A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 417 – Trainspotting

Trainspotting – April 21st, 2011

Apparently we’re just having a drug-themed movie week or something. This wasn’t planned ahead of time, but I saw this morning that it’s Iggy Pop’s birthday and this was the first movie that came to mind. After all, we already did Cry Baby. We don’t own the sequel to The Crow (and we’re saving that anyhow and we’d have had to watch it first) and while he does apparently do one of the lead voices in the English dub of Persepolis, we don’t do dubbed versions unless we can’t do the subtitled version. So, here we are. Not that he’s in this, but I’ve always associated him with the movie since he’s very prominent on the soundtrack and pops up in conversation in the movie itself.

Now, I’ve got a lot to say about this movie so I admit I started my review earlier in the day. Really, I’ve been thinking about the review for the past year or so. Ever since we watched our first book-to-movie adaptation, which would be the first few movies, since Hellboy was a graphic novel first. This has been a long time coming. Because this movie is, in my opinion, one of the very best book-to-movie adaptations ever made. It is my go-to example of such a thing when the topic comes up in conversation and I’ve had to be really careful not to digress into a discussion of it whenever the topic comes up in my reviews. Because I could talk about this movie for days.

I mentioned in my 12 Monkeys review that I spent a few weeks in England when I was in high school. I happened to be there just when this movie was coming out in theaters. It was hugely advertised there. I grabbed the book first, then the soundtrack, then saw the movie with the rest of the group (none of whom had read the book and most of whom thought the movie was okay at best). My point here is that, like 12 Monkeys, for me this movie is inextricably linked to that trip. A lot of other things happened on the trip, both good and bad, but this was something I felt like I would remember, and I have. It’s one of the things that spurred me to pay more attention to film and books and the differences between them as mediums. Their physicality, experience of consuming and audiences are totally different and therefore they need to present their content differently. It was a revelation for me.

If you haven’t read the book this movie is based on, let me make it quite clear: It is very different from the movie. The book is a series of loosely connected stories and episodes from the lives of a large group of people who all live in Scotland or are from Scotland and who are either heroin addicts or in some way connected to an addict or addicts. There are a few plotlines that weave in and out of the stories. You’ll meet one character in one story and hear everything from his point of view. In another he’ll show up in the background as a guest at a party in a story being narrated by a girl who’s only met him once. Some stories aren’t connected at all. Some only in the vaguest of ways. Others use a huge network of people to connect wildly disparate plots through nothing more than the people involved and which acquaintances they have in common. And there are passages in the book that are so brutal they make me uncomfortable just thinking about them years later. If you had shown me the book first, without telling me there was a movie? I would have said it was impossible to do.

I would have been wrong. Because what director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge did was pluck out a core group of characters and their stories and turn them into a cohesive plot for the movie. The focal point of the film is Mark Renton, a long-time heroin addict. Everyone else in the movie orbits him to some extent. Friends, family, girlfriend. Renton’s the star here. Because he’s an engrossing character. Not a good guy, to be certain, but when he’s seen in comparison to characters like the amoral Sick Boy and the violent Begbie, well, he looks a whole lot better than he otherwise might. Sure, he lies, steals, gets his friends hooked on heroin. For some reason he’s also sympathetic. He’s made rotten choices throughout much of his adult life and he’s dealt with some rotten consequences. He feels guilt – or at least he does when he’s not high. He narrates the story and leads us through the miserable life he leads along with the people around him.

Back when this movie came out it got some bad press from people who claimed it was glorifying drug use. I would beg to differ on that count. Renton might not suffer much in the way of major consequences – he weasels out of jail time for shoplifting, somehow avoids HIV infection, manages to get to a hospital before an overdose kills him and eventually he gets clean and doesn’t get himself killed by someone else. But at the same time, he’s the exception to the rule here and the movie is quite clear about that. One friend gets jail time. Another dies after AIDS-related toxoplasmosis causes a stroke. Renton’s life is a series of near misses punctuated by shooting up and detoxing, repeatedly. He even starts up the movie determined to get clean (after an introduction telling you how crap it all is) and he even manages for a bit! And is thoroughly miserable immediately after. He goes back on heroin and is again miserable. He’s miserable whatever he does. And the movie constructs the life around him in such a way that, well. It’s somewhat understandable.

This is not to say that there’s a solid argument for drug use here. It seems to feel good while you’re doing it, but the movie shows very clearly what the effects are, from the wasted and sickly characters on the screen to the casualties of their inattention to life around them. But it all seems like a hideous cycle. Get high and you miss everything around you and spend all your time zonked out or stealing to get the money to pay to get zonked again. Get clean and you face up to the mess you’ve made of your life and the fact that your friends are all horrible people who did the same things you did when you were all in need of a hit. They screw each other over multiple times. It’s horrible.

