127 Hours(11/19/2010)

            I’ll be the first to admit that I underestimated Danny Boyle.  The main reason I did mostly had to do with the fact that his breakout film, Trainspotting, felt like one in a incredibly long line of films that were trying very hard to replicate the energy and style of Quentin Tarentino.  I’m pretty hostile toward Tarentino imitators, largely because they give a bad name to the real McCoy, but I was dead wrong to lump Boyle in with the Guy Richies of the world.  The fact that his immediate follows to Trainspotting (A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach) were both widely regarded as flawed and the fact that some of his better later movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine had serious third-act problems.  But in the last four years he seems to have perfected his style and has been on a real role.  I loved Sunshine in spite of its unusual ending and while I might not have agreed that Slumdog Millionaire was deserving of an Oscar, it was certainly a very likable and energetic film.  Now in 2010 Boyle’s has put out what might be his best movie yet, 127 Hours, the first great film of his that doesn’t seem to have some kind of central flaw that I need to overlook.

            The film tells the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a hiker who found himself trapped at the bottom of a Utah canyon with his right arm wedged between a large rock and the canyon wall.  The story was well circulated through the media and I’m not going to hesitate from talking about how the ordeal ends; he had to cut off his own arm with a dull pocket knife after five days in order to escape alive.  I don’t know about most people, but I don’t know how desperate and delirious I’d have to be in order to reach the point where I could do that, this movie is all about what would lead someone to that place.  It’s also about a young man who comes to learn something about himself over the course of the five days in that anyone, about his strengths and about the weaknesses that led him to this point in the first place.

            There’s a lot to admire about 127 Hours but I particularly adored the film’s first reel.  This short stretch of time shows Ralston beginning his ill-fated hike, meeting two attractive young lady hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) and bringing them on a little mini-adventure into an underground pool at the bottom of another area of the canyon.  This section is brilliantly able to introduce this character and tell us what he’s all about; that he’s a cocky but capable adventurer who’s ultimately rather charming and good hearted.  It also shows the positive side of the hobby that eventually leads him to grave injury, without a look at just how rewarding that wilderness adventuring can be for this guy you’d have a lot less sympathy for his predicament.

            Once we finally get to the point where Ralston is trapped, the film becomes a one man show, but not dogmatically so.  When I first heard about this project I envisioned a very raw and sparse movie along the lines of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, but Boyle has instead delivered the polar opposite of this.  The film uses all variety of technical tricks like split screen, tricky cuts, manifested hallucinations, flashbacks, and it does it all without feeling like some kind of gimmicky music video.  The film is mostly uninterested in accentuating either the claustrophobia or isolation of his predicament the way that the film Buried did earlier this year with a similar one-man premise.  This is a really smart move, we already know everything we need to know about the horror of this situation by the sight of Ralston’s arm crushed by a boulder, we didn’t need more and the tricks that Boyle has employed serve both to bring out the psychological aspects of his distress.  What’s more, Boyle seems to have really perfected his energetic style at this point, and this is bravura filmmaking of the kind that it likely takes a career to develop. 

            James Franco also proved to be an inspired choice to play Ralston, as he has just the right mix of legitimate acting chops and a sort of party-boy personality that’s inherent in the character.  Probably the best thing he’s able to do is make Ralston, a character who easily could have come off as a reckless prick, into a genuinely likable personality that you want to see come out of his situation relatively unscathed.  Once he’s in the canyon pinned under the rock, he’s able to bring all the pain and horror of that situation into his performance but he’s able to do it without constantly screaming and yelling.  A lot of actors are given kudos for their restraint when they’re in quiet costume dramas, but it would seem to be even harder to show restraint when you’re playing someone in a situation as extreme as this, and that kind of restraint is exactly what Franco shows here.  There’s an especially amazing scene in which Ralston is talking into a camcorder that he had brought along, and in a semi-delirious state begins interviewing himself as if he was a guest on a talk show.  Franco brings just the right balance of madness and introspection into this scene; it’s a master-class for a quickly developing performer.

