Month: January 2017

T2: Trainspotting

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29/01/17

It’s twenty years after the events of Trainspotting and the only running feet in evidence belong to a stranger, pounding a treadmill in a busy gym. But as we quickly discover, mortality waits in the wings, ready to claim the lives of the unwary.

Following the death of his mother, Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his home city to pay his respects and to look up his old cronies. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a hopeless junkie and just about ready to end his own life when Renton comes (quite literally) to his rescue. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is running his auntie’s dilapidated pub and attempting to make a dishonest living by blackmailing a series of victims with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Angela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is still languishing in prison, but with the help of another inmate and a well-aimed shiv, manages to effect an escape. Time has not mellowed him in the slightest and he is still intent on avenging himself on the man who double-crossed him all those years ago. It’s strangely satisfying to note that Carlyle still excels at playing the consummate psychopath and it’s all too easy to understand Renton’s terror of his old adversary.

With T2, director Danny Boyle has crafted a sequel that more than pays lip service to its iconic predecessor. In fact, in certain respects, it betters the original. As a study of the city of Edinburgh, for instance, it’s a massive step up – Trainspotting was largely filmed in and around Glasgow, but T2 takes advantage of many of its home city’s most screenworthy locations. The cinematography of Anthony Dodd Mantle looks absolutely stunning and, as you would hope, there’s an energetic and propulsive soundtrack, a mixture of new material and golden oldies.

John Hodge’s screenplay is particularly astute, taking time to pay homage to many of the original film’s most iconic scenes and in many cases, subverting them. Renton’s ‘choose life’ speech is given a contemporary reboot, (spoken in of all places, in the fourth floor brasserie at Harvey Nicks) while Spud takes on the mantle of novelist Irvine Welsh as he starts to write down the foursome’s youthful adventures as a kind of prototype novel. (Keen-eyed viewers will spot the real Welsh in a cameo, reprising the role of wheeler-dealer Mikey). Occasional flashbacks to the first film and to the childhoods of the four main characters lend a bitter-sweet air of melancholy to the proceedings.

Not everything is perfect. It would have been nice to see Kelly McDonald and Shirley Henderson given a little more to do here and I would have liked to hear more from Renton’s widowed father (James Cosmo), but I suppose you can’t have everything. These shortcomings aside, T2 ranks as one of the most satisfying sequels ever, largely because it has the intelligence to honour its origins without being allowed to turn into a pale imitation. The packed Sunday afternoon screening we attended paid eloquent testimony to the fact that Danny Boyle has a palpable, and well deserved hit on his hands.

T2 also features one of the most memorable final sequences of recent years as Renton, back in his childhood bedroom, finally rocks out to a new version of Lust For Life.

Don’t miss this one, it’s a keeper.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Lysistrata

27/01/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Attic Collective’s adaptation of Lysistrata is certainly true to the spirit of Aristophanes’ original play, though it takes the story to extremes I’ve never witnessed before: bawdy, rambunctious and featuring even more inflatable phalluses than you’re likely to see on the average rowdy hen night, it’s also liberally sprinkled with acerbic comments about contemporay political developments (including the inevitable Trump reference).

First performed in Athens in 411 BC, the play is a wry condemnation of the patriarchal society that held sway at the time. Lysistrata (Cait Irvine), tired of watching her husband trotting off to take part in the latest battle of the Peloponnesian war (a conflict which raged on for thirty years), enlists her female friends to join her in a sex strike – the women of Athens, she insists, will not agree to pleasure their husbands until a peace deal can be struck with their adversaries in Sparta. Aristophanes’ point is that sex can be a powerful weapon and that, when men are deprived of it, they will do pretty much anything to earn the right to enjoy it once again.

This is a spirited ensemble production from this emerging new company, brash and clamorous, incorporating music, movement and vocalisation. For a while there, I didn’t really think this was going to be for me , but it gradually exerted its considerable strengths and, by the conclusion, I had been won over. Mind you, this isn’t going to work for everybody. If you’re at all prudish, this may not be your cup of bromide, but as a gutsy interpretation of a classic text, it certainly achieves its aims.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Jackie

24/01/17

Jackie Kennedy was a celebrated style icon when I was growing up but, I must confess, she’s somebody I haven’t given a great deal of thought to… until now.

