T2 Trainspotting – Film Review

“The most energetic film we have ever seen,” is how Danny Boyle first envisioned 1996’s Trainspotting. As it turned out, that was something of an understatement. A wild, sweaty, angry ode to a bunch of Scottish skag heads, the seminal Irvine Welsh adaptation felt like it was wired to the post-Thatcher optimism of the Cool Britannia movement. Erupting seemingly out of nowhere, this pokey British indie flick took the world by storm and became the bold, outrageous avatar for a generation. And now it finally has a sequel.

But if that film was the euphoric high, then T2 Trainspotting is the cataclysmic comedown. In the intervening twenty years, that swaggering hedonism has faded and been replaced by sombre introspection as the fear of middle age took hold. And while it’s still funny, moving and wildly inventive in places, this belated follow-up just doesn’t compare to that first unexpected head rush.

Two decades after scarpering with a bag full of cash he stole from his best mates, Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton is still running – only now his feet are pounding along on a treadmill in an Amsterdam gym. After suffering a heart scare, coupled with the rest of his life crumbling around him, Renton decides it’s time to return to Edinburgh to look up his old friends.

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Not that any of them are particularly pleased to see his return. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy, now Simon, is running his Aunty’s half-empty pub while attempting to blackmail local politicians with the help of his prostitute girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is back on smack and has lost both his job and his family to addiction. And Robert Carlyle’s Begbie? He’s just taken a rather bloody and stabby route out of his twenty-year prison sentence and is once again prowling Edinburgh’s cobbled streets in search of revenge.

With Renton revisiting all his favourite old haunts, it’s no surprise this film feels awash with nostalgia. Whether it’s recreating iconic moments like Renton grinning wildly through a car windscreen or projecting Super 8-style footage of the boys’ innocent childhoods onto every available surface, T2 is at least as focused on what went on before as it is with what’s happening right now. And that’s its biggest stumbling block.

Wistful backward glances might befit a poignant salute to middle age disappointment but it also dampens the fiery intensity we expect of a Trainspotting film. The first film was fuelled by Renton’s anarchic, anti-establishment worldview, but twenty years on his life has crashed into a dead end and he has no idea what to do about it. That listlessness is reflected in the story, which drifts aimlessly between four middle-aged men who fear their next stop in life is the scrap heap and who try desperately to cling to past glories in order to compensate. Well-observed and resonant as this might be to its original audience, such morbid themes put quite the downer on proceedings.

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That loss of passion is also felt in the visuals. Boyle revives the original’s electrifying mix of grubby realism and hallucinogenic fantasy, but the hurtling handheld camera angles, freeze frames, zooms and jump cuts just don’t feel as tight and edgy as they once were. There are still some great flourishes – Renton cradling a free-falling Spud is a particular highlight – but mostly it’s the same old techniques that have since been aped by countless low-budget gangster flicks.

Even our four favourite smack heads have lost their spark. Without his raging charisma, Renton comes across as a selfish jerk who has no remorse for stealing from his friends and even plots to betray them all over again when the opportunity arises. Simon is likewise without charm, clinging to Renton’s treachery in order to excuse all the other terrible decisions he’s made throughout his life. And Begbie, having moved on from terrorising random revellers in the pub to intimidating his own family, now seems like nothing more than a violent thug.

Only Spud retains our sympathies. A fundamentally kind-hearted man who’s been badly let down by an unforgiving welfare system, Spud is the only one we’re really rooting for as he strives to channel his addictive energy into chronicling his friends’ adventures. Thankfully, he’s also the one who comes closest to a triumph when the film reaches its bittersweet end. Everyone else is seemingly content to wallow in their faded pasts instead of trying to move forward. So much for choosing life.

Runtime: 117 mins; Genre: Drama; Released: 27th January 2017;

Director: Danny Boyle; Writers: John Hodge (Screenplay), Irvine Welsh (novel);

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle

This review was first featured on FlickFeast.co.uk

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Lion – Film Review

In the early 1980s, a five-year-old Indian boy, Saroo Brierley, falls asleep in an empty train carriage and wakes up 1600km from his home where his is eventually adopted by a kindly Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, after scouring Google Earth for villages that match his fleeting memories of home, an adult Saroo rediscovers his birthplace and finally reunites with his lost family.

It’s a story so astonishing that it can only be true. And in director Garth Davis’ hands, Lion is also an emotionally wrenching, beautifully encapsulating journey that follows a young man as he endeavours to find his way back home against all the odds.

Rather than the typical mystery procedural, this adaptation of Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home unfolds chronologically – a refreshingly simple approach that removes the need for a spoon-feeding voice-over or a clichéd framing device. None are needed here because the emotional tug of Saroo’s experiences, both harrowing and life affirming, are more than enough to pull you along on his odyssey.

