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29 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Walk’ earns its keep with spectacular third act.

NEW YORK — Robert Zemeckis’ big, cinematic tale of Philippe Petit’s audacious 1974 World Trade Center high-wire stunt is itself a bold balancing act in a lost art. A quarter of a mile above the earth, with nothing but a thin braided cable between him and a gum-splattered New York pavement, Philippe Petit strolled between the Twin Towers. Mixing big-screen spectacle and an original story about real-life human beings is not the usual recipe in today’s reboot-crazed Hollywood. “The Walk,” which boasts some of the best 3-D the medium has seen, would be out of place amid the superheroes of summer, just as it stands out among the dour dramas of the fall. “I so subscribe to the Francois Truffaut quote that a successful movie artistically is a movie that’s a perfect blend of truth and spectacle,” Zemeckis said in a recent interview. “I do think that’s what we go to movies to see.” “The Walk,” which opens nationwide Friday, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and recounts the French high-wire artist’s famous caper: sneaking to the top of the just-completed Twin Towers to hoist a wire and tiptoe between them. There’s already been Petit’s book about the experience, and a children’s book, and an award-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” Now comes the feature, “The Walk,” and it is, as it should be, a slight, mischievous, light-footed film, full of imagery.

Director Robert Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have made a truly extraordinary and breathtaking 40 minutes of cinema, preceded by a mostly forgettable, cloyingly whimsical hour and change. It’s not hard to see “The Walk” as a metaphor for Zemeckis’ movies altogether: the story of an individual elevated to dreamy heights of the clouds. “If you’re going to do an original movie that isn’t a sequel, you’ve got to really supply a big cinematic experience,” says Tom Rothman, who produced “The Walk” while reviving TriStar Pictures before becoming chairman of the Sony Pictures Entertainment motion picture group. “Everyone knows there’s so much great stuff on television and blah, blah, blah,” adds Rothman. “You’ve got to really give people a reason to get out of their house and go to the cinema and see it on the big screen with a capital B. And that’s what this is.” The film has for years been a passion project for the 63-year-old Zemeckis (”Back to the Future,” ‘’Forrest Gump”), one of Hollywood’s great illusionists. He spent a decade in digitally animated movies (”The Polar Express,” ‘’A Christmas Carol”) before returning to live-action with 2012’s “Flight,” a character study of an alcoholic pilot (Denzel Washington) that enticed moviegoers with an extraordinary plane crash set-piece — a carrot of special-effects dazzle. Smartly, he begins the film as if it were a silent comedy, a sort of “Safety Last” with a Gallic accent and Petit – played with whimsy and winning charm by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – unicycling his way around Paris.

In the time since Zemeckis began developing “The Walk,” Petit’s stunt was retold in James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.” But while Zemeckis grants it’s a very good documentary, he notes it’s missing one essential thing: Petit’s walk. “Philippe was on the wire for 45 minutes and in all of Manhattan, no one could scramble a movie camera in 45 minutes,” chuckles Zemeckis. “How times have changed.” The central feat of “The Walk” is its digital recreation of the Towers, along with the vertigo-inducing 3-D sensation of being 110 stories in the air. Disinherited by his parents (and often criticized by his mentor, a circus performer played by Ben Kingsley) he works on the streets and lives, a bit, in his own world of fantasy. The dizzying effect — made within a budget of just $35 million — sent some moviegoers rushing to the restroom at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere on Saturday. “My cameraman and my visual effects supervisor and I, we studied what the best way would be to evoke that feeling of vertigo,” says Zemeckis. “We really paid attention to where we put the camera, what lenses we used, how we moved the camera, what gave us the most dramatic sensation of height.” Gordon-Levitt spent several days at Petit’s home in the Catskills training with the still passionate 66-year-old Frenchman. It languishes for too long on origins of Petit’s obsession with wire-walking and the high rise towers, playing up his quirkiness and eccentricities for whimsy, not the story. With the Eiffel Tower looming a little-too-perfectly in the background, just the right sort of artistes and bohemians popping up in every scene, it’s the sort of movie-Paris that Gene Kelly would feel at home in.

Having gone on to perform dozens of other high-profile wire-walks, authored several books, and become an adept equestrian, fencer, carpenter, rock-climber, and even bullfighter, Petit would bristle at the idea that his work could be reduced to a system. And, of course, there are the requisite underdeveloped characters — a curmudgeonly mentor (Ben Kingsley) and supportive girlfriend (Charlotte Le Bon) — to accompany him along the way. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons that any entrepreneur, artist, or aspirer to big deeds can’t learn as they gear up for their next big challenge. Gordon-Levitt, sporting fake blue eyes and a thick French accent, embraces the manic showiness and near sociopathy of Petit — an artist with complete tunnel vision.

Whatever it is you set out to do, you’ll face more chaos and uncertainty than you ever imagined, and it can sometimes cause you to lose your footing. (This tendency to radically underestimate how hard it is to achieve a goal is called the “planning fallacy.”) The problem is that people don’t like chaos. The energy even gets an adrenaline boost when James Badge Dale enters the frame as J.P., a magnetic, French-speaking New Yorker who brings an authentic levity and vitality to the film not a minute too soon. Clément Sibony stands out in the supporting cast as Petit’s closest ally, and César Domboy is fun, too, as a math whiz who’s deathly afraid of heights. And that, at it’s best, is what this movie is – not virtual reality but a virtual fantasy, as an artist takes what all art is – a high-wire, high-risk act – and makes that literal. Except, perhaps, in its idealization of what used to be, a 1974 New York where artists lived on love, the druggies were as harmless as Cheech and Chong and every police officer was a benevolent beat cop.

He made 200 reconnaissance visits to the towers, often disguised as a construction worker, a tourist, or an architect so he could take accurate measurements, time the elevators, and learn the guards’ routines. All that meant learning thousands of micro-details, he said, like how a particular “door opens to the left this wide with this many steps of a certain thickness, and how the 450-pound cable must be brought up this way to avoid detection.” Petit laid out the brutal logic: “If I want to live to be very old, I must be a madman for detail.

A half a millimeter of mistake, a quarter-second’s miscalculation, and you lose your life.” Entrepreneurs who fail to prepare for their missions with Petit’s fanaticism probably won’t perish, but their businesses might falter. The true test of success, of course, is endurance. “Many wire-walkers have died three feet before arrival because in their heart they said, ‘Hey, I did it!

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