Anyone who has seen Jennifer Connolly’s performance in Requiem for a Dream (2000) will know that director, Darren Aronofsky, is not averse to doing disturbing, invasive things to beautiful women in his films.   Furthermore, anyone who remembers Natalie Portman’s debut in Leon (1994) or her shaven-headed turn in V for Vendetta (2006) will know that she’s not frightened of taking on challenging, unpleasant roles. 

Put these two factors together and you might well expect Black Swan to be a harsh viewing experience, which it is; but it’s also ravishingly beautiful in a cold, controlled sort of way.  It is a film which, from the very outset, tells you that it is playing with subtext and metaphor and you better have your Thinking Head on or you’ll get left behind!

We begin with a nightmare, showing Nina Sayers (Portman) dancing The Swan Queen with a jet black, feathered, be-horned ballerino … presumably her inner demon.  So, we know from the get go that all is not well in Nina’s mind.  When she wakes, she finds herself surrounded by mirrors and reflective surfaces and regards them with suspicion.  Even the rest of the corps de ballet is filled with reflections of Nina as every woman in there – from the departing prima ballerina, Wynona Ryder, to the understudy, Mila Kunis – bears a passing resemblance to Nina.  

Wynona, sorry, Natalie, through a glass, darkly
 This serves to make Nina increasingly paranoid about jealousy from the other dancers and fearful about her own abilities.  It’s worth remembering that Portman has a degree in Psychology, so she brings a wealth of understanding to a role which is, psychologically, very dense.  She gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a girl slowly losing her mind as Nina unravels under the constant, unrelenting pressure of being a professional ballerina.

One can sympathise.  Aronofsky draws comparisons with the behind-the-scenes life of Randy the Ram, in The Wrestler (2008), by showing just how much pain and sacrifice ballet dancers inflict on themselves in their unending battle to achieve a brief moment of perfection.  Even pretending to be a ballerina required Portman to endure months of gruelling training during which, rather like ‘method’ poster boy, Christian Bale, she lost over a stone of weight.  The Red Shoes (1948) famously dealt with the physically and psychologically destructive power of dancing and Nina, like Victoria Page before her, is physically up to the challenge of dancing, but is she mentally tough enough?  

Aronosky and Portman on set (Portman's the one in the tutu, by the way)

Just as Clint Mansell’s score uses Tchaikovsky’s music as a jumping-off point then warps and distorts it, so the whole film’s plot lifts elements directly from the ballet, but re-interprets and re-purposes them.  It also draws on the theme of duality you’ll find in the psycho-thrillers of Brian De Palma - most notably in Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976) and Body Double (1984) - which were, in turn, largely inspired by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).  And, speaking of Hitch, his most famous piece, Psycho (1960), deals with the dark and deadly power wielded by mothers, a theme he played with time and again and which brings us neatly to Nina’s mother, Erica, played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey.

Initially, Erica comes across as a loving, supportive mother who understands her daughter, having been a ballerina herself but, gradually, we realise that Erica’s determination to stop her daughter making her mistake (of falling pregnant and losing her career) has become an obsession.  She has taught her daughter to associate sex with wounding and this has resulted in Nina being fearful and withdrawn.  The ballet’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), appreciates the precision of Nina’s dancing the White Swan role but, for the dual role of the evil Black Swan, he needs her dance to be raw, emotional and seductive.  Unfortunately, thanks to mother’s teachings, she has no idea how to do that; so he sets about trying to unleash that side of her personality, which puts him in direct opposition with the increasingly flaky Erica.  She, like her daughter, is fearful of reflections, yet she is self-destructively drawn to them.  She obsessively paints primitive, cruel self-portraits, and weeps while she does so.  Well, there’s a workable definition of well-balanced!

