Posts Tagged ‘Danny Boyle’

We have, in the past, occasionally discussed some of the more unusual and esoteric aspects of film production, not least what all the money actually gets spent on. One envisages a sort of pie chart, with various slices set aside for the actors, director, scriptwriters, costume department, and so on. Of course, occasionally a film comes along where one slice of pie is disproportionately large, compared to all the others – occasionally a small and unassuming film pays big bucks for a major star, for instance, or you get a big special effects-driven film where two-thirds of the budget goes on the CGI. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday must have a fairly unique sort of pie, as a good 40% of the budget went on negotiating music clearances. This sounds wildly extravagant until you learn what the film is about, at which point it becomes clear why they stumped up all the money – without the uncanny potency of cheap music (or not so cheap, in this case), this film wouldn’t be being made.

Himesh Patel plays Jack, an aspiring singer-songwriter who is slowly starting to realise that he just hasn’t got what it takes to become successful as an artist. Pretty much the only thing that keeps him gigging is the unconditional support and belief of his friend Ellie (Lily James), with whom he has a close but entirely platonic relationship (shush now, I know, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Then, cycling home one night after deciding to pack it all in, Jack falls off his bike during a brief global blackout. He awakes sans beard and a couple of teeth, but fairly soon discovers that something rather odd has happened: he seems to be the only person in the world with any memory of the Beatles or their music. He very rapidly realises that suddenly having unique and (apparently) exclusive access to a priceless stash of some of the most perfect pop songs ever written is a boon to a struggling musician like him, and is soon frantically trying to remember the lyrics to Let It Be and I Want to Hold Your Hand so he can pass them off as his own work.

Pretty soon the music industry comes calling, and he is summoned off to Los Angeles by his demonic new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon), accompanied only by his idiot roadie Rocky (Joel Fry). It seems like his success is forcing him apart from Ellie and whatever deeper feelings they may secretly have for each other. But is it really ethical to keep ripping off the Beatles and taking all the credit? And shouldn’t he be taking a moment to consider The Important Things in Life?

Yesterday represents a coming together of two of the great powers of what passes for the British film industry: it is directed by Danny Boyle, whom even I will happily concede has made some really great films in the past, and written by Richard Curtis, who has been a huge figure in British cultural life for decades now. Given their involvement and the strength of the film’s premise (it is intriguing, to say the least), you could be forgiven for expecting this to be one of the more substantial films of the summer.

Folks, it ain’t. This is as lightweight and disposable as low-sugar candyfloss, to the point where the film’s refusal to engage with its own ideas becomes actively irritating. What it basically is, is another outing for that well-worn fable about a young man whose head is turned by the prospect of material success, but must make the choice between that and The Important Things in Life – in this case, true love and personal integrity. Bolted onto this are various scenes that feel like comedy sketches of rather variable quality.

It feels rather odd that they have spent $10 million on rights clearances for Beatles songs, when the Beatles themselves feel rather peripheral to the movie. There’s a sense, surely, in which the whole point of this kind of film is to make you realise just how massively significant and important the band were and remain; the hole left by their absence is a memorial to their contribution to society and culture. Except, not here: the Beatles vanish from history and yet the world spins on almost entirely unchanged. Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Coldplay are still there, unaffected; society has not been affected at all. The film almost seems to be suggesting that the Beatles have no substantive legacy whatsoever (I should still mention that one of Yesterday‘s best jokes is that the only other band who seem to have vanished in the Beatles-free universe is Oasis).

And what’s going on here, anyway? What has changed, and why? (It’s not just the Beatles that have disappeared.) How come the Beatles apparently never got together? Why is Jack (apparently) unique in remembering a world with all their songs in it? Would the Beatles’ songs still be successful if they were released today as ‘new’ music? There is potential here for a rather different and probably much more interesting film about the alt-hist of the new universe Jack seems to have tumbled into (he appears to have a weird form of reverse amnesia, remembering things that never actually happened), and there is one eerie sequence in particular with an uncredited Robert Carlyle which sort of touches on this without ever really properly exploring it. I was really left wanting more, for the film to explore its premise in a more systematic way, but it doesn’t come close to truly delivering on this. It’s just a facilitator for a hackneyed rom-com plot and some comedy sketches.

Still, it is at least played with gusto and sincerity by most of the cast, even if none of them looks set to get the kind of career boost from it that actors have enjoyed from previous Boyle or Curtis productions. Perhaps this is because neither man seems to have been willing or able to really set his stamp on it – it’s not as stylistically distinctive as the best Danny Boyle films, nor does it have the humour or heart of Curtis’ best scripts. That said, Kate McKinnon works her usual off-the-leash comic sorcery and the film lifts whenever she’s on screen – but I fear I must also report that the movie also features a James Corden cameo and a fairly extensive supporting role for Ed Sheeran (Sheeran seems to be one of those people who’s unconvincing as an actor even when he’s playing himself).

