Sunday, 29 January 2017

T2 Trainspotting review

Hit the jump to read my thoughts on the highly-anticipated and much delayed second entry into Danny Boyle's chronicle of sex, drugs, and (non-diegetic) rock-n-roll: 'T2 Trainspotting'.

'Trainspotting' was, indeed, a seminal film of my childhood. Having lived in Edinburgh all my life, and having read the book I first watched it as a young teenager - and it proved to be my first 'adult' film. The editing and cinematographic techniques, eclectic soundtrack, and familiar locations all added up to the experience - an experience that helped catalyse my transition away from boring blockbuster fare to appreciating real cinema. The second tradition of British directing, as it were.

The other night, perchance, I decided to watch it again - with a group of international friends - in London. And, just like the first time, it was a complete blast. So much so, in fact, that it put a lot of pressure on 'T2 Trainspotting' - the film with the greatest trailer ever made (discounting the original 'Alien' teaser) - to deliver.

And, thankfully, I can reveal now, that it does.

First of all, by the way, what an incredible title! A unique and interesting way to pay homage to the original's obsession with all things film, and a retention of that anarchist spirit we all love so much.

We open in Amsterdam, in a gym, as the camera circles around a group of treadmills with raucous rock music playing in the background. Slowly, but surely, we begin to realise that the dishevelled, bearded man on the end of the row is none other than Ewan McGregor's Renton. Due to various circumstances, he finds himself returning to Edinburgh, saving Ewan Bremner's Spud from suicide, and thereby being dragged into meetings (arranged or otherwise) with Johnny Lee Miller's Sick Boy; and Robert Carlyle's Begbie. Hell, even Diane (Kelly Macdonald) shows up for a bit - although not even as much as she did in 'Trainspotting'.

Spud taking up a new vocation
Very quickly, we learn that nobody's life has really gone anywhere in the past 20 years - Begbie hasn't strayed out of prison (of course, that's all about to change); Sick Boy has been on a straight trajectory to nowhere (he 'sits on his couch, stuffing fucking junk food into his mouth' watching movies on his 'fucking big television' - see what I did there?); and Spud has continued to be a heroin addict. Renton, despite being the most successful of the bunch (having somewhat succumbed to the capitalistic excess of his 'choose life' speech in the original) has also been left with the consequences of a broken marriage, and an empty life. If 'Trainspotting' was about the recklessness of youth, 'T2' is about the regret and disappointment of late middle-age. The gradual realisation of these men that they're nearing the end of their lives, and have nothing left to do (having done nothing in the first place) does indeed make the film less than light-hearted; yet easy to sympathise or empathise with (depending on your age).

The plot itself, much like the original, has no real main strand. If you were to describe the first in terms of the final heist; then you'd most likely say that this iteration swirls around Sick Boy, and his 'girfriend's' (Anjela Nedyalkova), attempt to open up a brothel above his inherited (and failing) pub. However, there's so much going on that it seems pointless to be reduced that far. Begbie spends the duration of the movie trying to hunt down and kill Renton; Spud is constantly trying to find an outlet for his former heroin addiction (leading to perhaps one of the most meta twists in film history (if you've been party to certain material)); and, as before, Renton is just trying to get by and figure out which direction to move with his life - as much as Sick Boy has other plans for him.

One last hit...
The four, as before, have a huge level of natural synergy that carries the film forward on tidal waves of emotion. Much has been said by Danny Boyle about the affinity that all his players have with each other, but this cannot be stated enough - 'T2' honestly feels like being in the company of old friends whom you haven't seen in a long while. And, as one would infer from this, the acting is of a highly superior level. These characters just bounce of one another in their natural energy, drawn together by their first work 20 years ago, and it's astounding to see onscreen.

The cinematography, to my mind, is even better than what we saw in the first movie - Danny Boyle conjures up unusual and interesting shots to no end, and from every angle possible. Some of these are so experimental, in fact, that I'm not sure if they quite work (a shot of Renton walking into a hotel room was perhaps too obscurely angled to be quite as successful as it could have been). Location effects include car headlights in woods, neon-filled bars, and nightclub lighting. The in-camera effects here are practically limitless, but include signatures drawn in light, floor numbers imposed on buildings, cartoon heads imposed upon characters, snapchat filters, projections, texts onscreen, optical illusions... You name it, it's in here. There's voice distortion, screen inversion, freeze-frame, widening, shortening, splitscreen, everything. Even the texture of the footage changes, with phone cameras, mic cameras, what look like film cameras rolling 80s expired film, and drone shots being used in addition to the standard cameras. In one particular scene, Spud is portrayed as the lead in a 'Raging Bull' knock-off which is wonderfully imaginative and funny. And, in post, Boyle has applied surreal touches to many of the scenes - with a chase sequence through Edinburgh being murked out to reveal Renton and Begbie under spotlights, as if on stage.

