Wednesday, June 4, 2014

the Directors: Danny Boyle

We live in a world where originality is a lifeline. As far as cinema goes, to keep things fresh is to consistently breathe life into the medium. And no matter the topic – whether it’s heroin addicts and murderers, angels and zombies, astronauts and slumdogs – Danny Boyle has proved that he’s one of the premiere facilitators of cinematic innovation. The man never tackles the same material, yet every one of his films is a distinct Danny Boyle picture. As you’ll notice below, although my thoughts on his films vary, my respect for his vision remains constant. I don’t care what it’s about or who’s in it, if it’s a A Film by Danny Boyle, then I’ll always be first in line, eager for something new.

Shallow Grave (1994)
What impresses me most about a debut film is a presence of confidence. Despite being young and inexperienced, is there a confidence to what the director is doing? Has the director created a believable world within his or her film, and stuck by it? In watching Shallow Grave, it’s impossible to ignore the confidence that Boyle was equipped with at the start of his career. The plot is relatively common – a group of friends find a shitload of cash and have fun with it before it threatens to divide them. But the film is executed in the go-for-broke manner Boyle has become famous for. Its humor is ruthless, its violence is swift, its design is unique, and its acting is near perfect.

Shallow Grave isn’t the kind of movie students are taught how to make in film school. It defies convention wherever it can, and genuinely surprises throughout. It takes a lot of balls for any director to make a film the way they want to make it. And I love Boyle for sticking to his guns before he really had any guns to wield. B+

Trainspotting (1996)
Trainspotting is the kind of film that will outlive us all. Long after we’re gone, impressionable teens will be reciting Renton’s epic “Choose Life” speech; they’ll cringe at the Worst Toilet in Scotland, drop their jaws at the sight of a dead baby crawling on the ceiling, and be scarily enthralled by Begbie’s madness. Trainspotting will always work, because it will always be different. Many have, and will continue to, attempt to mirror it, and they’ll all pale in comparison. Simply put, there’s nothing else remotely like Trainspotting, and cinema is better off for it. A rare film that took every feasible risk, and got it all right. I’ll never not love it. A

A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
At the core of A Life Less Ordinary is a purposefully silly, often hilarious, somewhat wonderful little love story between helpless romantic Robert (Ewan McGregor), and cynical rich girl Celine (Cameron Diaz). After Robert kidnaps Celine, the film embraces its own absurdity and carries on dutifully. Problem is, the movie has far too many unwelcome distractions from the central love story at hand.

Most notably, A Life Less Ordinary is framed around two angels (Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter) who are sent to Earth with the task of making two people fall in love for good. If they fail, the angels will be forced to stay on Earth forever, which is apparently a very bad thing. Now, as much as I appreciate Boyle and his writer, John Hodge, attempting a unique structure, the entire angels narrative is painfully unnecessary. This is one of the few reasons why, at 103 minutes, the film feels a bit too long. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot I enjoy about A Life Less Ordinary, but there’s also plenty that doesn’t need to be here. B-

The Beach (2000)
The Beach starts off strong, with an idealistic young guy (Leonardo DiCaprio) escaping the routine of his so-called life in America by seeking adventure in Thailand. He drinks snake blood, gets high, meets a maniac (played by Robert Carlyle, naturally) and discovers a map to a forbidden idyllic island. He recruits two friends, makes his way to The Beach and quickly establishes a happy life for himself within the island’s nomadic community.

It’s a perfectly decent first act that’s diminished by subsequent storylines. There are sharks and lovers, friends and enemies; weed farmers with guns, mercy killings, extended philosophical monologues, all before Richard adopts the persona of a bug-eyed rogue who may or may not be insane. I love that Richard is a complete character 180 from Titanic’s Jack Dawson, and it is always good to see Guillaume Canet and Tilda Swinton, but ultimately, The Beach takes on too damn much for its own good. C-

28 Days Later (2002)
28 Days Later is Danny Boyle at his absolute best. It’s a frenzied fucked up thrill ride that never lets up. Manic energy, raw composition, gruesome violence, perfectly timed humor – all told, 28 Days Later is one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about it.

