Cinema Review: Trance

DIR: Danny Boyle • WRI: Joe Ahearne, John Hodge  • PRO: Danny Boyle, Christian Colson • DOP: Anthony Dod Mantle • ED: Jon Harris •  DES: Mark Tildesley • CAST: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent 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, 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 with 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.

David Neary

16 (see IFCO website for details)

101mins
Trance is released on 29th March 2013

 

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Cinema Review: The Monk

 

DIR: Dominik Moll • ED: Francois Gedigier, Sylvie Lager • DOP: Patrick Blossier • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Deborah Francois, Josephine Japy,  Sergi Lopez, Geraldine Chaplin

An adaptation of Matthew Lewis novel written in 1796, The Monk is a gothic drama with Shakespearean tragedy elements scattered all over it. The Monk looks at the life of Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) who, after being left on the steps of a Capuchin monastery in Madrid as a baby, has grown up to be a monk, feared and revered for the intensity of his religious speeches and his morality. However, gradually Ambrosio starts to have troubling dreams about a woman in red, dreams that turn out to be prophetic. A masked young man, Valerio (Deborah Francois), whose face has apparently been destroyed by fire, is taken into the monastery, driven by a desire to be close to Ambrosio. On the night that Ambrosio discovers Valerio’s real identity as woman and before her imminent expulsion from the monastery, the monk is stung by a scorpion. His recovery from this injury is seen by the other monks as a miracle. From this point, Ambrosio’s habits turn distinctly into immoral and degenerating behaviours. Figuring into the story in entirely predictable ways is a subplot concerning the virginal young Antonia (Josephine Japy) and Lorenzo (Frederic Noaille), a nobleman who falls in love with her.

The Monk is about temptations, morality and Faustian symbolism; however the film lacks subtlety. Matthew Lewis’ novel must have appeared sulphurous on its publication in 1796 – apparently it was banned for several years – but for today’s audiences the association of religion, sex and satanism has acquired a dated quality. Moll runs dutifully through the catalogue of gothic symbolism (flames for sexual desire, gargoyles for grinning evil) but might have been better advised to get first a look at films that previously tackled the same issues as for the over-the-top baroque style favoured, for example, by  Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).

Vincent Cassel is as usual brilliant and charismatic as monk Ambrosio, succumbing to his own ubris and weaknesses. It is quite interesting to see how brilliantly Cassel decided to undertake a role where for once his physical stage explosivity had to be restrained. Quite remarkable also is his co-star Deborah Francois as Valerio, who drags Ambrosio into the upsetting triangle of sex, Satan and religion.

Widescreen visuals are sumptous, the contrasts between the harsh light of the desert terrain and the darkness of the monastery reflects the moral extremes of Ambrosio, whose face is mostly seen half-shadowed.

A constant element of this film is also an over-use of dreamlike sequences: when for example it clearly borrows from the opening sequence of Blue Velvet (1986) with its use of the camera to burrow into the grass as if going down to uncover an evilish underworld.

Nicola Marzano

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
The Monk is released on 27th April 2012

The Monk – Official Website

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Black Swan

Black Swan

DIR: Darren Aronofsky • WRI: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin PRO: Scott Franklin, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver DOP: Matthew Libatique ED: Andrew Weisblum • DES: Thérèse DePrez CAST: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

The struggle for complete perfection, leading to unhealthy obsession, one of the most potent and destructive human instincts is at the core of Black Swan. Natalie Portman embodies Nina, an innocent, protected and technically perfect ballet dancer in a New York City ballet company. At the start of the film, we witness her dedication and longing to be the prima ballerina and also the pressure her mother puts on her. Elegant Natalie Portman finds her perfect role, as Nina Sayers. She showcases her ballet training as a child, by transforming into a ballerina for the role.