Cassel gets to play sexual predator again, not a French stereotype at all, then.
 You see, then, that the film is about as far from Glee as a show-must-go-on movie can be!  It is just as harsh visually as it is psychologically.  Even the palette is unrelenting with (apart from one scene in a night-club) almost no colour to be seen.  Thomas surrounds himself with stark black and white furniture, which makes its own statement (another motif which I feel Aronofsky has borrowed from De Palma), yet the rehearsal rooms have cinder-block walls and are therefore separated by a labyrinth of grey corridors.  Behind the scenes, show biz is all moral shades of grey!

A real surprise here, too, is the way that cutting-edge special effects have been woven invisibly into the fabric of the film.  Some of them are punch-you-in-the-face stunning, but you simply don’t notice (or don’t think you notice) a lot of the others the first time you see the film, so skilfully are they employed.   This is what effects are supposed to be, aids to the telling of a story, not a side-show attraction in their own right.  Any effect you fail to notice is an effect that is working!  Aronofsky’s team did their job so well, in fact, that no one noticed when it came to the Oscar ballots.  Ah, well.

Over at Obsessed with Film, they have put together an appropriately obsessive argument for why this film is a masterpiece and, whilst I don’t agree with them all, they make some very well argued and well-considered points.  They have also embedded a fascinating short video showing how (and where) those special effects were used.  The article is here but – and I can’t stress this enough – DO NOT GO THERE until after you have seen the film.  Serious, film-ruining spoilers there are, in abundance!

Visually, the film is loaded with coded images: The mirrors, the wings, the blacks, whites and greys contrasting starkly with the red of the wounds … This is not an easy watch.  It might give you a headache as you realise you’ve been frowning throughout, trying to keep up with the whirling camera and cascade of short, energetic scenes which typically say very little but mean a lot.  It’s a stark, tough and, occasionally, unpleasant film which also manages moments of sublime beauty, visual poetry and even erotica. 

As with The Fighter (which Aronofsky also contemplated directing for a while) this film is full of rich, complex characters being brilliantly acted and, again just like The Fighter, all of this is undermined somewhat by the inevitable melodramatic trajectory to the narrative.  Whilst being careful not to give away too many details, I must confess I found the ending especially frustrating.  It is both the emotional and intellectual crescendo of the drama, but undercuts this with the inappropriately contrived dénouement of a Roald Dahl or Rod Serling television play.  Its lineage and critical reception have given Black Swan greater artistic caché than Tales of the Unexpected or Twilight Zone were ever afforded, but its final act is exactly what you would expect from one of their sting-in-the-morality-tale endings, only executed here with less authenticity and more embarrassment.

So, if you are looking for a female-perspective companion-piece to The Wrestler, this fits the bill as a well-made, brilliantly-acted and carefully constructed film.  But, whilst it is a huge stylistic leap forward from The Wrestler and clearly has a lot more going on upstairs, it simply doesn’t have that film’s heart.

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel
Dur:  108 mins
Cert:  15



Darren Aronofsky decided to pass on directing this because it was obviously too similar to The Wrestler (2009).  Well, it is, and it isn’t.  While Hollywood is at present chock-a-block with ex-wrestlers starring in action films and comedies, The Wrestler was one of the first films to take the ‘sport’ itself seriously.  However, on the other glove, there are dozens of films about boxing:  from Cinderella Man (2005) and Million Dollar Baby (2004) by way of Ali (2001) then all the way back to Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and The Champion (1949).  But, for this generation, the contenders for the championship belt are Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).  You see, as Simon and Garfunkel didn’t say: Boxers are just poor boys but their stories are often told!

So, Aronofsky threw the towel in and concentrated instead on a different form of brutal physicality – ballet dancing – leaving the welterweight David O. Russell to step into the ring.

Alright, I’ll stop with the boxing metaphors now.

Russell is far from over-productive, this being only his third feature in eleven years, but he clearly knew what he was doing: he was channelling the spirits of both Scorsese and Stallone as he tells the true tale of Micky Ward, played by Mark (don’t call him Marky) Wahlberg, a two-bit fighter with a ‘coulda been’ older brother, Dickie, (played by Christian Bale) and a parasitic family of sisters, led by his conniving, exploitative mother, Alice (Melissa Leo).

