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127 Hours and The Town—Films to See Before the Oscars

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Picture this: You want to see a movie, either at the theater or on pay TV. Looking over the available listings, you come up with two films that have been nominated for Academy Awards: 127 Hours and The Town. Each has stars you enjoy—James Franco in 127 Hours (Best Actor), and Jeremy Renner (Best Supporting Actor) in The Town. You go on to read the plot summaries and squirm. See a film where someone cuts off his arm? A movie about Boston bank robbers? You are tempted to pass.

My advice: don’t. These are two must-see films with gripping performances, absorbing story lines, fantastic action sequences, and expert photography (breathtaking, in the case of 127 Hours). Each film explores the bonds of family and friendship, what those ties mean and how far people will go to protect loved ones.

127 Hours

James Franco is fast emerging as Hollywood’s ultimate overachiever, multi-tasker, and his generation’s thinking actor. He’s known for reading books—Homer and James Joyce are favorites, apparently—during breaks on the set. Franco, who dropped out of UCLA to pursue acting, has since earned his undergraduate degree at UCLA with a 3.5+ grade point average, an MFA from Columbia University, and is currently a doctoral candidate at Yale University. He occasionally commutes to North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College to study poetry and also has plans to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. Besides acting, he has penned a collection of short stories and paints.

Since he began acting in 1997, Franco has tackled a wide variety of roles—from Peter Parker’s nemesis in the Spiderman series, to the stoner in Pineapple Express, to Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk—earning many nominations and awards, as well as stellar reviews. He was a brilliant choice to play Aron Ralston, the thrill-seeking hiker who tumbles into a crevice in Blue John Canyon, Utah, where his arm becomes stuck between the canyon’s wall and a boulder. After more than five days, Ralston survives by cutting off his arm below the elbow.

Raging at his plight, Franco screams: “This is insane! Move this fucking rock!” Then, more quietly as he pounds it: “Please!”

Franco is in virtually every scene, the camera zooming in on his face while he undergoes a range of emotions—surprise, anger, hope, fear, despair, ecstasy, humor, and, finally, determination as formulates his escape plan. He props up a video camera on a rock and begins to talk, recording for his parents what he believes will be his last hours. “Do—not– lose–it, Aron!” he psyches himself up. “Don’t lose it!”

There are flashbacks to times spent with his family and with his girlfriend. We learn that he often took for granted those closest to him. He was in his apartment before leaving on his hike, but allowed his mother’s phone call to go to voice mail. What if he had taken that call and told his mother where he was going? Would there now be a search party out looking for him? He comes to the realization: “I chose this. I chose all of this. This rock has been waiting for me my entire life.” This moment is a sobering one.

The film’s tension is lessened with moments of great humor. Testing the camp knife he has brought with him, Franco observes: “Don’t buy the cheap made in China multi-tool. Not that I’m blaming you, mom. It was a perfectly great stocking stuffer. Don’t blame yourself. You couldn’t have known I’d be in this predicament.” Running low on water, he saves and drinks his urine. “Its no Slurpee.”

Emerging from the canyon, Franco is euphoric, even as he cradles his injured arm. Yes, he was reckless and lost something valuable. But he survived. Franco’s exuberance tells us, that he, and the real Aron Ralston, on screen right before the credits, have no regrets.

The Town

One word describes Jeremy Renner’s Academy Award nominated performances: intense. In last year’s The Hurt Locker, he earned a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Sergeant First Class William James, part of a three-man team whose job is to disarm bombs in Iraq. In this year’s The Town, directed by and co-starring Ben Affleck, Renner plays a bank robber from Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood. While Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, wants to leave his life of crime, Renner’s Jem Coughlin, relishes the dangers. Jem is prone to step over the line. Suspecting a bank manger has hit a panic button, he beats the man with the butt of his gun. For insurance, he convinces the team to take a hostage, the assistant manager played by Rebecca Hall. They release her unharmed, but when her driver’s license shows she lives in the neighborhood, Jem wants her offed. Instead, Doug crosses paths with her in a laundromat and soon the two are dating. The relationship spurs Doug’s desire to stop robbing banks and armored trucks.

As a bomb specialist, Renner showed little fear, only steely determination when confronted with death. His Jem also has a tough exterior, even when a job threatens to go seriously wrong. Surrounded by hundreds of police officers, routes of escape all but cut off, Jem still stays calm and collected and, yes, manages to get out.

Under six feet tall, Renner is not physically imposing. He conveys the threat of violence through his facial expressions and controlled body movements. Even before he throws that first punch or pulls the trigger, he telegraphs his intentions with a twitch or a smirk. He dominates the screen in The Town. You can’t take your eyes off him, anticipating the next outburst, most likely one that will end in violence.

Franco, who will host the Academy Awards on February 27 with Anne Hathaway, is a longshot to win, as is Renner. So why see the two films? Because these are two actors who are on an upward trajectory, destined to be around for a long, long time. How exciting to say we were fans way back when.

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