Skip to main content

So what have you been up to... for 20 years?

T2 Trainspotting
(2017)

(SPOILERS) “First there was an opportunity. And then there was a betrayal.” The story of making of The Beach? I had been of the view that Danny Boyle was dicing with artistic death by revisiting past glories, particularly given Trainspotting’s dismissal of those who inevitably get old, past it and deteriorate, but this – and maybe it is just that nostalgia talking, an active conversation the picture cannily embraces and foregrounds, almost metatextually so – is his best picture since those glory days. He can’t resist overdoing the directorial dazzle at times, and screenwriter John Hodge’s conceits don’t always come off, but Boyle’s reunion with Ewan McGregor has resulted in a tale that breaks new terrain on its characters and actively picks up themes that had been left open-ended. T2 Trainspotting, against the odds, more than justifies the decision to reopen the book on this quartet and how they haven’t grown.


I was initially disappointed to realise there would be no ongoing narration, since Renton’s conversational insights are such a core facet of the original. There’s a notable, informative exception:  the very funny scam he and Sick Boy (I’m going to call him Sick Boy rather than Simon here, and Renton rather than Mark, and Begbie rather than Franco, and Spud rather than Daniel, as it’s just plain easier; even if it rather goes against the picture’s intent of character exploration, such a choice is fully in keeping with its two-edged nostalgic streak) pull at the Orange Order event. That, and the reprise of “Choose Life”, which is explained rather than narrated (over-explained? Some might rather come away feeling that Boyle has over-ed everything here).


Those aside, this is very much a straight story punctuated with Boyle’s pop sensibility, whereas the original wore its jagged edges with pride, fashioning a uniquely lyrical pattern. As such, I can see how a narration wouldn’t fit here. Renton has no vantage point from which to explain his place. He’s lost, lost in a reverie for the past when he’s not mulling his not that untypical mid-40s present – divorced, conscious of his mortality, imminently to lose his job – and that past extends way back, as far as childhood exploits, the wonders of George Best, and as recently as the final shot of Trainspotting.


While Boyle possibly over-quotes himself, it’s hard not to conclude that Hodge’s screenplay almost entirely justifies such a decision. I’ve seen the re-contextualising of the original compared to Back to the Future Part II, which is apt in some respects; while that picture made the narrative repeats wholly essential to the plot, Robert Zemeckis stopped and indulged nostalgia for the crowd-pleasing highpoints of an original only four years old. This is a picture where all Renton’s chickens come home to roost, so dealing with the past in a way Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s similarly-themed The World’s End entirely failed. There’s a great scene in which Mark and Sick Boy shout over each other while the latter’s not-quite girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) resorts to speaking Bulgarian, and her commentary on the oblivious pair entirely sums up the movie: “You’re living in the past”.


Aren’t Boyle and Hodge doing likewise, through their creations, tourists in their own creative peak? Spud seeing (the opening) scenes from the original; Renton passing by Take Two of the Worst Toilet in Scotland (before, in possibly the standout scene for crackerjack comic timing and tension, encountering Begbie on the other side of a cubicle); Renton rolling off the bonnet of a car, then fixing the driver with that wild-eyed, lovin’ it grin; the strains of Lust to Life spluttering, threatening to kick into gear courtesy of The Prodigy’s remix; the inevitable heroin fix; the “Choose life” conversation; returning to mourn Tommy at the very spot they spurned his clean-living intentions, as Renton and Sick Boy exchange sharp rebukes over their capital crimes.


Renton, despite having made a clean break, has heart problems – he never did get clean inside, Hodge is telling us – and none of them have made successes of their lives. Spud is still a junkie, Sick Boy still a sleazy, sick boy-man, user of others and coke, Begbie still a complete fucking psycho. And Renton, still self-justifying his less-than-honourable behaviour. Only Diane, in a too-brief cameo from Kelly McDonald, has moved onwards and upwards, becoming a lawyer (a good and noble thing? It is here anyway, because it is at least something tangible). Regardless, she holds forth one of the slyest observations, given their very illegal first coupling, telling Renton that that Veronika is “too young for you”.


The picture wisely steers clear of trenchant political positions or commentary, as these characters are far too self-involved for anything approaching bona fide social consciences; about as far as Boyle is prepared to go is the “Choose Life” redux, which is far more about social devolution 2.0 – or simply the out of touch older generation – more about a general antipathy than any kind of incisive invective (even if the 9/11 reference skirts close to fake news/conspiracy debunking).


The Veronika character, on the one hand, is devised as a plot motor, to reveal aspects of our “heroes”, rather than translating as a rounded character in her own right (what do we really know about her by the end?) But, on the other, she’s something of a modern take on the femme fatale, there to manipulate them into arriving at the outcome she wants, and sitting pretty while they’re left with egg on their faces. Nedyalkova certainly seizes the role and every scene, quietly making space for herself against the showier roles of her fellow actors.