To a great extent this film is not about its title character, it's more about his brother, who spends his time smoking crack to help him deal with the pain of looking back on the only worthwhile moment in his life – the day he punched Sugar Ray Leonard.  Christian Bale overwhelms the film with his ebullient, loud-mouthed and lanky performance as Dickie.   

Yes, he did lose a load of weight again and yes he did have his hair shaved in patches to emulate the real Dickie’s partial baldness; but if this is what he has to do to occupy the character, so be it, it’s certainly worth the effort.   After all, he is actually three years younger than Wahlberg but, with the skin drawn tight across his bony face, he looks far, far older!  Bale is simply magnificent in this, all wounded pride and raging denial and, thanks to his energy and humour, what could have been a pathetic, one-dimensional character really comes believably to life.  They must have felt the electricity on set, seeing how Bale was, consciously or not, heading inexorably in the direction of an Oscar.  I think he’ll win it this year.  I think he deserves it.

Wahlberg, however, deserves credit too.  From the film’s opening shot, with the two brothers sitting side-by-side on a sofa, being interviewed for a documentary, Wahlberg is reserved and quiet and relaxed where Bale is energy and noise and nerves.  It makes for a great contrast throughout the film and helps build the bond of sympathy that you need to have with Micky.

Micky, you see, has a handicap: he loves his family.  His brother is a liability.  His sisters are desperate to have their own failures validated by watching him fail too and his mother babies him, while using him as a meal ticket and favouring Dickie.  They do nothing but take from him and, because he loves them without question, he just keeps giving.

Leo gives an extraordinarily complex performance as the thoroughly loathsome mother who is as deluded as her eldest son, as jealous as her daughters, and coldly unmoved by the battering her youngest boy keeps taking for her.  She, too, richly deserves the Oscar nomination she has received!

Eventually, of course, Micky finds his back-bone, encouraged by the traditional straight-talking barmaid, Charlene (played by Amy Adams).  Her arrival seriously alters the balance of power within the family and quickly creates a spiral of misfortune.  Fortunately, even at the film’s darkest points, there is a vein of wit running through the hurt which alleviates the desperation and makes it all bearable.

Just as Micky breaks his mother’s apron strings, Dickie’s crack habit gets him into the inevitable trouble the wily viewer has been expecting, and takes him away from the family.  So, both brothers escape the pernicious influence of the mother, and both brothers get a chance to heal and grow.

At this moment, when they have both reached their very lowest points, they both rise up and – although it isn’t really there, I swore I heard Bill Conti’s music - they both throw themselves into training montages. 

Ultimately, despite the excellent performances all round and the feeling of gritty cinema verité, this is essentially your standard redemptive American Dream story.  Yes, the first half, with its focus on family feuds and addiction reminded me of Raging Bull, while the second half is pure Rocky.  But, Hell, if you’re going to be evoking the memories of boxing movies, those are the ones to go for!

Dir: David O. Russell
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams
Dur: 115 mins
Cert: 15


So, I have been fairly unambiguous with my opinion of 3D.  I consider it to be a gimmick, a smoke-and-mirrors trick that merely allows Hollywood to continue foisting sub-standard work on the world by disguising it with cosmetic glamour.

My reasons for this are based on a cold assessment of the films burdened with the 3D logo.  I watch them in 2D and, therefore, am not distracted by the jazz-hands of 3D effects, so I can follow the story, assess its structure, evaluate the quality of the writing and acting and, ultimately, decide if it is any good.  None of that is quite so easy when one is having sharp pointy-things constantly thrust at one.

I have discussed the costs/benefits of 3D with professional cinema projectionists and they share my reservations.  3D keeps reminding you you are watching a film.  Far from creating the suspension of disbelief and total immersion for which most film-makers strive, 3D keeps thrusting things out of the screen at you and thus reminds you you are looking at a screen.

