Monday, 27 February 2017

The technical brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit

WHO Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my all-time favourite films. I'm talking top 10. Easy.

At some point, but not today, I'm going to write a review that nails down all my feelings about this incredible piece of film noir which just so happens to star a talking animated rabbit.

At some other point, I might even post the script I wrote for a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel. It's called Who Stole Roger Rabbit and I talk about it in this podcast (my bit is from 16:30, but you should listen to the whole thing).

But this is the not the time nor the place for those things. Instead, I want to share this awesome video that shows some of the technical brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.


Everyone should bump the lamp once in a while.

That video was made by kaptainkristian, who has an amazing YouTube channel.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

T2 Trainspotting

(R) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Danny Boyle.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald.

Choose life. Choose upside-down deer projections on your wall.

Sick Boy (Miller) defines nostalgia as being "a tourist in your own youth" in a particularly meta moment in this 20-years-later sequel of the cult classic.

T2 Trainspotting (why is it called that? Why not just Trainspotting 2?) relishes that definition, holding a mirror up to itself and its audience, then proceeding to do a massive line of coke off said mirror.

With any belated sequel, the initial reaction is one of tempered excitement. It's kind of like a high school reunion - won't it be great to see the old gang again and find out what they've been up to? Then you realise it will never live up to either your expectations or your glory days and you'll probably just end up disappointed and pining for your youth. Ah, high school....

T2 is all those things. You're excited at first, but it can't live up to the original and then you're kind of disappointed. Having said all that, T2 is the best it could possibly be and when shorn of that nostalgic tourism as much as is possible considering how much the film is wrapped around and dependent on its predecessor, it's actually better than it has any right to be.

As mentioned, this is 20 years on from Renton (McGregor) screwing over his so-called mates for the grand sum of 16,000 quid. Sick Boy is running a patron-less pub in between pimping and scamming, Begbie (Carlyle) is in prison, and Spud (Bremner) is still a junkie.

And then back to Edinburgh comes Renton, fresh from a heart attack, looking to figure out where it all went wrong and still wondering how exactly one chooses life.

Despite being laden with references to the original, T2 is smart enough to avoid outright attempts at replication. There's the obligatory heroin scene, but thankfully this is a one-off. The characters have largely grown up and moved on, or perhaps more correctly, they've gotten older and the world has changed around them. The main theme is no longer addiction - this time it's about ageing. Renton's heart attack makes him question his place in the world, and while the other main players are less self-aware, his return sets them on new paths, for better or worse.

It's the characters that make this worthwhile, not necessarily the story or Boyle's directorial tics or tricks. Getting the gang back together again is done in a natural way and how the characters have changed (or not) is believable. Everyone is exactly where you expect them to be. In Begbie, this time around, the story has something the first film didn't have - a villain - while the mending of Renton and Sick Boy's relationship is interesting - they're first reunion in 20 years is an hilarious highlight.

The new character Veronika, played by Bulgarian actress Anjela Nedyalkova, doesn't get a huge amount to do, but does help demonstrate how dumb everyone around her is. It would have been nice to see more of Macdonald's Diane, but it would have stretched the natural order of the sequel's world.

Everyone's heart is in the right place for this. Boyle probably got asked about this sequel more than anything else over the past decade or so, but T2 doesn't smack of a cash grab. It's reverent toward the original - in one of the best scenes, Spud, Renton and Sick Boy return to the spot where Tommy attempted to take them on a walk and get in touch with their Scottishness. Not only do they pay tribute to their fallen comrade, but Renton and Sick Boy reflect on the horrible repercussions their actions have had.

In the original, these guys were bad people doing bad things, but they were young and it was fun. This time around, they're trying to figure out what comes next, what they leave behind, and what it's all about - themes that will speak to a lot of people.

But T2 lives too heavily in the shadow of its parent, which is one of the greatest films of the '90s, to be truly great on its own. While it's a good path to retread, the footsteps are too big to follow. All in all, T2 is an adequate companion piece to a far more definitive tome.

REWIND REVIEW: Trainspotting

(R) ★★★★★

Director: Danny Boyle.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald.

Spud (Bremner), Tommy (McKidd), Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy (Miller)
head into the great outdoors in Trainspotting.

THERE'S no doubt Trainspotting is a remarkable film. The Scots themselves voted it their greatest movie of all time, while the BBC rated it #10 in its list of the best British movies ever.

But the film is even more incredible when you check out the source material. Irvine Welsh's 1993 tome is a collection of (sometimes vaguely) interlinked short stories covering about eight main characters and as many different points of view, and features entire sections written in 'phonetic Scottish' and containing inner monologues with Sean Connery. Of all the heroes in turning it into a film, screenwriter John Hodge is the most unheralded and yet perhaps the best on ground.

