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After a bit of rummaging around the internet and some helpful reader emails (who knew people were so interested in the fate of the abandoned arm?!) I believe I have the answers to the  key questions from my review of 127 Hours – and some extra.

1)   The real-life footage of Aron Ralston trapped in the canyon still exists. Ralston has shown it to his family, and to James Franco to help him prepare for the role, as Franco explains in an interview here, describing the experience as “very intense, very moving… he doesn’t know there’s a happy ending.” You can actually see a teensy snippet of the actual footage in this interview as well.

2)   So, LOTS of you wanted to know about the arm’s whereabouts…  The arm is actually no more. It was retrieved following Ralston’s escape and cremated. Ralston then returned to the boulder six months later  to scatter the ashes.

3)      Another question that readers have asked is how long it actually took Ralston to cut his arm off (morbid, anyone?). The answer, according to an interview with Ralston, is 40 minutes, although Boyle shows it in about five.

4)      For those of you who want to know more about the real Ralston, there is a fascinating video of his return to the boulder here. If you thought the film was shocking, prepare to be revolted and moved in equal measure (the phrase “like sliding it into a pat of warm butter” will stick in my mind forever).

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Review: 127 hours

I never thought I’d be capable of cutting off my own arm until I saw Danny Boyle’s 127 hours. Of course, I’d talked about it before seeing the film, in that safe kind of way that people do at dinner parties.  “Oh, I could maybe, just maybe, do it if it was just the hand. And if I had a chainsaw.” But I didn’t really believe it. I thought death would seem like a better option than agonizing self-mutilation.

 But what you don’t get at a dinner party – and what Boyle gives us in spades – is time. Long, agonizing days of desperation, where it’s just one man, a rusty old pocket knife (he has left his Swiss army knife at home) and the inevitability of a painful drawn-out death. “Time is moving really slowly now,” says Aron, who has by this time been stuck for four days in a Utah canyon with his forearm trapped underneath a boulder. He’s tired, he’s hungry and he’s so thirsty he started to drink his own urine (“Tastes like a bag of piss,” he jokes to the camcorder he’s using to document his own demise, in one of several very welcome moments of light relief).

And it’s this that makes Boyle’s film so brilliant. He takes the one element that should have made this film logistically impossible – the fact that Aron is stuck for five days on his own before he even commits the pivotal and now infamous act that frees him – and makes a virtue of it. Without the five days, Aron would not be able to work up the courage to sever his own nerve tissue (in a scene that though entirely expected is still utterly shocking – and spectacularly filmed); without five days he would not reach the state of delirious hopelessness that makes him cry out in ecstasy at the first cut, as the dream of freedom becomes a reality.

This is not a film about physical horrors or even, like the excellent Touching the Void, about what mankind is capable of. It’s a film about redemption. Gradually, the arrogant boy we saw earlier, who doesn’t need anything from anyone – and who has consequently neglected to tell anyone where he is going – comes face to face with his own selfishness.  In a climactic moment towards the end he finally shouts: “I need help” – and it is now, Boyle seems to say, that he is truly free. 

James Franco conveys the transformation superbly, morphing slowly from happy-go-lucky lone wolf to lonely repentant. Like the real Aron Ralston (who has said the film is as close to a documentary as a drama is capable of being, including in its portrayal of the tragedy as his salvation) he is practical and resigned, not least about his own stupidity.

Some of the hallucinations and flashbacks that illustrate Aron’s changing psychological state do feel a tad gimmicky (typical of Boyle –remember Leonardo di Caprio’s video-game inspired exile in The Beach?). But one wonders if there was any better way of doing them.  In any case, these moments are more than made up for by the pace, humour and quite staggering beauty of the landscape, a character in itself, that is both magnificent and deadly.

Boyle’s skill in turning a tale of loss into one of gain, of isolation into one of humanity, is unparalleled.  And it really does make losing a limb look like something we would all gladly face, if only we found enough will to live.  After leaving the cinema I felt exhausted but suddenly quite confident that the prize (a happy ever after) would make the pain more than worth it. Although next time I go climbing I will definitely take my best pen knife. 

