Sunday, 31 March 2013


In the brain-bending, high-concept psycho-thriller “Trance,” director Danny Boyle takes us on a ride into the shattered mind and misplaced memories of an amnesiac art aficionado in search of a missing multimillion-pound painting. The painting is Francisco Goya’s late 18th century masterpiece “Witches in the Air,” and in an electrifying 20-minute opening — as slickly photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle and given pulse-pounding energy by composer Rick Smith — it is stolen from a London auction house by a gang of gun-toting crooks. Or at least that was the plan: when head honcho Franck (Vincent Cassel, “Black Swan") unzips the black briefcase supposed to contain his £25 million prize, he finds in his hands an empty frame.

Suspicion falls on the inside man, sharp-suited auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy, “Welcome to the Punch”), who swears while his fingernails are worked on with a Stanley knife that he has no memory of where he stashed the canvas prior to the handover. His excuse seems feasible: he was, after all, given a near-fatal bonk on the head during the final moments of the heist and, when taken to hospital, had a hole drilled deep into his skull. Things get trickier — and weirder — when Simon is taken to see Dr Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson, “Sin City”), a high-street hypnotherapist who agrees to trawl through Simon’s mind and extract the painting’s location in exchange for a cut of the loot. But when Simon is put under and his subconscious is rooted around in, the situation proves more complicated than previously thought, this gripping crime caper swiftly transforming into a head-spinning, brain-scrambling mystery where the line separating fantasy from reality becomes a deceptive blur.

It is a concept that naturally and dangerously evokes Christopher Nolan’s dream-hopping 2010 blockbuster “Inception” and Michel Gondry’s memory-wiping 2004 indie romance “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but “Trance” is  more twisted than both of those science fiction masterworks, traveling down unexpected paths where the darkest of secrets are unearthed. Screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, adapting from Ahearne’s little-seen 2001 TV movie of the same name, revel in unravelling the plot’s countless twists and turns, while Boyle is clearly having a ball as he infuses the film with the same spunk and energy we’ve come to expect from him since his morbidly comic feature debut, 1994’s “Shallow Grave.”

Speaking of which, “Trance” has at its centre a similarly tumultuous character dynamic to that mid-90s Brit hit: once again we have a trio of self-centred, money-grubbing back-stabbers, none of whom we trust, nor particularly like. Though he is our narrator, the mentally damaged and double-crossing Simon is a wholly unreliable one, just like the increasingly psychotic, power-drilling attic-dweller played by Christopher Eccleston. Cassel, in typically seedy — but smoothly charismatic — badguy mode, at first glance appears to be the most straightforward of the three, but upon closer inspection we begin to wonder if this sadistic gangster is so repulsive after all. But the standout of the three is Dawson, who oozes raw sex appeal as the seductive and manipulative femme fatale of this knotty neo-noir whom we sense from the get-go knows more than she’s letting on; like her two male co-stars, and indeed the film itself, Dr Elizabeth Lamb is a beguiling figure shrouded in intriguing mysteries.

This is the first film Boyle has manned since his triumphant opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics turned a whole nation’s frown upside down. Those seeking out the film based solely on his newfound national treasure status are in for a shock, what with the film’s garish explosions of sex, violence and full-frontal nudity, as well as, in one rather alarming fantasy scene, the sight of a character having the top half of his head blown off, picking himself up and then continuing to speak. If there’s anything to be said against the film, it would be that it is perhaps a little hollow and that the story, with its mounting revelations, is a little convoluted. But like the greatest of cinema’s directors, Boyle keeps us hypnotised at every turn, eager to see how the puzzle pieces will fit together — even at the end, when the puzzle is complete, we’re still not sure what it is we’re looking at.


Monday, 25 March 2013


When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2012, “Compliance” caused quite the stir: those who hadn’t already walked out of the screening stayed to boo at the screen as the curtains were drawn, and when writer-director Craig Zobel took to the stage for the post-film Q&A session, he was met with furious outcries and accusations of misogyny. Now that it’s arrived in UK theatres, it’s easy to see why festival-goers kicked up such a fuss: this low-key, fact-based suspense thriller is a uniquely disquieting, squirm-inducing 90-minute trip into the deepest, darkest pits of human nature, where audiences are invited to become voyeurs to the degradation and exploitation of an innocent 19-year-old girl when a prank phone call spirals dangerously out of control.