            One thing that’s been a near constant throughout the career of Danny Boyle has been excellent music, whether it’s come in the form of a classic assembled soundtrack (Trainspotting) or in the form of an amazing score (28 Days Later, Sunshine), and this is no exception.  The music was composed by A.R. Rahman, the man behind Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar winning score.  It was a choice of composer that genuinely baffled me when I heard about it, but it’s actually an inspired choice; Rahman proves here that he’s a versatile musician capable of much more than simply adding Bollywood flair to movies about India.  Rahman has made a score that’s heavy on acoustic guitars and unafraid of electronic additions, it’s not unlike what he did for Slumdog, but in a western context.  I’m not usually one to rave about scores, but this one really jumped out at me, it created a genuine sense of menace throughout and really helped the movie out.  If that weren’t enough, Boyle also adds in some really inspired popular music cues into the film that make this even better as a musical experience.

            There seem to have been a lot of these stories of real life doomed adventurers recently.  I already mentioned the Gus Van Sant film Gerry, which is partly a stylistic exercise and partly a story about people reaching a much more destructive point after a comparably long period of desperation.  The movie that this is much more likely to be compared to is Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.  That film covered a much longer portion of its protagonist’s life, and led up to his ultimate demise trapped in a remote section of Alaska.  By the end of that film its protagonist reached a point where he realized that he had made a mistake and had he survived he likely would have come out of it stronger.  127 Hours is a movie about someone who did get that opportunity.  As compelling as it can be as a survival story and as a thriller of sorts, it’s real strength is as a character study about a man who comes to realize that as strong as he can be, he’s not invincible.  This makes it all the more triumphant when he’s finally able to yell “I need help” near the film’s end.  Though he comes out of his situation maimed, we know that’s not the only way he’s changed.

**** out of Four

Never Let Me Go(10/23/2010)

            Next year MTV is going to be having its thirtieth anniversary, meaning that music videos have been in the mainstream for even longer than that.  That medium isn’t exactly flourishing anymore, as the network that made them famous has decided to move their focus to crappy reality shows, but they still sort of live on via Youtube.  In the thirty years that  this medium has existed we’ve seen dancing zombies, a pep rally from hell, Tupac chilling in a post-apocaliptic wasteland with Dr. Dre, and a wide variety of other iconic images.  More to the point, we’ve also seen the rise of a lot of A-list directors who sharpened their teeth making these promotional clips.  Among these ranks are David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry.  Despite the fact that music videos have birthed all of these respected careers, when people think of music video directors the first thing that comes to mind is overly fast editing and pointless visual tricks.  This reputation isn’t entirely undeserved, after all this medium has given us a lot of Platinum Dunes caliber hacks as well as a lot of people like McG, but it’s still an unnecessary generalization.  I feel that way more than ever now that I’ve seen Never Let Me Go, a film that’s not without its problems but which is as devoid of the “MTV style” as a movie can possibly be.

            Never Let Me Go is a film which has a twist of sorts very early into its runtime, so early that it’s impossible to adequately discuss the film without giving away this twist.  As such this is to be considered a spoiler review, read at your own risk.  The film more or less fits into the sci-fi subgenre of alternate history, in that it technically takes place in the past, but one that has be altered by the introduction of a fictional science fiction element.  In this case the film, set in Britain from the 60s through the 90s, examines what the world would be like had we invented perfect human cloning in the 1950s. Specifically it postulates that in this world clones would have been bred in order for their organs to be donated at a young age, thus allowing human life expectancy to be greatly expanded.    This is told from the perspective of one of these clones named Kathy (Carey Mulligan), who’s being educated at a school called Hailsham, which appears to be a very traditional English boarding school but which has a very strange curriculum.  She meets a boy named Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who she forms a very close friendship with.  It feels like there’s a childhood romance brewing, but in the end he drifts toward her friend Ruth (Keira Knightley).  What could be a sweet tale of youthful romance is instead shadowed by the specter of tragedy to come; these people will all be forced to “donate” their organs and will likely die before the age of forty.