By far the best moments of Yesterday come when the film-makers relax and just let the songs speak for themselves without attempting to do anything too clever or iconoclastic with them. The whole point of the film should really be about what an awful place the world would be without great music and great art, and how we shouldn’t take these things for granted. It’s a point that it never properly manages to make, but the music itself is lovely enough to remind you of that fact. The music of the Beatles is timeless and beautiful; Yesterday never quite manages to do it justice, but it’s a pleasant enough film even if it’s inevitably a bit of a disappointment given its pedigree.

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If you are of roughly the same vintage as I am and from the UK, then there’s a good chance that you have Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting seared into your brain as an undeniable cultural landmark. For a few months in 1996, Trainspotting was inescapably ubiquitous: you couldn’t move for posters of an emaciated, soaked Ewan McGregor, or songs off the soundtrack turning up everywhere, or people ripping off its very distinctive energy and style – it feels like half the bad British crime films and comedies of the late 90s and early 2000s are largely motivated by a hamfisted attempt to emulate Danny Boyle. Boyle himself went on to be arguably Britain’s most successful film director, McGregor went on to be a Jedi Knight, and most of the other lead cast members did pretty well for themselves, to say the least.

And I say this as someone who was initially rather dubious about the film (I hadn’t been especially impressed with Boyle’s previous movie, Shallow Grave) and only really came to it via Irvine Welsh’s book. I haven’t watched the movie in at least ten years and probably much longer, mainly because I suspect the nostalgic associations would be almost too much to bear, but the memory of it is still enormously vivid: Iggy Pop singing ‘Lust for Life’ at the start, Underworld doing ‘Born Slippy’ at the end, and in between the bit with the toilet, the bit with the linen, the bit with the OD and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, and all the rest of it too.

You mess about with this kind of beloved cultural artefact at your peril, which is why I think I was a bit surprised to hear a sequel was in the works – Boyle didn’t seem like a sequel-friendly kind of guy, anyway (although I have my fingers crossed for another bio-zombie film) – but nevertheless, here it is: the oddly-monikered T2 Trainspotting. A bit late for the 20th anniversary of the original, but that’s what you get for associating your movie with the rail network, I suppose.


Two decades have passed for the characters, too, as the new film gets underway: Renton (McGregor) has used the £12,000 of drug money he stole from his friends at the climax of the first one to lay the foundations of a fairly conventional existence in Amsterdam. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has abandoned heroin in favour of cocaine and is working in the hospitality industry, with a projected side-line in blackmail. The hapless Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been unable to establish himself in society, partly due to his inability to come to terms with daylight savings, and is eking out a tenuous existence as a recovering addict. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), on the other hand, has spent the last twenty years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – sometimes that’s the price of being a violent psychopath.

The quartet are drawn back together when Renton returns to Edinburgh for personal reasons and tries to reach out to Spud and Sick Boy. Both of them express their emotions at seeing him again loudly and robustly, but soon he is helping Sick Boy and his partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) in their scheme to raise the funds for a ‘sauna’, with Spud recruited to help with the interior design. But Begbie has managed to execute a characteristically unhinged escape plan and is back on the streets again, and when he learns Renton is back in town, he has only revenge on his mind…

The original Trainspotting was, as I say, a real case of a group of people managing to catch lightning in a bottle, and the new movie doesn’t seem to have serious aspirations to match its impact – indeed, part of what the film is about is coming to terms with the fact that time moves on and your life changes, and that a person in their twenties has many more options than someone in their forties. What happened at the end of the first film seems to have sent all four main characters into a state of arrested development, so they are still largely defined by events from when they were young men, desperately nostalgic for the time of the first film when the pathways of their lives were still much more open. This is at least in part a necessary storytelling conceit, in order for them all to still be recognisably the same characters, but it’s also rich territory for the film to explore.

And it does so impressively. There are all the usual directorial whistles and bells from Boyle, which are no less than we’ve come to expect, and the nature of the project means he can employ all kinds of call-backs to the first film, some subtle, some obvious and knowing. There’s a degree of playfulness in the way the new film toys with audience expectations – elements of music from the original occasionally insert themselves into the soundtrack, and at one point a character sits down with his old vinyl copy of ‘Lust for Life’ but can’t bear to listen to more than the first split-second of it – but the film itself feels vital and relevant rather than merely nostalgic itself.

