Director Spotlight: Danny Boyle
by Barry Wurst
May 14, 2007
Here's a filmmaker who made one of the essential 90's films, as well as one of the most celebrated zombie films of the past 20 years. Danny Boyle's work as a director is eclectic, adventurous and daring. This fearlessness has also lead to some uneven films as well. You can say this is a filmmaker whose best work is still ahead of him; yet his artistic output shows an inventiveness and versatility that matches even Sam Raimi.
May 14 - Danny Boyle
Like Raimi, Danny Boyle's first film to gain international attention was a sick little art house thriller that displayed a real directorial skill at conveying Hitchcockian style and a demented sensibility. Shallow Grave (1994), starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, made a big impression with critics worldwide, though the US response wasn't as big as the response it received worldwide. Indeed, Boyle's next film would launch him into the mainstream big time.
Like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, Trainspotting (1996) is one of the films released in the 1990's that stood out for its groundbreaking style, raw approach, distinct originality and overnight cult following. A blockbuster overseas and an art house hit in the US during its long, summer of '96 run, this sad, funny, dazzling and haunting depiction of a group of drug addicts (memorably embodied by McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Johnny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald) takes the audience on a wrenching ride. Some critics accused the film of glamorizing drug use, saying the film's considerable style glosses over the anti-drug message. I somewhat agreed with this in '96 but not anymore. Boyle's madly visceral approach draws you into this sad world embodied by tragic, desperate and painfully human characters. The film is so exciting it will get your heart racing, but so horrifying you may walk away shaking. This is Boyle's best film so far.
Since most US audiences didn't see Shallow Grave, many believed Trainspotting was Boyle's directorial debut (the same way Boogie Nights fans ignored P.T. Anderson's superior debut film Hard Eight and incorrectly believed his ode to the 70's porn world was his first film). A lot of high expectations were put on "the new film from the director of Trainspotting." It is unfortunate that the much hyped A Life Less Ordinary (1997) would not only be Boyle's worst film but one of the worst major releases of the 90's. The film is so awful in so many ways, you could spend an entire semester of film class picking apart the elements that make it so wretched. Starring McGregor and Cameron Diaz (who graced the cover of seemingly every magazine in the world to promote the film), the film is self-consciously hip, obnoxious, unfunny, and embarrassing. That Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo play two guardian angels that must bring the two young lovers together (in a subplot lifted from the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John fiasco Two of a Kind), only makes this lemon tougher to bear. Admittedly, there is a gem of a musical number between McGregor and Diaz, set to Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea" and the soundtrack (featuring Beck's ultra-cool "Deadweight") is a keeper. My advice - buy the soundtrack, watch the trailer, and skip the movie.
Boyle's comeback from A Life Less Ordinary (which was a flop globally) was also a major comeback for someone else: Leonardo DiCaprio, who hadn't starred in a film since Titanic (three years earlier). Boyle's adaptation of Alex Garland's cult novel, The Beach (2000) is an ambitious but sadly uneven film. DiCaprio's army of 13-year old fans were not ready to see "Jack" play a young adventurer who undergoes a scary, Lord of the Flies-like transformation, so the film was never going to be a mainstream hit (as most predicted). In staying faithful to the Garland book (complete with shark attacks, brazen sexuality, a newfound Eden, and tribal wars), Boyle fashioned a compelling, beautiful and intriguing film… for a while. The infamous sequence of DiCaprio imagining himself in a video game (a scene reportedly suggested by Leo himself) is as silly as the Apocalypse Now tribute and the forced happy ending, all which pop up late in the film and succeed in sinking it. It's worth noting that Trainspotting co-star Robert Carlyle has a riveting cameo early on and the film isn't unwatchable but the Garland book is still the real deal. The Beach gave its talented young star an edgy stretch in a big budget vehicle, but word of mouth killed it after its second week in theaters.
The long planned Alien Love Triangle (2002), starring Kenneth Branaugh, was shot and intended to be part of a three-film anthology (like Four Rooms) but the other installments in the proposed anthology, Mimic and Imposter, became feature films instead, leaving Boyle's installment an abandoned short film. His biggest comeback would be in 2003 with the release of his celebrated horror hit, 28 Days Later (2002). Starring a then-unknown Cillian Murphy, it became the sleeper hit of that summer and has a major following. While considered a "zombie film", many argue that it is nothing of the sort and, instead, a cautionary sci-fi parable about an apocalypse mankind brings on itself. Not everyone was taken with the film, and some felt nothing could top its spellbinding first 30 minutes (one of the most haunting man-alone-in-the-world visualizations ever created on film). Whether you feel George A. Romero did all this better or that 28 Days Later is one of the definitive zombie films, it can't be denied that the film struck a chord with genre fans.
A fanciful children's film, of all things, came next. Millions (2004) was a critic's darling and a considerable art house hit worldwide. Some felt the film (about a boy who comes across a bag full of cash and contemplates what to do with it) wavered between being a sweet family film and a dark parable, with the grittier scenes clashing with the cute moments. While not as off balance as The Beach, the film does have some problems and ill chosen moments. Yet, like Trainspotting, the film is a wonder for the eyes. Boyle gives the film heart and some truly visionary sights, resulting in an offbeat, occasionally wondrous and charming work.
His newest endeavor, Sunshine (2007), is a science fiction epic starring Cillian Murphy. The film has met some negative buzz: Variety panned the film, which the studio pushed out of the summer season and into an unpromising slot in September. Still, the film looks stunning and the cast (which includes Michelle Yeoh and Chris Evans) and talent (Beach and 28 Days Later creator Alex Garland wrote this one as well) are promising. Whether the film sinks or swims, this much is undeniable: Danny Boyle is such a gifted filmmaker, almost all of his films ought to be experienced and it is only a matter of time before he tops Trainspotting.