His script is razor-sharp. Even allowing for Boyle's directorial flights of fancy that blend fact and fantasy in fascinating ways, the whole thing clocks in around the 90-minute mark but covers a vast amount of ground, cramming in plenty of the book's good stuff while teasing a surprisingly gripping narrative and several excellent character arcs out of its material. Addiction, in all its permutations, is dealt with so deftly and succinctly at times that several viewings are required to take it all in. It's a masterclass in efficiency, condensing Welsh's wanderings into a compact story of four friends in Edinburgh, three of whom are addicted to heroin, with the fourth addicted to rage.

The '90s was a great time for drug films. From the party drugs of The Acid House (another Irvine Welsh book) and Go, to fellow heroin stories like The Basketball Diaries, to the toking and tripping of Dazed & Confused, Half Baked and Friday, through the nihilistic booze saga of Leaving Las Vegas, to the go-hard-or-go-home glory of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, each served its function. They could make us laugh or cry, depending on their tack.

None of them - not even the crippling 2000 film Requiem For A Dream - are as amazing as Trainspotting when it comes to exploring addiction. Boyle's bouncy dramedy rides the highs and lows by being funnier than it should be yet more harrowing, by being sicker and filthier yet more stylish. But its secret weapon is that its addictive element is the most disturbing. It's not heroin - it's friends.

Renton's (McGregor) inability to say "no" to his mates is as detrimental as his skag problem. Just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in, leading to the film's denouement (which the entire sequel revolves around). His friends trusting him is also their undoing. And then there's Begbie (Carlyle). Being friends with Begbie is as dangerous as smack. Spud (Bremner) is accidentally stabbed by the psychopath, Renton is threatened with being neutered, and anyone within a 20-yard radius of the moustachioed menace is mere seconds from getting glassed.

If it's not Begbie's violence putting people in jeopardy then it's Sick Boy's (Miller) scheming. But even a butterfly wing-flap in this group has horrific consequences. The ill-fated Tommy's (McKidd) downward spiral is cause by Renton and a seemingly innocuous theft. Then there's the death of the baby, which is among the most traumatic, gut-wrenching things ever committed to celluloid. It's foreshadowed in the earliest moments of the movie, but repeat viewings don't make it any easier to handle.

None of this would work without its stars. The five who appeared on the poster - McGregor, Bremner, Carlyle, Miller and screen debutante Macdonald - would all go on to stellar careers and deservedly so. Each is outstanding; in fact, arguments could be made that all five have never been better. But spare a thought for Kevin McKidd, who has the worst/best of the character arcs as poor Tommy, but didn't make it onto the poster. His career, while still successful, never reached the heights of his co-stars. If only that poster went up to #6.

Then there's Boyle. Across his prodigious career, even acknowledging his Oscar-attracting Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours, or his brilliant genre pieces 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Trainspotting remains his best film. It's lightning in a bottle; an energetic cultural touchstone that comes along once in a career. It hits the ground running - quite literally - to the bombastic beat of Iggy Pop's Lust For Life and McGregor's ironic "Choose Life" speech, and that is just the first of a string of iconic moments littered throughout.

The worst toilet in Scotland. The OD sequence, with its red-carpeted tomb view, soundtracked by Lou Reed's Perfect Day. Spud's nighttime accident. The baby on the ceiling. These horrifying scenes not only stick with you, but they've edged their way into pop culture, as has the colour scheme and style of the aforementioned poster, and the brilliant soundtrack (would Underworld still be a thing if not for the success of Born Slippy .NUXX?).

Sometimes no bog roll is the least of your worries.

There are other great moments that stand out on repeat viewings. Fresh from his OD, Renton's parents offer and share cigarettes - one of the subtle reminders of the prevalence of addiction. Similarly, Begbie's early lecture on the dangers of drugs while drinking and smoking heavily is typical of the film's black humour, set up right from the start. Also in that category is Spud's job interview (a great display of Bremner's skills), the air rifle scene in the park, and the details of Tommy's death, which conclude with an unexpected punchline that you'll hate yourself for laughing at.

But one of the best moments comes in the middle of the second act, at the top of Tommy's downward spiral, when he encourages his mates Spud, Renton and Sick Boy to join him for a walk in the wilds. Renton, after being told by Tommy that such a walk should make him proud to be Scottish, launches into a marvellous diatribe that sums up his thoughts on his homeland:

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!”

And yet the Scots still voted for this as their greatest film of all time. That's saying something.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hidden Figures

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Theodore Melfi.

