(On Cable TV, October 2017) I didn’t have very high expectations for T2 Trainspotting. While I liked the first movie, it’s not one of my favourites. The idea of revisiting the same characters twenty years later didn’t seem all that appealing, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to go back to drug-addled Edinburgh for two hours. But, as the mantra goes, trust Danny Boyle. Boyle’s worst movies are more interesting than most directors’ best, and if he was interested in going back twenty years later, then why not? As it turns out, it doesn’t take a long time for T2 Trainspotting to announce its themes and grab our attention. Twenty years later, our characters have grown older but not necessarily better. They still struggle, albeit now with the added pressures of middle-age weighing on them. Some of them are miraculously still alive. All four main actors are back in their roles, although Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller get the most challenging assignments in taking on two characters with many issues to resolve. But the film’s best asset is indeed in going back twenty years later to the same places, knowing that it can’t recapture the magic of the original, knowing that life gets less forgiving the more you age, and contemplating youthful excess with something approaching burgeoning wisdom, or at least melancholy. T2 Trainspotting doesn’t forget to have a bit of fun through comic set-pieces, character reunions and action sequences, but it’s at its best when it’s looking around itself and wondering how its characters made it through twenty years. It’s self-aware in ways that most long-delayed sequels should be, acknowledging the passage of time and using it as a central thematic engine. It’s surprisingly enjoyable, but also surprisingly engaging.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) It’s a good thing that Ashton Kutcher’s critically-dismissed Jobs (2013) exists, if only as a point of comparison to the far more audacious Steve Jobs. Both try to capture on-screen the life of the famously abrasive Apple co-founder, but the first plays it as straight as it can, while the latter takes a far more experimental approach to its subject. The crucial decision in making this film special is screenwriter Aaron Sorkins’s crucial intuition to structure the film around three key product presentations, allowing the film to focus on Jobs at three moments in his life. The consequences of this choice (including how mini-stories condense around those crucial moments) are nowhere near historically accurate, but they do make the film far more powerful. It helps that Steve Jobs is directed by Danny Boyle, who shoots each act differently and brings just enough of his stylistic experimentation to bear. Michael Fassbinder doesn’t look all that much like Jobs, but he creates a mesmerizing performance that carries the character. He’s ably supported by a number of good actors used effectively, but the star of the movie remains the script, with its overlapping dialogues, technically accurate jargon, fast-switching subplots and quotable moments (“I play the orchestra”). It amounts to a surprisingly good film, made even more surprising by how audience may think they already know enough about Jobs. And that may be Steve Jobs’s legacy: a thrilling execution that manages to prove that a fresh angle is often enough to make the familiar fascinating again.
(On TV, December 2015) In trying to explain the mess that is A Life Less Ordinary, I’m tempted to say that one doesn’t become a daring visionary director without making a few mistakes along the way, and so Danny Boyle didn’t become Danny Boyle without making a few less-successful films on his way to Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. A Life Less Ordinary could have been a frantic star-crossed crime romance between an arrogant heiress and an oppressed blue-collar worker, but the script felt that it was necessary to frame this romance in a fantasy involving angels tasked in making two very different people fall in love. You can see here the various frantic methods that Boyle often uses to shake things up, even though they’re not always successful. Depicting heaven as a police station where everything is in white? Great visuals, all the way down to the white stockings. Spending an interminable time with characters signing Beyond the Sea in a redneck karaoke bar? Oh, shoot me now. Ewan MacGregor isn’t much more than simply OK in the lead role, while Cameron Diaz gets an early borderline-unlikable role to play –far more interesting are Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter as angels on a mission, even though the particulars of their plot-line are increasingly ridiculous. A Life Less Ordinary is a film less ordinary, and it suffers from its own quirkiness, trying to blend romance with fantasy with bloody violence. The tonal shifts are severe and the whole thing becomes some something to be appreciated more than to be experienced: I suspect that I would have liked the film more had I seen it fifteen years ago. I also suspect that the film suffered from comparisons to Boyle’s earlier Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Not, it’s not as good as those two. On the other hand, it does have a considerable amount of (misguided) energy, which isn’t too bad. If nothing else, it can still claim, more than a decade and a half later, that there still isn’t anything quite like it.
