March 2017 Movies, Part 3


T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Oh boy, lots of disorganized feelings to vomit up here, because Trainspotting is, if not my absolute favorite movie, definitely somewhere in the top 5 at any given time1. Which makes me super basic, yeah, but fuck, it really is that good.

As expected, T2 is not as good of a Film as Trainspotting—more on that to come—but it is entertaining, effective, and stays true to the characters, which is enough, to me, to justify its existence and not take away from or in anyway diminish the iconicity of the original. (After all, the books Skagboys and Porno have existed for years.)

T2 does pair really well with Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot, which I was reading with my post-movie iced espresso drink; these characters are part of that generation existing in the super weird time, such that they “came of age” pre-Internet but are still young enough in the post-Internet era that they have to adapt and survive to this new way of being. It’s hard to imagine the beautiful, reckless youths of Trainspotting with iPhones–partly because it’s hard to imagine them surviving past their 20s, but also because what they do, their whole way of living—all of the stealing and running and messy schemes—is so…analog. Highlighted in Spud’s speech about the now useless art of forging signatures, and how ludicrous Begbie’s breaking-and-entering operation with his son (a hotel management student!) is. Highlighted also, I assume, in all of the cuts to CCTV footage? Not sure what the state of that technology was in the 90s, though, so maybe that was just a sort of stylistic flair and not commentary on how hard the crimes of their youth would be to repeat in modern days.

But they have survived, and now they’re these middle-aged men with no qualifications and long-term goals, out-of-place in their gentrified setting (I like how shots of Starbucks, H&M, etc. have become the cinematic shorthand for this). Which bring me to my other theory about the use of CCTV footage and traffic camera shots—to distance the audience from the characters’ POVs and force us to watch their actions as more objective onlookers, as if these are the gross, embarrassing people we would cringe-laugh at in the type of local news segments that go viral. The same effect is achieved more directly with the scenes of Sick Boy fighting in the street right outside the clear, super-modern facade of a fancy restaurant and the Renton/Begbie chase in the carpark, where the presence of a third-party (the diners, the driver) really highlights how pathetic the characters have become. There’s a certain charm to that sort of punk attitude of not giving a shit about comporting oneself with dignity or publicly behaving within the standards of polite society in one’s 20s—i.e. in Trainspotting—and there’s even something kind of “cool” about the whole state of being skint, but it all becomes sad and weird with age.

If this were a standalone film–well, the “middle-aged men look back on their lives and despair over all of the wasted opportunities and unfulfilled potential of their lost youth” genre2 doesn’t really appeal in and of itself. And yet having “known” and become invested in these men as Youths makes all of the difference. The pathos of that ending: Begbie’s in a trunk outside the police station, Sick Boy’s back to managing a dying pub, Renton’s moved back in to his childhood bedroom. Spud, triumphantly, is probably about to become Irvine Welsh.

Okay, so some Gripes:

  • Way too much use of the freeze frame, which felt like a cool stylistic choice in the original, but sooooo self-conscious here (and occasionally seemingly random in the choice of what moments to freeze frame).
  • And in general, a lot of the references to the original felt too self-conscious. I get that it’s a tricky thing to do in a movie like this—there’s pressure from the fanbase (or one’s conception of the fanbase, anyway) to recreate or nod at the iconic moments of the original to achieve moments of recognition—and hopefully the accompanying applause or at least knowing chuckles—when it plays in theaters, but you don’t want the pandering to feel too cheap or obvious. So ideally, you recontextualize these moments, putting a new twist on them so that they seem to serve a standalone purpose in the new work, while at the same time, the audience can feel the satisfaction of noticing the reference. But I don’t think T2 always achieves this balance–some of the musical cues (to remixes of songs in the original soundtrack) feel a little too cutesy, and then there’s the recreation of the hands-on-windshield + manic grin shot, the wink to the Worst Toilet in Scotland, Diane’s3 “she’s too young for you,” the updated Choose Life speech—not sure how I feel about those moments.
  • The use of subtitles—very good for the Simon/Mark 1970s ranting, but questionable for the Begbie and Spud introduction scenes, since they were used inconsistently enough that it wasn’t clear if it was meant to be a joke about the incomprehensibility of the accents or a nod to the written form or what?
  • The plot–well, actually, whatever; I think it’s in the spirit of Irvine Welsh’s writing style for it to be a series of funny and character-illuminating vignettes and better that than something more plot-heavy.
  • How do I feel about Spud becoming Irvine Welsh? I don’t know. I think in Porno he decided to start writing a history of Leith, and I liked that as a character arc, so this isn’t totally different–but again, it does feel a bit too cutesy. Especially with the “And I’ve decided the title will be…” [cut to Renton’s bedroom with the aggressive train wallpaper].

