"127 Hours" (2010)
Director: Danny Boyle
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Based on an excruciating true story, James Franco plays Aron Ralston, who got trapped in a crevasse for over five days after a hiking accident. Mind you, we are stretching the parameters quite a bit here, as with "Cast Away" as several other characters do appear.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Initially, a pair of young girls out trekking, and then after the accident occurs, he interacts mostly with his video camera, a bird circling overhead, the elements that batter, freeze and burn him successively, his memories of family and friends, a vision of his future son and, of course, his trapped arm.
Does It Jump The Shark? No. It's a surprisingly soulful and occasionally surreal film that is not just about resourcefulness and stamina in terms of the physical demands of survival and escape, but is even more about the psychological will it takes to survive. Somehow even moments that could tip into "Oh come on" territory, like when Ralston escapes and still has to trek for miles to find help, feel believable and searingly real. Possibly because they really did happen.
Is It Any Good? Yes indeed. While Academy recognition is no great indicator of quality, here it got it right: the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture (it's one of the many films from that year that can feel a bit hard done by being beaten out by "The Kings Speech"). And Franco is absolutely terrific—both broadly relatable in how he reacts to his circumstances, but also delivering a very specific portrait of this one man and his highly singular strategies for survival. It's the kind of performance that makes us wish we saw more of this side of him—the committed actor delivering solid, deeply felt work not as a piece of performance art or a critique on celebrity, but as an integral part of a greater storytelling whole.
Director: Michael Greenspan
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Owner of one of the oddest career arcs in history, Oscar-winner Adrien Brody takes the lead here as a man who regains consciousness in the passenger seat of a wrecked car, with his wounded leg trapping him in the wreck, no memory and nothing but a dead body in the back seat for companionship.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? With a pretty young woman who we first think is a passing hiker come to rescue him, but then realize is a figment of his imagination, and a dog who becomes his companion once he finally gets out of the car.
Does It Jump The Shark? Yes, and very early on, in the aforementioned early reveal that the woman is imagined. It makes her subsequent appearances less effective, and renders a sequence where he eventually shoots her oddly pointless. It also foreshadows a small twist at the very end rather obviously and again to little effect. And in other ways the long, dialogue-free, relatively realistic scenes of Brody dragging himself around the forest, coupled with such genre staples as amnesia, a gun, a bag full of money, and a cellphone that gets no signal don't mix together particularly well, and so we get an uncomfortable marriage of formal experiment and genre thriller.
Is It Any Good? It's not terrible, mainly thanks to some very watchable grimacing and grunting from Brody, especially in the early part of the film when he's still trapped in the car and we get a real sense of the frustration and confinement and peril. But when he gets out a lot of the dramatic weight is lost in fairly interminable crawling around and the gradual reveal of his returning memory is anticlimactic at best. As a low-budget quickie B-movie it's serviceable, then, but its faint aspirations toward more are unfulfilled.
Director: Duncan Jones
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Evergreen Playlist favorite Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut nearing the end of his three-year tenure as the sole human on a base on the Moon, which has been developed for mining.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Largely with the mainframe computer, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), but also in recorded messages, with his family back on Earth, prior to a series of events that lead to him discovering another astronaut in the base. Who looks just like him.
Does It Jump The Shark? No, at least not until the very very last shot—we have to say we felt the contextualizing of Sam's story back on Earth was unnecessary and even slightly undercut the film's enigmatic and ambiguous atmosphere. But it's pretty forgivable because of just how airtight everything felt to that point. "Moon" is that rare sci-fi picture that almost entirely fulfills the promise of its high concept, building a truly unearthly, surreal-edged tenor and not resorting to third-act deus ex machinas.
Is It Any Good? Brilliant, actually, and only getting better in retrospect, though it always felt like a future classic. It wears its influences on its sleeve (and large swathes of both "Silent Running" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," to which it is indebted, are themselves single-actor movies), but evolves into entirely its own animal, and Rockwell, playing dual roles, turns in one (two?) of his subtlest and most nuanced performances, hinting at the emotional exhaustion that Bell's isolation has caused, and then at the gradual blossoming of a sense of purpose that the truth of his situation awakens in him. Appropriately, it becomes a meditation not just on what it is to be human, but on what it means to be a person.
A few other films we considered for this rundown were "No Drums, No Bugles," a now largely unavailable Civil War-era movie featuring Martin Sheen as a conscientious objector who decides to leave his family and hide out in the woods rather than be drafted into either army. "Silent Running" we mention above in the "Moon" section, but does have significant portions involving other actors, as does the recent "Gravity." There's a 1974 French film called "The Man Who Sleeps" which puts an either amazingly or tiresomely Gallic/existentialist spin on the single actor film, depending on your point of view, in that the lead is not only the only actor, he also has no dialogue with his thoughts being conveyed in voiceover by a female narrator as he wanders the streets of Paris musing on being and not-being. And talking of experiments, we should also probably mention that many Warhol films only feature a single actor, though how much they're acting and how much they're just sleeping or, you know, getting blown on camera is up for debate, and otherwise we largely avoided documentaries such as Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" in which the subject is the only person who appears onscreen. Any we missed and should check out? Tell us below.