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Entries in james mcavoy (4)

Friday
Apr122013

Trance

Danny Boyle is one of those directors that can be both brilliant and frustrating. He knows how to tell a story, but sometimes over stylizes those stories with narrative gimmicks and camera trickery. It’s almost as if he’s both confident and unsure of himself, like he loses faith in the story he’s telling and ups the style or takes detours that don’t fit. His most overrated film, “127 Hours,” is proof of this. With ridiculous ghostly visions of Scooby-Doo and long tracking shots that took the viewer out of the terrifying claustrophobic atmosphere its main character was stuck in, Boyle lost much of what made the rest of his movie so grueling. He made similar mistakes with the video game scene from “The Beach” (though it could be argued that movie was beyond repair anyway) and the ending of “Sunshine” that turned a wonderful, thought provoking science fiction movie into a glorified slasher film. Unfortunately, he does it once again with “Trance,” though to a lesser extent. Boyle mixes assured direction and a steady hand with a number of questionable decisions—the abundance of purposeless canted camera angles feel even more so when they’re simple establishing shots—and it’s frustrating to watch. It’s still worth seeing if for no other reason than for James McAvoy’s committed performance, but it’s no master work.

McAvoy plays Simon, an art auctioneer who auctions beautiful paintings worth millions of pounds to the highest bidder. Although he’s been told that no piece of art is worth a human life, there’s nevertheless a procedure in place in case of an attempted robbery. In the commotion, he’s to grab the painting, enclose it in a zip-up bag and drop it down a safety chute to a place where nobody will be able to access it. One night, this procedure becomes practice when a group of armed gunmen, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), show up to steal the most precious painting up for bid. Right before dropping it down the chute, Simon is caught and gives up the bag, but not before getting cold cocked in the head with Franck’s shotgun. This hit causes Simon to lose his memory, which is a bad thing because it turns out that somewhere along the line, he made the old switcheroo. The bag is completely empty. Later, after Simon is released from the hospital, the thieves catch up to him and, with the help of hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), attempt to siphon its whereabouts out of his brain.

Essentially, “Trance” is “Memento” meets “Inception.” It revolves around a man trying to recover his memories while also taking place in a dream state, one that blurs the line between reality and illusion, to the point where it tricks the viewer, unaware at any given time if what they’re watching is taking place in the real world or within someone’s mind. It’s not a bad concept, though it’s perhaps less interesting in a post “Inception” world that already tackled the idea in a better, more meaningful and more complex way.

The one thing that will be hard to accept, especially for the skeptics among us, is its story that revolves around the pseudoscientific nonsense that is hypnotherapy. It’s not the fact that it’s there, or even that it plays a major role in the story, but rather that it’s portrayed in such a matter-of-fact way. It never questions its authenticity and instead treats it as a real and true practice, which of course it isn’t. In a movie like “Inception,” such a practice would be okay because it takes place in a strict science fiction universe. Recapturing lost memories the way Guy Pearce did in “Memento” is okay as well because it at least makes sense and is grounded in some sort of reality. “Trance” feels like it couldn’t come up with a realistic way to explore the same idea, so it included science fiction elements in a story that is anything but science fiction, hoping the audience will fail to notice.

Yet one can’t deny that as silly as it is and as desperate to be unique as it sometimes feels, “Trance” works. McAvoy, as usual for the talented actor, gives a marvelous performance that gradually changes as we learn more and more about his character. By the time the end rolls around and the twist is revealed, things that didn’t make sense before suddenly do and our perception of him has completely changed. Unfortunately, that twist still revolves around the hard-to-take-seriously hypnotherapy the film uses as its crutch.

Frankly, Boyle is at his best when he keeps it simple, his best and easily most enchanting movie being the underseen “Millions.” Here, he has a story that is so elaborate, he can’t seem to keep pace and tries to cover it up with technical flash. It’s one of those rare movies that hooks you without ever providing the suspension of disbelief one would need to truly invest in it. You know full well while watching that it’s a tad rough and its attempt to legitimize hypnotherapy is total nonsense, but you don’t care. “Trance” won’t blow you away and if you’re looking for movies that tackle similar themes, you’re better off watching those aforementioned Christopher Nolan films, but it’s serviceable nonetheless.