*Just a couple of questions up for discussion:
1) What happened to the real-life footage that Aron took on his camcorder?
2) What happened to the arm?! Is it still there?

I wonder if George Osborne watched the film Precious before deciding to slash the welfare budget. If there is a better illustration of benefits abuse I haven’t seen it.

The setting is Harlem, New York; the year is 1987. Precious is an illiterate, obese, pregnant, 16-year-old, with one child already by her rapist father. She is also verbally abused by her equally fat but terrifyingly cruel mother, Mary, who yells at her in a jealous rage: “You’re a dummy, bitch. You’ll never know shit. Don’t nobody want you, don’t nobody need you. You f***ed around, f***ed my mother-f***in man and had two mother-f***in children… I shouda aborted your ass.” Meanwhile, Mary sits glued to the sofa, smoking fag after fag and doing everything she can – including pretending her grandchild “Lil Mongo” (short for Mongoloid) still lives with them – to sponge off the state.

Of course, Precious herself is in desperate need of state support – just not in the form of another welfare cheque. She finally gets it when she switches to the “Each one, teach one” alternative school, a programme for troubled young women, where the glamorous Ms Rain teaches her to read, write and, well, Believe In Herself.

There are elements here that are a tad shmaltzy – in particular, the politically correct rainbow nation in Precious’s new class, who transform from hostile young troublemakers with nothing in common to cheery best buds who visit Precious in hospital. In reality, they would probably still loathe each other beyond the school gates. The issue of race is also weirdly side-stepped; the film was widely praised for putting a fat, black girl at its centre,  but everyone else in it is noticeably fairer-skinned.

But what keeps the film likeable – and believable – is its reasonable expectations. It’s not a “believe in yourself and you can do anything” tale, but more of a “believe in yourself, find a good mentor and you can have a life that’s a bit nicer and not completely hate yourself” tale. Precious starts off being hopelessly unengaged, disappearing into a colourful fantasy world she has constructed in order to escape the worst moments such as the rapes. She does improve her social skills, talking in class more, learning to read, and,  encouraged by Ms Rain, writing daily journal entries. But she’s not about to become Oprah Winfrey (who is, surprise, surprise, an executive producer). She has a heart of gold, but she’s still not exactly the most exciting person in the room.

The acting throughout is terrific. Gabourey Sidibe is largely monosyllabic, her pain kept closely guarded behind a defensive resignation. Mariah Carey (whose lack of make-up alone is reason enough to see this film) also gives a wonderful performance as the weary social worker, who draws out a long-awaited explanation for the abuse from Mary in a powerfully crescendoed scene (and stand-out performance from Monique) that almost makes us feel sorry for her. It’s too late for apologies really, but it does leave us wondering if perhaps under other circumstances Precious herself could have ended up like this: jealous, bitter and alone.

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A very different look at race and survival, in a more concrete sort of prison, is at play in Un Prophète. Jaques Audiard’s Oscar-nominated film about a naïve Arab inmate who learns to play the system is a sort of anti-Shawshank Redemption. Audiard is a master at uncertain morality: his last film, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, featured a piano-playing ganster dripping with menace – and self-doubt.

Here his protagonist, Malik El Djebena (the newcomer Tahar Rahim), is a less accomplished sort of criminal. At the start of a six-year prison stretch for an unexplained offence, he seems to be an unfortunate product of  the kind of banlieue background seen in La Haine: a simple and petty criminal whose only visible misconduct is when he tries unsuccessfully to sneak in a few Euros in his shoe.

But the prison system is cruel, corrupt. Is Malik innocent? If we thought so at the start, the question becomes a lot harder 20 minutes in, when he murders a fellow inmate, Reyeb, in an inflinchingly gruesome scene, albeit to avoid being killed himself. César Luciani, a Corsican gangster in league with corrupt guards and against whom Reyeb was due to testify, threatens death if Malik does not kill him. Luciani then adopts Malik as a kind of servant, calling him “dirty Arab” but offering him protection.

