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Non-Review Review: T2 Trainspotting

“Nostalgia,” Sick Boy scoffs. “You’re a tourist in your own childhood.”

It is no surprise that Trainspotting 2 is saturated with nostalgia. It is, after all, a long-delayed sequel to a beloved nineties classic, a prestige picture counterpart to Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence. Despite its fine pedigree, Trainspotting 2 is subject to the same basic questions. Is this really necessary? Does the original require a sequel? Can this film be judged on its own terms? Why now? Is there anything more to the film than cynical nostalgia?

An impressive pool of talent.

An impressive pool of talent.

After all, one can never go home again. Any true sequel to Trainspotting would not be a film directed by Danny Boyle, featuring these characters or carrying this branding. Part of the appeal of Trainspotting was its gritty youthful aesthetic, the product of a young film-maker and a young cast with everything to prove against all odds. This is fundamentally at odds with approaching the original as a venerate relic and building a worshipful sequel around it. That is the central tension of Trainspotting 2.

This is also a key strength of Trainspotting 2. At its strongest, Trainspotting 2 is more a movie about the trap of nostalgia and the dangers of its sweet allure than a sequel to the adventures of four heroin addicts in nineties Edinburgh. Still, Trainspotting 2 is trapped in the gravity of its younger and angrier self. Trainspotting was a young man’s film, all manic energy and desperation and iconoclasm. Trainspotting 2 is a middle-aged man’s film, affectionate and soft in the middle. Its desperation is quieter and less endearing.

Projecting?

Projecting?

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Non-Review Review: xXx iIi – The Return of Xander Cage

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of xXx iIi: The Return of Xander Cage is how absurd the movie feels, on just about every level.

xXx iIi is the third in a trilogy of films that launched in 2002. xXx is highly unlikely to rank as anybody’s favourite Vin Diesel film, sitting somewhere below The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black on the “viable Vin Diesel movie franchises” scale. The movie was very much part of that turn-of-the-millennium attempt to craft an American answer to the highly successful James Bond franchise, and as such had arguably been rendered redundant by The Bourne Identity two months before it was released.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

In fact, xXx was such an underwhelming Vin Diesel vehicle that the performer did not return for the sequel three years later. In xXx II: State of the Union, the extreme sports daredevil was replaced by a veteran marine played by Ice Cube. As such, it seems strange that the third film in the trilogy should be released fifteen years after the original and more than a decade following the only sequel starring a substitute lead. It is very hard to argue that the world was crying out for a xXx sequel promising the return of a low-tier Vin Diesel persona.

In its best moments, xXx iIi actively embraces that absurdity and swivels into the insanity. There are points at which xXx iIi ultimately collapses under its own ridiculousness, as it struggles to fill the gaps between admirably over the top set pieces with terrible dialogue delivered by a fairly weak cast. However, there are also moments when xXx iIi works much better than it should, if only because it recognises the absurdity of its own existence and just runs with it.

It's good to be back.

It’s good to be back.

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La La Land and Nostalgia’s End

One of the enduring criticisms of La La Land is the extent to which it indulges in nostalgia.

This is true of both the film and its characters. The opening scene proudly declares that the movie has been filmed in “Cinemascope”, with the landscape heavily saturated with bright colours that evoke classic Hollywood musicals even before a final showstopping number that evokes everything from An American in Paris to 7th Heaven. In this day and age, producing any big budget musical would feel like an act of nostalgia, but La La Land is a love letter to a genre that has fallen even further to the wayside than the western.

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Even the characters inhabiting the film’s world are defined by nostalgia. This is most obvious with Sebastian, a jazz nerd who desperately wants to construct a loving shrine to the artform as he loves it. “It’s dying,” he urges Mia. “It’s withering on the vine.” Sebastian laments the conversion of a cultural landmark into a “samba and tapas” restaurant. However, Mia is implied to be just as nostalgic. Her room is decorated with classic Hollywood memorabilia. When she finishes a rendition of her one-woman show, she asks Sebastian, “Is it too nostalgic?”

This sense of nostalgia has become an obvious line of attack against La La Land, particularly once it emerged as a Best Picture frontrunner. This is the way that things work; the same accusations were leveled at films like The Artist and Argo, to pick two recent examples. However, these criticisms miss one of the more compelling and nuanced aspects of La La Land‘s nostalgia. The film clearly pines for a lost past, wistfully remembering a world that no longer exists. However, it also accepts that loss. Unlike most exercises in nostalgia, La La Land understands that things can have value because they end.

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Note: This post contains spoilers for La La Land, including a discussion of the film’s ending. Go see it. Then come back.

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Non-Review Review: Live by Night

Live by Night is a film with big ideas. Writer, director, producer and star Ben Affleck is very clearly attempting to use the classic gangster film as a commentary upon the American Dream. This is hardly a novel idea, but it still resonates as powerfully as it did during the pulp era of the thirties and forties. Working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, Affleck crafts a story about violence and power that is clearly intended to resonate with modern audiences looking to understand fundamental aspects of the American identity.

And there are moments when Live by Night really works. Affleck is a solid writer and a performer who can skilfully channel that old-school Hollywood charm, but he has proven himself a very impressive director. Live by Night is occasionally a beautiful film, as the camera pans across the wilderness of the Florida everglades or spins around a room during a tense dialogue scene or even just captures the lead character on the shore with the reflection of the sky framed so perfectly that it seems like he is standing upon the edge of heaven itself.

