Monday, November 15, 2010

Going Extreme With 127 HOURS

127 HOURS Review:

- With 127 HOURS, director Danny Boyle continues his streak of being one of the most visually dynamic, emotionally engaging storytellers working in movies today. 127 Hours is one of the most gripping, intense movies you will see this year. It's expertly directed by Boyle, and features one of actor James Franco's career-best performances. It can be hard to watch at times, no question (the couple sitting next to me in the theater actually got up and left 3/4 through the film - I thought this was a cop out on their part, but hey, I guess they just couldn't deal). There are, of course, certain scenes (and if you know the basic story, I'm sure you can guess which ones) that are guaranteed to have you squirming in your seat. Me, I have a hard time watching any sort of realistic gore, and so I literally had to look away from the screen, or else peer through half-squinted eyes, during those key moments. But, those moments of unflinching brutality are probably necessary to the movie. Boyle is telling a story of survival, and it's a story that works best, and is ultimately most triumphant, if we as an audience are right there with our protaganist. It's the story of Aron Ralston, a guy who's serious about the outdoors, but who nonetheless can be fairly reckless in his various adventures. It's a story about what happens when Aron gets trapped in a narrow canyone enclave and finds that he can't get free, because his arm is pinned by a boulder. But, as told by Boyle and co., it's a story of the human spirit, of the will to survive, of the choices one has to make in the most extreme of circumstances. 127 Hours could easily have become tedious, but Boyle, ever the visual wizard, gives the story so much cinematic flair and thematic depth that it ends up becoming more than the sum of its parts.

The narrative of the film is fairly simple. We meet Aron as he sets out for his hike, but immediately, we see clues as to his hastiness in leaving - unreturned voicemails from his mom, a deliberately vague answer when a coworker asks where he's going for the weekend, and his failure to pack a Swiss army knife in favor of a less-effective multi-tool. From moment one though, Boyle infuses the movie with his trademark visual flair - giving those opening scenes a music video-like quality, as images dart back and forth on the screen as thumping music plays in the background. Later, we get a sense for Aron's hyperactive, friendly, slightly quirky personality, when he runs into a couple of cute girls while on his solo hike. Aron plays the part of trail guide, showing the girls (nice turns from Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) a cool underground pool, among other things. Again, Boyle uses these scenes not just to establish Aron's outgoing personality, but also as an ominous sort of foreshadowing. Very quickly, we see that Aron is a well-meaning guy, but also pretty flippant when it comes to issues of safety and caution.

Once the film gets the story at its core - Aron trapped with his arm pinned - that's when it really becomes the James Franco show. Ever since his star-making turn on Freaks & Geeks, Franco has been one of the most interesting and versatile actors in Hollywood - one of the few able to seamlessly go from drama to comedy - or, in this case, to meld both with ease. I think Franco pulls it off because he has legit acting chops, but also because he has a unique combination of movie star charisma and regular-Joe believability. Franco plays Aron as smart and uniquely capable of dealing with his precarious circumstances, but he also gives him a funny streak, and has him cope with his predicament with some very amusing black humor. Aron has his handheld camcorder with him throughout his ordeal, and the messages that he records are alternately moving, insightful, and hilarious. It's always going to be difficult for an actor to pull something like this off and to keep an audience engaged, but Franco does it, no question.

Meanwhile, you have Danny Boyle pulling out every trick in the book to make a relatively small-scale story feel dynamic and epic. Crazy POV shots from inside Aron's water bottle, sweeping shots of the canyons where Aron had been hiking, and even sped-up flashes to his car, where we come to the heartbreaking realization that there's a full bottle of Gatorade inside that Aron neglected to take with him. Boyle also uses a number of flashes to Aron's past and present and future (sometimes through the device of Aron's fevered hallucinations) to give parts of the film a dream-like, surrealist edge. But make no mistake, key moments of the film are given to us straight-up, no tricks - and that makes those killer moments all the more brutal, intense, and painful ... and conversely, it means that the big moments of triumph are that much sweeter.

All that being said, I probably wouldn't rank this one at the very top of the Danny Boyle cannon, alongside classics like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire. I think that Boyle does a fantastic job with the story he has to work with, but at the end of the day, the story remains pretty simple. The film seems aware of this, and keeps the running time fairly quick. But, you do sometimes feel like Boyle is grasping at straws to make this particular story feel as layered and complex as ones he's told in the past, when ultimately it just isn't. There's nothing wrong with a simple story told well - I just think the limitations of this particular story help keep 127 Hours from going to that next level of greatness.

As is though, this is one of the real must-see films of 2010. I think awards talk for James Franco is definitely warranted, and maybe for Danny Boyle as well. Unquestionably, he remains one of the absolute best filmmakers working today, and this is yet another movie from him that elevates the material to a level that few others could manage. Just remember: don't be afraid to avert your eyes during the really graphic parts - there's no shame in it, says I. And this is a movie, I think, that's well worth getting through all that to experience.

My Grade: A-

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