In addition to the film’s crazed momentum, perhaps what doesn’t get discussed enough are its quiet, more humanistic moments. Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” playing over a brief moment of pause, Brendan Gleeson telling his daughter how much he loves her (while he still can), Naomie Harris telling Megan Burns which pills will make her not care, and so on. It’s an insane movie that still, somehow, beautifully manages to make room for time. There certainly aren’t too many films I can say that about. A

Millions (2004)
Millions is about two young brothers, Damian and Anthony, who discover a ton of cash and use it to conduct random acts of kindness. Shortly after finding the money, two motivating factors are introduced. One, The Bank of England will soon change the pound to the euro, making Damian and Anthony’s new money obsolete. Two, a robber who stole the money is getting closer to finding it, and if he does, he won’t be pleased to realize that it is slowly being given away.

Millions is a sweet little film that isn’t afraid to bark. It retains its lightheartedness throughout, but doesn’t shy away from breaking bad when need be. The film is a healthy mix of the optimism of Amélie, and the foreboding danger of Shallow Grave. It also couldn’t be more different than 28 Days Later. Leave it to Danny Boyle to change things up so quickly. B+

Sunshine (2007)
Sunshine is a rare science fiction film with a high brow concept (if astronauts don’t reignite the sun with a nuke then Earth will perish) that is executed with the sentiment of an independent film. The young, universally underrated cast helps sell the movie, as do the modest but wholly impressive special effects. Sunshine doesn’t get bogged down with cheesy romance and false bravado – it’s a straight story told with tight precision. Another aspect of the film that deserves praise is the complete lack of denial within the characters. When they are faced with certain death, they don’t spend minutes monologuing about all the things they missed out on in life; they accept their fate and sacrifice themselves for the completion of the mission. If you think about it, that immediate understanding of your circumstances is something we see very little of in movies. Plus, much of the third act of Sunshine is spent watching a crazed Mark Strong fuck shit up. Which is certainly never a bad thing. A-

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Attempting to measure the lasting impact of Slumdog Millionaire is a confounding exercise. When I saw the film upon its release, I absolutely loved it. I was floored by its experimental cinematography, bombastic music, and thrilling pace, and was eager to see it again the moment it finished. Its Oscar sweep, while expected, was well earned in my eye. But that was six years ago, and when I rewatched it for this post, I realized the sugar high I had once received from the film had inexplicably faded. While I remain impressed with the film’s technical prowess, time has dampened Slumdog Millionaire’s overall effect.

I’m being harder on the film than intended. With the exception of Best Picture and Best Director (which, of the nominated films, I’d give to Milk and Gus Van Sant, respectively), I’d still award the film all of its Oscars. It’s a worthy achievement that I once loved, and now appreciate. B

127 Hours (2010)
127 Hours is yet another career reinvention for Danny Boyle. Just two short years after the massive scope of Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle made an equally (if not more) exciting film that he confined mostly to just one location. Retaining the same screenwriter, composer and cinematographer who all helped make Slumdog Millionaire a success, 127 Hours is a restrained but insanely tense character study of a man forced to examine his life under the most dire of circumstances.

The success or failure of one-location films depends entirely on the starring actor. And as Aron Ralston, the real life canyoneer who hacked his own arm off to free himself from a bolder, James Franco gives a towering, career-best performance. Franco completely disappears into the role, removing all of the bias one might have against his consistently odd off-screen persona. There’s no James Franco in Aron Ralston, only a man lost, desperately trying to find a will. And while every aspect of the film is executed very well, it all runs a distant second to Franco’s work. A-  

Trance (2013)
By now, you may have discovered a pattern in my criticism toward Danny Boyle’s films. While I don’t think he has made a truly bad film, one of his weakest qualities as a filmmaker is the notion of taking on too much. Occasionally, his plots circle around and around, needlessly adding layers and elements that the film could just as well do without.