And yet somehow the movie remains full of humor. It is one of the oddest pieces of balancing I’ve ever seen. There are terrible things in here. Infants dead of neglect, guys stealing from a nursing home, terrifying detox scenes, bar brawls with innocents getting beaten to pulp and of course all the heroin. Yet Renton remains somehow sympathetic. I genuinely want to see him break out of it all. I want to see him get clean and get out and away. And the movie has a generous helping of humorous lines that I quote all the damn time. It has some fantastic moments between the cast of characters and I smile a good portion of the time while watching it. But then they’re peppered in through a movie that is, in essence, about the hopelessness and disaffection of a generation and the effects it all has. Each of the characters goes in a different direction in response to feeling utterly trapped. Begbie goes looking for fights. Sick Boy abandons all pretense at caring about anyone but himself. Spud curls up and gives in. Tommy ends up the worst junkie of the lot. And Renton screws his mates to break free.

Following Renton and his “so-called mates” through this movie, I find it utterly amazing that such a cohesive story was pulled out of Irvine Welsh’s book. And I love the book, but it is not a piece of literature with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. It’s casting a very wide net over the Edinburgh drug scene and pulling back a huge host of characters and stories to give you a bit of everything. This movie is taking all of that and pulling you into one storyline and still managing to show so very much of that same culture. These characters give you such a wide view of the possibilities (or lack thereof) that I really felt like they hit many or most of the truly key notes of the book.

Part of what makes the movie work so well and give it its humorous edge, is the way it’s all put together, with frames frozen in place so Renton can narrate a little, or titles like “The Worst” and “in Scotland” put around the word “TOILET” on a bathroom door. And then there’s the magical realism type scenes when Renton is high or detoxing. This movie has a wicked little sense of humor about itself and its subjects while at the same time treating their lives seriously. And the rest of what makes it work so well, aside from the magnificent adaptation work in the script and directing, are the performances.

I love everyone in this movie. The entire main cast is fantastic. Obviously we have Renton in the lead and this is the movie that introduced me to Ewan MacGregor. He is utterly unbelievable as Renton. He’s an underhanded and manipulative little twerp a lot of the time. He’s messed up in many ways. He self-describes as a bad person. And MacGregor makes him likable. That’s tough. That’s more than tough. There’s Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy (who’s lacking in moral fibre but knows a lot about Sean Connery) and you know, I knew Miller from Hackers. He’s certainly well named here and provides a good foil for Renton on several occasions. Ewan Bremner will always be Spud to me, no matter what else I see him in. Kevin McKidd and Kelly Macdonald were both fairly new to film at the time but I think they’re both great as Tommy as Diane, respectively. And oh man, Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Next to Renton and Begbie’s the closest focus the movie has. He’s a snarling wiry bundle of rage who acts as the human antagonist here and does an amazing job of it. I was so impressed when I saw Carlyle in less ragey roles because he’s so good at it here. But that just goes to show how great an actor he is.

All of this together makes for a spectacular movie, but it’s the adaptation aspect that really puts this one over the top for me. It’s that this movie takes something so utterly unworkable as the book and alters it so drastically but maintains the spirit of it. That’s brilliant. Look at so many other book-to-movie adaptions and see how they do it. They can be slavish to the book, going page by page and sometimes that works, like in Sin City. Sometimes it just falls flat because the material is too specific to the medium of the page. And sometimes just enough changes are made to push the material onto the screen without doing every word written down. But I think this movie is a wonderful example of how one can truly embrace the difference in mediums and rework a text in enormous ways to produce something that could only be done on film and captures the essence of the book at the same time. It’s beautiful.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Trainspotting

April 21, 2011

Trainspotting

When we heard that today was Iggy Pop’s birthday today the first thing that popped into both of our minds was this movie which not only features the music of Iggy Pop but has a plot point revolving around tickets to one of his concerts. We had been saving this movie for a special occasion. It’s one of the best movies in our collection, for one thing, and we need really great movies once in a while when our day-to-day lives. For another thing this is a movie that Amanda has an awful lot to say about, so we couldn’t do it on a day when we didn’t have time to do a proper write up.