Things that were Great:

  • Spud’s daylight savings story was the most Spud thing. (Well, maybe the projectile vomiting when Renton “saves” him from asphyxiation. Super gross to watch, but that is the sort of nod to the original that I appreciate, I think.)
  • The smash cut from Sick Boy and Renton being like “how do you cope with the memories of the horrible things you did for heroin” to Sick Boy and Renton doing heroin again.
  • Veronika’s Slavic commentary on the homoerotic element of the Sick Boy/Renton friendship.
  • Everything leading up to that, with the 1690 club scheme–an amazing source of comedy and a reminder that Sick Boy and Renton are actually pretty clever–and Sick Boy and Renton’s manic ranting about the glories of 1970s football. It all ties in with the whole overarching theme of Nostalgia–that is, the meta-commentary of this movie being made at all, the fact that it’s like the only thing tying these characters together (as we see with all of the stories constantly being passed around about “remember that time so-and-so did such-and-such”, these shared obsessions with personal and national trivia—how much of the latter is invalidated by Wikipedia, I wonder?) and at the same time holding everyone back.
  • The speech to the EU board about preserving local landmarks (but actually, building a brothel).
  • Sick Boy bleaching his roots with a toothbrush. Also as pathetic and sleazy as 40-something Sick Boy is, Jonny Lee Miller in a tank top with those tattoos and bleached hair (even if his hairline is receding…) is a Good Look.
  • The final scene with Renton putting on the record for “Lust for Life” and dancing as the camera pulls out like a train leaving the station did evoke some Feelings. Crowd-pleasing, sure, but effective.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

The idea of this is really appealing and I very much wanted to like it, but the execution was…not quite there? For all of the dialogue about “natural human reactions,” man, Audrey Hepburn seems to be incapable of having one, doesn’t she? (How many times has that lame joke been made in the past 50 years?) Peter O’Toole was also super mannered and semi-unnatural, but it worked more for his character, even before it’s revealed that he’s only been pretending to be a gentleman thief (but especially in retrospect). I don’t know, something about the writing, acting, and/or editing made it feel like we were maybe missing some key scenes to explain why the characters were reacting the way they were. At the same time, there were definitely some scenes that could be cut or shortened—this is no way actually needed to be 2+ hours, and yeah, definitely in some of the dialogue-free scenes one felt the camera was lingering too long on not especially exciting or artistic action.

For all of that, the rom-com aspects were basically appealing; O’Toole’s physical strangeness remains a Thing4 and it’s weirdly compelling. And, of course, a gentleman thief (or highly educated art expert,as it turns out) is a v charming character type—perhaps the formative influence of D.N.Angel. (Also, between this and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes–onscreen kissing sure has changed since the ’50s and ’60s, no? To the extent that the big romantic moments in these old movies just look really “fake” and tame because we’ve gotten so used to seeing actors passionately sucking face from the characters’ very first kiss, as opposed to just pressing their closed mouths against each other.)

What stood out to me, because this is apparently how I interpret things now: How to Steal a Million takes place at a weird point in technological history–there’s a brief mention that Audrey Hepburn’s non-Peter O’Toole suitor owns a computer company (or is somehow involved in computers, anyway), the “cutting-edge” infrared technology guarding the sculpture, and the advancement in analysis techniques for forgeries that are driving the plot itself. And yet, at the same time, there’s the whole business with keys and the magnets, the boomerang, and all of that other ingenious low-tech (no-tech, really) trickery that is cool to watch but no longer even remotely plausible.

Song to Song (2017)

Man, I spent the whole movie trying really hard to like it and find something in it, but in retrospect, it just irritated the shit out of me; it looks like I’ve been right to avoid Terence Malick movies all of this time.

Song to Song only seems to be interested in how the characters relate physically to each other and the world—hence all of the emphasis on bodies and real estate—to the point where it might as well have been a silent movie. All of the dialogue—by which we mostly mean voice-overs—is made up of empty platitudes that seem as if they were meant to sound like deep insight into the characters’ psyches but are so generic as to really just say fuck-all.

I could respect the choice to not show any of the musician characters actually performing if the intention was to prevent the audience from making a judgment on their musical talent, but at the same time, why would you set this sort of drama in the music industry and then not even make clear what genre of music the characters play. (Or do they even play? Is Gosling just a songwriter or what? Is Rooney Mara’s character just a backing…guitarist? And are those the positions they’re trying to achieve or just stepping stones?)

I mean, right, there’s more to movies than just plot. But if there’s no plot…and no sense of character…then what is it? 2 hours and 25 minutes of ambience?

Are Song to Song and Personal Shopper actually just kind of shitty and insubstantial movies that my brain has tricked me into rating higher because of the associated Prestige and Aesthetics? Is there something Deeper there that I’ve failed to grasp because of my focus on the Aesthetics? Were the Aesthetics of Song to Song even that well thought out? Like, what is Rooney Mara’s wardrobe supposed to convey about her as a person, other than the fact that she’s really good-looking in both feminine dresses5 and rocker-chic skinny jeans?