It’s the film’s first half that perhaps carries the most impact. It’s certainly the more intense and eventful as a young Saroo (played by fresh face Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother and ends up trapped on a train bound for Calcutta. Davis (here making his feature debut) powerfully captures that universal experience of being a child lost among a forest of adults, tightly framing the camera around Saroo as he tries to navigate the unfamiliar and unwelcoming city in which he finds himself abandoned.

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Pawar is remarkable throughout, even as he rides a whirlwind of changing emotions that runs the gamut between panic and hope. Saroo has the expected child-like innocence, wide-eyed and self-assured, but he’s also resilient, resourceful, fearless and determined to survive. That Pawar is able to translate all of these feelings while hardly uttering a word (Saroo’s Hindi proves useless in Bengali-Speaking Calcutta) is nothing less than extraordinary.

After a period spent living on the streets – an all too common occurrence in India, as a post-film title card points out  – Saroo is rescued by an Australian couple and flown out of India to begin a new life in Tasmania. Though still absorbing, this second half, in which an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) searches for his lost home, is far more sedate and occasionally veers uncomfortable close to melodrama.

That’s partly because watching a man scroll through Google Earth in his PJs isn’t quite as compelling as a young boy running for his life in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. But it’s also because the film becomes less emotionally rounded as it progresses, becoming lodged in a monotonous pit of despair that grinds the narrative to a halt for long periods.

What saves it is the utterly sublime performances of Patel and Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother. Kidman absolutely nails the look of unconditional love that any parent will recognise, and her instantly believable bond with Patel becomes Lion’s main draw in the latter stages as Saroo’s need to reconnect with his birth mother threatens to crack their carefully cultivated relationship. That their eventual reconciliation packs an even greater punch than Saroo’s bittersweet homecoming speaks volumes for the strength of Patel and Kidman’s performances.

By turns desperately sad and joyously uplifting, Lion is a heart-breaking story about the inescapable bond of family, one that’s delicately crafted, wonderfully performed and told with a soulful poignancy. In short, it’s truly astounding.

Runtime: 118mins; Genre: Drama; Released: 20 January 2017;

Director: Garth Davis; Writer: Luke Davies (screenplay), Saroo Brierley (book);

Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara

La La Land – Film Review

Arriving in UK cinemas less than a week after it swept every gong going at the Golden Globes, it’d be easy get carried away by all the hype surrounding La La Land. After all, this is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the searing jazz thriller Whiplash, starring two of Hollywood’s most likeable actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; a film that has had critics doing summersaults over one another to tell you it’s this generation’s Casablanca. It must be really good, then. Right?

It’s certainly enticing. A fizzy extravaganza of catchy-yet-soulful ditties and exuberant dance numbers that’s coupled with two exquisite performances from its oh-so charming leads, La La Land dazzles in its early moments, but it runs out of energy long before the audience has even had time to get comfy in their seats.

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Set in modern day Los Angeles, La La Land is clearly made with a nostalgic affection for the MGM musical tradition. Shot in retro CinemaScope on the sun-drenched backlots of Warner Bros. studios, the film oozes old school glamour and charm from its first fantastically orchestrated song-and-dance number on a gridlocked stretch of freeway to the classic tap dance routine across the Hollywood hills at sunset. Every single frame of this movie will have you itching to revisit the likes of Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

While the style might be a throwback to a bygone era, the story itself is a thoroughly modern romance. An expansion of Chazelle’s student film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, it follows Mia (Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling), a failed actress and struggling jazz pianist chasing their dreams in the big city. The path of their relationship immediately subverts expectations as they flip each other the bird while passing on a freeway. When next they meet, in a dimly lit bar where Sebastian tinkles a mournful melody on his piano, convention states they should fall madly in love as soon as their eyes meet. Instead, Sebastian barges past Mia, frustrated at being fired once again for refusing to play the agreed set list.

When they do eventually fall into each other’s arms, culminating in a surprisingly sincere, gravity-defying dance among the stars at a local planetarium, the relationship is unexpectedly fleeting. Drawn together by their shared artistic failings, Mia and Sebastian are soon pulled apart when they again feel the tug of their creative ambitions. In the same way Whiplash was about much more than drumming, La La Land is not just a homage to Hollywood musicals: it’s a vibrant salute to those who dare to chase their dreams and the personal sacrifices they must make in order to achieve them.

