Friday, July 28, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Beauty and the Beast"

Once upon a time, before the acronyms VHS and DVD were commonplace, Disney would quaintly safeguard such animated classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio like priceless gems while benevolently re-issuing them every few years on the big screen before stashing them back in the studio vault.

But in the 1990s, with the advent of home entertainment, the studio started to consider new ways beyond revivals to cash in on the same beloved stories. First came Broadway productions, followed by direct-to-video sequels, TV series spinoffs and then, starting in 2010 with Tim Burton’s effects-laden Alice in Wonderland, digitally-enhanced live-action renditions.

It was therefore all but inevitable that a property as adored as 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to not just compete in Oscar’s Best Picture category but also top the $100 million box-office mark, would receive a 21st-century makeover after Cinderella and The Jungle Book followed the rousing $1 billion worldwide box-office reception for Alice in Wonderland.

The bottom line: This gloriously old-fashioned musical with gee-whiz trappings is a dazzling beauty to behold (with enough Rococo gold decor to gild all of Trump’s properties) and is anything but a beastly re-interpretation of a fairy tale as old as time. Also welcome is the more inclusive display of love in its various forms, which go beyond the sweetly awkward courtship between brainy, brave and independent-minded bookworm Belle (Emma Watson, much cherished for her gutsy portrayal of Hermione Granger in the eight Harry Potter films) and the cursed prince in the ill-tempered guise of a ram-horned bison-faced creature (Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, whose sensitive blue eyes serve him well amid all his CGI faux-fur trappings).

As for that "exclusively gay moment" you have been hearing about? It appears near the conclusion when LeFou, a comic-relief character brought to life by Josh Gad (the voice of Olaf the snowman in Frozen) who clearly has an unrequited man-crush on his bulky and boorish buddy Gaston (Luke Evans of The Girl on the Train), fleetingly dances with a male partner. That’s it. If your kids aren’t freaked out by Michael Keaton’s coy in-the-closet Ken doll in Toy Story 3, they will be fine here — especially considering the central relationship in this PG-rated fantasy basically promotes bestiality.

Still, this is a much denser — and longer, by a considerable 45 minutes — confection, one that doesn’t always go down as easily as the less-adorned yet lighter-than-air angel food cake that was the original. It’s true that my heart once again went pitty-pat during the ballroom waltz as Emma Thompson voicing Mrs. Potts honors her sublime teapot predecessor Angela Lansbury by warmly warbling the title theme. But I couldn’t help but feel that the more-is-more philosophy that lurks behind many of these remakes weighs down not just the story but some key performances. This Beauty is too often beset by blockbuster bloat.

The familiar basics of the plot are the same as Maurice, Belle’s father (Kevin Kline, whose sharp skills as a farceur are barely employed), is imprisoned by the Beast inside his forbidding castle for plucking a rose from his garden and Belle eventually offers to take her papa’s place. Meanwhile, the enchanted household objects conspire to cause the odd couple to fall for each other and break the spell that allows both them and their master to return to human form again.

There are efforts by screenwriters by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) to provide emotional links between Belle and her Beast involving their mutual absent mothers that don’t add much substance. And, in an ineffectual attempt to embolden her feminist cred, Belle invents a primitive version of a washing machine. Such additions don’t hold a candelabra to tried and true sequences as when the Beast, in a wooing mood, reveals his vast library of books to Belle. One can only describe the reaction on Watson’s face as she takes in this leather-bound orgy of reading material as a biblio-gasm.

That is not to say there isn’t much to admire, especially with director Bill Condon’s dedication to injecting the lushness and scope of tune-filled spectacles of yore. His resume, which includes penning the adapted screenplay for Chicago and calling the shots behind the camera for Dreamgirls and the final two FX-propelled Twilight films, shows he knows his way around both musicals and special effects. Watson might be at her best right out of the gate while performing the song Belle, which begins with her bemoaning her provincial existence in a small town and ends with her singing on high amid lush green hilltops dotted with yellow wild flowers while channeling Maria in The Sound of Music. That the camera lingers upon the freckles on her pert nose is an added bonus.

Alas, once she is ensconced in the massive gothic castle, Watson is more reactive than active as her slightness causes her to be swallowed up by the ornate scenery and upstaged by the chatty servants in the guise of furniture and knickknacks. I was a little nervous about how the voice cast including Ewan McGregor as the urbane French-accented candle man Lumiere and Ian McKellen as the chubby nervous mantel clock Cogsworth would fare. But they all do a bang-up job with the stand-out number Be Our Guest, the so-called "culinary cabaret" where plates, platters and utensils turn into performers in a Busby Berkeley-style spectacular. Condon wisely takes the choreography to the next level with nods to everything from West Side Story and Les Miserables. Meanwhile, Gad and Evans — both musical theater veterans — pull off the humorous pub number Gaston with playful aplomb.

Less successful are the action sequences where the Beast and Gaston battle it out Hunchback of Notre Dame-style among rooftop turrets, crumbling buttresses and gargoyles. But most disappointing are the not-so-memorable new songs that pop up in the second half whose melodies are once again written by composer Alan Menken but with lyrics by Tim Rice (The Lion King). They just cannot compete with the old favorites that never fail to tickle the ears with their irresistible wordplay supplied by the late great Howard Ashman. But with its racially diverse cast (at one point, I wished that Broadway dynamo Audra MacDonald as the wardrobe Madame Garderobe and the sprightly Stanley Tucci as her harpsichord hubby Maestro Cadenza could have done their own duet) and wink at same-sex flirtation, this Beauty presents a far more inclusive view of the world. One that is awash with a sense of hope and connection that we desperately need right now. If you desire an entertaining escape from reality right about now, be my guest.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Logan"

On the surface, Logan is a superhero movie featuring the return of two of movie-dom’s most beloved and venerable mutants. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman were both on hand when Bryan Singer’s 2000 feature X-Men blew open the doors to modern motion picture superhero movies, allowing Marvel to challenge DC’s previous dominance. Now, 17 years later, Stewart and Jackman are back, playing the characters they have repeatedly returned to over the course of this century. Barring a change of heart by one or both actors, this will be the last time we’ll see this Charles Xavier and this Wolverine.

