I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

127 Hours

tn_127hoursAt first I wasn’t even gonna see 127 HOURS, ’cause what’s the point of doing another one if Nolte and Murphy don’t come back? Those movies were all about the chemistry of those two guys. It doesn’t make alot of sense to replace them with a different character. But it was a bold move to not make it a buddy movie, or a cop movie, and base it on a true story about a guy who went hiking and got his arm stuck under a rock. Alot of people will say that’s just a rehash of parts 1 and 2, but I would argue that there are subtle differences.

mp_127hoursThe story’s simple: James Franco is an adventurous young dude in Utah, he likes to go on spontaneous day trips out into the nature and what not. He knows the area well, including secret caves and hard to climb ridges. He has plenty of equipment and confidence, but should probly be a little more careful, ’cause this time out he slips and the rock falls on his arm and he’s going nowhere and there are no human beings within miles. Another good title for it would be FUCKED.

Sounds horrifying, and it is, but what surprised me about the movie is how director Danny Boyle is able to have the ol’ gallows humor about it and keep things light enough to be bearable. Franco played nothing but brooding handsome guys in movies for several years, but Seagalogy introduction writer David Gordon Green knew about his likable, humorous side and showed it off in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and that seemed to free him up. 127 HOURS depends on that side of Franco. Watching this movie with Son of Green Goblin James Franco would be a fuckin chore, but with this guy it’s do-able. Even when the accident first happens it’s not two minutes of screaming in horror and pain. Instead he’s in shock and it’s more of an “oh, you’ve got to be shittin me” reaction.

Throughout the ordeal he makes fun of himself. Even as he’s losing it (and trying not to) he uses his camcorder to record a sarcastic interview with himself. His attitude makes a grueling movie less torturous and and gives you the impression that he’s such a positive guy he had to survive this, and if he wasn’t like that he never would’ve made it out. (SPOILER.) This is a guy who, when he finally got loose after 5 days, took a moment to turn back and take a picture of the place.

Boyle doesn’t go the minimalist route. This guy really is stuck in this crevasse for most of the movie, but the camera’s not always stuck with him. It floats away and retraces his steps back to the car to show where he stupidly left his Gatorade. It zooms through his straw to get an intimate view of his last drops of water, or of the urine he unfortunately finds himself drinking later. (Out of desperation. I don’t think he’s into that.) It wanders away with his memories of childhood and ex-girlfriends, his fantasies of how people will notice he’s gone, or what would happen if he went to the party some girls he met invited him to. They told him where to go and to look for a giant inflatable Scooby-Doo, so at one point he hallucinates a Scooby-Doo doll in the cave doing a Scooby-Doo laugh. So this is different from a survival movie like THE PIANIST or something. 100% more Scooby-Doo laugh.

It’s hyperactive filmatism, but the kind where it illustrates its concepts clearly instead of just trying to confuse you into thinking it’s stylish. Take for example the opening montage of the city: flashy splitscreens of huge crowds, city life, fast food signs. It comes across like a music video, but it makes its point eloquently. This is the noise and clutter and crowds and cookie cutter strip mall culture that he wants to get away from, that makes it so desirable to stand out on a sunny rock miles away from any buildings or roads. It shows why he would want to go way the fuck out there, but also shows how isolated he is now that he’s stuck under that rock, away from where the people and the hamburgers are.

By now you’ve probly heard what he has to do to get out of there. Hint: he doesn’t tie a bunch of helium balloons to the rock to lift it. It’s just a horrible fucking thing to think about, and Mr. Boyle does demand that you do think about it. First you have to dread it, then you have to watch as he tries to figure out how to do it. There are some failed attempts. And keep in mind he does not have the proper tools. It’s not easy to do, and it takes a while. I’m glad it doesn’t go into more detail than it does. But jesus.

Still, there are more pleasant moments that are almost as memorable. I really like the scene where the sun comes up and he gets to enjoy the feeling of it warming his skin. The guy has every reason to be Mr. Grumpypants, but he’s able to enjoy the small things in life.