The plot is less digressive this time around, but John Hodge’s screenplay turns on a sixpence between moments of drama, black humour, and even suspense. It is all quite monumentally profane, and frequently rather vile, but also extremely funny and intelligent. There’s a moment of supreme comedy when Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a sectarian pub night, intent on robbing the attendees, and find themselves having to perform an improvised musical number instead – if there’s a funnier single scene this year, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Ultimately, though, this is quite a serious film about coming to terms with your youth, and its passing, and understanding how in thrall you can be to your own history. Boyle has said it is a film about masculinity, and that’s true, but it’s simply the case that most of his returning characters here are male (Kelly Macdonald returns as Renton’s old partner Diane, but only briefly). The film comes to life as well as it does because of the strength of the performances from all the key players – if nothing else, this movie is a reminder (to UK cinema audiences, at least) of what a very effective actor Jonny Lee Miller can be, given the right material. Anjela Nedyalkova also makes a good impression, given the calibre of the people she’s in the middle of.

I suspect the minimum intention for Trainspotting 2 was for it not to slime the memory of the original: well, I would say mission accomplished, and then some. Like the best of Boyle’s work, it manages to be entertaining while remaining thoughtful, realistic without being bleak. In the end, it suggests, life goes on, one way or another. So choose life.

Or choose movies. Choose good movies. Choose a great sequel. Choose this sequel.

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The era of non-stop counter-programming seems to be coming to an end, as the stream of low-budget biographical movies is finally replaced by… oh, a big-budget biographical movie. And, a movie which may itself arguably be considered counter-programming, given that it has apparently tanked massively in the States, and presumably no-one at Universal has very great hopes for it doing any better over here. The film in question is Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which concerns… oh, you guessed it.


Yes, you might think there was something slightly ironic about the fact that a movie about the famously successful entrepreneur is struggling to make its money back at the box office, but one of the things the film highlights is the fact that Jobs was not quite the Midas figure popular legend has him being. Not entirely unpredictably, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin eschew anything resembling a traditional bio-pic and opt for a hugely theatrical structure, where the film finds Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at his most intense, in the moments leading up to three key product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Cube (no, me neither) in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. (Prior to all this, the scene is set with some archive footage of another visionary, as Arthur C Clarke – speaking, it would appear, in the late 60s or early 70s – predicts how the PC revolution was going to change many lives.)

As coincidence and the script would have it, Jobs ends up talking with the same handful of people on all three occasions – Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), company CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his initially-unacknowledged daughter (various actresses), and so on. Overseeing it all is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who often seems to be the closest thing Jobs has to an actual friend. The same themes recur: Jobs as an obsessive control-freak on a monumental scale, as a prophet of a digitally-enhanced world, as a colossal ego, and as a man highly unlikely to win the Parent of the Year award.

It does boil down to the same few actors talking to each other about roughly the same things on a handful of different sets (there are cutaway sequences to Jobs and Wozniak in the garage where Apple was founded, and to the board meeting which saw Jobs ejected from the company in 1985), but Sorkin’s flair for dialogue and Boyle’s deftness with a camera mean that the film is anything but flat and dull. There are thrilling, electrifying moments of drama scattered through the movie, delivered by a group of actors making the most of an extremely good script.

Even though I am not the world’s biggest Apple fan (I believe I still have an iPod somewhere, but I haven’t listened to it in at least five years), I have of course heard of Steve Jobs and knew a little (a very little, if we’re honest) about him – the man has, after all, become something of a present-day icon. (This is the second Jobs bio-pic in three years.) Steve Jobs the movie does a first-rate job of turning Steve Jobs the icon into Steve Jobs a man – the objection that many who knew Jobs have been making, of course, is that the man on the screen is a grotesque caricature of the person who they knew, and that Boyle and Sorkin have other fish to fry than doing Jobs justice. Certainly the character played by Fassbender is breathtakingly callous and brutally manipulative for much of the movie – but, to be fair, the film makes no attempt to hide what an influential thinker he was, or how many of his ideas now underpin the fabric of everyday life (and by the end of the film it’s fairly plain that, underneath it all, he does at least aspire to be a decent father).

Whatever else, Michael Fassbender is certainly very impressive in the central role. Some quite excitable things have been said about Fassbender of late, declaring him the new Brando and so on, but he is one of those actors who does seem capable of anything, and is furthermore quite untroubled (it would appear) by ego. He even seems quite capable of that most difficult balancing act, where he spends some of his time in unashamedly populist entertainment (one more X-Men film is still to appear) and some of it in less mainstream fare (Macbeth, for instance) while remaining in demand for both.

