Friday, 14 January 2011

Original Music, Film Conceits, James Franco and other musings on 127 Hours

It’s probably evidence of how my mind hops about, but when 127 Hours ended the thing that I was thinking of was not Aaron’s plight but the injustice of the new rules for Best Original Song. If you’re an Oscar fanatic, you’d have known by now that in order to find nominees all original song contenders are played on a loop so voters can discern their context in the film. Ostensibly, the idea seems sound since it urges voters to ensure that songs aren’t extraneous – but am I the only one who thinks that such a decision encourages voters to vote for the best use of a song and not for the merit of the song itself? Case in point: Rahaman’s “If I Rise” in 127 Hours – I’ll withhold judgement on the song’s actual value but few can deny that the moment said song is played in 127 Hours all but demands that it emerges as a serious contender in the race. And it’s not that loathe Danny Boyle (I haven’t seen most of his early work) it’s the sort of obsequious attempts at being relevant and hip (incidentally, qualities that suffused Slumdog Millionaire) which prevents me from being altogether enthusiastic about 127 Hours.

It’s James Franco’s show and the third notable performance of his this year – the third character inspired by true events. First, the aspiring actor/lover of Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, second the revolutionary poet Alan Ginsberg in Howl and now Aaron Ralston in 127 Hours. The role reminded me of Nina Sayers in the much fêted Black Swan. Like in Portman in Black Swan, more so even, Franco is required to carry the film on his shoulders whilst experiencing intense suffering that makes him a sort of shoo-in for awards’ recognition. Excuse the cynicism, I wouldn’t posit that it’s impossible to appreciate either performances on their own merit but I’m constantly wondering if awards’ voters are voting for what they’re actually attracted to or if they’re enticed by the cinematic conceits that set up an actor in a role that almost demands they gain attention for. Franco’s natural winsome nature is his strongest tool here. Unlike Spencer Tracy in The Old Man & the Sea or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away he’s also buoyed by the narrative and the fact that the circumstances resulting in his isolation are more pressing.

Boyle overdoes it, though, with direction that’s so officious I often found myself questioning his decisions. I couldn’t help but think of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, which I’d screened the day before I saw 127 Hours. Basic differences aside, both films were similar in attempting to show the development (or lack thereof) of a protagonist who was in a state of physical stagnation. In Boyle’s defence I could presume that his intrusiveness is an attempt to emulate Aaron’s own sensibilities but the decision seems questionable and doesn’t always benefit the story. True, this tendency of his serves to emphasise the technicalities of the film – like the very agitated editing and cinematography and most notably the sound design, which is especially commendable. Yet, there’s the striking sense that overemphasising these technical aspects do little – if anything – to enhance Aaron’s plight, in what should be a character study, he vetoes any attempt at poignancy (although,  maybe, there isn't any poignancy in the character) and instead goes for a deliberate faux-sense of being current, I can almost hear the film tapping itself on the shoulder, Don't I look cool?. It’s not so much that there’s an excess of tonal shifts, but the potentially sedate story seems deliberately over stylised to make it unnecessarily jaunty which in the end seems subversive when the ending comes and he closes it all with a the grave realisation of life’s value and whatnot.
Danny Boyle has a talent for the visceral – and he knows to keep the audience interested and whatever its flaws 127 Hours is rarely dull. It’s nowhere near a terrible film and instead reminds me of a film like The Town – vaguely engaging but rarely giving anything more than transient pleasure. I look at its coolness and think, Hmmm, that's interesting....what's for dinner?


Walter L. Hollmann said...

The last line made me smile. Too funny.

I liked it more than you did (by a lot), but I understand where you're coming from. Boyle's work is SO stylized sometimes that it's distracting, so I get not feeling it.

If I Rise almost distracted me. Breathy female vocals don't do it for me unless they're in the end credits or throughout the film. It didn't fit with the rest of A.R. Rahman's score, for me.

Jose said...

See, now we're agreeing again.
Franco was superb the rest of the movie was a joke. I'm all about style over substance, but Boyle's style here has been so digested and vomited that it has lost all the freshness that once made him a transgressive, energetic filmmaker.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I disliked the film as much as you did, but I really agree with some of your points. Especially about Boyle's "overdirecting", so to speak. I find the film difficult to approach, because like you say, it's very engaging. The problem is that Boyle adds so much more to it than is naturally there. It's about a guy trapped for five days and trying to survive. It's hard to go anywhere from that. So although I don't think I would be quite so harsh, I still agree with many of, and respect your views here.

TomS said...

Andrew, I have not seen this film yet...I even promised Walter that I would, based on his review.

I have another take on comments that Boyle's style is overdone. With "Slumdog Millionaire", it seemed that his style was somehow not appropriate to the story he wanted to tell. It felt as though Boyle was forcing exuberance on squalor and child abuse.

I felt cajoled into soaring when my mind told me to reflect and think. The movie gave me no time to consider what I was watching, and I felt like I was constantly resisting it.

I wonder if any of that applies to "127 Hours"?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

walter i think there point WAS for it not to fit. as if the almost ehetreal singing is an indication of aaron losing his latent douchiness or whatnot. i REALLY hope rahman doesn't take the category (undeservedly) again.

jose YAY, we're agreeing indeed. that's the weird thing, i AM all about style over substance (ahem, nine) but it just wasn't working here. the style didn't fit with the thematic elements he seemed intent on showing even if it still was entertaining.

nathan yeah, i get you and i give him credit there because there really is nowhere to go (literally and figuratively), but i felt a minimalist approach would have worked better - perhaps to show his claustrophobia or the feeling of being boxed in which wasn't played upon, much.

tom YES, YES that's how i feel about slumdog millionaire, though i liked it more than this one - marginally. it seems as if he's manipulating you a bit, and that definitely applies here.

Anonymous said...

I probably need to read the book so I know what Boyle is trying to aim at.

I think he was also going for a theatrical approach, bringing his fantasies and flashbacks to the space he's in, which barely ever works, and it doesn't work here.