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That this tale feels more charming than bleak is at least in part due to the effortless chemistry of Stone and Gosling, playing an onscreen couple for the third time after Crazy, Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Stone’s sweet, ambitious and vulnerable Mia is the perfect counterweight to Gosling’s cooly insecure Sebastian. They can even hold a tune pretty well, a fact that is frankly sickening when you consider the many other talents they also possess.

Yet charisma and good looks will only get you so far – yes, even in Hollywood – and La La Land struggles to sustain its early promise. Much like Whiplash had a bold new take on an established genre only to peter out toward the end, Chazelle’s sophomore effort blows through all its creative juices in the first act leaving the rest of the film to tread water for the remaining 90 minutes. It’s almost like Chazelle forgets he’s making a musical, creating something more akin to a movie trailer as scene after scene goes by without anything of note actually happening.

By the time the film’s bittersweet final moments arrive, you’ll be itching for the credits to role rather than being swept up in the passion, skill and considerable heart that must’ve gone into bringing this long-gestating project to the screen. Perhaps some dreams are better left unfulfilled.

Runtime: 128 mins; Genre: Musical/Romance; Released: 12 January 2017;

Director: Damien Chazelle; Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle;

Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt

A Series of Unfortunate Events – TV Review

“I would advise all our viewers to turn away immediately and watch something more pleasant instead,” Patrick Warburton’s fictional author dryly warns at the start of this Netflix series. Imploring your audience to avoid your lavish adaptation might sound counter-productive but it’s precisely that kind of bleak self-deprecation that made A Series of Unfortunate Events a global success in the noughties.

Deftly tackling gloomy themes of grief, loss and loneliness, Daniel Handler’s (writing under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) best-selling novels enthralled young readers with its oddly addictive blend of grim humour, outlandish villainy and gothic undertones. A mad-cap movie adaptation duly followed in 2004, but a sequel never materialised. Now, some 13 years later, Netflix has stepped up to take a whack at it. And the results are (mostly) scintillating, a word which here means producing a faithful adaptation that’s exceptionally clever, darkly funny and wonderfully weird.

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Whereas the move tried to cram the first three books into one catalogue of calamities, the show wisely dedicates two episodes to each novel. This leaves plenty of time to fit in more of Lemony Snicket’s (Warburton) enjoyably sardonic narration and much more of the mystery that the movie could only skim across. That includes evolving a conspiracy surrounding the secretive VFD organisation, which gradually revealed itself in the books, into a 60s-tinged spy caper that plays out in the background of each episode.

It also leaves more room to get to know the three beleaguered Baudelaire children – Violet, Klaus and Sunny – who are orphaned when their parents perish in a very fiery disaster at their lavish mansion. As beautiful, charming and precocious as you could hope to imagine, the Baudelaires retain their defining characteristics: inventiveness, bookishness and biteyness. Like all the best children’s authors, Handler understood the key to writing a great children’s book: make the kids smarter than the adults. Throughout this sorry tale Violet, Klaus and Sunny are routinely failed by the foolish, gullible, incompetent grown-ups around them; and yet they continue to show their courage, resourcefulness and kindness even as more misery is piled upon them.

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Which sadly forces us to discuss Count Olaf, the failed actor-turned-failed criminal mastermind who conjures a number of outlandish schemes in order to acquire the Baudelaire fortune. As with the movie, in which Jim Carrey played the monobrowed-machiavellian, the theatricality of the role is amped up to preposterous levels here, giving a game Neil Patrick Harris license to chew every piece of scenery he can curl his grubby fingernails around. Sneering, crooning and flouncing through every one of his scenes, including a suitable rickety song-and-dance number, Harris is clearly having a lot of fun in the role; yet his overzealous performance doesn’t quite fit with Olaf’s underlying malevolence and somewhat undermines the moments when he is genuinely cruel and abusive towards the children.

There are other issues, too. The languid pace of the novels can sometimes drag on screen and the repetitive nature of the stories does not easily lend itself to binge-watching. Nevertheless, A Series of Unfortunate Events is warmly written, exquisitely designed – the wobbly sets recall the whimsical suburbia of early Tim Burton movies – and executed with gusto by all involved. It might not be pleasant viewing, but there’s every reason to keep watching.

Taboo – TV Review

Don’t be fooled by its Saturday night timeslot, Taboo is not friendly viewing for the whole family. Reuniting Peaky Blinders writer Steven Knight and acting’s Tom Hardy – whose scene-stealing turn as Alfie Solomons in the former’s Brummie thriller made a second collaboration a certainty – Taboo is a gritty and bloody tale of a savage man who’s hell-bent on revenge. Ant and Dec wouldn’t last one second in this world.