This victimised teen is Becky, a small-town counter girl at an understaffed fast food joint played by the notably attractive Dreama Walker (“Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23”). Her manager is the middle-aged, overworked Sandra (Ann Dowd, “Side Effects”), who, on the restaurant’s busiest day of the week, receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself as Police Officer Daniels (Pat Healy, “The Innkeepers”). He needs Sandra’s help: it seems a pretty young blonde among her staff, whom Sandra guesses to be Becky (“Ah yes, Rebecca!” recalls the caller), has been accused of stealing money from a customer, and it is up to Sandra to detain the suspect until a squad car can arrive on the scene. Eager to cooperate, Sandra escorts Becky into the storage room, where Becky stubbornly protests her innocence and where “Officer Daniels” has a few tasks for the pair to perform for him.

What unfolds in that room is several harrowing hours of humiliation and violation, as conducted by the disembodied voice of a phoney policeman: using fine-tuned tactics of persuasion and manipulation, “Officer Daniels” slowly but surely coerces Sandra into stripping Becky from head to toe and subjecting her to an all manner of emotional, psychological and eventually physical abuse, all while oblivious customers eat in peace at the tables outside. What’s most remarkable about the film is not that it’s based on a true story — it’s that it’s based on over 70 true stories. From 1992 through to 2004, similar incidents were reported across 30 US states, as fast food chains were targeted by a sadistic prank caller who convinced staff members to conduct strip searches, and sometimes more than that, on unsuspecting female employees.

“Compliance” most closely resembles one specific case in 2004 where events escalated further into depravity than they ever had before, and in recreating that devastating night, Zobel presents us with a fascinating, if flawed insight into how human beings respond to the illusion of authority — almost immediately, “Officer Daniels” demands that he be called “sir,” and almost immediately, Sandra falls in line, willing to betray her most basic moral values in the name of following the officer’s every order, no matter how sleazy, nor indeed how criminal. Called into question is whether or not Sandra herself is a victim in all of this (she is, after all, cruelly manipulated), but one could argue that she’s not the one left to quiver and weep in the corner while wearing nothing but an all-too-revealing apron.

I say the film’s insight is flawed because although Walker and Dowd succeed in creating believable characters — the sort we might recognise from our own lives — the actions they commit and the situation in which they find themselves are inherently unbelievable. That such implausible events truly did occur in the spring of ‘04 doesn't let the film off the hook, as it fails to supply a sufficient reason as to why no one at any point ever thinks to question the caller's true identity. This is particularly jarring when Sandra’s fiancé enters the equation, is handed the phone and as the film launches, in its most shocking scenes, into full-on sexual assault — this leaves us to wonder, as one baffled lawman later remarks, just what exactly was in these people’s chicken. Still, this is a gripping film, Zobel ratcheting up the tension to near-unbearable levels and presenting a deeply penetrating experience that will not be easily forgotten — “Compliance” is a film that crawls its way under your skin and refuses to leave.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Identity Thief

In the Judd Apatow-produced, Paul Feig-directed 2011 comedy juggernaut “Bridesmaids,” supporting star Melissa McCarthy was a side-splitting force to be reckoned with: stealing the show from leading lady Kristen Wiig — partly down to her bullish, boisterous charm, partly down to the startling sight of her explosively defecating into a bathroom sink — the former “Gilmore Girls” regular and long-time bit-player was suddenly thrust into the public consciousness, transformed into a household name, showered in global critical acclaim and rightly nominated for an Academy Award. And if she has any wishes to continue this hard-earned, long-overdue success, “Identity Thief” is surely a calamitous misstep.

This poisonously undercooked studio product, in which McCarthy shares top billing with co-star Jason Bateman (“The Change-Up”), claims in its TV spot to be “the year’s first great comedy" — looks like it’s taken its title a bit literally. It comes from the director of “Horrible Bosses,” a darkly comic — though broadly played — murder-scheme farce with a cracking cast and an inspired concept. The concept here — a rowdy scam artist and her latest hapless victim embark on a disastrous road trip together — has equally ripe comic potential, but the barely half-hearted execution falls a hundred miles-or-so too short, Craig Mazin’s (“The Hangover Part II”) woefully witless screenplay leaving any hope of a giggle or two to wither and die by the side of the road.

Still, McCarthy — sticking to her lovable wild-gal persona — does good with rotten material as Diana, a rambunctious crook living the high life in sunny Miami thanks to the unwitting help of Sandy Patterson (Bateman), a mild-mannered pencil-pusher from Denver whose identity Diana has craftily stolen. Sandy, finding his bank account drained and the justice system bafflingly unable to help, decides to travel to Florida himself to personally arrest Diana, bring her back to Colorado with him and dupe her into confessing her crimes. Diana, told that all she has to do is clear Sandy’s name, reluctantly agrees, but the 1500-mile ride proves less than smooth — pursuing the pair is a psychopathic bounty hunter and a couple of hired guns, whose presence is pointless and needlessly convolutes the plot.