As time goes by, Malik learns the Italian dialect of his masters. When most of the Corsicans are released, he steps up to take their place, taking leave days to run errands for Luciani instead of just sweeping his floor. He also begins to amass his own network of corrupt guards and loyal inmates.

Audiard’s pace is controlled but never slow, tracking Malik’s transformation with steady, calculated scenes. How long will it be before Malik is the kingpin? “What are you, some kind of prophet?” asks one of Luciani’s henchmen. The joke is, of course, that Malik seems to have had no idea at all where his collaborative efforts would lead.

Rahim’s performance is remarkable, retaining an endearing vulnerability even as his criminal shell hardens. He has some success, but one always imagines, as perhaps he does, that he will be caught out at the next turn.

More an examination of the fruitless battle for one man’s soul than a social commentary, this is masterful  film-making from a director who consistently challenges the French tradition of narrative whimsy.

Wonderful, gritty stuff.

Did you enjoy Sex and the City 2? Vote in the poll below to see if others agree

Some people can’t imagine anything worse than an evening in the company of drunk women watching four middle-aged has-beens get laid and talk about their neuroses.

Well, try doing that on your own. This is what happened to me on Monday evening after I discovered that I had absent-mindedly bought tickets for me and three friends for the 5.30pm showing of Sex and the City 2 instead of the 7.30pm showing. Luckily, a kind usher nabbed us the last seats in the house, but they were all in different places. So we each sat alone, paper cups of prosecco in hand, sandwiched between groups of girls getting hammered and talking loudly about ex-boyfriends’ bedroom habits, which of Carrie’s clothes they liked best and whether Samantha is past it. Not quite the evening with the girls I had planned.

The problem is, SATC is really only fun these days if you have companions to mock it with. What used to be a fresh take on feminism, singledom and, yes, clothes, is now an absurd pastiche of its former self, where women’s lib is represented by Dior and where not eating out two nights a week equals social death.

Here is the basic plot: two years have passed since the last film, when Carrie Bradshaw, relationship guru and shoe obsessive, finally married Mr Big after a decade of chasing. Charlotte, the “nice” one, has her bald but loveable husband Harry and two children, fiery Miranda is still a lawyer, reunited with Steve and mother to Brady, and Samantha, who broke up with Absolut Hunk, Smith Jared, in SATC 1, is back to her old tricks as a cougar extraordinaire.

Hurrah, viewers may think – a happy ending for all. Not so much. All the girls are worried about something: Carrie about the dull domesticity of life with a Big who actually wants her, Miranda about her work/life balance and Samantha about her ageing body and diminished libido. (Incidentally, Samantha’s cancer in Series Six already kicked her into early menopause, so unless it’s been going on for seven years, the writers have missed a trick here.) Charlotte is nervous about Harry’s attitude to the hot, bra-less nanny, played by Brit actress, Alice Eve, with whom I actually went to school. There she was, rather fittingly, known as “big-boob Alice”. 

It’s not a bad plan, tackling the minor issues that women obsess about. So what if they are all happy – does that mean they can’t complain about anything? And it’s enormously enjoyable to see what the girls are up to. If, like me, you’ve watched every episode in the original series dozens of times, a chance to see them again is like catching up with old friends. My favourite moment was without a doubt the eighties flashback. Cue bad perms, sheer leggings and the answer to one of things I had always wondered about – how the four met.

The problem is that the four women we used to love – precisely because they were flawed, lonely and a touch neurotic – are now just obscenely materialistic, incredibly selfish and really, really boring. The writers themselves have clearly realised this, which is why they pack them off on a glitzy PR trip to Abu Dhabi – “the new Middle East”. They could not have made a worse decision. Abu Dhabi (which incidentally refused to have the movie filmed  there – it is actually shot in Marrakech) is, as far as SATC is concerned, as consumerist, vapid and absurd as the girls themselves. The four ooh and ah, mesmerised, it seems, by this mystical, foreign land – except that all they are looking at is a modern hotel shaped like an Arabian Palace, with lots of pools and the Australian rugby team.

