Out of steam: my film review of a disappointing T2 Trainspotting 

Last night, my partner Nancy and I watched Trainspotting 2 at the cinema. We had completed the obligatory reminder viewing of the first film earlier in the weekend. I hadn’t seen Trainspotting in years, although I am so familiar with the film I could probably recite it from memory. It was funny realising how influential the film had been on me when growing up, with it’s core message still relevant today.

I had high hopes for the sequel, and film reviews seemed positive (by the way, spoilers). As it turned out, one of the main thrusts of the film could apply to the reviews. In the film there’s a moment when Renton, Sick Boy and Spud go to pay their respects to Tommy (who you’ll remember died in the first film in a pool of his own vomit). Renton says he’s paying respects, but Sick Boy remarks it’s actually nostalgia. “You’re a tourist, visiting your own childhood.” The reviews, and the film itself, are arguably guilty of a similar fault.

The film’s plot is not too remarkable. Renton returns after a 20 year hiatus, facing various accusations from his old friends that he betrayed. There’s some revenge plot with Begbie, and some nonsense about a brothel and criminal enterprise. Really though, this is about Renton’s reflection on life after his 20 years in Amsterdam.

In truth, it’s never quite clear why Renton returns when he does. There’s some mention about a divorce and a heart condition, but I struggled to understand why he was staying in Edinburgh at all. He’s met with various accusations by his friends about betrayal. Even Spud accused Renton, since being left 4 grand was only going to go in one direction – more heroin. 

Spud actually becomes the character with the most growth throughout, becoming a typical of fictional Irvine Welsh figure (I assumed that was the natural comparison – many lines of his fiction are from the original book) as he starts to write as a means of combatting his heroin addiction.

Heroin makes little feature in the film. A central character in the first film, it is given the same treatment as other characters where it is exhibited merely as a form of nostalgia. There’s one scene where Renton and Sick Boy shoot up together. Nothing comes from it, except a slightly haunting shot of a distraught Spud watching from the hallway. There’s no consequence at all, no dilemma, no question in Renton’s mind about taking heroin again after 20 years. Sick Boy is introduced with a cocaine addiction, but this too has little or no consequence (it seems to get forgotten by the end of the film). It’s a heavily sanitised, Hollywoodesque version of drug using. It’s shown as a reminder, but lacking the three dimensional discourse that permeated the first film. 

The original film had more gusto than this, challenging head on the conventional thinking of heroin and forcing 1990’s society (well the part that was paying attention) to rethink its assumptions. This film offers none of that. We are joining Renton as tourists, visiting his childhood, and ours, as we meet familiar characters.

There are some funny and poignant moments, but too much is piecemeal and slightly forced. Renton has a ‘choose life’ monologue, updated for the 21st century, but even this seems a little cosmetic. There’s more feeling in Spud’s inner conflict, trying to explore his past with written words; Begbie’s realisation that he’s old and his reflection on his past, forcing Spud to read aloud the segments that reference him. Most of it though is stuff on the sidelines. 

Female characters are woefully underused. The film could have been shot without any female characters. Maybe that reflects the ‘boys own’ quality of the film, but it’s a missed opportunity. Anjela Nedyalkova has the most screen time, but is ultimately wasted with few chances for viewers to empathise with her. She ultimately disappears stealing (a lot of) money from Renton and Sick Boy. Her role is shrunk to a opportunistic thief, and with a heart of gold touch that renders her screen presence meaningless.

Kelly MacDonald’s brief cameo is equally frustrating. It’s a role that could have been played by anyone and given Kelly M’s talent, and the more meaningful engagement of her character in the first film, it’s sad they couldn’t bring more for that character.

Pauline Turner, playing Begbie’s wife, has perhaps the most compelling role, but is sadly underused. Shirley Henderson’s inclusion as Spud’s ex is similarly under-utilised. It’s as though the producers/writers/director couldn’t think of a decent female role and included them  for sake of adding women. Tokenistic additions that could have been absent without sacrificing the plot. 

And really, that’s the film summed up. Bit parts and slight, casual references that do nothing to develop the characters. We become the tourists in a hollow and sanitised sequel that offers only a glimmer of what could have been. Disappointed.

Rogue One review

I’m well behind the curve on this one…wait a second…

…spoilers ahead (for the whole Star Wars films franchise, not just Rogue One)…

…behind the curve on this one, but after finally seeing Rogue One, and suffering something of a nerdgasm, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on this film.

