The Blind Spot #3 – “Shallow Grave”

I think it happened when I was on my way home having just watched “Trance”. Wow, was that almost 2 months ago? Time flies when you’re running a blog… Anyhow, I was just trying to remember some of the older Danny Boyle movies in order to put “Trance” in context, because that’s just what my mind does at times to keep things nice and segregated up there. And then… What am I missing? Surely I’ve seen most if not all of his work, because Danny Boyle is in fact one of my favorite directors currently in business. But only a couple of minutes later when I got home and popped my laptop open, a quick IMDB survey revealed everything to me – “Shallow grave”… How could I have not seen it before?

Sure, apart from that, two other films also have also slipped under my radar (“Millions” and “A life less ordinary”), but his grand debut… shame on me. Quick, Robin! To the Lovefilm-o-mobile…

Now that I have corrected this heinous aberration, I can yet again walk the streets with my head held high. Not that anyone cares, but I shall do it anyway. So, for those of you who, like me, have spent your lives completely oblivious to the fact that Danny Boyle did something before “Trainspotting”, “Shallow grave” should be a fantastic treat.

It’s a story about a trio of friends (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor) who share a flat in Edinburgh and are on the lookout for a fourth flatmate. After an extensive and hilarious search that involved some mildly condescending comedy they finally bag a suitable fit. What’s not to like about him? He promised to be quiet and is loaded with cash, apparently, so welcome aboard. Nothing lasts forever though and shortly thereafter, the new tenant kicks the bucket and is found by our trio lying on his bed all naked with his junk hanging out. While I’m here, I should point out that it appears that Danny Boyle’s obsession with full frontal nudity in his films can be traced right down to the debut. And it almost never involves sexual context (maybe with the exception of “Trance”) and even if it does, it’s always almost awkwardly placed as if Boyle wanted to have the movie acknowledged as an adult feature, but not quite.

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As if he would think: ‘What? Is my film getting a PG-13? Not on my watch! I’m making movies for adults, not adolescents. Quickly, let’s put a scene with a penis in it. That ought to teach them… PG-13 my ass now!’ Diabolical laugh then ensues…

Yep, I know it sounds weird, but genitalia in Danny Boyle’s movies always get you by surprise…

Right, back to the story… The dearly departed tenant leaves behind a suitcase full of cash, which leaves the trio with a dilemma: should we call in the guy’s death and have the police  confiscate the money, or maybe we should keep the money, dismember the body and bury it in the forest and continue to live as millionaires… Yeah, I think everybody knows how that dilemma is going to be solved, especially in a Danny Boyle universe…

Even though “Shallow grave” was shot on a shoestring budget and it looks cheap through and through, it is in all actuality a great film to watch. Clearly, the Danny Boyle’s storytelling genius was already well developed and at large. The story is paced fantastically and the characters evolve perfectly suited for the horrors of the film’s climax. Ewan McGregor was a delight to watch and his subsequent bromance with Boyle that lasted for a while is completely understandable as this youngster had a true natural talent. What caught my attention though, was Eccleston’s character – David, who slowly loses his senses as a result of the trauma disposing of a body must have clearly been. It was kind of reminiscent of Di Caprio’s character in “The Beach” in a way, which led me to believe Boyle’s fascination with insanity and trauma can be considered a theme of his career.

Speaking of themes in Danny Boyle’s film making career, I think am now able to divide his body of work into two chapters. The thing that separates the two is the lens flare. I mean seriously, go and watch “Trance” or “Slumdog” and you’ll know what I mean, because at some point in his career Boyle fell in love with working against the light and playing with it to a point of using lens imperfections for artistic effects. I think right around “Sunshine” (or even “The Beach” to a small extent) Boyle really made extensive use of what was to become his signature photography. Before that, “Shallow Grave”, “Trainspotting” , “The Beach” and even “28 days later” are all way more modest. In fact, they actually share a lot in storytelling and style, but when it comes to details, I think it’s safe to say that Boyle’s early work could be collectively called ‘the held-back period’. While all Boyle’s movies have a common theme of human instability and innate brutality, there came a point in Boyle’s career where the gloves came off and he started to investigate human weaknesses in a way more visceral, graphic way.  So, what in the world happened between “28 days later” and “Sunshine” that kicked Danny’s film making into another level? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that, but I surely will try and come up with something.