There’s alot of things you can read into this. It could be about the youth culture being too self absorbed and stuck-in-the-present. If the fucker would be careful and tell people where he’s going maybe he wouldn’t have this problem. And there’s an alternate ending where he later tries to get back together with the ex-girlfriend, but she can’t do it and tells him something like “Every time you go out there the people who love you feel like a little piece of them dies.” But it’s too heavy-handed, I’m glad they didn’t use that one. I mean, this is a real guy, why rub it in more? I’m pretty sure he knows the errors of his ways.

(That alternate ending is really interesting though, ’cause it’s the whole last chunk of the movie but with a whole bunch of subtle variations, like the sound mix is different so you can hear what the people who find him are saying. It really shows you how many hundreds of tiny things could be done differently and completely change the movie. It must be hard to decide which combination of choices is the best.)

I finally got around to seeing this because it was one of the best picture nominees. I think it’s a good movie, but might not’ve figured it for one of the ten best of the year. Of course it didn’t win and that was a week ago and I could’ve just not reviewed it. But there’s one scene in there that has really stuck with me and made me want to write about it. It’s a musical montage scene, this one set to “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. He wakes up in the sun and we hear the song and of course my instinctive response was “Bill Withers! I like this song.”

And I associate that music so strongly with enjoying a nice day that I almost take it at face value, like this poor thirsty bastard is really enjoying himself. But of course his lovely day is spent trying to rig a pulley system to pull a rock off of his crushed arm so he won’t starve to death.

It’s so fuckin cruel:

“When I wake up in the mornin’, love / And the sunlight hurts my eyes / And somethin’ without warnin’ love / Bears heavy on my mind. / Then I look at you / And the world’s alright with me / Just one look at you / And I know it’s gonna be… a lovely day”

Such a beautiful song about the presence of a loved one making everything better. But this guy doesn’t have anybody to take one look at. And he broke it off with his girlfriend, even if he was at home he’d have no one.

But the music is so good, so sincere, it’s hard to take it as sarcasm. Maybe it’s about his love for himself. He’s having a lovely day with himself. If he didn’t dig himself so much he’d give up and pass out until the ants eat him.

The use of that song is so sad and mean and, I have to admit, kinda funny. It’s a great scene in a good movie.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 7th, 2011 at 3:40 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “127 Hours”

  1. I wanted to see this in theaters, but it didn’t play near me I don’t think, I definitely plan on buying the blu ray though

    anyway I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be in a life or death situation, not that I ever want to be in one, but you can’t help but wonder how you would respond, whether you’d survive and what it would be like afterward

    the closest I’ve ever been around death was the time my mom had a bad asthma attack and passed out and almost died, I had to call 911, it was the most frighting experience in my entire life

  2. *frightening

  3. Griff, I hope your mom is doing alright these days.

    Danny Boyle is an interesting director because he’s one of the few that can make a movie without anybody knowing it and then suddenly it comes out and gets nominated for Oscars.

  4. This was Top 10 of 2010 stuff for me for sure. All I knew was how the story ended, which hobbles most first-time viewings, but the attention to what he’s remembering and feeling, to how he’s trying to solve things, and to the physical environment kept the movie feeling really alive in the moment-to-moment. Probably helped to see it on the big screen on opening night with a big audience undercurrent of “oh shit, this might get unbearably grueling”. By the end the thing you’re dreading becomes a blessed event. Tough turnaround to pull off, and the movie does it.

  5. Knox Harrington

    March 7th, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Of all the movies of last year, this is the one that surprised me the most (never underestimate Boyle), and the one that created the strongest emotional bond with the lead character for me. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I had to wipe a tear from my cheek while watching a movie, but Boyle and Franco had me from the word go. I was fully invested in poor Aron Ralston and his shitty situation.

    Boyle has this rare skill and uncanny way of getting a strong emotional response from the audience through pure joy and celebration, instead of tragedy. He did it with Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire as well. I think he should have been nominated for Best Director. Filmmakers like him and Nolan deserved it much more than Tom Hooper and David O’ Russell (even though I think they both did a decent job directing their most recent films).

    Anyway, I effing love this movie. After 127 Hours, Pineapple Express and that hilarious cameo in Green Hornet, I’m an official James Franco fan.

  6. LOVELY DAY always makes me think of Tetley’s Tea. Fellow Limeys who can remember adverts from about 15 years ago will back me up on this one.

