ODR11 Ill-Advised Double Feature: Blue Valentine and 127 Hours
Death Race 45, Sarah 11; 1 of 24 categories completed
When "Blue Valentine" ended, I knew [Derek] Cianfrance had directed his actors, but I wasn't sure he'd done the hard work of writing (he's the cowriter).
Without that, "Blue Valentine" stands as a workshopped piece that looks for truth in the "reality" of the performances, and [Michelle] Williams is getting no end of praise for her work.
Give her credit — she's cinema's leading avatar of solemn meditations on failed lives. But I think Williams, who is lovely and loved by the camera, should now move on from roles that require unwashed hair, abject sorrow and grief at the loss of her favorite dog (see "Wendy and Lucy").
I didn't feel as impatient with Blue Valentine as Gary Thompson seems to, but I agree with his points here: as a story, it's overworked, too concerned that we really get it. Several critics, Thompson included, have complained that we only get the beginning and the end of the story of this dying relationship between Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling, looking disconcertingly like Jason Lee in the present-day scenes), that the narrative doesn't tell us where it all went wrong, but as Roger Ebert points out, you never really know that anyway, and the back-and-forth cuts serve the story well; the script just needs to back off the signifiers a bit (the Future Room at the love motel; Dean thrashing through the weeds looking for his wedding band) and let the actors work.
The acting is as good as you've heard. Williams puts over in one bitten lip that moment at the end of the affair when the only thing that makes your skin crawl worse than his touch is the idea that he might sense that. She's equally good in the flashback scenes, conveying that new-love bubble in which you don't just adore everything about him, but about Us, the two of you together, the story you have now made.
Of course, from outside the bubble, we can see that the story they make together will end badly, that what they need from one another has nothing to do with them as people, and everything to do with idealizations and opposites, escapes. Here, the film wisely stands back and doesn't push, letting the situation and the actors do the work.
But Thompson has a point about Williams: we have seen this performance before, several times. It's good, and it's genuine, but it's not a departure, and I wouldn't mind seeing her do something funny — or at least take a role in which swallowed disappointments don't feature quite so prominently in the performance.
Literally minutes after finishing Blue Valentine, I went downstairs to watch 127 Hours with Gen and Mr. Stupidhead, an experience we'd decided to share because we couldn't face watching James Franco cutting his arm off each by ourselves. Because we all already knew that Franco's Aron Ralston cuts his arm off (spoiler: he cuts his arm off), we had to dissipate the wretched tension of the impending arm-off-cutting with a near-continuous series of jokes addressed to the screen. "Yeah, the chyron says it's only Monday, but you should probably just go ahead and cut your arm off." "Hacking at the boulder? Pretty good idea. Better idea? Cutting your arm off." "You know what I always say — when life gives you lemons, cut your arm off." One of us may have wondered aloud about a possible sequel, in which he finally cuts his arm off, but the rock proceeds to drop straight down…onto his foot. That someone's sibling may have suggested 128 Hours: Could Someone Please Get This Library Bookshelf Off My Cock Kthxbai.
Then, after 80 minutes of tricksy split-screens, visions of Ralston's future child, reverse-shot dream sequences, and other vain directorial attempts to delay the inevitable, Ralston finally cut his goddamn arm off. It's not actually that bad, that scene, except that you've built it up so far in your mind that you can barely take it, but to my mind, the part where he has to drink his own urine to survive is more disgusting.
Ralston is a real person, and I don't mean to diminish his experiences when I say this, obviously; the story probably made an excellent book. On film, though, it's that one big gimmick, ushered in by a series of smaller gimmicks designed to pass the time until the amputation scene. Danny Boyle would use all those hectic directorial flourishes anyway — it's what he does — but the fact that no director would have much choice given the narrative suggests that the film is flawed in its inception. Boyle tries heroically to create an arc, a traditional three-act movie, but it's not really possible. There's only one act that counts: he cuts his arm off.
And while Franco is very good as Ralston, Ralston as scripted is something of a problem. Initially, he shows no pain, no shock, no fear; his engineer's approach to the problem, and all the ancillary problems, is interesting at first, but as time goes on and the only emotional response we see is a pappy lesson on appreciating your life, it becomes somewhat unnerving. A big part of a story like Ralston's is the speculation it prompts in its audience: What would we do? How would we get out? Could we cut our own arms off, and if we could, would we know what to do after that? Ralston's in physical pain, but doesn't appear to doubt himself much, and when he tells himself not to lose it, we don't buy it, because he's betrayed no sign of losing it. Damp-eyed, frustrated, dehydrated, sure. Meltdown, no.
I can't say that it's a bad movie, although the denouement's pacing and scoring is weird and lets most of the air out; it's just that, again, it doesn't work as a movie. I can tell you that, if you have it on your Oscar-season list but don't think you can get through That Scene, 1) it's not as bad as you've heard, and 2) it's not nominated for that, so if you get to that point and just…can't, step into the lobby or fast-forward. You'll have a good enough idea of Franco's performance and of the script by that time.
Speaking of scripts, I've now completed the Adapted Screenplay category. It's a weird one — anyone want to explain what Toy Story 3 is doing in there? Don't get me wrong, I may have liked that writing the best of all the nominees; I just don't know what it's adapted from. In any case, 127 Hours is the weakest of the group; I'd have no problem with any of the others winning, and bet that this is where True Grit picks up its hardware.
Tags: 127 Hours Aron Ralston Blue Valentine Danny Boyle Derek Cianfrance Gary Thompson Gen James Franco Jason Lee Michelle Williams movies Mr. Stupidhead Oscars 2011 Death Race Roger Ebert Ryan Gosling shut up hippies