You may argue that bad 3D does this and, to be fair, I couldn't argue with that, because I can't say whether the 3D is good, bad or indifferent.  But the evidence would suggest that most 3D is bad 3D.  Come on, was anybody impressed by Green Hornet?

Now, in the interests of total disclosure, I don't watch films in 2D just to be awkward or to make a point, I do so because I don't have a choice.  I have a condition which my optician refers to as 'a squint'.  This doesn't mean my face is screwed up all the time (unless I'm watching an Adam Sandler film, obviously), it means that my eyes don't converge like yours (most probably) do.

Here's the science bit: Because your eyes are on the front of your head (not the side like, for example, most birds) and are separated by your nose, they each see the same things from a slightly different perspective.

These two images are then projected over the top of each other in your brain and that creates the illusion of 3D.  This is called 'stereopsis' and is a natural evolutionary development of having two eyes on the front of your head.  When the object you are looking at moves closer, your eyes converge - tilt inwards to move your pupils fractionally closer together.  Well, my eyes don't do this very well, consequently I have no stereo vision.  Evolutionarily, I'm a huge leap backwards.

I get around, I can't play tennis or football because I have rubbish depth perception and constantly miss the ball, but I don't walk into things very often and, y'know, I can hit my mouth with my fork (probably more than I should).  It's okay.  Don't be setting off and running any marathons for me.

The point is, I can't see 3D.  Back in the bad old days of red and blue Anaglyph glasses I ended up watching the film with one eye - either in red or in blue - because, otherwise, it was blurred.   Nowadays, thankfully, with grey Polarised lenses, I can at least see the film in focus.  But it's still 2D.

But, here's a thing - It seems that I am far from alone in having biological problems with 3D.  I was looking, last night, at a very fine filmy website called Obsessed With Film (go and have a wander around here but be careful, you might become obsessed) and they published an article based on an open letter from Film Editor and Sound Designer, Walter Murch, about why 3D doesn't now and never will work.

This letter was originally published by the inestimable Roger Ebert and makes fascinating reading.  Why?  Because Murch is very well informed about the technology of film production and exhibition.  He has a shelf full of shiny gold awards reflecting his technical abilities and know-how.  He has also worked in 3D, so he knows what he's talking about!

It makes fascinating reading, I think, and there is, inevitably, a very heated comment exchange afterwards.  Have a look at Murch's letter here ... Then lemme know what you think.


So, The Academy Award nominations are with us once more. The year's biggest popularity contest has begun in Earnest (a small town just outside Hollywood) with lots of well-paid slebs maintaining an air of casual disdain as they desperately compete with each other to win the affection of The Academy.  But, over the last decade or so, said Academy has proven itself to be a wily beast largely immune to the tides of fashion (as evidenced most recently by last year's shock rejection of Avatar's opulence in favour of The Hurt Locker's gritty realism).

Let's have a closer look at a few categories, shall we?

Best Film:

And the nominations are:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King's Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter's Bone
Unusually, I've actually had the chance to see most of these (reviews of The Fighter, Black Swan and True Grit will be with you shortly).  If I were a member of The Academy (surely my absence is just an administrative over-sight) I'd be divided between hanging my hat on Inception and True Grit but, as a long-time lover of all things Coenical, I'm afraid it wouldn't be a long debate: The clear winner is True Grit!

 Can't see the real Academy going for a remake, especially not when The Social Network has got such a head of steam but, these are my choices, not theirs!

Best Director:

  • Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan
  • Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – True Grit
  • David Fincher – The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper – The King's Speech
  • David O. Russell – The Fighter
Without wishing to pre-empt my own unpublished reviews too much, I'll simply restrict myself to reiterating that True Grit is the latest in a long line of Coen masterpieces and, as such, would get my vote.  But, again, in the real world, I'm thinking its Fincher's year.