  7. The Bill Withers tune really reminded me of a bit from Touching The Void, the documentary about the mountain climber that fell into a chasm and broke his leg. He was stuck there for days and eventually started to pull himself out of there because he had Rivers of Babylon in his head and he didn’t want to die to Boney M. They do a great little scene where he’s trying to drag himself over rocks and there’s a distorted chopped up Rivers Of Babylon on the soundtrack.

    I’d rather die to Rah-Rah-Rasputin if I had to. Ohhhh, those russians…

  8. Meant to say the way they used the Bill Withers tune, not the tune itself. Lovely Day is, indeed, lovely.

  9. Knox Harrington

    March 7th, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Funny. Touching The Void was directed by Kevin Macdonald, whose brother Andrew is/was Danny Boyle’s producer. Boyle was definitely influenced by Touching The Void.

    Not sure if Boyle and Andrew Macdonald are still working together, since Macdonald wasn’t involved with Millions, Slumdog and 127 Hours as far as I know, but he produced all of Boyle’s other films.

  10. That first paragraph was hilarious. I laughed so hard Coke shot out of
    my nose. (Uh… Coco-Cola, not the fine white powder.) Good shit, Vern.

  11. I would say that I liked 127 HOURS overall, but had a lot of problems with elements of Danny Boyle’s direction (although I usually enjoy his style, 28 DAYS LATER especially). From the sound of things, it’s the very stuff that everyone liked that rubbed me the wrong way.

    At it’s core, I guess I sort of see this as a sparse and intimate survival story, so I for one was not a fan of all the flashy over-direction. Some if it was plain laughable, like the extreme close-up inside the straw of the water bottle POV shots and moments like that. To me it’s a sign that Boyle doesn’t really trust the attention span of the audience, he’s gotta throw in pointless music cues and sound effects, wooshy camera moves, rapid editing, and so on. Like he’s worried we’ll get too bored of watching Aaron’s situation if he doesn’t jazz things up.

    Worse, I feel like too often the style kinda helps distance the viewer from what’s going on. I know a lot of people enjoyed the heavily subjective elements of the movie, basically trying to situate the action inside Aaron’s mind. And certainly, as Vern pointed out, Boyle doesn’t flinch when it gets to be time for the climax. But I found many of the fantasy sequences to be tiring and distracting, just a bunch of hoopla to keep the movie from being too intense and to fill time before the big payoff.

    Obviously this is just a matter of taste, but I would have preferred something a lot more dialed back and immediate, a little more focused on the survivalist and less on camera pyrotechnics. Still, it was an entertaining movie with a strong lead performance, so I don’t want to rag on it too much.

  12. I approached this with a little trepidation. Would we get 28 DAYS LATER and TRAINSPOTTING Danny Boyle, or SUNSHINE and THE BEACH Danny Boyle? The really frustrating thing is that these films are almost great (especially the 1st 3 quarters of SUNSHINE), but totally fall apart by the end. I figured 127 HOURS would flip that script and start out meh, but finish strong. I liked the whole thing, so thanks Danny Boyle.

    That and I will always be is complete awe of the pure badassness of Aron Ralston. It’s easy to say you could man up and cut your arm off, but you really can’t know until you are there.

  13. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    March 7th, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I wimped out of seeing this a bunch of times because the whole ripping your own arm off freaks me out to much. I’m more likely to see it now I’ve read its not like some darren aronofsky torture nightmare and more bearable.

    Yeah PacmanFever, Tetley Tea. They have even brought the Gaffer and his badass tea making crew out of deep freeze like Demolition Man or some shit.

  14. on a related note, you have to give Danny Boyle credit for single handily resurrecting the zombie genre with 28 Days Later

  15. @Dan Prestwich–

    it wasn’t just you. for a movie called 127 HOURS i thought it gave the viewer no sense of waiting, and a real spotty one of time passing. had the names of the days not been at the bottom of the screen, it wouldve felt like maybe 2 days for me (i’m sure you could count sunsets and sunrises if you wanted to, but i’m talking about how it felt, not what we were shown).

    it might be very likely that the actual Aron Ralston’s experience was pretty similar to the experience the movie gives the viewer; for all i know, he couldn’t tell how much time actually passed either and it was all sort of a wash of crazy thoughts and intense experiences until it was teeth-grittin’ time. but for a moviegoer seeing a movie about someone having an experience this unique, i thought what Boyle gave us played it pretty safe. it certainly felt to me like he was covering his ass for the inevitable studio note “The audience is getting bored” with all the digital editing craziness.

