By BRUCE DENNILL
Abraham / Directed by Jans Rautenbach / PG
The Night Before / Directed by Jonathan Levine / 16LSND
T2 Trainspotting / Directed by Danny Boyle / 18DL
Patriots Day / Directed by Peter Berg / 16DLV
DJ Mouton, whose turn in the fantastic Cape Town gangster film Noem My Skollie, should, if there is any justice in the world, make him a casting agent’s favourite, made his big-screen debut in this affecting tale. He plays the eponymous protagonist, a young man born into desperate poverty in the beautiful Kannaland area of the southern Karoo. Abraham is a talented sculptor with an artist’s sensitive temperament and a humble, eager-to-please attitude. He dreams of rising above his station thanks to his artistic output, and his naïve ambition is both charming and heartrending. The farmer on whose land he loves (Hannes Muller) is kind enough, but also frustrated by his charge’s apparent capriciousness, so his support is not guaranteed. And Abraham’s youthful wife Katie (Chantell Phillipus) is a troubled individual whose problems directly affect her husband’s wellbeing. The story is gently, affectingly told. Mouton is superb, shaping a complex portrayal of a simple man with exquisite skill, and is well supported by all concerned. The tangible authenticity of the piece underlines the importance and appeal of telling South African stories – and not the agenda-led, politics-tinged propaganda-lite pieces that seemed to be de rigueur for so long. This is an understated triumph.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anthony Mackie are all likeable screen presences, each with high-profile careers and extensive portfolios. Combining them here in a Christmas-themed buddy comedy means there is plenty of on-screen charm and slick Hollywood delivery of the regular punchlines that punctuate the script. But The Night Before’s potential is undermined by it’s reliance on a model that wasn’t much good to begin with – the quest for one last debauched blow-out before responsibility (in this case the birth of a child) sets in. There are all the standards of the genre (such as it is) – drinking, drugs, strip clubs and foul language, with only the level of crassness of the action and dialogue occasionally, in its own way, adding freshness to the scenarios. This is, to use a phrase as clichéd as some of the plotting, like watching a train crash and, as is the case in that circumstance, it’s difficult to look away from because the grisly endpoint is most likely to be the most spectacular bit. The constant irreverence is sometimes entertaining and sometimes annoying, which is a line that more or less sums up the film as a whole.
The original Trainspotting gave its four protagonists – Renton (Ewan McGregor), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) an unlikely charm; unlikely because three of the four characters were depraved heroin addicts and the fourth was a violent psycho. Then, director Danny Boyle pulled off the neat trick of making the grimy, half-baked redemption these reprobates experienced seem inspiring – choose life! – and, perhaps even more impressively, he makes their continued journey as engrossing in this two-decades-later second chapter. Renton, who escaped the Edinburgh drug scene and made it to Amsterdam and a clean if less exciting life as an accountant, is back to face the consequences of taking a bunch of his friends’ cash with him when he left. Begbie, in particular, is not at all happy to see him again, and one of the piece’s most memorable sequences is a chase scene where it is clear that if Renton is caught, he’s probably a dead man. Carlyle’s intensity has, if anything, been amplified by the passing years, and even as the characters partially reconcile during the film, he keeps viewers as much on edge as his character does his compatriots. Neither Spud nor Sick Boy have changed much either, and this is an important part of the plot – that relationships that superficially seem like developing disasters may still deliver some value if you allow them the chance. As Renton is faced with his past and forced to reflect on how his past changed him, so his being back gets his friends thinking about what they’ve done – or haven’t done – with their lives. This makes this sequel a more mature and thoughtful piece than its predecessor, but it’s not some demure, philosophical treatise. T2 Trainspotting’s almost as spiky as the first film, and if that edge has worn off in places, it is replaced by a slowly-revealed depth that is just as satisfying.
One of the trademarks of director Peter Berg’s films is his unwillingness to pull any punches when it comes to graphic violence or high drama. Both occur in this dramatised examination of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt which, despite what its distressingly apostrophe-less title suggests, is much more than a paean to the ‘American spirit’ so beloved of newscasters whenever there is a disaster in that country. Berg is good at pacing, too, and he takes a narrative most viewers will have a reasonable amount of familiarity with and strings it out until it’s bowstring-taut, giving each scene plenty of punch while also keeping plenty in reserve to reveal in increments as the story progresses. A strong cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Michelle Monaghan, JK Simmons, John Goodman and Kevin Bacon work together to form pieces of the puzzle rather than competing for the spotlight, and the frailties of each – be they policemen, emergency workers or federal investigators – are noted, giving the piece a balance it would otherwise have lacked. Indeed, even the bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (an excellent Alex Wolff) is given unexpected humanity. In some ways, the action-heavy parts of the film have the buzzing, forbidding feel of Seventies thrillers like Day Of The Jackal, made no less exciting (as was the case with that film) by the knowledge of how the story ended. Patriots Day is a tribute to heroes, yes, but it’s also, if removed from its factual context, a fine, intelligent action film.