Quite which category Steve Jobs falls into is the question of the moment, as the movie apparently cost a total of $60m to produce and market and has so far recouped less than half that. The obvious comparison, for all sorts of reasons, is with The Social Network, which ended up making about $225m – not exactly Marvel or Bond money, but still pretty impressive. But why did that film connect with audiences in a way this one apparently hasn’t? Well, friends, I frankly have no idea: I doubt very much that it’s just because Facebook was at its height of coolness back in 2010, while right now we’re all sick to death of hearing about Apple/Jobs, nor do I think the ostentatious theatricality of Steve Jobs is what’s been frightening the horses. Is there something to the claim that Fassbender just isn’t a big enough star to open a movie on this scale? Hmm, maybe, but are people claiming that Jesse Eisenberg is?

It may simply be the case that this is an anomaly, a fluke of release dates and zeitgeist conspiring to make a genuinely good movie tank. For Steve Jobs is a very impressive piece of film-making, as you might expect of the talents involved. Is it a fair portrait of its subject? I doubt anyone is qualified to say for sure, but script, performances and direction are all first class, and you do emerge from the theatre excited and moved and with some thoughts newly-provoked. In the end, I suspect history will prove to be as kind to Steve Jobs as it almost certainly will to Steve Jobs.

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As readers of the collected reviews will probably have surmised, I am late to the party when it comes to feting Danny Boyle as a film-maker – I can’t remember seeing a film of his that I actually thought was bad, per se, but certainly many of the early ones just strike me as a little bit too smug and glossy. Having said that, I love 28 Days Later, thought Slumdog Millionaire was terrific, and had a lot of time for 127 Hours as well. So I suppose I’ve come around to the view that – certainly of late – Boyle has become a genuine national treasure as a director of real class.


This is a consensus unlikely to be much damaged by his new film, Trance, unless I miss my guess very badly. In retrospect, this looks and feels very much like a Boyle film from beginning to end, and the story itself contains a few old friends from past projects – violent gangs as antagonists, scene-setting voice-overs, a few other tropes, whistles and bells with the narrative voice – and yet it still manages the neat trick of feeling completely fresh and surprising, thanks to a ferociously clever and convoluted story originated by the less generally well-known writer-director Joe Ahearne (who earned the respect of some of us for his work in Ancient Times on This Life and Ultraviolet). All in all this is a very smart and attractive package.

The film opens by introducing us to junior auctioneer Simon Newton (James McAvoy), who cheerfully explains to us the package of measures in place to stop people nicking expensive paintings when they come up for sale. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the depiction of a well-organised attempt to circumvent these precautions when a famous Goya picture is sold for £25 million. Simon is briefly in charge of taking the threatened picture to safety, but is cornered by lead thief Franck (Vincent Cassel) who relieves him of it and gives him a nasty crack on the head for his trouble. However, when Franck pauses to admire his ill-gotten gains, the picture seems to have vanished into thin air…

When Simon gets out of hospital, he is less than pleased to find his flat and car have both been ransacked, and even less delighted when Franck’s henchmen whisk him off to a secluded location for a fairly intense chat. Simon, it transpires, was in on the robbery from the start, but the disappearing picture was not part of the plan. If he wishes to retain all his body parts in working order, Franck suggests he hands it over right away. But of course, there is a problem – Simon’s bang on the head seems to have left him with amnesia concerning exactly what happened in the aftermath of the robbery, and he’s no clue what happened to the painting. Trimming down the ends of Simon’s fingers does not improve his memory and so the gang resort to different approach – Simon is packed off to a comely hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson), with instructions to get his memory restored so everyone can go their separate ways with smiles on their faces . However, Franck and Simon have reckoned without the therapist, who brings a new and unexpected agenda of her own to this already tangled situation.

Trance kicks off like a slick and glossy caper thriller somewhat in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven – the opening sequence, detailing the robbery itself, is brilliantly put together and hugely enjoyable. But as well as showcasing Boyle’s mastery of the medium, this part of the film is surely there to settle the audience, engage them with the film, and – perhaps most importantly – win their trust. This is because there is a moment, not very far into the film, where I sat back and suddenly realised I had absolutely no idea which way this story was going to go next. It’s hellishly difficult to fly off the beacon like this and take the audience with you, but Boyle manages it almost effortlessly.

Almost imperceptibly the focus of the film shifts from the problem of finding the missing painting, and it becomes a much darker, more twisted thriller about the relationship between the three lead characters. Not everything is as it has first been presented to us, and the story becomes a matter of digging down through complex layers of deception and confusion to reach the truth. As they do so, the roles of mastermind, manipulatee, and victim shuffle back and forth between the trio: it’s a hell of a conjuring trick, and almost flawlessly executed (I can only think of one possible moment where the film appears to be cheating, and I’d have to see it again to be sure). But you have to keep your wits about you and pay attention if you want to keep up – this is a supremely confident film and not one that make compromises for the sake of the audience.