I can only say that “Shallow grave” allowed be to look at Danny Boyle a bit differently. It’s a fantastic piece of cinema and up till now I can’t believe I haven’t seen it for such a long time. It is not his greatest achievement – obviously, as one’s big screen debut is almost always not the opus magnum that would define him for generations to come. It did however, define Boyle’s style and set the wheels in motions, so that we could admire his latest work as mature films for mature audience with mature expectations.

The Blind Spot #1 – “127 hours”

While I was writing up my thoughts on “Trance” – the newest product of Danny Boyle’s imagination – I was alerted to a terrible realization. As it turned out, I had not been acquainted with “127 hours” – the one before last of Boyle’s efforts. Taking into account the fact that my life had not been exactly normal for the last three and a half years, I figured something needed to be done to rectify this appalling state of things. You see, as a matter of fact, there must have been a number of films that I simply missed during my tenure as a senior slave in a university dungeon preoccupied with trolling happily towards my very advanced and obscure degree. Now that my life resumed its normal(ish) course, I am free to look back and see the black hole that my life used to be. But no more, I’ll have you know. I know it sounds dumb, but now I get to have evenings and even afternoons (and yes, weekends) to myself and I have plenty of time to make up for everything – including movies.

Therefore, it occurred to me I could turn it into something more fun than just sitting on Netflix and watching random crap. On top of that, there are myriad films that I have never seen and should have since I love movies so much. After all, I’m still quite young (with a bit of a gap in my life, but worry not) and I’ve only been ‘aware’ of films for a relatively short period of time. If you think about it, a body of work that encompasses more than a century has got to have millions of films that I have not seen… yet. So, I’ll probably turn it into a game, as I do with things to make them more interesting to myself. I don’t know the rules yet, but I’ll think of something.

Cutting the waffle short, I thought that I could start tonight with “127 hours”, because I happened to have it – simple as that. Moreover, I have always considered Danny Boyle to be one of my personal favorite directors of our time and having a gaping hole of not knowing one of his newest creations was not something I wanted to put up with any longer. So I made myself a sandwich, poured a tall mug of tea, sat down and proceeded to watch “127 hours”.

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Well, first of all, the sandwich was not the brightest idea of mine. That would be the first thought I had after the credits rolled. Don’t get me wrong, I can handle gore and such (maybe not lately, because “The Impossible” really kicked me in the stomach) and I knew what “127 hours” was all about beforehand, but I came really close to seeing my sandwich again. Other than that, I’m really disappointed with what I just witnessed. The whole story could have been shot as a 30 minute short instead and it would have been a bit more dynamic. In the end, the film is a story about a guy who took a trip, ran into some girls, had an accident, hallucinated a bunch, and hacked his arm off. The end.

I got the message, because the final part really has a cathartic feel, but for all the wrong reasons, I’m afraid. Basically, the entirety of the movie can be cut (sic!) into three parts: the part where you wait for him to hack off his arm, the part when he’s doing it, and the part where you’re happy it’s over. I was actually relieved that the gore was over and everything was going to be fine from that point onward  It had nothing to do with the apotheosis of survival and life in general. I was just glad I don’t have to look at it anymore. I really understand how meaningful this man’s ordeal must have been, but in the end it left me with a message that read: ‘Next time you go and be awesome in the middle of nowhere, leave a bloody note in case s**t happens to you, you dummy! Or simply, take a phone…’