Hardy, who co-created the series with his dad ‘Chips’, plays mysterious adventurer James Delaney. Long presumed dead after disappearing to Africa, the grumpy traveller returns to London town to investigate the shady circumstances surrounding his father’s recent death and to stake claim to his inheritance – a small but vital plot of land off the west coast of the Americas.

Delaney is a dangerous and unpredictable character, of that there is surely no doubt. His unexpected return home reignites rumours of his past, which included re-enacting The Revenant’s bear-mauling scene in Chancery Lane, and you get the sense he’s going to go full Bane again before too long as he stomps around the city looking to settle old scores. It’s a typically intense performance from Hardy, who so often excels at playing this kind of eccentric hardman. He seems to perpetually teeter on the edge of madness as he growls ominously about his plans for vengeance: “Forgive me father for I have indeed sinned.”

If it is indeed a bust-up Delaney is searching for, he’s not short of potential enemies. Of immediate concern is the shadowy East India Company, led by a characteristically devious Jonathan ‘High Sparrow’ Pryce, who desire Delaney’s island for their own gain and are perfectly willing to bend the law in order to get it. But he might also want to keep a glowering eye on his pompous brother-in-law and conflicted half-sister, who don’t seem like the sort of people to let a big payday slip through their grasp without putting up a fight.

While much of the plot might inspire recollections of Poldark – a brooding son returns home to attempt to revive his recently deceased father’s crumbling business – we’re really a long way from the sun, sand and sexy scything of Aiden Turner’s tricorned anti-hero. Like Peaky Blinders, Taboo is a darker, more modern take on the period drama – as director Kristoffer Nyholm’s (The Killing) stylish visuals make clear. The expensive production values paint a vivid picture of 19th Century London as a corrupt wasteland shrouded in a thick fog which conceals its characters’ greedy schemes and intentions.

This darkness sometimes strays into overkill, especially for Hardy’s Delaney who alternates between spouting portentous proclamations of violence and experiencing nightmarish flashbacks of his troubles in Africa. Still, if sequins, sob stories and Gary Barlow aren’t really your thing, then Taboo might just be the show to liven up your Saturday night telly.

Assassin’s Creed – Film Review

Everybody knows that movies based on video games have, at best, a ropey reputation. Yet even after Warcraft became the most recent title to disappoint, all eyes immediately turned to Assassin’s Creed hoping it would be the exception to the rule. There were reasons to be optimistic: not only is the game set in a visually inventive and vibrant world, the movie version reunites the trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and director Justin Kurzel, whose bloody and brutal Macbeth mesmerised audiences in 2015. By while their creative efforts enlivened Shakespeare’s stabby tale by adding cinematic flair, Assassin’s Creed merely flatters to deceive.

The plot itself is easy to follow for the already initiated and for those who are new to the franchise, with Kurzel wisely taking the game’s best known elements and weaving them into an entirely new tale. Fassbender plays new creation Callum Lynch, a death row prisoner who is saved from execution by Cotillard’s enigmatic scientist, a reluctant stooge for the mysterious Abestergo Industries. He’s taken to a secret facility where he learns he’s a descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a 15th Century assassin who is the last known possessor of an important artefact, the Apple of Eden. Using a piece of revolutionary tech called the Animus, Lynch is imported into the memories of his ancestors to track the mystical artefact.

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The most effective of Kurzel’s tweaks is reimagining the Animus as a giant mechanical arm which tosses Lynch around Abestergo’s futuristic facility, allowing him to interact with his ancestor’s memories in a way that’s far more cinematic than just laying down for a nap in a hospital bed. Though it’s occasionally overused, disrupting the flow of the action, more often the device helps to translate the so-called ‘bleeding effect’ as Lynch begins to experience flashbacks outside of the machine and starts to question his own reality.

What’s not quite so successful is an attempt to crowbar weighty themes relating to man’s predilection towards violence into the plot. Assassin’s Creed is a stupendously daft movie at heart, revolving around a preposterous piece of technology and a magical MacGuffin that contains the genetic code to free will, yet Kurzel insists on treating the whole endeavour with all the stony-faced seriousness of a prostate exam. The script is loaded with portentous dialogue, every scene is shrouded in murky greys or muddy browns, and the entire cast has been seemingly banned from using any facial expression other than a bitter grimace. In his hunt to make Assassin’s Creed work on the big screen, Kurzel has apparently forgotten that it’s also supposed to be entertaining.