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali.

(From left) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star in Hidden Figures.

IT’S tempting to say that now is the perfect time for a reminder of the importance of equality, whether it be between the genders, the races or sexual orientations.

But the truth is that anytime is a good time for such a thing because there always seems to be something happening in the world to remind us of how petty and pointless these divisions are.

So anytime is a good time for Hidden Figures, a remarkable biopic that demonstrates how holding back the tide of equality is detrimental to us all, and that humanity suffers when we try to put up walls between us and our fellow humans.

It is the story of three incredible African-American women – Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were trailblazers in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and computer science, and played pivotal roles in the American space program.

Katherine (Henson) is the hero of the piece, with the film focusing on her work calculating the trajectories of NASA’s many groundbreaking forays into space, but Vaughan (Spencer) and Jackson (Monáe) get their moments too, such as Vaughan becoming the first black NASA supervisor and Jackson’s journey to becoming NASA’s first black engineer.

As with most movies “based” on true events, the timeline is condensed to take in 1961 and 1962, with Vaughan and Jackson achieving their milestones well before when they are depicted in the film. There are also the usual composite characters and a bit of a sense that things are happening in a fashion that’s too dramatically perfect.

But Hidden Figures is brilliant at capturing the things that really matter, such as the daily impact of segregation, the amazing skills of these women, and the bigger picture of it all – that keeping blacks and whites separated not only dehumanised important contributors to society, but potentially held back its progress. The symbolic shorthand of the film is quite powerful. While there’s a fair bit of the “white saviour” trope, such as when Costner’s NASA boss destroys the “coloured bathroom” sign, it all feels natural and evocative and most likely historically accurate in some regard. Simple acts like a trip to the bathroom or a white man handing a black woman a cup of coffee take on massive significance thanks to a sharp script, and it’s in these moments that film successfully stirs the emotions.

Its triumvirate of stars is uniformly excellent. Henson takes Katherine from timid to triumphant in spectacular fashion (a public meltdown is a key scene, part-hilarious, part-heartbreaking), Spencer makes Vaughan motherly in a take-no-crap kinda way that is a joy to watch, while Monáe, in her biggest role to date, excels as the sassy one of the troupe (although they all get their sassy moments).

The co-stars are also good. Costner hasn’t looked this comfortable in a role for over a decade, while Dunst and Parsons do well in their personifications of acceptably racist white people of the ‘60s.

Another standout is the music. Between the golden oldies and Hans Zimmer’s score (the latter is particular effective in the finale involving John Glenn’s historic space voyage), Pharrell Williams busts out some retro-sounding originals that work surprisingly well. His ability to capture the sound of the era while keeping things fresh and modern is impressive.

But Hidden Figures' real strength is in its emotional heft. Watching these three remarkable African-American women do incredible things at a time in history that sought to deny them of their potential is rewarding and powerful. These figures deserve to be hidden no more.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

(MA15+) ★★

Director: James Foley.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger.

Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) 
are back for more kink in Fifty Shades Darker.

CONFESSION: I was one of the few film critics that gave Fifty Shades Of Grey a good review.

For all its flaws, the first film took its apparently atrocious source material and turned it into a well shot and often intriguing allegory for domestic violence (at least that’s how I viewed it). If Fifty Shades Of Grey was in black and white and subtitled, I can’t help but feel critics would have been losing their minds over it.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the first film was Johnson’s performance. She made Anastasia Steele believable as she grew from naive girl-next-door to a strong woman figuring out what she wanted, and what she was willing to give up to get it.

Second time around, Johnson is still great, but she can’t save what is ultimately a boring sequel. There are still touches of the first film here, but there is even less plot and far less intrigue, despite the fact the potential is there.

Having walked out on sadistic playboy Christian Grey (Dornan) at the end of Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker finds Anastasia making her way in the world. She has a new job and is still single, but she can’t seem to shake Christian (partly because he’s stalking her). For better or worse, she decides to give him another shot after he promises that his days of whips and chains are behind him.

The rest of the film is the equivalent of living in a sharehouse with a couple – it’s uncomfortable and confronting at first, but eventually becomes tedious, annoying and lame. Christian and Anastasia’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are uninteresting and even the frequent sex scenes become monotonous. Big screen romances survive on their sexual tension, but because that was all used up in the first film, there’s nothing to keep you interested in this beyond the sheer voyeurism of it.