From the outset, the viewer is transported into the world of ballet with Nina dancing the swan queen of Swan Lake on stage. The score is instantly distorted and disjointed and those familiar with the original score of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will notice that throughout the film it is played backwards. This musical distortion by Clint Mansell corresponds with the warped tones of the film and the stunning use of camera movement and lighting by Aronofsky throughout the film. From the moment we are acquainted with Nina as she wakes up from her vivid dream in her bedroom, we see her world completely revolves around dance. Although clearly not a child, her mother who overtly was once a dancer herself, wields an intense influence over her and pushes her to succeed.

Her mother is played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, executing transitions from sweet mother to distorted obsessive to tyrant with skill. Nina’s room is childlike despite her being a grown woman. It is predominantly pink and filled with ballerina stuffed-toys. This provides us with a disturbing backdrop to the bedroom scenes throughout the film. It also reminds us of her sheltered background. The atmosphere is dark, intense and suffocating as we follow Nina. We overhear with Nina in a dressing room that the company will be looking for a new swan queen for the new season as the current ballerina is passed her prime as ballerinas soon get. She is Beth Mcintyre played with vigour by Winona Ryder. Although her time of screen is brief, Ryder truly delivers some disturbing and critical moments as the reluctant retiring dancer and idol of Nina. From her first scene, Lily, provides the contrast or repressed side to Nina. Lily is played by the beautiful Mila Kunis, who holds her own opposite Portman’s Nina. Throughout the film, representing what Nina is lacking – a free and sexual being – Lily pushes her increasingly towards insanity in a quest to embrace her dark side in order to represent both the white and black swan.

We are introduced to the artistic director of the company, Thomas Leroy played with commanding presence by Vincent Cassel in the opening company-ballet class. He officially informs them of his quest to find a new swan queen. He swiftly picks ballerinas he wishes to audition for the role and Nina is one of them. Nina dances a beautiful white swan in her audition but Leroy is unconvinced that Nina can portray the black swan and so disregards her for the part. However Nina’s yearning for the role and pressure from her mother spurs her to speak privately to Leroy the next day. She informs him, that she has been practicing and asks for another chance. He informs her that it is her inability to let go that makes him think she could not pull off the role. However when she reacts aggressively to his advances he changes his mind and she gets the part. He quickly forces her to depart from her fragile innocence, when she is not dancing in order to be able to execute the black swan on stage. We see her struggling with her own pure nature and her deep desire to become a perfect swan queen. This conflict leads to her grip on reality becoming increasingly warped.

Truly deserving of the Golden Globe Best Actress Win, Portman is exceptional in this film. She portrays the two sides to her character with powerful and sinister distinction and tension. The internal and external struggle is played out beautifully and intensely, with an intoxicating synthesis of intense sensuality, suffocation and disturbia which ends in a powerful climax. It is a beautiful, sexy and equally terrifying cinematic experience that deserves all the recognition that it has received and is to come. Having studied ballet and being a lover of the art, I was interested to see how the ballet world would be translated in the film, but the potency of the film can be related to any rigorous discipline that can lead to obsession and gradually a descent into insanity on the road to unprecedented. As humans we all struggle with the tension of the dark and light in our lives. This is an extraordinary film that no one should miss.

Órla Walshe

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

Black Swan is released 21st Jan 2011

Black Swan – Official Website

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Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

DIR: Jean-François Richet • WRI: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet • PRO: Thomas Langmann, Maxime Rémillard, André Rouleau • DOP: Robert Gantz • ED: Bill Pankow, Hervé Schneid • DES: Emile Ghigo • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Ludivine Sagnier, Mathieu Amalric, Gérard Lanvin

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 doubles as the title and mission statement for this film. Focusing primarily on the actions and motivations of Jacque Mesrine (Vincent Cassell) in his unyielding quest for public infamy and media attention, the second part of this cinematic double bill proves a more charming, exciting and generally entertaining venture than Mesrine: Killer Instinct.

