Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Possessor Uncut

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An elite, corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Rossif Sutherland, Sean Bean

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Anytime someone decides to call themselves a fan of something, it often comes with some kind unspoken limit to how far they are willing to go to show their appreciation.  I mean, it’s natural for a music lover to say they love The Rolling Stones, but would you camp out for two days in the rain for only the chance to buy tickets to a sold-out concert of theirs?  Or do you want that new iPhone that goes on sale at 3:30am so badly that you’ll set your alarm for 3:25 so you’re up and ready to purchase?  For horror films and the viewers that can’t get enough frights, there’s a similar line in the sand that many won’t cross, a personal run for the hills boundary it’s just too nightmarish to pass.

For me, the “body horror” genre is one that makes me squirm like no other and for the uninitiated it is defined as the intentional showcase of graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body.  It’s sometimes referred to more crudely as “torture porn” when applied to the less sophisticated entries that have been produced within the last decade; think grotesque films like The Human Centipede or the disturbingly misogynistic Hostel series.  That’s a huge step down from its origins in Canadian cinema and director David Cronenberg.  It was his landmark films Rabid, Shivers, and even his 80s remake of The Fly that gave the body horror genre a gross but good reputation.

In the new film Possessor Uncut, a torch has been passed in this icky subgenre and in a sort of Shakespearean twist, the mantle has gone from father to son.  Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the Canadian production has the same look, feel, energy, and shock of the work of his father and while you can spot the influences of his famous lineage throughout the intense film you also see a filmmaker with his own vocabulary coming forth.  I’d heard the buzz about this film long before it ever crossed my screening doorstep and it truly worried me.  The gore and extreme nature sounded like a true test of will and though these type of early reactions often prove to be exaggerations of overly excitable first-lookers, for once they weren’t too far off the mark.  This is a horrifying experience that infiltrates your nervous system for days after…but it’s also a real thrill; the kind of elegant top shelf genre picture that gives you exactly what it promises and says “You asked for it”.

In the not too distant future, a cutting edge tech company has found a unique method of assassination they sell to the highest bidder, or whatever conglomeration they might be able to use later to their advantage.  There is now a way for trained killers to plug into the brains of host subjects that have intimate access to those targeted for death and use them to carry out the evil deed.  The host is often self-terminated, the real killers final act before unplugging in their sleek lab offices miles away,  leaving no way to trace the vicious act back to anyone – the perfect set-up.  It’s a relatively simple one, too, and Cronenberg doesn’t spend a huge amount of time trying to explain the science behind it, preferring to let the audience piece the process together for themselves based off of what we learn from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) as she debriefs star assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) after the film’s shocking opening.

It’s obvious from the start that while the method to this madness seems smooth on paper, the mental and physical toll it takes to come back from each job blurs the lines of reality more and more with each task completed.  Tasya is estranged from her husband (Rossif Sutherland, A Call to Spy) and child and her visit to them early on is one of strained awkwardness, you almost get the sense that at this point she’s more comfortable in someone else’s skin than her own.  She’s also been straying from her normal routine when working as her host, becoming more interested in her victims and taking liberties with her directives on the best way to quickly eliminate her target. 

Ignoring the warning signs that she may be maxxed out and despite the protestations of a concerned Girder, Tasya jumps into another job, this time taking over the body of a man (Christopher Abbott, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) who is set to marry the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, Fisherman’s Friends) of a wealthy CEO (Sean Bean, The Martian).  With three days to carry out her mission, the job seems to be going as planned…until she’s unable to maintain the balance between her host personality and her own, both of which are strong-willed and fighting for survival.  This leads to a sinewy split between the two and devastating consequences for anyone that gets close to either.

In a number of violent films, you look back in retrospect and see that they aren’t as violent or gore-filled as you remember, it’s just the suggestion of it all that led your mind to fill in the blanks for you.  In Possessor Uncut (a curious name change from its original plain ‘ole Possessor, likely as it’s being released without a rating to avoid that dreaded NC-17), there’s no punches pulled and you not only see every brutal stab, slice, crack, and rip…you feel it.  The camera lingers on these moments, almost daring you to turn away and while it’s an endurance test to be sure (those with a fear of seeing teeth knocked out…you’ve been warned) it’s strangely not as horrific as it might be made out to be.  Remember, this is coming from the critic that normally recoils from this type of stuff.  I had to look away a few times, no question, but I think I had built it up to be far worse than it ends up being.

