Director Danny Boyle's new film 127 Hours has been generating Oscar buzz for several months now, especially for James Franco's performance as Aron Ralston, a 28-year old engineer whose right arm was pinned by a falling boulder during a remote solo hike in Utah's Canyonlands National Park. Running low on food and water, far from any passing hikers and with no one knowing his whereabouts, Ralston is forced to do the unthinkable with a dull multi-tool. You probably know the next part. If you don't know, guess.
And to be perfectly honest, I really don't understand what the big deal is.
127 Hours is a fine movie -- fine as in decent, pretty good, OK. I think it would be a more difficult accomplishment to mess up a true story this compelling, especially with a scenario that any person with appendages could imagine themselves in. Most of us have probably contemplated it in some form or another during the sort of "Would you rather _____ or _____?" gross-out conversations kids (and many adults) have. So it's easy for viewers of any demographic, culture, nationality, or language to have sympathy for and be interested in Ralston's predicament. Again, it strikes me as being fairly difficult to not induce such a reaction.
Franco, certainly one of the most talented actors of his generation, does a good job capturing Ralston's terrifying experience. Good as in he conveys how being alone with your arm trapped for a long time would be very scary, with moments of regret, contemplation, sadness, frustration, dark humor, fantasy, desperation, etc. -- basically what you'd imagine someone/anyone/you would probably feel in the same situation. For example, you'd probably feel pretty dumb if you went hiking without telling anyone where you were going, got your arm stuck, and had to chop it off because no one knew to look for you. So did Ralston. Franco shows Ralston feeling dumb.
I can think of some other actors who would have also done a good job playing Ralston, such as Tobey Maguire, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul Dano, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. To be honest, I can think of a lot of mediocre actors who would probably excel when given such a meaty role, like Chris O'Donnell, Matthew McConaughey, Ashton Kutcher, or Shia LeBouef. In fact, I imagine you could find at least one actor in most acting classes who could handle this role, especially with video of Ralston while he was trapped, a book detailing his ordeal, and hours of interviews to use as a reference. I imagine one-man plays of Ralston's saga have been attempted more than once in America's small theaters and colleges, and some of them were probably decent. I imagine you could find many talented high school actors who could do a good job of playing Aron Ralston.
You know who else does a good job of acting scared and desperate in scary and desperate situations? Every actor in every Saw movie. While a lot of people have a lot of reasons why they don't like the Saw movies, that reason is rarely that the actors don't seem scared and desperate enough.
Franco does a good job. I think he did a much better, more interesting job playing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in this year's superior but little-seen film, Howl. (Watch my ReThink Review of Howl below.)
Danny Boyle is a talented, energetic director, fond of fast, sometimes overly flashy editing and a willingness to put the camera anywhere, including extreme close-ups within the straw of Ralston's Camelback as he drinks his own urine. These shots are somewhat (okay, very) reminiscent of the extreme close-ups within the heroin syringe Boyle used in Trainspotting and Darren Aronofsky used in Requiem for a Dream. Sometimes Boyle's style and his creative portrayal of Alston's flashbacks, hallucinations, fantasies and terrors works and sometimes it doesn't. I can imagine a lot of non-Oscar-winning directors who would've done a decent job directing 127 Hours. I can also imagine some mediocre, hack, and amateur directors who could, too, achieving a few moments of genuine creativity and inspiration and failing at others, just as Boyle does. After all, it's a movie where 95% of it takes place in a narrow canyon -- you've got to mix it up somehow, and some of those attempts are bound to be cool, if only by accident. I would respect 127 Hours a lot more if it had been made by a scrappy, no-budget indie crew instead of a red-hot, Oscar-winning director with all the money and talent in the world at his disposal. But the no-budget crew could never afford the rights to Alston's book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place", which 127 Hours is based on.
The cinematography inside and outside the canyon looks good. You know who else would make that look good? Any person who shot inside and outside that canyon. Canyonlands is a good-looking place.
Do you see why I think everyone needs to calm down about this movie?
Yes, 127 Hours is pretty good. It should be. It would be hard for it not to be.
In 2004, Dateline NBC aired a two-hour documentary about Aron Ralston called "Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon", where Tom Brokaw took Ralston to the canyon where he had been trapped for the first time since Ralston's ordeal about a year earlier. I watched parts of it when it was broadcast, and what I saw was pretty interesting, though I kept flipping channels -- two hours (about 86 minutes without commercials) seemed a bit much for such a limited subject. 127 Hours is 93 minutes long, and just as I was getting tired of Franco being stuck in the canyon, Boyle started the process of getting him out of the canyon. So that was good.
What I do remember about "Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon" is the emotion that washed over the real-life Aron Ralston as he returned to the canyon that was almost his tomb, where his blood still stained the wall and he could place what remains of his right arm where it had been trapped for those 127 torturous hours, the cameras rolling to capture Ralston's face as waves of memories flooded back (see a clip of it here). The special showed parts of the video Ralston had shot of himself (yes, he had a video camera with him) while he was trapped. Because the footage is real, it holds a power that not even the best actor in the history of the world, including James Franco, could ever match -- because no performance can be more real than the real thing.
Watching 127 Hours made me want to watch "Desperate Days in Blue John Canyon", probably more than I wanted to watch 127 Hours. Not that 127 Hours is bad -- as I said, it's pretty good. It's for the same reason that another good movie with Franco -- Milk, the Oscar-winning story of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk -- is not nearly as good as the Oscar-winning documentary about Harvey Milk, the Times of Harvey Milk. Seeing the real thing is always better than a dramatization.
With some good editing, I'll bet the raw footage from "Desperate Days" could be cut into a great documentary, possibly an award winner. But I'd try to keep it under 86 minutes. After all, how much do you need to say in a story where only two things really happen -- a guy's arm gets trapped, and the guy cuts off his own arm to get untrapped? Get cutting!
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