Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: TWIXT (2012) and TRANCE (2013)

(US - 2012)

Since taking a decade-long sabbatical from directing and returning with 2007's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and 2009's TETRO, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola has essentially abandoned Hollywood and the mainstream and made it a stated point that he's only making personal films for himself.  While the commercial appeal of the ponderous YOUTH and the intermittently-interesting TETRO were limited, they admirably avoided the self-indulgence that normally accompanies such endeavors, and while both are little more than interesting curios by a fabled filmmaker, the uneven TWIXT is Coppola's most satisfying effort of this post-comeback "experimental" phase.  Recalling the low-budget B-movies Coppola cut his teeth on as an assistant to Roger Corman back in the early 1960s, TWIXT more often than not feels like an old-school horror movie that you used to find on late-night TV, at least until it starts taking esoteric, art-house detours as it goes on.  In his best role in years, Val Kilmer stars as hard-drinking horror novelist Hall Baltimore, once hailed as a fresh, next-big-thing literary talent but now "the bargain-basement Stephen King," reduced to holding unattended book signings in small-town carry-outs.  He finds a fan in gregarious Swann Valley sheriff Bobby LaGrange (an enjoyably hammy Bruce Dern), who wants to collaborate with him on a book where they solve a series of brutal stakings that LaGrange believes are the work of some goth kids who hang out across the lake.  Initially apprehensive, but with mounting debt, his wife (Kilmer's ex-wife Joanne Whalley) threatening to sell his priceless, bound-by-Walt Whitman-himself copy of Leaves of Grass, and needing to move on from the recent death of his 14-year-old daughter in a boating accident, Baltimore pitches the idea to his publisher (David Paymer) and gets an advance...that he conveniently keeps secret from LaGrange.  Meanwhile, Baltimore is visited by a strange girl named V (Elle Fanning) that no one else sees, and while out wandering through the Swann Valley woods, he nearly falls off a rope bridge but is rescued by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin), who takes him under his wing and shows him the dark secrets of the town.  As Baltimore struggles with the book, he comes to terms with the guilt over his daughter's death and with Poe's help, starts uncovering the truth about what happened to V and how it ties into the serial stakings that are occupying the sheriff's time.

Coppola financed TWIXT out of his own pocket and when it failed to land a US distributor, he ended up arranging a scant few screenings himself before setting up a VOD distribution deal.  Look, I realize the commercial prospects for an artsy endeavor like this are limited, but can someone explain to me what kind of bullshit state of cinema we're in where Francis Ford Fucking Coppola has to personally schlep his latest movie to individual theaters?  He even shot a couple of sequences in 3-D!  Some may find TWIXT meandering and obfuscating, but it feels a lot like an old Corman or William Castle flick, or sometimes like a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, especially since a good chunk of it is shot in black & white.  It its more accessible sections, it occasionally feels--perhaps because of the presence of THE 'BURBS and THE HOLE co-star Dern--like the kind of throwback film that Joe Dante might make.  Coppola's script never really ties everything together all that securely and the ending is a bit too abrupt, but it really captures the feeling of those old low-budget movies without doing so ironically.  Coppola keeps it legit because he came from that school.  He's not a young filmmaker paying ironic homage to it--he was actually there.  That's just part of the personal touch Coppola brings to TWIXT.  Baltimore's overwhelming grief over the loss of a child is something Coppola knows all too well: he lost his 22-year-old son Gio in a 1986 boating accident that's identically recreated in the way Baltimore's daughter is killed.  Gio's wife was pregnant at the time of his death, and their daughter Gia worked on TWIXT with her grandfather.  Knowing the story behind TWIXT and how it brings together a grandfather who lost his son and a granddaughter who never got to meet her father adds a powerful subtext to the film. 

