Tag Archives: Caper

CAPSULE: TRANCE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Danny Boyle

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: After torture fails, gangsters hire a hypnotherapist to help their amnesiac comrade remember where he hid a stolen painting, but can they trust her not to play with the subject’s mind?

Still from Trance (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s watchable and a little weird (once the hallucinations finally start), but not as entrancing as it would need to be to make the List.

COMMENTS: Trance features a lot of twists and turns as it explores the corridors of memory, but ultimately this trippy guided imagery only leads to off-topic revelations, an action movie finale that could have fit in a Vin Diesel vehicle, and a smugly ambiguous postscript. If you’re highly suggestible, though, you may be able to relax and enjoy the trip through Simon’s tortured mind as he struggles to recall where he hid the stolen painting before petty gangster Franck loses patience and lets his thugs take a turn at more than his fingernails. The rough patches Trance encounters come solely from the script, not from the game cast, who do their best to sell the peculiar material. As another of Danny Boyle’s beleaguered, boyish (Boyle-ish?), in-over-his-head heroes, James McAvoy serves as an effective anchor. (Fifteen years ago this role would have gone to fellow baby-faced Scot ). Vincent Cassel, as always, embodies suave Continental decadence. But it’s Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth Lamb, the bored but sexy hypnotherapist, who steals the show, gradually overshadowing Simon to emerge as the movie’s central character. Brought in by Franck in a desperate attempt to recover Simon’s strangely repressed memory, she quickly, if subtly, asserts psychological control over the criminals. Tired of dealing with over-eaters and premature ejaculators, the doctor relishes her dangerous new assignment, and it’s not quite clear whether she’s in it more for the money or the thrills. Seizing control of the mission, she leads Simon (and occasionally the others) on a series of increasingly complicated guided hypnotherapy sessions; her subject always balks just before remembering the fatal hiding place, subconsciously terrified that if he gives up the information, he’ll be killed. As he is led deeper and deeper into the labyrinths of his mind, it becomes unclear where his trance state ends and reality resumes. Are sparks really flying between him and Dr. Lamb, or is it just transference? If he appears to get the upper hand on his captors, is it just a mental trick to get him to reveal the location? It’s a good, if somewhat hard to swallow, start for a psychothriller, and the film does keep you guessing through the early reels. But the plot ultimately doesn’t make much sense; it’s too contrived, and not just in the obvious sense that hypnotherapy has nowhere near this kind of mystical power. The story is also too concerned with misdirection, forgetting to find an emotional center; we have no real rooting interest among the characters. The trance sequences, which are for the most part meant to be indistinguishable from real life, seldom deliver the surreal payoffs that weirdophiles crave (although there is one excellent, startling image involving Vincent Cassel’s head that I unfortunately can’t describe it without ruining the surprise). Once the missing painting is finally found, there’s an empty feeling. Emerging from Trance, you feel like you’ve been to see a middle-of-the-road Vegas magician; you were entertained while the show was on, sure, but you’re already forgetting the tricks on the ride home.

If anything about the movie is hypnotic, it’s Dawson’s full-lipped sexuality. Fans of the actress’ vulva will definitely want to check Trance out; her pubic hair is a minor plot point.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Anything goes, which may make all this great fun for the hallucinogenically inclined, but since nothing in these sequences has any lasting consequences, suspense is difficult to amplify… the film is under the mistaken impression that its unmoored trance sequences are compelling enough to justify their implausibility.”–Zachary Wigon, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WEIRDSVILLE (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Allan Moyle

FEATURING: Scott Speedman, Wes Bentley, Greg Bryk, Maggie Castle, Taryn Manning, Jordan Prentice

PLOT: Two junkies, who are planning a heist to pay off a mobster, clash with Satanists when they interrupt a ritual while burying an overdosed friend.

Still from Weirdsville (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite sucking up to us by putting “weird” right there in the title, Weirdsville isn’t strange enough to belong on a list of the weirdest movies of all time. There are a few very mild drug trip sequences, but the rest of the film never rises above the level of aggressively quirky.