Logan is about mortality. We all grow old. Everyone reading this who saw X-Men theatrically in 2000 has undergone a major life shift during the intervening years. Grandparents and parents age and die. We see their strength diminish as the years pass. It’s as melancholy as it is inevitable. For superheroes, however, there are no "golden years." Reboots and remakes are common. If an actor gets too old to play a role, the part is recast. That’s why Superman circa 2017 is about the same age as Superman circa 1950. Logan changes this up with a simple premise: What happens to superheroes when they get old? In this final Wolverine movie, Professor X is in his 90s. He is afflicted with some form of degenerative brain disease which has sapped his powers and made him prone to violent psychic seizures. Logan’s strength is diminished and his healing powers are waning.

The setting is vaguely dystopian. It’s 2029 and Mutant-kind has been all-but-eradicated. No new mutants have been born in 25 years and the existing ones have been hunted to extinction. Except for Professor X, Wolverine, and the bald-headed tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), there may be none left. The screenplay, credited to Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green doesn’t provide much background. Although Logan is technically the conclusion of the so-called "Wolverine Trilogy" and is the ninth film focused on X-Men characters, this is designed as a stand-alone. The story is less interested in canon and continuity than establishing a framework for a tale about love, guilt, responsibility, and redemption. There are traditional bad guys in Logan — a mad scientist type (Richard E. Grant), a cock-sure henchman (Boyd Holbrook), and a next-gen killer (Jackman) — but the true villain is one that no one, not even the great men of this piece, can overcome: mortality, the robber of virility and strength, the crippler of all.

The movie introduces us to Logan the caregiver. Along with Caliban, he is watching over the terminally ill 90-something Charles Xavier, who even at his most lucid isn’t the man he once was. Charles has no future and, to prevent him from harming others with his occasional mental meltdowns, he is kept in confinement. The job suits Logan, who wants no part in interacting with humans and whose legacy of death and violence weighs heavily on his conscience. That’s when Laura (Dafne Keen) enters his life. Not only is she the rarest of rare — a young mutant — but she has been genetically engineered using Logan’s DNA. She’s his daughter and she is being hunted. That sets the stage for a chase, a road trip, and a final confrontation. This is like no superhero movie we have ever before seen. Nor is there likely to be another one of this sort anytime soon. I’m curious about how enthusiastically those who enjoy the over-the-top spectacle of typical comic book fare react to Logan. Has this been seen as too grim and joyless or is it regarded as a much-needed antidote to the blasé blandness that has overtaken the genre?

Logan isn’t the first superhero movie with a dark tone. Batman has lived there for decades and Zack Snyder did his best to pull Superman into the abyss. For a Marvel character (even one being produced outside of the MCU due to the X-Men’s rights having been parceled off to Fox), this is new territory. In his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan discovered the magical formula that makes dour superhero movies work; it has to do with the melding of tone, atmosphere, and emotional content. Snyder didn’t understand this and made it all about the aesthetic. Mangold, who was also responsible for 2013’s The Wolverine, returns to what one might call the "Nolan basics." It’s therefore no surprise that Logan is the best superhero film since The Dark Knight.

There’s no shortage of violence in Logan. The movie earns its R-rating by not pulling away from the gruesome results of Wolverine’s claws encountering human flesh. (There’s also a fair amount of profanity. We get to hear Professor X utter the f-word.) The visceral take on Wolverine’s beheadings and disembowelments is in keeping with the overall tone. Yes, there are a few scenes when the protagonist loses control and eviscerates large numbers of opponents but the rah-rah element common in comic book-fueled action sequences isn’t there. This is a pugilist in the twilight of his career. He might win a round but it’s hard to see him making it to the end of the bout. Laura adds an element of youth and newness to the proceedings. She’s no less ferocious than Wolverine, has an equally large chip on her shoulders, and is just starting to come into her own. But inexperience limits her effectiveness and that’s where Wolverine comes in.

We’ve seen Jackman grow as an actor during the nearly two decades he has played Wolverine. He has added layers of depth and films like Prisoners (for which he should have gotten an Oscar nomination) have challenged viewers’ perceptions of him. Yet, in playing a character he has returned to over the years, he has now given his finest performance, a complex mix of regrets and self-doubt that reveals a Logan we never got to know. Stewart, who has worn the co-crown with Ian McKellan as the most lauded actor in the X-Men franchise, provides viewers with a character who, like McKellen’s Sherlock in Mr. Holmes, has been reduced by age but still retains fragments of his once-mighty intellect. Newcomer Keen is all passion and energy and would provide a worthy lead for a spin-off series if the filmmakers choose to go in that direction. Laura’s ascension almost makes this a Rocky/Creed situation (with Jackman as Stallone).

Strangely, this time of year has become the go-to time for non-standard, R-rated superhero films. In terms of tone and content, Logan is Deadpool’s polar opposite but both productions refuse to play by traditional superhero movie rules. With its overt allusions to Shane (clips of which are shown) and echoes of Unforgiven, Logan demands to be given consideration as a "serious" movie. More than any other comic book character outside of Nolan’s Batman, Wolverine has evolved. With his glimpse into what superhero movies can be, Mangold has given us something sadly lacking in recent genre entries: hope.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

The Circle * Directed by James Ponsoldt. A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity. Has a lot of good ideas and a few engrossing sequences, but it never quite finds a groove, or even a mode, and it ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying way.

Colossal ***½ Directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is an out-of-work party girl forced to leave her life in New York City, and move back home. When reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, she gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to this phenomenon. This movie feels as if somebody woke from an intense nightmare, decoded it and realized it was rather unsubtly working through some of their unresolved problems, then brought it to Judd Apatow and said, "Here's your next comedy."

Don’t Knock Twice * Directed by Caradog W. James. A mother desperate to reconnect with her troubled daughter becomes embroiled in the urban legend of a demonic witch. Disappointing because its creators don't do anything interesting with a fairly novel theme: a mother's possessive love for her estranged daughter.

