Kelly Macdonald

Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle)

Trainspotting moves. More than anything, director Boyle concerns himself with the film’s pace, whether through Masahiro Hirakubo’s glorious editing or lead Ewan McGregor’s narration, the film immediately sets a fast pace and keeps it throughout the film. Nothing can slow the film down, not even big events, because there’s no real plot. It’s sort of a character study, though McGregor’s narration should make him far too subjective to be the character studied. Only John Hodge’s screenplay doesn’t use the narration to move the plot–it does occasionally help keep track of the summary storytelling–mostly that narration is Trainspotting‘s version of exposition. The film drops the viewer into McGregor’s world of heroin addicts and their acquaintances (and their families and their acquaintances’ families); the narration gives the viewer some context. Not a lot, but some.

The first act of Trainspotting, which it turns out is a flashback–Boyle and Hodge only have ninety minutes and change and they maximize it through a lot of nice narrative tricks–introduces the lovable cast of heroin addicts. McGregor’s the most normal, most relatable, Ewen Bremner’s an adorable screw-up, Jonny Lee Miller’s the sort of loathsome but amusingly obsessed with Sean Connery James Bond movies one, Robert Carlyle’s the non-using, loathsome, awkwardly funny, psychotically violent one. Kevin McKidd’s another square. The heroin addiction gives Boyle and company opportunities to visually impress, but it’s not really the center of the film. The relationship between the characters is the center, only it’s not a particularly healthy relationship. Trainspotting has a sort of pithiness to its self-awareness. It’s a whirlwind. It doesn’t calm down until after the end credits have started.

All of the acting is excellent. McGregor’s great, but he has nowhere near as much time to shine in his regular performance as he does in the narration. Carlyle’s just too distracting. Even when Carlyle doesn’t have lines, he’s distracting. He’s this incredibly strange, incredibly dangerous presence in the film. Even though Boyle can visualize the heroin high, realizing McGregor’s internal experience on film, it’s almost impossible to understand how Carlyle can exist in the film. There’s fantastical and then there’s otherworldly. To Boyle, Hodge and Carlyle’s credit, they realize the character. They make it work. They make you believe the bull belongs in the china shop.

Nice smaller supporting turns from Peter Mullan, James Cosmo and Eileen Nicholas. Kelly Macdonald has a good part as McGregor’s love interest.

Great photography from Brian Tufano. Great soundtrack.

Trainspotting is an easy film about difficult subjects. It’s painstakingly objective but almost disinterested in the idea it should be judgmental. There’s no time for it. Boyle’s got to keep things moving.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh; director of photography, Brian Tufano; edited by Masahiro Hirakubo; production designer, Kave Quinn; produced by Andrew MacDonald; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Pauline Lynch (Lizzy), Shirley Henderson (Gail), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton) and Peter Mullan (Swanney).


In the Electric Mist (2008, Bertrand Tavernier)

In the Electric Mist is a perfect example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. The source novel is the sixth novel in a series and the film–in a seemingly bold but utterly misguided move (much of it would be incoherent if I hadn’t once read the novel)–assumes the viewer is going to be familiar with all of the previous novels. There’s absolutely no introduction to the characters who aren’t related to the mystery–the film’s reliance on implying past knowledge is actually pretty cool, because it only relies on someone listening. But there are a bunch of characters who go without any explanation. It’s a film for fans of the novel series, which hurts it.

It’s a shame, because Tommy Lee Jones has a good role here. It allows him to do his more mannered performance, but mix in a little of that pseudo-action hero thing he does. Not a lot of it, but enough someone could cut a teaser trailer with it in there. In the Electric Mist doesn’t seem to be putting itself out there as a franchise starter, but the approach to the adaptation implies otherwise. There’s nothing particularly significant about the events in this picture–Jones meets movie stars, played by Peter Sarsgaard and Kelly Macdonald, and he says he’s familiar with their work… but it’s never touched on. At no time does he seem like someone who goes to the movies a lot or sits back and watches the CW. There’s a bevy of supporting characters–John Goodman’s goateed mobster and Pruitt Taylor Vince as a cop sidekick–who don’t have any real weight. It’s impossible to imagine these characters interacting together off screen.