And it's great to see guys like Kilmer and Dern getting meaty, starring roles for a change.  Kilmer's performance as Doc Holliday in 1993's TOMBSTONE is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted in modern cinema, but he's spent much of the last decade in a stunning career free-fall that found him starring in some of the worst of the worst in the world of DTV with unwatchable garbage like MOSCOW ZERO, THE CHAOS EXPERIMENT, PLAYED (where his character's repeated "You are not gonna taco!" failed to become the new "I'm your Huckleberry") and several ill-advised collaborations with 50 Cent.  Kilmer is an eccentric actor who's frequently been labeled difficult (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU director John Frankenheimer: "Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer") and has a tendency to run amok in some of these DTV films where he's only on the set for a couple of days and is given room to riff and improv.  Coppola successfully reins him in here, but does give him some leeway in an amusing scene where an increasingly intoxicated Baltimore struggles to get a single sentence written, allowing Kilmer to once more bust out his famous Marlon Brando impression in addition to an impeccable James Mason.  I've long maintained that Kilmer still has some real work and maybe even an Oscar left in him, and it was an admirable and perhaps conscious decision on Coppola's part to give Kilmer--a guy who can probably relate to the sorry state of Hall Baltimore's career--the lead role in this project.  These three most recent Coppola films probably won't even make his career highlight reel, and of course I don't mean to imply that it's on the level of THE GODFATHER or its first sequel, or APOCALYPSE NOW, or THE CONVERSATION, but for a more thorough understanding of him as a filmmaker and as a still-grieving father, there's a strong argument that TWIXT is essential Coppola.  (R, 88 mins)

(France/US/UK - 2013)

Even after the crowd-pleasing Best Picture Oscar winner SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), the grueling Best Picture Oscar nominee 127 HOURS (2010), and supervising the razzle-dazzle of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, TRANCE, the latest from director Danny Boyle, didn't inspire much confidence from distributor Fox, who only rolled it out on 443 screens at its widest release.  It's easy to say TRANCE, a remake of a 2001 British TV-movie, is Boyle's attempt at a Christopher Nolan mindfuck, but the head games here seem too contrived and complicated just for its own sake, eventually devolving into trying-too-hard misdirection and incoherence.  Boyle's direction is as stylish as ever, but the plot's intriguing twists and turns and the eventual revelation that what you thought the film was about isn't what it's about at all probably seemed clever on the page, but it grows tiresome on the screen.

Working with screenwriter John Hodge (SHALLOW GRAVE, TRAINSPOTTING, A LIFE LESS ORDINARY) for the first time since 2000's THE BEACH, Boyle's TRANCE gives us mid-level London art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), who takes a nasty blow to the head during a museum theft where a priceless Goya is ripped off by Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his crew.  Franck discovers the canvas has been sliced from the frame and once Simon, hailed as a hero by the media, is released from the hospital, he and his gang endlessly hassle and torture him, believing he stashed the painting somewhere.  But Simon is suffering from amnesia, and can't remember anything during the robbery itself.  Franck sends Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), hoping she can put him in a trance and extract the information from wherever it is in his memories.  Elizabeth figures out what's going on and wants a percentage of the take.  Then a love triangle develops.  And then things get really twisty.  The thing is, the more twists that Boyle and Hodge pile on, the more absurd TRANCE becomes, though I'm sure it's some kind of snickering joke on their part that a major element of the plot hinges on Dawson's shaved bush (the actress does some nudity here that leaves nothing to the imagination and should make her a frontrunner at the next Mr. Skin's Anatomy Awards).  By the end, when all the pieces are (I think) in place, the reaction is less "Whoa!" and more "Really?!  All that for this?" Some of those pieces have to get forced in place for the puzzle to be complete, and even in a film with this many acceptable implausibilities, it's asking a lot for an audience to buy a body decomposing in the trunk of a car for months and no one--least of all the people riding in the backseat--realizing it.  TRANCE is never dull or uninteresting and McAvoy and Cassel are good, but Dawson feels a little miscast, despite her instantly legendary nude scene. Initial reaction might be mild disappointment, but something about this feels like it might be one of those movies that play better when viewed again in a year or two. (R, 101 mins)


  1. I must note now disappointing the tagline for TWIXT is: "Once the nightmares begin, the terror never ends". What is this, an 80s ELM STREET rip-off? If I hadn't read your review, I would have passed this one right by.

  2. Yeah, that tagline is rather generic.