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 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
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 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 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 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 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-
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 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-
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+
28 Days Later
A Life Less Ordinary
Just Plain Bad