Do we really want to go back?

Trainspotting is the great film of the 1990s counterculture, its decade’s Easy Rider or Rebel Without a Cause. The tone poem about heroin addiction, friendship and the idiocy of youth among the Scottish working class arrived in the United States in the summer of 1996 laden by the weight of a Miramax publicity juggernaut, the massive popularity of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name and a burgeoning moral panic. Mothers and politicians were ringing their hands over a new heroin epidemic that had either been presaged or revealed by the heroin chic of Kate Moss and James King.

Opportunistic pundits argued that Trainspotting glamourized heroin, while people who had actually seen the film argued that it did just the opposite by providing us with some of the most indelible images of drugged degradation and sorrow in Western culture. The film catapulted to fame its stars Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly McDonald and especially Ewan McGregor while announcing Danny Boyle as one of the great directors of the era. The film is a wildly imaginative kaleidoscope of music cues, tableaus and postmodern pastiche; it’s beautiful, horrifying, hilarious and deeply sad.

Why on earth would you make a sequel? It would seem like a bad idea: the first film was too iconic, the stakes would be too high. Welsh wrote a sequel called Porno and Boyle and Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodges almost made it in the mid-2000s, but Boyle has said, rather bluntly, that “it felt really not-good-enough, so we abandoned it.” Welsh’s story was an uninspired caper, and Boyle felt they were only making it for the money. After ten years pondering, Hodges and Boyle came up with something that was neither silly nor cynical. T2 Trainspotting is an inspired meditation on the very personal experiences of guilt and nostalgia and the culturohistorical problems of alienation and the ravages of capitalism.

Twenty years after the end of Trainspotting, after he stole the proceeds of a heroin deal from two of his friends, Renton (McGregor) returns to Edinburgh. He’s there to reconnect with his family and Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon, also known as Sick Boy (Miller). Renton had secretly given Spud his fair share of £4,000 (which Spud promptly shot up his arm), but he’d stiffed both Simon and their sociopathic compatriot Begbie (Carlyle). Renton arrives just in time to stop a despondent Spud from committing suicide, and when he finds Simon, who has traded heroin for cocaine, the two have a vicious, but slapstick, barroom brawl, and Renton gives him the money he’d stolen.

Along with Simon’s arch, wise-beyond-her years girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Renton, Spud and Simon revisit their friendship under the backdrop of the collapse of Edinburgh’s council houses and encroaching gentrification. Simon is secretly planning to betray Renton at some point as revenge, but when Begbie shows up, escaped from jail and struggling to connect with his son, he protects his friend with a complicated lie. Eventually, the schemes, lies, drugs and their various levels of competence at dealing with the modern legitimate world collide in a mess that seems quite fitting for our antiheroes.

T2 could not possibly be what Trainspotting was: a revelation, a representation of the zeitgeist. But in jettisoning Welsh’s parochial nihilism, Boyle and Hodges have made a movie about something much bigger than addiction and loyalty. They are bemoaning both the isolation of our hyper-mediated, deeply shallow culture and our nostalgic yearning for a past that never really existed. In giving us more complex versions of these famous characters – even Begbie’s behavior gets sympathetically explained – their plights seem more like our plights and thus more moving and more upsetting.

Renton’s revision of his classic “Choose Life” monologue that opened the previous film is a sublime and devastating ode to the loneliness and hopelessness of late capitalism. In having characters revisit the locations of many of the first film’s scenes while also strolling through the ruins of the British welfare state, the film both embraces and mocks its characters’ nostalgia. The characters do it, too: Simon snidely derides Renton’s too-fond memories of their youth in one of the film’s darkest moments. I felt implicated, too. Hodges and Boyle seem to be criticizing the audience for trying to rekindle its romance with Trainspotting and 1996. Do we really want to go back?

