Monday, November 22, 2010

Holiday Movie Roundup

All that time spent with relatives you don’t see all that often; all those year-end movies crowding into the theater in hopes of nabbing an Oscar nomination. No wonder Thanksgiving weekend draws some of the biggest movie crowds of the year. I’ve been thinking about what I might see with my out-of-towners, so I thought I’d tell you about some movies I’ve seen recently that your clan might enjoy.

127 Hours is an ideal movie to see with your family – as long it doesn’t include anyone too young or too squeamish. Director Danny Boyle’s trademark kinetic whoosh made being down and strung out in Glasgow feel as exhilaratingly perilous (Trainspotting) as running from voracious zombies (28 Days Later). He lost me with Slumdog Millionaire, which sentimentalized poverty and made it look too easily escaped, but the director found his perfect subject – and vice versa – in 127 Hours. Closely based on the story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who got pinned down by a boulder while alone in a Utah canyon and wound up amputating his own arm to escape, 127 Hours is a film about a man slowly dying in a narrow crevice that moves as thrillingly fast as Ralston (James Franco) does when he first hits the trail, pedaling his mountain bike as if his legs were pistons.

Franco’s blinding charisma, intelligence, and seemingly bottomless energy do a lot of the work in this movie, since he’s in almost every frame. But Boyle and his coscreenwriter Simon Beaufoy (they based the script on Ralston’s book) also keep the adrenaline pumping, pulling us out of that crevice or filling it up with a series of vivid flashbacks and visions. The stark beauty of the landscape and the near-hallucinogenic brightness of the sun add to the intensity, as does the tension of knowing what’s coming, which becomes almost unbearable when Franco enacts the drawn-out act of sawing through stubborn flesh and electric nerves with a dull pocket knife.

127 Hours is partly the story of a straightforward physics problem that was encountered, puzzled over for a time, and ultimately solved by an ingenious and unflappable engineer – a problem that just happened to involve his own body. But it gives you more than the shivery thrill of a rubbernecker passing a wreck because it also offers a window into the mind of a young man at a crucial turning point. Ralston didn’t just lose his right hand in that crevice; he shed his adolescent fantasy of immortality and realized what really mattered to him. Those flashbacks and hallucinations, and the tender goodbyes and confessions Ralston taped on his camcorder, some of which Franco reconstructs, show us how Ralston’s love for his family and friends saved his life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is also a kind of family story, since the Harry Potter series is in part about the families we create for ourselves when our families of origin fail us. Harry is an orphan who found his home in Hogwarts, in the comradeship of his best friends Hermione and Ron, and in the chaotic warmth of the Beasley household. In this film, Hermione becomes a kind of orphan too, making the heartbreaking decision to erase all memories of her from the minds of her Muggle parents, in order to keep them safe from Voldemort’s crusade against “mudblood” contamination of the wizard world.

The Harry Potter films started with two entries by director Chris Columbus, whose open-mouthed reaction shots, melodramatic soundtracks and sometimes hokey special effects drained the story of the wit, social awareness, and genuine sense of peril and wonder that infuse J.K. Rowling’s books. Then Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prisoner of Azkaban restored the story’s subtleties and underlying seriousness to the screen, setting a tone that the films have more or less maintained ever since.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the beginning of the end of the series, is directed by David Yates. Yates also helmed The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, and he has the sense – and the very Harry-ish humility – to list Azkaban as his favorite of the series. As befits a cautionary tale about fascism in which the forces of evil are poised to take over the world, his latest installment is literally as well as figuratively dark, shot almost entirely at night or under operatically gloomy CGI thunderclouds. The wraiths, dark wizards, basilisks and other assorted riffraff that are spreading across the land to do Lord Voldemort’s bidding are appropriately chilling, and the emotions Harry and his friends wrestle with feel viscerally real as the three “go to ground,” leaving the no-longer-safe havens of Hogwarts and the Beasley’s house to devote themselves to defeating Voldemort.

As always, the three young actors who play the main parts are just the right age, since the nine years that have passed since the first film closely mirror the seven years that elapsed in the books. It’s been lovely to watch them grow up and grow into their roles – particularly Emma Watson, who used to be too stiff as Hermione. This time she really feels like the emotional glue at the center of Harry’s surrogate family.

If you have young kids to entertain, you might try Megamind. I’m out of space, so I’ll just say it’s a welcome twist on the superhero genre: self-aware enough to tweak what needs tweaking (starting with the notion that good guys are all good and bad guys all bad) but true enough to its audience to honor the conventions that count, making us care about the characters and giving them all happy endings. The animation is clever and often beautiful (I particularly loved a scene of Megamind welding), and Megamind’s overly complicated inventions, his endearingly clumsy attempts at bad-guy banter, and the bumbling protégé he turns into a nemesis by mistake are all pretty funny.

Written for TimeOFF

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