Trance receives 3/5

Wednesday
Nov232011

Arthur Christmas

When was the last time we saw a Christmas movie that became an instant classic and promised to be essential viewing during the holiday season? Love Actually? If so, it’s been a good eight years. If you ask me, though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983’s A Christmas Story. Not since then has there been a Christmas movie so good, a year just seemed too long to wait for an appropriate time to watch it again. Based on what I’ve just seen with the pleasant, but all around mediocre Arthur Christmas, I don’t expect that to change.

The film follows the son of Santa Claus named Arthur Christmas (shouldn’t his last name be Claus?), voiced by James McAvoy. He works at the North Pole as the letter writer, answering the millions of letters Santa receives every year. He loves Christmas and revels in the joy it brings children the world over. This year, however, a child has been forgotten. A single young girl named Gwen is not going to be getting anything from Santa, though not if Arthur has anything to say about it. Determined to get that little girl her gift, he hops on the sleigh with his old, crazy grandfather (annoyingly referred to as “Grandsanta”), voiced by Bill Nighy, and sets out to make things right.

Arthur Christmas is not a game changer—few will argue it is—but it’s not easy to criticize. It has its heart in the right place and promises to be an enchanting view for the young tykes in the audience. In the film, Santa is as real as the air we breathe. There isn’t any doubt about his existence and nobody questions it. It’s fact. It’s like the movie exists within the head of a young child who struggles to stay up every year so they can catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man, always to no avail. The magic of the holiday is cherished and, at the very least, the film will allow the older folks to remember what it felt like when they woke up on Christmas morning and saw Santa’s gifts resting under the tree.

The problem is that the film just isn’t very funny, but it’s not particularly unfunny either. It rests in that strange middle ground (as so many British comedies do) where you can acknowledge its cleverness, but your amusement never evolves beyond a grin. The voice acting is splendid and the holiday-centric plays on words are fun for a bit, but there needed to be something more. The aforementioned magic never transcends the inherent magic of the holiday; the film itself is rather bland.

Nevertheless, the characters are likable, even when they’re not exactly living up the spirit of the holiday they help create. Arthur, in particular, is selfless and loving. When he embarks on his adventure, it’s not for a thrill or for fame. On the contrary, he’s rather scared. He is afraid of heights and knows that hopping in that sleigh is going to test his courage, but he does it anyway. His desire to get that child her gift trumps his phobias. It’s that love for children and the magic of Christmas that eventually forces the other more narcissistic characters to realize that Christmas isn’t about them. It’s about the unbridled joy a child feels when he or she finally reveals the mystery behind the wrapping paper.

Still, its mediocrity can’t be overstated. It’s a pleasant enough film to watch, but it’s missing that extra spark. Children will have fun and adults won’t be upset they had to sit through it—it’s as harmless as can be—but after a few years, it will fade into oblivion while the true Christmas classics live on.

Arthur Christmas receives 3/5

Friday
Jun032011

X-Men: First Class

This year is the year of superhero overload. The Green Hornet and Thor have already passed while Green Lantern and Captain America are still yet to come. In between those four films is this week’s X-Men: First Class and it’s likely to be the best superhero film you’ll see all year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best since The Dark Knight. While it is by no means up to that film’s caliber, it’s nevertheless an immensely entertaining summer thrill ride with terrific action, great performances and some surprisingly effective drama.

As the title suggests, the film follows the younger versions of the X-Men characters as they figure out who they are and what they stand for. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has just finished school and earned his doctorate, giving him the title of Professor. Before he’s able to celebrate, however, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) enlists his help. Despite her best efforts, her agency won’t believe her when she says she saw mutants that are planning on starting a nuclear world war. Luckily, mutant genetics is Professor Xavier’s specialty. So he, along with his sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and not-yet-an-enemy Erik (Michael Fassbender), begins to recruit mutants to help them put a stop to the evil opposition, led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).

If you, like me, are not familiar with X-Men mythology, you will be lost when this movie begins. This is one of those films that loves to jump from place to place, establishing characters in different locales that will have an impact later on in the story. It starts in 1944 Poland at a Nazi concentration camp before jetting to 1960’s New York, Switzerland, England, Nevada, Argentina, Florida, Virginia and even an undisclosed covert CIA research base. In its opening moments, X-Men: First Class shows signs of cinematic ADHD, never truly focusing on anything in particular. Throw in the fact that the film then goes on to introduce no less than a dozen characters (most with superhero pseudonyms), like Angel, Riptide, Azazel, Emma Frost, Beast, Banshee, Darwin, Havok and more, and those without a familiarity with this universe will find the proceedings difficult to grasp.