This extends to some of the elements of violence and gore which punctuate the film – in terms of these alone, Trance must be at the absolute top end of the 15 certificate, and this is before we even get to the sex and nudity. This is the only part of the film about which I have some misgivings, because its sexual politics seem to me to be a little skewed. You could certainly argue that this is, on some level, a story about feminine empowerment, but this does not sit especially easily with a couple of sequences requiring some remarkably graphic nudity from the leading lady (especially considering that nothing really comparable is expected of the two men). These scenes felt to me to have a nasty, leering quality quite at odds with the rest of the film, and while they illustrate both character and plot points, the points in question are hardly essential to the story.

This stuff certainly brings a vaguely ugly quality to a film which otherwise seems intended to be as attractive and bright as possible, even at the expense of some credibility – Trance shows London as a glossy, beautiful playground, where everyone has a giant-sized wall TV, state-of-the-art fitted kitchen, and private pool, and people can routinely afford to send each other iPads in the post rather than one of your actual letters. It is slightly absurd, but at the same time very appealing – and much the same could be said of the convolutions of the plot. Danny Boyle orchestrates the whole thing with seemingly effortless skill, helped by very solid performances from the three stars, all of whom make the most of the ambiguities inherent in the script. Not a film for kids, nor one to be taken too seriously – but as a piece of hugely stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, Trance is almost wholly successful.

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Haven’t watched any Olympics so far, don’t feel this has blighted my life, didn’t watch the opening ceremony either – if you really must know, I came across a copy of Gamera the Invincible on the internet and found the prospect of watching that far more appealing. Nevertheless, from all I hear I Love Wonder was a great success. Spiffing; hopefully now Danny Boyle can get back to making horror movies as only he can.

I am of course particularly anticipating Boyle getting to work on 28 Months Later, and I suppose this is a little surprising as I seem to recall being a bit lukewarm about 28 Days Later when it first appeared in 2002. I didn’t think it was a bad film, I just wasn’t as impressed as many other people clearly were. Nevertheless, despite my usual policy of not buying films on DVD unless I’ve already seen them and know they’ll reward many viewings, I bought the box set of it and its sequel, which I missed at the cinema, the first chance I got.

For 28 Weeks Later Boyle stepped back from the director’s position and let Juan Carlos Fresnadillo have a go, although I’ve been told he handled the opening sequence personally. This is not surprising as it’s one of the most visceral and disturbing parts of the film. Here we meet Don (Robert Carlyle), an average family man who’s taken refuge from the outbreak of the Rage virus in a country farmhouse. (This section is set during the same timeframe as the first movie.) However, he and the people he is with are discovered by a pack of infected and he is forced to flee, the only survivor – his desperation to escape making him commit a genuinely shocking act.

Months later, as suggested by the end of the first film, the infected have died of starvation leaving mainland Britain ruined and empty. Refugees who escaped the quarantine are being repatriated by a US Army task force, based at an enclave in central London. Two of the latest arrivals are Don’s kids Andy and Tamsin (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots – yeah, like those are their real names!) – despite the fact that the presence of children does not sit well with chief medical officer Scarlett (the lovely Rose Byrne).

Scarlett’s concerns prove well-founded when the kids slip out of the compound and discover someone who has survived the outbreak of the Rage. The problem is that they have done so due to a genetic anomaly, which makes them an asymptomatic carrier of the virus: they carry inside them the seeds of a second outbreak, and one which could potentially be even more dangerous than the original…

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking if you’ve seen this film: the recap above presents the facts of the story rather idiosyncratically, but this is only because I want to preserve some of the shocks and surprises built into the plot. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure the focus on Don and his family completely works as the film progresses – given what we saw of the virus and the infected in the first film, the way that some characters behave in the later stages of this one is a little bit startling. (The issue of why the infected don’t simply turn on each other becomes an even more clouded one.)

I suppose one could be accused of taking a very gory zombie movie a bit too seriously by even worrying about this sort of thing, but both these movies are smarter than you’d expect and thus deserve serious consideration. It seems to me that both these films are, on some level, about fear of the mob and the innate human capacity for savagery, but 28 Weeks Later adds a new layer to this by being much more openly political. The repatriatees live in a ‘Green Zone’, while the US Army have, possibly prematurely, declared a formerly hazardous area safe.

It’s very clear that the US Army’s occupation of London is intended, on some level, as a satire on the occupation of Iraq, which adds a new subtext to latter scenes, in which their general (Idris Elba) orders his troops to fire upon civilians to stop the Rage spreading. It’s an interesting idea, and allows for some stunning images – the Isle of Dogs being firebombed, helicopter gunships attacking civilian vehicles in central London – as well as (of course) allowing some American stars to appear in the cast (Jeremy Renner and Harold Perrineau are the most prominent). But I still don’t think this subtext of the film completely makes sense, not least because – on one level – the general is clearly justified in taking whatever measures are necessary to stop the virus spreading.

