Review Round-Up: T2 Trainspotting, Song to Song, and Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted: July 16, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

T2 Trainspotting

t_two_trainspotting_ver6_xlg

Trainspotting is one of the most beloved films of indie 90s cinema and with good reason. The film has a kinetic energy thanks to its editing and soundtrack which still works today, launched the career of director Danny Boyle and a collection of talented young actors, and featured an intriguing voice at it’s center created by fusing Boyle’s energy with the writing of Irvine Welsh. So it’s perhaps a bit odd that when the same creative team dropped a sequel a few months back the film was met with general indifference. Then again, having finally caught up with T2 Trainspotting, I can see why a passive shrug is all most could muster. This is by no means an awful sequel, but it doesn’t exactly offer much either.

Part of the problem in making a sequel to Trainspotting is that the original film’s success had less to do with the story or even the characters (strong as the characters are) as it did the specific circumstances of the work. That specific age, at that specific time of London, with that specific soundtrack, all brought together by a perfect kinetic energy. That can’t be replicated just like that, even if the whole band’s back together. To the film’s credit, T2 is aware that it is perhaps futilely seeking former glories and bakes that theme into the film itself. Indeed, none of the main characters have really grown at all since 1996 and there’s a sense of the time all four men have lost. Moments in particular like Renton dropping a modern version of the “choose life” monologue which works precisely because it’s deliberately built around a character who has struggled to move on with his life resonant. These are worthy themes, but they get lost in a mediocre crime plot which never quite works. It’s clear Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge wanted to bring all of the characters back together but didn’t really seem to know what to do with them. So, a half-hearted scheme is haphazardly thrown together and never really connects. Begbie also becomes more of a full-on villain and by the time T2 climaxes on a fight/chase reminiscent to the finale of Blade Runner, it’s clear this sequel has lost its way.

The film does avoid some of the embarrassment a lot of overdue sequels face. All four main actors come back to their roles without missing a beat. Hell, Ewen Bremner is downright moving as Spud this time around. The film also has a pretty solid soundtrack and Boyle is able to bring his typical energy and visual creativity to the project, but at the same time both of these elements are inferior to what Boyle and his collaborators accomplished with the original. All told, T2 has its moments but is ultimately a minor disappointment. It’s a sequel that exists far too much in the shadow of the original and while it is aware enough to mine some thematic richness from this, it lacks the poignant insight to really say something substantial in this regard.

C

Song to Song

song to song

When I reviewed Knight of Cups, I opened by discussing the critical backlash against Malick’s recent work. Now, as I review Song to Song, I open to the further plunge in how Malick’s films are received. It’s not just that reviews are all over the place, but the film’s releases just aren’t special anymore. Consider The Tree of Life. While by no means a blockbuster, the film did play to raves at Cannes, received a decently large theatrical release, and whether loved or hated, was central to many discussions within the film community in 2011 and 2012. But every subsequent Malick film has seen lesser and lesser fanfare, with Song to Song being perhaps the most minimal. Hell, I didn’t even know the film had already come to home video. My go-to theater actually has a poster up for the film right now and I sort of expected Song to Song to get some sort of bigger release down the line. Imagine my shock when, visiting my library, I see Song to Song just chilling on the three day rental shelf. There’s something disappointing about how Malick seems to have fallen out of the critical conversation, but on the plus side this dip does not seem to have limited his creativity or access to resources.

