Friday, December 10, 2010

127 Hours

The year's best movie?

Maybe.

Danny Boyle, the sensational director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire has another superb entry into his filmography.

127 Hours is, of course, based on the story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who got his arm stuck under a boulder in a Utah cavern in 2003.

Ralston was trapped under that rock for five days -- I'm not sure what the total number of hours was -- until he made the desperate decision to cut off his own arm.

By and large, that's the entire plot of the movie.

Guy trapped under a rock. Gets out.

The end.

But ahhhhhh... the character.

Ralston is played by the extremely likable James Franco, who gives Ralston an energetic, gung-ho attitude which contrasts perfectly with his situation. For the rock, you see, doesn't care about Ralston's great attitude. It doesn't care about his likability. The rock is implacable. The rock is the cold, impersonal universe. The rock is death.

And when that character comes into conflict with that rock, wonderful drama results.

The movie proceeds along two tracks: the external problem of the rock, and the internal problem of the character weakness that led Ralston to his predicament.

The character weakness is an old, old, old one.

The Greeks called it hubris.

One reason Ralston spends 127 hours in a ravine is because a rock has him pinned there.

Another reason he spends 127 hours there is because no one comes to help him. This is because no one knows where he is.

And that's just how he planned it.

Ever the free spirit, Ralston never lets himself get too dependent on others. Before leaving on his ill-fated hiking trip, he avoids phone calls from his mother and sister. He leaves no one a note. He practically goes out of his way to keep his weekend hiking location a secret.

He does this because, on a psychological level, he needs to feel in command of his own destiny. His outdoorsy self-reliance gives him this.

Until it comes crashing down on him about twenty minutes into the movie.

It doesn't let up until he makes his gruesome, desperate decision twenty minutes from the end.

This decision may be the reason the movie isn't doing much box office business. Despite the pedigree of Boyle and Franco, it seems most of America just doesn't want to see a young man cut his own arm off.

That's really too bad, because there's nothing senselessly grisly or macabre about Ralston's act. In the context of the film it's an incredibly life-affirming action, and Ralston's words, spoken to the boulder after extricating himself from its death grip, are among the most moving I've heard in years.

127 Hours is an exuberant journey with a wonderful sense of momentum, despite its static situation, and a deep sense of hope and love, despite its grim scenario.

The movie is, in a word, awesome.

Is it the year's best?

Aw, heck yes.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 91/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 92/100

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Black Swan

Director Darren Aronofsky's been known to take chances.

His first movie, Pi, culminated with its mathematician protagonist, a man driven insane by number theory, boring a hole in his own skull with a power drill.

And I loved it.

His subsequent films -- Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler -- have been up and down affairs, as one would expect of someone who takes on a lot of creative risk.

Sadly, Black Swan is big career down, in my opinion.

At least in creative terms.

The story follows Natalie Portman's ballet dancer as she quests for the starring role in a big New York theater company's presentation of "Swan Lake."

Portman's character is disciplined and ambitious to the point of obsession.

Her rival is the more laid-back and fancy-free Mila Kunis.

They compete for the role of Swan Queen, and while Portman nabs it, she feels Kunis' hot breath on her neck throughout.

Thus, Portman's stress level -- always quite high -- goes to stratospheric levels. It goes so high, in fact, she begins to hallucinate. Soon she appears to be making an actual physical transformation into a black swan.

Oh, and monsters appear to chase her around from time to time.

But none of it's real, or so we're led to believe.

Therefore, we have something unusual on our hands: an art house horror flick.

It's certainly... different.

But alas, it just doesn't work.

Portman's character, so humorless and brittle, is hard to sympathize with, and the gruesomeness of her physical torments and hallucinatory transformations make the minute-to-minute experience of watching the movie mostly unpleasant.

There's a ton of startling "boo!" moments, but no real tension, since we know none of the predators stalking Portman are real.

Also, there's lot of ballet dancing.

It's just a weird, cold, distancing mixture that offers neither insight nor pleasure. I get that Portman's character is too much of a perfectionist for her own good, but I got that in the first five minutes, and no other layers to her character are ever revealed.

The movie holds so little sway over our emotions that it is instantly forgettable, which is surprising given that it's so different from every other movie playing this year.

In the end, I guess it's all about heart.

However, as weak as Black Swan is, it looks, walks and quacks like a Serious Oscar Contender.

And in Hollywood -- and elsewhere -- there is often less than a quantum of difference between perception and reality.

Aronofsky and Portman have been hitting the intellectual talk show circuit hard lately. They know it's a weak year for Oscar nominees, and they know they have just the kind of weird, inscrutable movie that might attract votes.

This is a big career moment for both of them, but artistically it's just another bust.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 36/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 38/100