Pablo Larrain’s somber and affecting film looks at her experiences during and just after the assassination of JFK. Framed by an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) it shows how her life was transformed and marginalised by her husband’s death. Indeed, within minutes of his demise, as his successor Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in, she suddenly, shockingly finds herself an outcast, a woman totally defined by her husband’s former role. Without him she is an encumbrance, an embarrassment, somebody deemed to be without value.

The film concentrates on her stubborn attempts to ensure that the memory of Jack Kennedy lives on. She insists that he is given a state funeral and that she be allowed to walk alongside her children behind his coffin in an elaborate funeral cortege – and she ruthlessly manipulates everything that is written about him and her.

In the lead role, Natalie Portman delivers an eerie impersonation, capturing Jackie’s style and her weird drawling voice with uncanny precision. It’s a barnstorming performance, one that is likely to win her a well-deserved lead actress Oscar next month. If the film itself does not quite measure up to that stellar performance, it’s nonetheless pretty assured, uncannily cutting between genuine historical footage and skilful recreations without putting a foot wrong. Just look, for instance, at the recreation of Jackie’s famous ‘tour of the White house’ television programme, which is chillingly accurate in every last detail. Most of the other actors have to be content with cameo roles but Peter Sarsgaard shines as Bobby Kennedy and there are winning turns from Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and from John Hurt as the elderly catholic priest that Jackie pours her heart out to in a couple of key scenes.

But make no mistake, this is Portman’s film and she absolutely relishes the opportunity to inhabit a role that allows her to stretch herself as an actor. If she does get to lift that Oscar statuette, it won’t be the night’s biggest surprise.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Au Revoir Les Enfants

23/01/17

January 27th 2017 is Holocaust Memorial Day – and as a thematic tie-in with this important occasion, the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh arranged a showing of Louis Malle’s 1987 film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. This moving, semi-autobiographical story is a powerful yet unsensational reminder of the horrors of the German occupation of France.

It’s 1944 and, with Paris under constant bombardment by allied planes, young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is sent to a boarding school in the French countryside. Run by a society of monks (or ‘Monkeys’, as the boys prefer to call them), the school is a retreat from the realities of the real world. But one day, a new student arrives at the school. Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto) seems to receive preferential treatment from the monks. something which makes him a target to the more established children. He is, it turns out,  a talented musician and is addicted to reading fiction. At first he and Julien are adversaries but as Julien begins to learn more about the new arrival, so a deepening friendship develops. But it is a friendship that is doomed from the very beginning. Julien discovers that Jean is really called Jean Finkelstein – and that the monks are hiding him from their German occupiers. As the Nazis begin to exert an increasingly powerful grip on France, it’s only a matter of time before the truth reaches the attention of others…

Malle’s film is a little marvel – frank, unflinching but never overstated, it looks at the subject of the persecution of the Jewish race through the eyes of childhood and exposes it for the shameless horror that it really is. It also highlights the bravery of those who try to help their Jewish neighbours. There are affecting performances from the two young leads and the film’s searing conclusion will have you thinking about it long after the  credits have rolled.

The showing was followed by a short talk from Henry Wuga, a 91 year old German Jew who travelled to Glasgow in 1938, courtesy of the Kindertransport initiative and who has subsequently devoted his life to talking about his experiences as a refugee (a subject which really could not be more prescient in these troubled times). Henry is a fascinating man, who seems to possess an energy that belies his years – if you get the chance to hear him speak, I strongly recommend that you take it up. There are many who will tell you that the kind of events depicted in Au Revoir Les Enfants belong firmly in the past; but there are others (myself included) who look at what’s happening in the world right now and tremble to think that unless people wake up to the truth, they could all too easily be allowed to happen again. To find out how you can play your part in ‘learning lessons from the past,’ visit hmd.org.uk, phone 0207785 7029 or email enquiries@hmd.org.uk

And, if you can arrange it, watch the film, which is readily available on DVD and through streaming services.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Split

21/01/17

It’s time to ask some important questions. Why do film companies keep giving M. Night Shymalan the money to make more films? Why do major actors still think it’s worth taking a punt on appearing in one of them? And perhaps most vexing of all, why do I keep giving the man another chance? To be fair, I’ve managed to resist seeing his last few efforts, alerted by terrible advance reviews, but the word on Split is that it represents a major return to form (something he hasn’t really had, in my opinion, since The Sixth Sense, way back in 1999). So off I dutifully trot to my local multiplex and, perhaps inevitably, I am disappointed once again.

Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and who, according to his therapist, Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has twenty-three separate identities. At the film’s opening, he abducts three young women who are leaving a birthday party and imprisons them in his labyrinthine underground lair. One of them, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), seems more resourceful than her companions, mostly because of trauma she suffered in her childhood (and to which the film intermittently flashes back). Casey learns very quickly that one of Kevin’s personalities, a nine year old boy called Hedwig, is more approachable than the others and starts to investigate this as a possible way out of her predicament… but all of Kevin’s characters talk about the imminent arrival of a new and very frightening twenty-fourth identity…

It’s an intriguing premise but one which falls short on just about every level. Given that it’s about an abduction, the film fails to generate any real tension or sense of threat. Its risible treatment of a genuine psychological disorder, will, I have no doubt, offend anybody who knows anything about the reality of the situation, as will the actions of Doctor Fletcher, a supposed professional who surely breaks every rule in the book in her approach to her patient(s). McAvoy makes a decent fist of his eight roles (thankfully he isn’t called upon to show us the other fifteen!), which essentially means he changes his voice and expressions, so we’re never in any doubt as to which personality we’re seeing at any given time, but it’s hardly the grandstanding tour de force I’d been led to expect. Perhaps if the script (as ever, also by Shymalan) had been more skilful, I’d have been more convinced by what I was hearing.

All the usual Shymalan tropes are in evidence. Cameo performance by the director? Check. Twist ending that you can see coming a mile off? Check. Weird Twilight Zone-style payoff? Check. And oddly, we’re also offered a coda that absolutely relies on you having a working knowledge of the director’s early output. Inevitably, a lot of people left feeling baffled.

Shymalan has always had a very singular approach to his cinematic ‘vision’ but I’m sorry to say that, try as I might, it’s a vision that I am unable to share. Well, at least it was better than Lady In The Water.

2.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Lion

20/01/17

Lion is the true-life story of Saroo Brierley, a young man on a quest to find his family. The opening sequences depict a home life that, while far from idyllic – they are desperately poor: Saroo’s mother is a manual labourer, collecting rocks from dawn till dusk; Saroo and his brother steal coal to sell for milk; none of them can read or write – is nevertheless loving and nurturing.

What follows is startling and devastating: at the train station, five-year-old Saroo, told to wait for his brother, seeks a place to sleep on a decommissioned train. When he awakes, the train is on the move, and it doesn’t stop until it reaches Kolkata – 1000 miles away from Saroo’s home town. Saroo doesn’t speak Bengali, and he doesn’t know the proper name of his village, so he can’t tell anyone who he really is. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see the plight of the street kids he joins: the dangers they face, and the sheer numbers of them. (And Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo, is just delightful, all big eyes and vulnerability. He’s definitely one to watch.) Eventually, Saroo is placed in an orphanage and, from there, adopted by a kindly couple from Tasmania.

The second half of the film has a more sombre feel; it’s less immediately engaging, but compelling nonetheless. Adult Saroo, played by Dev Patel with customary aplomb, is an all-Aussie guy, a surfer with long hair and a promising career ahead. He has a girlfriend, a good relationship with his adoptive parents; things have worked out well for him. (Sadly, life has not been so kind to Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), the second boy adopted by the Brierleys, whose past demons won’t let him rest, and see him seeking solace in heroin.) But when Saroo spends an evening with Indian friends, buried memories are evoked, and he embarks on a lonely mission to find his long-lost family – using Google Earth to assist his search.

It’s a deceptively gentle tale of love and loss, offering insight into the moral and social complexities of adopting children from poorer lands. The film is not overtly political, and it doesn’t dwell on the causes of the poverty that lead to Saroo’s suffering. But neither does it shy away from showing us grim realities: this is one man’s story, a microcosm of a larger problem. It’s impossible not to feel moved and humbled. And very thankful that, for Saroo at least, it has a happy ending.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney