As previously noted, the films of Danny Boyle have long been among my favourite. Long before he directed an Oscar-winning spirit-lifter; long before he masterminded the joyous celebration of the Olympics opening ceremony … even before his second film, which was to become one of my favourites, I saw in his debut feature Shallow Grave an audacity, creativity and gift for story-telling which promised great things. I haven’t been disappointed.

I always approach his film’s with nervousness, though; I fear being let down, of having seen too much in too little in the past. I’m never completely let down, though. Clearly he’s not faultless; it would be hard to defend movies like A Life Less Ordinary or The Beach as masterpieces, but there’s always something interesting to enjoy. Since the overwhelming critical and commercial success of Slumdog Millionaire we might have expected a lurch towards culturally neutral awards fodder. He’s gone the other direction, though: first there was the small-scale, largely one-man focussed 127 Hours. It may have been portrayed as a triumph of the human spirit story; but it was still a nervous, jerky, edgy piece – hard to love, easy to admire and self-consciously distancing some of the audience he may have gained from the Oscar winner. Then came the Olympics; his opening ceremony a creative and critical barnstormer. Remarkably he chose to work on his next film in parallel with the preparations for the biggest show in history. Which creates some nervousness in the fan: how can you do justice to a second project when you’re giving so much energy to something unique and with such a high–profile?

There’s a simple answer, and Trance is it. In contrast to the Olympics project, this is a small, almost intimate piece with a trio of characters around whom everything revolves. Whereas the Opening Ceremony needed to have a mass appeal (though that didn’t stunt his daring), Trance again deliberately alienates some. In tone it’s most like Shallow Grave on a bigger budget; a plot-twisting thriller , complete with trips inside the twisted head of one of the lead characters, and a solution to the central mystery designed to offend anybody still left expecting a mass-market, easy to digest crowd-pleaser. It’s always on the edge of violence with a palpable sense of threat in the air. James McAvoy is Simon, an auctioneer of fine art who gets involved in the heist of a painting from his own auction house; Simon takes the painting during the heist, gets a blow to head for his troubles from one of the gang … and when he comes round and gets home from hospital, he comes home with an empty picture frame and inconvenient bout of amnesia as to where he’s hidden the painting. The gang want it back – and he wants to get it to them. They turn to a hypno-therapist played by Rosario Dawson; from there the plot spins layer after layer of revelation and manipulation of one by the other – the critical final reveal left to the last possible moment, in the honourable lineage of films like The Usual Suspects. As such it’s a high-octane, violent, dis-orienting cross-word puzzle of a film, only finally making sense at the last frame.

With subject-matter like amnesia and hypnotism, Boyle has licence to disorient and play with the viewer’s minds; and he does so to compelling effect. Inevitably it’s the sort of plot some won’t go with; the energetic direction will similarly turn some off. It’s about memory and the way we can use our memories as a way of controlling others; primarily, though, this is the film of someone taking all the parts of himself he couldn’t express on the biggest stage of them all and finding a creative, energetic outlet for them. It’s not going to be a major part of his life’s work; like 127 Hours, it’s smaller scale and appeal. His next film needs to be a step-up; and it’s interesting to see that it seems his next film will be revisiting the world of Trainspotting, adapting the follow-up novel to the original. That’s a good move. For now Trance is enough to keep me going.

I rated this movie 8/10 on and 4/5 on

Movies that move me 1: Trainspotting

Like many of the things which shape us, I saw this film at the perfect time. I was in my early 20s, trying to decide what I was going to do and where I was going to do it. As an added bonus, I was born and raised in Edinburgh. If there was a target market for Trainspotting, it was me.

The mid-90s had seen an explosion of suave, knowing, coolly post-modern films; rich in violence, explicit sex, bad language and dialogue which referenced the highways and byways of popular culture. This was led by Quentin Tarantino – the self-confessed film geek working in a video store turned movie-maker. First came Reservoir Dogs then Pulp Fiction (1994); confirming that America was at the epicentre of the new mood.

Britain responded. Along with a new Labour government and a flourishing music scene came films which spoke of the moment. There was 1994’s Shallow Grave, a darkly comic thriller-morality tale of greed and broken trust in Edinburgh. Its director, Danny Boyle, high on the critical and not insignificant commercial success, announced that for his next trick he’d direct the adaptation of cult book Trainspotting; Irvine Welsh’s bizarre, dialect-heavy short story collection about drug addiction in 1980s Edinburgh. Danny Boyle was widely considered to be talented, but over-ambitious. Received wisdom had the book as un-filmable and certainly not for the mass market.