Best Actor:

    • Javier Bardem: Biutiful
    • Jeff Bridges – True Grit
    • Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
    • Colin Firth – The King's Speech 
    • James Franco – 127 Hours
    This is an interesting year because three of these characters (I haven't seen Bardem's turn so can't speak for him) are really quite unlikeable.  Eisenberg's Zuckerberg particularly so!  Will Jeff Bridges be the third actor ever to win two years on the trot?  Well, since his Cogburn is essentially Bad Blake all over again, just with an eye-patch instead of a guitar, I'm thinking not.  It's a shame they decided to give him a consolation It's-Your-Year Oscar just before he turned in the performance of his decade.  But, hey, a gold statue is a gold statue.  I'd like to see Firth get it, just because he gives jaw-droppingly wonderful acceptance speeches, but I think Eisenberg will be swept along on The Social Network wave.

     Having only seen Portman in Black Swan, I can't comment on the 'Best Actress' noms, save to note there must be a typo somewhere - no Meryl Streep.  I know she hasn't done anything this year but still, surely she's overdue for number seventeen.

    Best Supporting Actor:

    • Christian Bale – The Fighter
    • John Hawkes – Winter's Bone
    • Jeremy Renner – The Town
    • Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
    • Geoffrey Rush – The King's Speech
    Bale.  Deal with it.

    Best Supporting Actress:

    • Amy Adams – The Fighter
    • Helena Bonham Carter – The King's Speech
    • Melissa Leo – The Fighter
    • Hailee Steinfeld – True Grit
    • Jacki Weaver – Animal Kingdom
     Melissa Leo is quite extraordinarily loathsome as Marky Mark's mum in The Fighter but, Hailee Steinfeld (at just 14 years old) is just riveting as Mattie Ross in True Grit.  Definitely the performance of the year in any category, the little gold doorstop must be hers!

    Original Screenplay:

    • Another Year – Mike Leigh
    • The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson
    • Inception – Christopher Nolan
    • The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
    • The King's Speech – David Seidler
    Okay, so we'll skim over The King's Speech's debatable originality, given the historical records of the events in question, and recognise that it is a fine piece of writing but, for me, Inception wins hands down.  The Americans are great at assembling complex ole structures in their screenplays and along comes a quietly-spoken Brit who makes as mind-blowingly-complex a structure as I've ever encountered in a script seem so simple.  An extraordinary piece of technical writing.

    Best Adapted Screenplay:

    • 127 Hours – Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
    • The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin
    • Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
    • True Grit – Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
    • Winter's Bone – Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
    Now this is a more vibrant category than the Original one, this year.  Beaufoy and Doyle's script for 127 Hours manages, I feel, to do more with recent actuality than Sorkin's The Social Network, and it pains me to admit that because I loves me The Sorkin.  For me what broke The Social Network was the flashback framing narrative, it just seemed disappointingly safe!  And, hang on, Toy Story 3  … since when did being a sequel and therefore containing the same characters and situations as a previous film make your screenplay adapted?  Maybe it and The King's Speech have been entered into the wrong categories?  But, anyway, none of that matters because nothing comes close to the richly textured poetry of The Brothers Coen's take on Charles Portis' True Grit.  The statue is theirs.

    The Pixar Award for Best Animated Feature:

    Goes to ... ehm ... Pixar.

    Although it's a goddamn crime that 9 wasn't even nominated.  Was that ignored this year or last year?  Can't remember.

    Best Cinematography:

    • Black Swan – Matthew Libatique
    • Inception – Wally Pfister
    • The King's Speech – Danny Cohen
    • The Social Network – Jeff Cronenweth
    • True Grit – Roger Deakins
    Now, you see, again this is a very rich category.  Even with the surprising omission of 127 Hours, Pfister’s work on Inception was sublime, but Deakins does it again.  He won it with the opening two minutes of True Grit!