The Drowning ½* Directed by Bette Gordon. A psychiatrist faces his past, present and future when he finds himself involved in the treatment of a young man recently released from prison for a murder committed when the boy was just 11 years old. The problem with this movie isn't that the characters are insubstantial, but rather that they don't dry up and disappear fast enough.

Going in Style ** Directed by Zach Braff. Desperate to pay the bills and come through for their loved ones, three lifelong pals embark on a bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money. Although the movie’s heist represents a high point and gets props for being suitably clever, it’s swamped by bad melodrama and lame comedy.

The Lovers ** Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Debra Winger and Tracy Letts play a long-married, dispassionate couple who are both in the midst of serious affairs. But on the brink of calling it quits, a spark between them suddenly reignites, leading them into an impulsive romance. Falling with a thud between two stools, it has neither the zip nor the zaniness of farce nor the airy vivacity of the best romantic comedies.

The Ottoman Lieutenant ½* Directed by Joseph Ruben. A love story between an idealistic American nurse and a Turkish officer in World War I. A couple of action sequences are well staged. That’s about it for the plus side.

Phoenix Forgotten * Directed by Justin Barber. Twenty years after three teenagers disappeared in the wake of mysterious lights appearing above Phoenix, unseen footage from that night has been discovered, chronicling the final hours of their fateful expedition. Borderline generic, desert-set found footage that apes genre constraints to a snooze-worthy T.

Shin Godzilla **½ Directed by Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi. Japan is plunged into chaos upon the appearance of a giant monster. The film is at its best when it’s in parody mode, though it keeps that card too close to the vest for much of its two-hour length. The humor, not the monster, is what you’re left wanting more of.

Sleight *** Directed by J.D. Dillard. A young street magician (Jacob Latimore) is left to care for his little sister after their parents passing, and turns to illegal activities to keep a roof over their heads. An auspicious debut from this up-and-coming filmmaker.

Wakefield ** Written and directed by Robin Swicord. A man's nervous breakdown causes him to leave his wife and live in his attic for several months. The film, scrupulously faithful to its source, is decidedly literary, but not in an especially satisying way.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Free Fire"

There was a period in the mid- to late 1990s when it seemed as if every other gritty independent film and a few studio wannabes were built around scenes where tough white guys smoke cigarettes, insult each other and launch into interminable monologues about some aspect of popular culture until an argument breaks out and everybody points guns at each other. This, unfortunately, has been the main legacy of Quentin Tarantino, whose first two hugely influential films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction could be boiled down to that very description, provided that you disregarded everything else that made them distinctive and good.

What followed the release of those movies was the cinematic version of a land rush, with directors, screenwriters and actors racing each other to stake out little plots of earth where they could build secondhand versions of films that were themselves constructed from borrowed and stolen pieces of other films (and often made no secret of what had been lifted). Probably 80 percent of these knockoffs could have been retitled, "Watch Me Do Something I Think Is Easy But That Really Isn't." The Boondock Saints, Reindeer Games, Phoenix, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, 2 Days in the Valley, American Strays, The Way of the Gun, Suicide Kings, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag — I could go on, but then we'd be here all day, and I'd never get around to talking about Ben Wheatley's Free Fire, a Tarantinoid film that arrives just in time to mark the 25th anniversary of Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in 1992.

Free Fire is neither the best nor the worst of the Tarantino wannabes; at its worst, it's tediously unoriginal, and at its best, it's funny and reasonably involving. Either way, its temporal distance from Reservoir Dogs — a film it brazenly imitates, right down to the warehouse setting and the grandiose use of kitschy pop — makes it noteworthy. So does its status as part of one of the most striking filmographies of recent years: that of Wheatley and his screenwriting partner Amy Jump, who made High Rise, A Field in England and 2011's Kill List, a superior foray into somewhat QT-like territory.

The story begins with Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) driving to a Boston warehouse to take part in a weapons deal that includes a couple of Irish Republican Army members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley). Two intermediaries involved in the deal, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), lead the group inside and introduce them to the chief weapons dealer, a smug, glad-handing, unfunny little jokester named Vernon, who of course is played by Sharlto Copley, an actor whose whole career seems to have been modeled on Hart Bochner's performance as Ellis the Yuppie cokehead in Die Hard. Vernon has three associates, Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

The cast soon expands to include several additional characters, including a couple of assassins who shoot into the warehouse with rifles from outside. Hidden motives and grudges are exposed as factors complicating this arms deal, which should have been simple and brief but becomes a complete disaster, with the core group shooting at each other from behind pillars and scrap heaps and discarded machinery and tending to their own wounds and others'. There's a bit of subtext involving the financial crash and the general decline of old fashioned manual labor (as photographed by Laurie Rose, the warehouse and the surrounding buildings and docks have a post-apocalyptic feel), and of course a lot of the dialogue has to do with the expectation of honor among thieves and the collective realization that in situations like this, there isn't any. There's a hint of budding romance between Chris and Justine (the only woman in the movie) and a couple of twists that you might or might not see coming, mostly having to do with hidden motivations.

That the actors all seem to be enjoying themselves goes a long way towards making Free Fire something other than a slog through played-out situations. Wheatley is a superb director with a strong sense of both geography and psychology, which means that, despite the film's overpopulated cast, you are never confused about where people are or what they're feeling at any given moment. Some of the actors make a strong impression — in particular Noah Taylor, who has been leaning hard into the grizzled-character-actor thing and is developing a Harry Dean Stanton vibe; and Hammer, whose eloquent, self-deprecating handsomeness evokes Brad Pitt. And the more deranged touches elevate Free Fire beyond its familiar setup. I never imagined that a filmmaker would press John Denver into service as, basically, the Ennio Morricone of a modern spaghetti Western, and yet here we are, and damned if it doesn't work.

All in all, though, this feels like a step backward for a director whose work has confounded and surprised more often than not. This is a relatively short feature that still feels too long, because once you realize that there's only one way that most of these relationships can resolve — with one party or the other dying of gunshot wounds —there isn't much for the viewer to do besides wait out the final credits and hope for some tasty character bits along the way.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "The Promise"

Weighed down by the worthiness of its intentions, The Promise is a big, barren wartime romance that approaches the Armenian genocide with too much calculation and not nearly enough heat.

