I am not sure when I stopped believing Trance – Danny Boyle’s return to film-making after the Olympics opening ceremony – but I think it was when I realised it featured both amnesia and hypnosis. That’s artistic dodgy dealing times two. Both devices are “get out of plot jail free” cards. Both are skeleton keys opening any door for lazy storytellers. “I can’t remember a thing” is as facile and multi-tasking as “I’ll do anything you programme me to after you say ‘You are feeling very sleepy . . . ’”
Boyle is a showman, so Trance is seldom actually dull. Helped by Anthony Dod Mantle’s flashy-kaleidoscopic photography and Rick Smith’s keep-them-awake-at-all-costs music, the film bangs around London as if with a firecracker down its trousers. Auction house employee James McAvoy suffers memory loss after being KO’d by thief Vincent Cassel during an art heist. For reasons essential to full heist success (don’t ask me to plot-spoil), he is captured and tortured by Team Cassel, then sent to hypnotist Rosario Dawson.
Note the international lead cast: one Briton, one Frenchman, one American. For world market impact, Trance needs this Babel troika as surely as it needs the babble of plot gimmicks so simple-minded they can appeal to anyone. At one point the characters have a long chat in a car, then open the boot to discover – shock! – a decaying corpse. In a film based on reality, they would have smelled the body on first sitting down. But that is par for the course on a course that has been jerry-landscaped. The designers want to make a quick profit before the rainy season starts.
The three-handed tale of double and triple cross is in direct descent from Boyle’s Shallow Grave. But that had a hardnosed credibility: we believed the people, the plot and the parabola of psychopathic incident. Here we wait for the next wrenching improbability. Screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge, seeking to spanner the psychodrama ever tighter, finally prang the whole assemblage. It is amazing – or at least instructive – how a film that has damned itself by being all effect and no affect, all payoffs and no plausibility, ends up having no effect or payoff worth the name or admission price.
The best François Ozon films (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool) are deceptively slight. The worst ones are genuinely slight: slivers of conceit prone to feyness and often based on theatre trifles, like his last movie Potiche and the new one, In the House. The tale, plucked from a Spanish stage comedy, has mid-life schoolteacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) falling under the spell of a boy who writes weird, voyeuristic compositions about a best friend’s family. Germain’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) shares his disturbed fascination as they read Claude’s (Ernst Umhauer) latest, poison-tipped pen portrait of the son, the oafish father and the sultry-pretty “middle-class woman”, as the boy insists on characterising the bored mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) he is building into a bantamweight Emma Bovary.
Gustave Flaubert is one deus praesens in this film. (The school is even named after him.) Another, ghostlier, is surely Harold Pinter. He could have stretched this home-invasion chess game – the interloper as fantasist, remoulding the enigma of character – into a sardonic, spellbinding marathon. Ozon, for all the prettiness of his comic and visual grace notes, runs out of ideas. When the boy’s vampiric curiosity (never itself explained or given substance or ontogeny) starts to batten on Germain and Jeanne, it’s just another turning of the screw or sinking of the teeth.
April’s role as cruellest month has been reassigned to March. Arctic weather; underperforming cinema. Skilled docudramatist Penny Woolcock, maker of 1 Day, comes a cropper with One Mile Away. Inspired by the first film – a semi-fictive fresco of gang wars in Birmingham – a member of a leading Brummie gang contacted Woolcock, asking her to set up a meeting with rival-gang honcho Dylan Duffus, a star of 1 Day.
What is great for social entente may not be great for moviemaking. With its near-endless, barely articulate peace-broking-attempt dialogues, mumbled on streets or in hotel rooms blanched of texture and drama, this well-meant movie is artistic anomie at 24 frames per second: accidie not even waiting to happen. In one scene politicians James Purnell (who produced the film) and Jonathan Powell (presented, broadly, as the man who solved Northern Ireland’s problems) jump into the make-or-break banter, providing just the note of patronising lucidity to rob us even of the charm – the film’s only one – of self-expressive struggle. At least Shabba and Dylan are working at it from the heart and soul. The labour pains of thought and strategy-building are there to see. Woolcock should have realised that somewhere amid all her shapeless “docu” there was a “drama” – this one, a human one – to be found and properly focused.
Good Vibrations is an amiable period piece, set in Belfast before Jonathan Powell ended its troubles. Irish punk: there’s a memory to warm the cockles. Richard Dormer plays Terri Hooley, the disc jockey, record shop owner and label founder who was to Irish rock what Tony 24 Hour Party People Wilson was to Manchester music-making. Co-directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, the film feels a little team-constructed. Every trope is in place (spivvy executives, spliffy rockers, High Fidelity shtick in the record store); unpredictability is as rare as manna. But if you like the music, just point your ears at the screen.
GI Joe: Retaliation is the week’s Bruce Willis movie. You wait 50 minutes for him to appear, in this slam-bang action epic, and then two come together: the smirk on legs and the action tornado to which no un-American empire can say “Go away.” If the film feels like a video game that’s because it is one. It has accidentally turned into a movie while passing the Empire, Leicester Square, and kindred venues. More fun, though, than almost anything else this week.