At least James Franco had his moment in the sun, because “127 hours” is, in fact, a one man show and he made use of his extensive camera time. But sadly, the film as a whole failed to live up to Boyle’s standards. It was shot really well and I could see Boyle’s touch in there, but in general “127 hours” looks makeshift and second-rate. I think I can’t be far off by saying that Boyle and his cohorts must have been sitting in a pub when Danny said: ‘Y’know, I just got the Oscar and I think that whatever I want to do now is going be pure gold with unicorn stickers on it. So, I just read this article about a guy who hacked off his arm and I am thinking we can make it a movie…’ Or something like that. ‘It doesn’t really need a budget. You bring your camera, I’ll call Jim Franco, you two bring the rest of things, and we’ll get in my van and go to the desert. Let’s make this movie happen. Surely it won’t cost more than two hundred bucks, now will it?’ And that’s how it happened.

Oh, boy… I think I went too far. The bottom line is – “127 hours” is by far the weakest of Boyle’s films in my book. Nevertheless, I saw it and now I can go on with my life. This concludes the first episode of what shall be known henceforth as The Blind Spot. I understand that other bloggers do something to that effect already, but I don’t care. Nonetheless, I have to come up with a set of rules to this project of mine and I can have some fun.

“Trance” – Hypnotically intense…

Now I have to say that I have rarely been awarded the opportunity to be all alone in the cinema. More often than not it would be a tell-tale sign of a substandard film, but this time I could probably attribute the poor attendance to the fact that it was in fact The-Saturday-Before-Easter – so, I take it, people tend to be rather busy with other things… Not me though, especially before noon. I managed to carve out a two hour long opening in my otherwise busy holiday schedule; the fact I’m posting it on Monday afternoon should testify perfectly to my utter lack of time, thank you very much…

In any way, I really wanted to write something about “Trance” as I have been waiting for this film for a while now. Yes, for once in my life I get to see a movie before it opens in the US, so I’m feeling right now as though I was making the news… which feels awesome, by the way. I just watched the first Danny Boyle’s film since he made “127 Hours” (that I somehow missed and I have only my PhD to blame for it; no bother though, I shall rectify that scathing abnormality soon enough) and quite frankly, I find it very difficult to talk about it without revealing too much. Yep, it’s one of <makes quotation marks in the air> those films. And there’s nothing bad about that, on the contrary, I found “Trance” extremely pleasurable – as much as this film can be pleasurable at all. It was, however, extremely intense and made for really good entertainment.

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Being conscious of the fact that “Trance” can be ruined by telling too much about its story, I shall only summarize it briefly. Ok, so it turns out (and I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether these things are true or not) that high profile auction houses have certain very specific procedures as to how to handle potential robberies. In the event of an event, there’s always a guy whose sole job is to grab the highest value item (or items) off the stage, put it in a fancy bag, and assisted by security personnel put the item in a safety drop-box that would be out of reach of those pesky opportunist thugs, who wanted to acquire a work of art through non-traditional means of robbery.

“Trance” is a story about that guy, a man called Simon (James McAvoy; if “Trance” was made ten years ago, Ewan McGregor would have definitely taken his place here as it looks like a part written for him). Right, so an event happens, Simon follows his routine, grabs a painting that was just sold for some 27 million pounds, puts it in a baggie, but never reaches the drop point, because the robbers are fully aware of this procedure and one of them (Vincent Cassel) intercepts the bag before Simon gets the chance to finish his job. Not only that, Simon suffers a major head trauma while trying to be a hero (which one should not be when faced against a fella with a shotgun), ends up in a hospital and loses all recollections of what had actually transpired during the heist. Meanwhile, Frank (Cassel) discovers that the bag that was supposed to contain the painting, is empty. Well, not empty per se, because the frame is there, but the actual piece of art is nowhere to be seen. Therefore, the baddies decide to grab Simon and force him to remember what he had done with it in any way possible. Following fruitless attempts at torture they decide to ask a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to ‘enter’ Simon’s mind and help him navigate through his misplaced memories. Thus, the stage is set to embark on a crazy and intense journey full of twists, turns, lies, half-truths, dead ends and detours, which would finally question the reality (“Inception” much?) of the story and force us to re-examine what we know about the characters and their motives.