She’s there to bring Renton and Sick Boy back into each other’s arms and is so successful, they may well spend another 20 years failing to do anything other than love/hate each other (the “Why don’t you just fuck each other” line is a bit on the nose, mainly because it’s been the highlighted subtext of pretty much every bromance in recent memory, but it still succeeds in context). And she’s there to untap Spud’s cork of authorial ability. That’s probably worth £100k of EU funding.


Spud’s writing is a lovely touch: I’ve assumed Renton is effectively a stand-in for Welsh himself (and, of course, Ewen Bremner played Renton on stage before McGregor put a pretty face to the part), but transposing him to Spud, an idiot bard in the making, is inspired; the comic relief of the original becomes the heart of the sequel. And Bremner shows he’s the great unsung master performer of these movies, his pile of gangling limbs and strangulated delivery giving way to soulful insights that retain that same essence of character, such that you can see how he nearly tames the Begbie beast into a bliss of past exploits remembered.


The follow-on from this, that Begbie is even awarded a momentary attempt to locate humanity in his anti-paternal relationship, left me wondering if that decision might have been a mistake, since you should never soften a psychopath (so too, it might have offered a finality, if that toilet had permanently pulverised his skull; if there wasn’t at least one eye on further chapters, I suspect such a thing would have come to pass).


The menace of marauding Begbie, a relentless T-1000 on the trail of Mark Renton (appropriate for the title, then), gives the picture its own distinctive rhythm and inner tension, and if feels right that the threat doesn’t come from an outsider; it’s this group that destroyed their own lives, rather than it being anyone else’s fault. Indeed, during the closing stages, along with a couple of visual nods to Blade Runner (of all things), I was put in mind of the deranged crescendo of Boyle’s debut, Shallow Grave (prior to that, there’s even a spade, or two, so they can dig a pit, or two, although that scene just sort of shows up there for no good reason, a narrative cul-de-sac). I have to admit, though, with those childhood flashbacks, that I’d never even considered Begbie was supposed to be a contemporary of the other lads; the vague acknowledgment of this, by noting he’d been kept back in class, elicited simply a “What, for 10 years?” (not unlike attempting to believe there’s only seven years between Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas).


Carlyle is a solid as you’d expect, able to effortlessly tap Begbie’s endless well of rage, although having him also play Begbie Sr is a bit too cute, and his exploits with Viagra appear to have wandered in from a Judd Apatow joint. Miller, Sick Boy’s bleach job receding and in demeanour simply sour where before he was winningly pithy, is toxically magnetic and displays such easy chemistry with McGregor, you hope they do other things together.


Yes, McGregor. Whose film this is. Finally, after decades of anaemic, inoffensive appearances –  in the region of 50 movie roles – he gets to tear into a vital character. It’s no wonder he’s identified himself so profusely with Renton in interviews, as it feels as if, in career terms, he has finally chosen life. Hopefully he and Boyle will work again before too long, as three out of four is pretty good evidence of alchemy.


Like I say, not all of T2 works – there are times when Boyle becomes too diverted by his own visual trickery, such as the cartoon heads stuck on footage from the original, or an obvious gag like Raging Spud (although, Anthony Dod Mantle’s skills as a cinematographer are the perfect complement to this kind of material; let him never darken the doors of a Ron Howard extravaganza again). And there’s the fact that the lean, mean original has suffered middle-aged spread in its running time (although, honestly, I barely noticed, so just what am I complaining about here?) And the get-rich scheming echoes the least resonant aspect of the original (that is, when these films are veering into “movie” plots, rather than striking their beats from experiences).


But generally, the balance struck in both embracing and rejecting nostalgia, in the name of exploring its allure to a generation for whom there is now only self-referencing, is near-perfectly achieved. And there are some sharp conceits, such as the undercutting of the (trailer: that Wolf Alice track is perfection) moment where Renton saves Spud with the latter’s complete lack of appreciation, or Sick Boy’s coke-addled revenge scheme singularly failing off a cliff. And then there’s the lovely moment between Renton and dad James Cosmo: a simple hug at the top of the stairs. And Lust for Life, finally charged up, finally leaping into life, finally, at the end. Maybe there is still hope.


T2 Trainspotting has a chance to find its own level of audience attachment in a way the rapturously-received original didn’t (which is not to say it didn’t fully deserve its success, but I remember going to see it on its first day, and its status was a fait accompli); the cautious, not entirely-convinced response makes its long-term appeal less assured, but also more intriguing. After all, you can’t really have a zeitgeist movie for the middle-aged. Can you? So, T3 in 2038? With Begbie in a bath tub, chasing Renton, Spud and Sick Boy down a hill? On heroin? I’ll be there. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…