Director Retrospective: Danny Boyle
I’m taking a break for awhile from these director retrospectives, while I relocate to a new place, a new home, a new job, etc. etc. etc. (Mostly…for the next few weeks I won’t have much access to movies — at least not at the rate that I’ve enjoyed this Summer — so my binge-watching is quickly coming to an inglorious end…at least for awhile.) That said, I did want to write one last retrospective to close out the initial trial of this ongoing project with an even dozen, and I decided that it would be fun to reflect on a director that a friend of mine requested. So to honor said request, this time I’m thinking about the works of a British filmmaker, genre explorer, and Academy Award for Best Picture winner: Danny Boyle.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 12 feature-length films directed by Danny Boyle.
Here’s the list: Shallow Grave (1994); Trainspotting (1996); A Life Less Ordinary (1997); The Beach (2000); 28 Days Later (2002); Millions (2004); Sunshine (2007); Slumdog Millionaire (2008); 127 Hours (2010); Trance (2013); Steve Jobs (2015); T2 Trainspotting (2017).
The Top Five
And without further ado, here are my picks for the Top-Five films by Danny Boyle (ranked from #1-5, with a few brief — very brief in this case, as I’ve got to pack!!! — comments on each film)…
Trainspotting (1996) – Based on the influential novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, Boyle’s Trainspotting is not only one of the best “drug” movies ever made but it’s also one of the best films to come out of the 1990s. In fact, it’s so inherently “90s,” it seems virtually impossible to discuss the film without confronting that decade’s aesthetics or, for that matter, the Scottish angst that permeates the characters. For those who haven’t seen it, the plot follows four “friends”(?) in Edinburgh who are in the throes of (mostly, heroin) addiction. The film wisely distinguishes the main characters in terms of personality / demeanor but also effectively places them at various degrees of remove (or various degrees of acceptability) in terms of their belonging to what is deemed “socially acceptable.” Moreover, the film is most successful in its tonal fluctuations between ecstasy, terror, and sadness; and Boyle’s visual prowess is on full display in some truly wild and, at times, discomforting hallucinations. The performances here are great from our leads: Ewan McGregor (as the charming but cowardly Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (as depraved and amoral Sick Boy), Ewan Bremner (as the well-intentioned if ineffectual Spud), and Robert Carlyle (as the uber-violent Begbie). As far as I’m concerned, these are all career-defining performances. Furthermore, the supporting cast of Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd, Peter Mullan, James Cosmo, etc. are also rock-solid and give the film a believable cultural texture. [A fun fact about this film is that many of the Scottish actors had to actually tone down their accent for the film, as it was deemed too difficult for American audiences to understand. So…if you’re watching this and still struggling to understand what the characters are saying, keep in mind that this is the “easy-to-understand” version.] One of the knocks on Boyle is that his stylizations — while impressive — can sometimes overtake the actual narrative and/or characterizations, resulting in something that feels “pretty” but empty; however, Trainspotting is probably the best example from his oeuvre of where style and content merge into something truly memorable, where the two impulses coalesce to actually better the other side of the equation. I’d consider this one a “masterpiece.”
Steve Jobs (2015) – In general, I don’t like biopic films — they’re incredibly, incredibly formulaic from a narrative, pacing, and emotional standpoint. Moreover, I also tend to cringe at the sort of “hero worship” that occurs with the recently deceased (particularly the celebrity recently deceased), which focuses excessively on the “genius” of so and so and how no one’s ever dreamed or done this thing better than this person, etc. etc. etc. Lastly, I’m not really a fan of writer Aaron Sorkin, whose dialogue is sooo tight as to be inauthentic with all of the characters thinking of exactly the right rejoinder for every imaginable situation (even more so than your typical film). I say all that to say that this film is one that, by all accounts, I shouldn’t have liked. After all, it’s a biopic about a much-revered, recently deceased celebrity written by Aaron Sorkin. And…it’s great. It’s really, really great. Sorkin and, in turn Boyle, construct a plot that’s episodic rather than strictly cohesive — providing three distinct (but similar) backstage scenes at unveilings of various Jobs-related products. Some of those products will really bomb. Some will help change the tech landscape, at least among consumers. Jobs is presented as a woefully flawed figure — he’s undeniably charming and engaging but he knows little-to-nothing about the actual technology and is depicted as being a lackluster (or, really, rejecting) father-figure. The lead performance from Michael Fassbinder (When is this guy going to get a Best Actor award?) is phenomenal, as he fully captures the bravado and gradiosity of Steve Jobs. And the supporting roles from Michael Stuhlbarg, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan (as Steve Wozniak because of course), Katherine Waterston, and particularly Jeff Daniels (who’s clearly mastered Sorkin’s dialogue from his stint on The Newsroom) are all superb. If you have resisted watching this movie because you don’t like biopics and/or because you don’t know / care about tech stuff, I strongly recommend that you watch it sometime soon!
