A farewell to arm ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A farewell to arm

127 Hours
My rating:

(Sorry if you were expecting my review of Cun! That one's only getting released on the 31st, so I think I can keep my review on the backburner for a while. Also, re: that post title: Thank you! I'll be here all night!)

Thus endeth the spate of award-nominated movies in our local cinema circuit. Distributors were kind enough to bring in 5 of them in the past few weeks - The King's Speech, True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter and 127 Hours - which leaves only Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right out of the 10 nominees for this year's Best Picture Oscar that we never got to see in theatres. I guess kudos to them are in order. Anyway, this one's the last of them, or at least the last one I chose to watch.

And as good as it is, it's definitely near the bottom of the list.

In 2003, Aron Ralston (James Franco) went canyoneering alone in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. He meets two hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), but after leaving them, an accident pins his arm against a fallen rock and traps him at the bottom of the canyon, with no one for miles around - and no one even knowing where he went. He rations his food and water and attempts various means of escape, but hunger and exhaustion - and despair - begin to take their toll. Realizing he may die here, he starts reminiscing - and hallucinating - about his parents (Treat Williams and Kate Burton), his sister (Lizzy Caplan), and his ex-girlfriend (Clémence Poésy). Eventually, summoning his will to live, he cuts off his own arm with a blunt multi-tool - and this is not a spoiler, because Aron Ralston's story is entirely true.

I am less familiar with the films of Danny Boyle than I wish. I have only ever seen A Life Less Ordinary (liked it a lot, think it highly underrated), The Beach (interesting but erratic), 28 Days Later (genre classic, probably his best to date) and Sunshine (great for sci-fi buffs like myself, but erratic). I haven't seen the other two films he's most famous for, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire (I have the DVD for this, and it's there on my I-really-ought-to-get-to-it-someday list). Sunshine proved that Boyle is a genre fan, and I really wanted him to tackle horror or sci-fi again, perhaps maybe a thriller or action film or fantasy or period adventure. Instead he chose to adapt Aron Ralston's ordeal into film, which I guess I can't blame him for because it is certainly a movie-worthy story. But all things considered, I would've preferred he make something else.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good movie. James Franco gives the performance of his career, and together with Boyle and his co-writer Simon Beaufoy, make Ralston an instantly sympathetic and relatable character. Boyle's direction is as flashy and imaginative as ever, giving visual flair to a story of a man stuck in one spot for five days. The early scenes are lots of fun, combining Boyle's direction with A.R. Rahman's propulsive score to put us in Ralston's outdoor-loving, thrill-seeking mindset. And the infamous amputation scene is pretty damn powerful; it didn't make me faint or require medical attention like some people, but to me - since I am usually quite squeamish about gore - this means the film dealt with it just right, making it intense and painful to watch without being exploitative.

The thing is, I expect more of a film hailed as one of the year's best and nominated for a slew of... Academy Awards? Okay, I take that back; their choice of this year's Best Picture confirms yet again my low opinion of their credibility. But perhaps I expect more of a film based on this story, one of the most extraordinary feats of survival ever recorded. As I have previously said about Buried, to which this movie bears many similarities, the best (only!) way to watch a film is to let it get under your skin - to put yourself fully in the shoes of its protagonist and imagine everything that happens to him happening to you. So if I were to find myself trapped at the bottom of a canyon, faced with the choice of either slowly dying of starvation and dehydration or cutting my arm off with a dull knife... I imagine I'd reexamine my life to a far deeper extent than Ralston did (at least as this film shows).

Now, perhaps Boyle and Beaufoy wanted to stick closely to Ralston's experience, as depicted in the book he wrote about it. And I suppose it's admirable that they resisted the temptation to Hollywood-ize the story. But really, whatever soul-searching the cinematic Ralston went through is really kinda shallow. His dad introduced him to his love of the outdoors; he regrets not picking up the phone when his mom called just as he was leaving on his trip; and he used to play piano duets with his younger sister. That's about the sum total of all that Aron Ralston is. Even what seems to be his biggest regret, a bad break-up with his former girlfriend, is dealt with perfunctorily, because we never see why they broke up. Boyle's restless camerawork tries to give all this some energy, but it doesn't hide how slow the movie feels in its mid-section.

The closest it gets to profundity is when Ralston determines that the rock has been waiting for him throughout its existence, just as his entire life has brought him to the moment it fell and trapped his hand. That's something I can imagine myself thinking, and perhaps realizing that this is my life's single greatest challenge might be my impetus for doing what Ralston did to free himself. It isn't Ralston's however; he is roused to action by something else entirely, which I thought was a better idea than it was executed. It's kinduva spoiler, so I'll put my thought on it behind this SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read): the kid was creepy-looking.

But yes, it really is a good movie - it's just not a really good movie, and nowhere near one of the year's best. Ralston comes across as just this really ordinary dude - crazy about the outdoors, loves his family but doesn't call his mom often enough, had a girlfriend, broke up - who underwent an extraordinary ordeal, and it's this ordinariness that makes it a less-than-gripping story. Perhaps a Hollywood-ization (give him a troubled past! A long-lost love! And a road to redemption!) may have made it better - or maybe not. Still, the extraordinariness is what makes it a worthy film despite everything else. Because if I were to be really honest with myself, if I were to end up trapped like Ralston was... I'd probably just lay down and die.

NEXT REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau
Expectations: not another Bourne movie, that's for sure


McGarmott said...

I saw Danny Boyle at a Q&A once (in fact I went up to him and shook his hands and asked him how do I sign up to crew for his next film ... which at the time I had no interest in really coz it had the odd title of Slumdog Millionaire and no one had a clue what that is). One of the things he said that stuck with me was:

"I think your best film is your first film, because you have no idea what you're doing, you're uncertain, you tend to just go for it. I've decided that I would jump genres every time because then it's like every time you make a new film, it's your first one." (Paraphrased.)

... Incidentally, the other thing he said that stuck with me was:

"Oh I absolutely adore Michelle Yeoh. I gave her the script and asked her to pick which character she wanted, and she said, the botanist." (Paraphrased.)

Unknown said...

"A farewell to arm"? Too soon Bruv. Too soon. :)

w4s said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mell said...

i felt the movie was splendid! I still like King's Speech more, but I felt this story is well done given the limited premise of the story (Guy stuck in a canyon for 5 days, cuts his arm. End scene.)

Mohd Diah Mcdee Abdullah said...

Boyle's 1st feature film debut was "Shallow Grave". Trainspotting was 2nd. All his film had this weird hallucinating scenes. I guess that is his trademark. I agree. This is a good movie... but he can do a better one.