(On TV, April 2015) I seem to remember The Beach being some kind of minor cult-classic film for disaffected young adults in the early 2000s, and watching the film fifteen years later does offer a few clues as to why. The Big One is the promise of pure escapism, as our backpacking protagonist hears of a secluded Thai beach where expatriates have established their own little hedonistic society. But as our main character understands soon enough, utopia doesn’t work so well in the real world. The Beach at least has a bit of a plot running through it, even though the real star here remains either Leonardo Di Caprio (who, at the time, was starting to transition from teenage heartthrob to the serious actor he’s become today) or Danny Boyle’s direction, which showcases the fondness for hallucinatory deviations from objective reality that would be used to such good effect in later films such as 127 Hours. The film doesn’t always move quickly, but it does have a small number of standout sequences, a lovely setting, an interesting performance by Di Caprio and a younger Tilda Swinton attempting a fairly generic role. Still, there’s a whiff of pretention here in the way our privileged hero philosophizes on the nature of life through a temporary escape. What’s meant as meditative comes across as jejune, and the protagonist isn’t much to cheer for. Still, the stylish touches remain interesting and there’s always the scenery to look at.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The moment any modern thriller brings in hypnosis as a plot device, it’s time to sit down and expect a tortured maze of plot twists. Trance is no exception: if the title wasn’t enough, it’s clear that we’re in for a warped psychological thriller as soon as our lead character is coerced into seeing a hypnotherapist in order to recall what he has done with a precious stolen painting. At that point, forget about notions of protagonist, antagonist, aggressor or victim, because the script seems determined to twist everything in sight. In the apt hands of director Danny Boyle, this turns into a visually trippy wringer in which nothing is as it seems. As you can expect, this is as far away from a comforting experience as can be, and Trance becomes a film best appreciated by jaded thriller fans who don’t mind massive incoherencies as long as the usual conventions are upended. In this film, the human mind can be infinitely re-programmed, identities shed at the touch of a voice and grudges extended over years of dormancy. It’s strictly genre fare (although there is a good monologue about the nature of ourselves as the sum of our memories), executed professionally and wrapped up with an unsettling bow. As the conflicted lead character, James McAvoy continues to become more and more interesting as an actor. Meanwhile, though, Rosario Dawson eventually steals the entire show with a showy role, while Vincent Cassel unexpectedly comes to play against type by the end of the film. Trance isn’t particularly pleasant, but it holds attention until the end… which isn’t too bad for a heist thriller.
(In theaters, December 2010) I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience of watching 127 Hours. Survival films strike an implicit deal with viewers in that they’re going to spend much of the film’s length feeling acutely uncomfortable, and this one doesn’t soften the experience of spending five days with a poor guy with a hand stuck between a rock and a crevice wall. Since there’s only one slightly softer component in that mix, you can guess what’s coming… and steel yourself for it. Director Danny Boyle’s films have been hit or miss as far as I’m concerned, but his impressionistic direction style here works well at presenting the protagonist’s experiences and keeping the film interesting even as it’s stuck in one location. If 127 Hours does something very well, it’s to put us inside the protagonist’s every solitary experiences from the irresistible appeal of the outdoors to tasting the last of his water reserves: Indeed, when That Scene comes up, it’s easy to end up seeing stars alongside the hero. James Franco is exceptional as a self-reliant man slowly discovering the limits of insularity: The film depends on him, and his performance is one of the few this year capable of rivalling Ryan Reynolds’ similar turn in Buried. But 127 Hours is not a downer thriller, and so viewers emerge from the experience thoroughly uplifted. Despite the fact that the film stays in one location for about two-third of its length and often resorts to oneiric flights of fancy, it still feels taut, tight and unsentimental. It’s a minor achievement in filmmaking, and it will win over even the sceptics.