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Home » Culture and Criticism

ODR11 Ill-Advised Double Feature: Blue Valentine and 127 Hours

Submitted by on January 27, 2011 – 11:05 AM22 Comments

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.

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  • bristlesage says:

    My understanding is that all sequels are listed under adapted screenplay, in one of those weird Academy rules. Apparently, once the film's world has been invented, that's that.

  • Hari says:

    I think Toy Story 3 is up for adapted screenplay because it's a different writing team to the first two – so there's probably a "based on characters created by" credit in there somewhere…

  • Brandi says:

    Toy Story 3 is adapted from the original story of Toy Story, so all sequels are thus adapted.

    The more you know! /rainbow/

  • mike says:

    Michelle Williams was great in the Baxter. And Dawson's Creek? If that isn't comedy …

  • Jenn on TV says:

    Thanks Sars for the heads up about "that scene." I've always wanted to see all the movies nominated for best picture in a single year, but there's always at least one that I just can't/won't/don't want to see and that's the one this year. May have to do some fast-forwarding.

  • Shawn says:

    Hey Sars,

    I wasn't sure about something, and I was hoping you could clarify it for me:

    In 127 Hours, does he cut his arm off? I couldn't tell.

    Normally, I love your coverage of the Oscars, but I think you might have missed something in your review of this movie.

    Next time, you might want to try cutting off an arm to beat us over the head with in getting to the point.

    A Devoted Reader :P

  • Drew says:

    Seen both of these, so I'll weigh in. Blue Valentine is one of my favorites that I've seen thus far in awards season. The acting is that good. I didn't find any fault in the "making sure you get it" stuff, mostly because I didn't look at them as symbolism so much as I simply looked at it from a "what is versus what was" perspective, which is what I admired most about it.

    50% of all marriages end in divorce, so a movie like this should resonate with a lot of people, but Americans like their entertainment disposable and uplifting, which is why something this honest is never going to be received the way the latest project that has Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston will, even if the latter is rife with contrivance. I appreciated having reality intrude into my entertainment this time.

    I agree with you about not really seeing what causes things to go south for these two, but because we open at the beginning of the end, I spent most of the flashbacks looking for cracks in the armor. It gives the whole movie a pervasive unease, if not outright sadness, that's tough to sit through, but worth it if you can.

  • Drew says:

    Breaking these two up, so as not to have a megapost. Saw 127 Hours just yesterday, and we're pretty much on the same page. Danny Boyle's editorial decisions absolutely drove me up the wall (sweet Jesus, a CSI-cam?), and I was trying to figure out whether I'd just gotten tired of his standard flourishes, or he used them to the point of excess. I think it's the latter, which as you said, is designed to lead up to The Scene, and frankly I'm right there with you about the rush to cut it off. Early on he tells his camera that his hand has had no circulation for 24 hours, so it's probably done for. Why not cut if off then and there?

    All the same, I enjoyed the buildup and give credit to Franco and Boyle for still being able to ratchet up the tension towards the payoff, although at least part of that is just my mind wrapping itself around the concept that the guy does, in fact, cut his own arm off (kudos to the sound designer for utterly grossing me out with his choices for the sounds of breaking arm bones).

    My last thought, and I've seen it brought up nowhere else, was how much this reminded me of Into the Wild and Grizzly Man. Ralston wasn't anywhere in the same mental solar system as Chris McCandless or Timothy Treadwell, but just like it doesn't particularly surprise you that either of them came to premature demises because of their delusions, when that rock fell on Franco's arm, they both came to mind, along with the thought "Well, DUH". I think I'm just not a "I climb the mountain because it's there" kind of guy.

  • Todd K says:

    Fortunately, 127 Hours is coming back this way. Of all the significant ones I have not seen, it was the one I was most worried would fall in the "out of theaters/not on DVD or On Demand until spring" Bermuda triangle, and I didn't want to use some on-line piracy site.

    Drew got there before me with the Into The Wild/Grizzly Man comparisons. From the time I read the first review, I was thinking, "Yeah, it's been a few years; we were due for a Harrowing True Story of (Non-)Survival as a a Young Person's Outdoor Adventure Goes Horribly Wrong." Of course, the pinnacle of the genre was The Blair Witch Project. Ha.

  • Val says:

    As an FYI, Ralston's book is just as annoying in the drawing-it-out way. Actually, it's worse. You go into knowing everything he did wrong to get to that point. You read about all the times previously where he did something stupid and didn't die and how he learned nothing from it ("I jumped into a huge river that I knew had a big current and almost got swept away, ha ha!" Not funny.)

    The book talks about how he suddenly had the day off and decided to go hiking without telling anyone where or leaving a note at home, how even if he had he picked a different location anyway, he thought about leaving a note on his car before he started walking but had no paper so eh, he brought enough water for route X but decided to do the longer Y at the junction because whatever.

    I mean, by the end I was glad he had to cut off his arm – that's a reminder to be safe that's hard to ignore. Plus, I hate that he was SO stupid and everyone thinks he's a hero instead of an example of exactly what not to do. Blurgh!

  • Kate says:

    @Val- I haven't seen the movie or read the book, but my step-father (a safety professional and avid outdoorsman) gets extremely annoyed whenever Ralston's story gets brought up:

    "None of this would have happened if he had just told someone where he was going. It's just common sense."

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Val, yep, I gotta agree. Every two years or so The Industry finds a story that's obstensibly about heroic behavior in the face of overwhelming odds exhausted tired thirsty body horror yada yada yada, but my reaction to about 97% of them is "this was completely avoidable. COMPLETELY avoidable."

    It's bad enough when it's something like climbing Mt. Everest or K2–at least there the real dumbfucks have already been sorted, since you can't attempt that kind of thing without a minimum of equipment and brains, and any risky behavior tends to fall under the "I haven't come this far to fail now damnit!" umbrella.

    But since I am really not a mountain conquerer type of gal, I don't get the anxiety and panic these stories try to build up over the participants. Dangerous? Well, doy. That's the entire point for an adrenaline junkie, and he/she has apparently made some kind of peace with the possible anguish and certain fear they cause in their loved ones, so why does the story try to make Nature out to be some kind of Malificent-type Disney villian when it snows or the wind blows hard?

    And stories like Danny Boyle's or Timothy Treadwell's are even worse. These guys may be in shape and love the outdoors, but they clearly don't respect it, or physics, or chance, or any of the myriad things that can quite possibly go wrong because they don't think those things are real, not really real, not for someone like them! They're no better than those moron tourists you hear about that try to feed bears or pet wolves or put their toddlers on a bison's back for a picture.

    Completely avoidable=irritation=/=entertainment, for me.

  • ferretrick says:

    So you haven't ever taken an incredibly stupid risk, survived it and lived to tell the tale? I sure have.

    I agree it's somewhat annoying when people get themselves in trouble through situations that could have been avoided. But, we've all done stupid things in our lifetime. I don't see how it diminishes the fact that DUDE CUT OFF HIS ARM to survive. Still an interesting story to me.

  • Jo says:

    The idea of the arm-cutting scene isn't what turns me off about "127 Hours." It's the claustrophobia of watching him be stuck there. From the previews it looks like just one or two steps up from a buried alive movie, which I can't stand.

  • caoimhe says:

    I read Aron Ralson's book just as it was published and saw the movie years afterward. Reading the book prior made a big difference in my appreiciation of the screen adaptation. It gave the story more depth and subtext than what was conveyed through dialouge.

    That screeching music that played as he cut his arm off though…that made me feel seriously sick.

  • Sam says:

    My problem with 127 Hours is that the only reason for the film and book is that he cut off his arm. So basically you have to want to go in to see a movie about how someone makes that decision, does it, then survives. For me it's just not enough; if he got his arm out from under the boulder somehow and walked away would the film be very compelling anyway? Not in my opinion. I thought Franco was good but it sort of surprised me everyone was saying he's Oscar-worthy; something about him makes me think of Amy Adams in Julie and Julia – kind of annoying, never makes something out of the mostly one-note character.

    I've been avoiding Blue Valentine because of Michelle Williams. She does sadface well, but it's still sadface in most of her movies.

  • avis says:

    @Jen S 1.0
    "Val, yep, I gotta agree. Every two years or so The Industry finds a story that's obstensibly about heroic behavior in the face of overwhelming odds exhausted tired thirsty body horror yada yada yada, but my reaction to about 97% of them is "this was completely avoidable. COMPLETELY avoidable.""
    This is why I have never watched Titanic!

  • Todd K says:

    I hung around through the end titles of 127 Hours because I had a song question, and I noticed a credit for "piano teacher." Seriously? They couldn't just find a girl who already could play part of a Chopin Nocturne slowly and clumsily? Or maybe it was that demanding "Heart And Soul" duet that required it.