I’m hoping others give it that same chance too because there are some deeply good performances on top of Cronenberg’s inventive work as a director on display.  Riseborough continues to be an actress that pushes herself with each role, unafraid to go to ugly places or change her appearance with each new part,  She’s actually absent for a good chunk of the film when she’s inhabiting Abbott but her presence seems to always haunt the scenes she isn’t there for.  In many ways, she reminds me of Leigh’s work throughout the years (no shocker that Leigh has worked with David Cronenberg before in the semi-similar but not as intense, eXistenZ, from 1999) and Leigh seems to have found a kindred spirit with Riseborough.  Their scenes together are low-key but pulsating with energy.  Abbott has to do a lot of bold things here a number of actors in his generation wouldn’t get near, he carries it off well, understanding the difference between his body being possessed (which it isn’t) and controlled (which it is) and that helps the audience along with buying into the far-out concept.

I don’t often encourage people to watch the trailer for a film because they are so spoiler-y but the first trailer for Possessor Uncut is pretty good about giving you a decent idea of what you’re in for. If you think you can handle it…go for it. I can’t imagine seeing this on the big screen, honestly, the visuals would be just too overwhelming but for a late night viewing at home where you have the freedom to hide under the blanket, Possessor Uncut will work like a charm.  Even though it’s drenched it blood and body parts, it’s a classy affair with the son of a renowned horror director ably stepping forward into the spotlight in a major way.

Movie Review ~ Fisherman’s Friends


The Facts
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Synopsis: A fast living, cynical London music executive heads to a remote Cornish village on a stag weekend where he’s pranked by his boss into trying to sign a group of shanty singing fishermen.

Stars: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, David Hayman, Dave Johns, Sam Swainsbury, Tuppence Middleton, Noel Clarke, Christian Brassington, Maggie Steed, Jade Anouka, Meadow Nobrega

Director: Chris Foggin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I’ve mentioned several times over the last few months that being cooped up inside and kept away from the bigger budgeted bombastic films in theaters has allowed me greater opportunity to enjoy smaller fare.  It’s been grand having no excuse to miss tiny features that could have been overlooked in weeks when the latest franchise film was gearing up for release and being offered the kind of gems I was used to discovering long after they’d found their way onto streaming platforms.  With that, I’ve also noticed the slightest loosening up of the critical approach at times, being a little too eager to overlook rough corners or treacly plot points in keeping with the spirit of positivity.

It’s movies like Fisherman’s Friends that help bring me back to reality though, films that remind you that even the best intentions have consequences and it’s perfectly ok to throw back what the cinematic sea giveth. The dam started to break with Military Wives which pushed the limits of how much forced saccharine an audience can handle but the filmmakers behind the similar true-life story found in Fisherman’s Friends run their boat ashore early on and never can get back in the water.  Though it wants to have that cheeky charm that kept The Full Monty or Calendar Girls feeling so fresh, it winds up smelling like catch of the day that’s sat in the sun too long.

On a bachelor weekend in the tiny seaside town of Port Isaac, London-based Danny (Daniel Mays, 1917) and his fellow music exec mates don’t make the best first impression on Jim (James Purefoy, John Carter), his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton, Downton Abbey), and the rest of the hard-working blue collar townspeople that frequent the local watering hole.  Loud and obnoxious, the stag party does minimal damage to the Cornish town and is about to wrap up their weekend when they hear the weekly performance of the town fishermen singing shanties by the seashore.  As a joke, his boss (a member of the bro weekend) convinces Danny he wants to sign the group to their record label and quickly leaves him stranded to figure out how to talk a bunch of gruff sea-goers into becoming the next boy band.

As you can likely guess if you’ve ever seen any movie that carried the “feel-good” label, the longer Danny stays in Port Isaac, the more he gets to know the townspeople as greater than just their prickly exterior and the less they see him as a posh snob.  Friendships are formed among unlikely comrades, romance blooms between individuals that once couldn’t stand each other, and loyalties are royally tested in a neat and tidy (if arguably overlong) package.  The triumvirate of screenwriters is made up of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth and none can help director Chris Foggin find the right key that would help the movie play a tune we haven’t heard numerous times before.

The biggest issue I had with the film is that maybe I found the group severely lacking in charm.  The first time the men raise their voices in song, the crowd onscreen seems to love it but I was left scratching my head wondering what all the fuss was about.  Not for nothing but there are a handful of scenes featuring others having the same reaction I did.  The ribald and raunchy old tyme ditties are good for a laugh but they wear thin quickly and fade from memory even faster.  I never connected with why Danny is so obsessed with pursuing them into the limelight.  It’s like hearing about a great dancer with fabulous technique only to watch someone gamely get through the Electric Slide without injuring themselves.

