The Pitch: Games of the mind.
The Review: Danny Boyle, hero of the Olympic Games and now almost a socialist icon for apparently turning down a knighthood. You could be forgiven for forgetting he also makes films, being responsible for some of the most iconic British films of the last two decades. He’s certainly a contemporary film maker, and from his pioneering work with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle in pushing digital films to the soundtracks laced with the likes of Underworld, Boyle’s never been afraid to push boundaries or to keep pace with the times. He could almost be accused of retreating into his comfort zone with Trance, for not only are Mantle and Underworld’s Rick Smith on board once more, but screenwriter John Hodge – responsible for Boyle’s first two films, and two of his greatest triumphs, in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – is also back on scripting duties. But Boyle’s often been left at the mercy of his screenwriters, heavily dependent on the quality of the writing, so it’s understandable he’d want to try to replicate the success of those early collaborations.
There are clear parallels with Shallow Grave in the central trio of characters, Hodge once again exploring themes of power and control between three central characters, two male and one female. In Trance’s case, we’re first introduced to Simon (James McAvoy), who’s caught up in a robbery at the auction house where he works. When he confronts the gang leader Franck (Vincent Cassel), Franck lashes out and a blow to the head causes Simon to forget details of the robbery, crucially including where the painting’s disappeared to when Franck ends up with just the empty frame post-robbery. Running out of ideas when attempts to intimidate and torture the info out of him fail, Franck sends Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in the hope of unlocking the secrets in Simon’s fractured mind, but Elizabeth begins to find more than any of them bargained for.
Shallow Grave was concerned with the moral implications of simple greed, and that sense of greed is also heavily prevalent in Trance. Hodge’s script (based on an original TV movie by Joe Ahearne, who also collaborated with Hodge here) is more keen than Shallow Grave was to misdirect and obfuscate, and the clean lines of Boyle and Hodge’s first team-up are replaced with something altogether more brittle and hazy. The clearest parallels are not in the roles of the three central characters – although McAvoy’s cocksure young auctioneer reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s journalist Alex in Grave and Rosario Dawson exhibits a similar strength to Kerry Fox’s doctor Juliet – or even in the sense of identity born out of the city location (London here, Edinburgh there) but in the sense of shifting loyalties and absence of trust. The big difference lies with the former film’s ability to empathise with any of the three characters at various points, no matter whether they were charming, obnoxious or just plain deceitful, but sadly Simon, Franck and Elizabeth are all cold, heartless ciphers who make it impossible to connect with any of them.
While the characterisation is a let-down, the plot does take a number of satisfying twists and turns, but for once Boyle compounds the errors of his screenwriter rather than compensating for them by falling into a number of genre conventions of both psychological and body horror. It’s as if Boyle can’t help but put up giant neon signs, fond of both the literal neon gaudiness of his post-Olympian London and allowing that to seep into his plotting with metaphorical signposts indicating “Rug about to be pulled here” and “This isn’t what you think it is.” Sadly it leaves Trance crucially lacking in surprises most of the time and the details of the denouement are more easily pieced together. Some might find the occasional horror imagery difficult to stomach; having no such difficulties myself I was more troubled by such difficulties as the amount of screen time the no-dimensional hoods backing up Franck are given. The plot might be the only thing that makes Trance worth seeing, but once you’ve worked out where its headed you won’t need a hypnotherapist, as Trance is eminently forgettable all on its own. Better luck next time, Sir Danny.
Why see it at the cinema: Anthony Dod Mantle’s crisp cinematography remains at the forefront of the digital artform and Boyle can still compose an image, even if he has gone slightly over the top with the Dutch angles.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong bloody violence, gore, sex, nudity and strong language. Or, as the teenage boy inside me would call it, the Grand Slam. While everything here is typical Boyle, it’s never quite pushed as far as his early career and 15 feels right, if just a shade disappointing and commercial.
My cinema experience: Just over half full at the Cineworld in Cambridge for an Unlimited preview showing, with a nice if somewhat half-hearted intro from Danny Boyle himself. Still, it’s nice he made the effort. Tucked away in one of the smaller screens, but one apparently with decent sound and projection.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Thanks to it being an Unlimited preview showing, just trailers and the latest Kevin Bacon EE advert, it was just a minimalist thirteen minutes before the Danny Boyle intro. If only all films were like that…
The Score: 6/10
It’s all over bar the shouting (and the Paralympics; actually, it’s probably only half over, isn’t it). Yes, after seven years of hope and expectation – the latter mainly that, like most things British, it would be more a Fawlty Towers writ large than a testament to organisational efficiency – the Olympics have come and gone in a flash, with the triumphs and tears still close enough to touch, but soon everything will fade into memory and Rio will come round much sooner than you think.
