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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.

lalaland2

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.

lalaland4

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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Non-Review Review: Assassin’s Creed

“What the f%$k is going on?” asks Michael Fassbender about halfway through the film.

It is not the first time that Cal Lynch has asked this question. Earlier on, the character wondered out loud “what’s happening?” after waking up following his state-sanctioned execution and being hooked up to a gigantic robotic claw that yanking him into the air mid-sentence. The audience is probably asking the same questions as Assassin’s Creed bounces across time and space with mountains of exposition (occasionally helpfully subtitled) about rival societies conspiring to find an artefact that can harness (and eliminate) mankind’s free will.

The Fass and the Furious.

The Fass and the Furious.

To be fair, incoherence is not the real problem with this disjointed video game adaptation. In fact, there is a certain weird charm to watching the amazing cast and the game director react to the crazed concepts that they have been dealt. For the first hour or so, the sheer weirdness of the film proves compelling, drawing in audience members willing to resist the tonal whiplash and laboured exposition as the film rockets along. What ultimately kills Assassin’s Creed is not its lack of sense, but the stubborn insistence that it must make sense.

Assassin’s Creed would be a stronger film were it willing to revel in its incoherence instead of trying to impose order upon it. The gonzo plotting and zany high concepts give the film a strange texture, but the problems do not really kick in until Assassin’s Creed starts awkwardly and painfully trying to construct a rational framework around this bizarre cavalcade. The result is to wed a visually hyper-kinetic and tonally unruly film to an incredibly tired generic plot that winds transforming the film into a plodding mess.

He's so hot right now.

He’s so hot right now.

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Non-Review Review: Passengers

Passengers is a super creepy tale of male entitlement.

The movie has an intriguing science-fiction premise. On a sleeper ship intended to ferry passengers to the colony world of Homestead II, a freak accident awakens James Preston. The only problem is that Preston awoke far too early. Preston awoke approximately thirty years into a one-hundred-and-twenty-year voyage. The engineer is now destined to spend the rest of his life as the only waking inhabitant of a gigantic city ship, living and dying completely alone. It is a horrifying thought.

"We need a little space."

“We need a little space.”

There are suggestions of a powerful science-fiction epic to be found in the film. Jim finds his every physical need has been anticipated. He can live a life of material luxury. He will never want for food or space or activity. He effectively has a gigantic space craft all to himself. And therein lies the rub. Feeling almost like a sadistic episode of The Twilight Zone, Jim grapples with the question of what he will or will not do in order to end his loneliness. In his desperation, Jim makes a horrifying (if entirely understandable) decision.

The biggest problem with Passengers is that it strains too hard to make that decision palatable instead of terrifying. It is a super creepy tale of male entitlement that brushes aside any of this issues in favour of a much more conventional action romance.

Peace in a pod.

Peace in a pod.

Note: Very minor spoilers for Passengers follow. If you know the cast list, you can probably deduce where the movie is going from the opening ten minutes.

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