If the IMDb pages are to be believed, a sequel is planned for March 2021 but with the pandemic who knows if that has thrown things out of whack.  I’d have been more in favor of a documentary about the real men involved with the group instead of this hokey-pokey dramatization that sells whatever charisma they had short.  As a Sunday watch while completing the 1,000 piece puzzle that’s been gathering dust on your table, Fisherman’s Friends might be good background noise but as the main event selection for an evening’s entertainment,  you’ll be better off dropping anchor somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The continuing story of the Crawley family, wealthy owners of a large estate in the English countryside in the early 20th century.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew Goode, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Tuppence Middleton, Kate Phillips, Stephen Campbell Moore

Director: Michael Engler

Rated: PG

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Needless to say, if you aren’t up to date with Downton Abbey it’s best to steer clear of this review until after you’ve seen the film.  I wasn’t quite caught up by the time the movie came out so had to delay my visit with the Crawley family for a week, they understood and I will also understand if you need to bookmark this review and come back when you’ve finished the sixth season of Downton Abbey.  I shan’t spoil the movie, no worries on that, but I may wind up spoiling something from that richly fulfilling final episode…so you’ve been warned.

Christmas has definitely come early to all of the ardent fans of the Crawleys, their extended family, and their staff at Downtown Abbey.  The long buzzed about movie that’s a continuation of the series which wound up its run in 2015 has arrived and it’s an absolute delight.  Delivering everything we’ve come to expect in the show and managing to provide supremely satisfying moments for every one of the major cast members, the Downtown Abbey movie is that rare instance of a television series translating beautifully to a feature length film.  It’s arrived in style with a pristine release date far removed from the late summer madness and just ahead of the more achingly serious work the fall brings us. Sure, you can quibble it’s really just a two hour “special episode” of the show…but what an episode!

It’s 1927 and a letter arrives via post to let Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Paddington) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) know that the King and Queen will be staying at Downton Abbey for one night as part of their tour of the country.   Everyone has a job in preparation for this royal visit.  As the agent of the estate, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) makes sure the grounds are in order with the assistance of Tom (Alan Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody), who becomes distracted by the arrival of a strange man with unknown intentions.  Meanwhile, downstairs in the servants quarters emotions are running high in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, Ghostbusters) fretting over the food and Daisy (Sophie McShera, Cinderella) dragging her feet on setting a wedding date with Andy (Michael Fox, Dunkrik).  Butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier, The Ritual) struggles with the responsibilities of his first big test as head butler while continuing to suffer silently as he hides a personal secret.  Now retired, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, The Witches) can’t quite relinquish his reins over the household staff, much to the withering eye of his wife (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies).

There’s more family and staff to cover but I’d rather let you see for yourself where writer Julian Fellows (Tomorrow Never Dies) takes these beloved characters over the ensuing two hours.  With the royal family bringing their own staff who wind up undermining the servants at Downtown Abbey, you can imagine there’s room for mischief as well as more serious subjects of marital strife and illegitimate children.  At least no one shows up to arrest Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, Me Before You) or his wife Anna (Joanne Froggart)…that seemed to happen every season 🙂  While I’m sure the storyline for the film had been percolating in Fellows brain for some time (and may even have been planned for the television show) he’s made good work of making the most out of the screen time each person is given in the film.  Fellows has always been good at using language eloquently and not saying something in 10 words when he could use 5 and that carries over here, too.  As such, the good-natured back and forth between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, The Secret Garden) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is as crisp and crackling as ever.  I could honestly have sat for two hours, watched these women have a slyly barbed conversation, and been just as happy.

Were the main sources of conflict, like many situations in Downtown Abbey the series, things that could be solved if people had just sat down and talked with one another instead of gossiping secondhand or outright avoiding the subject entirely?  Of course.  Yet this is something longtime fans have come to expect from the show so it’s all much easier to swallow than a standalone feature without an established rhythm. Were there characters I missed seeing?  Sure.  Both of the Countesses hysterically squabbling servants are sadly absent and the film lacks an imposing figure that presents a significant challenge to anyone.  Did I think some staff members got a little more time to shine than others?  Yeah.  Yet these characters shining now often took a backseat in the series so why not let them have their moment in the sun.

With its high flying shots of Downtown Abbey (really Highclere Castle), all the familiar locations back in play, and that gorgeous theme music used in all the right places, director Michael Engler (who directed four episodes of the series, including the finale) doesn’t have to do much but let the actors do their thing speaking Fellows words while wearing Anna Robbins (Wild Rose) gorgeous costumes.  I think the finale of the film goes on a bit too long and rather serious/emotional conversation behind closed doors is inter-cut intrusively with another scene in a ballroom, but by that time I felt I had no right complaining because up until then Downton Abbey folk had been such great hosts.  With a smash bang opening and steady box office returns, the possibility of a return visit to Downtown looks highly likely.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jupiter Ascending

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Synopsis: In a universe where humans are near the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, a young destitute human woman is targeted for assassination by the Queen of the Universe because her very existence threatens to end the Queen’s reign.

