LFF 2010: 127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle returns from the success of Slumdog Millionaire with a vibrant depiction of man versus nature.

The story here is of Aaron Ralston (played by James Franco), the outdoor enthusiast who in 2003 was stranded under a boulder after falling into a remote canyon in Utah.

Beginning with an extended opening section, Boyle uses a variety of techniques (including split screen, weird angles, quick edits) to express Ralston’s energetic lifestyle as he ventures into a situation that would become ominously static.

He meets two women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before parting with them and climbing across an isolated canyon where he becomes trapped for the next 127 hours (look out for a killer title card).

Although it was a widely publicised news story at the time, there is a dilemma when discussing the events of this film.

Some will go in knowing what happened, whilst others will not.

For the benefit of the latter, I’ll refrain from revealing the full details but it is worth noting that the film is not a gory exploration of Ralston’s distress and audiences might be surprised at the overall tone of the film, which is far from gloomy.

An unusual project, in that so much of it revolves around a central location, Boyle contrasts the vital specifics of Ralston’s confinement in the canyon with his interior thoughts as it becomes an increasingly desperate experience.

The details of the situation are expertly realised as a penknife, water bottle, climbing rope and digital camera all assume a vital importance with a large chunk of the film feeling like an existential prison drama.

This gives it a slightly unusual vibe, as the audience is effectively trapped with Ralston in a claustrophobic way.

Using two cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chedia) working in tandem, the ordeal is powerfully realised using a bag of visual tricks to delve deep into his physical and emotional trauma.

Before we get to the canyon, the sun filled landscapes of Utah are shot and edited with a vibrancy and panache recalling some of Boyle’s earlier work, notably Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire.

There are also some poetic details that enrich the atmosphere: the distant planes above cutting through the blue sky, insects nonchalantly roaming free and the colour of the rocks themselves which look startling in the sunlight.

Once he actually becomes trapped, a variety of different shots and perspectives help give the situation different visual flavours: the interior of his water bottle, the bone inside his arm and video diary footage on his personal camera, become important in breaking up the gruelling monotony of his predicament.

His interior thoughts are brought to life with memories, flashbacks and hallucinations: a break-up with a girlfriend (Clemence Poesy); visions of his family and childhood; a strange chat-show monologue with himself and a flash flood.

There are times when it feels the filmmakers are over-compensating for the limitations they chose, and more doses of stillness would have been welcome, but overall the visual and audio design helps us get inside Ralston’s physical and emotional situation with clarity and empathy.

But the most brilliant decision of all was the casting of James Franco. His surface charms and hidden depths as an actor provide a perfect fit for the role, as he impressively navigates the emotional ride of his character.

With an unusual amount of screen time he hits all the notes required: exuberant daring as he cycles across Utah; determined ingenuity as he tries to escape the canyon; and the desperate, haunted pain as he stares into the face of death.

A.R. Rahman’s score is a bit looser than his work on Slumdog Millionaire, but it makes for an emotional backdrop to the events on screen and Boyle’s use of songs (notably Free Blood’s ‘Never Hear Surf Music Again’) is effective in cutting together with the images on screen.

Although 127 Hours feels longer than its 93 minute running time (well, it wouldn’t it?), this is actually a sign that Boyle’s gamble in dramatising this material has actually worked.

It is an unusual project in all sorts of ways, eschewing narrative conventions and revelling in its creative rough edges, as it focuses relentlessly on one man’s physical and mental struggle.

There is something in Ralston’s struggle that is both primal and fascinating. Inevitably we ask what we ourselves would have done in the same situation.

But this film version is not just a technical exercise in outdoor survival. It is a reminder of the basic need to survive in the darkest of circumstances.

By the end 127 Hours becomes a transcendent film about the power of life in the face of death.

127 Hours closed the LFF last night and goes on US release on Friday 5th November and in the UK on Friday 7th January.

> 127 Hours at the LFF
> Official website
> Reviews from Telluride and TIFF via MUBi

LFF 2010: The Kids Are Alright

A perfectly pitched comedy-drama about family tensions, director Lisa Cholodenko’s third film is also a showcase for some stellar acting.

When a Los Angeles lesbian couple, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), discover their two teenage kids, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), have got in touch with their biological father (Mark Ruffalo) it causes various complications.

As with Chodolenko’s previous films, this is very much a character piece exploring the intricacies and complications of human relationships.

