BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC When you’re caught in the spell of the projectionist’s light, how much preposterousness is too much? We all know movie watchers who are proud to interrupt a film with the comment, “That could never happen!” but to embrace film means that you not only engage your imagination but exercise your gullibility with the idea “what if this could happen?” British director Danny Boyle has made a career assuming we’d fall for his outlandish plots, and more often than not he’s been right, making us a believe an uneducated boy could win “So You Want to be a Millionaire” in Slumdog Millionaire, that zombies rule the world in 28 Days Later and that Leonardo DiCaprio lives on a pot-fueled island commune ruled by Tilda Swinton in The Beach (okay, at least I swallowed that.) However, I’m sad to say that with with latest Trance, even this gullible rube is saying “Wait a minute here…”. In an attempt to out-distance Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Boyle’s new shrink-thriller Trance throws in a few more twists than even Chubby Checker could handle, stretching the film not just into impossibility but beyond meaning.
James McAvoy (the young Professor X from X-Men: First Class) is the fine art auctioneer Simon, and as shown in the zippy opening, he is well-trained in how to protect valuable paintings in case of an auction heist. The unthinkable happens but only after Simon takes a blow to the head during a robbery do we realize that Simon has been in on the crime all along. His partner is Franck (the always engaging Vincent Cassel) and just before Simon was hit on the head he had double-crossed Franck and hid a Goya masterpiece for himself. Unfortunately, the hit on the head has given Simon amnesia, and even torture at the hands of Franck’s henchman can’t jog Simon’s memory on where the painting has been stashed.
Amnesia as a plot point is too corny even for daytime soap operas at this point, but I swallowed that complication without thinking twice. But my eyebrow started to raise when Franck hires the world’s sexiest hypno-therapist to dig into Simon’s unconsciousness to find the painting’s whereabouts. In fact, Franck has Simon bugged, so if he talks too much about their criminal plot while under hypnosis Franck can remote-shock him back to consciousness. A perfect plan, what could go wrong?
As the improbabilities pile on deeper and deeper, the character’s actions get so convoluted they begin to defy all we know about human beings and their motivations, finally becoming not really character but more like endlessly pliable writer’s puppets. By the midway point, Trance’s wheels get so wobbly it seems certain that Boyle won’t be able to bring the plot into port without the vehicle flying apart. When that’s the case, you start savaging the film for what pleasures it has to offer.
As the bland McAvoy doesn’t engender much empathy in the film’s lead, Trance‘s shining virtue is revealed to be the under-appreciated Rosario Dawson. Dawson, who has never given a lazy performance, has rarely had as lively a role as Dr. Lamb, the hypno-therapist who gets inside the heads of both Simon and Franck. Dawson’s debut in Kids is now 18 years old and at the age of 33 her girlishness has melted into a very adult beauty that oozes intelligence and mystery. She’s a joy to watch as she slowly takes over the film, she even keeps her dignity despite a plot point involving her shaven-or-unshaven public hair. Let’s hope she doesn’t disappear into that treacherous void that tends to gobble up middle-aged actresses.
The finale calls for all sorts of plot-spoiling complaints of which I’ll spare you, but Boyle seems wildly mistaken in the belief that the viewer can shift our loyalties to these characters on a dime and he stops the film dead to spend what seems like fifteen minutes while the story backtracks to recount what really has been happening all along. Trance is ultimately the opposite of his acclaimed theatrical debut In a Shallow Grave, an amped-up but believable, tightly-plotted thriller with great characters. Instead, Boyle commits the career equivalent of showing up at the class reunion 20 years later, drunk and disheveled. Maybe Boyle’s role in staging the U.K. Olympic ceremonies wore him out, but his work has never seemed as ill-considered and as muddled as this.
Boyle has stumbled before as a director, attempting to recreate the musical in A Life Less Ordinary and stretching into existential sci-fi in Sunshine, but it is particularly disappointing to see him drop the ball when making the sort of punchy crime story he does best. With Trance, it is the first time Boyle’s flashy technique has seemed old hat. Good thing that once the hypnotist snaps his fingers, we’ve pretty much forgotten everything that went before us.
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A new Philadelphia film fest is underway, The Cinedelphia Film Festival is bringing us a wide-variety of cinematic rarities, all with Philly roots, from now to April 27th. On the 22nd I’ll be hosting a Q&A with 15 year-old Philly director Johnny Dickie after a screening a his berserk one-man, shot on video horror anthology Slaughter Tales (more on that later) but this week brings its own rewards. Most (but not all) shows are happening at Northern Liberties’ Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA, to those in the know) 521 N. 12th St. Among this week’s highlights:
Friday April 12th at The International House: A 35mm screening of French director Henri Verneuil’s 1971 film The Burglars, based on Philly pulp writer David Goodis’ novel and starring Omar Sharif and Jean-Paul Belmondo. On hand for pre-film discussion will be Inquirer film critic Steven Rea, writer and Poe expert Edward Pettit, NoirCon founder Lou Boxer and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski.
Monday April 15th: For The Love of Film: The History of TLA at PhilaMOCA. One of TLA’s primary founders, Ray Murray will be on hand to discuss the Philadelphia company whose history includes the repertory theater business, video stores (beginning back when that meant VHS tapes), video distribution, as well as curating the Philadelphia Film Festival. Some of these local stories include their stormy moments so expect a vivacious crowd for this one, with the event capping of with a screening of TLA favorite John Waters’ Female Trouble.
Tuesday April 16th at PhilaMOCA: The Monkees’ freak-out theatrical classic Head, with a post-screening live set by local band Farquar Muckenfuss performing a set of Monkees covers
Wednesday April 17th at PhilaMOCA: Documentary giant Frederick Wiseman’s unforgettable High School, filmed at our very own Northeast High back in 1968. I once showed this to high school students and one thanked me because she felt she had gained valuable insight into her parents while watching the film.
Thursday April 18th at PhilaMOCA: Kathryn Bigelow’s deliciously preposterous 1991 Zen surfing bank robber flick Point Break, with the adventures of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves underscored live by Bethlehem PA’s finest surf band, The Great White Caps.
Lots more info @ http://cinedelphia.com/