I’ve seen Trance once, in the theater when it was first released. Like all of Boyle’s films, I thought it started off great – a puzzling little thriller that kept doubling back and revealing more of itself. But around the time Rosario Dawson explained Every. Little. Detail. about  how and why the events of the film were taking place, I tuned out. I found her explanation to be unrealistic and mostly lame, and by the end of her speech, I had fallen into a state of indifference that I didn’t come out of. I will always give Boyle credit for his hyper style and neo-realism, but with Trance, the jig was up nearly as quickly as it began. C+

In Summation
28 Days Later

127 Hours

Shallow Grave
A Life Less Ordinary
Slumdog Millionaire

The Beach

Just Plain Bad


  1. One of my favorite directors. I usually find zombie movies incredibly boring, but 28 Days Later has to be one of my all time favorite movies. The opening shots of Cillian Murphy walking through the empty streets of London chills me to the bone every time i watch it. I don't think any horror movie is ever gonna top that for me. I was also a little disappointed with Trance though. But at least it had one very nice scene with Rosario Dawson. At least that made it worth watching the movie ;-)

    1. Ha, yes, Trance did have a handful of... inspiring moments. I actually give Dawson credit for going as far as she did there. Because for me, that nudity felt gratuitous and wildly unnecessary, but oh well.

      28 Days Later... hell yeah man, love that introduction, love that film. Boyle's commentary on the DVD is a fascinating listen if you're a fan of the film. He goes into great detail about how they accomplished all of those shots.

  2. Danny Boyle is a great director, but he can be hit or miss. I think my personal favourite of his is Trainspotting, which I absolutely love. 28 Days Later, Sunshine and 127 Hours are also brilliant.

    Since I'm from India, when Slumdog Millionaire was first released, I saw a very polarising reaction to the film. Some Indians I knew loved it, and some hated it. I had the same experience as you though. I loved it it when I first watched it, and I was extremely glad it swept the Oscars. But I watched it again recently, and I was left feeling much less affected by it. Do you know of any Indians who did not like Slumdog?

    I would also agree with you in saying that based on the set of nominees, I would definitely give Picture and Director to Milk and Gus Van Sant. It's a shame that Penn had to beat Rourke though to win his only deserving Oscar (I'm not really a fan of Mystic River).

    1. I know a few Indians who found Slumdog very, very offensive. I mean, I don't KNOW them, I know them - via Twitter or this blog. My buddy SDG (who commented below) strongly disliked the film. But it's very interesting to hear that you and I had the same reaction to it. So funny how that works.

      Still, I love that you're a fan of a handful of his films. They're so great.

  3. Wow, not a fan of Trance huh (or at least a big one anyway)? I was honestly shocked at how tough a ride that one got. I remember taking a date to that movie and we both really liked it. To me it was the best De Palma movie Brian De Palma never made. It's an up-market erotic thriller - a genre I don't tend to enjoy but thought this one was just a load of energy. Granted it's now 127 Hours or Trainspotting (but then again very few things are).

    The only film on here I have yet to see is The Beach and I'm very trepidatious about finally seeing it lol. With the exception of that one and Trance I more or less agree fully with what you say - especially when it comes to A Life Less Ordinary. That one is probably my least favorite from him thus far, with Sunshine probably being the one I respect the most for exactly the reasons you mentioned.

    Always well written and a joy to read!

    1. Thanks man! I really, really wanted to like Trance more, but it just went to far. So funny that you mentioned De Palma, because that is exactly who I thought of when I saw that film. De Palma has a tendency to keep his films going and going, longer than they probably should. And I guess that's how I felt about Trance. But still, just my opinion.

      The Beach is another example of this. It starts off as a perfectly decent adventure film, but then it just goes off the fuckin' rails, and not in a good way. Far too much going on, you know?

  4. I haven't seen few of his films including Trance but for reasons I think you know that have been clouding my judgement, Boyle isn't the most exciting prospect in my book. But one thing I will definitely agree is this man has range and it is really impressive.

