Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

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127 Hours


127 Hours

James Franco might just be looking at Oscar gold.

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Posey, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, Sean Bott, John Lawrence, Rebecca Olson, Lizzy Caplan, Pieter Jan Brugge, Jeffrey Wood. Directed by Danny Boyle

Being capable can sometimes be confused with being arrogant. However, being capable can sometimes cause one to become arrogant. Arrogance can then lead to hubris and that can lead to the kind of disaster that can change a life completely.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is the prototypical Type A personality. He never met a physical activity he didn’t like, a challenge he couldn’t face. He’s at his happiest when he’s alone in the canyons of Utah’s Canyonland National Park, even though it’s a bit of a hike from his Colorado home. Sure, he has friends like Brian (Lawrence) whom he works with and even Rana (Olson), an ex-girlfriend who sees through the cocky bravado and pronounces that he will end up alone.

Still, Aron is naturally charming as he proves when he meets a couple of pretty young women (Mara, Tamblyn) out hiking. They’re lost, he knows his way around and soon they’re frolicking around in an underground pond. When they separate, one leans into the other and says “You know, I don’t think we even figured into his day.” And they’re right, although he will eventually look back on their encounter with some regret.

He’s going to have the opportunity to dwell on that, and other aspects of his life. While crossing a cut canyon, he steps on a boulder he thought was stable and goes plummeting, downwards-like. When he lands, he discovers the rather inconvenient fact that his arm is pinned to the canyon wall by a boulder the size of a home AC unit. He tries to move the boulder, but no good. He tries pounding the boulder, unsuccessfully. He takes a deep breath, lays out all the contents of his backpack and tries to think. The sinking realization is that nobody knows where he is. Nobody can hear his cries for help. His water supply is limited as is his food. He has no real tools that can extricate him from the situation apart from a multi-purpose tool with a dull knife blade.

After freaking out a little bit, Aron realizes the grim situation he is in. He has only enough water to last him a few days. Nothing short of a jackhammer is going to get that rock off of him. He is going to die. 

Dying is a funny thing, particularly when you have time to wait for it. You are given a chance to reflect back on your life, see the road not traveled and figure out who you are and what didn’t work. And, as his water begins to run out, the lack of sleep and the exposure to the elements begins to play with his mind. And as his time runs out, he is faced with a devastating choice between the will to survive and a horror that thee and me could never contemplate.

Most of you know by now that Aron Ralston is an actual person who went through this, and that devastating choice was whether to saw off his own arm with the dull knife or else wait to die. Obviously he chose the former, and stumbled out of that canyon to be rescued by a pair of hikers who alerted authorities.

You wonder how a film set in a cramped space for 127 hours – a little over five days – can be a riveting experience but Oscar-winning director Boyle makes it so. Even though for the most part you know what everything is leading to, you get to see inside the person that Ralston is. During his ordeal, he made several entries on a digital video camera that essentially detailed what he was going through but also served as a goodbye and apology to his family for the times he put his own needs ahead of theirs. In the end, he realizes that he had insulated himself from the things in life that were most important.

Franco is an expressive and often physical actor who is perfectly cast here. This might be the defining performance of his career; it is as sure a bet to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months as any performance this year is. He is onscreen for the entire movie and spends much of it alone. He has to capture the attention and imagination of the audience without interacting with anybody other than himself, and he does it in a way that is both natural and unforced.

The amputation scene is not as graphic as you might think, although there are reports of people fainting during it. It certainly is disturbing and I would think long and hard if I were the sensitive sort about putting myself through it. If you have someone who is affected by such, you might want to take it under advisement that they might not do well at this movie although the scene isn’t gratuitous in the least.

The cinematography here is breathtaking, utilizing the majestic desolation of the Utah landscape as a character in the movie. It is this that Aron disrespects and winds up paying a heavy price.

REASONS TO GO: A career-making performance by Franco and another great movie by Boyle. This is the kind of movie that stays with you long after its over.

REASONS TO STAY: Sensitive sorts will be disturbed by the amputation scene, and claustrophobics might be made uncomfortable with the surroundings in the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of bad language (hey, you’d curse if you had a boulder on your arm) and some pretty disturbing scenes of self-amputation that are definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The camcorder that James Franco uses in the film is the same one used by Ralston on his ill-fated trek. The video he shot had only previously been shown to family and close friends, but Boyle and Franco were allowed to watch it for accuracy sake. The video is kept in a vault for safekeeping.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the film takes place in a cut canyon, a very narrow environment, but some of the shots of Canyonlands National Park are just breathtaking and should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Police, Adjective