But it is a step up from her last two films, applying a light touch to potentially heavy issues, and much of the enjoyment comes from the actors fitting snugly into their roles, especially the two leads who have their best parts in years.

Bening is excellent as the career-orientated matriarch. As an uptight, wine-loving physician she manages to convey a genuine warmth and affection for her family that often seems hidden beneath her surface anxieties.

Moore gets to explore a more vulnerable side, as someone less interested in a career and who strays of the beaten track in looking for someone to spice up her domestic routine.

The chemistry between the two is striking and they paint a convincing picture of a genuinely loving couple who are nonetheless susceptible to the insecurities and problems of everyday life.

Already attracting awards season buzz, it will be interesting to see which categories both actresses are submitted for. At the moment the smart money is for Bening, but it seemed to me that Moore had slightly more screen time.

In the key supporting roles, Wasikowska and Hutcherson provide a nice contrast to their parents with their charming levelheadedness, whilst Ruffalo exudes a relaxing, easy charm as the man who is a catalyst for unexpected change.

The screenplay, by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, manages to flesh out the characters and impressively depicts underlying tensions, be they of gender, sexuality or background.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how purely enjoyable it is to watch, moving from scene-to-scene with witty dialogue and organic humour generated from the interaction of the well-drawn characters.

This has the added bonus of dramatic moments arriving with unexpected force and when they do, it is with a lack of bombast unusual for films dealing with relationship problems.

For an independent film, albeit an upscale one, the look and feel of the production is convincing and special credit must go to editor Jeffrey M. Werner who helps move scenes along with an understated ease and fluency.

Added to this is an excellent soundtrack, which seems to reflect the different tastes of the family: for the parents there is David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and The Who, whilst for the kids, we get tracks from Vampire Weekend and MGMT.

Comedy-dramas (or dramatic comedies) can often be a hellish thing to get right, but here Chodolenko strikes just the right balance, with a tone that never takes its characters too seriously, whilst still treating them with respect.

Although the issue of gay marriage is still a contentious one in America, this film goes a long way in putting forward the idea that a happy family doesn’t have to be a conventional one.

Without resorting to grandstanding polemic and instead just showing the bittersweet ups and downs of a loving family, Chodolenko has made a convincing case that the kids will indeed be alright.

The Kids Are Alright screens at the London Film Festival (Monday 25th, Tues 26th and Weds 27th) and opens in the UK on Friday 30th October

> The Kids Are Alright at the LFF
> IMDb entry
> Reviews at Metacritic

LFF 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of an obsessive ballerina is wonderfully intense experience, powered by a standout performance from Natalie Portman.

Set amongst a New York City ballet company producing Swan Lake, it focuses on the psychological and physical tribulations of Nina (Portman), a dancer desperate to impress her demanding director (Vincent Cassel) and possessive mother (Barbara Hershey).

After she wins the lead role we see Nina’s ambition and drive turn into something much darker.

She begins to have suspicions about her predecessor (Winona Ryder), a fellow dancer (Mila Kunis) and herself as she becomes burdened with all kinds of psychological and physical problems.

Incorporating a variety of influences that include The Red Shoes, Repulsion and David Cronenberg, it also riffs heavily on the raw source material of Swan Lake itself.

Tchaikovsky’s original work is given a modern day twist, as the trials of a young princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer get unsettling and often surprising parallels.

At one point Cassel’s director says of his staging of Swan Lake:

“It’s been done to death, I know, but not like this. We’re going to strip it down and make it visceral and real”

This might also be Aronofsky talking, as that is exactly what he does with Black Swan.

Clint Mansell’s score also emphasises this, expanding on Tchaikovsky’s original compositions but taking it to a more sinister place, which, allied with some highly effective sound design, makes for an arresting audio backdrop.

Intriguing parallels with The Wrestler abound: both examine the physical and mental costs of being a performer; show the pressures of ageing; feature a character’s desire to connect; and climax with a grand flourish.

Black Swan goes further in cranking up the tension and, along with a paranoid, unreliable narrator, there is an unusual amount of visual effects shots that depict the crumbling reality of Nina’s world.

Mirrors are a recurring motif throughout and shots in rehearsal rooms are designed so we don’t see the reflected cameras; people and body parts morph in creepy ways; and a variety of subtle effects are used to make us question what we have just seen.

Part of what gives the film such an exhilarating kick is Matthew Libatique’s handheld visuals, shot on grainy 16mm. Like in The Wrestler, his work has a fluid urgency which really pays off in the dance sequences and also the claustrophobic world of Nina’s apartment.

