Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave”: A Macabre Modern Classic

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Danny Boyle’s debut feature, “Shallow Grave,” still packs a punch, and I was thrilled to see it released by the Criterion Collection last year. I wrote this piece for buffalospree.com upon the film’s Blu-ray release. Incidentally, I would probably put Boyle’s most recent film, “Trance,” in the No. 8 spot.

Winning an Oscar for Best Director is all well and good, but I don’t think Scotsman Danny Boyle moved into the rarified realm of true Big-Name Directors ™ until July 27. That was the night he unleashed his crazed vision of the Olympics opening ceremony to the world. Broadcasting live from London, it was a wild bit of pomp, circumstance, and interesting musical selections—everything from the Sex Pistols to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. (It should be noted that NBC cut to a commercial just as the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” began rumblin’.)

I found it all a bit confused, while also a pretty fantastic spectacle, and easily more memorable than any other opening ceremonies I’ve ever seen. (The persecuted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, subject of the very good recent documentary “Ai Waiwei: Never Sorry,”wrote an insightful piece for the Guardian comparing the ceremonies in London and Beijing: “In London there were more close-ups—it didn’t show the big formations. It had the human touch.”)

What a strange, fun diversion, and what a fascinating figure Boyle is. Case in point: “Shallow Grave.” His big-screen debut has finally returned to home video (is that a dated way to put it?) in a gorgeous, deluxe Criterion Collection Blu-ray that should bring the film—a solid success in America upon release—a whole new audience. (Interestingly, MGM released the film on DVD in 2000, with an odd, horror-film cover, but it went out-of-print. I always kicked myself for not picking it up.)

It’s not the most original of stories, really: Three roommates find a suitcase of money (you’ll see how), and, well … I hate to say much, other than to say that it’s clearly a cinematic descedent of the Coen Bros.’ “Blood Simple,” along with the great “Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

If you’ve seen “Grave” before, the memories rush back quickly, starting with the opening credits, set to Leftfield’s throbbing “Shallow Grave.” More thoughts:

• It’s fun, if a bit startling, to see how young Ewan McGregor looks. While Ewan clearly became the bigger star, it’s nice to see how busy Christopher Eccleston is these days, especially since he steals the movie; he’s just been cast as the villain in “Thor 2.”

• There is no better scene of the three roommates’ inherent cruelty than the visit from prospective roommate Cameron. Alex (McGregor) picks apart his lack of “presence, charisma, style, and charm,” sending Cameron running, and the roommates laughing. They’re like the co-op board from hell.

• What became of Kerry Fox? I see a lengthy resume online, but I wonder if she ever had the chance to bite into something as meaty as her role here.

• The new roommate, Hugo? Played by Keith Allen, also known as the father of Lily Allen, and the cowriter of New Order’s “World in Motion.”

• One of the Blu-ray’s most fun features is also its shortest: a kinetic teaser for “Trainspotting” that was created to tie in with “Grave”’s video release. Talk about a solid debut and and follow-up …

It’s tack-sharp, wonderfully sour film, and I applaud the Criterion folks for rightly calling attention to this modern classic. It ranks highly in the Boyle oeuvre, without question. How high? Without further ado, my top-to-bottom Boyle breakdown:

1. “Trainspotting”: Boyle’s one true classic, and a film that had a profound impact upon yours truly.

2. “127 Hours”: My pick for the best film of TIFF 2010, “Hours” came in at No. 6 on my top ten list for that year.

3. “Shallow Grave”: See above.

4. “Slumdog Millionaire”: A joyous film that does not feel as fresh as it did years ago—but how could it?

5. “28 Days Later”: I wonder if “Days” feels as sharp now as it did upon release … It’s certainly proven to be an influential bit of modern horror.

6. “Sunshine”: A fascinating, gorgeous film that I’ve never loved quite as much as I felt I should.

7. “The Beach”: An underrated movie that had the misfortune of arriving at the tail-end of Leo-mania. It does have one major flaw, changing the far superior ending of Alex Garland’s book for something altogether more “meh.”

8. “Millions”: A sweet, solid, unmemorable film.

9. “A Life Less Ordinary”: Even Boyle’s worst film has its moments, and a great soundtrack. (Every Boyle movie has a great soundtrack.)