It can happen all too easily. An otherwise highly competent director (in this case, Terry George) succumbs to the lure of addressing a real-life atrocity (here, the still-contested slaughter of more than a million peaceful Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I). Somewhere along the way, though, the need to do justice to the slain and call out the perpetrators becomes a pillow that smothers every spark of originality. Even actors with the heft of Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale — playing an Armenian apothecary named Mikael and an American war reporter named Chris — appear muffled and indistinct.

This dimming extends to an excruciatingly corny plot that has both characters vie for the twinkling affections of Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a Paris-educated, terminally cute tutor. But first Mikael must finagle a dowry to finance medical school in Constantinople, so he promises to marry Maral (Angela Sarafyan), a lovely innocent from his village. Once in the grip of the city and Ana’s charms, however, Mikael is lost; the combined demands of a soggy love triangle and the approach of war soon banish all thoughts of marriage — to Maral, at least.

Mikael, then, is not particularly sympathetic, and Chris is a humorless newshound; so when the jackboots tramp and the killing begins, their fates are of less concern than they should be. And while Mikael endures the horrors of an Ottoman work camp, and Chris and Ana are busily saving orphans at a Protestant mission, their director — who was infinitely more adept with his other genocide movie, Hotel Rwanda — appears oblivious to the story’s inadequacies. Aspiring to the sweep of epics like Doctor Zhivago and Reds, George achieves neither the romantic delirium of the first nor the sheer swaggering gumption of the second.

Money does not seem to have been the problem: The film reportedly cost almost $100 million, and some of it is even on the screen. Yet we never forget for one second that we’re watching actors in fancy dress; behind the curtain of cattle cars and starving workers, above the noise of the explosions, we can hear the moviemaking machinery clank and whir.

In 2002, the Canadian-Armenian director Atom Egoyan took a more modest yet ultimately more potent path to the genocide with his underseen Ararat. Though not entirely successful, that film — which directly addressed the cinematic challenge of representing history — profited from sharply perceptive writing and a studious avoidance of melodrama. With even one of these attributes, The Promise might have had a chance.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Wilson"

Wilson — it’s not clear if that’s his first or last name — is a misanthrope with a sentimental streak, a guy whose grouchiness is leavened by oddball touches of Minnesota Nice. He is furiously disdainful of most of the people he meets, but also has a habit of sidling up to them and initiating awkward conversations with a smile halfway between a snarl and a leer. Humanity annoys him, and he’s happy to return the favor.

Which makes him, on paper, an intriguing character. By "on paper" I mean, specifically, in the pages of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, a funny-sad, episodic portrait of everyday loneliness and longing. American literature — and American comic-book literature in particular — hardly lacks for disaffected, middle-age white guys, but Wilson has his own special brand of abrasive charm.

Not onscreen, though. The movie version of Wilson, directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) from a screenplay by Clowes, illustrates the difficulty of translating an idiosyncratic temperament from one visual medium to another. The dark, comic poignancy of the book is drowned in garish, self-conscious whimsy, and the work of a talented ensemble is squandered on awkward heartstring snatching.

Wide-eyed and gaptoothed, with heavy-framed glasses and a copper-and-silver beard, Woody Harrelson plays Wilson as a kinetic ball of conflicting impulses. He’s unpleasant, but not in an especially interesting way, and ingratiating in a way that’s even drearier. The other people in Wilson’s life — his foils, enablers and marks — are played by capable actors. Laura Dern is his wayward ex-wife, Pippi. Cheryl Hines is her judgy sister, Polly. Judy Greer is Wilson’s dog-sitter, and Isabella Amara is the almost-grown daughter he never knew he had. Mary Lynn Rajskub and the character actress Margo Martindale each have a few minutes of screen time.

As is often the case with well-intentioned, misbegotten projects, you’re happy to see them even as you wonder how they ended up here. The same is true of the composer Jon Brion, a usually brilliant musical artist whose score in this case is an unpalatable cocktail of jauntiness and melodrama, swamping the action rather than complementing it.

Antic, joyless and sloppy, Wilson tries to provoke and beguile you, but the best you can manage is to feel sorry for it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

Black Butterfly ½* Directed by Brian Goodman. Outside a mountain town grappling with a series of abductions and murders, Paul (Antonio Banderas), a reclusive writer, struggles to start what he hopes will be a career-saving screenplay. After a tense encounter at a diner with a drifter named Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Paul offers Jack a place to stay-and soon the edgy, demanding Jack muscles his way into Paul's work. The movie communicates all of its empty-headed ideas idiotically, but still retains a knowing smugness regarding its intentions, like it’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat while acting like no one’s ever seen such a trick.

The Boss Baby ** Directed by Tom McGrath. A suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying baby pairs up with his 7-year old brother to stop a plot of the CEO of Puppy Co. Much like any child, even a supposedly surefire nugget of an idea requires careful nurturing. In this case, The Boss Baby often tries too hard and succeeds too little.

Ghost in the Shell *½ Directed by Rupert Sanders. In the near future, a woman (Scarlett Johansson) saved from a terrible crash is cyber-enhanced to be a perfect soldier devoted to stopping the world's most dangerous criminals. Director Sanders likes a dark palette and is good with actors, but there’s little here that feels personal, and he mostly functions as a blockbuster traffic cop, managing all the busily moving, conspicuously pricey parts.

Gifted **½ Directed by Marc Webb. A single man (Chris Evans) raising his child prodigy niece (McKenna Grace) is drawn into a custody battle with his mother. What’s in a child’s best interest? It depends on who’s answering the question, and that’s the crux of this movie.