As this is the second half of a two-part film, there is a temptation to criticize it for being an incomplete tale. And it is. So criticize away. However, the viewer should find that this second film feels a lot more like a contained story rather than ‘Part 2’, which is to its merit. So, if you haven’t seen Killer Instinct, then Public Enemy No. 1 plays out, for the first half, as an exciting and humorous criminal caper. Blissfully unaware of the particularities of Mesrine’s past crimes, the viewer encounters Mesrine, a cheeky and roguish bank robber, whose razor wit makes him comical in the courtroom and admirably inventive as he escapes it. In fact, the ingenuity of his many escapes from the authorities compliments the excitement and tension of the action scenes. The concentrated excitement of the first act is diluted well with excellent dialogue, comical interchanges and a drop of sentimentality. Before long it’s difficult to resist the charms of this loveable thief. The viewer thinks, ‘He’s not that bad really.’ I think, ‘I should have skipped Part 1’.

There is probably a lesson in that, as within an hour Mesrine is back to his usual antics, beating women, terrorizing families, murder and naturally, kidnapping millionaires. Rather quickly, it should become clear to the viewer that Jacque Mesrine is agreeable, but only when he’s in a good mood. And he’s a grumpy sod too. So, more often than not his greed, impatience and selfishness become a fatal problem for those around him. Having seen the first instalment, any hope I had nurtured that this character may flower into a man of worth evaporated. At least he’s consistent though.

Despite my sustained dislike of Mesrine, this film does provide the viewer with food for thought. Starting with a reunion with his hospitalised father, scenes of insight into how Mesrine views himself, his actions, and, most interestingly, his motivations are presented throughout the film. These scenes should be digested before passing summary judgement on the man, as they provide a humanising effect, in contrast to his actions. It hammers home the point that Jacque Mesrine was still a father, still a son and still, despite his actions, a man, like any other. Personally, this was not enough for me to forgive the character. Perhaps other viewers will prove more sympathetic.

Don’t be fooled! As soon as you start to forgive him, he will find something unforgivable to do. I have given Jacque Mesrine many chances to sway me, to show me a glimmer of humanity worth rooting for. However, after two films I have little love for him. I may have been more forgiving if the man was even layered or intriguing. Had he been an unusual character, with peculiar ideas, I may have enjoyed the film for the questions it posed. However, he didn’t strike me as anything special. He was, simply put, lazy and cruel, and made no attempts to better himself. I feel no better for my education in the events of his life.
Once again, this should not be construed as criticism of the direction of Jean-François Richet. The pace of this film, specifically the first half, was impressive. Most scenes were rendered believable through a fluid yet kinetic use of the camera. Additionally, there is a noticeable effort at effectively portraying action and humour scenes. Most noticeably, Mesrine’s frequent use of costumes and disguises, a theme absent from the first film, went a long way to lighten the tone and relieve stress. And naturally the decision to focus on Mesrine’s justifications for his life of crime generated intrigue.

It should be mentioned, however, that the experience was marred by a half dozen instances of very poor editing, where scenes would jump and skip, sometimes mid sentence. The product was of a high enough standard that these proved only minor annoyances. Nevertheless, they diminished the film noticeably, which is a shame as it could have been avoided quite easily.

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is a considerable improvement on the first with regards to the story being told, and how enjoyable the two hours in the cinema were overall. There is a lot more to like in this film, the humour and the spectacle of some scenes, primarily. However, it shares the same fatal flaw as its predecessor: this is a film that hinges entirely on its titular character. It succeeds if the audience find him agreeable. The man, at his core, was cruel, selfish and lazy. I could not find him agreeable. The film fails.