    Best Visual Effects:

    • Alice in Wonderland
    • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
    • Hereafter
    • Inception
    • Iron Man 2
    Despite my thinking that the ‘Iron Man-in-a-Suitcase’ gag was the best single effect of the year, this statue has gotta go to Alice, hasn’t it?  Because, of course, a lot of the stuff in Inception that you think was CGI, was actually shot in camera.

     If ‘Visual Effects’ still includes things like blowing up miniatures and rotating a set and suspending your entire cast on wires then, well, I think my choice is fairly obvious.

    Best Makeup:

    Only three nominations, sadly.  Gotta be Baker and Elsey’s Wolfman, for old time’s sake!

    Best Costume Design:

    I think Colleen Atwood is a shoo-in for the extra-ordinary work she did on Alice In Wonderland, provided The Academy’s collective memory stretches all the way back to this time last year.

    Oddly, I notice that the incredible work done by Lee Smith on Inception has been completely ignored in the ‘Editing’ category.

    And they are really the only categories on which I have an opinion, apart from ...

    Best Original Soundtrack:

    • 127 Hour  – A.R. Rahman
    • How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
    • Inception – Hans Zimmer
    • The King's Speech – Alexandre Desplat
    • The Social Network – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
    Rahman won rightly two years ago, but this year's soundtrack lacked the distinctiveness of his Slumdog Millionaire work.  Powell's Dragon soundtrack was an underappreciated delight and I'm glad to see it getting a nom.  Reznor and Ross' The Social Network is just an hour of ethereal electronic meandering.  Now, don't get me wrong, I paid good money for their Ghosts I - IV album, I am more than receptive to ethereal electronic meandering, but here it just never coalesced into a stand-out soundtrack.  Inception, on the other hand, is wonderful, powerful piece of work and I imagine it will win ... but it doesn't really advance the work Zimmer achieved with James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight, which was magnificent and revolutionary and completely ignored by The Academy in 2009.

    But, here's a thing:  Irrespective of the qualities of the film, the single stand-out element of Tron Legacy was Daft Punk's soundtrack.  From its Coplandesque Overture to the dance floor remix of the single, Derezzed, it is by turns spine-tingling, moving and thrilling and it's a FUCKING TRAVESTY that it hasn't been nominated!

    Are they all deaf over there?  I'm sorry, but no amount of Randy Newman-warbled sentimental syrup will make up for the absence of those crash helmets on the big night.

    I've decided that if Daft Punk aren't going, neither am I.  So just don't expect to see me on the red carpet, alright.  I've made my mind up.  So there! 


    I recently showed Scott Pilgrim vs The World to Number Two Son.  Despite his monotheistic love of video games in all their manifestations, he wasn't won over by the film's aesthetic.  Possibly it simply made him feel he'd far rather be playing the games than watching film images inspired by them.  But it was worth a re-watch for me, because it reminded me how wonderful the opening credits are.

    Well, the good people at Art of the Title seem to share my enthusiasm as they have created an exquisitely-detailed in-depth feature about the opening credits.  You can read it here.

    The credits reference the amazing work done by Modernist animators like Len Lye and Norman McClaren whose films - hand made by applying ink and paint directly onto the film - are genuine works of art, in a very literal sense.  Also, film-makers like Lye and McClaren are, in my opinion, the only true auteurs.  You can easily claim to be the 'author' of a film if you painted the images onto the film yourself!

    Here's one of Lye's pioneering pieces, from 1935.  It is, believe it or not, a cigarette commercial:

    This is the film of his that I have seen the most, it has cropped up several times on TV.  Produced by the GPO Film Unit, no less!  Government sponsored art!  Makes you proud to be a tax payer.  Ahem.

