As hokey as it sounds, "127 Hours" is the kind of movie that makes you (or at least me) think about what constitutes a "perfect day," and for me the day I saw Danny Boyle's fairly amazing new flick was one of them.
For a brief replay, here goes: A rare Friday off beginning with a mile swim (about as close as I'll ever get to the kind of extreme sports Aron Ralston likes), a trip to Atlanta to see "127 Hours" and eat at the Original Pancake House (a Texas crepe - excellent), then home again to watch "Winter's Bone" on the Blue Ray, which on second viewing still stands up as the best movie of 2010.
I tell you all that to tell you this: One of the many charms of Boyle's movie is that we are dropped right into the middle of what we can tell is at least at the beginning Ralston's perfect day, and Boyle dives into it with every trick in his bag (and a few too many, but I'll get into that later.) It's the energy that flows throughout the flick, before, during and after the nightmare we all know is coming, that makes this not just watchable but often a real joy to behold, even when it's only James Franco on screen alone for long stretches.
It's both Franco and Boyle that give this flick, right from the start, the trademark of Boyle's best movies, unvarnished - yet always unsentimental - optimism. Filmed (rather amazingly, given its cohesive feel) by two directors of photography, Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, the Utah landscape Ralston gleefully rides into comes to vibrant and beautiful life, and Franco embraces it with all the goofy energy he can muster.
And just when you're thinking Ralston's ideal day couldn't get any better, he runs into two beautiful young women, played by Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara, who just happen to be lost (yes, if this weren't certainly a true story, it does often seem completely unbelievable), leading to one of the movie's best - and most prescient - scenes: When the three of them do a several hundred foot freefall between two rock walls into a clear blue pool of water. This moment just perfectly captures the mix of fear and exhilaration that drives "127 Hours."
But as sunny and fun as all this is, we know it's all just a 30-minute-or-so setup for what we know is coming (I'm going to have to assume anyone reading already knows), the moment when Ralston, having left his new friends behind, falls into a very narrow valley and gets his arm pinned under a boulder for the titular "127 Hours." Now, I've never seen "Castaway," because I just couldn't bring myself to watch Tom Hanks on screen alone for nearly two hours, so I can't make any comparison, but I can tell you that for several reasons, "127 Hours" doesn't become any less engaging once it's Franco all alone for a very long stretch.
First up is the work of Boyle's two cinematographers, who take us right into the hole with Franco, and with acute use of camera angles, make it feel just as uncomfortable for us as it was for Ralston. And Boyle himself makes a wise choice in not using anything approaching standard flashbacks as Ralston's mind inevitably starts to wander when left to its own devices. Instead, we get several arresting flights of fancy, including a vision of Ralston's future and, best of all, a feel-good montage of soda pop commercials that take his mind away for a little while.
Inevitably I suppose, Boyle does occasionally get bored with this scenario, and lets his hunger for camera tricks get the better of him on a few occasions, particularly with the use of water. Yes, we get it, when water flows it can look really cool on screen, but by the fourth or fifth (or yes, maybe as many as 10th) time, it just gets extremely old.
But what really holds this all together as a cohesive work is Franco himself, and after watching him and thinking about it, I really couldn't think of anyone else who could have pulled this off. I saw an interview with him in which he said Boyle almost didn't hire him because the director thought he was high. That's funny in itself, but it also perfectly captures the mood Ralston is in when this adventure begins.
Once its just him on screen, Franco lets his performance naturally turn more introspective, always leavened with enough humor to make this all go down so well, especially when he interviews himself and lays out exactly why the trip was so ill-fated to begin with. He makes it a coming-of-age tale that's at times very poignant, and unless Colin Firth manages to swipe it away from him, will most likely have co-host Franco (with Anne Hathaway - enough pretty for you?) celebrating on Oscar night.
And, of course, there's one more thing to deal with, and if you don't know what happened to Ralston, please DON'T READ THIS PARAGRAPH. Knowing what Ralston had to do to get out of that hole, I had my sweater in my hands, ready to cover my eyes (and it did at several points - yes, I'm just a big wuss.) Though Boyle certainly could have made it more bloody, he nonetheless makes it very hard to watch as Ralston methodically saws off his own arm with the smallest of pocket knives. Grueling to watch, for sure, but the payoff when Ralston finally works his way out and back to the light of day is more than worth the squirming in your seat.
The bottom line: This isn't Danny Boyle's best movie (for me those are still "Trainspotting' and "Shallow Grave"), but it's one brimming with energy and great storytelling. Highly recommended for a perfect movie day. Peace out.