            In crude terms, Never Let Me Go is like Atonement meets Logan’s Run… emphasis heavily on Atonement, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Though the film can be called Science Fiction, it certainly isn’t an action movie; it’s a prestige drama based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, whose other famous adaptation was an excellent Merchant Ivory production called The Remains of the Day.  This film probably could have been shot by James Ivory as well; it’s a film that’s really stylistically restrained almost to a fault.  Aside from some pretty cool art direction reminiscent of the future-naturalism of Children of Men, and a couple of good uses of natural lighting, one could hardly tell that this is being made by a vital modern music video maestro and not… well, James Ivory.  I mentioned Atonement before, and this is remarkably similar to that movie, but even that had a cool single shot scene on Dunkirk Beach, while this seemed to go out of its way to avoid trickery.  There are merits to this approach, but I couldn’t help but wonder if more energy could have been injected with a less traditional approach.

            The performances her are certainly very good.  We’re given three of Britain’s most promising young actors and all of them do a fine job with the material.  Carey Mulligan in particular is really strong here and she totally makes good on the promise she showed in An Education.  Keira Knightley is also really good in the movie, she’s a real talent and I don’t much like the poor reputation she’s gotten in the wake of her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.  Yeah, she didn’t necessarily burn up the screen in that movie, but she didn’t really have much to work with, those kind of franchises are an unfortunate necessity for young actors in Hollywood and she’s a lot better in movies like this and the aforementioned Atonement.  Andrew Garfield is also very good here and he’s continuing an extremely good year with this performance.  This is probably the best work I’ve seen from the guy and I’m beginning to believe the hype.

            I certainly appreciated the craft of the film and the melancholy tone that Mark Romanek was able to create, but I can’t quite say the movie completely worked for me and the root of the problem is that I could never really believe the science fiction world of the film.  That the film’s central concept is really unsettling is an understatement, the ethics of creating a class of organ incubating slaves is horrifying.  What’s really scary is that I could picture human society as willing to go to these lengths too, people have proven through the ages that they’re more than willing to live on the backs of the less fortunate classes.  What I cannot buy is the lack of blowback that this society receives for what they’ve created.  There’s no real sign of any kind of resistance in the background, there are no clone abolitionists, there’s no underground railroad for these clones, no clone suicide bombers, and the idea of escape never seems to occur to the characters.  In fact these people seem almost oblivious to the fact that their lot in life is fubar.  They just accept their fate like a bunch of English butlers and march towards the inevitable. 

What I wanted was some sign of resistance, even futile resistance, on the part of these clones or at least some better explanation as to why they’re putting up with the evil being perpetrated against them.   Part of me realizes that what I’m asking for is the Hollywood interpretation of this story and that the people who made it would say that their nihilistic take on this world is more realistic.  I beg to differ; this is one of those rare circumstances where I think the Hollywood take on storytelling is more true to life.  If history has shown us nothing it’s that society cannot treat people like garbage and not expect some consequences.  Usually the ruling class will ultimately win in struggles against the oppressed, but they’re going to at least get their hands dirty in the process.  That’s not present here and there seemed to be something profoundly wrong about that to me.

Ultimately, this is a strange movie.  What it feels like is a historical movie about a past injustice.  Something like Brokeback Mountain, where you see people tragically split by an injustice which makes you want to do something about the topic at hand… then you remember that the social issue at the center of the film is not and never was real.  I don’t know why these filmmakers and authors have spent this much time and effort trying to point out the injustice of a fictional issue, and the results are mixed.  I’d recommend the movie for its mastery of tone and the acting, but the whole thing just never really quite feels right.

*** out of Four