    But, to my mind, the man who elevated this technique to an art-form was Scottish ex-pat Norman McClaren, whose films seem somehow more coherent than Lye's.  McClaren's dots and squiggles have personality and a narrative.  It's difficult to explain how you can identify with a dot of ink, but McClaren made this possible.  His films are beautiful and dreamy but also have a delicious sense of humour which stops them being austere and intellectual like Lye's films feel to me, and make them a delightful visual treat.  They are in essence, the first pop videos:

    One of his most whimsical and playful of his films is Boogie Doodle (1941), with its syncopated jazz piano score:

    While another of my favourites is Hen Hop (1942), with its cheery, folky score and one of McClaren's favourite images (for some reason) chicken footprints.

    Finally, have a look at Synchromy (1971) from much later in his career when he was experimenting with brand new electronic technology.  The audio was created electronically from the images.  This is one of the earliest pieces of electronic music as we now understand it and a direct predecessor of the work Wendy Carlos and Daft Punk did on the two Tron movies, as well as those eight-bit soundtracks from early video-games, which brings us right back to our point of departure with Scott Pilgrim.

    So, there's plenty more McClaren out there, have a look at them on YouTube, it's lovely to have access to them at the click of button, but bear in mind that, as I discovered when introducing my Film Studies class to them, these films, whilst entertaining and intellectually fascinating, are nothing if you don't project them onto the big screen.

    Those swooshes of colour and shape and movement take on a life of their own when seen playing across a big screen.  Something that is but a few millimetres in size, created by hand and naked eye, takes on a beauty unguessed-of when you see them on a laptop or TV screen.

    McClaren knew how magnificent his work was, it's nice to see that Edgar Wright, seventy years later, agrees. 

    127 HOURS

    If you read a paper or saw the TV news in 2003, you already know this story and you probably know how it ends.  If not, you’d best not read on, because I have to discuss the story’s resolution.


    This film, based on Aron Ralston’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, begins with a montage of hectic city life, of crowds buzzing around neon-lit city streets and of Ralston, looking haunted and pale, escaping from it all into wilderness where he can come back to life and ride his mountain bike across … mountains.  He is the kind of guy who likes living on the edge and prefers his own company and the wilderness.  The wilderness du jour is Blue John Canyon in Utah which is, frankly, exquisite enough that no one could blame him for wanting to be there.  However, Ralston is also the kind of guy who likes to ignore the beaten path and clamber around parts of the canyon that no one else visits which is, of course, how he gets himself into trouble.

    To be fair, he comes across as something of a self-important, arrogant prick.  But, maybe this confidence, this self-belief, is what carries him through the ordeal he is about to experience.  He accidentally slips into a narrow crevasse, pulls a rock down on himself and ends up wedged, with his arm crushed.  Showing remarkable presence of mind, the cool, logical engineer in him very quickly comes to the fore and he applies himself dispassionately to the matter at hand (sorry).  He is disciplined with his water and imaginative with his problem-solving, as he, initially, sets about patiently chipping away at the rock to free his arm.

    To spend so much time alone on camera, running through such a spectrum of emotions is a dream role for James Franco, it’s the sort of role for which any leading man would give his right arm (sorry, sorry).  There is the better part of an hour at the heart of the film when it is just him, his motivation and his internal monologue. Coming off the back of Milk (2009), where he played Harvey Milk's partner, Scott, and the as-yet-unreleased-in-the-UK Howl (2010), where he played Allen Ginsberg, Franco has quickly built himself a reputation as a serious actor and an expert at playing real people.

    Like last year’s similarly-themed Buried, this film is shot in unflattering, penetrating, distorting close-up.  We get so close to Ralston we can actually see inside his head, to him remembering tender moments with his dad and regretting not answering the phone to his mum and fantasising about student parties with that certain girl.  Gradually he realises that people actually are important to him!

    Director Danny Boyle’s usual DP, Anthony Dod Mantle is present and correct, ably abetted by a newcomer to the Boyle posse - Enrique Chediak.   There is, as yet, no explanation of how the two cinematographers broke down the workload, but I imagine one of them may have worked on the hallucinations, leaving the other to do the real-world stuff.