Set around the Austin music scene, Song depicts a series of relationship dramas largely rooted in the love triangle between struggling musician Faye (Rooney Mara), her more successful musician boyfriend (Ryan Gosling), and a manipulative producer who can potentially boost Faye’s career in exchange for her body. From this central trio spawns a series of other romantic and sexual episodes as these characters flow through their lives and those of others. Though the film shares the sparseness of Knight of Cups, a general storyline is a lot more clear. There isn’t a lot of dialogue or traditional narrative arcs, but the gist of events is fairly clear. Many people will likely see this as an improvement over the more cryptic Knight of Cups, but Song to Song lacks that film’s focus on a singular character. For all of it’s meandering, Knight of Cups is centered pretty firmly on Christian Bale’s Rick, a character I felt I understood and was able to empathize with, even through moments of meandering and the fact that the film never really closes out it’s arc. Song to Song is more clear and comes to more of a conclusion, but the fact that it jumps from a series of subplots (song to song, indeed) makes it harder to invest in the characters, subsequently leading to a greater disconnect. I may not have always “got” what was happening in Knight of Cups, but my connection to and interest in Rick was enough to keep me engaged. My connection to the cast of Song to Song, by comparison, is much more tenuous.

In short, Song to Song suffers from what a lot of episodic stories suffer from; some stories are better than others. The good news is Song to Song does indeed have its moments. I don’t really think Malick’s films are best watched to be broken down and understood, but there are some thematic undercurrents which did move me. Early on, the film dwells on questions in romance, more specifically, whether it is better to be with someone who can provide great moments of happiness, or someone who is less fulfilling in some ways but a more stable and logical choice. As the film goes on though, this question morphs into a more Faustian tale, exploring how seemingly good people like Faye, and later Natalie Portman’s Rhonda, will sell out their values for things like success and material items. Indeed, Fassbender’s music producer feels increasingly like Satan and in one scene even holds a goat’s skull against his own face. Eventually though, the film transitions again to being about forgiveness. Characters struggle to forgive themselves and others, and I think the fate of one particular character is meant to suggest what happens when such forgiveness is not granted. These transitions might seem vast, but they play out naturally within the film. Furthermore, the importance of forgiveness does seem an appropriate addition to Malick’s last three films. Between The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups, Malick has repeatedly dwelled on dealing with the loss of loved ones, fractured parental relationships, and the denigration of romantic relationships. These elements return in Song to Song, but unlike Knight of Cups, this film actually builds to something and presents a way to deal with these issues. This catharsis is actually one of the strongest aspects of Song to Song and might even enhance Malick’s other works from this decade on revisits.

It’s hard to judge the performances in Malick’s recent work given the unconventional filming, but I do think all of the actors fit pretty well. Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara are the right mix of romantic and aloof for Malick but the real highlights for me are Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman. Both are able to build pretty consistent characters (no small feat given the unconventional filming) and both are also just really powerful screen presences. The visuals, in typical Malick and Emanuel Lubezki form, are pretty impressive, though maybe a little less so this type around. Song to Song still looks great, but the aesthetic is very similar to Knight of Cups and I don’t think the filmmakers really take full advantage of the Austin setting. For that matter, the musical aspect of the film is also a little disappointing. The soundtrack is a lot less orchestral than I ever thought I’d get from Malick, but at the same time the music isn’t as prevalent or important as you might think.

So all told, Song to Song is kind of a hard film to rate. On the one hand, the film does build to some powerful thematic points, features some stirring filmmaking, and sees Malick experimenting in interesting ways. The fact that the editing is perhaps Malick’s most abrupt and yet the film is so much clearer than Knight of Cups is pretty impressive. On the flip-side, Malick’s experiments with music are a lot less rewarding, a lot of the stories along the way fizzle or lack impact, and the general visual style is perhaps a little too close to Malick’s last effort (not surprising considering Knight of Cups and Song to Song were shot back to back). I definitely feel like Song to Song is a good movie, but it didn’t hit me like Knight of Cups did and I can’t help but feel like it fell short of what it could be. Still, there is a lot of great cinema and power to be found in Song to Song and I am curious how this might play on revisits. I doubt anyone who has been down on Malick’s recent efforts will be won over by this, but for those of us who have found interest in said efforts, Song to Song is a rewarding if not wholly satisfying experience.

