Director Danny Boyle's films are becoming a staple of the Starz Denver Film Festival's Big Night showcase. In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire joyously filled this festival slot, anticipating its march to a Best Picture Oscar. And on Friday, Boyle's latest, 127 Hours, was introduced by the local boy who gave an arm and a leg (actually, just an arm) to get it made. As per usual when it comes to red carpets at the fest, most of the celebrities had to be identified for onlookers. (James Franco, the film's star, wasn't present, and at the time the screening got underway, Boyle was en route to Denver, where he was given the fest's annual Mayor's prize by governor-elect John Hickenlooper on Saturday.) Fortunately, Aron Ralston, 127 Hours' subject, sports a Captain Hook accoutrement that precedes him. But he didn't receive as large a reaction as a surprise guest -- recent Westword cover boy Mondo Guerra, fresh from his almost triumphant second-place finish in the latest cycle of Project Runway. Now that's a man who knows how to make an entrance.
The festivities inside got underway a little late, as scenesters continued to mill about, or run back and forth to the bar, until well after the lights went down and Denver Film Society executive director Tom Botelho launched into his spiel. Botelho proved to be the perfect host, smoothly combining cinema love and promotion (of the new Denver FilmCenter/Colfax, among other things). In short, he's just what the cineaste ordered following the near meltdown of the film society last year.
After the de rigueur screening of the not-that-bad sponsor short, Starz vice president of programming Stephen Shelanski took the stage to tout a couple of the firm's flicks and explain Boyle's absence. Then, he wisely turned over the microphone to Ralston, who clearly thrives in the spotlight after seven years or so of telling his story.
An inveterate charmer, Ralston half-apologized for being a human spoiler -- yes, he confessed, he did cut off his own arm -- before joking that he planned to reenact the film in front of the screen, Rocky Horror Picture Show-style, complete with fake blood. (That definitely would have been worth the price of admission.) Then, after suggesting that people remain in their seats through the amputation scene, rather than staggering toward the aisle and collapsing, thereby endangering the rest of the audience, he emphasized that Boyle sees his story as redemptive, and so does he.
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Both of them proved right, although not quite in the way Ralston described. He said what kept him going was his love for the people in his life and his hope for the future as exemplified by the woman he subsequently married; their first child came along earlier this year. In 127 Hours, which unspooled following a short film, The Comfort of Cold, Boyle dutifully hints at this motivation with brief flashbacks and glimpses of Ralston's premonitions. But as characterized by a magnetic Franco, the movie Aron comes across as a mountain-man MacGyver, a born tinkerer and problem-solver who was able to look at his dilemma -- stuck in an isolated Utah canyon with his arm pinned between a rock wall and a boulder -- as an intellectual challenge as well as a physical one. The audience can see him thinking: How can I use the tools I have at my disposal in order to survive? Then, deliberately, methodically and with tremendous brio, he goes to work.
Boyle enlivens the proceedings to an enormous degree, using every cheeky directorial trick in his arsenal -- crazy angles, smash cuts, God's eye views and more -- to break up what could have been one static sequence after another. Among his cleverest conceits is to have Franco/Ralston narrate portion of his travails into a video camera with an extraordinarily good battery. This gambit conforms to reality (Ralston really did have a video camera with him) even as it adds a nice element of theatricality to the narrative. If the scene in which Franco pretends to be a guest on a talk show doesn't thrust him into the even bigger time, nothing will.
As for the moment of truth, it definitely loosened the audience's lips. I had the misfortune to sit next to the rudest couple I've ever encountered in my four decades-plus of moviegoing: a fifty-something guy dressed like a Goodfellas guido, complete with open shirt and prominently displayed gold necklace, and his entitled, overly primped companion, who maintained a running conversation from the beginning of the film to the end and reacted to my subtle attempt to shush her with an angry, "Shush yourself!" Then again, they weren't the only ones jabbering when the surgery scene began. Suddenly, the entire crowd found that the only way they could process the sequence was verbally. When Franco finally broke free, they erupted in grateful applause.
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Granted, 127 Hours isn't as emotionally impactful as expected. Rather, it's a canny cinematic trick featuring a compelling star turn and a behind-the-camera virtuoso. And that proved to be the recipe for another Big Night at the Denver Film Festival.
Look below for the 127 Hours trailer.
More from our Television & Film archive: "Starz Denver Film Festival opening night with Aaron Eckhart: Falling through a Rabbit Hole."