It’s brilliant. Totally brilliant. Its visuals are outstanding, the pace keeps moving, and the throwbacks to A New Hope had me laughing in excitement and joy. The performances are excellent, and high spirited. Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelssohn, Wen Jiang, Donnie Yen, Alan Tudyk etc. etc. I really could go on. I loved the use of Peter Cushing for his image, and there was something truly poignant about seeing the wonderful Carrie Fisher right at the end. I must admit though, there were some other entries from a New Hope that had me truly rapt – more on this below.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Firstly, the plot and story. They’re both superb. Picking up the plot based on a few lines from the opening crawl of a New Hope was inspired, and the outcome even more so. This film really draws out the realities of the Empire in terms of their twisted ideologies of law and order. They destroy the city of Jedha to demonstrate that the Death Star actually works, justifying it as a target due to the presence of a band of off-shoot rebels led by Forest Whittaker’s impressive Saw Gerrera. Hundreds of innocent people are killed in the process, and to the films credit it highlights the futility of individual acts for the greater good. Jyn Erso risks her life to save a small child in the city, but that same child is almost certainly annihilated by the Death Star moments later. A subtle (I wonder even unintentional) signal that greater causes can not always afford to make sacrifices for individuals – something anathema to Hollywood heroism.

We see the Empire in more detail than we have before. Stormtroopers are everywhere; they freely assault citizens, tanks run through the streets, and a Star Destroyer can hover at whim over a city. There’s no effort by the Empire to disguise it’s authoritarian control. In the original trilogy we got a sense of the malevolence of the Empire, through Tarkin, Vader and finally the Empire. The destruction of Alderaan in a New Hope paints the Empire in modernist terms – a giant totalitarian entity destroying a whole planet – but it’s distant and lacking emotional context. Even the death of Leia’s father becomes abstract, and she barely has time to grieve in the film at all (indeed, I think one of her lines in the film specifically states “We have no time for our sorrows” or words to that effect). We see Rebels getting killed, but lack the emotional connection to make that have proper meaning. It gets even worse when we consider that (arguably) only two of the main good guy characters die in the original trilogy – Obi Wan and Yoda. 

Rogue One is very different, drawing us into personal, tangible, postmodern representations of human (and alien and droid) cost. Better than the Force Awakens’ lazy killing-off of Hans Solo, we feel each major good guy go through their sacrifices (ultimate sacrifices in fact) and even the minor Rebel characters have meaning by their deaths. This is a war film; people suffer, they die, and bad things are done by ordinarily good people.

We actually see Cassion Andor (played coolly but effectively by Diego Luna) execute informants and Stormtroopers. Executions, explicitly shown in a Disney film. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Lion King as a Disney film that has taken such a visual approach to murder.

The Rebels own discord and disharmony is demonstrated through Saw Gerrera’s extremist campaign. It’s not explained exactly how he constitutes an extremist, but it’s alluded to as being indiscriminate of civilian casualties. His band of rebels don’t pull punches, compared to the wider Alliance, whose very nature turns against itself through internal disagreement and strife. Rogue One demonstrates that rebellions, even good ones, lead to people committing savage acts. Think in real life, about Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki. Think about tales of supposedly ‘good’ forces committing war crimes of their own – raping and murdering civilians, torturing and executing enemy combatants. Rogue One doesn’t go so graphically of course, but as a ‘family film’ it’s great to see it bother at all to raise that moral ambiguity of war.

Subtle features like that are one of Rogue One’s biggest strengths, giving us a wider exploration of society and culture in the Star Wars galaxy, without getting sucked into the exposition all world building of the prequels. On Jedha we see the final passing of the Jedi lore – the broken statue of a Jedi in the desert, the abandoned Jedi temple. Hints of a religion that has now passed (at least, as far as the Emperor is concerned at this point). 

The Senate, which is finally dissolved in a New Hope, is featured as being a background issue. Nothing like the disastrous emphasis it was given in Phantom Menace, more the slight mention of a passing Republic, and an Empire finally coming into its own.

The best reference though, and I really don’t know if the filmmakers intended this, is Saw Gerrera. In the film he is portrayed as being dependent on cybernetic support after years of fighting. He uses an oxygen mask to help him breath. He is an extremist rebel, expelled by the Alliance because of his methods. I think back to the message of the original trilogy about Vader – “he’s more machine now than human, twisted and evil”. The message there is about losing your soul being represented as a visual decline (Vader’s reliance on machinery, Luke looking at his robotic hand, the Emperor’s withered features). In Rogue One this is thrown back against the Rebellion. It too can have a moral decline. If the filmmakers intended it, it was genius. 

I realise that there is a risk about such representation. Often bad guys are displayed as being visually repulsive, to represent that they are the bad guys. It’s an inference that can lead to prejudice against people with physical disabilities. In Star Wars though, the Empire is shown to be almost Aryan like in its all human make up, while the Rebellion represents a multicultural approach. It’s not like, say, Star Trek (with the borderline racist portrayal of virtually every bad guy except possibly Khan). Think Star Trek Nemesis, with the monster like Remans are portrayed as being solely, collectively, evil. In Rogue One, all the bad guys are portrayed as older white males. The Rebels have a mix of gender, cultural, race and species.

