FRESH POUR: 42 (2013) / Trance (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week – no rules, no cocktail, just a short look at what’s being released in theaters.

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42 / dir. Brian Helgeland / Warner Bros. Pictures

Biopics are a strange animal; their very nature requires them to be both faithful to the man or woman they are vilifying or celebrating, while also maintaining coherency as a film itself. The debate is relatively simple: play up the flaws of the figure in question to make them more interesting, or hide the flaws to emphasize the struggles they went through. While I know little of the man under the uniform, writer/director Brian Helgeland’s effort, 42, feels like it does the latter – this tale depicting the life of major league baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson (an effective Chadwick Boseman) plays it a little too safe at times, turning Robinson (and most especially his wife Rachel, played with saintly patience by Nicole Beharie) into a nearly flawless figure, whose single vice is that he has a bit of a temper. Even then, that temper is justified in the racist 1940s, where Jim Crow was still out in force, segregation and intolerance were rampant, and the n-word is thrown around more times than at a screening of Django Unchained.

To that end, the film becomes not a tale of whether or not Jackie will make it to the big leagues, but whether he can refrain from punching every single cartoony racist in the film (including a charmingly buffoonish Alan Tudyk, who mines his small, thankless part for quite a few dark laughs). The film’s setting is conveyed with sepia-toned earnestness by Helgeland, whose directing is perfunctory and workmanlike (only a few sequences stand out cinematographically, though the production design does a fine job of replicating the vehicles, clothes and architecture of the time).

Jackie is helped along in his task by ambitious team executive Branch Rickey, played by a still charming Harrison Ford – giving his best Nixon impression while the years gradually turn his face into a plate of mashed potatoes. His role is meaty, but somewhat incomprehensible; he exists mostly to a) give Jackie and other players advice about how to beat racists at their own game and b) growl at people over the phone, to the point where multiple characters hover over their bedside telephones late at night, afraid of the boogeyman who will disturb their slumber. Despite the growing superfluousness of his role as the film progresses, Ford holds his own – particularly during an emotionally powerful scene involving a broken bat and a weeping Jackie (the best scene in the film, bar none).

There’s not much more to say about the film – events unfold as history dictates, not-racists act supremely smug about being not racist, racists act cartoonishly racist, and Jackie Robinson grits his teeth and perseveres. While, as previously mentioned, the film is perfunctory and workmanlike, its results are effective – Helgeland provides an inspiring true-life fable, and its earnestness seems to defy most criticisms you can levy against it. It’s conventional, but that just means the filmmakers knew their limits. They just sit back, relax, and let the events speak for themselves – while the racism of the film can seem goofy on its face, it’s important to remember that, for instance, Tudyk’s character really did taunt Jackie Robinson with a bevy of racial slurs in that historic game. These were real struggles felt by real people; Boseman looks like he carries the weight of Atlas on his shoulders, and never takes for granted the responsibility he has to his family, and to civil rights as a whole.

Despite its schmaltzy moments, 42 works. Insert ‘home run’ pun here. (If I didn’t like it, I was going to do a ‘by the numbers’ pun. If I point it out, does it still count as exercising restraint?)

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

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Trance / dir. Danny Boyle / Fox Searchlight Pictures

Danny Boyle is an interesting filmmaker; cutting his teeth in British thriller-comedies, he’s now run the gamut from zombie apocalypses (28 Days Later) to kid’s flicks (Millions) to sensitive Oscar fare (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours). With his latest film, Trance, Boyle returns to his roots a bit with a British erotic/heist thriller (not “erotic heist” thriller, mind you) reminiscent most acutely of his debut feature, Shallow Grave. In both films, a trio of characters (two men, one woman) form, test and break alliances over the prospect of riches and a better future; while the former film featured quirky twentysomething roommates breaking apart, this time, it’s a shaky truce between an amnesiac art dealer (James McAvoy), a French thief (Vincent Cassel), and the hypnotherapist who holds the key to their riches (a brilliant Rosario Dawson).

The plot’s fairly convoluted – leading to most of my problems with the film – but the gist is this: after a botched art heist in which Simon (McAvoy) hides a painting, then gets amnesia from a hit on the head by Franck (Cassel), both consult the cool and collected hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Dawson) to dig the location of the stolen painting out of Simon’s memory. What follows is a disorienting and dreamlike clash of personalities, with Elizabeth quickly taking charge of the group (and the film). However, despite the intriguing nature of the first half of the film, the plot gets bogged down in a number of ill-defined and murkily-presented twists, resulting in a mindbender that leaves the audience at a distance. By the time the third act rolls around, Boyle throws one too many curveballs at you too quickly, with character dynamics shifting so abruptly as to feel inorganic.

As with most of Boyle’s work, the visuals are stunning; the heist sequence at the start of the film is by far the film’s highlight, a delightfully kinetic intro that lulls us into a false sense of security. During the film’s many hypnosis sequences, notes of Inception (with even a bit of Cronenberg body horror) can be recognized in the design of Simon’s subconscious meanderings, with halls of floating paintings, mistaken identities, and men coming back from the dead. Boyle’s use of reds, Dutch angles and creative use of reflection intrigue and unsettle the viewer, and the whole presentation is elevated by Rick Smith’s pounding electronic score.

The ridiculousness of the film’s final moments (as well as the clumsy third-act exposition scenes that begrudgingly allow an exhausted audience to catch up) undercuts the mystery of the film’s premise: the idea of exploring the mind through hypnosis to solve a heist is an interesting one, and the roads the film goes down are a little disappointing. To the film’s credit, I have seen few films that actually convey important themes and subtexts through the shaving of pudenda; the much-publicized bare bush of Rosario Dawson is not there strictly for eye candy, but the shaving itself is an act of defiance – a slap in the face to Simon’s subconscious search for perfection and control in his life.

McAvoy and Dawson acquit themselves well here, McAvoy a shuddering mess of anxiety and rage and Dawson an assured, confident and measured survivor. Cassel does fine with his performance, but his role is fairly insubstantial, simply acting as an equalizer between the two extremes of McAvoy and Dawson (whose relationship forms the movie’s true center). All in all, the film’s style alone makes it worth a watch, but the dime-store jilted-lover character reveals just might make the film’s big picture seem a bit banal when you piece it all together.

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Next week, Clint checks out the Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Oblivion and Terrence Malick’s latest meditation, To the Wonder!

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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