They discuss the merits of the veil (“How does she eat her french fries with that on?”) and Samantha tries hard to respect local culture by touching a man indecently in a crowded restaurant, showing off her oral skills on a shisha pipe and standing in a male-dominated souk and shouting “Yes I’m a woman, I have sex!”.  The crowning moment of cultural integration is when the Emirati women remove their veils to show off hideous (and probably hideously expensive) designer gear underneath. Just like us, see.

As someone who categorically thinks the veil is wrong, I usually think it’s great to see the subject tackled on screen. What is not great is seeing it done so crudely – so outrageously and disrepectfully – that it undoes all the hard work writers, politicians and diplomats have done to improve relations with the Middle East and our own understanding of it. What on earth possessed the writer and director, Michael Patrick King, to think this elsewhere light-hearted film was a good platform for mocking Islamic values? Who were the test audiences that laughed at the really rather racist jokes?

It’s true, largely speaking, that trendy city-dwellers in modern Islamic countries like to don high fashion under their hijabs. But actually theirs is the worst example of consumerism because it is so accelerated in countries like this that it is all about bling and not a bit about style. Money is the point, not some kind of sisterhood. Isn’t there a better example of shared values, like when Carrie meets the French fan of her book in the final series?

There are ghosts of the old SATC lurking here. Critics have panned the scene where Carrie gets upset because Big buys her a giant flatscreen TV for their bedroom on their anniversary. Poor her, they joke – a really expensive gift, how awful! But this is just the kind of embarrassing female confession that SATC used to be so good at. Women do want men to buy them personal gifts, things that  prove they really understand them. And keeping the remote under your pillow is definitely a bit of a passion-killer.  The message here is valid, it is just somewhat diluted because the messenger has become such a whiny brat.

While the first film was fun but a bit flat in places, its sequel is shamelessly inane and vulgar.  Its basic premise, whittled down from all the shoes, gay jokes and bigoted travel advice, is that some women are just never happy. Which may well be true, in a way. But it sure ain’t pretty to watch.

Here’s my second piece from The Indy this week, on Birdemic: Shock and Terror, a joyously terrible tribute to Hitchcock’s The Birds.

When I spoke to the director, he told me “Hey, birds, y’know, they’re just scary!” Indeed. See what you think by watching the real thing: for Londoners, there’s a screening at the Curzon cinema in Soho on May 28. For the rest of you in the UK, further screenings are likely to follow.

As before, please click through to the original site to read the whole piece.


BIRDEMIC: SCHLOCK HORRORS THAT COME LOW ON THE PECKING ORDER

Birdemic, a tribute to The Birds, is the latest in a long line of terrible Alfred Hitchcock remakes. Why does the master of suspense inspire so many turkeys?

When the apocalypse comes, Hollywood has taught us to expect something terrifying: an alien invasion perhaps, or a vampire virus. But in Birdemic: Shock and Terror, it is heralded by the arrival of badly animated vultures, whose cheery massacre of the population of California is about as scary as a shark attack on SpongeBob. 

 Birdemic, a 2008 tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, is fast joining the ranks of Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Room and Troll 2 as one of the most joyously ill-conceived films of all time. Across America, audiences are flocking to cinemas to see its stilted acting, piecemeal editing, and shambolic special effects. The birds, which were created by student animators, look like something out of an Eighties video game, hanging limply in the air as petrified onlookers bat them off with coat hangers.

James Nguyen, the film’s director, insists it is not a remake but a project “influenced” by The Birds. But the plot, which revolves around an attractive young couple who fall in love before the ornithological nightmare begins, is almost identical and the film is littered with trademark Hitchcockian devices: the seemingly irrelevant back stories, the overbearing mother. Like his teacher, Nguyen even delays the arrival of the birds for almost an hour to build suspense, although he does so with a romance so agonisingly dull that we’d quite like to see its protagonists pecked to death.

 Please click here to keep reading.