The film also has an incredibly silly voiceover gimmick. Jones narrates his adventure, in the past tense, simply because the film doesn’t want to have a lengthy run time. Sometimes he narrates transitions, so there don’t have to be scenes. It’s obvious and annoying.

And the mystery isn’t particularly engaging, maybe because it’s really not a mystery the way the film presents it. Jones is having hallucinations of a Civil War general advising him (these sequences are handled terribly) and they move the story more than any thought processes.

Bertrand Tavernier is a fine director. His Panavision framing–I think he went wide so it wouldn’t seem like a TV movie–is excellent. There’s some bad focusing, but otherwise the visuals are solid. Marco Beltrami’s score gets repetitive and annoying pretty quick though.

Jones is good, Goodman’s okay, Vince’s okay. Sarsgaard’s amazing–I’ve seen him before, but never turn in anything like this performance. It’s just fantastic. Macdonald’s good. Ned Beatty’s not good though, which is depressing. James Gammon’s amazing. Mary Steenburgen and Justina Machado are both good–though neither have anything to do and they really ought to. John Sayles shows up for a cameo, essaying the kind of Hollywood director who’d do a Civil War movie. He has a lot of fun.

In the Electric Mist has a bad ending. It’s already got the disadvantage of being narrated by the protagonist, but the end goes and changes the protagonist for a cute fade out. It’s an awful move.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Tavernier; screenplay by Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski, based on a novel by James Lee Burke; director of photography, Bruno de Keyzer; edited by Larry Madaras and Roberto Silvi; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Merideth Boswell; produced by Frédéric Bourboulon and Michael Fitzgerald; released by Image Entertainment.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Dave Robicheaux), John Goodman (Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni), Peter Sarsgaard (Elrod Sykes), Kelly Macdonald (Kelly Drummond), Mary Steenburgen (Bootsie Robicheaux), Justina Machado (Rosie Gomez), Ned Beatty (Twinky LeMoyne), James Gammon (Ben Hebert), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Lou Girard), Levon Helm (General John Bell Hood), Buddy Guy (Sam ‘Hogman’ Patin), Julio Cedillo (Cholo Manelli), Alana Locke (Alafair Robicheaux) and John Sayles (Michael Goldman).


Choke (2008, Clark Gregg)

Choke working at all is kind of something special. The film’s got a major twist at the end, but it’s a silly one and isn’t, with any thought on the matter, particularly feasible. The film’s got a major plot point for Sam Rockwell–his mother’s diary reports he’s the half-clone of Jesus–and, eventually, he believes it himself. The film never gets the character to the point he could, conceivably, believe it. There’s also the problem of treating a dramatic character study of a sex addict like a Farrelly Brothers comedy. Having Rockwell, strange as it might seem, doesn’t really bolster the film’s prospects. Anjelica Huston’s contribution is far more important (while Rockwell gives a great performance in Choke, it’s the kind of thing he can sleepwalk through), because Huston’s able to combine insane disengagement with genuine concern. Even though the film’s funniest scenes are the ones Huston isn’t in, her scenes are the best.

The credit goes to Clark Gregg, who both adapted the novel, directed the film and appears in a small role (as the film’s only–semi–villainous character). With a miniscule budget and excellent casting, Gregg makes Choke into a limited success. The film’s potential is hard to gauge–it doesn’t shoot particularly high and, even with its curbed ambitions, fumbles in the end. A lot of the problem comes from the twist, which is throwaway. It occurs in the last five minutes of the film (Choke only runs ninety minutes; five is a not insignificant period) and never gets resolved with the principles. It gets resolved off-screen, as Choke changes gears into the affable dirty comedy again, so it doesn’t have to take responsibility for being absurd. Choke‘s characters can be absurd–the two main settings are the mental hospital where Huston is committed and Rockwell’s job, a colonial America theme park–but it never can go off the deep end. To get the ending, it goes swimming way too close.

Where Gregg doesn’t work is the music. Gregg relies heavily on it and his choices are off. Their choosing doesn’t imply any inspiration–and in a film filled with flashbacks starring Anjelica Huston… it’s hard not to remember Wes Anderson and his superior choice of music. The flashbacks are another problem with Choke. They’re essential, sure, but they just reveal the story to be unremarkable. Huston and Rockwell have some good scenes together–but not enough–and they raise it. But Choke‘s rather conventional.

