Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"127 Hours" a Test of the Will to Live

By Skip Sheffield

How strong is the human will to live?
It is no coincidence that “127 Hours” is being released at Thanksgiving time. After you see this short (95 minutes) but gruelling and intense film you can’t help but feel grateful to be safe and alive.
“127 Hours” is based on the personal memoir “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston.
Never has a cliché been so true.
Ralston, played by a buff and toned James Franco, was a guy who never played it safe. He was an adrenalin junkie, looking for ever more intense and dangerous thrills.
On April 25, 2003, Ralston set off on an adventure Utah’s gorgeous, remote Blue John Canyon. At the outset Ralston broke two cardinal rules of hiking/mountain climbing: never venture into the wilderness alone. If you are foolhardy enough to disregard that stark warning, at least notify friends and family what you are up to and where you are going.
Ralston was no doubt used to people warning and scolding him about his risky behavior, and he probably figured everyone would try to talk him out of his foolhardy adventure.
So off he went, with enough provisions for only a day in the desert.
English director Danny Boyle, who co-wrote the script with “Slumdog Millionaire” collaborator Simon Beaufoy, knows how to stretch a basically static, one-man drama into a gripping, discomforting and at times quite lovely and contemplative tale of survival.
We see Aron, then 28, frolicking with a couple college babes, showing them a secret swimming hole deep in a crevasse and daring them to jump.
The girls are jazzed after swimming and so is Aron as he heads off grinning into the rugged, mountainous terrain.
Then it happens. While testing a large boulder for stability it suddenly shifted, rolled, and left his right forearm wedged between the proverbial rock and a hard place, where Aron will remain lodged for the 127 hours of the title.
With just one bottle of water and a couple energy bars, one has to go to extreme lengths to hold off starvation, dehydration and exhaustion.
“127 Hours” is not a film for the squeamish. The scenes of Aron’s anguish and increasing desperation are interspersed with flashbacks to happier times, which also serve to show the viewer how Ralston came to be the daredevil he is. If there is anything certain in the 2011 Oscar race, it is that James Franco will be up for Best Actor. Franco is certainly not just another pretty face. A highly intelligent scholar and workaholic in real life, Franco is just the actor to capture the bravado, pain and repentance of Aron Ralston. When it comes to the fateful scene in which Ralston snaps the major radius and ulna bones in his right arm, the pain is palpable. The hacking away of the flesh with a cheap, dull, Chinese-made multi-purpose tool is agonizing to watch. In an ironic touch, director Boyle makes a point of showing that Ralston had a sturdy Swiss Army knife back in his truck, which would have made the job much easier.
Because of his pain, endurance and refusal to lie down and die, Aron Ralston is now a successful author and motivational speaker, married, with his first child. And oh yes, he still climbs mountains.
So if you need a jolt of inspiration in this season, and you can take the shock of harsh reality, “127 Hours” should do the trick.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Lot Happens Quickly in "Next Three Days"

By Skip Sheffield

Russell Crowe as Mr. Mom?
For awhile that’s what it seems like in “The Next Three Days,” which stars Crowe as tweedy Pittsburgh college English literature teacher John Brennan, married to a lovely, young, temperamental and diabetic Lara (Elizabeth Banks).
This is a Paul Haggis film however, and things won’t remain peaceful for long. We see Lara lift a fire extinguisher from under her car as a woman rushes by and squirts some blood on Lara’s coat.
These seemingly inconsequential actions will change the life of Lara, John and their young son.
One evening the police smash their way into the Brennans’ cozy suburban home, seize and handcuff Lara and haul her off to jail, accused of the brutal murder of another woman.
No matter that the evidence is circumstantial and superficial, Lara is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
For three years John Brennan goes about his daily routine, quietly seething about the injustice of it all. Then one day after Lara attempts suicide he snaps, and after advice by successful escapee Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), Brennan decides to go all out spring his wife from prison.
“The Next Three days” is an adaptation of the French film “Pour Elle” (Anything For Her), written by Fred Cavye, who collaborated with Haggis (“Crash”) on the American version.
This is a very complex, interwoven, scene-shifting prison break movie, but with split-second timing, chases, gunfire and crashes aplenty, Haggis keeps the viewer on the edge of the seat. It is fun to see a movie set in Pittsburgh, and Haggis makes use of every unique location the city has to offer. If you can brush away the logical and logistical problems of the plot, “Next Three Days” is an exciting, suspenseful rapid ride to an unexpected destination.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Real Face of Nazisim

“A Film Unfinished” a Staggering, Devastating Documentary Film

By Skip Sheffield

Be forewarned: “A Film Unfinished” will make you weep.
I have seen dozens of films about the Holocaust, but none as chilling, gut-wrenching, infuriating and heartbreaking as this documentary by Israeli television editor Yael Hersonski.
What separates “Film Unfinished” from most Holocaust films is that it is real footage shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May of 1942. In essence these are outtakes, discovered in 1998, from a larger film commissioned by the Nazi Party as propaganda and discovered just after World War II. This “lost footage” gives glimpses of the reality behind the rosy picture being created to depict cheerful, humanely-treated Jews who have been relocated to their own district in Warsaw, where a half-million human beings were crowded into an area of three square miles.
“This film documents evil, passionately and systematically,” the introduction explains. “This is a rough draft of a film called ‘The Ghetto.’ This systematic deception should not be forgotten.”
Silent black-and-white 16 mm film is juxtaposed with interviews of present-day survivors, most of whom were young children in 1942. Their reactions are varied from anguish to horror.
The “systematic deception” is made apparent by capturing scenes of suffering, diseased, starving ghetto dwellers, many of them dead or dying.
This is contrasted with edited footage that shows parties and banquets choreographed by the Nazi filmmakers. The intention is to show rich Jews living it up while there poorer brethren suffer and starve.
The footage is augmented by narrative: a diary kept by detainee Adam Czernikow; recollections of the Jewish Council leader in Warsaw and court testimony by German filmmaker Willy Wist.
“Film Unfinished” is a perfect example of how truth can be distorted and turned inside out through careful staging and editing. Of course Nazis weren’t the only ones who practiced this deception. Consider the recent political campaigns and the outrageous charges of some of the candidates.
Warsaw was just one example of what went on all over Europe in the name of “racial purity.”
Director Hersonski saves the worst for last: footage of the disposal of those who did not survive to be herded into cattle and hauled to death camps. The inhumanity of it all is staggering and devastating, but the horrifying truth must survive.

The High and Low Road of Entertainment

“Cane” Brews a Storm at Florida Stage

By Skip Sheffield

For reviews this week we have sort of a ying and yang of entertainment: the lofty and noble new play “Cane” at Florida Stage’s new space at Kravis Center and “Due Date,” a low, vulgar road trip comedy starring the unlikely duo of Robert Downey, Jr. and Zack Galifianakis.
“Cane” is a play by resident playwright Andrew Rosendorf commissioned expressly for Florida and its Florida Cycle of plays about the Sunshine State.
The title has a double meaning. It refers to the murderous hurricane of 1928 that devastated much of Palm Beach County- especially in the region near Lake Okeechobee, which overflowed its flimsy dike and flooded the communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee and Canal Point.
The second reference is to the cash crop of sugar cane, the harvesting and refinement of which is the leading business in the area.
The play is equal parts history lesson and morality tale. Unfortunately for theater goers, there is not much in the way of fun.
Act One is set in 1928. Eddie Wilson (Gregg Weiner) is a successful, ambitious bean-farmer turned-merchant. His neighbor Noah Brooks is in financial peril, and Eddie is bullying him to sell off his land at a dirt cheap price.
Meanwhile an unnamed hurricane is traveling their way.
Newspaper editor Jacob Gold (Dan Leonard) warns there will be Hell to pay in the likely event the earthen dike fails, but nobody cares to listen.
The women folk are Eddie’s loyal wife Ruthie (Julie Rowe), and Harriet (Trenell Mooring), a pregnant tenant farmer’s wife.
Act One has the most action, sound and fury as Eddie and Noah grapple while thunderclaps and lightning flashes signal the advance of another storm.
Act Two forwards to the present day. Eddie’s great-grandson Junior (Weiner) is more successful than ever and greedy for yet more. Junior thinks there is gold in the sugar cane fields if he can just wrest the land away from Harriet’s descendant, Zora (Mooring).
Noah’s descendent Isaac (Nail) is a local cop strongly protective of Zora. Dan Leonard’s character has devolved into a crazy old coot spouting dire warnings of certain destruction coming from both the fury of Mother Nature and the greed of venal men like Junior Wilson.
Those of us who know a thing or two about Florida history will find no surprises in the script. Mankind has been foolishly trying to conquer, rather than work in concert with nature for over a century. What is highly unlikely is the prospect of suburbia spreading to a place as impoverished and desperate as Belle Glade.
Then again I never thought I would see giant urban malls at the very edge of the Everglades, so what do I know?

Is Zach Galifianakis The New “Great One?”

Could Zach Galifianakis be a Jackie Gleason for a new generation?
That thought occurred to me after seeing the raucous, raunchy, hilarious “Due Date;” a road trip comedy that reunites Galifianakis with “Hangover” director Todd Phillips.
Like Gleason, Galifianakis is a large, rotund man. He uses his bulk to comic effect in surprisingly delicate ways, and he is utterly fearless to do anything for a laugh.
Robert Downey, Jr. is the straight man of this piece: Peter Highman, an uptight Los Angeles entrepreneur with a young wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) expecting their first child.
Sarah’s due date is in just a few days. All Peter has to do is board a flight in Atlanta non-stop to L.A. and everything will be peachy.
Then Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) careens into the picture.
Ethan is, improbably, an aspiring actor who is convinced fame awaits him in Hollywood.
Even more improbably, Ethan is traveling with the ashes of his recently-deceased father, stored in a coffee can.
In situation comedies, all the situations are a setup for a gag later on. The first setup is crazy circumstances that not only get Peter and Ethan thrown off their plane but get them branded “no fly.”
So the guys are forced to rent a car, and the fun really begins.
Ethan is the kind of guy who has no clue how irritating or obnoxious he is. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say Peter is appalled and disgusted with Ethan and his little dog. However, circumstances continue to conspire to keep the men together through car crashes, chases, drug busts and even the threat of a jail cell in Mexico.
Jamie Foxx has a small role as Peter’s best buddy whom Peter fears may be a little too friendly with his wife.
Yes, there are gags that are in very bad taste and situations that would never happen in million years in real life, but darn it, it’s funny. That’s all that really matters in “Due Date.”