Nevertheless, this angle, and the fact that as a result this is much more of an action-chase movie than the first one, definitely give it its own identity. I think part of the reason for my subdued response to the Danny Boyle film was that it did seem to me to be an obvious mash-up of two sources I already knew very well (Night of the Living Dead and The Day of the Triffids). I’m not saying 28 Weeks Later is a better film, but I think I’ve watched it more often, quite simply because it is more original.

That said, I did respond rather negatively to it the first time I saw it. Quite apart from the ungallant treatment meted out to the lovely Rose Byrne, I was repelled by the overwhelming, nightmarish bleakness of the film’s atmosphere and story, and especially its ending (as is common, the original doesn’t really leave obvious material for a sequel – this one goes out of its way to allow the story to continue, but of course the rights then got tied up, leaving the third installment in limbo). But now it seems to me that this is the horror of the film, as much as in the splatter and gore – unsympathetic though he is, the general’s ruthless approach to the crisis is ultimately proven to be the right one. It’s the human sympathy and affection shown by many of the main characters which is misplaced and ultimately results in catastrophe (I suppose you could also argue it’s all Don’s fault, but spoilers await). Compassion and empathy, in this film, are what wind up getting you killed, and that’s not a comforting message.

As I said, the ending is left wide open for further episodes (although I’m not sure what they can do with the titles after 28 Months Later – entering the realm of years and decades stretches credibility somewhat), the main challenge being simply to match the level of ingenuity and originality set by this first follow-up. I hope they manage it; this is a superior sequel and a memorable horror movie in its own right.

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The Oscars draw ever closer, but one film-maker of note who’s not in the running for anything this year is Danny Boyle, presumably because recently he’s been too busy doing Frankenstein on stage and preparing his contribution to the Olympics – an opening show entitled I Love Wonder (or something like that). To be perfectly honest I am supremely indifferent to the Olympics and would much rather Boyle cracked on with 28 Months Later, but there you go.

That said, the very fact I am looking forward to a Boyle movie at all is somewhat notable as I was fairly late coming to the party as far as this man is concerned. I remember the first time I saw Shallow Grave on video, lying on a mattress at 2am next to a demented wannabe director whose film I was nebulously attached to as co-scripter (we were both somewhat, ahem, medicated). I thought it was a solid movie but nothing special, and neither Trainspotting nor The Beach came close to the quality of their source novels.

That said, I did think 28 Days Later was a hugely impressive movie (possibly because it’s an uncredited adaptation of one of my favourite books), Sunshine was interestingly different and 127 Hours genuinely moving. My issue with a lot of Boyle’s work is with his habit of relentlessly overloading the screen with all kinds of conceits and narrative devices that the story neither needs nor can really support, to the ultimate detriment of the film. 127 Hours needed exactly this kind of treatment to work at all, which is why it felt like such a good match for Boyle.

Of course, the film which really brought Boyle international acclaim came out a couple of years earlier. I missed the initial release of Slumdog Millionaire due to being in Kyrgyzstan at the time, but I’ve caught up with it since and can fully understand just why this film did so well.

Dev Patel plays Jamal, a young chai-wallah (basically the tea boy) in a Mumbai call centre. But Jamal has a date with destiny when he goes on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (a TV game show made by the same company that produced this film – hmmm). Sixteen questions stand between Jamal and unimaginable wealth, but no-one expects an uneducated nobody like him to stand a chance. However, Jamal’s extraordinary life has left him uniquely well-prepared for this experience…

This being a Danny Boyle film, of course, just one framing device isn’t enough, and so wrapping around the gameshow idea are scenes in which Jamal is questioned (tortured, really) by the police, who suspect he was cheating on the show. From here we see the show and from the show we flash back through Jamal’s life, which is the meat of the movie. Growing up a rather unworldly child, alongside his more savvy brother Salim, he is orphaned in a sectarian riot, in the aftermath of which the brothers meet Latika, another child without a family.

As they grow to adulthood the trio are separated and reunited various times and in various combinations, but some things remain constant – Salim’s ruthlessness, and the emotional bond between Jamal and Latika. Can any of them hope to find a happy ending?

Well, I’m routinely very scathing about the Academy’s priorities when it comes to handing out the Oscars but fair play to them in this case – this is a very cleverly constructed and utterly engrossing film, full of life and colour and energy. The game show conceit is never quite as intrusive as you might expect it to be and the film isn’t afraid to turn on a sixpence in terms of its tone – a shocking and tense sequence about gangsters mutilating orphans to make them more productive beggars is followed quite closely by a genuinely funny set of scenes where the boys are working as tour guides around the Taj Mahal.