Unforgettable *½ Directed by Denise Di Novi. A woman sets out to make life hell for her ex-husband's new fiancée. Both the director and the writer are women, but that doesn’t translate into a re-imagining of the tired formula.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage * Directed by D.J. Caruso. Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is left for dead, though he secretly returns to action for a new, tough assignment with his handler (Samuel J. Jackson). Characters are simply triggers for the overwrought action sequences, though between the Edward Scissorhands editing and occasional wobbling background, even those are less than distinct.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A Cure for Wellness"

I keep forgetting the title of A Cure for Wellness and calling it "The Color of Despair." It’s an accurate mistake.

As directed by Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Lone Ranger), this film about a New York financial wiz (Dane DeHaan) getting trapped in a creepy Swiss clinic wants to be sickly-dreamy horror epic. It’s a black-and-white movie done in color. The stark photography by Bojan Bozelli creates pools of blackness and acres of negative space. Jenny Beavan’s retro-gothic costuming and Eve Stewart’s production design favor ash, bone, eggshell, curdled cream, and shades of green ranging from bile to moss. If you could nick a David Fincher film’s throat, hang it upside down, and bleed it for two days, it would look like this movie. As a fetish object, it’s impressive.

But as a fully satisfying feature-length drama, it’s a bust. And it’s iffy as a visionary spectacle, too, because it’s too long and over-scaled, and its control of tone and theme never matches the care that has obviously been lavished on its production. This is all a shame, because there’s much to admire in A Cure for Wellness.

DeHaan has just the right look to play the main character, Lockhart, a corrupt young East Coast WASP who travels to Switzerland to find a missing company executive but ends up trapped at a "wellness clinic" run by a German-accented doctor named Heinrich Volmer (Jason Issacs). DeHaan looks like he could be Dylan Baker’s long lost son, all milky angularity and cold stares. He has that look that casting directors go for when they’re hiring prep school jerks or Nazi youth. The actor’s straightforward performance, by turns entitled, baffled, terrified and ashamed, makes Lockhart a punching-bag hero, the kind who exists mainly to suffer horribly before achieving an enlightenment that looks a lot like comeuppance.

Lockhart is insufferable at first because he’s supposed to be. There’s a sense in which he deserves the miseries inflicted upon him because he’s a snotty capitalist swine who would otherwise grow up to be another Ebenezer Scrooge, and because he’s representing a system that produces Scrooges by the millions. Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, The Lone Ranger) seem at times to be making a statement about the vampire-like hold that the cultural memory of Europe still has over many rich and powerful Americans. Lockhart’s predecessor went to the clinic "to take in the waters" — which, as another character notes, is a very nineteenth century thing to do — and the all-white denizens of the place seem awed by the very existence of Volmer, a handsome gadfly who has the chiseled looks of an old movie Gestapo officer but carries himself like an ambassador of reason. The clinic grounds are a replica of an identical place that burned down decades ago on this very spot — there’s a backstory involving taboo hideousness — and there are recurring situations that pivot on insularity, hatred of outsiders, and the purity of bloodlines. (Mia Goth, who plays the doctor’s daughter, is the ultimate expression of the film’s anemic vision: she looks haunted and starved yet somehow also glamorous.)

This is a fine starting place for a social satire and also a fine thematic flavor for a compact, dreamy horror movie. There are real ideas here, good ideas even, but they remain tantalizing but insufficiently shaped.

It’s only during the last half-hour — a succession of over-the-top set-pieces that I loved, and that many colleagues found trashy and excessive — that A Cure for Wellness attains the level of bug-nuts wildness that it possibly needed all along. Verbinski isn’t bad at psychological and atmospheric horror, but he’s often at his most original when he’s letting it all hang out in sequences of clockwork suspense and ridiculous action, which is why the slapstick sequences in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the chases in Rango and the last 45 minutes of The Lone Ranger represent Verbinski at his most Verbinskian. It’s in the maybe narratively-unnecessary final half-hour that A Cure for Wellness finally starts drawing the kinds of connections (through sheer excess) that give it a distinctive personality, such as a cut from a decadent, repulsive character whirling in circles after sustaining an injury to a group of clueless rich folk waltzing in a grand ballroom.

And the two-and-a-half hour running time is too much even by standards of too-muchness. It’s ironic and unfortunate that the movie models so much of its look on German Expressionist silent movies and 1930s Universal horror films, because those tended to be short and lean. Very long horror movies often reach a point of diminishing returns no matter how skillfully the filmmakers sustain a mood — The Shining is a rare exception, though even that one has detractors — because they give you time to think about the concept and fixate on plot holes, judgment errors and other imperfections.

Verbinski is no Stanley Kubrick, although there are moments when he comes close. There are sequences involving eels that make eels seem even creepier than they did already, and a dentistry-as-torture scene that makes the one in Marathon Man look like a routine cleaning. I could easily imagine a version of A Cure for Wellness that’s all suggestion and understatement, and one that’s essentially the madcap finale played out of the length of a feature, climbing to nosebleed heights of bad taste and unfurling a freak flag at the summit. Either would have been preferable to what ended up onscreen, a rag-and-bone shop of notions.

What’s most conspicuously absent here is Kubrick’s lordly, even naughty sense of humor. A Cure for Wellness aims for black comedy often, but rarely manages anything more sophisticated than the sick joke comic rhythm of, "What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?" followed by, "Here it comes." Lockhart’s suffering grows dull through repetition. He keeps brushing up against the same realizations, or to be lied to or misdirected and find himself back where he started. Too much of this sort of thing and even patient viewers throw their hands up and moan, "Oh, come on."

Friday, July 14, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A Quiet Passion"

New England in the mid-19th century was a literary hothouse, overgrown with wild and exotic talents. That Emily Dickinson was among the most dazzling of these is not disputable, but to say that she was obscure in her own time would exaggerate her celebrity. A handful of her poems appeared in print while she was alive (she died in 1886, at 55), but she preferred private rituals of publication, carefully writing out her verses and sewing them into booklets.

Though she had no interest in fame, Dickinson was anything but an amateur scribbler, approaching her craft with unstinting discipline and tackling mighty themes of death, time and eternity. She remains a paradoxical writer: vividly present on the page but at the same time persistently elusive. The more familiar you are with her work, the stranger she becomes.