So the film arrived, on a wave of hype in 1996, with an iconic marketing campaign, claiming to herald a young and urgent voice to compete with Tarantino. It couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

It did. Surfing the wave of popular culture and critical fame it became enough of an international hit to launch director Danny Boyle’s career on a path that would eventually take him to the widely loved Slumdog Millionaire. Whatever you knew about Trainspotting, whatever you hoped for from it, nothing quite prepared you for seeing it. The opening monologue which felt fresh but familiar as soon as you heard it; the music; the daring and sharp cuts from scene to scene; an ability to seemlessly move from realism to flights of fantasy and hallucination; the unapologetic Scottish slang.

It didn’t so much try to adapt the book as jump off from it. Inevitably some thought it was trying to glamourise drug use. Quite how that conclusion is reached given the consequences in the lives of the characters along the way is beyond me. I do, though, know of recovering addicts whose reactions to the film take in the whole spectrum. Some loved it; some couldn’t bear to watch it. It’s certainly not for everyone – it’s explicit, it’s foul-mouthed and features a lot of bodily fluids. Masterpieces, though, don’t have to be for everyone.

What it does so brilliantly with addiction – in this case to heroin in 1980s Edinburgh, at the time Europe’s AIDS capital – is, as the central character says early on, show that it starts because of “the pleasure of it”. The film is structured like an addict’s experience of a drug hit – the rush, the hallucination, the brutal come-down, the attempt to rebuild life … and when it’s over, many of us will want to watch it over again. The film’s genius is, even in the midst of tragedy, not to ask us to pity, in fact to move way beyond pity to something deeper and further reaching. That’s called understanding. For all the pulse-quickeningly brilliant music, the laugh out loud moments and the moments of shock and disgust, all it does is present the truth: people get addicted because it’s an escape they enjoy. The consequences are there if you want to look – but too often those are ignored at the price of the next hit of self-preservation.

Like all great works of art new things jump out on re-watching; not least one character, on the high of a recent hit in a fulfilling requirements interview for a job he doesn’t really want, speaks of those who went to schools like his and those who who went to more prestigious ones as ‘all in this together’. Those four words were the fanfare of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s flailing coalition government, seeking to reassure a disbelieving electorate that the privileged were with those who were suffering. The government’s actions since suggest otherwise; and those four words have become a stick to beat the government with. To hear them now, from the mouth of a chemically-dependant man seeking to avoid work at all costs, adds a delicious layer of irony.

Of course it has brilliant performances – uniformly. Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor and Kelly MacDonald all stand out. It’s an adrenaline fuelled masterpiece with a sting in tale; I’ll say again that it’s not for everyone and if you don’t speak Scottish you’ll probably need the DVD subtitles. It asks you to move beyond pity to empathy and self-examination. And it announced once and for all the greatest British director of his generation. Not bad for 94 minutes.

I rated this movie 10/10 on and 5/5 on

Benjamin Button: A Life Apart

Danny Boyle and David Fincher are both directors who have had their more successful moments when dealing with darker issues. Danny Boyle’s tales of murder, addiction and rampant viruses are among his most successful and effective films. David Fincher’s career  started with a sci-fi/horror effort as apart of one of the key franchises in the genre’s history; has made 2 brilliant but very different serial killer tales and given us one of the most-quoted generation-definers in years in the shape of Fight Club. Both of the had lacked serious Oscar contention until this year, both of them with films that aimed away from these darker shades and towards the more uplifting, inspiring end of the market.

So why did the British director and the Indian story take the spoils? All the ingredients were there for Benjamin Button; one megastar, one star, visual effects that sell the essence of the story, and a story that should appeal to any film-goer who wants something unusual and intriguing.

The answer is, ultimately, that it’s contrived. It’s a machine, an end in itself, too purpose-driven for something that would love to be whimsical and charming. If the goal was to intrigue, then we needed at lease some explanation of why the title character ages backwards – or at least a sub-plot where people try to find out, but ultimately come up with nothing. But no, it’s just left hanging. If the goal was to invoke wonder and awe and magic, then somebody had to express it, or trade in it. If it was meant to alternately horrify and make us fall for BB, then the make-up (for all it’s Oscar-winning technical brilliance) needs to show us a soul, not just a skin; to me, nothing ever really seemed to hurt or threaten anyone, until the very end at least If it’s meant to make self-referential jokes about history and the cultural icons whose era Brad Pitt’s central character (in his physical prime, with no make-up) lives through, then we need something with more integrity then a James Dean rip-off scene. If we’re meant to believe that Cate Blanchett’s character is really a dancer, then we need to believe that she does something other than dancing some of the time – I just don’t believe dancers go out dancing after the show or out of the theatre; all she is, at the end of it all, a cardboard cut-out. If it’s meant to be an inspiring, romantic love-story, then we need some chemistry.