    Vern does make a good point about the alternate ending, though. Danny’s Boyle always been about how to creatively illustrate a moment in a way that it hasn’t been done before, and when you’re that dude making a movie about a dude in a chasm for 5 days, your M.O. pretty much obliges you to go as nuts as you want to go. i remember leaving the theater thinking that, ultimately, it felt like a movie that the director had forced himself to stop fucking with and just release already; maybe that’s closer to the mark than i realized at the time.

  16. The end of Vern’s review reminded me of an AWESOME joke. Here it is.

    Q. How do you make a duck sing R&B?

    A. Put it in an oven until its bill withers.

    Whether you find that funny or not, you have to admit, there are not many solid Bill Withers jokes out there. That someone sat down and put the effort into thinking one up makes me happy. I call that Striving for Excellence.

  17. psychic hits,

    Yeah, I think that’s a good point about the sense of time in the film, which I agree with. And I think all the flashbacks, fantasy sequences, etc. compound the whole problem. It felt, in the film, like Aron experienced a harrowing 90 minutes of screen time instead of 5 days.

  18. @ Sternshein – thanks man, that was almost 5 years ago and she’s doing fine now thank God

  19. Dan — Stop me if this is just the inverse of what you were saying, but to me the film reads like Boyle isn’t actually particularly interested in the survival-story aspect of his film. Maybe that’s a missed opportunity, I don’t know, but I think Boyle’s interest here was in taking this wandering, moment-to-moment character and physically tying him down and forcing him to think about his life. Aaron’s not particularly afriad of dying, but he’s really afriad of being alone with his thoughts – the cinematic flights of fancy therefore represent his attempt to escape his situation while at the same time avoiding the gradual turn towards introspection that defines the later half of the film.

    Lots of people interpet the sensory-overload introduction of the film as a contrast with the mostly human-free main story, but I’d argue that it’s actually tying Aaron’s extreme solitary lifestyle with the sensory-saturated life which keeps the rest of us equally isolated. Aaron doesn’t do this out of appreciation for nature, he does it because he needs constant stimulation, and because he fears connecting with other humans on anything but a superficial level. Before he gets stuck, there’s not a moment in the film where he seems to appreciate the natural beauty he’s trekking through; instead, he’s interested in pushing his body and creating a media record of his exploits. Hell, he’s listening to music throughout most of his outdoor experience. Not really indicative of a guy who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle and commune with nature.

    The narrative arc, then, is that Aaron is finally stuck with his thoughts, unable to continue the cycle of hyper-stimulation, and has to gradually face himself. So yes, Boyle’s camera seems to want to avoid focusing on Aaron’s trapped situation, but that’s because its representing his mind desperately trying to stay busy. It is kind of a missed opportunity to do something really claustrophobic, but ah well, I think Boyle’s approach is probably more interesting anyway and actually kind of very subtlely challenging. He’s surprisingly coy about what he wants you to take away from the film. Yes, there’s a pretty overt “connect with people!” message, but the actual character arc is not quite so spelled out. A lot of it comes not from the specific things he’s thinking, but the way the things he’s thinking about sort of shift over the course of the film.

  20. Mr Subtlety,

    I agree almost completely with your analysis of the film and what Boyle accomplished, I just don’t agree that it made for a very interesting or “challenging” film. It’s obvious that Boyle was more interested in Aron’s interior life than on the physical realities of his predicament, but I’m not sure that he pulled off the subjective elements of the film well enough to make it stand out for me. And few quick thoughts as to why:

    – Not that impressive on a technical level. I think Boyle is very talented, but his intensified continuity, stylistic mashup is nothing new and not done with any particular verve. Oliver Stone did it much better in NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Wong Kar-Wai did it much better in CHUNGKING EXPRESS, etc.

