Archive for January, 2011

127 Hours

James Franco as Aron Ralston in 127 Hours

I’d sooner lose a finger than chop my own arm off. I’d rather shoot myself in the foot than chop off my own arm. In fact, chopping off my own arm comes pretty low on the list of things I’d like to do, along with shit-eating and talking about sex with my mother. But Aron Ralston in 127 Hours faces a choice altogether more stark: life or limb?

James Franco (of Spiderman fame) plays Aron Ralston, an engineer with a passion for climbing. He’s easygoing with a do-it-all attitude. He takes a trip to Utah, to mountain bike, hike and climb, but doesn’t inform anyone where he’s going. He slips while he’s climbing and gets trapped when a boulder falls on his arm. 127 hours later, he’s armless but free, with the aid of a blunt knife, and lives to climb another day.

It’s a true story which occurred in 2003 and in an interview, the real-life Aron Ralston, 35, said “The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. And what drama Danny Boyle has wrought is testament to his skill as a film-maker. This is Boyle’s tenth feature and follows his trend of character-driven movies, whether they’re an ensemble of heroin addicts in Trainspotting, a spoiled adventurer in The Beach, or the love-struck Jamal in the life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire.

Every one of his movies has energy and wit, a willingness to play with composition, texture and expectation. But the success of his latest owes as much to James Franco’s detailed and awe-inspiring performance as directorial technique. The movie has a curious style. From the beginning, Boyle makes use of all the tricks he has, with split screens, close focus shots of arbitrary things – tap water running, a Swiss army knife missed, and images of the inside of objects – the whir of a lens motor in a digital camera, the x-ray of a knife being plunged into bone. This and the super-vivid colours reminded me of the band Maroon 5’s hyper-slick, advert-style music video to ‘Sunday Morning’.

These tics and decorations are needed in a film with a bare-naked plot and mostly just one cramped setting. And it’s a film of lovely details. Images of ants being chased by the sun and in one superb sequence, we get a Gatorade reverie, with a lip-smacking shot of a shivering, sweating bottle of sugared liquid.

James Franco’s smile would probably be the smuggest smile in the world, if it were not so seductively likable. It radiates confidence and ease, and fits the glow of happy solitude that anyone who has ever gone hiking would recognise. But when the boulder falls and traps him, watch his face. His smile almost lingers, his eyes almost drool as they start to comprehend despair. It’s a microcosm of emotion and dawning realisation.

As background, we get flashbacks to Ralston’s childhood and mental replays of what could have been. Clemence Poesy has a small part as an ex-girlfriend and her prettiness is welcome in so rugged a film. When finally we get to what must be done, to what most audience members probably have come to expect as climax, the grisliness of the whole affair does not disappoint.

Using a crappy multi-tool with a crappy knife to slice his arm, it definitely gave me a sour taste of sharp pain and I’ll never think of tendons in the same way again. Franco acts of all this with a face that flickers, sniggers, grimaces and winces in all the right degrees, it’s as perfect a performance I have seen, and the director has filled the movie with just enough focus and distraction to balance narrative tension. The soundtrack works well with songs from Beck and Bill Withers used to good effect and A. R. Rahman‘s score, which changes from kinetic to quietly stirring, is one of his best.

Any moral one could draw from all this would be vapid. Be more prepared? Buy better knives when you go hiking? Don’t be so proud? Who cares. What Danny Boyle has managed to do is make something unfilmable flow in what almost feels like real time. I came out upbeat but not uplifted, and it was a good call not to show Ralston as any kind of superhero. His actions could have been repeated by any one of us, and yet could only really be his.

This is Ralston’s story and 127 Hours is not a film, it’s an experience.

5/5

Black Swan

Natalie Portman as the black swan

“Natalie Portman plays a psychotic ballet dancer who turns into a lesbian?”

“Yeah, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a long while”.

This was how Black Swan was sold to me by a friend. It’s an engrossing and vivid film, flawed by the hyperactive tendencies of its director Darren Aronofsky.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer situated in New York but who lives entirely in her ballet world. Nina’s devotion stands out, even in an art where every sinew is forced to bear the weight of unnatural grace. She battles for the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake, which will be “visceral and real” according to its choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell).

He needs someone who can embody both swans, white and black, and Nina struggles to portray the salacious nature of the black swan. Her competitor is Lily, a seductive schemer, played by Mila Kunis, whose sashaying eyes are all that’s needed to imply her darkly allure.

Nina’s sanity is shown to be slipping early on but what started it? Possibly her possessive mother who herself was a dancer, but of lesser talent. She salves her daughter’s wounds and helps her undress in the bathroom. She’s definitely crazy but not mad.

Aronofsky uses the idea of the doppelganger as the motif of madness. Mirrors are everywhere and in their reflection we begin to see the schizoid panic of Nina. Portman’s beauty acts to her advantage in Black Swan, where her girlish, small-chin features look all too prone to cracking under strain.

Wincing injuries to fingers and toes are a physical sign of Nina’s mental degradation as she fixates on perfecting her dance. She worships ballet and it becomes her undoing. Cassell is perfectly cast as the demanding maestro, who implores Nina to ‘touch herself’ to prepare for her role – and to lose her innocence along the way, preferably with him.

She also has to watch out for Lily, presented as funky and free, but who actually acts like any normal adolescent. She befriends Nina and takes her clubbing which leads to an outburst of rebellion and lesbianism. Black Swan is about repression, hatred, perfection and jealousy. Nina’s old enough to go clubbing but her room is filled with cuddly toys. Her mother is oppressive and it’s small wonder that Nina self-harms and her ‘evil twin’ is dying to break out.

The jittery camera work, by Matthew Libatique, conveys a shivering claustrophobia. The grainy texture of the film with its muted colours, have the atmosphere of horror, and the lighting impresses, especially on stage where Nina’s final transformation into the black swan is quite spectacular.

The set designs, the similarity in looks between the leading ladies all serve to bolster the film’s notion of duality. But the use of music grates. Aronofsky has done psychotic breakdowns before, in his debut feature Pi, and in the drug-addled Requiem for a Dream. In that film, fevers boiled in searing music and sweaty editing. But the incessant classical score which emphasises every dramatic beat in every scene of Black Swan is fucking annoying.

The sensual ambition of Black Swan and the camera’s looming view of Nina, her fevered obsession and anxiety over perfection propel this film, while the dark edges of madness provide a captivating portrait of denied adulthood. ‘Lose yourself’ is Leroy’s advice, and the black swan manages to seduce.

4/5

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