You may say that Slumdog Millionaire treads the lines of some of those faults – but that’s a film driven by story and character and place. Benjamin Button is driven by desire to press buttons until we react with the tears that David Fincher says he shed on first reading the script. Problem is, button pressing may work for some, but it’s not going to change anyone the way Danny Boyle’s film has.

It’s by no means all bad, it just could have been so much more. The last few minutes, with the aging woman nursing him through his regression into physical childhood was beautiful, painful, sad, inevitable. We could have had more of that; if the rest of the film had measured up to it, we could have had a masterpiece on aging, our bodies and the search for a creator.

It’s a shame we didn’t get that. David Fincher is capable of genuine brilliance, whose first serial-killer film told us more about sin then many religious tracts; he’s a man capable of more insight than he probably knows. With Benjamin Button, he falls short; compared to the film that beat it, this is a life-time away.

Oscar Winners 2009

Want to read my take on the big Oscar winner? Click here for my review of Slumdog Millionaire.

Also read about what I thought of the film that finally gave Kate Winslet an Oscar here in The Reader.

There’s also my thoughts on Penelope Cruz’s award winner in Vicky Cristina Barcelona here

Much more to come over the next few days, so watch this space.

Slumdog Millionaire – Fear Not.

Occasionally a film comes along that I’m actually nervous about seeing. It’s because I don’t want to be let down. Director Danny Boyle’s films are like this. I really enjoyed his debut – the blackly comic thriller/morality play on the subject of greed (Shallow Grave – 1995). But it was his second film that, like for so many of my age and stage, changed everything. Seeing Trainspotting for the first time is one of those experiences I can never forget – not sure whether I liked it or hated it, but sure that what I expected from the cinema had been changed for ever. The style backed up by substance, the visual tricks, the music, the script, the subject matter, the performances…all blending into a whole that defied you not to be blown away by the very force of its presence. I was stunned – and going back a second and a third time, I decided that I loved it and that anyone who thought it was peddling some sort of message portraying drug-addiction as somehow a good thing was clearly brainless. It’s now one of my all-time favourites – with each re-viewing I see new depth and new power.

Since that time, I’ve awaited Danny Boyle’s films with trepidation; I want that feeling again, but I don’t want to be disappointed. Some have got close: 28 Days Later – but for me that’s just too bleak to really love; Sunshine – promised a lot, but never quite added up to enough. Some really disappointed – The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary (though not without merit). Some I have inexplicably not been able to see – Millions, though I understand it’s good.

So I approach his latest, Slumdog Millionaire, with real fear. So great has been the advance buzz that, surely, I can’t be anything other than disappointed? At the same time… just sounds great. What to do? It’s been a long time since excitement and nerves have combined this way for me.

Frankly, it’s stunning. I’m going to be in danger of gushing here, but it’s magnificent. Funny, touching, thrilling, exciting, romantic, shocking, alarming….it has, literally, everything, without overwhelming you. I find it hard to imagine a person who won’t enjoy this.

It should be cheesy – the story of a boy from the Indian slums who gets on to that country’s version of TV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as a way of getting the attention of his now lost childhood sweetheart. It should be woefully implausible as the story takes us through his interrogation regarding the charge of cheating to show how each question he answers through a life experience told in flashback.

It should fail – but it works, perfectly. Why? Simply, it’s a contemporary urban fairy tale, told with such style and respect for an audience which wants to be entertained, that in the end you can’t help but be swept along. Yes, it’s a very tough watch at times – the violence and depravation of slum-life are not skimped on. This is a fairy tale that smells unmistakably of the street. It leads, though, where you want it to lead. In that fact, though, is the film’s real miracle  – whilst centering on a TV show with a huge prize as part of a rags-to-riches tale, it actually subverts the consumerist dream that drives the show and so many stories like this one. Money brings nothing but suffering to those who seek it – to Jamal, the young man at the heart of it all, it’s clear that he’s never in it for the money. All he wants is his soul-mate.

Really, it’s magnificent – right down to the seeds sown in the lives of the local children used to act in the film. The director has provided them all with transport to school until the age of 16, and trust funds to be released to them at age if they stay in school.

In every way, I love this film – both gloriously of it’s time in its setting, style and subject matter and yet challenging and subverting the age’s obsession with money and consumption.

I need not have feared.