Read This: Want an Extreme Close-Up of Ewan McGregor’s Tats? Thank Kat Von D

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Last Sunday, I had my first book review in the Buffalo News in several weeks, and it was a book that surprised me. I would not normally be seeking out anything authored by Kat Von D … But I must admit, I dug it. Read on:

A pop culture pop quiz: Kat Von D is chiefly known for: a.) starring on a popular reality show; b.) having a name that sounds like a disease affecting kittens; c.) being covered with tattoos; d.) having dated fellow reality TV star and national villain Jesse James after his Sandra Bullock break-up, a figure who is to healthy relationships what Amanda Bynes is to rational behavior; or e.) all of the above.

The answer, of course, is all of the above, but now we can add something else, a book for which Von D deserves real praise. The aptly titled “Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing,” written with Sandra Bark, is a 200-page, gorgeously photographed chronicle of tattoo art, and it is a surprisingly involving read.

Kat might be the world’s most renowned tattoo artist. Her cable reality series, “LA Ink,” ran for five seasons, she has authored two best-selling books, and, according to her bio, she even created a makeup line for Sephora, the sweetest-smelling store in many a mall.

“Go Big or Go Home,” interestingly, is less about her, and more about turning the spotlight on others. Call it “Chicken Soup for the Tattooed Soul,” a series of essays in which Kat introduces the reader to some of her clients, discusses their life stories, explains the whys behind their body art, and argues that a tattoo can be truly empowering.

Thanks to the book’s genuinely fascinating portraits, I believe her, despite the fact that I am tattoo-free, and probably always will be – I have difficulty deciding on lunch, let alone what to slap on my arms for the rest of my days.

Consider the case of “Jeffree Star,” an ultra-glam, pink-haired, heavily made-up individual who Kat memorably introduces like so: “Oh Jeffree! Where do I even begin?” Jefree “isn’t afraid of things most people find perturbing. In fact,” Kat explains, “embracing and seeing them as life lessons as opposed to curses are his gift.”

Jeffree’s chest features the faces of Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain (wearing a crown of thorns, with the words “RAPE ME” underneath), and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-era Audrey Hepburn, along with the Mona Lisa, the shark from “Jaws,” and, in a nod to Danny Torrance (and Stanley Kubrick), “REDRUM.”

So far, so relatively normal. But, Kat writes, “With the exception of the Spice Girls … the subjects of Jeffree’s obsession seemed to lean toward portraits of tragic icons.” Wait – the Spice Girls aren’t tragic icons? I suppose not, when compared with JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, Sharon Tate and Elizabeth Short, a.k.a., the Black Dahlia.

On paper, these all sound strange, and, well, they are a bit strange. But Kat sees them as essential to Jeffree’s sense of self. “There is,” she says, “something liberating about embracing your own uniqueness.” She does not delve deeply into Jeffree’s past, but she does indicate that the struggles of his past led to the art adorning his body:

“I think being picked on and even bullied at times for being gay or dressing differently is a big part of why he’s been so outward with his self-expression: his loud hairstyles, extreme makeup, and even all the tattoos he’s collected quickly over these past few years.”

“Duh,” some might say. But “Go Big or Go Home” shouts down that attitude, with authority. Plus, Kat’s got celebrity on her side. One chapter focuses on Obi-Wan himself, Ewan McGregor, and while I had always imagined Ewan with a giant tattoo of the worst toilet in Scotland on his bicep, what he actually has is far more personal:

“His virgin skin was permanently marked with art that represented the most important things in his life, his wife, Eve, and their three daughters. When Ewan and Eve eventually added a fourth little girl to their family, he wanted to add her name to his tattoo.”

It’s an impressive creation, likely the kind of thing that causes nightmares for Hollywood makeup artists. But while the celeb cameos are fun – also included are Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, songwriter Linda Perry, and comedian-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait – it is the “real” people whose stories stand out.

The text is simple, and sometimes surprisingly elegant, but the images are what make “Go Big or Go Home” a worthy creation. Each tattoo tells a story, for the tattooed and for the artist, and even if the book will likely draw in only those already invested in the world of ink, it should still be considered a success.

At the very least, Kat Von D has demonstrated why a tattoo is never simply a tattoo. See that guy, with Alfred Hitchcock on his calf? Yep, there’s a story there.

“Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing”

By Kat Von D

Harper Collins

208 pages, $29.99