But the heart of Black Swan is Natalie Portman’s captivating central performance. In what is easily the best part of her career, she conveys a believable kaleidoscope of emotions – including fear, aggression and pain – in a relentless push for artistic perfection.

Performing well outside of her comfort zone as an actress, her work has a certain meta quality that reflects the journey of her character, although we can safely assume the actual film production wasn’t as gruelling as the fictional ballet.

In supporting roles, Vincent Cassell is brilliantly arrogant as the manipulative director; Mila Kunis is a charming foil; Barbara Hershey conveys a suffocating and vicarious ambition, and Winona Ryder has a small but juicy role as a fading star.

Since establishing himself in the independent sphere with films such as Pi (1998) and Requiem For A Dream (2000), Aronofsky has carved out an impressive niche for himself with thoughtfully crafted character portraits that have included mathematicians, drug dealers and wrestlers.

Black Swan is probably his most daring film yet: the bold mix of genres, combined with a dark sensibility may put off some audiences, but is also a reminder of how rich and rewarding his work can be.

Black Swan played at the London Film Festival today and screens on Sunday 24th and Monday 25th.

> Black Swan at the LFF
> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi

LFF 2010: The King’s Speech

A superbly crafted period drama about the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist provides a memorable showcase for its two lead actors.

Beginning in 1925, the film traces how with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), The Duke of York, enlisted the help of an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helped him overcome a crippling stammer as he eventually assumed the throne and helped rally his people during World War II.

The bulk of the film explores the relationship between the stiff, insecure monarch and the charmingly straightforward Logue, his loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the royal relatives who may have contributed to his problem.

Having spent his life in the shadow of his domineering father, George V (Michael Gambon), the shy Albert struggles with the responsibility of assuming the throne when his headstrong brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), decides to abdicate.

The screenplay by David Seidler deftly weaves these domestic tensions with the wider drama of the challenges of speaking in public, as the development of radio and newsreels create new expectations and pressures.

It is to director Tom Hooper’s credit that he keeps focused on the relationships at the heart of the film and steers well clear of the ponderous self importance that can afflict British period dramas.

Much of the appeal lies in the culture clash between Lionel and Albert: the Australian-born failed actor and the heir to the throne make for an amusing odd couple, but the connection they gradually form over the years is believable and touching.

Their sequences provide an impressive showcase for the two lead actors: Firth convincingly depicts the underlying frustration and pain of someone suffering a stammer, whilst Rush is delightfully irreverent as the one person who can engage him.

Firth seems to have been re-energised by his work in last year’s A Single Man.

Although this role might seem like a return to the repressed English gentleman he was often typecast as, he brings real nuance and feeling to the role, which could have easily slipped into cliched bluster.

Rush is magnetic as an eccentric whose wit and empathy gradually erode the aristocratic barriers blocking his patient.

Combined, their chemistry is a joy to watch as they depict the social hangups of the British class system as they gradually form a deep bond.

In supporting roles the standouts are Bonham-Carter, who is pleasingly restrained and dead-pan; Michael Gambon as an imposing George V; Guy Pearce as the smarmy Edward and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel’s loving wife.

Hooper demonstrated with his work on HBO’s John Adams that he has a great eye for period detail and the interior lives of historical figures: he achieves the same level of intimacy here with the main characters and crafts a believable recreation of the era.

Danny Cohen’s camera work is a key part of this, artfully framing the characters with a wide lens, whilst also using a Steadicam to give certain sequences an intriguingly fluid feel for a period piece.

The technical contributions across the board are excellent: Tariq Anwar’s crisp editing keeps things moving smoothly; Eve Stewart’s production design is richly detailed and the costumes by Jenny Beaven are first rate. (The only slight lapse is some CGI work near the end).

‘Crowd-pleaser’ is a term that can often signify something sentimental, but The King’s Speech is likely to give a lot of pleasure to audiences across a wide spectrum.

An astutely observed social comedy, it also has great depth as a drama, beginning and ending with sequences of considerable weight and tension.

The film has already proved a hit on the festival circuit this year and it is very hard to see audiences and Oscar voters resisting its classy blend of history, humour and emotion.

The King’s Speech premieres at the London Film Festival tonight and screens on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th. It opens in the UK on January 7th 2011.

> The King’s Speech at the LFF
> IMDb entry