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For Your Consideration: '127 Hours'

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127 Hours (directed by
Danny Boyle)

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Aron Ralston, Between a Rock
and a Hard Place
The ordeal of Aron Ralston was told in news stories around the world in 2003: the mountaineer survived falling into a canyon in Utah, having his arm pinned under a rock, and eventually amputating his own arm to escape. (He told one newspaper that the process took about an hour, including snapping the bones, cutting the flesh, arteries, and nerves with a dull knife, and tearing the tendons with a pair of pliers.) 127 Hours is a movie version directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) on his own screenplay, written with Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Aron Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston's story is gruesome, and public horror and sympathy for what happened made him a celebrity, which is not the first time that has happened. Boyle's film does not stint on the gruesome, although the arm-cutting scene could have been much more visually graphic than it is. The trick was how to dramatize a story that is essentially static -- five days of a man trapped in a slot canyon -- and in this it succeeds with a glossy product that is somewhat short on character.

James Franco is slightly goofy as Ralston, an awkward and apparently utterly normal person caught completely unprepared for the extraordinary situation awaiting him. Franco was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, an award it seems unlikely he will win. It's quite a role, essentially a one-man film with so much of the camera time spent on him, and Franco is good enough to keep the viewer's attention throughout, but not more than that. Likewise, the award for Best Adapted Screenplay does not seem likely to go beyond the nomination the film received. Many of the details from Ralston's account are included faithfully (six months after the incident he recounted the event to Tom Brokaw, while visiting the site -- see the whole video here, which is informative viewing): like the raven that flew overhead each morning, and the hallucination (or vision) of a little boy near the end of his ordeal, who he came to believe was the son he would have one day if he summoned the strength to escape.

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Still, the film gives an extremely limited impression of who Ralston was before the accident. In actual life, Ralston had degrees in French (which figures in the songs chosen for the soundtrack) and mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. He had left his job as a mechanical engineer to undertake adventures in mountaineering and live the free life, while working at a shop that sold mountaineering equipment: only the latter is featured in the film, making Franco's character seem mostly like a rootless drifter. Furthermore, the canyon incident was only the latest in a series of brushes with death: Ralston had survived a Class 5 avalanche just two months before the Blue John Canyon ordeal, after skiing into the avalanche zone in spite of dire warnings.

Nominations for Best Picture and Best Achievement in Editing seem like long shots, too, although the latter is possible as a consolation prize. For my taste, the film was edited too briskly and with too many visual tricks -- enough with the triple-screen splits, already. The same goes for a scene in which the hallucinating Franco has an extended dialogue with himself near the end of the film, cast as if he is a contestant on a game show: the reference to Gollum's famous self-dialogue in The Two Towers feels too tongue-in-cheek for this subject matter (although Ralston recounted that he did speak to himself while trapped in the canyon). Both of these somewhat glib parts of the film were featured prominently in the full-length trailer (embedded below), as if to reassure prospective viewers that the experience of watching the film would not be too grim. Indian composer A. R. Rahman seems unlikely to win again for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, since he won awards in both those categories only two years ago, for Slumdog Millionaire. While the score does not seem worthy on its own merits, Rahman may have a chance for another Oscar in the Best Original Song category for I Rise Again. The song plays at the moment that Franco breaks free and is eventually rescued, making it a symbolic part of the film's achievement.


jfl said...

An inoffensive, but ultimately pathetic film. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the film. That's all there's to it. Of course it's difficult to make a movie out of "waiting-waiting-waiting-cutting-arm-off"... and in that sense the work that went into this seems high-quality. But that still doesn't make something worth watching.

Michael Peverett said...

"By far one of the best films of the year"

I keep trying to construe that sentence, and I can't.