You might think that I’ve found all of these sporting events an irritating distraction to my normal hobby, but on the three occasions I got to the cinema during the Games there were a fair selection of people there, not full houses by any means but far from empty. I did pick two occasions when British medal hopes were unlikely, and that proved to be a safe assumption. But other than that, I’ve been wrapped up utterly in the drama of the Games, every single medal and event proving as exciting as the last.
But actually my love affair with the Olympics goes back much further; I was fascinated by them as a child, to the point where when I had to give a talk for my GCSE English Language on a subject of my choice, the Olympics was the most obvious selection (and I got top marks for it, too). I even saw an episode of Mastermind once where the contestant had selected it as a specialist subject, and I had outscored him; if only the general knowledge questions hadn’t been quite so fiendish, and if someone hadn’t just stolen my potential specialised subject, I could have been in there.
There’s something compelling about the Olympian ideal as encapsulated by their modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin, that it’s not the triumph but the struggle that’s important, not necessarily to have conquered your opponent but to have fought well. It appealed to me as a youngster to the extent I managed to get bottom marks for achievement and top marks for effort at my grammar school’s Physical Education lessons, before I was eventually relegated to the role of scorer. It didn’t win me any prizes, but still gave a certain sense of self-satisfaction. That sense can still be seen in the likes of Hamdou Issaka, trailing in three minutes behind the rest of the field in a six minute race during Eton Downey’s rowing events, but for many the pressure is much greater, carrying what they believe to be the hopes of a nation and unable to control their emotions when only able to deliver silver or bronze when they thought nothing less than gold would do.
It’s that sense of golden glory that has actually come to define these Games for Britain. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a second of it, but I struggle to believe that we’d have seen these Games as quite the success had we taken home the seven gold medals that Australia did, rather than the twenty-nine that our athletes so thrillingly made their own. That success has allowed the nation to revel in the sense of being a major power for the first time since the fall of an empire, and doesn’t a little power feel good? I don’t think anyone would begrudge Britain its moment of glory, as unless something miraculous happens we’ll drop down the medals table next time like every other host that’s then lost its home advantage.
But that gold rush has also allowed us to market ourselves as a nation to the world, and the politicians of the nation have all been out in force, looking to capitalise on some of that good will. David Cameron has already made a commitment to elite sport, confirming that £125 million, the current annual budget for that elite sport, will now be guaranteed for the next four years, rather than the next two. It’s wonderful to see, but without the investment in sport in our primary schools and sport at a grass roots level in this country, there’s a risk that the supply line just won’t be there.
The other triumph in many eyes of the past two and a bit weeks has been the opening ceremony, which did much to highlight to the world just what we think makes Britain great. The arts have sat comfortably next to sport for the duration of the Games, and as well as highlighting Britain’s great musical heritage, the Games have also shown us as a nation how much film means to us, from James Bond and the Queen’s parachute display team to the Bean-influenced Chariots of Fire skit (and the music from that film playing over 300 times during the festivities, until everyone I spoke to was pretty sick of it, so ingrained in the British sporting and cultural psyche it’s become), and even the sight of Gregory’s Girl projected onto the side of a house that later flew into the air to reveal the creator of the world wide web underneath, the Olympics was like a stick of rock with the letters “FILM” running all the way through it.
My fear though, and I can only hope it’s unfounded, is that the same pressure and funding ethos being brought to bear on British sport is what we’ve already seen applied to the British film industry. On the 11th January this year, just prior to a review published on government funding for the film industry, the Prime Minister stated that the film industry should primarily be supporting “commercially successful pictures”, a view that was widely decried at the time, but one that seems scarily similar to the elite prioritisation being applied to Games funding. It’s the gold medals, and the gold statues, that bring prosperity to the economy, but what risks getting lost in the rush to glory is that without the likes of Danny Boyle and smaller British films like his debut Shallow Grave, there’d be no-one to go on and make Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire or his Olympic opening ceremony.
Already there are too many British films getting lost in the mix and struggling to find distribution or funding, and with a country in recession and sport likely to claim a larger proportion of a diminishing pot for the next few years, it’s going to be just that little bit harder for those trying to keep the British film industry going. Let’s encourage British film makers to their craft without feeling that they need to be striving for box office success or Oscar glory every time they turn on a camera, and that they do their best in their own endeavours, and let’s just hope they don’t have to put up too much of a fight to continue to make British film the success that helped to put it at the heart of one of the most uplifting two weeks that this country has ever seen.