There, I think I didn’t reveal too much. I guess you could learn as much from watching the trailer alone. Anyway, “Trance” turned out to be a solid piece of butt-clenching edge-of-your-seat cinema that oozes suspense and radiates thrills. It’s very much a Danny Boyle movie with all of his stylistic signatures. The film is shot beautifully and the way the camera plays with light (also a signature of Boyle’s team) serves perfectly to elevate the surreal atmosphere of the story.

Yes, the story. Using “Welcome to the Punch” as an example I managed to disclose how I feel about movies that require prolonged explaining to actually make sense. Now I feel I need to expand on my theory about (too) convoluted storytelling.

Movies with complex multi-layered plots can be broken down into several categories of:

– plots that require explaining and are explained by a character

– plots that require explaining but aren’t explained at all (David Lynch says hello)

– plots that don’t require explaining but are explained nevertheless (that includes most B-
class movies where the baddie feels compelled to reveal how he played the protagonist
even though we didn’t care in the first place)

 

Out of those three, “Trance” belongs definitely to the first category, because of how the plot is handled and laid out by one of the characters in the run up to the climax, about which I should probably say a few words, but still haven’t made my mind about; because I fear I would spoil too much. Nonetheless, at this point I think the category of ‘plots that require explaining and are explained by a character’ can be broken down further according to the respective impact the explaining provides. In that we have:

– A plot that when explained helps the viewer connect the dots and reveals the mind-
blowing twist,

– A plot that when explained shows the viewer the dots that he never noticed, connects
them and makes the viewer admire the meticulously designed twist, but a mild sigh is
only registered,

– A plot that when explained shows the viewer the dots that have been impossible to see
due to poor storytelling, connects them and reveals a twist that no-one gives a rat’s ass
about; awkward silence ensues,

– A plot that when explained makes s**t up on the spot, hopes for the viewer to buy it,
which the viewer refuses to do, and as a result the viewer leaves the cinema in utter
disbelief that he actually spent his hard-earned money to see a steaming pile of bulls**t
like that; rage follows.

Now, I would personally hope that in a perfect world I wouldn’t need one of the characters to break the story down for me. But it’s definitely not the case and no viewer is perfect, thus a film like “Trance” – being so complex and all – actually required a scene like that to make the climax mean anything at all. And if I had to fit it into one of the aforementioned subcategories, I would be torn between the first and the second one of them, but after a thorough consideration (I spent nearly two days trying to stitch that review together) I think “Trance” offers a twist that I couldn’t anticipate (I got some parts right), but my mind was left unblown – maybe mildly shaken. When it comes to ‘connect the dots’ part it’s really difficult to judge Boyle’s efforts here, because without an explanation certain bits and bobs would remain out of place, as well as certain facts would never be revealed, but the solution to the “Trance” puzzle was laid out well enough for me to buy it. It was not quite a case of connecting the dots, but actually noticing the trail of bread crumbs that was laid out in the open the whole time, but I kept neglecting the odd-positioned pieces of evidence and discarded them as irrelevant only to be told that I was being fooled from the start.

I think that my review stopped making sense long ago, so I think I’ll wrap it up. Over all, “Trance” is a very solid flick and it is certainly evident that Danny Boyle is back in shape to make more fantastic movies. It’s definitely a movie that needs to be watched twice: once to be fooled and carried through the surreal world of Simon’s mind; and the second time to focus on finding the bread crumbs. Anyway, it is well worth watching and a trio of Cassel-McAvoy-Dawson (whose part was more carnal than I would ever expect) makes an effort to suck the viewer into the maze that “Trance” is – without a shadow of a doubt.