Tag Archives: James McAvoy

Trance – all in the mind, not in the script

Trance, tragic trance: McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel

Trance, tragic trance: McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel

Memory’s a tricky subject to study in film, and the complex workings of the mind are even trickier. Danny Boyle, surely one of the most ambitious and thematically ambidextrous filmmakers working today, here takes his shot at making a real mind-bender, following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel. Surprisingly, the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire finds himself struggling with these mental gymnastics, producing a film that looks, but never feels, the part.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer with serious gambling debts who winds up in trouble when a heist goes wrong – he’s the only one who knows where the £25 million painting is, but a bash to the head means he can’t remember. Vincent Cassel and his cronies try to torture it out of him, but to no avail. Enter Rosario Dawson’s expert hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, whose attempts to mine the corridors of Simon’s subconscious turn up unexpected secrets, and put her in a position of power over both Simon and Cassel’s Franck. Mental and sexual manipulation is never far off.

Opening with a superb, jauntily paced heist sequence that feels like an MTV version of Inside Man, Trance never recaptures the energy of its pre-credits sequence. Spurred forward by a pulsing soundtrack by Underworld’s Rick Smith, it descends into a lot of sitting around watching McAvoy sleep and Vincent Cassel becoming oddly less frustrated. A whirligig of twists in the final act reveals so many character reversals that it becomes difficult to decide whose side you’re on, who the main character is and whether or not you actually like any of them to begin with.

In the same way Inception never felt properly like a dream, Trance rarely feels like a nightmare, and shies away from symbolism or other techniques for addressing real emotional issues. This is a film which pseudo-poetically discusses the virtues of female pubic hair, while using Austin Powers-esque camera angles to cloak the two male leads’ members from the audience’s gaze.

However, the cast are all in top form. McAvoy is full of the charisma that once shot him to the top of the game; that he gets to use his real accent for once is a plus. Cassel makes a very likeable villain. Dawson, whose 25th Hour promise has been time and again dampened by poor subsequent roles, plays the mysterious, dominant female with plenty of class, and remains watchable even as the material of the film collapses around her.

Boyle’s regular collaborator, the genius cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, has created a stunningly glossy, red-stained palette for Trance. The images are crisp throughout, with some clever cycling of focus, but there’s very little cutting-edge imagery on show here to add to a portfolio already packed with 28 Days Later, Slumdog and 127 Hours. Editor Jon Harris ties it all together as best he can, but is hindered by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s front-heavy screenplay.

Despite some unpleasant body horror (of which finger-nail torture and genital squibs are only mild examples), Trance never manages to notch up the tension effectively. It is never as disturbing as the cold turkey scene Boyle’s Trainspotting, nor as demented as the video game trip in The Beach. This is all due to the script and its inconsistent characters.

Trance has a number of fine moments, but it never amounts to anything more than a cleverer-than-average thriller. And it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

2/5

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Wanted – Review

There’s nothing like good unclean cinematic fun some times, and Wanted has that in spades. In fact it violently beats you over the head with those spades of fun and then shoots you in the face with a joy bullet from around a corner.

Directed by Russia’s leading action director, Kazakh Timur Bekmambetov, making his Hollywood debut after the visually fascinating though overly complex Night Watch and Day Watch. What those two films certainly had was a truly unpretentious sense of style, an awareness that what was being made was meant to be first-and-foremost fun, art second (or maybe third of fourth, who knows?).

Based loosely on the comics by Mark Millar, Wanted is the tale of an office slave destined to be an ultra-assassin due to his very absent father’s blood. The cowardly and socially disconnected Wesley Gibson, played by increasingly popular Scot James McAvoy, believes that the first flutterings of his natural talents are no more than health issues and anxiety attacks, unaware that his high blood pressure can trigger an adrenaline rush with the potential to make him half Neo from The Matrix, half Crank.

He is swiftly indoctrinated into the ways of the Fraternity, a guild of super assassins with high pain thresholds, knife mastery and the ability to curve the trajectories of bullets – it makes more sense if you try not to think about it. Wesley is trained as one of them and quickly becomes an elite assassin, and is thus sent to kill the man who betrayed the Fraternity and killed his father. But is all as simple as it seems?

Well who cares?! We know better than to analyse the plot of a film whose central construct is an all-powerful loom (yes, a loom. That kind of loom) that requests the deaths of the guilty in English, despite having been built in Eastern Europe circa 900.

This is just a madcap thrill-ride par excellence that manages to be more fun than any of the superhero movies or Will Ferrell comedies of the past few years. Eighteenth century pistols get fired as men jump across buildings. A car flips through the air, crashes into a bus (which falls over on its side), and then drives off the side of it. Rats squeak inquisitively before exploding. There is no sense, there is only violent comedy.

And violent it is. Audiences having forgotten gore due to PG-13 Die Hard films and having been desensitised to it by torture porn may have forgotten just how fun an action film is when stupidly gory things happen (and in colour – I’m looking at you Sin City). But this is old school 1989-style violence, not suitable for children, only suitable to adults with a dark sense of humour. If you don’t find something funny about using a man’s shot out eye cavity as a targeting reticule (allowing his body to double as a human shield), then get you to another film.

The action sequences are truly superb, particularly the first car chase and a battle onboard a train that has undoubtedly the highest death toll of innocent bystanders since 9/11 made it no longer ok for Hollywood films to kill off civilians. The final action spectacle, which amounts to a good 15 minutes or so, is everything that popular oddity Equilibrium wanted from its action scenes and more; lots of running and jumping, weapons get reloaded at speed, stolen, turned upside down. This film will be a bestseller on DVD as every male between 15 and 35 will need a copy to accompany spontaneous beer nights.

Speaking of male interests, Angelina Jolie does look rather scrumptious here as assassin Fox (it’s all in the name). For an actress with an Oscar happily stashed under her belt it is strange how it is action films that she always seems to excel in. Here she brings that same S&M style lust for fun that she brought to her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton. A brief glimpse of her ass as she emerges from a bath (actually hers or a body double’s? Who cares, it’s lovely), reminds one of the days that were before The Matrix revealed it was possible to have a good action film without a flashing of nipples.

One thing that makes Wanted quite special is Morgan Freeman’s performance as Sloan, the Fraternity’s commander-in-chief. Mysterious and slightly mischievous, he delivers absurd lines of dialogue such as “curve the bullet” and “shoot the wings off the flies” with so much conviction that you momentarily accept that these are perfectly logical requests. Indeed, he says the word “mother-fucker” with more potency than Samuel L Jackson has ever managed.

Supporting players are only modestly effective. Chris Pratt is a good choice as Wesley’s uber-obnoxious yuppie best friend. Terence Stamp does his best Malcolm McDowell impression but it only partially pays off. Thomas Kretschmann, the captain from King Kong, once again plays a character we would like to learn more about but don’t. Konstantin Khabensky, whose sole function it seems is to foreshadow, appears to have been included because he’s mates with the director, whether it works or not.

As for McAvoy, though an atypical action star and uttering a questionable American accent, manages to play both beaten-down loser and unstoppable havoc-monger believably in the same two-hour period.

This is good preposterous fun from start to finish, and is in fact cleverer than most other recent action films. As a comic adaptation it has a tendency to over-rely on tedious narration, though not quite like a Frank Miller story. Leaving your brain at the door will help you to ignore the ludicrous physics on display (the final action scene, as a friend put it, would require the use of an elephant gun and a very small black hole) and just enjoy a laugh-out-loud romp.

At the very least, Wanted features the finest use of an ergonomic keyboard anyone will ever likely find. Although I still say it’s not a very good title.

4/5

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