It really does sweep you up and carry you along, which is an even more impressive achievement given that it’s not afraid to address the darker side of life in the Mumbai slums. One of the themes of the film is the corruption that goes hand-in-hand with worldly success, something reflected in the way Mumbai itself is transformed over the years in which the film takes place. Only Jamal seems to be immune to this, and this of course is due to his love for Latika. Is it a bit sentimental? Well, yes, and for me there are a couple of mis-steps near the end, but by this point the film had generated more than enough goodwill for this not to be a problem.

Then again, with a film like this (or indeed City of God, which it sometimes resembles), there’s always the issue of rich foreigners turning up to a developing country and using genuine human poverty as the basis for them to make money for themselves – cinema as poverty tourism, in other words. On the other hand, some Indian commenters have criticised it on the grounds that it presents their country in too negative a light.

I don’t know; this is such a complex issue. Watching the film, it never quite seemed to be indulging itself in the kind of dubious exoticism that one might expect. Having been lucky enough to live and work in several different Asian countries myself, I don’t have much time for people who treat these places as giant-sized theme parks – and I never got the sense that this was the film-makers’ intention, even if it may have been some of the audience’s. And if we’re really going to be serious about the superficial exploitation of poverty and other cultures, doesn’t that limit us to either watching films about people exactly like us, or unsatisfying confections of total fantasy?

I am quite happy to give Slumdog Millionaire the benefit of the doubt, simply on the grounds of its style and wit and heart. There aren’t many films of recent years that I’ve seen on DVD and really regretted not seeing on the big screen: this, however, is definitely one of them.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 7th November 2002:

‘John Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for disaster… but he effectively domesticated some of its defining patterns: the city (usually London) depopulated by the catastrophe; the exodus, with its scenes of panic and bravery; and the ensuing focus on a small but growing nucleus of survivors who reach some kind of sanctuary in the country and prepare to re-establish man’s shaken dominion.’ – John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction

There are some things that we here in Britain like to think we do better than anyone else. Costume dramas. Glam rock. Jingoistic psychosis (especially when it comes to our chances in sporting events). And the End of the World. The catastrophe novel was one of the mainstays of British literary SF throughout the 20th century, ranging from J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (apocalypse by drought), to John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (apocalypse by famine), and going right back to Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London. Of course, in recent years American writers and filmmakers such as Stephen King and George Romero have done much interesting work in this genre, but it’s still enormously pleasing to see British storytellers return to the idea – as they do in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later.

Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland (author of The Beach – so he’s clearly a forgiving man), superficially resembles a transatlantic take on the subject, not least in that the disaster that destroys civilisation is a form of plague rather than a natural catastrophe. But it seemed to me that the major influence on this film was the most famous of the all the British post-apocalypse novels, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.

The film starts with a brief pre-credits sequence in which animal rights activists break into a lab with the intention of releasing chimpanzees that are being used as test subjects. Little do they realise the apes are infected with ‘rage’, a viral agent spread by blood and saliva, inducing a berserk, feral mania in those infected…

28 days later (hence the title) bike courier Jim (newcomer Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a London hospital – he was involved in a traffic accident some weeks earlier. The place seems deserted… and not just the hospital, the whole city. Early signs that some terrible disaster has occurred are confirmed when he is set upon by deranged, infected strangers… But he’s rescued by fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in about the rising tide of violence that swept away civilisation. Eventually they meet up with former taxi-driver Frank (Brendon Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), who have heard about a possible sanctuary, up north. But it turns out that the infected don’t hold the monopoly on irrational violence…

28 Days Later draws upon a number of sources: the infected hordes are a slightly more athletic take on George Romero’s rabid zombies (from Dawn of the Dead, etc), while another less explicit influence seems to have been The Omega Man (for one thing, to begin with Harris’ character dresses and acts like Rosalind Cash from that movie). But Wyndham (or at least, the catastrophe story as defined by Wyndham) seems to have supplied most of the inspiration (and certainly the opening). The coming together of survivors, the cheerful looting of shops, the abandonment of the city for a rural refuge, and the country house under siege: they’re all here, along with the vital conflict between pre-apocalypse morality and the needs of post-apocalypse survival.

I’ve always thought Danny Boyle to be a rather overrated and pretentious director but here he does a very good job indeed. His stylistic flourishes don’t get in the way of the story, and he handles the action sequences with aplomb. There are some startlingly big stunts in this movie, which basically blow Boyle’s cover: this film isn’t made on grainy digital video because it has a particularly low budget, but simply because Boyle likes the medium. It works to his advantage, though, giving some sequences an oddly dream- or nightmare-like quality, particularly those in the impressively-staged empty London.