An admirer can be forgiven for approaching A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’s movie about Dickinson’s life, with trepidation. The literalness of film and the creaky conventions of the biopic threaten to dissolve that strangeness, to domesticate genius into likable quirkiness. But Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made her tick.

To Dickinson — played in the long afternoon of her adult life by Cynthia Nixon — the enemy of poetry is obviousness. (It is a vice she finds particularly obnoxious in the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the reigning poet of the age.) A Quiet Passion refuses the obvious at every turn. The romantically disappointed recluse of The Belle of Amherst, William Luce’s sturdy, sentimental play, has been replaced by a prickly, funny, freethinking intellectual, whose life is less a chronicle of withdrawal from the world than a series of explosive engagements with the universe. The passion is not so quiet, really. Dickinson muses and ponders, yes, but she also seethes, scolds, teases and bursts out laughing.

Solitude is part of Dickinson’s birthright — the taste for it links her to Henry David Thoreau, another odd duck plying the waters of Massachusetts — but so are social and familial ties. The first time we see young Emily (played by Emma Bell) she is about to be kicked out of Mount Holyoke College, branded a "no-hoper" for her heterodox religious views. The description is wrong, of course. ("Hope is the thing with feathers," she would write.) Her skepticism about God was more personal than metaphysical. She didn’t doubt his existence so much as question his intentions.

In tracing the flowering of her vocation, Davies pays scrupulous attention to the milieu that fed it. Her formal education complete, Dickinson returns to Amherst to live with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon); her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff); and her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). On the way, there is a trip to a concert with an uptight aunt who is disgusted by the spectacle of a woman singing and disdainful of music in general. What about hymns?, her niece asks. "Hymns are not music."

But the Protestant hymnal was the metrical trellis on which Dickinson wreathed blossoms and thorns of musical invention. A Quiet Passion suggests that the mixture of austerity and extravagance in her verse was shaped partly by an environment in which religious severity coexisted with aesthetic and intellectual experimentation. (That aunt may have disapproved of the performance, but she still went.)

This is a visually gorgeous film — full of sunlight and flowers, symmetry and ornament — that also feels refreshingly plain. The smooth, almost lyrical movement of the camera conveys lightness and gravity, much in the way that some of Dickinson’s poems do. Like her voice, it seems to have been set loose in time, to rush forward or to linger as the meaning and the meter require, to turn time itself into a series of riddles. The movie lasts for two hours, or 37 years, or the difference between now and forever, or the span of an idea.

It is dominated by a single voice: Nixon’s, reciting stanzas instead of voice-over narration and cracking impish, sometimes impious jokes with the marvelous Ehle. A novel of family life writes itself between the lines, full of memorable characters and dramatic scenes. Parents grow old and die. Austin marries and then has an affair, a transgression that enrages Emily. She and Vinnie seem to exist in precise, kinetic counterpoint, like the left and right hands of a piano étude.

Not everything is harmony. If one of the film’s threads is the existential conundrum that most directly informs Dickinson’s poetry — what it is like to live from moment to moment with the knowledge of eternity — another is the dialectic of freedom and authority that defined her life. Nixon’s Dickinson is a natural feminist, but she also naturally submits, as her siblings do, to their father’s will. When she wants to write late at night, she asks his permission, noting later that no husband would have granted it. She is submissive and rebellious in ways that defy easy summary. Like the other great American poet of her century, Walt Whitman, she contradicts herself.

And though A Quiet Passion is small — modest in scope, inward rather than expansive, precise in word and gesture — it contains multitudes. It opens a window into an era whose political and moral legacies are still with us, and illuminates, with a practiced portraitist’s sureness of touch, the mind of someone who lived completely in her time, knowing all the while that she would eventually escape it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "Norman"

How you feel about Norman the character will determine how you feel about Norman the movie. He’s a complicated man, and not necessarily a likable one. A self-styled "consultant," he is whoever he needs to be at any particular moment, depending on the situation he’s trying to insinuate himself into or the person he’s trying to manipulate. Is he a shameless hustler? Or is he merely an overbearing yet well-intentioned mensch?

And yet, in Richard Gere’s deft, veteran hands, Norman Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him. Norman —the full title of which is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer — similarly remains gripping as it evolves from funny to sad to suspenseful. Writer/director Joseph Cedar has created a rich character within a vivid sense of place. All we can do is watch and squirm.

With his ever-present overcoat, hat and ear buds, Norman is always walking and talking, always working it. He’s warm and friendly to everyone he meets, fancying himself as a magnanimous, well-connected power broker who’s eager to introduce people to each other for their mutual benefit. Please, just let him do this one favor for you — it would be his honor. But it’s clear that no one really knows Norman, and even though Gere is on screen for nearly the entirety of the film, we realize by the end that we don’t really know Norman, either. And that’s intentional; Cedar has made him a tantalizing mystery.

What Norman is after, though, becomes achingly clear: not the money that closing a big deal would bring, but rather the prestige, something that’s more amorphous and harder to acquire. He finally achieves some semblance of the access and respect he long has sought when he befriends an Israeli diplomat named Micha Eshel (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi, who also co-starred in Cedar’s 2011 film Footnote), who’s visiting New York at a vulnerable time in his political career. A scene in which Norman follows Eshel into the Manhattan Lanvin store and helps him try on expensive suits and shoes plays like an exquisitely tense, delicate dance.

Three years later, when Eshel becomes Israel’s prime minister, he remembers his eager-to-please pal and welcomes Norman into this inner circle — to the frustration of the seasoned political aides who already occupy spots there. But as Norman begins making promises he can’t keep to friends throughout New York’s Jewish community and getting in deeper over his head, his exaggerations and outright lies come back to haunt him. Not only does he find it increasingly difficult to maintain his well-honed persona, he also finds that being near the center of power isn’t as satisfying as he’d always imagined.

It’s a classic case of being careful of what you wish for. But Gere brings such nuance to Norman’s various shadings, he constantly keeps us on edge. His final fate feels a bit anticlimactic, especially given the elaborate, expertly paced build-up that preceded it. But Gere keeps us guessing until the end, with the ultimate question lingering: Does Norman actually believe his own spin? It could go either way. Gere is expertly cast, finding a different key to his typically charismatic screen persona — one that’s larger than life, but with a jittery, buzzing undercurrent.