Release Date:  July 25, 2014

Thoughts: A whole lotta people didn’t get Cloud Atlas, the 2012 film directed by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer.  I found that epic to be quite ambitious in scope and idea and a film that resisted the urge to be classified in any one genre.  It was a haunting film that gave some very good actors the chance to do something different and signaled a nice return for the Wachowski’s who had seen their star fade with the lackluster sequels to The Matrix and the utter failure of the candy colored trippy Speed Racer.  Even though I wasn’t a fan of the Matrix follow-ups and I needed a week’s worth of Advil after seeing Speed Racer in IMAX, I’ve always appreciated the cinematic flair in which the brother and sister assemble their films.

That’s why it’s nice to see that a little more than two years after Cloud Atlas they’re back (sans Tykwer) for a new space odyssey.  Even if the movie looks a tad more standard that what Cloud Atlas had to offer, it’s still a helluva lot more intriguing than any number of summer movies with big robots and umpteenth sequels to fading franchises.  I’m not totally sold on the assembled cast but Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) and Mila Kunis (Oz The Great and Powerful) are hot stuff and Tatum at least is a huge draw.  Jury’s still out if this will continue the Wachowski’s ascent back into the A-List but this first look indicates they’re on their way.

Movie Review ~ Trance

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An art auctioneer who has become mixed up with a group of criminals partners with a hypnotherapist in order to recover a lost painting.

Stars: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, Rosario Dawson

Director: Danny Boyle

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s something so pleasing about watching a movie and even before the credits roll being able to tell who directed it. UK director Boyle won an Oscar for directing 2008’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire (hated the movie, loved Boyle’s work) but with his latest film Trance the director has gone back to his stylized new wave Hitchcock roots that came to light in 1994’s brilliantly twisted thriller Shallow Grave.

What Trance can’t do, however, it out-do that Boyle mini-masterpiece and that’s because that for all the style that Boyle puts on the proceedings, it can’t hide the fact that the story is a barely-there hodge podge of any number of quadruple cross heist thrillers. Despite an intriguing opening and a rather nicely conceived first half, it’s not long before the film gets itself so deep in the muck that that can’t untie the noose it’s created and winds up dangling.

When the movie began I sat back happily and let the Boyle camera angles, attention to detail, and breaking of the forth wall wash over me. This is the Boyle that I came to enjoy first in Shallow Grave then in Trainspotting, Sunshine, Millions, 28 Days Later…(I’m conveniently leaving out The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary…you should too) and the director seems energized by a film set in the heart of London and infused with a pulsating rhythm that he totally is in control of.

As the film progresses, however, the multiple layers of betrayal are not really peeled away but shuffled down the deck so you’re never quite able to follow along with where the twists are taking you. Is McAvoy’s character a harmless patsy that doesn’t know who he can trust…or is there more to him that the film is deliberately leaving out to spring at us in the final reel? And what of Dawson’s hypnotherapist who seems to be playing both sides of the fence between McAvoy and the oddity that is Cassell as a thief looking for a painting McAvoy was in charge of – is she a femme fatale that will be the last person standing when a hum-drum quartet of criminals turns on each other?

All of our questions are eventually answered in no uncertain terms but to say that the payoff is disappointing is like saying the Mona Lisa was a good first draft. The film winds up feeling so ordinary and rote, despite the best efforts of McAvoy, Cassel, Dawson, and Boyle but it’s the script that does no one any favors. I kept wanting the movie to get back on track and end with a bang – some may find great entertainment in the movie but like February’s Side Effects (another film with good actors working with second rate material) this one made me more frustrated as it kept striking out.

There is some good in the film and that’s mostly courtesy of Boyle and his crack team of creative personnel involved with the movie. The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is impeccable, making excellent use of spotless office buildings and luxury apartments. I also enjoyed Rick Nelson’s score and an eclectic soundtrack that gave the film a flow like many Boyle films do – I have the scores to several Boyle films and his choice in music echoes his clean-cut editing/compositions.

For 100 minutes, Trance mostly gets the job done though I do wish the material had been up to snuff with the group of people charged with making it come to life. While it has the feel of an old-school Boyle offering, the also-ran script ultimately disappoints leaving the view not so much entranced as dazed.