COMMENTS: A stoned caper comedy starring two (relatively) lovable polydrug abusers, Weirdsville wants to be the second coming of The Big Lebowski. And while it’s great for a screenwriter to set his sights high, Weirdsville ultimately tries too hard, forcing the quirk; it’s still a fun ride, but it overplays its bid for classic status. Speedman (playing Dexter, the “quiet, introspective one”) and Bentley (as Royce, “the ideas man”—i.e. the village idiot) share a believable buddy chemistry, based on in-jokes and stories they’ve been repeating to each other in the endless lazy, hazy days since high school. No matter how much Royce annoys the more cerebral Dexter, he’s devoted to his drug-dazed pal, despite the fact that Royce’s blunders keep complicating the plot and frustrating his own plans to kick junk. (Despite being prominently billed, Taryn Manning’s part-time hooker Mattie is little more than a third wheel and a plot point). The movie builds well for the first two acts. The twin storylines of drug debt owed to vicious mobster Omar and an accidental overdose that leads to an encounter with preppy Satanists entwine to create a desperate situation for our two unlikely heroes. This in turn leads to an ill-advised burglary, complicated when its interrupted by a teenage housesitter and by the constant pursuit of the duo by angry drug dealers and Satanists. So far, so good; Weirdsville is building a crazy tension, relieving it with bouts of goofy hipster dialogue and indie rock interludes, then ramping it up again. But Weirdsville steps over the line from pleasantly quirky to desperate to be different with the introduction of a new character, a dwarf security guard. Now, the judicious use of dwarfs and midgets is one of the most difficult calls for a director to make. On the one hand there’s a long and distinguished tradition of using dwarfs in comedy, dating all the way back to the days of medieval jesters. But putting a “little person” in an unexpected role—like a security guard—is by now almost a cliché, and the gambit risks looking gimmicky and exploitative. Here, the dwarf is not only a mall cop, but also a medieval re-enactor with a gang of chainmailed cronies who are all also of sub-average stature; for me, when these guys show up swinging mini-morningstars, the movie, which had been toying with greatness, jumps the quirky shark. It’s still fun right up to the end, but any shot at greatness has been botched. In the end, the most memorable bits go to the well-heeled, straight-edge Satanists, who end up whining “Lucifer is supposed to be helping us, not plaguing us with midgets and junkies!” That line pretty much sums up the movie; if Satanists plagued by midgets and junkies sounds like your kind of scene, you’ll probably enjoy Weirdsville.

Director Allan Moyle is best known for Pump Up the Volume (1990), a cult hit among 90s teens starring Christian Slater as a high school pirate radio operator.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of it is funny-weird, but too much is pointlessly weird.”–Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy,” who argued that this “movie has zombies, drugs and midgets in it. Can’t get much weirder than that.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao

PLOT: Cobb (DiCaprio), a mercenary with a unique skill set—he breaks into targets’ subconsciouses as they dream in order to steal business secrets—assembles a team to enter the mind of an heir to a billionaire’s fortune; but will his preoccupation with his lost wife, which is poisoning his own subconscious, destroy the mission?

Still from Inception (2010)