Pairing this with How to Steal a Million—the Ryan Gosling/Rooney Mara coupling vs Peter O’Toole/Audrey Hepburn coupling. The Mara/Hepburn comparisons have been done to death, probably, but yeah there is a remarkable similarity–on the surface level, in terms of them being skinny brunettes, but also in the interplay between their delicateness and the expressiveness of their features and body language? Although Mara of course comes across as more natural. As for Gosling/O’Toole–a similar sort of comic element in how tall and loose-limbed they are, where they’re both acting like they don’t quite fit into their body and thus can’t take it totally seriously, which is charming as hell.

The Discovery (2017)

Interesting premise–reminds me of Spin and Perfect Sense, however you want to put the common theme: what sort of event/discovery would have to happen to significantly change human behavior, worldwide? Or: how would humans react on a large-scale to [insert hypothetical here]? And more specifically, how do the people with insider knowledge go about their lives? (Which may or may not be more interesting than the common people, idk.) In the case of The Discovery, the hypothetical event is scientific proof of an afterlife, although no widespread knowledge of what that afterlife may be like.

Jason Segel feels like a weird casting choice for the protagonist, though. I don’t know that he’s necessarily miscast—there isn’t anything about his acting I could pinpoint as wrong or off—but he’s so ingrained in my mind as a comic actor and he also has such a specific physical presence, that he just doesn’t fit my picture of this brooding, resentful, prodigal son type character6. Jesse Plemons was great, though—just so weird and off and yet in such a harmlessly likable and good way. Rooney Mara looks great with the bleached hair and it’s interesting to see her as a more extroverted character (albeit still suicidal and suffering from a profound loss) than she usually plays. And of course since she’s dating the writer/director, one wonders if this character is closer to her real self than some of her others, as if her boyfriend is saying, “look, she’s not always withdrawn to the point of being boring! See how fun and vibrant she can be while still conveying a sense of depth!” But maybe it’s just a character. (Kristen Stewart and Rooney Mara are both, I think, really good at certain roles, but based on the specific enunciation/verbal tics they seem to carry from role to role, one would assume that they’ll never be believable with a different accent or in a different period. Similar to Keanu Reeves.)

The ending felt a bit rushed, with the whole looping reveal7, but then again, I’m not sure what further depths there really were to explore there? Still, it wasn’t quite as emotional as it maybe should have been (e.g. the sort of similar reveal in Arrival); more like, “okay, yeah, that’s a cool idea and the build-up to it feels about right–it doesn’t seem to be coming completely out of nowhere, either plot-wise or emotion-wise. And yet, I’m not crying. Is it because I’m just not that invested in the characters and their romance and their tragedies? Or could these final scenes themselves have been delivered more effectively?”

1. According to my records, I first watched it in May 2011; I imagine this was right after my freshman year of college ended. Looks like that was a very formative movie summer–among other things, I watched Cillian Murphy’s complete filmography? ^
2. And that’s not Boy Meets Girl, Fish out of Water, or The Jesus Story, is it? But maybe it is some perverse Second Coming of Age? ^
3. Interesting choice not to pursue the reunion with Diane any further, which I think did happen in Porno? But I guess this is a case where the 20 years later of the movie vs the 9 years later of the book does make a difference: it’s probably less believable for successful lawyer Diane to take up with unemployed, divorced Renton than it was for grad student Diane to take up with nightclub owner Renton. ^
4. As noted in my discussion of Lawrence of Arabia, something inhuman in the face? He sort of feels more like a drawing of a person than an actual person. But also just his height and the way he carries himself. ^
5. Similarly with Emma Stone’s sundress-heavy wardrobe in La La Land, I guess–the choice to have your female lead costumed in that particular way—is it just because you, the director, think it’s aesthetically pleasing, or do you actually think the character is the sort of person who would dress like that on a day-to-day basis? Because it is v much not a “neutral” style choice. I guess for La La Land you could argue it’s intentionally reminiscent of the colorful elaborate costumes in classic musicals, but when so many of the other choices in the movie are about some sense of ~authenticity~…idk. ^
6. Who would have? Ben Whishaw is the first name that comes to mind, and he seems like a better romantic lead to Rooney Mara. Maybe Andrew Garfield? Or any other lithe British dude in his early 30s? ^
7. SPOILER: so it turns out, when you die, you reincarnate in an alternate universe at a point in time that enables you to make different choices wrt your biggest regret in your current life. And it turns out the protagonist has been stuck in a loop, reincarnating at the same point time after time, trying and failing to prevent his love interest’s death. One wonders what the Being Erica writers would have to say about this, when the entire theme of that show was, “sure, go back in time and ‘fix’ your biggest regrets. It turns out that they were either a) totally insignificant and your life would have proceeded in the same way anyway or b) so important to shaping the things you currently value about yourself/your life that you actually wouldn’t want to ‘fix’ them.” ^


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