    I was more impressed with this one than SDB was. Yes, there is the narrative inevitability, but that's true of most fact-based films. When you go see The King's Speech, you don't have to be a student of British history to know the climax is going to be the king giving a speech. There's a remote chance he's going to stammer and stutter like mad through it despite all of his and Geoffrey Rush's hard work, and Helena Bonham Carter will say "There, there, dear. You did your best, and that's what counts," but you sense they wouldn't make a movie leading up to that. It succeeds or not based on the execution and the details. Here, I thought what was compelling — even fascinating, for stretches — was the psychology. The way it evoked various very fluid emotional and physical states; not just a straight line from "I'm going to get out of this" to "Nothing I've done is getting me out of this" to "I have to cut my arm off." There are points when he clearly seems resigned to losing life or at least limb, but then he's back trying to think his way out of it, or muscle his way out of it, and along the way taking comfort in little diversions like the sunlight, and minor victories like retrieving the useless pocketknife. For all the fussiness and flashiness of Boyle's style, I found it authentic and convincing at its core. I've been far more bored by movies with far more overtly happening in them.

    Granted, it is narrow and faintly lockstep. At *precisely* the moment I was thinking, "OK, the hypersensual approach has carried this surprisingly far, but if Boyle's going to squeeze another 25 minutes out of this, he's going to have to go surreal and hallucinatory," it…went surreal and hallucinatory. But maybe that wasn't any special feat of prediction. Aron's deprivations had reached the logical point for him to start seeing people on couches.

    Franco was phenomenal. It is a clever performance and a very courageous one, and I don't mean that in the "lack of vanity" way usually meant, like when an older actress appears without makeup and/or naked. I mean he had to have a lot of trust in his face as an expressive tool, because his interaction with other actors is minimal and he's very limited in his body for most of the movie; and by the time this thing is over, we will have every pore, freckle, and line memorized. I haven't seen Bardem's movie, but I'd easily give this category to Franco over the other three (all are good, but presumptive frontrunner Firth impressed me more in A Single Man last year).

    Finally, I was not alienated by the stupidity of Aron's choices (although I haven't read his book, so I only know about the ones in the movie). Everyone is careless/thoughtless sometimes. Twice (TWICE!) this winter I've depleted my car battery by leaving a map light on. You can do the self-flagellation Aron does at a couple points in the film, but the screw-up is on the books. We all probably get away with a frightening number of those bad decisions and brain lapses; we just notice and remember the ones that result in our being inconvenienced or worse. The best that one can hope for is that the story will end with "So I had to pay $60 to the tow-truck guy for a jump," rather than "So I cut my arm off."

  • Todd K says:

    My 127 Hours comment did go on a bit.

    Regarding Michelle Williams's typecasting in sad-girl roles, I don't see a departure anytime soon. Of her two upcoming movies, one is written/directed by Sarah Polley, so is it even necessary for me to add that it is described as "bittersweet" and "heart-wrenching"? (It probably will be really good. I loved SP's Away From Her.) In the other one, she plays Marilyn Monroe fairly late in life, so I wouldn't expect many laughs from that either.

    Jeremy Renner, similarly, is in danger of being the go-to reckless/unhinged guy. He really needs to play an agoraphobic gay sculptor, or something.

    Blue Valentine before the day is over. Looking forward.

  • Todd K says:

    Speaking of Jeremy Renner, and of things spotted in closing credits, I wonder what he did to deserve a special thanks from the makers of Blue Valentine. I assume it's "the" Jeremy Renner.

    I wanted and expected to love this, but…I sound like Randy Jackson, but "it was just OK for me." There were great things in it (Williams, obviously), but by some point in the second half, I had checked out. It's one of those movies that send me to Rotten Tomatoes when I get home to read the negative reviews, because I can't quite put my finger on what was off. Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe got closest, of the handful I read. This seemed callow, as if Cianfrance believed the film he had made was bolder and more lacerating than it was. (Morris's words: "Blue Valentine feels young […] but has none of the ideas or risks of youth. It wants an old soul without spending much time in church.") The screenplay wasn't strong enough or sharp enough to support all the self-conscious vérité portentousness.

    However, I did not mind that we missed the middle where things; I liked the focus on the beginning and the end, and the way their downfall is there in his line "I can only sing when I'm being goofy" — it's charming at the time, but as it turns out, you can take "sing" out and replace it with a lot of other things. (Dean sells himself short, though. RG's radio-crooner stylings in that lovely scene made me want him to do a musical period piece.)

  • Jael says:

    I may never watch either of these movies, but I'm so glad you did, because I got to read this. And now I will be walking around chuckling at all the potential sequel ideas for 127 Hours involving feet and cocks and whathaveyou. Continue the Death Race in style!

  • Kizz says:

    Thank you, could not agree more that the urine gargling far outstripped the arm hacking in terms of making me gag. No, didn't love watching him cut off his arm but something about the soundtrack of drinking the urine made it impossible to get away from whereas you could cringe and blur your eyes and get sufficient distance from the arm scene if you needed it. I seriously almost revisited my Jr. Mints with the urine.

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