28 Days Later (2002) – Depending on who you ask, Boyle’s 28 Days Later either reinvigorated the zombie film or totally ruined it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know these aren’t technically zombies but are, rather, rage-infected virus hosts. But here’s the thing: They’re freakin’ zombies…deal with it. Personally, while I don’t mind a bit of running zombies, I prefer my zombies slow and stupid and nonhuman-like (but shout-out to Day of the Dead‘s Bub, the smartest and most sympathetic zombie out there…much love). Still, I think 28 Days Later is an admirable and important entry in the horror genre, obviously influencing later texts like The Walking Dead, World War Z, The Girl With All the Gifts, etc. The way that the film was shot — on small handheld digital cameras, I believe — resulted in a truly unique look for the film that’s both highly detailed but also sorta grainy/grimy. Interestingly, the choice to shoot this way was at least partially practical, since the film required shutting down London roadways and landmarks and, thus, required the very quick setup, execution, and breakdown of the various scenes. From an acting perspective, Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, and (one of my faves) Brendan Gleeson are all very good here. The music — which Boyle uses to great effect in the climactic scene in the country estate — plays an important role in setting the mood; and the script by Alex Garland (who went on to write the underrated Dredd, write/direct the much-lauded Ex Machina, and is currently directing the adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy) maintains tension while having brief but effective moments of levity as well. One of the great horror films of the early 2000s and well worth watching — even if you don’t care much for horror/zombie movies.
T2 Trainspotting (2017) – Boyle’s latest film is also one of his better ones. T2 Trainspotting catches up with the gang from the original 20 years later, after the events that conclude the first film have kept these “friends” apart and out-of-contact with each other. It’s more or less a story of returning home and seeing all your high-school friends — some of whom never changed, some of whom are trying to grow, some of whom have been in prison, etc. Although this film skimps on the supporting characters from the previous installment (Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson, and James Cosmo all make cameos here but don’t really do much), all of the principal figures return: Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie. They’re all older (obviously) and all a bit slower — some are, predictably, pudgier and some are leaner from new “healthy” addictions. What would’ve seemed appropriate (maybe?) or, at least, expected for the 20-somethings now seem grossly inappropriate and downright depressing. The sprint from the cops that begins the first film is replaced here by a sprint on a treadmill. The famous “choose life” speech has been updated for a social-media saturated world. Some of the critiques of the film that I’ve read suggest that T2 Trainspotting strips away the humor and “fun” of the original. Well…yeah. That’s the whole point. Growing old sucks, it’s not fun nor is it funny. In that sense, this film — while pulling from and updating aspects of the original — is an incredibly honest and humanizing piece of cinema. There’s a deeply ambivalent (intentionally so) nostalgia at work here, where you don’t necessarily want to return to this place or re-encounter these people; but, at the same time, you desperately want to know what happened to home and what became of them. This is exactly the brand of popular “nostalgia-based cinema” that I’m typically so quick to complain about and, yet, it somehow works here because it doesn’t forget or omit that there’s an inherent pain (“-algos”) in the return (“nostos-“).
Shallow Grave (1994) – Here’s one that I’m happy to recommend to people because, for whatever reason, it seems to have slipped under the radar of most American viewers — with the exception of critics, cinephiles, and Boyle fans. Shallow Grave is Boyle’s first feature-length film and a relatively straightforward noir-type story. (That said, while the story is pretty typical in terms of premise, the script written by frequent Boyle-collaborator John Hodge is really wonderful. The fact that his was Hodge’s first script is pretty remarkable.) In terms of plot, three Edinburgh friends and roommates — all “yuppies” of a sort, all pretty unlikable — rent out part of their flat to a stranger, only discover soon thereafter that this new roommate has suddenly died in the possession of a large bag of money. And…yeah, the money doesn’t belong to him (or them), and it’s only a matter of time before the rightful owners come looking for it. The three leads — Ewan McGregor (in his first major film role), Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston — are all tons of fun here as individuals who are in waaaaay over their heads, even if they don’t realize it at first, and who become increasingly suspicious of each other. Made very quickly and on a shoestring budget by a bunch of unknowns in the film industry, Shallow Grave nonetheless demonstrates the ability to build suspense (via imagery and sound) that’s further developed in his latter films.