    I am not big fan of Trainspotting either. It has been too long since i have seen it but it was too much for me. Last three films of his I saw have certainly been much better - 28 Days Later, Sunshine and 127 Hours which I think is my favourite so far.

    1. Yeah, I definitely know how you feel about some of his work, but it's cool that you're able to step back and appreciate some of his other films. I honestly had no idea how controversial Slumdog was until you told me your stance on it. Funny how different perspectives can make you see something in a new light.

  5. I really need to watch Sunshine. I think we are more or less in agreement with the others. LOVE Trainspotting and 127 Hours. I enjoyed the fuck out of Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later was v. good too. Haven't watched Millions or A Life Less Ordinary so can't talk about that. I have too many conflicting feelings about Slumdog but it's a decent movie (should NOT have won that Oscar though). And I remember hating The Beach back when I didn't know who Boyle or, wow, Tilda Swinton were and Trance was disappointing as hell.

    1. I'd love to hear what you think about Sunshine - it's a groovy little flick. I think you'd dig it. Crazy to think of a time when Nik didn't know who Tilda Swinton was ;-)

  6. Shallow Grave is easily my favorite film of his. Haven't seen too many of his other films though. (The other ones I saw were Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Sunshine.)

    1. I thought Shallow Grave was a solid debut, for sure. That ending is so perfect. Great to see that Boyle has never pulled any punches.

  7. The only film of Boyle's that I haven't seen (well entirely is the actual word) is Shallow Grave which I hope to see later this year as I plan on picking up the Criterion DVD next month.

    I actually liked Trance as I saw it as a stylish noir film that had a lot of twists and turns as the performance that impressed me the most was Rosario Dawson.

    Here is my list of the Danny Boyle films that I've seen so far though it doesn't count the James Bond short he made for the 2012 Olympics as well as other things in the opening ceremony. Of course, there's no surprise what is on top since I did write an essay on that film.

    The only reason why I haven't done an Auteurs piece on him is the fact that there's 2 TV movies he did in 2001 and the Alien Love Triangle short that he shot in 1999 but released it 9 years later. If I can have access to those works, then he is already a serious contender for an Auteurs subject. Besides, I think of him as one of Britain's best filmmakers working today along with Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Michael Winterbottom, and Jonathan Glazer.

    1. I tried so damn hard to find Alien Love Triangle, but I came up short. Literally tried for like a whole month. I'd be really interested to hear what you think of it if you can track it down.

      Nice list. Trainspotting is such an insane little classic.

  8. I'm not as high on Boyle as you. That said, Trainspotting and 127 Hours are both amazing. I also really like Slumdog Millionaire. I thought Sunshine started out great, but completely jumped the shark with that third act. Didn't care much for 28 Days Later, either. It just never grabbed me.

    1. That third act for Sunshine is a tricky little beast. I'll admit that it dampens the overall appeal of the movie for me, but I'm cool with it. Still, I can so easily see why others don't go for it.

  9. I like Shallow Grave more than you do. I like Sunshine less. My problem with Sunshine is specifically the ending. The first half or two-thirds of that movie rank in my top 10 of all time. I love everything about it--the characters, the look, the story. And then it completely craps out and goes for monster movie cliches. Had it stayed on the same track it started on, it would be a strong contender for favorite movie of all time for me.

    You're right about 28 Days Later, though, which does rank in my top-5 of all time. Boyle's never been better, and I can't think of much I'd change in it that would improve it at all.

    1. Wow man, holy shit. I know exactly how you feel regarding Sunshine. You're loving a movie - EVERY aspect of it - and then it just gives out for you. Such a bummer. Really disheartening. Love that you love 28 Days Later though. That one's a killer.

  10. I would bump Shallow Grave up to an "A" personally. I think that Shallow Grave, Trainspotting 28 Days Later and Sunshine (which it took me a few watches to see it greatness) are his most intriguing works. Nice to see that you were kinder than most to A Life Less Ordinary. It is not that bad of a film in my opinion, just a bit flighty in comparison to what came before it.

    However, I do think Trance is his weakest film to date. It would be a solid "D" in my report card. There are some good ideas in it early on, but Boyle completely looses sight of them by time the film reaches it second half.