It is on this ride that “Identity Thief” slavishly ticks every box in the Road Movie handbook — here we have a mismatched pairing, motel shenanigans, run-ins with the law, broken-down vehicles, a woodland attack by a wild animal and of course that old classic: a character obnoxiously singing along to the radio. The only thing that’s missing is the laughter as the plot plods along with depressing predictability, leaving one to yearn for the knee-slapping brilliance of superior road comedies “Midnight Run” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” or hell, even “Dumb and Dumber.”

McCarthy and Bateman do share a certain odd-couple chemistry as they bicker and bond on the open road, and they are admirably committed to their roles, even when the film misguidedly wallows in unearned, teary-eyed sentimentality — movie, you’ve yet to make me laugh; don’t turn around and try to make me cry. But the film struggles to wring so much as a titter out of their frequent interplay, often leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere and having to survive solely on their comic dynamic — for 110 minutes, that’s not enough to keep our attention. I think I might have half-smiled once, 30 minutes in, when Bateman bashes McCarthy in the face with an acoustic guitar. That’s about as inspired as the gags get, and it’s a gag that is of course given away in the trailer. McCarthy will next be seen in Paul Feig’s buddy cop comedy “The Heat” alongside Sandra Bullock. Let’s hope that does her more justice than this joyless dreck.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

The amazing Technicolor dreamworld of Oz, as originally imagined at the turn of the 20th century by children’s author L. Frank Baum, was unforgettably brought to life in the iconic 1939 screen musical “The Wizard of Oz,” a groundbreaking masterwork that would enrich and live on in childhood memories for decades to come — just think of the glimmering green towers of the Emerald City or the swirling golden spiral that births the Yellow Brick Road, and feel that flood of sweet nostalgia wash over you and cleanse your soul. Seven decades later, we return to director Victor Fleming’s fantasy wonderland in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” Disney’s spiritual prequel to the MGM classic, which — copyright issues kept in mind — rebuilds the land brick by yellow brick, albeit with more than a little help from computerised jiggery-pokery.

Of course, this is not the first time Oz has been paid a grand revisit by Hollywood — 1978’s “The Wiz" retold Dorothy Gale's tale with a Harlem-inspired urban environment, while 1985’s “Return to Oz" continued her adventures with a dark and twisted steampunk edge — but not since the Golden Age has it been so richly detailed, elaborately designed and vividly realised. Director Sam Raimi, whose blockbusting “Spider-Man” trilogy was a technical marvel, seamlessly blends practical sets with computer-generated imagery and presents Oz in carefully orchestrated 3D that bursts out from the screen — here, Oz is as immersive as the alien moon Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Journeying with us through this magical realm is James Franco (“127 Hours”) as Oscar “Oz" Diggs, the one destined to become the “man behind the curtain.” Oscar is an ambitious, small-time carnival magician and charlatan who, in 1905, is whisked away from humble Kansas to the magnificent Land of Oz when his hot air balloon is consumed by a vicious cyclone — this is achieved in a dazzling sequence during which the film makes a startling transition from Academy-ratio monochrome to widescreen Technicolor, surely an affectionate homage to Oz’s wondrous introduction in Fleming’s original. Upon arrival, Oscar discovers he is prophesied to free the locals from the tyrannical Wicked Witch of the West and become the rightful ruler of Oz, a task he reluctantly takes on in the name of fame and fortune.

Joining him on his perilous quest is Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, “Scrubs”), a winged, scene-stealing chimp in a bellhop’s outfit, and an adorable two-foot girl made of china (voiced by Joey King, “Ramona and Beezus”), whose shattered legs are repaired by Oscar in a touching scene following an attack on her porcelain village. Both Braff and King appear physically as human characters in the Kansas-set prologue, just like the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Fleming’s film, but with slightly less impact: the intended effect isn’t quite the same when actors reappearing from real-world Kansas are merely providing voices for their characters in Oz.

As in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth," there are three witches in this origin story. Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”), a stand-out, is bubbly and wise as Glinda the Good Witch; Rachel Weisz (“The Bourne Legacy") is deliciously menacing as the ruthless and conniving but ever so elegant Evanora; while Mila Kunis (“Black Swan”) gets the film’s meatiest role as the naive and easily manipulated Theodora, whose tragic descent into the dark side (or should that be the green side?) is a little unconvincing; though Kunis plays both sides of Theodora marvelously, the set-up of her character’s physical and psychological transformation is far too rushed, the end result failing to pack the necessary punch.