The supporting cast is strong, as well, especially Michael Sheen as Norman’s nephew and much-needed (if not heeded) voice of reason and Steve Buscemi as Norman’s sympathetic rabbi. Charlotte Gainsbourg brings a quietly unsettling presence as an inquisitive government worker Norman schmoozes up on a train. And Josh Charles is just withering in one scene as an affluent, influential New Yorker whose dinner party Norman makes the mistake of crashing.

You may not like Norman — and you may not want to invite him to your own dinner party — but you’d be foolish to dismiss him outright.

Not in the legendary Johnnie Cochran-F. Lee Bailey tradition

In a story written by Avi Selk of the Washington Post, Harris County (Houston) Justice of the Peace Hillary H. Green has been suspended by the Texas Supreme Court "amid accusations that she sextested in the courtroom, used her bailiff to buy drugs, hired prostitutes and once brought home marijuana seized from a defendant."

And what’s her defense attorney’s shrewd plan to dispute these charges?

If you believe Selk’s account, and there’s no legitimate reason to doubt it, defense attorney Chip Babcock’s counter argument is The Texas Supremes should not have taken this action because voters have "overwhelmingly re-elected Green … ‘She’s very popular in the precinct’."

I bet she is — especially among those she sextested and those she brought drugs from.

Available soon for home viewing

Buster’s Mal Heart **½ Directed by Sarah Adina Smith. A family man's chance encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter leaves him on the run from the police and an impending event known as The Inversion. This movie is about the making of a madman. It also aspires, with less success, to philosophically query the void at the center of modern life and Christianity’s failure to fill it.

Free Fire ** Directed by Ben Wheatley. In 1978 Boston, a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two gangs turns into a shootout and a game of survival. This is neither the best nor the worst of the Tarantino wannabes; at its worst, it's tediously unoriginal, and at its best, it's funny and reasonably involving.

Kong: Skull Island **½ Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape. As a big-budget B-grade monster movie, rhis is a home run. It offers all the tropes and clichés one expects from this sort of endeavor, sparing no expense when it comes to special effects. As a King Kong movie, however, it is less successful.

The Promise *½ Directed by Terry George. Set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the film follows a love triangle among Michael, a brilliant medical student, the beautiful and sophisticated Ana, and Chris, a renowned American journalist based in Paris. This is a big, barren wartime romance that approaches the Armenian genocide with too much calculation and not nearly enough heat.

Tommy’s Honour *½ Directed by Jason Connery. An intimate tale of the real-life founders of the modern game of golf. The performances are desultory, the musical score bullying and the drama — aside from the game-changing placement of inconvenient shrubbery — is as predictable as one of the character’s steadily sprouting beard.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "A United Kingdom"

For a movie about two people who loved each other so deeply, they risked losing everything to be together — their families, homes, even their countries — A United Kingdom plays it frustratingly safe.

Based on the true story of the former king of Botswana and the British woman whose marriage in the late 1940s caused an international uproar, A United Kingdom is restrained to a fault. Director Amma Asante hits all the notes you’d expect in tastefully artful fashion. She has gifted, gorgeous actors in stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. And she has an undeniably inspiring story to tell.

A United Kingdom is well made and well-intentioned. But Asante is also saddled with a script from Guy Hibbert that spells out everything for the audience and oversimplifies its theoretically complex characters. Oyelowo’s Seretse Khama was exiled from his homeland — then known as Bechuanaland, a British protectorate — for long stretches of time for following his heart. He also angered and alienated his uncle (Vusi Kunene), who raised him as his own son, for bringing home a white woman to serve as their people’s queen.

Similarly, Pike’s Ruth Williams became a pariah herself, drawing the ire of her closed-minded father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) for marrying a black man. At the same time, the poor citizens of Bechuanaland didn’t exactly welcome this elegant foreigner with open arms. And since the British government wouldn’t allow Khama to return home because of the burgeoning, beastly apartheid in neighboring South Africa, Ruth was forced to spend her pregnancy alone. She gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, without him at a rural hospital.

It’s all dramatic stuff, full of rich and complicated emotions. But as they’re depicted here, Khama and Ruth are singularly virtuous. Sure, they shed a few tears. Khama shoves a bunch of papers off a desk in a brief moment of rage. But individually, they both have a knack for saying the most poignant, uplifting thing at just the right moment. And while Oyelowo and Pike share a nice chemistry, especially during the couple’s courtship, it’s never one that indicates the sort of deep passion that must have driven these figures’ real-life sacrifice.

Their early days together provide a warm spark at the start, though, and they’re among the film’s finest. Khama and Ruth meet at a dance in 1947 London; he’s a thoughtful law student, she’s a vivacious clerk. The energetic pacing of this section, as they share a love of dancing and jazz albums, provides a great sense of the giddiness they felt in discovering each other.

But duty calls in the form of a letter from Khama’s uncle, informing him that his studies abroad have prepared him well and it’s now time for him to come home and lead his people. Only he doesn’t want to do it alone: He brings Ruth with him as his bride, an intimate decision with worldwide repercussions that neither of them could have predicted. (Asante, working with cinematographer Sam McCurdy, provides a striking and sumptuous contrast between the foggy chill of England and the sunny sprawl of Africa.)

Ironically, though, as the stakes get higher, A United Kingdom becomes less engaging. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the British government officials wielding their power to keep the Khamas apart are depicted in such a one-dimensionally villainous manner. One of them is played by Tom Felton — Draco Malfoy himself — who was afforded more character development throughout the series.

The battle between good and evil is so obvious, it’s almost boring. These guys mercifully refrain from twirling their mustaches, but they do sip sherry as a comical reflection of their condescension and cruel authority.