Because of this, X-Men: First Class takes a while to get going and will not instantly grab many of its viewers. However, it must be said that once it settles down, it becomes easily accessible. Although there are a lot of characters, they are balanced delicately and, aside from a few notable cases (I can’t recall Azazel or Riptide speaking at all during the film), each comes into their own. In many cases, like with Mystique and Magneto, you get to see the downward spiral the characters take towards villainy. There is passion in their personalities and motivations and you come to understand why they choose the way they do.

X-Men: First Class is directed by Matthew Vaughn, the same guy behind last year’s Kick-Ass, an entertaining film that was nevertheless plagued by many problems. In comparison, this film seems to fix a lot of them, showing growth in Vaughn as a filmmaker. Kick-Ass had an inconsistent tone and its over-the-top goofiness undercut the climax’s dramatic intentions. X-Men: First Class avoids that problem by excellently balancing the seriousness of the story with some hilarious comic bits, including a couple of cameos that most viewers will find very amusing.

This is a stylish movie. It’s not as action packed as some will expect, but when stuff blows up, it blows up real good. The CGI is hit and miss, but when you’re having this much fun, you won’t really care. Still, it’s not perfect and when it stumbles, it’s noticeable. The script is so smart and witty that the numerous cheesy speeches about accepting and loving yourself stick out like a sore thumb. While certainly a good message in general and relevant to the story, it’s hand-fed so forcefully it comes off as childish. But don’t let those minor blunders stop you from checking it out. If upcoming films continue in cinema’s recent bout with mediocrity, X-Men: First Class could end up being one of the best of the year.

X-Men: First Class receives 4/5

Friday
Feb112011

Gnomeo & Juliet

How many times can you tell a story and keep it fresh? That’s a question with no definitive answer, but it’s one that needs to be asked. After countless adaptations of Romeo & Juliet across film, television and theater, is there a point when we can officially retire it and say that enough is enough? It has been performed, written out and translated to screens big and small so many times that I’m not sure much else can be done with it. The newest, kid centric adaptation of the popular story, Gnomeo & Juliet, takes the two star-crossed lovers and makes them garden gnomes—a novel concept, if not exactly sustainable.

To its credit, Gnomeo & Juliet doesn’t try to pretend like it’s completely original. In fact, before the story even starts, a random gnome steps onscreen, addresses the audiences and tells us we've already heard this story—“a lot.” It’s a great beginning, humorous and appealing, and it sets the lighthearted tone for the rest of the film. It begins with feuding neighbors, Montague and Capulet (a nice touch) who believe the other is sabotaging their garden. The truth is that when they aren’t around, their gardens come to life. The red hatted gnomes, known simply as “the Reds,” and the blue hatted gnomes, “the Blues,” have been at war for an unspecified amount of time. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), a fighter for the Blues, hates the Reds, but ends up falling in love with one of them, Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt). Her reciprocation delights Gnomeo, but they must keep their love a secret because their respective families would not approve.

Essentially, this is Romeo & Juliet to a tee, except cuter, brighter, funnier and with a key plot point changed to appease the young ones in the audience (and given the age demographic of the film, the change shouldn’t be difficult to figure out). That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the story of Romeo & Juliet is a great one, but by toning it down for children, it loses much of its appeal. The drama lands like a thud because that is not its focus, a clear separation from the source material.

Instead, Gnomeo & Juliet works the comedy over hard, rarely pausing to allow the theoretical emotion to seep through. At its worst, the jokes come off as childish, but at its best, it’s laugh out loud funny thanks to some incredibly clever adult references and top notch voice acting. The voices behind the characters in this thing work like a Pixar movie in that you aren’t always aware of who is actually speaking and if you are, as is the case with Jason Statham in his first animated role (unless you count Crank), they’re so good it doesn’t matter. Some of the funniest moments, however, come from the talented animation team (the same one behind the beautifully macabre 9). Even though only one visual gag works for every three or four you see, they come at such a rapid pace that the misses in between the hits are forgivable.

Still, Gnomeo & Juliet is primarily a kids movie and although it will certainly work for them, after a while the adult brains in the crowd are going to begin wishing they were being worked a bit more. It’s a pleasant diversion, if insubstantial, and yes, that’s good enough to recommend.

Gnomeo & Juliet receives 2.5/5