Jack McGlynn
(See biog here)

Rated 16 (See IFCO website for details)
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is released on 28th August 2009

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 – Official Website

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Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Mesrine Killer Instinct

DIR: Jean-François Richet • WRI: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet • PRO: Thomas Langmann • DOP: Robert Gantz • ED: Hervé Schneid • DES: Emile Ghigo • CAST: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu

The first instalment in a two-part cinematic interpretation of the life of infamous Public Enemy Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell), opens with a warning. It asks the viewer to keep an open mind. Stating that no film can fully encompass the entirety of a human life and that there are multiple perspectives to each story, this message is compounded with a clever opening. Utilizing half-screen, dual-screen and finally multi-screen portrayals of an ageing Mesrine acting shiftily, each screen’s image differs slightly. Their point is made well, so I keep my snap judgements leashed.

Mind unbolted, I endeavour to stay objective. However, despite a hard term with the French army in the Algerian War, and some choice mistakes on his return, it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that Jacque Mesrine is anything other than an uncompromising villain. Whoops, seems like a judgement to me, better pry that mind open again.

There are glimmers of hope for the character throughout: the kindness shown to his favourite hooker and his favourite wife, his excitement over his firstborn child, his attempt to make an honest living. However, even when benefiting him with every doubt available, the impression that, rather than being forced to a live of crime, Mesrine chooses it willingly, is the one that imprints itself on the mind.

In one instance the protagonist/antagonist, evidently not best pleased that he was shot at while his daughter was present, has a good rant about rules, honour, principles, etc. For a man who has spent the past hour thieving and murdering, it’s a surprise he is familiar with the concepts. Still straining to keep that mind gaping though, we grant the man his love for his kids! They’re the reason he lives this awful life surely? He’s doing this for his kids! That’s admirable; maybe I have been wrong about Mesrine. Maybe… Well, wait a few minutes, then listen carefully for the slam of your own mind closing.

This is not to say the execution of the cinematic process by director Jean François Richet is without merit. Far from it. The script is agreeable, the clear and frequently inventive camerawork impressive, the soundtrack hits the mark and the pacing (for the most part) keeps up a respectable level of intrigue and excitement. Mesrine may be greedy, selfish and aggressive, but the car wreck of a life interests the viewer as much as a real one would. It’s hard to look away.

Additionally, there were admirable supporting characters in the form of his wife Sophia, his parents, and even to an extent his charming fellow gang member, Paul. However, these were minor parts and overshadowed by the constant presence of a perpetually detestable titular character.

The film takes a sudden change of pace in the last quarter, once Mesrine is imprisoned. Soon we are watching an ‘escape caper’, showcasing a (marginally) more likeable and determined Jacque Mesrine, though perhaps only because he has no one to kill or rob. How’s that for an open mind?!

The last act juggles genres such as psychological thriller, prison escape, and action film, having spent the initial acts preparing you for nothing of the sort. Additionally it gives unsatisfying accounts of the apparent jump in relevance of certain support characters. The viewer is left wondering just how Mesrine is suddenly so chummy with characters that were until this final act minor or even hostile. Perhaps it’s his people skills.

Films that end on cliff-hangers or are a part of a wider arc can be frustrating, considering they are not self-contained stories. Mesrine: Killer Instinct, however, does a decent job of rounding up the antics of Jacque Mesrine which earned him the notorious moniker ‘Public Enemy Number 1.’ And although the pacing of the final act is far more erratic and unclear compared to the smooth swelling at the beginning of the tale (it wouldn’t be a finale otherwise), the overall product is gritty, well realised, well acted, interesting and exciting.

The biggest drawback to this film, however, and no doubt a fatal drawback for a lot of viewers, is the absence of anyone to root for. I had a strong distain for Jacque Mesrine throughout and I tried damn hard to like this man. Considering he was the epicentre of the movie (and the next), Mesrine: Killer Instinct was not a film I enjoyed watching, for all its merits.

It is a powerful film, loaded with emotion. Just be warned: they taper towards the negative end of that spectrum.

Perhaps part two will be different. I’ll keep an open mind.

Jack McGlynn

Rating: TBC
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is released on 7th August 2009
Mesrine: Killer Instinct – Official Website

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