    Boyle proved himself a master of the cinematic hallucination with Trainspotting (1996) and he employs these skills repeatedly throughout 127 Hours as Ralston’s starvation and dehydration send his mind wandering into juxtaposed split-screen montages.

    The film is certainly as visually audacious and energetic as we have come to expect from Boyle.  Ralston has a video camera with him, which he uses to make video diaries and, ultimately, record what he believes will be his last will and testament.  Boyle’s DP’s invest the film with the crude intimacy of held-held, home-made videos, to emphasise the verisimilitude of this true story.

    What could be a remorselessly grim film is enlivened by a very welcome vein of humour, especially when he is talking directly to his camera and imagines himself appearing on a chat-show which, let’s be honest, we’ve all done on occasion, even when not pinned under a boulder and facing almost certain death.   

    Much of this material is taken from the videos the real Ralston recorded, extracts from which can be viewed as part of this documentary.  Looking at them, you appreciate just how accurate the movie adaptation of the real event is!

    If I have any criticism of the film, it is that the hallucinations make their point, then re-make it, then re-remake it.  Yes, we know he has regrets.  Yes, we know he wants to see his family and that girl again.  We also know how this story ends and, after the one hour of screen-time that stands for the 127 hours he endured, we really are ready for the moment we have been awaiting anxiously.

    Ralston’s will to survive is extraordinary (even if it does fall short of Bear Gryll’s obsession with eating live insects) as is his presence of mind throughout the ordeal.  He even finds the poetry in his surroundings and finds time to enjoy watching the sun-rise! 

    Finally, having reached the point where he has nothing to lose, Ralston makes the decision which saves his life, a decision which, frankly, I feel few of us would make in his stead.  And, even if we did, would we have the strength to go through with the horror and the unimaginable pain of it?  He decides that, yes, finally, he must use the cheap, all-but-blunt multi-tool that has been taunting him for five long days and cut off his own arm. 

    Then, without warning, he deliberately breaks both bones in his arm.  This is a shocking moment for which I was not prepared.  But this sickening start to the proceedings, which you know is inevitable, is not the worst of it.  There is one literally nerve-wracking moment which uses sound brilliantly and which will live with you long after you’ve left the cinema. 

    The camera doesn’t dwell, doesn’t relish, but neither does it shy away from Franco’s incredibly convincing performance.  Handled differently this could have become parody but, as it is, you believe it completely, you are caught up completely in super-human endurance and imperviousness to pain and, only afterward, do you remember that it felt true because it is true! 

    Having read up on the real Ralston since seeing the film, I can admire the way he has lived his life since (even if the damn fool does still go climbing mountains) and this has increased my regard for the film but, as a standalone viewing experience, I found it to be a minor addition to Boyle’s CV.  I don’t know if this is because I am comparing it to Buried which surprised and delighted me in roughly equal measure.  127 Hours certainly has its moments and a stunning central performance but, ultimately, the fireworks of Boyle’s hectic and eclectic visual style try too hard to compensate for the perforce stationary nature of the story. 

    Maybe he should have gone the route Kevin (brother to Boyle’s ex-producer, Andrew) MacDonald chose for Touching The Void (2003), which tells a similar tale of unfathomable human endurance, but intercuts it with interview footage from the real people, helping you to get into their mindset without the need for a palette of visual tricks.

    Maybe you should watch the two films as a double-bill and make up your own mind!

    Dir: Danny Boyle
    Star: James Franco, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kate Burton
    Dur: 94 mins
    Cert: 15


    If you were one of the half a dozen or so people who managed to catch the Finnish gothic fantasy Rare Exports during the few hours it was on general release in the UK, you will doubtless be interested to see these two short films on which it is based.  Hopefully they will be included on the DVD release but, until then ... This is the first short, from 2003:

    The film was sufficiently successful to persuade the team that a sequel was called for, which was released in 2005:

    This, in turn, persuaded all concerned that what the world really needed was the feature length version.  If you haven't seen that, here's a taster.  Merry .. ehm .. Christmas.