    Lastly, since they were not listed, here is how I would grade two Boyle films I saw at TIFF years ago: Strumpet (C) and Vaccuming Completely Nude in Paradise (B-)

    1. "Flighty" is a perfect way to describe A Life Less Ordinary. Not bad, but far from great. Honestly man, I think if I watched Trance again, I'd give it a lower grade. That one just never really worked for me, and I doubt I'll ever care enough to give it a rewatch, you know?

      Thanks for the comment!

  11. I absolutely love "Millions".

    I think that the two brothers - and particularly the differences which manifest between them - are exactly the sort about whom Wordsworth was thinking when he wrote:

    THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
    The earth, and every common sight,
    To me did seem
    Apparell'd in celestial light,
    The glory and the freshness of a dream.
    It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
    Turn wheresoe'er I may,
    By night or day,
    The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

    I would not consider myself a huge Danny Boyle fan although I generally "like" his work. Millions, for whatever reason, far exceeds my general impression of him. I think the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce is key to my admiration for this picture particularly.

    1. This is a great comment. It's so apparent how much this film means to you, and I love reading about the passion people have for films. I really enjoy the film as well. So many interesting moral dilemmas are raised, and given the main characters' ages, it makes the whole film that much more complex. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Kelly!

  12. Very interesting to read about those of his films I haven't seen. I have loved every Boyle film I've seen (and funny enough, or maybe sad enough, Trance has been my favourite -- it just clicked with me) and I'm working my way through everything he's made, slowly but surely. I'm really glad you like Boyle that much, too!

    1. I really do appreciate a great many of his films. And hey, if you love Trance, then that's awesome. I always say, we like what we like. I'm glad you find joy in it.

  13. Haha, I love that Trance is so far down the list, given that it made my top 10 last year. I've seen it three times, and it only gets better with each watch. It might even be my second favorite Boyle film behind Trainspotting. I totally get the indifference to it though.

    I'm with you on Slumdog Millionaire. It's still remarkable technically, but I might not give it Best Picture out of the Academy's lineup now. I'd probably give it to Benjamin Button or Frost/Nixon first.

    1. Ahh I knew you wouldn't like my thoughts on Trace too much! Ha, but hey man, it's all good. Like many of Boyle's films, that's one that really can go either way.

      All told, 2008 films were, in my opinion, poorly represented at the Oscars. Such a shame.

  14. Great write-up of a great director, who I still think has a "perfect" film in him - Trainspotting came close, but I think it's still a little too torn between rough-edged realism and entertainment to hit the upper echelon of cinema for me (not that it's not a fantastic film, natch).

    I still haven't seen The Beach, but given how much I like Garland's novel, I'm not sure that I ever want to...

    1. Thanks man. I think 28 Days Later is as close to perfection as Boyle as gotten, but I don't think it's a "perfect" film. But still, dude has made some great films.

      Honestly, I wouldn't recommend seeing The Beach. I haven't read the novel, but I'm told the film is a poor adaptation.

  15. Great article! I love Shallow Grave and Trainspotting is one of my all time favorites. I actually like many parts of The Beach and Dicaprio's performance is fearless but yeah, they tried to put a bit too much in this movie. Great atmosphere and music, though.

    1. Thanks! I really want to like The Beach, and do... until that third act, when it just becomes too much. Still, DiCaprio is great throughout. And the music does rock.

  16. I love Danny Boyle. One of the best directors of our times. His next film Steve Jobs sounds great. Aaron Sorkin is writing the screenplay, Michael Fassbender is playing Steve Jobs, but I have one minor issue with the film, Seth Rogen is playing Steve Wozniak, it will not destroy the film for me.
    I've heard that one of your favorite writers is Aaron Sorkin, and one your favorite actor is Michael Fassbender so I think that you are very interested about this film.

    1. I am indeed. I just hope they make it with Fassbender. I mean, before he drops out or anything. Not very keen on Rogen's casting either, but we shall see.