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The characters, too, lack proper shading. Fassbender naturally brings a brooding magnetism to Lynch, but all we really learn about our narrative lynchpin is that he hates his father and isn’t much fond of the bible either. Meanwhile, Cotillard’s Sophia has daddy issues of her own thanks to Jeremy Irons’ machiavellian manipulator, who is overly fond of that Evil Guy staple of silently watching proceedings from a shadowy location. The problem is that we only get to see their lives through the prism of the Abestergo clinic; we never get an insight into their personal issues or experience what really makes them tick. Consequently, the central thread feels like an emotional dead weight, despite the supposedly high stakes involved, as we’re never given enough reason to feel invested in the drama.

That being said, the visuals are inventively crafted and beautifully executed. The action is frenetic and ferocious, infusing fast-paced parkour with slick martial arts moves as the camera ricochets through the cramped streets of 15th Century Constantinople. The city’s ageing grandeur provides a refreshing contrast to the cold, clinical greys of the present day and also creates a breathtakingly dramatic backdrop for some awe-inspiring set-pieces, including the game’s signature Leap of Faith from a 125 foot platform. At times it’s wonderfully exhilarating to watch, yet these moments of far too infrequent to overcome the film’s many dramatic lulls.

While Assassin’s Creed is by no means the worst entry into the movies-based-on-games genre, thanks to some magnetic performances and spectacular visuals, but an overly po-faced tone and a plot that favours mystery over characterisation means it still falls short of its own lofty expectations.

Runtime: 115 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 1st January 2016;

Director: Justin Kurzel; Screenwriters: Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage;

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson

A Monster Calls – Film Review

A close fried of Guillermo del Toro, it’s easy to see why director J. A. Bayona was drawn to adapting A Monster Calls. A fanciful and chilling tale about a child in turmoil that flits between grim reality and dark fantasy, Patrick Ness’ eponymous novel shares more than a passing similarity to Pan’s Labyrinth. And like that superlative fairytale, A Monster Calls is told with a potency and awesome beauty that will leave you spellbound.

Bayona’s biggest triumph is drawing a powerfully moving performance from near newcomer Lewis MacDougall, who plays 12-year-old Conor O’Malley. Whereas many child characters can be reduced to a single word or type, MacDougall’s Conor is a knotty mess of complexities as he struggles to find a way to cope with his cancer-stricken mum’s (Felicity Jones) impending fate. Resisting an obvious temptation to over emote, MacDougall’s acting is poignantly understated, relaying Conor’s fear, rage, confusion and loneliness with subtle glances and flickered movements as we follow events from his isolated perspective.

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Plagued by harrowing nightmares of losing his mum, Conor stays awake late into the night sketching monsters in his bedroom. That is until the ancient yew tree at the bottom of his garden creaks into life, uprooting itself in order to tell Conor three tales of woe, after which he must tell his own story and it must be the truth. Having previously given a voice to Narnia’s sage lion Aslan, Liam Neeson is the ideal choice to lend some gravitas to the centuries-old Monster, his gruff, sonorous growl creating a sinister undertone that perfectly matches its gnarled, grotesquely sinewy design.

Such visual flair runs through the entire endeavour, especially in the telling of the Monster’s first two tales. Mirroring Jim Kay’s evocative illustrations to animate the parables, Bayona utilises an inky storybook effect that’s as scratched and distressed as it is childlike, almost as if a kid has hastily scribbled each scene whilst in the grip of a fearful nightmare. It’s bleakly beguiling stuff.

It’s not just MacDougall and Neeson who impress; the entire cast is exceptional. Felicity Jones wonderfully portrays Conor’s ailing mum, who battles to put on a brave front even as her health progressively weakens. Toby Kebbell, playing Conor’s distant father, cuts a suitably helpless figure as realises he’s utterly powerless to prevent his son from feeling pain. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver proves she makes an excellent icy grandmother while also imbuing her character with a subtle hopelessness that strains against her resilient stubbornness and leaks out whenever the thought of losing her daughter becomes too much to endure.

Bayona and Ness, here adapting his own novel, handle heavy themes of grief and responsibility with uncompromising openness. It’s no spoiler to admit this is not a tale with a happy storybook ending; instead it bravely recognises that life is unfair and tangled with contradictions while extolling the importance of learning to live “messily ever after”. Such grimly observed life lessons are perhaps why some have questioned whether the film will find an audience: surely it’s too bleak for children and far too fantastical for grown ups? Yet that does Bayona and Ness’s work a disservice. A Monster Calls is a heart wrenching, bittersweet tale of loss, masterfully crafted and intricately told. It takes root in your soul and squeezes your heart tight before filling it with life again. And that’s a story to which everyone can relate.

Runtime: 108 mins; Genre: Fantasy/Drama; Released: 1 January 2017;

Director: J. A. Bayona; Screenwriter: Patrick Ness;

Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell

This review also featured on FlickFeast.co.uk