Oscar Hopefuls Part 2

127 Hours – R

James Franco gives a captivating performance in 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s inspiring, if possibly incomplete, film about adventurer Aron Ralston. Ralston’s hand was pinned under a rock when exploring a canyon, and he was stuck for five days until he severed his own arm. The film adds a lot of touches to keep the scenes of the trapped Ralston from growing tedious. We see unusual point-of-view shots from places like Ralston’s water bottle as fluid is sucked out and his camera as it rewinds his video. It also intercuts Ralston’s physical endurance with his flashbacks and hallucinations, which call to mind Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun (another amputee story, but a much less hopeful one).

Eventually, I started thinking these additions weighed too much on the overall movie. Those POV shots do a good job showing Ralston’s desperation, his worsening situation and his possible final record. However, the movie is only 94 minutes long, and Boyle’s flourishes eat up time that should be spent in the hole with Ralston. Franco’s performance is more than strong enough to support an almost one-man movie, but 127 Hours seems a bit reluctant to let him try. His solo screen time is potent enough to generate pathos and to make his amputation more celebratory than gruesome. The movie succeeds in keeping Ralston’s story a hopeful one, but I wish it was as interested in the man himself as it is in visualizing his ordeal.

The Town – R

Ben Affleck’s second film as a director is a fun, if unexceptional, bank robbery movie set in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood. The opening job gets complicated by an unplanned hostage situation. The group’s leader (Affleck) keeps tabs on the subject (Rebecca Hall) to ensure she doesn’t inform the authorities. As is destined to happened, he falls in love with her, and it compounds his dream of leaving his criminal life while pitting him against his friends and neighbors. The story is often predictable (except for a nicely subdued ending), but the robbery sequences are genuinely exciting. They are tightly constructed without anything extraneous, and they include several unusual details and actions. The robbers cover their tracks by, among other ways, pouring bleach over any fingerprints and by destroying the security tapes with the employee lounge microwave. The invention in these sequences offsets the rather routine drama.

My biggest complaint with The Town is that I didn’t feel a strong sense of these characters’ background. The most location-specific details, like the airborne establishment shots and slang like “townies” (Charlestown natives) and “toonies” (those who moved to Charlestown), are bits that could be substituted with the equivalents of any other city. We do get a sense of an oppressive background in the scenes with Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper and the intimidating Pete Postlethwaite. I’m not suggesting the environment should dominate the movie. After all, why should these characters keep reminding themselves that Charlestown is their home and is who they are? It would be nice, though, for this movie to feel like it could not have taken place anywhere other than Charlestown.

True Grit - PG-13

I can’t make comparisons to the 1969 True Grit since I haven’t seen it, but I can tell you the Coen Brothers’ new adaptation is one terrific Western. Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn, the scraggly U.S. Marshall hired to find an outlaw and bring him to justice. The equally hilarious and dignified Bridges displays an impressive range of expressions despite wearing an eyepatch. However, how well you can understand his craggy voice will depend on the clarity of your theater’s sound system. Hailee Steinfeld, playing his 14-year-old employer, is a more-than-capable co-star. She stays away from playing the role as either cute or too stoic and serious. Matt Damon is a lot of fun as an uppity Texas Ranger, but Josh Brolin as the fugitive tries too hard to be mean and coarse. He’s the only incongruous piece of this crackerjack cast.

The fight scenes in True Grit are alternately tense and invigorating, but the more thrilling feature is how beautiful this movie looks. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is rife with panoramic wide shots that would suit any John Ford movie. The parallel images he creates make the climax moving as well as rousing. I concede that True Grit has a few missteps (a rushed epilogue that finishes with Iris DeMent’s wailing rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”), but my recommendation for this movie is nothing short of hearty. Decent Westerns don’t come along too often, let alone traditional ones. (As excellent as Brokeback Mountain and No Country for Old Men are, I still pine for a 19th-century Western now and then.) Like James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma three years ago, True Grit is an archetypal Western that does not feel antiquated in the least.


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