There’s no tension of any other kind either. Potentially interesting subplots pop up and are dismissed within a matter of minutes. A couple of women from Christian’s past bob about in the narrative but either don’t rock the boat enough to be of interest or literally disappear just when they get interesting. In true franchise-building fashion (yes, a third film comes out in 2018), a villain is set up for the next film but it would have been nice to have a villain in this film, or someone of some interest to create some tension – anything really to break the monotony of the should-we-shouldn’t-we talking and shagging, which is pretty much all that happens in Fifty Shades Darker.

On the plus side, the film is again well shot, Johnson is once again great and Dornan is actually better this time around. While the issues of domestic abuse, power and trust remain, thematically this is about addiction. Christian’s peccadilloes are painted as something he has to give up – urges he must control – for the relationship to work. This helps make Christian a more interesting and potentially likeable character, despite the fact he’s still creepy, controlling, and a tad frightening. Yes, he’s a cashed-up stalker with mummy issues who gets off on abusing women, but there are moments where you almost feel sorry for him (“almost” being the key word here).

There have been calls to boycott this film because it’s about abusing women. Honestly, you should boycott it because it’s boring, not because it deals with adult issues that might make grown-ups talk about them. Christian’s behaviour is supposed to be unlikeable – that’s kinda the whole point of both films and the central quandary facing Anastasia. It’s what made the first film interesting and why her character leaves him at the end of it. The second film sees him trying to make amends, be a better person, and yes, his attitude still leaves something to be desired, but again that’s the point. Why do women stay with abusive partners? Why are partners abusive in the first place? These are questions both films flirt with in their own glitzy and inane way, but again, these are adult issues that might make grown ups talk about them, and that is not a bad thing.

But all that aside, your main takeaway from Fifty Shades Darker should be that it’s boring. After being surprised by Fifty Shades Of Grey, you can now colour me disappointed with Fifty Shades Darker.

Thursday, 2 February 2017


(M) ★★★

Director: M Night Shyamalan.

Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) goes head-to-head with one of Kevin's many personalities, 
as portrayed by James McAvoy, while her fellow captives watch on.

IS M Night Shyamalan back in the game?

It seems his career has finally finished bottoming out. After writing and directing one of the best films of the ‘90s – The Sixth Sense – the quality of his output began slowly dropping off in its wake, through cult favourite Unbreakable, the spooky sci-fi Signs and the love-it-or-hate-it drama-thriller The Village.

After those diminishing returns, his films really dipped into the sub-par region – The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are three of the worst films of the past decade.

However his 2015 low-budget found-footage horror The Visit won some critics and fans back, and now with the release of Split, some are heralding the return of Shyamalan.

But that would be getting carried away. Split is good, but not great, and it’s certainly his best film since The Village, but that’s not saying much. And the truth is Split’s success is more due to the skills of McAvoy in the lead role than the directing or writing skills of Shyamalan.

McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) that manifests as 23 different personalities. When one of those personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three girls, it sets off a struggle between his other identities. What does Dennis have in mind for the girls, and can the they escape before a rumoured 24th personality turns up?

DID, a controversial psychological diagnosis, has been popular in film and literature for a long time – The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is an early example – and Shyamalan’s script probes and prods the idea into interesting places. But as is typical of his post-Unbreakable work, his script feels a couple of drafts away from being great. Awkward exposition, plot-holes and logical lapses are dotted between the excellence – for every cool moment or strong line is a forehead-slapping character brain fade.

What Shyamalan does get right is the tone. The Visit was criticised for struggling to balance its humour and its horror but there is no such problem here. Amid Split’s brooding terror are some genuine belly laughs, but they give the film a sense of dynamics, allowing that tension to rise again, rather than ruin the mood and break the tone completely.

As mentioned before, the real hero here is McAvoy, who slips easily between the half dozen or so personalities of Kevin that we see on the screen. In an already stellar career rapidly filling with great performances, this is one of his best. Whether it be as the hilarious nine-year-old Kanye West-loving personality of Hedwig or the more frightening identities of Dennis or Miss Patricia, McAvoy is continually impressive, making a potentially ridiculous or film-destroying character its saving grace. Split would be a far lesser film without him.

Taylor-Joy acquits herself well as one of Kevin’s captives, and Buckley is okay as Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr Fletcher but struggles under the weight of the film’s worst dialogue and most awkward scenes. The other two captives, played by Richardson and Sula, are forgettable.

Shyamalan’s trademark twists are present here, which means talking about the ending is impossible. I will say that part of the ending is troubling, and I still can’t figure out if it sends a bad message to young girls or a positive one. But one thing is certain about the ending – it’s an interesting payoff for a strange film, going some way towards making Split ultimately satisfying.

Is M Night Shyamalan back in the game? Thanks to James McAvoy, it seems like he’s on his way.