WILL IT MAKE THE LIST?: There’s a rule around here: no movie officially makes the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time until it’s released on DVD, so that we can pore over individual scenes at our leisure. That said, Inception is probably on the borderline. That’s not to suggest it’s a bad movie; in fact, Inception may well be the best movie released so far in 2010, and has surely already nailed down an Oscar nomination and a spot on most critics 2010 top 10 lists. The question is, is it weird? By Hollywood standards, a psychologically thriller about professional dream infiltrators is damn weird; so out there, in fact, that only someone with the clout of a Christopher Nolan could get it made and released as a summer blockbuster. (Though to be honest, the subject matter is not as weird, to a studio executive, as is the concept of purposefully releasing an movie with a script that’s so complicated and tricky it throws viewers into a state of total bafflement within the first ten minutes). Nolan’s latest is pop-weird; it creates just a little bit of pleasant confusion that viewers trust will be substantially resolved by the end. It’s not a movie that will risk leaving us stranded in a psychological limbo. Nolan’s dreamscapes are surprisingly based in realism, carefully constructed from cinematically familiar parts—mainly old heist movies, film noirs and spy flicks—rather than from abstruse symbols, Jungian archetypes, and monsters from the id. With its focus on action and self-contained narrative rather than mysticism and mystery, Inception has more in common with crowd-pleasers like The Matrix or Total Recall than it does with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker. (Although, if we were forced to select the weirdest movie of 2010 in July, we’d be forced to go with this one; thankfully we have five more months of movies to select from).

COMMENTS:  I wondered going into Inception: if I was making a thriller about dreams, one Continue reading CAPSULE: INCEPTION (2010)

MICMACS [MICMACS À TIRE-LARIGOT] (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jean Pierre-Jeunet

FEATURING: Dany Boon, Julie Ferrier, Dominique Pinon, André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié

PLOT: After video store clerk Bazil gets a stray bullet to the head and survives, he joins

Still from Micmacs (2009)

up with a ragtag group of trash sorters who help him conspire in a prank war against rival arms manufacturers.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Micmacs is a sweet, whimsical, and slightly surreal comedy, but it never reaches truly bizarre status.  For the most part its story and characters make sense, all set in a world not exceedingly different from our own.

COMMENTS: Once again Jean-Paul Jeunet effortlessly slips his audience into an anachronistic, slightly off-color world with wacky characters and ingenious devices, and this time he even manages to work in some anti-war (or at least, anti-weapons) statements.  As a filmmaker his strengths reside in his fantastic visual aesthetic and dedication to interesting characters, but not necessarily effective storytelling.  These characteristics apply to Micmacs, as the story is interesting but confusingly structured and underdeveloped.  It takes a while to really come together, with several curt scenes following one right after the other until the fun fully starts when Bazil joins the energetic trash heap crew.  Once everything gets going, the movie becomes a very enjoyable and unpredictable comedy complete with goofy disguises, high-concept stratagems, and plenty of breaking and entering.

The characters are fun and detailed—quirky but not in the annoying “indie-cliche” way.  They all have their own talents and interests that lend them their nicknames, and there are some imaginative schemes that involve everyone working together and putting their specific skills to use in unexpected ways.  The cast is excellent, as everyone imbues his or her personage with emotion and a good dose of silliness.  Dany Boon exudes a sort of hapless confusion coupled with a go-to spirit, while Dominique Pinon manages to always stand out in anything.  Omar Sy has some of the best comedic moments as Remington, a wannabe anthropologist obsessed with idioms.  Julie Ferrier shines as the outspoken contortionist, and both Nicolas Marié and André Dussollier put in delightfully devious turns as the villainous CEOs.

While clearly the film is quite character-heavy, the ensemble works so well together that no one is lost in the shuffle, and the focus remains on Bazil to ground the story. The script is funny and lighthearted but not fluffy, and of course the visuals are breathtaking: it’s filmed in slight sepia hues with an array of innovative gadgets and home-made clothes, and everything has a very homey, lived-in feel.  The atmosphere is slightly surrealistic and kooky and the characters are instantly lovable. Incorporating a clear penchant for high-concept stratagems and offbeat humor, Micmacs is an unavoidably cute diversion from the real world with a few narrative weaknesses.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of the extravagant visual eccentricity of [Jeunet’s] debut feature, ‘Delicatessen’ (still his best and strangest film), of which he was co-director, is echoed in the smoky streetscapes, weird mechanical gizmos and comic-grotesque human figures on display here.  But his pacing is more deliberate, almost classical in its precise calibration of cause and effect… the film roams and rambles and sometimes stalls, straining for a charm that should come effortlessly.”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.