The Review: It’s a fair question to anyone who’s ever won a major award, especially something as high profile as the Best Director Oscar – what next? Looking back over the last decade of winners, it would be safe to say that, with the possible exception of the Coen brothers, every winner has either peaked when they won the award or sometime before it. Slumdog Millionaire might have been his Oscar winner, but Trainspotting had been his calling card for a decade before that, and try as he might, until the his trip to the slums he’d struggled to repeat the composed brilliance of that and his first feature, Shallow Grave. However, another common theme of those award winning directors is their desire and ability to swap between genres and styles as if it was almost compulsory, and in that respect Boyle is no different.
So after a sweeping epic with a touchstone of popular culture at its core, Boyle has decided to make a high concept true story. If you don’t know by now, Aron Ralston was an experienced and cocky young canyoneer who ventured into the rocky wilderness of Utah in 2003, and didn’t feel the need to tell anyone his whereabouts. Several hours later, Ralston came to be stuck at the bottom of a tiny crack in the rocks, miles from civilisation, his right arm pinned by an immovable boulder. Having explored his options, he eventually concludes that the only realistic option for his survival is to cut it off…
If you were unaware of that particular development and are now about to complain strenuously about spoilers, then don’t. Rather than the structure of a thriller, the hours counting down like a reverse Jack Bauer marathon, Boyle has fashioned a character piece, albeit one with hallucinations of a giant inflatable Scooby Doo and old girlfriends thrown in. The intention is to put you resolutely in Ralston’s shoes, to feel what he feels, and to understand what you’d do in that hopeless position. In much the same way as Ryan Reynolds did in that coffin last year, James Franco gets to prove his acting chops with some varied challenges and acquits himself remarkably well. Which is a relief, for despite odd appearances from Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn as the girls he meets on his way to the cavern, and Clémency Poésy as the apparitional ex, Franco is the only person on screen for the majority of the run time.
Boyle has a kinetic and restless visual style, so doesn’t remain pinned down for a second; his visual shorthand seems odd at first, such as shots from the inside of a water bottle, but allows for reams of exposition without requiring a man to spend the best part of ninety minutes talking to himself (water refreshing, water lower, water running out, water… oh wait, that’s not water); Ralston had a video camera and so we do get a little inner monologuing. But what we are doing to a certain extent is killing time until the third act, and it’s the structure that is the only real drawback here, our hero (who is not seen as a totally reformed character by his experience, more fortunate to possess the necessary skills to execute the deed) stuck early on and the mere title causing us to keep checking our watches until the clock runs out and… Right, those of a nervous disposition needn’t bother, for at this point Boyle cranks it up to the max, and you will feel every action to your very core. Boyle uses every trick in the book to help you truly understand what a man goes through when he has to remove a decent sized chunk of himself . But for the lopsided structure, this could have been another classic; instead, it’s a worth watch and a wonderful tribute to man’s endurance, but it just may test your endurance a little before it’s all over.
Why see it at the cinema: If you want to test your mettle and don’t feel up to torture porn, then 127 Hours has all of the gore and the anguish but comes with more character work and added street cred. Sorted. Wicked. Innit.
The Score: 8/10
Friggatriskaidekaphobia. Also known as paraskevidekatriaphobia. Two ridiculously long words, one common condition; a fear of Friday the 13th. The powers that be, for reasons best known to themselves, had decided to start this year’s festivities on the Friday night, meaning that my one and only phobia was likely to get another outing. I don’t know what it is, it certainly isn’t rational, but although I don’t believe any supernatural force is acting to always make that day worse for me, something statistically speaking is out of whack in terms of my much higher propensity to bad luck on that day.
Certainly, the day arrived with an unexpected change. My draw winner, Fever Dog, had to drop out of the ticket he’d bought, resulting in a final week flurry of activity on the forum. Of the remaining three people in my draw, the next two had secured tickets and the last couldn’t make it at such short notice, which left only the Empire forum as a source of a replacement. Thankfully, there was a stag do of 1 that could become 2 thanks to my intervention, so HASHBROWN76 took on the role of Fever Dog for the weekend.
My plan, due to the need to be at home every night to do certain household jobs and also to sleep in my own bed, was in theory simple. I hired a car for the weekend at very low rates, which was upgraded to a Corsa free of charge (woo hoo!), and had the plan in place. Start work around 7 a.m., so I could then finish around three, drive down to Newbury Park tube station, park up the car for the very reasonable price of £2.70, then tube into London, possibly disembarking at Hoburn to allow me a casual stroll through London on a warm summer evening to arrive at the venue at around five for pre-con drinks and general socialising with all the lovely people from the forum, who had already collectively started calling themselves Forumites.