Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kaila's Review of 127 Hours

When I first watched the trailer for 127 Hours, I asked myself: “Who on earth would want to sit through that?” I was sort of familiar with the story: an extreme sports enthusiast gets stuck in a cave, and 127 hours later, cuts his arm off to save his life. So what? And not helping matters was the fact that the largely one-man show was carried by James Franco, whom I find completely unlikable. However, after sitting through it, I’m glad that I did.

127 Hours is nowhere near as popular as Director Danny Boyle's previous hit Slumdog Millionaire. It’s not as fun, but it is just as uplifting and arguably contains more substance - and humour - than his blockbuster did. Nominated for six Oscars, the film chronicles Aaron Ralston's fight to survive after having his arm pinned between a boulder and a canyon wall. I expected it would be a much more self-indulgent exercise, I mean obviously this can only end one way, and I wondered how the story would possibly keep me engaged for its duration. But it wasn't self-indulgent and it did engage me. And despite my special distaste for James Franco, he was ultimately a perfect fit for what was a fascinating and intimate examination of one man pushed to the very brink.

While some can argue that Franco had little to do besides react to his extraordinary circumstances, I couldn’t disagree more; his disintegration was slow and subtle, his amusement and frustration finally dissolving into pure fear. I loved watching the narcissistic Ralston lose his cool – and ultimately his handle of the cool-guy image he’d been working so hard to perfect. His deterioration had me hoping – and nearly believing - that one of his many attempts to save himself before his inevitable amputation would actually succeed. There is even a moment in the film in which Ralston escapes intact. Initially I was so excited I thought perhaps they’d just re-written the story to make the film more palatable, but it turned out to be an effective dream sequence designed to make my experience as a viewer, similar to that of Ralston himself. It was the unfortunate assumption - inherent to most of us - that everything will always work out. It helped me better understand his experience and allowed me to connect with a character that I initially had no remorse for. It is not that I really liked Ralston by the end of the film, but I was still really glad that he lived and was able to apply the lessons he learned to what was essentially his new life.

Like most of Boyle’s work, there is a distinct energy about this film. It moves quickly, despite the fact the main character is, you know, stuck under a rock. because the film is never trapped by its own one-room format. I tend to despise any film with a countdown, when the audience knows that certain ground has to be covered or certain items have to be collected in order to conclude the adventure. It can be such a tedious device, and even though we spent more than five days with Ralston at the bottom of a canyon, I was never bored. Boyle lets Ralston explore the past and the present and even has him visualize his future. Sure, it’s heavily stylized, and relies greatly on some wonderful editing, but it works well most of the time. It is a Danny Boyle film after all. But credit must also be given to the impressive team that he assembled to work on this film, not the least of which is Oscar Award Winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The two have been collaborating successfully for some time and it shows. The film was breathtaking to look at. I’ve never been to locations like those featured in 127 Hours, and several of the shots were epic in scope, underlining just how helpless and isolated Ralston was, and how his limitless arrogance had finally met its match in mother nature. Despite these wonderful scenes, I preferred the quieter moments, like the ones featuring Ralston and his barely acknowledged ex-girlfriend, played by Clémence Poésy. In a series of short flash-backs very little dialogue was spoken, but a great deal was communicated. I didn’t need to know Ralston’s entire history to understand the kind of person that he was, and how he was changing as he slowly began to understand what was happening to him and how - for perhaps the first time in his life - he couldn’t outrun his part in his own destiny.

The frenetic energy of the editing worked in most cases, but I really disliked the hand-held and helmet cam shots while Ralston was initially exploring the canyon. I found those moments harder to stomach than the actual amputation itself. In an early review I read about what was to become my favourite sequence. In it, Ralston manages to entertain himself by playing with his camcorder and creating a morning interview show in which he is the only guest. This sequence was skillfully arranged by Editor Jon Harris, well-known for his other works such as Snatch and Kick-Ass. Franco was framed in two distinctly different ways while portraying both his character of the obnoxious host and of himself, so the distinction was obvious. The use of sound editing made this sequence truly effective, the canned sound effects and foley seamlessly wove it all together. In fact, the sound editing overall is excellent – especially the use of vibration when Ralston has to sever the nerve in his arm; that moment lingered with me for days.

Ralston himself stands behind the film’s authenticity, stating publicly that the only discrepancy was that he did not actually go swimming with the two girls that he met at the beginning of the film. I suppose you can argue that Ralston was asking for it, and that this makes you wonder if there is any value in telling a story about a guy doing something stupid that could have been completely avoided if he had any common sense. But to me this film is a reminder that everyone - no matter what the calibre of their character- is capable of change and evolution, and there is great value in exploring that. Ralston has now gained much more than he lost in that crevice. He left with a better understanding of how frail we all are and with the invaluable respect that his and all life deserves.

I am a big proponent of films with messages, and what I love so much about this movie is that you don’t have to get stuck in a canyon all by your lonesome self to gain the same perspective. Some people might think that Ralston's revelations were flimsy, that remembering others more and being less selfish is so obvious, but I think that these are the simple acts that are so often elude most of us and result in an unfulfilled life. I liked living vicariously through this character, especially because I got to keep my arm in the end.

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