Most of the performances are fine, too: Murphy is an engaging screen presence, as is Harris. Brendan Gleeson is particularly affecting as the concerned father. There are only a couple of off-key turns: Christopher Eccleston, normally so good, struggles to convince as an army officer determined to rebuild civilisation at any cost. And in the vital precredits sequence, the role of the scientist who explains the dangers of the ‘rage’ virus is played by David Schneider, a man best known for playing Alan Partridge’s stooge, with all the credibility problems that raises.

And, if we’re honest, telling this kind of story on film always has its problems, mainly in coming up with a ending that’s satisfying without seeming glib. Certainly 28 Days Later weakens near the end as it first turns into a more orthodox action-thriller, before abandoning its grim but coherent subtext (human beings are innately violent and self-destructive creatures) for an unlikely, hopeful conclusion. But these are minor flaws in an engaging and well-made film. It may not capture the existential dread and crushing sense of loss of the best of its literary antecedents, but this is still the best screen treatment of this genre in over twenty years. Recommended.

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You know, it’s a terrible thing to have to admit to, seeing as he’s practically been crowned the modern-day answer to Michael Powell, but more often than not I just don’t get Danny Boyle films. Even 28 Days Later, which is probably my favourite from the oeuvre, isn’t something I fully appreciated the first time I watched it. This isn’t a very fashionable thing to admit to, but normally I’d rather see a film starring Jason Statham than one directed by Danny Boyle.

Alas, my man J’s latest opus, The Mechanic, hasn’t shown up in Oxford yet – no Machete, and now no Mechanic, clearly the local film-bookers don’t appreciate knuckle-headed action movies – and so I went to see Boyle’s 127 Hours instead. This is another of those films gathering a bit of a buzz around it ahead of the awards season, so it has to have something about it, right?

James Franco plays Aron Ralston, in the true story of what happens to people who go outdoors by themselves too often. Ralston starts the film as an energetic and rather annoyingly cocky young man who opts to spend his weekend canyoning in a remote part of Utah. Unfortunately, he has a bit of a slip and ends up with his arm pinned under a rock, with very limited supplies, no contact with the rest of the world and the knowledge he hasn’t told anyone where he is. After 127 hours – see what they did there? – he uses a penknife to hack his arm off at the elbow and walks back to get some no-doubt urgently-required medical assistance.

Sorry if I spoiled the movie for you there. Everyone knows where this film is going, surely? Certainly my own experience of it was tinted from the start by my anticipation of what was going to happen: Something Bad was going to happen to Franco’s character, which would eventually lead to him doing Something Arguably Even Worse to himself.

Except it isn’t quite like that in the end. The sequences before and after the canyon are really just an extended prologue and epilogue to the meat of the film, which is Franco, his arm trapped, trying to come to terms with what’s happening and find a way out. It’s one character, with very limited mobility, in the same location for most of this film.

My issue with Danny Boyle as a director is his over-fondness for intrusive stylistic and cinematographic fireworks. When this suits the particular story he’s telling, the results can be extraordinary, but all too often he seems to be cramming them in just because he likes them, not because they’re appropriate to the subject-matter. Luckily, this story is crying out for that sort of thing. Even so, Boyle is relatively restrained and doesn’t go too far down the route of out-of-canyon dream sequences and flashbacks – instead, doing things like sticking the camera in odd places, such as inside Franco’s water bottle and so on.

Franco himself is excellent. In the past I have occasionally been sniffy about some of his performances (‘looks like he has wind throughout’ was, I believe, my considered opinion of his turn in Tristan + Isolde), but he’s utterly mesmeric here. Very quickly he wins your sympathy entirely, especially as he comes to realise what his predicament says about him as a person, and the final moments where – his former shell of cocky independence in smithereens – he cries out desperately for help are desperately moving.

Franco as Ralston, from near the start of the movie. Obviously.

Somewhere in there, of course, is the arm-hacking-off moment, which I for one enjoyed with my teeth clamped firmly around the strap of my backpack. It’s a deeply, deeply harrowing thing to watch, and Boyle doesn’t shy away from the full queasy ick of it. That said, the film does manage the remarkable feat of taking you to a place where Ralston’s decision seems wholly rational and you can even imagine yourself doing the same thing – self-mutilation really does seem like the least worst option in the situation.

While it doesn’t feature a balding ex-diver with a wandering accent taking off his shirt and kicking people in, 127 Hours is still a superb movie. It reminded me a lot of Touching the Void, another almost-unbelievable tale of human survival against the odds. The story is unforgettable, the direction does it full justice, and there’s a monumental performance from the lead actor. One to watch and marvel at, while you’re resolving never to set foot out of your house alone again.

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