For me the story in this movie is not what it is about. The plot involves a series of vignettes in the lives of some people in Scotland – mostly having to do with how heroin is destroying their lives. It mostly centers on our narrator Mark Renton, but it doesn’t have an extremely strong narrative – it’s just a series of things that happen to him and his mates. (Amanda has told me that given Irvine Welsh’s original novel it’s astonishing that there’s any narrative arc at all since that book takes the form more of a series of only tenuously related short stories.) Renton is an unapologetic heroin junkie who shoots up with his suave pal Sick Boy, his pathetic loser friend Spud, young mother Allison and their dealer the Mother Superior (so called due to the length of his habit.) His straight edged friend Tommy is having relationship problems. Then there’s complete psycho Begbie who hangs out with them and gets them all into trouble with his fondness for brawling.

Over the course of the movie Renton repeatedly tries to break his heroin habit with varying degrees of success. He tries to go cold turkey. He enters a methadone program after getting caught shoplifting to feed his habit. Ultimately he is forced by his parents to go cold turkey, after which he attempts to lead a more normal life. Even this, however, is difficult for him because his friends continue to pull him back into their life of crime.

I have no experience whatsoever with heroin. To my knowledge there are no heroin addicts even in my circle of friends. As such this movie is very much a window into a foreign and terrifying world. It is presented in such a way, however, that somebody like myself can understand and to some degree sympathise with the characters in the movie. My particular vices (coffee and video games) may be very different, but I can still understand the power of the high, the ache of withdrawal, and the near impossibility of kicking the habit.

This movie introduced me to a lot of people. In most cases it was not their first film, but there are a lot of great artists involved in the creation of this movie that I hadn’t known about before seeing this. Danny Boyle, for example had done Shallow Grave (which I still haven’t seen) before this, but this was the first of his movies I ever saw. Likewise this was the first thing I saw Ewan McGregor in or Robert Carlyle. I think that I did not see Hackers until after I had seen this already so it’s probably the first thing I saw Johnny Lee Miller in too. In every one of these cases these people went on to wonderful careers that never cease to delight and astonish me, and I always look fondly back on this movie when I seen them in something new. Robert Carlyle in particular is astonishing. That he can play the thoroughly awful Begbie here and then go on to movies like The Full Monty and Marilyn Hotchkiss never ceases to astound me. Poor Ewen Bremner, on the other hand, is so distinctive and delivers such a memorable performance as Spud that it is impossible to see him in any other role without seeing this pathetic character.

What sets this movie apart from others in my mind, aside from the great performances throughout, is the directing. This movie is the reason that I’ll grab anything with Danny Boyle’s name on it without hesitation. (That’s how I ended up with Sunshine for example.) There are so many fantastic, surreal moments in this film that help us to get inside Renton’s head. I don’t think there’s a special effect in this entire movie; it’s all accomplished through in-camera tricks, which endears it even more to me. There’s Renton climbing into a filthy toilet to retrieve a pair of suppositories. There’s the shallow world around him speeding by as he aches for a hit. There’s his overdose – where he sinks into a thick shag carpet and that comfortably numb POV follows him to the hospital. There’s the lengthy montage of his withdrawal with the stretching room, mechanical baby on the ceiling, characters visiting him in his hallucinations and such. This is a movie full of fantastic moments that have stuck with me ever since.

Put all that together with a soundtrack including Underworld, Lou Reed, and, yes, Iggy Pop and you have a simply irresistible, magical, terrifying and yet ultimately uplifting tale of drug addiction and poverty. It’s a unique sort of movie that remains amongst my favorite films of all time, and deservedly so. Now if only we had The Naked Lunch so we could make this a drug movie trilogy with yesterday’s viewing of the Reefer Madness musical.

April 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 294 – Comfort and Joy (1984)

Comfort and Joy (1984) – December 19th, 2010

This is by far one of the oddest Christmas movies we own. It’s odder than The Ref by a great deal and it’s got far less shouting, though it’s got plenty of destruction. It’s not about the Christmas spirit or presents or Santa or anything like that. It takes place at Christmas, and it ends on Christmas afternoon with a nice pudding and the satisfaction of things being a little better in the world than they were a few days before. But mostly it’s about a break-up and rival ice cream companies and a radio DJ in the middle of it all.

My mother introduced me to this movie years ago. It’s an odd one, with a quirky sense of humor and a dose of mid-life crisis, with Christmas carols in the background. It’s by the same director as Local Hero and has a similar quiet off-beat comedy going on. I honestly don’t quite know what to say about it aside that it’s become a staple for us at this time of year.

Morning DJ Alan “Dickie” Bird has a gorgeous kleptomaniac girlfriend, but only for the first few minutes of the movie because she up and leaves him after dinner one evening. She takes everything and exhorts him not to be cruel by doing something so ridiculous as asking why she’s leaving. Of course, as far as we can tell she hadn’t given any sign that she wanted to leave until that evening. He ends up helping her carry her stuff out of their flat. And then he has a bit of a quiet breakdown. His life suddenly empty but for work, right at the height of the holiday season, he goes in search of something, anything, to throw himself into.

