T2 Trainspotting (2017)

2017 #124
Danny Boyle | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English & Bulgarian | 18 / R

T2 Trainspotting

At one point during T2, a younger character accuses some of the returning characters of living in the past; that it’s all they talk about. It’s true of the characters, and it’s kinda true of the film itself too: this belated sequel to the era-defining original feels try-hard, like it wants to recapture the verve and inventiveness of its predecessor, but everyone’s now too grown up to do it properly.

Set 20 years on, it reunites the first film’s main characters… and, really, that’s the plot. Obviously other things happen, and the details are important, but that seems to be why the film exists: to get the gang back together for another couple of hours. Is that reason enough to make a movie? I guess everyone will have their own answer to that question. For me, it wasn’t reason enough to justify T2.

(Trivia aside that, frankly, I find more interesting then the film itself: reportedly director Danny Boyle wanted to call it simply T2, if James Cameron would let him — they thought they needed that permission because of Terminator 2 being commonly marketed as T2. But then it turned out that Terminator 2 was never officially called T2, so they were free to do as they pleased. But then internet searches for “T2” were found to still mainly turn up the Terminator sequel (unsurprisingly, let’s be honest), so they settled on T2 Trainspotting so people would know what it was. You have to wonder why at that point they didn’t just call it Trainspotting 2…)

Looking as bored as I felt

Anyway, back to this T2. The meandering plot, such as it is, lacks the grit and realism of the first movie. For example, that ended with a simple betrayal — a guy stealing money while his mates were sleeping — while this ends with a knock-down drag-out fight in a construction site like something out of a low-budget thriller. Visually, too, it’s so clean and pristine. There are some properly beautiful shots, especially of the scenery outside Edinburgh, but I’m not sure that’s in-keeping with the Trainspotting aesthetic. Boyle does at points try to reheat the visual tricks of the first movie, but I didn’t feel it worked. The original’s many stylistic flourishes are now much imitated, but they were fresh back in the day and somehow that freshness still comes across when watched now. By trying to ape ape them, T2 just joins the long line of copycats.

Another key element of Trainspotting was the soundtrack. I don’t know what they were thinking with the music here — it isn’t even close to being as memorable or iconic as the original. Maybe that was the point, to not try the same trick again; but there are still plenty of jukeboxed tracks that attempt to draw attention to themselves, but… don’t.

I felt like this, too

Trainspotting had energy, dynamism, exuberance; it pulsed with life and youth. Its sequel is more sedate, more… middle-aged. Well, so are the characters, so that could work; but they don’t behave like they’re middle-aged — they’re too busy trying to recapture their youth, reliving past glories and past conflicts. The film is doing the same. You could perhaps argue that it’s form mirroring content, but the form lacks the wink at the audience to say “this is deliberate.” Like the characters, it seems unaware of the sad state it’s in. Ultimately, it feels like a slightly unfocused, thematically inconclusive, largely unnecessary postscript.

3 out of 5

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Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Shallow Grave (1994)

2015 #105
Danny Boyle | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

The debut feature of director Danny Boyle was hailed on release for being a British film that wasn’t another period-piece literary adaptation. Instead, it concerns three ultra-chummy flatmates in contemporary Edinburgh (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who take in a fourth lodger, who promptly dies, leaving behind an insane amount of cash. Rather than report it, they dispose of the corpse and keep the cash. You don’t get much further from Merchant-Ivory than that.

Naturally, things don’t go swimmingly. The trio’s subsequent behaviour begins to cause ruptures among them; there are some Nasty Men looking for the cash; and when the remains are discovered the police get involved. It’s kind of a dark thriller, as it sounds, but also funny — the kind of film the ’90s specialised in, in some respects (think Fight Club, say). It’s also morally and emotionally complex, however. The flatmates aren’t the villains, they’re ‘us’, tempted to extremes by unusual circumstances. Consequently, it has that great discussion-generating feature of many a zeitgeist-y ‘watercooler’ film: what would you do?

Of course, it’s testament to the film’s quality — Boyle’s kinetic direction, the accomplished performances, the entertaining screenplay — that Shallow Grave endures past that initial ponderance to remain one of the Oscar-winning auteur’s best films.

5 out of 5

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

2010 #1
Danny Boyle | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Slumdog MillionaireAs we head in to this year’s awards season, I’ve finally got round to seeing last year’s big winner. It’s the Little British Film That Could, and I do feel like I’m the last person in the country to see it.

With its brightly coloured posters and home ent covers, cute child actors wheeled out at awards dos, and widespread popularity, it’s not hard to believe the pullquote someone at Fox’s marketing chose for the DVD cover: “the feel-good film of the decade”. An uplifting tale of a young no-hoper appearing on the world’s biggest game show and winning millions of rupees thanks to a generous helping of luck that means his multifarious life experiences have provided him with the exact answers to all 15 of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s genius-stumping questions, surely?

No.

Everything that claims it’s a “feel-good film” is being slightly disingenuous. It has a happy ending (I don’t think that counts as a spoiler for something that’s billed as “feel-good”), but until those closing moments it’s unrelentingly grim. Realistic, I’m certain, and depressingly so, but it seems designed for anything but making you feel good. The author of that chosen quotation, News of the World’s Robbie Collin, claims that he means the film is cathartic (not that I got that from his review, to be honest) — the happy and justice-bringing endings unleash goodness in the wake of the dire events that lead to them. It’s a sound theory, one that has often worked elsewhere, but not for me with Slumdog.

The problem is the ending. Director Danny Boyle’s recent films have all made a relatively poor show of their conclusion and Slumdog is no exception. True, it’s not close to the mess of Sunshine, but it doesn’t hold up in the way it ought to either. I don’t have a problem with it being reliant on guesswork — coincidence and luck form the backbone of the plot, making it permissible that our hero should win by chance rather than knowledge — but that some of its resolutions are too little too late to make one feel good about what’s already occurred, and the way it seems to bend the concept of Millionaire to fit its story somehow grates for me. I mean, is the name of the third Musketeer really a £1 million question?

But I don’t want to berate it too much because, in spite of the unconvincing finale, Slumdog Millionaire is a rather brilliant film. It’s peppered with convenience and flaws that go beyond the extent allowed in a plot based on coincidence (how come the questions come in the order the answers happened in his life? What about answers to all the questions we don’t see asked?), but these can be allowed to slide as a structural gimmick that facilitates something of an exposé of life for slum kids in India. Whether it has a documentary level of realism or not, and whether it under-sells or over-states the influence of gangsters and ease of mutilation and murder, the film’s unabashed grimness is surely closer to reality than most would dare. No wonder it nearly went straight to DVD.

The real revelation — once you get over the shock of it being, well, shocking — are the child actors. Here is where Boyle earns his Best Director awards, coaxing flawless lead performances out of a very young cast. Dev Patel may have been the focus point for plaudits, and while this isn’t undeserved, it’s the younger kids who play the same characters that arguably give the most memorable turns. They’re put through the ringer in almost every way imaginable and are never less than convincing, a feat for such young actors — so young that, as mentioned, the skill of Boyle (and, one imagines, “Indian co-director” Loveleen Tandan) is what’s really on display.

If there’s one good thing about Slumdog being billed as feel-good it’s that more people will have seen it, whereas promotion based on it being a gritty account of poverty, misery and abuse would surely have turned audiences away. And perhaps for most viewers the catharsis of a happy ending works, though the only person I’ve spoken to who felt that way is the aforementioned Mr Collin (and by “spoken to” in this instance I mean “tweeted”). The journey there certainly works though, and if by the end Slumdog is trying to both have its cake and eat it… well, I like cake.

Now there’s a quote for the DVD cover.

5 out of 5

Channel 4 and 4HD kick off their Indian Winter season with the TV premiere of Slumdog Millionaire tonight at 9pm.

Sunshine (2007)

2008 #23
Danny Boyle | 103 mins | DVD | 15 / R

This review contains minor spoilers.

SunshineAfter branching out into the genres of horror (with 28 Days Later…) and ‘family’ (with Millions), Danny Boyle turns his hand to sci-fi with this effort, which tells the story of a spaceship in the apparently not-too-distant (but, clearly, distant enough) future transporting an improbably large nuclear bomb to restart our dying sun.

Sunshine is what some would call “grown-up science fiction”, often more concerned with the crew’s moral dilemmas than thrilling action set pieces or dazzling CGI. Luckily, though, the former aren’t too pretentious and both of the latter are still present. Similarly, the fact that it’s a British rather than American film is apparent early on: there’s an international crew (the Captain is even Foreign! Shocking!), there’s no time wasted on the melodrama of what life is like back on Earth, and the plot slow burns, carefully depicting the crew’s day-to-day relationships and tasks before, inevitably, It All Goes Wrong. The crew notice their failed predecessor floating nearby and have to decide whether to continue on their present course or divert to meet the other craft. I’m sure anyone can guess which option they choose. The ensuing slow slide from relatively minor problems to increasingly major ones fills most of the running time and, like every aspect of the film, is very well executed.

One stumbling block is that, in many ways, it’s territory that’s been trod before. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland mix in elements of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Armageddon, and no doubt several other spaceship-based movies. To their credit, it doesn’t feel like a total rip-off, but the influences are apparent. I was also reminded of the BBC miniseries Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, though I doubt that was a huge influence! (It is quite good though, so you never know…)

Most reviews of Sunshine primarily criticise a shift in quality for the third act. It’s hard to disagree on this, as the film moves from a realistic(ish) Apollo 13-esque space mission movie into slasher horror territory. It almost works, though does feel a little like they were desperate for either a multiplex-pleasing round-off or anything that would carry the film through the last 30 minutes. The real let down is the final sequence, a logic-vacant confusingly-shot finale that consequently feels a tad disappointing.

Yet it’s not bad enough to make too large a dent in the film’s overall quality. The first hour may be better than the final half hour, but it’s all still good enough to pass. Ultimately, the weak ending’s only impact may be in knocking one star off the final score — though, without an alternate final act to compare it to (obviously), it’s hard to be certain it’s even that bad.

4 out of 5

Sunshine placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.

Trainspotting (1996)

2007 #29
Danny Boyle | 90 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Trainspotting

Choose great direction.
Choose iconic images.
Choose a great soundtrack.
Choose a brilliant cast.
Choose a career-making performance from Ewan McGregor.
Choose a witty script.
Choose realism.
Choose drugs.
Choose sex.
Choose a condom, for the first time on screen.
Choose swearing.
Choose violence.
Choose drink.
Choose Scotland.
Choose Trainspotting.

5 out of 5

Choose Film4 tonight, Thursday 2nd April 2015, at 10:55pm.