Oyelowo can deliver a speech with a potent mix of fire and earnestness, though, as we also saw in his magnificent work in Selma. Pike shows once again that she’s capable of both vulnerability and fierce feminine strength. And in A United Kingdom, we get just enough glimmers of these actors’ prowess to wish we were watching them in a better movie.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Available soon for home viewing

American Fable *½ Directed by Anne Hamilton. When 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) discovers that her beloved father is hiding a wealthy man in her family's silo in order to save their struggling farm, she is forced to choose between saving the man's life or protecting her family from the consequences of their actions. It has a nice opening for a movie that spirals into nonsense.

The Fate and the Furious **½ Directed by F. Gary Gray. A mysterious woman seduces Dom into the world of terrorism and a betrayal of those closest to him. Zoom, crash, repeat with squealing, burning and flaming tires — it’s all predictably absurd and sel-mocking, and often a giggle when not a total yawn.

The Lost City of Z **½ Directed by James Gray. A true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s. The ending is muddled as an unsuccessful attempt is made to provide closure to a story that, if told frankly, shouldn’t have one.

Norman *** Directed by Joseph Cedar. Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere) is a small time operator who befriends a young politician at a low point in his life. Three years later, when the politician becomes an influential world leader, Norman's life dramatically changes for better and worse. In Gere’s deft, veteran hands, Oppenheimer is consistently, completely fascinating. You may not be able to root for him, but you can’t help but feel for him.

A Quiet Passion **** Directed by Terence Davies. The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognized artist. Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made Dickinson tick.

Smurfs: The Lost Village ** Directed by Kelly Asbury. A mysterious map sets Smurfette and her friends Brainy, Clumsy and Hefty on a race through the Forbidden Forest leading to the discovery of the biggest secret in Smurf history. While it may not be better or more entertaining, the acknowledgment that it is aiming solely for the kiddie audience this time around at least makes it slightly more palatable than its predecessors.

Spark: A Space Tale ½* Directed by Aaron Woodley. Spark, a teenage monkey and his friends, Chunk and Vix, are on a mission to regain Planet Bana, a kingdom overtaken by the evil overlord Zhong. An utterly lifeless and profoundly unoriginal animated effort that is desperately lacking the very thing in its title.

Their Finest *** Directed by Lone Scherfig. A former secretary, newly appointed as a scriptwriter for propaganda films, joins the cast and crew of a major production while the Blitz rages around them. Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard is never less than splendid.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Available now for home viewing: "T2 Trainspotting"

If you long for the gritty charms of mid-‘90s indie cinema in general and Trainspotting specifically, T2 Trainspotting gives you exactly that. And by "exactly," I really do mean "exactly."

Danny Boyle’s sequel to his generation-defining 1996 film offers more of the same, for better and for worse. An opportunity to wallow in grimy nostalgia seems to be its sole purpose. It is an absolute rehash, complete with visual cues, bits of dialogue, blasts of music and even snippets of clips from the original 1996 film woven into the modern-day action.

"What’s the point?" you might wonder. "Why now?" And you might still wonder that after spending two more hours with Renton, Sick Boy and the rest of Edinburgh lads, who are now 20 years older and not much wiser. Boyle can make any kind of film in the world that he wants — and he has with 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Steve Jobs. This is a director who has made his name by taking risks. By revisiting Trainspotting, Boyle is playing it strangely safe. His signature visual verve is there; it’s the narrative drive that’s missing.

The clunkily titled T2 Trainspotting is in constant forward motion, though, which also makes it similar to its predecessor. It even begins with Ewan McGregor’s character, Mark Renton, running again. Only this time, he’s on the treadmill at the gym, not trying to escape the law. The script from returning screenwriter John Hodge, working from Irvine Welsh’s novels Porno and Trainspotting, contrives to send Renton back to his old, working-class neighborhood in Scotland from Amsterdam.

He’s been living a respectable life since making off with the 16,000 pounds he stole from his buddies after their big heroin deal at the end of the first film. The blurry, sun-dappled sight of a scrawny, young Renton walking across a bridge with a duffel bag full of money in his hand and a smile on his face is one of the many key images Boyle reinvigorates here. Working with his frequent cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and editor, Jon Harris, he also recreates the tricky combination of shocking visuals and playful pacing that made Trainspotting such an original, thrilling breath of dirty air.

The other characters haven’t changed much, either. Renton has beefed up and cleaned up, reinventing himself in another country and keeping far away from the drug that had such a complete and hypnotic hold on him and his friends. But Jonny Lee Miller’s towheaded, troublemaking Sick Boy now runs the family pub, which is more rundown than ever and not nearly as popular as it used to be. The sweet and simple Spud (Ewen Bremner) remains hooked on smack, and is so depressed and destitute that he’s in the process of trying to kill himself when Renton stops by to say hello. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is as volatile and violent as ever, having spent time in prison and now trying to reconnect with the son he barely knows by dragging him into a life of crime. Of all his friends, Begbie is the most dangerously angry about Renton’s long-ago betrayal.

Basically, T2 consists of Renton bouncing around between these supporting characters, as well as Sick Boy’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who has dreams of helping Sick Boy turn the pub into a brothel. She essentially exists so that when Renton does a cringe-inducing, contemporary version of his "Choose Life" monologue from the start of the original Trainspotting, he has someone to listen to him this time. The scene is a prime example of how T2 manages to establish a familiar, rhythmic patter, yet still feel lazy.

The pacing overall is erratic, though, which is not the sort of comment one usually would make about a Boyle film. T2 certainly has its moments and some callbacks that’ll make you smile — the sight of McGregor in a filthy men’s bathroom, for example, or the iconic drum beat at the start of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. And McGregor and Miller share a warm, spry chemistry, despite (or perhaps because of) the bitter friction that now defines their characters’ relationship. Meanwhile, an all-too brief appearance by Kelly Macdonald comes out of nowhere and feels like a missed opportunity. The former underage party girl has become an uptight corporate lawyer, which seems like a rather facile condemnation of society as a whole.

But the movie never really finds a cultural groove or a political voice. The sight of Renton standing awkwardly in his childhood bedroom, still covered with train wallpaper and seemingly untouched in 20 years, feels emblematic of the entire endeavor. Just because you can go home again doesn’t necessarily mean you should.