What he finds is a rivalry between two ice cream companies: McCool’s and Mr. Bunny. He witnesses some thugs smash up a Mr. Bunny truck (and the jingle the Mr. Bunny trucks run is something we whistle all the time and no one ever recognizes it) and tries to find out what’s going on. Turns out it’s a family squabble, of course, and he does eventually manage to solve their problems but not before his car gets smashed up and he goes introspective enough at work to cause his boss to wonder if there’s a “sanity clause” in his contract.

There’s a bleakness to the movie. It takes place in a cloudy-skied Glasgow in the middle of December. There’s not a single sunny day in the movie. It’s either overcast or nighttime. I’m sure it was a conscious thing, to emphasize Dickie’s mood. It’s clear that Christmas is coming, because people talk about it, but none of the festivities have impacted him since his girlfriend left. And at the same time there’s a sly bit of humor in every scene. The rivalry between the ice cream companies is hilariously dramatic, full of characters who seem like they should be in a mafia movie. And then through the whole movie there’s the radio going. Dickie’s station is a mix of music and talk and ads. The ads are ridiculous and he enjoys a friendly rivalry with the other DJs. The news that plays several times through the movie has a progression of stories that could get lost in the background but never do for me. But there’s also a lot of good serious emotion here too, especially in the scenes with Dickie and his good friend Colin, a doctor who’s started a family and has everything Dickie thinks he wants.

It’s an impossible movie to clearly communicate. It is, much like Local Hero, sentimental and funny and quiet and just far enough off the beaten path to make me cock my head a little. I wish more people would see it. I wish I could share it with everyone. It’s not at all the norm for this time of year, but it always puts me in a Christmas mood.

December 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Comfort and Joy

December 19, 2010

Comfort and Joy

Long before I first saw this movie Amanda tried to describe it to me. It’s a strange and quirky film by Bill Forsyth with a convoluted plot that makes no sense. It takes place during Christmas, which is why it makes it into this week of viewing, but Christmas doesn’t feature prominently in the movie. More than anything else it takes place during Christmas because it is a movie, at first, about a man going through the worst of all possible break-ups and the fact that it takes place at Christmastime highlights how awful it is.

Our protagonist is an AM radio DJ named Alan. At the start of the movie his kleptomaniac girlfriend abruptly leaves him, taking virtually everything in the apartment with her. (As a side note I couldn’t help being reminded of the start of Play it Again Sam where Woody Allen’s character Allan abruptly find himself single. They both get almost exactly the same pick-me-up speech about how lucky they are to be single again.) In his loneliness and desperation Alan follows an ice-cream truck with an attractive girl in it and soon finds himself caught up in a turf war between rival ice-cream companies – the powerful and well established Italian Mr. McCool and the scrappy upstarts at Mr. Bunny (formerly Mr. Softie – no more.)

This is an odd sort of comedy. It’s full of strange circumstances and peculiar happenings. It has running gags about Alan’s much treasured BMW with velour upholstery. But it doesn’t actually deliver flat out laughs. It’s a sly, clever sort of comedy that derives its humor from strange juxtapositions like having a man struggle with depression during the Christmas season while his job is to be upbeat and effervescent on the radio. There’s a great scene of Alan recording a candy advertisement that shows the monotony of his job and how it contrasts with his radio personality. It winks at the audience as Alan gets deeper and deeper involved with the literal ice cream mafia in Glasgow. Alan begins to broadcast messages to Mr. Bunny during his live radio program and his co-workers begin to suspect that he has lost his mind.

As with our other favorite Bill Forsyth movie, Local Hero, the soundtrack here is provided by Mark Knopfler. For this movie Mark provides a melancholy sort of jazz sound that perfectly melds with the wet winter streets of Glasgow to make palpable Alan’s pain. It’s a sparse, simple soundtrack that perfectly complements Forsyth’s visuals and Bill Patterson’s soulful performance as Alan. Patterson presents Alan as a vulnerable, wounded man who genuinely just wants to make things better in the world.

If it were not for my wonderful wife I never would have discovered this peculiar gem of a movie. It’s the sort of film you don’t tend to hear a lot about but which is a delight to discover. Something simultaneously light-hearted and maudlin. Something about how we cope with loneliness that goes off in bizarre and unexpected directions. I love discovering good movies that nobody else has heard of, which is what this is. (It’s also worth noting that at least two Mystery Science Theater episodes make reference to this movie – so perhaps it is not as obscure as it feels.)

December 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment