Saturday, April 9, 2011

127 Hours

For many people, 127 Hours suffered from what I like to call "Titanic Syndrome."  Basically, just because you know the ending of a film based on a true story, you assume that the movie isn't worth watching.  For example, why watch Tom Cruise inevitably fail to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie?  Where's the suspense when we all know that Hitler escaped Germany and lived out his days peacefully in the jungles of Brazil?  Even 127 Hours director Danny Boyle admitted (no spoiler alert) that everyone knows that this movie will end with the main character cutting his own arm off.  Hearing a director that I admire admit that convinced me not to watch this movie.  But then, I started hearing some reactions from people after the DVD hit stores, and they typically went something like, "I didn't think I would like it, but..."  So I decided to give it a shot, and I'm so glad I did.

The story begins with Aron Ralston (James Franco) preparing for a weekend of biking and hiking and climbing in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.  Going just about anywhere in Utah means that you're not going to see a lot of people, but this is a large park that is four hours away from Salt Lake City; if you want to get lost in Utah, there's probably not a better spot.  That's okay, though, because Aron is a hard core adventurer.  If the guide book says it should take two hours to get somewhere by the established trails, Aron's going to try and cut that time in half by trailblazing his own path.  The only thing that slows Aron down is a pair of lost, but attractive, lady hikers; he takes them where they need to go (and then convinces them to do some crazy stuff), but is soon back on track in his quest to reach Blue John Canyon.  Now, when you think of hiking, you probably imagine a person walking, except it's uphill.  Aron's version of hiking involves running and jumping off of rocks and canyon walls.  Surprisingly (to me, anyway), Aron does take some logical precautions as he hikes (he tests how much weight rocks and branches can bear, etc.), but it turns out that his forethought is not enough.  While descending a narrow chasm in the canyon, where the walls of solid rock are so close together that boulders are suspended in the air, Aron accidentally dislodges a large rock and tumbles down the chasm.  He lands safely enough, but the rock fell with him and landed on his arm.  The rock is too heavy to lift, and it's wedged in pretty tight.  With limited provisions and no rescue on the way --- he's hard core, so he didn't tell anyone where he was hiking --- Aron is left with one desperate choice.  Of course, it takes him about 127 hours to finally get around to it.
The working title for the film was "Well, what?"
Director Danny Boyle deserves major kudos for making a film where the main character is stuck in one spot for two-thirds of the entire movie.  That might sound like a recipe for a boring movie, but Boyle keeps things interesting with a lot of camera movement and styles, as well as a good use of flashbacks.  I've always been a big fan of Boyle, but the fact that he is able to make a visually interesting movie in such a claustrophobic space is nothing less than astounding to me.  And that's just the camera work!  Boyle got a genuinely great performance out of James Franco, an actor that is usually only fun to watch when he's playing a stoner, in a movie that relied entirely on his performance.  I'm impressed, Mr. Boyle.

Of course, James Franco deserves credit for his performance, too.  I'm not usually a Franco-phile, but he turns in a surprisingly good performance in an extremely difficult role.  This movie is all about his character, and he's in almost every second of the movie, and is the focal point of every scene.  I assumed that this would be one of those stereotypical Oscar-baiting roles, where an actor pretends to be handicapped, cries a lot, is Sean Penn, or all of the above.  Instead, Franco treats us to a character that, while kind of goofy, is extremely likable.  There is a supporting cast in the film, too, but they aren't around for much.  Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara are fine as the cute girls that Aron Ralston thrills early in the film.  Clemence Poesy (who you might remember from the Harry Potter series) is okay as Aron's lover that we see in flashbacks.  I'm not entirely sure how much acting was required of Treat Williams, Kate Burton, or Lizzy Caplan as they played largely dialogue-free parts in Aron's flashbacks and hallucinations.

What makes this a special movie is its tone.  It kind of reminds me of seeing the Flaming Lips live in concert; their music is kind of melancholy and sad, but is transformed in concert into a fantastic, life-affirming experience.
Confetti = Good times?  Yes, if you're not cleaning up.
This movie works in kind of the same way.  I had heard all kinds of horror stories about people leaving theaters because the arm cutting scene was too intense for them, and the idea of watching someone saw through himself for two hours was not terribly appealing to me.  But it's not like that at all.  Yes, the dude cuts his arm off, but that's only about four out of ninety minutes.  Yes, it will probably make you squirm a little, but it's not that gory.  It's not a super-sad movie, either.  The first fifteen minutes are pretty fun, and the flashbacks keep the mood from getting too depressing.  The rest of the time focuses on the struggles Aron has as he tries a variety of ways to save his arm.  Instead of focusing on the loss of an arm, this movie focuses on the story of a man saving his own life.

My criticisms for the film are pretty small, but they mean a lot to me.  As much as I enjoyed Danny Boyle's direction, I wish he had put more purpose or meaning behind his variety of camera angles.  It's a small gripe, I know, but it can make the difference between good and masterful direction.  Boyle is at the point in his career where every movie he makes is potentially a classic (in my mind, anyway), so to see him not put the extra effort into having different camera angles imply different emotions is disappointing for me.  My other "complaint" regards the climax of the film; yes, it's emotional, but I think they could have cranked it up a few more notches and still not have come anywhere near melodrama.  Like I said, they're small gripes, but I think they're valid points.

That doesn't change the fact that this is a very good movie with a surprisingly good performance by James Franco.  You don't often spend an entire movie watching one character barely move, but this is definitely worth a watch.

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