arcs are unique among Batman films by being the best parts of the film, some of the other elements don’t work as well. For someone who is meant to be a really key part of the story, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate gets nothing that gives her character real depth- lots of narration and exposition, but we see next to none of her for huge chunks of the film and she just never feels like she matters very much. Tom Hardy as Bane suffers from a similar problem- he was clearly designed in the mould of Ducard (Liam Neeson) in Begins, acting as an overbearing figure of control and power that Batman simply doesn’t have (rather than the pure terror of Joker’s madness), but his actual actions never present him as anything other just a device to try and give the rest of the film a reason to happen, and he never appears to have any genuinely emotional investment or motivation in anything he’s doing. Part of the problem is his mask- whilst clearly a key feature of his character, it makes it impossible to see his mouth and bunches up his cheeks into an immovable pair of blobs beneath his eyes, meaning there is nothing visible for him to express feeling with, effectively turning him into a blunt machine rather than a believable bad guy. There’s also an entire arc concerning Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his guilt over letting Batman take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death that is barely explored at all, but thankfully it’s so irrelevant to the overall plot that it might as well not be there at all.

It is, in many ways, a crying shame, because there are so many things the film does so, so right. The actual plot is a rollercoaster of an experience, pushing the stakes high and the action (in typical Nolan fashion) through the roof. The cinematography is great, every actor does a brilliant job in their respective roles and a lot of the little details- the pit & its leap to freedom, the ‘death by exile’ sequence and the undiluted awesome that is The Bat- are truly superb. In fact if Nolan had just decided on a core storyline and focus and then stuck with it as a solid structure, then I would probably still not have managed to wipe the inane grin off my face. But by being as ambitious as he has done, he has just squeezed screen time away from where it really needed to be, and turned the whole thing into a structural mess that doesn’t really know where it’s going at times. It’s a tribute to how good the good parts are that the whole experience is still such good fun, but it’s such a shame to see a near-perfect film let down so badly.

The final thing I have to say about the film is simply: go and see it. Seriously, however bad you think this review portrays it as, if you haven’t seen the film yet and you at all liked the other two (or any other major action blockbuster with half a brain), then get down to your nearest cinema and give it a watch. I can’t guarantee that you’ll have your greatest ever filmgoing experience there, but I can guarantee that it’ll be a really entertaining way to spend a few hours, and you certainly won’t regret having seen it.