Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TIFF Review: "127 Hours"

The second showing at the Toronto International Film Festival of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (starring James Franco) took place at the Ryerson Theatre on Monday, and the line up started early and was long. Thanks to the second showing being so close to the first, director Danny Boyle (who also directed films diverse as Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting) was in attendance for a Q&A after the movie.

Photos from the showing

  • Click on the pictures below to enlarge.
  • Scroll down to the bottom of this post to watch the trailer.
  • Follow me on Twitter @blake_bell for more TIFF quick hits.

The Review (spoilers)
  • 127 Hours is based on the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) time spent in an isolated canyon in Utah where he must save himself after he falls into an rock opening and a fallen boulder crashes on his arm. He's trapped inside with little food or water, and no knowledge of his whereabouts by anyone. The film is not just about the journey of escaping his predicament, but of self-awareness, as the fact that he let no one know where he was going is an indictment of his attitude towards those who care for him.
I Loved:
  • The real star of the movie - editor John Harris. As Boyle admitted during the Q&A when I asked him, the pace of the editing is so crucial to the story. The opening scenes show a rush of humanity that, on the one hand, Franco's character embraces (he's hyper-frenetic in all his activities) but, on the other hand, rejects by ignoring those who care for him and by making the empty, isolated vastness of places like the Utah terrain his "second home". The movie blisters along until Franco gets him arm stuck by the boulder and then the pacing drops instantly. But, even as the main character literally can't leave the spot he's melded to, the editing of the dream and hallucination sequences (especially the flash flood scene) don't leave for a dull moment.
  • Danny Boyle's direction. The film I saw at TIFF prior to this was Passion Play and, while first-time director Mitch Glazer did an admirable job, it is immediate during the opening sequences of 127 Hours that you are dealing with a master of every aspect of the medium. You're in the hands of a person who's going to guide you through a unique experience and a bond of trust forms right away. It's not about razzle-dazzle, special effects, or really having the director stand out by over doing it with technical flourishes - it's acutely maintaining the balance of all aspects of the medium that a director has in their tool kit...and Danny Boyle has a deep tool kit. The amputation scene was note-perfect, especially how Boyle (and Franco) make you aware of the pace of the movie picking up when it begins, and how Boyle holds that pace until the ending.
  • The amputation scene. The side-shot of the inside of his arm when an object was going under the flesh was shocking in its uniqueness. The music used when Franco's character was touching a nerve in his arm was one of those little details that Boyle inserts and is another example of his mastery. Since you have a sense of what's coming when you enter the theatre, that moment when Franco falls into the crevasse and everything about the film screeches to a halt, the power of knowing what is coming is immense because of how Boyle's set you up at a different emotional level in the lead-up.
  • The running time of 90 minutes. Danny Boyle had to make the self-absorbed character likable, he had to make the time when Franco was stuck on his spot interesting for the viewer, and he had to make the self-awareness insights come to life without making the hallucination scenes laughable, and he picked the proper running time. Anything shorter would seem rushed; anything longer would have dragged on exponentially.
I Liked:
  • Franco's portrayal. He's an interesting actor, in terms of his choices, but I'm always interested in watching his actual acting to see if he's really got the goods, at a level of where one can tell he wants to be based on his choices. There's some Oscar buzz surrounding this role and, while it wouldn't be surprising to see this type of role receive a nod from the Academy, I'm not sure that Franco the actor deserves it...yet. He, as a projection of his personality, definitely has a high "likability quotient", but I still see a little too much of Franco in his roles to date to warrant an Oscar that should come from total immersion in a role (it's the actor's job to find out what that involves, and they can't just say "Well, he was just a normal guy, so I played it that way"). Sean Penn winning for Milk two years ago versus Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is another example of the emphasis in Hollywood (versus the rest of the world where Rourke dominated, e.g. Golden Globes, BAFTA, Independent Spirit) on a certain type of role being rewarded versus how far an actor was able to push the boundaries within a role. Penn was certainly a deserving candidate but Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich or Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side show how far off kilter that can lean (even Bullock acknowledged in her Oscar acceptance speech that this was a one-time affair).
  • The emphasis on the character's redemption as an impetus for hacking off his forearm. Without this added in, the movie would have been merely a technical exercise in how to survive without food and water...and perform surgery on one's self. The journey from self-centeredness to self-awareness could have been incredibly maudlin but once again the direction by Boyle kept them restrained emotionally and the editing by Harris brought them to life.
It Lacked:
  • Did it lack anything? Would a more accomplish actor than Franco have added even more to the role? But how many young actors are out there that would have done better?
Final Analysis: A- (or 4 stars out of 5)
  • From start to finish you're willingly swept up in the hands of a master film maker. Boyle didn't hold back on the amputation scene and he has to be admired for that because...
  • What will now be interesting is to see how this film's box office life will play out. Boyle and Franco are big enough names, the story's compelling and "well-known" enough, and there's sufficient Oscar-worthiness to have the studio put a good amount of dollars into marketing, but will the spectre of what happens down in the crevasse overshadow the uplifting aspects of the film (not just the character's personal journey, but of Boyle's craft) and keep the bulk of the audience away? Because of Boyle and Franco's name, it's not another The Hurt Locker scenario but will it be viewed in that light - more of an "indie" film that the critics thunder about, but audiences don't thunder to the theatres to see? It'll likely be a smash in the major centres, but what will its final box office draw be? This will be one to watch at Awards time and at the box office.

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