127 HoursIt has always been one of Danny Boyle’s greatest talents to take up a firmly niche concept and turn it into a product suitable for mainstream audiences. And with “Slumdog Millionaire” crowned with the film world’s greatest accolades, whatever his next project, its success was predetermined. And from the slums of Mumbai, Boyle turned to the autobiography of a man responsible for one of the most incredible against-the-odds survival stories in recent memories, though not very well known outside of adventurer circles. The tale of Aron Ralston’s ordeal is indeed a mind-bending one and deserving of a place on the silver screen. Perhaps the greatest plus for Boyle and his team was Ralston’s own seal of approval both for the picture as a whole and for its lead, the considerably talented James Franco.

It’s 2003 and Aaron Ralston (Franco) sets out on a hiking and climbing trip in the Utah desert, without telling anyone where he’s going. After meeting and helping two fellow adventurers, played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, he continues on his own. As he descends into a particularly steep area of the canyon, he looses his footing on a rock, falls and gets his right arm trapped as the rock falls on top it. Over the period of the next few days he tries firstly to chip at the rock with his penknife, then to lift it, all to no avail. As his water supply begins to run short and he realises his life may be cut short, Ralston begins to record episodes of his struggles on his video camera, reexamining his life, sorry now that he hasn’t always appreciated it and the people around him fully. Finally, gathering up his courage, he begins a very painful last attempt to free himself. There are two main hurdles that this sort of documentary-style presents for the filmmakers and audiences: First, the fact that everyone will know how it ends. The key therefore is maintaining not only our interest but having us suffer (figuratively of course) as the protagonist must. In this, Danny Boyle and his writing collaborator Simon Beaufoy have succeeded but not in a conventional manner. Not for one moment is “127 Hours” boring. Aided by stirring images courtesy of Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, the canyons are liberating and claustrophobic at the same time. Catching details like the life-giving water are captured imaginatively as are the flashbacks (including those with his former girlfriend played by Clémence Poésy) built into the plot. It’s been an extraordinary year for movies that take place partially inside of people’s minds but “127 Hours” thankfully never takes this too far.

Second is of course the performance by James Franco as Aron Ralston. Much better when in a canyon than when presenting award ceremonies, Franco has to be the heart and soul of the film and viewers can witness a star in the making here. His Ralston is lively, and headstrong but the realisation he is about to die is presented with remarkably restrained power by the actor. It is the sort of performance the Academy loves to reward (even if only with a nomination) but in terms of his career, this solo powerhouse should see him able to break out of the “Spider-Man” type roles he’s played up to now. There are elements of tragic and almost incongruous humour within the film, scenes that are curiously upbeat but then again, this will be true to Ralston’s original video recordings. Nevertheless, these moments will not be every viewer’s cup of tea and may produce some nervous, involuntary laughs. Also a warning to anyone with an aversion to seeing blood and gore, be prepared in the final act to cover your eyes. That said, some of the sound effects are almost more chillingly convincing than what needs to be shown on screen. A film like “127 Hours” might not get international exposure if Boyle’s name were not attached to it but regardless of its suitability as a niche, art-house or mainstream picture, it makes for a gripping view.

127 Hours OSTWith “Slumdog Millionaire” a collaboration was born between Danny Boyle and Indian “Mozart of the Madras,” composer A.R. Rahman. For “127 Hours” Rahman focuses on Ralston’s moments of reflection through strings, guitars and most memorably with the eerie vocals of Dido with the signature song “If I Rise.” This theme will be most memorable for casual viewers and listeners and rewarded Rahman with yet another Oscar nomination.  From the beginning, music is a central part to the film, through the songs played by the mountaineer on his MP3 player to those featured in the flashbacks and opening and closing montages. These include works by Bill Withers, Plastic Bertrand and Sigur Rós. However as with “Slumdog” if the songs are removed, the score’s effectiveness is much reduced, it’s the combination that make for a killer product. A.R. Rahman’s score alone is probably not worth the purchase.

Documentary-style filmmaking of the highest order, Danny Boyle’s followup to “Slumdog Millionaire” proves once again his talents as a director. Meanwhile, James Franco’s believable central performance is entertaining and moving at the same time. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

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