As for our fated wizard, though Franco grants him a roguish grin and a rascally charm, one can’t help but feel the fizzily charismatic Robert Downey, Jr. — an early candidate for the role — would have been better suited in Oscar's top hat and waistcoat. The real star of the show is the infectiously enthusiastic Raimi, whose kooky visual quirks are on full display throughout and whose horror roots are showing: remembering the fear struck into the hearts of many a movie-goer by those barbaric flying monkeys in 1939, he here uses the winged beasts for one or two inspired frights — after all, what’s a trip to the movies without a good scare?

What’s most remarkable about “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the degree to which Raimi has provided for audiences of all ages; here is a family movie truly suitable for all the family, capable of entertaining the young and the old in equal measure. Considering its unblinking commitment to breathtaking spectacle and its luscious, vibrantly rendered fairy tale setting, comparisons to Tim Burton’s crushingly disappointing “Alice in Wonderland” are unavoidable, and Raimi’s film thankfully comes out on top: for behind all its whiz-bang special effects and sensational production design is something Burton’s dead-eyed dud was crucially missing, a key ingredient that keeps us engaged and enchanted right from its black-and-white beginnings all the way through to its explosive finale — a healthy heart beating away inside its chest.


Monday, 4 March 2013

Safe Haven

Tiptoeing its way into UK theatres a whole fortnight too late (apparently it was scared off the coveted Valentine’s Day slot by “A Good Day to Die Hard”), “Safe Haven” is a Nicholas Sparks adaptation like any other. Based on his bestselling 2008 weepy of the same name, it marks the eighth occasion on which a Sparks novel has made the leap from page to big-screen — a near-annual tradition sparked in 1999 with the Kevin Costner/Robin Wright romance “Message in a Bottle" — and, coming fresh off the assembly line, it proudly ticks all the expected boxes: a mawkish story of love against the odds, it’s up to its neck in maudlin melodrama, drenched in heart-wrenching tragedy, soundtracked by soothing acoustic strums and, as it’s set against the glowing backdrop of blinding sunsets, is exceedingly well lit.

So closely does it stick to the Sparks movie formula that it almost descends into self-parody, as if director Lasse Hallström (once Oscar-nominated for “The Cider House Rules”) is slyly mocking the niche with which Sparks has made his name — if only there were oppressive, disapproving parents integrated into the plot, then it would be a full house of the author’s hackneyed clichés. Even the poster, in which our two leading lovebirds cling to each other’s faces in a passionate embrace, is almost entirely identical to that of “The Lucky One,” the last Sparks adaptation, released last April. That one boasted the smouldering good looks of Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling. This one boasts Julianne Hough (“Footloose”) and Josh Duhamel (“Transformers”), two impossibly attractive actors who appear to be doing this as an advised career move rather than as a passion project — hey, “The Notebook” worked wonders for a certain Mr Gosling.

She is Katie, a big-city runaway who flees to the sleepy coastal town of Southport, North Carolina to escape her troubled past and start afresh. He is Alex, the local hunk and father-of-two who manages a convenience store and whose wife has conveniently died of cancer (another Sparks trope — incurably diseased loved ones). After Katie gets a job waitressing at the local fish house and rents a creaky cabin in the woods (the sight of which made me think I’d really rather be watching “The Evil Dead"), romance blossoms between the pair as they take long walks on the beach together, take a ride in a canoe and get caught in the rain — as bland as it sounds, and is, Hough and Duhamel do admittedly share a warm chemistry.

Livening up proceedings is a parallel plot involving Kevin (David Lyons, “Revolution"), a slimy cop who, in the film’s opening, pursues a petrified Katie before she sneaks onto a bus out of Boston. For reasons initially unknown, this boozing law enforcer is hell-bent on tracking Katie down, a task which sees him — in a bizarre, career-torching move — mocking up posters falsely claiming that she is wanted for first-degree murder. This gives the film the status of a stalker thriller very much in the vein of “Sleeping with the Enemy,” and is damn near the only thing in the film that is remotely interesting, if only for the logic-stretching absurdity of Kevin’s boundless obsession.

Well, that is until the final few minutes, during which an eye-popping revelation about a seemingly trivial supporting character is sure to inspire both howls of laughter and exclamations of bewilderment from confounded audience members who didn’t predict it the minute said character appears on-screen. I shan’t detail much other than to say that it is a bonkers, hilariously misjudged plot twist that is completely out of place with the rest of the film, altering its tone, mutating its genre and bending its reality, as well as bafflingly paying tribute to the works of M. Night Shyamalan — you’ll see. The best Sparks adaptation remains the engaging “The Notebook,” which is hailed by many to be a modern classic of its genre. “Safe Haven,” while perfectly harmless, is just another in a long line of dead-eyed imitations.