B

Spider-Man: Homecomingspider-man-homecoming-poster

It’s a sad state of affairs when the release of a new Spider-Man movie is not a special thing. This is, after all, the third version of the character to grace cinemas since 2002, and the previous version’s film is only three years old. And perhaps most importantly the last three Spider-Man movies have all been failures in almost every sense outside of monetary. The Amazing Spider-Man is a lame retread of the origin story that offered next to nothing, while its sequel is a nonsensical pile of garbage. Finally, while I would argue Spider-Man 3 is not THAT bad, the film is too a mess which squandered a lot of what Raimi’s previous films had built. These aspects have made it more difficult to get really excited for yet another new Spider-Man film, but the character’s latest iteration is a strong return for the beloved webslinger.

The film follows a post-Civil War Peter Parker (Tom Holland) trying to balance sophomore high-school with crime-fighting as Spider-Man. Peter yearns to be an Avenger, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has decided Peter should stick to low-level street crime until he’s ready. Peter thanks he’s found his chance though when super-villain The Vulture (Michael Keaton) appears selling alien technology to New York thugs.

What Homecoming gets right more than anything is Spider-Man’s character. The film depicts an inexperienced young hero who is very earnest in his efforts to help people, but nonetheless makes a lot of careless mistakes over the course of the film. This is very true to the character’s early years as a young kid in over his head, but it also works really well as a character arc. Peter is always likable and noble, but he’s flawed and has room to grow. The character’s love for Spider-Maning is also balanced pretty well with the social sacrifices that role necessitates. That’s the other great thing about Homecoming, the film realizes that Spider-Man stories are most effective when the focus is on how the superhero aspects of Spider-Man affect Peter Parker’s social life. This is prevalent in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is almost more focused on the high school aspects of the story. Peter and his social circle are all well-developed and these elements of the story are a good bit of fun. Though Homecoming isn’t as openly comedic as something like Guardians of the Galaxy, it does give that series a run for it’s money in terms of humour. I actually laughed out loud quite a bit and the comedy balanced well with the drama.

Interestingly, though Homecoming focuses more on the private life of the hero than most superhero films, it does nail the superhero aspects of the story better than most films of the MCU. In particular, Michael Keaton’s The Vulture is probably the best villain to show up in any of Marvel’s films. The opening scene, though a little rushed, sets up the guy as a blue-collar type just trying to take care of his family with the resources available to him after being passed over by big government. That’s a strong angle and it makes the character more sympathetic. The film also features a few scenes between Spider-Man and The Vulture, meaning their relationship evolves over time and the drama can build throughout the story. Finally, Keaton’s performance is very strong, bringing both menace and a necessary humanity to the screen. The film also does a pretty solid job blending the greater universe building aspects with the central story. The more grounded setting of high school allows the film to explore the little ways superheros have changed the world. These little details go a long way in fleshing out the universe and the film also mines some solid comedy from this situation. On the flip-side, I do think the film could have dialed back a bit on Tony Stark’s inclusion, but this aspect of the film is wisely built into Peter’s arc and feels a lot more natural than, say, the incorporation of S.H.I.E.L.D in Iron Man 2 or Ant-Man in Captain America: Civil War.

All told, Spider-Man: Homecoming does a lot right and is guaranteed to please both fans and general audiences. What the film is lacking is a strong directorial vision to really push it over the top. Say what you will about the Raimi films, but at least those films had a distinct voice behind the camera which brought some interesting visuals and touches of personality. Homecoming, by comparison, more or less adheres to Marvel’s house-style. The direction is functional, but not terribly exciting. Similarly, the action scenes here work pretty well, but there’s nothing as special as the bank heist or train sequence from Spider-Man 2. Even looking at more recent superhero films, no set-piece here quite compares to some of the inventive set-pieces in Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, or Civil War. Still, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a definite win and maintains the run of strong superhero movies 2017 has been offering. Both Spider-Man and Peter Parker are well represented, The Vulture makes for an effective villain, and from top to bottom the movie is a lot of fun. I’ve been fairly critical of the MCU over the years, but Spider-Man: Homecoming is a strong representation of the brand and does rank in the top tier of Marvel’s filmography.

B+

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s