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge
Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Turns out, you already know Jack

jack-the-giant-killer-04During the first third of so of Jack the Giant Slayer, among the battalion who accompany Jack on the quest to rescue the princess and kill some giants is one particularly handsome, rather strapping bald-headed knight who has a couple of lines before meeting his demise. While I was reading through the IMDb page for the film, I saw his picture, discovered the actor is named Mingus Johnston, and his character is named Bald. This, in a microcosm, is what wrong with Jack the Giant Slayer: it’s as obvious as its fairy tale source and as creative as, well, naming the one bald character “Bald.” With a budget of $195 million, I would think producer and director Bryan Singer would have been able to afford an original idea. Continue…

Begin the Beguine

Beginners is my favorite movie of the year so far. Here’s the link to my review, or you can read it all here:

Written and directed by Mike Mills
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent
Inexplicably rated R
Opens June 17

The relationship between a gay son and his straight father is about as fraught and awkward as any, and this is reflected in the history of queer cinema, which has mined this conflict like it was a ten-mile-deep cache of diamonds: The Sum of Us, La Mission, Beautiful Thing, etc.

For obvious reasons, the opposite story – a gay father and his straight son – hasn’t found its way into too many movies. This is only one of the things that makes Beginners, Mike Mills’ exquisite new film starring Ewan McGregor as the straight son and Christopher Plummer as his newly out father, different.

The other things – a non-linear story structure and a smart, funny and moving voice-over – are seamlessly combined with the kind of acting you expect from late-fall movies released as Oscar bait. I assume Beginners will be re-released at the end of the year just for that purpose, if for anything Plummer’s performance, arguably the best of his extremely long career.

McGregor plays Oliver, a 38-year-old art director, whose father Hal (Plummer) has recently died, four years after coming out following the death of his wife. The film follows Oliver’s grieving and burgeoning relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds), a French actress, while flashing back to Hal’s coming out, his relationship with an awkward and much younger man (ER’s Goran Visnjic) and his fight with cancer.

Both Oliver and Hal are dealing with beginnings and endings; thus the rather on-point title of the film. For the back story on why these starts and finishes are so hard and so meaningful, Mills includes flashbacks of conversations between a very young Oliver (Keegan Boos) and his funny and frustrated mother Georgia (Mary Page Keller), as well as carefully curated historical images of the world Hal and Georgia experienced as children and young adults.

Added to the mix are Oliver’s artful and hilarious drawings of “the history of sadness” and Hal’s, then Oliver’s, Jack Russell terrier Arthur, whose subtitled lines are extraordinarily wise.

Yes, there’s a lot going on in Beginners. But Mills and his editor Olivier Bugge Coutté splice the present day of the film with flashbacks, voice-overs and archival imagery with such careful skill that the complex, emotional through-line is totally clear.

Mills, who wrote the film from his own experience with his father, is examining the quest for love and the power of fear and sadness to get in the way. The pastiche-like style of the film and its witty, sly humor – particularly in the form of Arthur – prevent it all from getting too heavy.

But the trio of McGregor, Plummer and Laurent provide such authentic emotion to the film, I found it impossible not to cry. Laurent communicates as much with her mischievous, haunting eyes as she does with her lines (which may be because she’s somewhat underwritten).

McGregor, as always, is the perfect straight man (as it were), providing a non-showy but deeply empathic performance that rarely is rewarded in the way that Plummer’s will be. The star of The Sound of Music, among others, is charmingly giddy as a man who waited his whole life to be who he felt inside and his quiet raging against the dying of the light provides some of the best sick-bed scenes since Terms of Endearment.

While another gay movie that both begins and ends with the death of the gay character is perhaps more than one too many, Beginners celebrates both him and his gayness while also celebrating the universal struggle to love and be loved.

Note: There’s no really good reason for why I titled my review in LGBT Weekly “Begin the Begin” other than the word “Begin.” Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” makes more sense. And REM’s awesome song of the similar name has just about nothing in common with the movie. Or it does. Who can tell? The lyrics are pretty opaque.