Speaking easy.

Speaking easy.

However, these moments are assembled in a haphazard fashion around a disjointed plot. Live by Night plays like a stream of consciousness attempting to delve into the symbolic heart of the United States, tossing out crazy ideas like a turf war between Prohibition gangsters and the Ku Klux Klan or arbitrarily drawing long-absent characters back into the narrative with little foreshadowing. Live by Night seems to navigate by night, prone to storytelling detours and narrative cul de sacs that undercut (rather than enrich) its thematic intent.

Live by Night is built like an epic, but its script lacks the discipline and structure to justify an impressive running time. Affleck is a strong enough director that the film never collapses, even as it stumbles. There is a sense that the writer and director is having a great deal of fun playing with a very archetypal set of iconography and themes, and that fun is occasionally contagious. However, Live by Night never truly comes alive in the way that it promises.

Sea changes.

Sea changes.

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Non-Review Review: Manchester by the Sea

What is most effective and affecting about Manchester by the Sea is what is not said.

It seems a strange thing to note of an Oscar-caliber drama, but one of the most striking aspect of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by Sea is the sound design. Sound carries repeatedly in the film. A recurring motif of Manchester by the Sea is the thinness of the walls, as characters eavesdrop on one another and overhear conversations in adjoining rooms and spaces. However, it is more than that. When the characters retreat into silence, the world almost seems to swallow them whole.

"If Colin Farrell thinks he's stealing my Best Actor trophy, he's got another thing coming."

“If Colin Farrell thinks he’s stealing my Best Actor trophy, he’s got another thing coming.”

As one character discusses funeral arrangements on the phone, other characters prepare breakfast around him; the sound of the bowl hitting the table, of the rice crackling in the milk, of the chair scraping off the ground, of the spoon hitting teeth. Attending the funeral, the eulogies are drowned out by the dull recurring buzz of a mobile phone on vibrate. When another character walks by a graveyard, he picks up a stick so that he might strum it against a fence to generate some ambient noise.

Sound designer Jacob Ribocoff does amazing work in bringing the environment to life around the film’s central characters. Manchester by the Sea is light on dialogue, with Casey Affleck conveying an incredible array of emotions through a carefully restrained performance. Affleck’s performance is not perfect, but one that exists in harmony with the sounds around him. Manchester by the Sea is not just a film that breaths. It is a film that sings in its own unique way.

Brother's keeper.

Brother’s keeper.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season 5 (Review)

The fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the best twenty-odd-episode seasons of television in the history of the medium.

Naturally, some episodes are stronger than others. There are a couple of duds to be found in the twenty-six episodes that make up the broadcast season. This is true of any season that runs for over twenty episodes; the reality of television production means that not every episode can be perfect and that some will inevitably be terrible. This is one of the nicer things about shifts to shorter television seasons; while it means fewer episodes in a given year, it also allows the production team more consistency.

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So the fifth season has episodes that do not work, to nobody’s surprise. The fourth season had Shattered Mirror and The Muse. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation had The Price and Ménage à Troi. The third season of The X-Files had The Blessing Way and Teso Dos Bichos. The second season of Millennium had Sense and Antisense and Siren. These are all great seasons of television, diminished in no way by their failures. The fifth season gets its failures out of the way early, with The Assignment and Let He Who Is Without Sin…

However, the fifth season of Deep Space Nine works so well because it has a very strong sense of internal consistency. As with the fourth season before it, there is a clear sense of where this production team wants to take the series. More than that, there is a very strong sense of harmony to the season. While each of the individual members of the writing staff have their own strengths and interests, they are all working together in pursuit of a common goal. Everybody writing for Deep Space Nine is on the same page as to what the show is about.

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The result is a season that marches very effectively and very coherently towards a logical and organic end point. A Call to Arms is perhaps the most radical cliffhanger in the history of the Star Trek franchise, sending Gene Roddenberry’s utopia into a two-season-long war while evicting the primary cast from the title location for more than just a single episode. It is to the credit of everybody working on the season that this finale is at once a gripping and subversive addition to the franchise mythology and a perfectly reasonable conclusion to the season.

The fifth season of Deep Space Nine ranks as a spectacular accomplishment.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In the Cards (Review)

In the Cards is the perfect penultimate episode to a sensational season of television.

One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most dour and serious of the Star Trek series. It is the grim and cynical series of the bunch, with many commentators insisting that the series rejects the franchise’s humanist utopia in favour of brutality and nihilism. This criticism is entirely understandable. The series is literally and thematically darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Even at this point, it is about to embark upon a two-year-long war arc, the longest in the franchise.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

However, this is also a very reductive reading of Deep Space Nine. The series is more willing to criticise and interrogate the foundations of the Star Trek universe than any of its siblings, but it remains generally positive about the human condition. Governments and power structures should be treated with suspicion, but individuals are generally decent. Positioned right before the beginning of an epic franchise-shattering war, In the Cards is the perfect example of this philosophy. In the Cards elegantly captures the warmth and optimism of Deep Space Nine.

Deep Space Nine is fundamentally the story of a diverse and multicultural community formed of countless disparate people drawn together by fate or chance. In the Cards is a story about how happiness functions in that community, how the bonds between people can make all the difference even as the universe falls into chaos around them. It is also very funny.

Pod person.

Pod person.

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