    – I thought the fantasy sequences lost their effect because of overuse. Maybe if they had stuck with one (say the glowing Scooby party hallucination) it would have worked for me, but you get that, plus the fake escape, plus a bunch of hazy stuff about his ex, plus his endless “premonition” near the end, and they all start to run together and become boring. The whole imagined escape scene has no dramatic/narrative pull because it’s obviously not really happening, and the “reveal” that it was just in his mind doesn’t have a sense of tragedy or disappointment.

    – You still could have had the emotional arc you described without all visual pyrotechnics. Aron’s interactions with his camera are enough to address this part of the story, and it’s possible to examine the inner workings of a character in a film without literally showing us his innerworkings, especially in such a show offy way. I’m not opposed at all to movies about subjective experiences that exist in the mind of the protagonist, but I this case I think that element of the story works at cross-purposes with the survivalism element that I found way more compelling.

    127 HOURS reminded a lot of INTO THE WILD; similar story of survivalism with a similar message about our reliance on others. INTO THE WILD basically saves the harrowing part of its story for the finale, and yet in my mind it tells that part of the story in a more compelling way that 127 HOURS, plus it creates a richer interior life for its lead character, and both without resorting to a bunch of look-at-me, music video-esque hyperactivity. The two movies might make for an interesting double feature.

  21. I still say it’s derivative of Another 48 Hours, though it does weave in some subtle elements from Cop-Out.

  22. Thanks for that laugh, Skani. Came at just the right timing after reading all those other comments.

  23. “(…It really shows you how many hundreds of tiny things could be done differently and completely change the movie. It must be hard to decide which combination of choices is the best.)”

    Vern, that sums up my week perfectly. And I’m not even working on anything approaching Oscar-worthy. I’m recutting a movie about a vampire… who works for the CIA. And he fights Islamic terrorists. And it’s a buddy cop action flick. And that’s not even the craziest shit. I’ll send you a copy when it’s done, Vern.

  24. I’m assuming that’s BLOOD SHOT. Any idea when that’s due to be out?

  25. I wish I could say. We don’t have a distributor yet. Also, the movie isn’t finished.

  26. Well this was sitting by my blu-ray player for about two weeks before i managed to pop it in. I kept telling myself it was because I wanted to keep plowing through the Song of Fire and Ice books but it the back of my head I knew it had more to do with the fact that I’d read people had been passing out in theatres and such while viewing the amputation scene. I can handle gore, and my favorite genre of film is horror, but something about this being a true story and just the pure unadulterated horribleness of actually having to cut your arm off without any kind of pain killer and only a dull knife. That’s a real mind fuck for me. Personally I ‘m pretty sure I would have fucking sat there and died.

    Well I’m glad I finally found my balls and got around to it because this was easily one of my top five of last year. Franco’s only other role I’ve really like was Pineapple Express and even that seemed to have earned him a level of respect and a following that frankly just surprised me. I mean he seems likeable enough in interviews and I’m sure he can find some good shit to smoke with his Hollywood friends but I mean his acting in Spiderman was nothing to write home about it, and that and being on General Hospital were the only things I knew about him. So I was genuinely surprised at how good he ended up being in this.The guy can act. Good job guy you earned it. Some of the credit has to go to Danny Boyle. I think he took Franco to a new level with this one.

    As for the amputation scene, which is really what the whole movie is about and what I was thinking about the whole time with a real sense of dread, it’s one of the most grizzly scenes I’ve ever endured. I mean yikes. I think yikes is the right word, I’m pretty sure that’s what Franco was screaming. I’d been thinking most of the movie that like his arm had just gone numb. I mean he never screams out in pain or cries or shows any real discomfort from his arm. He even mentions its turned greyish blue, like it had already died. I mean he stabs the thing on the 3rd day(into the bone even) and doesn’t really react like I think I would, he just seems shocked. So when he finally gets into the breaking of the bones and the real sawing of the nerves and tendons it hit me all that much harder. Those loud musical piercing ques when he’s hitting the nerves really sent a chill through me. It stuck with me for several days. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that shit.

    Anyway good film, going to read the dude’s book eventually to get a better sense of what it was like. The movie glosses over alot of stuff.

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