The script doesn’t give the supporting cast much content, so when Brad William Henke is excellent, it’s an achievement. Kelly Macdonald ought to be great, but she isn’t. She’s fine, but nothing more. It isn’t really her fault though. Gregg’s script doesn’t give her much to do.

Choke fails to turn its elements–the mother and son story, the addiction story, the con man story–into a cohesive, feasible comedic character study. It tries real hard and does a lot of good things and maybe reveals these elements to be mutually exclusive, but it comes up a little short. It’s a fine film and a fun viewing experience, but there’s the implication it’s going for more and it never gets there.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clark Gregg; screenplay by Gregg, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk; director of photography, Tim Orr; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Nathan Larson; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Beau Flynn, Tripp Vinson, Johnathan Dorfman and Temple Fennell; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Victor Mancini), Anjelica Huston (Ida Mancini), Kelly Macdonald (Paige Marshall), Brad William Henke (Denny), Jonah Bobo (Young Victor), Paz de la Huerta (Nico) and Gillian Jacobs (Cherry Daiquiri).


No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s something untranslatable about the last line of a novel. Even though maybe it shouldn’t, it essentially sums up everything–not just the scene or the story or the characters, but the reader’s experience as well… (whether the writer’s experience of writing the book is summed up in the line is, obviously, immaterial). With No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers translate that moment in to filmic terms, which is a film first in my experience.

The film is a masterful immersive experience, the wide open Texas plains, the gradual, somehow disinterested narrative, Tommy Lee Jones’s soothing performance of an also somewhat disinterested character. The minute Josh Brolin walks across the plains, looking for the money he and the viewer knows must be there, No Country opens up and swallows the viewer. The maw invisibly closes. Javier Bardem is a red herring. While he’s fantastic, the character is fantastic, he’s not the compelling aspect. Brolin’s generally unlikable character, however, his experience–for much of the film–is the viewer’s reference point. The Coen’s don’t even need to do it in a standard way (I kept thinking about Robocop, how Verhoeven realized he needed to make the violence as graphic as possible to make the audience care about a character they’d known fifteen minutes)… I think they’ve got it down just from Brolin spying the money. The viewer cares about him because, for a few key moments, he or she and the character are the same–realizing the same things at the same time, thinking the same thing. It’s not big realization stuff, it’s empirical observation followed by a conclusion, which is different.

I’m wondering if that immersion is solely responsible for the Coen’s handling of the passing of time. No Country for Old Men doesn’t have a pace, it doesn’t go fast, it doesn’t drag. It just plays out. So I guess the playing out is a result of the immersion… But there are no rises or falls in action, in tenseness. The tenseness is on the scene level. There’s oddly no air of dread hanging over Old Men all together–something one of the characters brings up near the end: what, exactly, could happen differently. There’s no expectation of the coming scene. There’s some foreshadowing, but it’s not the same thing. No Country doesn’t create any anticipation… again, it’s an immersion result. Such effective immersion isn’t a new thing, but in a thriller, one would think it was cross-purpose. But it’s not. No Country for Old Men simply transcends the genre, possibly without even thinking about it (the Coens, usually so ready to be recognized for the dissimilarities between their films, draw no attention to No Country’s genre… in many ways, it’s the least Coen-identified film of theirs in fifteen years).

They also learned how to cast. Usually, their casts draw attention to themselves through familiarity or peculiarity (mostly how distracting William H. Macy got playing his standard in Fargo). Here, not at all. While Jones is playing a somewhat familiar role (though I’ve never actually seen him play a Texas lawman before), he’s doing something entirely different–he’s not a reluctant everyman compelled to act. Javier Bardem takes the film’s hardest role and makes it look like the easiest (he takes his character, a filmic villain only marginally different from Halloween’s Michael Myers and the like, and makes him real). Brolin’s deceptively good as the not-quite protagonist–every time I thought anyone could do the job, he did something to make himself essential.

When No Country started and was in Texas, I tried to force myself to look for some connection to Blood Simple. I quickly gave up, because–as usual–the Coen Brothers were doing something different. Except with this one, they put the film before their name brand quirkiness.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jess Gonchor; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis) and Stephen Root (Man Who Hires Wells).


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