Apologies for the lack of new posts recently but I have been scribbling away on pieces for The Independent. The first of two this week – which was inspired by my post below, Harry Potter and the Americanisation of British Film – begins below. Please click through to the Indy website to read the whole piece.

And look here on Friday for my second piece, on Birdemic, a remake of The Birds, and other terrible films inspired by Hitchcock…

BRITISH-US FILM-THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
Robin Hood is the latest British movie made with US money. Can our film industry survive without help from Hollywood?

Robin of Locksley, an Englishman through and through, has been brought to life on screen by more than 30 different men. Some Robins have been brooding, some dashing, and some dressed in unnervingly snug tights. But fewer than half have been British.

Today, Russell Crowe reprises the role in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. The film, marketed as grittier than its predecessors, boasts a British director, a British producer and was filmed in the UK. But it also has two Australian stars, an American backer (Universal) and a script penned by an American, although this is understood to have been given an extensive polish by Tom Stoppard.

So is it really a British film? And what do we mean by that?
Click here to keep reading.

Last week, HandMade Films, a struggling – and quintessentially British – film production company announced it had received a possible takeover approach by a mysterious company known as Almorah Services. Now, HandMade, which was set up by George Harrison, who, so the story goes, remortgaged his home to fund the Life of Brian in 1978, has so far refused to reveal just who or what this Almorah is. (It seems unlikely to be Almorah, the industrial services provider based in Merseyside, but who knows?) But the real question is: where is it from? The UK? Or overseas?

The British film industry has struggled for years with an identity crisis, unable to sustain itself without accepting foreign cash, forced to adapt for foreign (usually American) audiences when it does. What’s more, big profits from films made in the UK often end up elsewhere.

Why? Partly because Britain offers tax breaks on any film of which 25 per cent of the production cost is spent on UK soil. That’s right – to be a British film you only have to spend 25 per cent of your budget within the UK, on anything from set costs to Kate Winslet’s bagel. Which obviously makes it rather attractive to US studios.

The film does also have to pass a “cultural test” (you can see the test’s points system for yourself here)  or be part of a co-production that benefits from a treaty with the UK.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that there are no successful British films, or that no one’s managing to capture Britishness. Shane Meadows, Ken Loach and Danny Boyle have done a pretty good job in recent years. Slumdog Millionaire, highly lauded as the great British success of recent years and Boyle’s tour de force, made $377 million (£245 million) on a budget of just $15 million, and won eight Oscars.

But Slumdog was funded by a combination  of UK production companies, European grants and US distributors – and a large proportion of its profits have gone straight back into Fox’s pocket.

Similarly, Harry Potter, the most successful film franchise of all time was distributed by Warner Bros – who benefit from the tax breaks but don’t feed their portion of the takings back into the UK.

There’s another issue at play here too, and one that’s perhaps more worrying: the Americanisation of the  films themselves. A lack of distributors (who actually get the films into the cinemas, as well as often providing finance) is a really big problem in the UK (one of our most successful distributors, Redbus, named fastest growing private UK company in 2004, was bought by US giant Lionsgate in 2005).

Producers have to work really hard to persuade American distributors that their films are worth showing. Last year, Creation, the Paul Bettany film about Darwin’s loss of faith failed for a long time to find a distributor Stateside because it was believed to be too controversial in a country where just 39 per cent of the population reportedly believes in evolution (seriously).

Far too many British films take on American stars to draw American audiences (Bridget Jones, Shakespeare in Love, Emma, Becoming Jane etc) and films/books are often transported across the Atlantic to make them more palatable to American audiences: take Nick Hornby (a British author if ever there was one) whose High Fidelity and Fever Pitch were both set in the US for the big screen. Or  P.S. I Love you, which was originally a novel set in Ireland, not New York.

These are just a few examples of a problem that has persisted for a long time. The UK Film council continues to search for solutions  but with a funding pot that’s small anyway and currently being squeezed by the expanding Olympics budget, the whole thing seems doomed to an eternal balancing act: trying to attract American money without losing too much of the UK’s sense of identity – or all the profits.

If only there were more friendly Beatles to stump up all the cash.