My biggest, personal joy, about Rogue One though are the references to the original trilogy, and even the slight nods to the awful prequels. We see a range of characters referenced – Vader and (ironically given his Hammer career) back-from-the-dead Peter Cushing are the most explicit. Again subtlety works for Rogue One, with little features of C3PO and R2D2 (giving a hint to the final reveal), the “I have the death sentence on twelve systems” guy from Star Wars (who gets lightsabered by Obi Wan for his troubles), and, for me the best, use of the original pilots from a New Hope. It’s logical really, since they would be flying multiple missions for the (fairly nascent) Rebel Alliance at the time. And we have a nice little cameo from Princess Leia right at the end, setting up a New Hope almost perfectly (and accounting for the ‘in your face’ opening of a Star Destroyer attacking her tiny Blockade Runner).

It’s Darth Vader though that’s the most effective, and demonstrates why he’s such a formidable presence on screen. For the first time we see Vader in full destructive capability against Rebels (possibly referencing more graphic portrayals in video games – I don’t know), obiliterating a small squad of Rebels in moments using the Force and his lightsaber. His brisk and irritable side come to the fore with Krennic’s overly speculative stretch for authority, getting force choked for his troubles. More subtlety, as Vader’s general scepticism about the Death Star – neatly suggesting it may compromise the Empire, and rightly foresees how it will ultimately strengthen the Rebellion – first seen in a New Hope, is explained in more detail. It is not merely about pride and the Force; Vader has a rational grievance about errors made by the Empire. It would have been interesting to see how that dynamic plays out with the Emperor, who clearly wants the Death Star built.

Seeing Peter Cushing used A LOT MORE than I expected also brought something of a sadness about his death. Obviously I wouldn’t expect him to ordinarily have survived this long – he was fairly old even in the 1990’s – but I had a tinge of nostalgia for an actor that, even now, from beyond the grave, exhibits a kind of charisma on screen. I wish we had seen more of him in a New Hope, but then Vader was clearly the bad guy for that whole trilogy so it made sense to focus on him.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few little quibbles, because there are one or two. Not like the inconsistencies in Force Awakens, where I was left shifting between barely concealed exasperation one moment and then excited awe the next. These are minor things, but I figure for the sake of fairness I should mention them…

Forest Whittaker has a padlock on his foot. I know there might be a practical reason for it, but visually it looked a little ludicrous. What would happen if he lost the key?

There’s a totally unnecessary scene involving an octopus like creature that mind rapes Bodhi Rook (underplayed a little by Riz Ahmed). It’s all to establish that Bodhi is not a spy and telling the truth. The problem is that issue is very quickly forgotten about anyway. It was a little like Force Awakens in a brief, but redundant CGI display. It didn’t add to the story and seemed inconsequential. 

The Rebel Alliance hold it’s important strategy meetings in full view, and inclusion, of minor officers. I realise that this might represent the more communal approach of the Alliance, but I still found it inplausible that such a body would allow it’s most senior council and leaders to be so exposed. I mean, the Imperials wouldn’t need a high level agent at all, they could just get a spy in as the cleaner or something.

Also, there are some aspects of the Rebel Alliance that are exposed here that raise interesting questions about the original trilogy. In Rogue One, the Rebels almost fracture because of the Death Star, like that! [click of the fingers], with little regard to their wider strategic ability. I realise it’s a film and there’s a need to summarise discussion, but I was curious about the original trilogy. After a New Hope, why do the Rebels just hang around Yavin 4 to celebrate, when the Empire (and it’s fuck-off big fleet) knows where it is? Is there an attempt to remove Mon Mothma after the Rebels have to flee Hoth? What discord occurs then? And after ROTJ, do the alliances break down as old arguments resurface? Force Awakens suggest the New Republic survives (well, until being obiliterated very easily by a giant, giant Death Star laser thing on a planet), AND the New Order (Empire two) is in existence. Clearly not all the goals of the Rebels were reached after the fall of the Empire.

Kassion, Jyn and K2SO take the uniforms off a shuttle inspection crew, but none of the Imperial officers outside seem to realise that a) completely different people come out of the shuttle and b) that the people coming out of the shuttle are not people they work with.

The Empire conly uses small shots of the Death Star at first because the film doesn’t want to up the ante too early with planetary destruction. I did make a complaint about Force Awakens doing the opposite in a different context (Kylo Ren having a hissy fit with his lightsaber twice), but in this context wouldn’t it just have been better to say that they need to improve the calibration or something?

Vader’s Star Destroyer comes out of hyperspace EXACTLY where the Rebel fleet is trying to escape. No. Fucking. Way.

I don’t care how good friends Chirrut and Baze are – Chirrut repeatedly saying “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me” after several years would become too annoying. It also seems contrary to the approach of Obi Wan and Yoda when training Luke.

Baze shoots everyone he fires at.

Stormtrooper armour is utterly useless. Chirrut beats them up with a stick and they are knocked out several times with relatively minor blows from main characters.

The Empire has seemingly no sense of health and safety at all. This was a running joke in a New Hope, with the Imperial troops having no protection from the Death Star ray when it is firing and the tractor beam controls on an extremely dangerous platform with no railings, but it continues here. Swiftly opening and shutting vents (a little Galaxy Quest like to be honest), and important control panels located a significant distance away from other key equipment and on stomach churning flimsy high platforms. The Empire has no union clearly.

Darth Vader’s house is masochistic in nature. Anakin Skywalker loses significant parts of is body after forfeiting the high ground to Obi Wan and getting dunked in burning lava. It is the reason he requires the black suit and breathing unit (presumably the cloak is an aesthetic choice). So building his house ON TOP OF A RIVER OF MOLTON LAVA seems to escalate masochism to new levels. 

On that point, why does Vader invite Krennic to his molton lava house? Just to force choke him? It left me with the impression of Vader inviting people over purely for the sexual thrill of strangling them, while being situated over a river of motion lava, lava which almost certainly burnt off his dick. If we assume the cloak is black leather or rubber like substance, then I can’t but help feel Vader is a sadomasochistic sex fiend.

Who the fuck was the old guy at Vader’s house? His butler?! How did he get that job?

The Rebels spend a lot of time attacking the shields, which they can’t destroy, but no time attacking the shield generator until they achieve the unlikely success of disabling a Star Destroyer.

How is it practical to have a manual retrieval system for the archive when it’s the size of a building?

Galen’s plan hinges on Jyn being at the archive and knowing instinctively that he would name the Death Star plans after his little nickname. That’s right up there with the “Hold your fire. There’s no life forms,” guy from a New Hope.

Look, I’m being picky. Even the best films have little holes like this, but since I’m in the spirit of writing this now, I figured I’d mention those little issues.

It doesn’t matter. Rogue One is awesome, and to put it in geekdom terms, it’s better than Empire – although I acknowledge that’s like saying a Bordeaux is better than a Cotes Du Rhone. It’s a minute comparison. Simply though, Rogue One captures the spirit of New Hope, with the dark edge of Empire, and warms us up with the pleasure of a visually superb film. There are just enough throwbacks to produce nerdgasm, while being respectful to those actors. I loved it, and I think Disney have captured the essence of what Star Wars needs, far better with this than they did with Force Awakens.

Remake crap films

I just saw a poster for the remake of the Magnificent 7. Really? They are remaking a classic western…

Fuck it. I can’t even act surprised. A long litany of excellent films being remade, with no real hope of usurping the original, and every chance of tanking.

A few do well…ok, I can only think of Star Trek right now. I suppose you could argue Star Wars Force Awakens is a remake, but I preferred the original. And yes, the original Magnificent 7 was a remake of the exceptional Seven Samurai, and it was an excellent remake for the genre.

Look at others; Bladerunner, Total Recall, Ben Hur. I mean Jesus they remade a multi-Oscar winner. Why!? Yes, I know, money. Yes, I know Ben Hur was the remake of a silent film version of Ben Hur.

I’m going to pick on The Karate Kid. The original is a classic 1980’s film. It beautifully encapsulates the Reaganomics society of the time; the idea of the lone individual being the means of resolving conflict, rather than the group/community (Witness is a good antidote). Faced with bullies, does Daniel (or his mother) attempt to engage the school in managing a serious issue, or does he decide the best way to face down oppression is to learn karate from some strange old guy that trucks him into cleaning cars? Seriously, only the 1980’s could get away with that kind of premise. It’s not the best acted or crafter film, but as pure 1980’s Republicanism it is a cultural gem (and I say that as a socialist – I really like the film).

The remake missed the point. Or at least, the premise of having a remake missed the point. I have never seen it. Now wait, I can see you asking how I can condemn a film I’ve not seen. I can’t. It might be quite enjoyable, but the truth is I refused to watch it on principle. The idea of the film is flawed, not its delivery.

I really wish people would explore bad films to remake, like the Star Wars prequel, or Howatd the Duck (I reckon the latter is a pretty good bet the way Marvel are going). Remake the stuff that should have been great but ultimately wasn’t. It would be nice if for once money was not the sole motivation, and some desire for artistic penance was the influence.

Remake the story by all means, but remaking the film is missing the point entirely.