Irvine Welsh in his own cinematic universe...
Tonally, it's a different beast as well. The first film was able to balance humour and sorrow on a knife edge - having you laughing at sharp wit one moment, gasping at gross-out scenes the next, and filled with sadness at, amongst other things, the death of a baby due to neglect. But, of course, the drug of choice employed there was heroin - here it's nostalgia (or McGregor's running endorphins). A drifting melancholy fills the screen - with Boyle often splicing in footage from the original into physical scenes of 'T2'. For example, in one scene, Spud walks into the street, only to witness a 3rd person view of the infamous opening scene of 'Trainspotting'; or we see Tommy walking alongside his aged friends in the mountains of the Highlands. In other scenes, we catch general footage from 'T1', fake footage (the actual trainspotting sequence from the novel is recreated as if present in the 1996 film), and a lot of 'archive' film to explore the effect of the past. The latter was something I found to be particularly interesting - with Sick Boy's empty and deteriorating pub being shown in it's heyday in the late 70s/early 80s with what appears to be a Super-8 home video. Periodically, the action will pause in a freeze-frame for 2-3 seconds, to allow us to take in the situation. It's a nice touch.

In fact, in one scene, Sick Boy remarks to Renton that he's a 'tourist in [his own] past', and that seems pretty much accurate. It's more a sense of somber reflection than zany, on-the-edge hijinks - although that doesn't mean there aren't any. Begbie, despite being a fucking psycho, has to learn how to live in the modern world via his millennial son - leading him to realize how prison has robbed him of his life. He's a dinosaur in the modern age - with effectively nothing left. Yet in between the sadness, theres a wicked streak of humour that yields genuine laughs. One particular scene, in which the crew have to improvise a sectarian song to rob a protestant club proves constantly funny - culminating in the standout gag of the month (how do they get the pin numbers for all the stolen cards). Elsewhere, visual and gross-out gags abound - leaving the audience reeling in shock and laughing out loud in the perfect cocktail of enjoyment.

Imaginative split-screen cinematography
Speaking of cocktails, the drug usage in 'T2' is certainly an evolution upon the original. In this sequel, social drinking, cocaine usage, and Viagra provide the main kicks for our characters (Renton also gets buzzed off exercise). There's very little comment on the negatives of drug use - because it's all evident in the empty faces of lost youth and the realization that these characters have pissed away their lives. In one scene, Sick Boy and Renton take heroin - for old-times sake - and it turns out to be one of the most stunning, hallucinogenic, and beautiful scenes in recent memory; also utilizing what appears to be a 4K restoration of the original to provide preparation visuals.

The new 'Choose Life' monologue has a mysterious je ne sais quoi that far exceeds what you've heard on the trailer. It lasts for some time, and has an emotional buildup that hits so hard, and chimes so well with modern life, that it left the whole theater gobsmacked - emotionally stunted, even. It's certainly captured the zeitgeist of the times, and painfully so.

In da cluuuuub
The soundtrack, as you've by now expected, is top-notch. Reworked editions of 'Trainspotting's' best - think 'Born Slippy' and 'Lust for Life' - drift in, as if on the wind, to evoke a Pavlovian memory. In an early scene, Renton places a needle onto a record player for a millisecond before knocking it off, and we already know what the track is. Edinburgh-based Young Fathers (who I've been a fan of for some time now) form the heart and soul of the ambiance - with around four of their tracks being used in the final product. Elsewhere, Wolf Alice, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Fat White Family make appearances - and, indeed, non-diegetic music seems to be omnipresent throughout.

By the end of the film, we're in a different place than perhaps any of us would have expected - into a locked-room/home-invasion type thriller more in common with the final sequence of Boyle's own '28 Days Later' than anything in the Welsh canon. But it really, inextricably, works - and provides a fitting outlet for the frustration of our characters, and a culmination of the thematic verve that we've been experiencing so far.

A good ol' hike up Arthur's Seat
And, in conclusion, it's safe to say that we have a film that is beyond excellent. The rare sequel that really requires you to have seen the first movie, but still lives entirely off it's own energy and it's own story-lines. It's powerful, well acted, and crushing. Yet it's also hilarious, uplifting, and endlessly imaginative. It's a film consisting of many short films - filled with inherent contradictions - yet so, in a way, is life.

Choose spending an afternoon in your favorite cinema. Choose the greatest sequel of the decade. Choose 'T2 Trainspotting'.
'T2 Trainspotting' gets 5 stars!

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