The Underrated One
There are several possibilities here. I’ve already mentioned Steve Jobs, which is a great biopic (a genre that I don’t usually care for) and required viewing for those interested in dialogue, movement, setting, etc. Shallow Grave also hasn’t been seen by enough American audiences, though it’s got critical respect — I think there’s even a Criterion version of it at this point. I was skeptical of 127 Hours because I’m not much of a James Franco fan; however, he’s excellent here and Boyle effectively ramps up the tension to a (literal) breaking point. Millions is, in some way, a “lesser Boyle” movie; but it’s also a perfectly enjoyable flick and the rare “family-friendly” film by the director. (It’s his only G-rated movie, I believe.) But my pick here is Sunshine (2007). Boyle’s only foray into science-fiction — well…unless you count 28 Days Later — this film presents a near-future where the Sun is slowly dying (obviously a bit of bad news for planet Earth); and, as a result, an international group of scientists and astronauts goes on a last-ditch mission to “re-start” the dying star. And…not everything goes as planned. My opinion about this film is the same as director Quentin Tarantino’s (he’s a big fan of this film): The first 2/3 of Sunshine is pretty great (i.e. good premise with a clear conflict and high stakes, a phenomenal cast, interesting visuals, etc. etc.) but the last 1/3 of the film is pretty lackluster. [I won’t get into it too much *spoiler* territory here, but you can see some Event Horizon with the last act.] That said, despite the faltering toward the end, the first 60-70% of the film is legitimately pretty entertaining and captivating. And speaking of the cast, it’s really ridiculously good here — featuring a lot of folks who’ve gone on to attain bigger stardom and/or folks who usually only get “supporting” roles here in the U.S. (e.g. Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Troy Gerity, and Mark Strong). Aside from being one of the most instantly “re-watchable” of Boyle’s films (I usually go back and watch it about 1-2 times a year), it’s a strong, if flawed, addition to the science-fiction film genre. Check it out!
The One to Avoid
The good news is that there aren’t many Boyle films that I’d advise you to skip. The bad news is that those few “bad” Boyle films are…yikes. Oddly enough, I think that Slumdog Millionaire — the film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture — is pretty terrible. (The acting is solid and it has some interesting visuals, but the pacing and structure of the film is really tiresome — to my mind, I could see how it might work as a book but not-so-much as a movie.) A Life Less Ordinary is like a nightmare of 1990s aesthetics mixed, disastrously, with a screwball premise from a much earlier time: terrible haircuts (e.g. Ewan McGregor), terrible casting (e.g. Cameron Diaz), and a generally overlong and uninteresting plot. [That said, whoever thought to pair Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo together as partners was a genius.] But the “winner” here is, without a doubt, The Beach (2000). My god, what an awful, awful experience watching this film. The basic premise is that there’s a hidden, mythical island where blah blah blah. There’s a bunch of unimaginably annoying 20-somethings — literally ALL of them — who live on the island and spend all their time partying and yada yada yada. There are some drug farmers on the island who are whatever. Some Apocalypse Now and Rambo: First Blood stuff. Some half-baked (pun) ideas about individuality and freedom and arrrgh. (“Look! These characters are all sooooo unique and CRAAAAAZY! They have tribal tattoos and shout after spearing a fish! Isn’t that CRAAAAAZY!?!”) The Beach has some strange, villainous power to take a bunch of otherwise good actors and reduce them to their worst, basest stereotypes of themselves: Robert Carlyle as “wacky Robert Carlyle,” Tilda Swinton as “pretentious Tilda Swinton,” Leonardo DiCaprio as “roguish Leonardo DiCaprio,” etc. There’s not even one likable character here. No wait…I take that back. There’s no likable human character here. The shark that eats some of these 20-something islanders: I like that shark. I’d watch a movie starring that shark if the plot involved it eating the rest of these people. Someone make that movie. For fuck’s sake…
The Place to Start
While he experiments in other genres, I think that Danny Boyle is most at home, most in his grove, when he’s making movies about Scotland (and parts of England) — and particularly when those movies involve some sort of criminality. We’re talking here about Trainspotting, T2 Trainspotting, Trance, and even Millions. And with this geographical setting and thematic aspect in mind, I’d suggest someone unfamiliar with Boyle’s oeuvre start with his first film, A Shallow Grave. While I don’t think it’s as good as his two Trainspotting efforts that follow, it’s a very good neo-noir / thriller film in its own right and slightly “easier” viewing than either Trainspotting. For A Shallow Grave, think the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple but set in Edinburgh (or something along those lines).
The Final Word
As I said at the start of this retrospective, I decided to think and write about Danny Boyle mostly because a friend of mine requested it. For whatever reason, Boyle is one of those directors who I just don’t think of when thinking about directors that I really like, despite the fact that I’d seen most of his movies before beginning the retrospective project. He’s obviously a director with a distinct “style” to his best films — one connected to the 1990s (and early 2000s) and often the working-poor of Scotland and, to a lesser extent, England. But he’s also shown a willingness to explore with genre (in horror with 28 Days Later, in sci-fi with Sunshine, in biopics with Steve Jobs, etc.) with interesting results and has shown, as in Steve Jobs, a willingness to subdue (if necessary) some of his stylized tendencies if doing will be for the betterment of the film overall. While it’s great that Boyle and his contributions to cinema were recognized by the Academy (in the form of a Best Picture win), it’s a shame that it was for, in my estimation, one of his worst films; still, that shouldn’t take away from the quality of his other, superior works.