NY Film Festival review: A vertiginous “Walk”

27 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Walk': NYFF Review.

When “The Walk” arrives Wednesday on select IMAX screens, audiences will get a sense of what it felt like to be Philippe Petit during his sensational 1974 wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.Discussing The Walk at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, Robert Zemeckis was quick to distance himself from James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.

A filmmaker with a gift for overcoming the seemingly impossible puts audiences in the place of the man who walked between the Twin Towers in this gripping human-interest story.Ahead of the film’s world premiere, the star and the director explain how a combination of digital painting, “an elaborate workshop” and “a green abyss” aims to give audiences “the feeling of vertigo.” “Right behind us, there’s a fifty-foot drop, which is hilarious for this type of movie where we’re on top of towers the whole time – and this is the most petrified I’ve ever been in my entire life,” joked Ben Schwartz during The Walk press conference, sitting next to a gap just in front the AMC Lincoln Square’s 3D IMAX screen.“Now I’ve seen everything,” an anonymous New Yorker remarks, marveling at the spectacle unfolding more than a hundred stories above street level. Harnessing the wizardry of 3-D IMAX to magnify the sheer transporting wonder, the you-are-there thrill of the experience, the film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.

A quarter of a mile above, daredevil high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soft-shoes between New York City’s two tallest buildings in a breathtaking stunt the lunatic Frenchman believes could be “the most audacious work of art that has ever been done.” For a man whose name literally means “little,” Petit sure talks a big game. Zemeckis’ delivery of such a sustained money shot — literally breathtaking, stomach-churning, sweat-inducing and exhilarating — should ensure solid numbers for Sony. Zemeckis’s last movie, Flight, proved that the master of mainstream spectacle behind the likes of Back to the Future, Cast Away and Forrest Gump could also capably manage gritty drama. Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they re-create the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a thrilling 3D, all-angles view of an experience that, until now, only one man on Earth could claim to have lived.

Save the – very tense – plane crash sequence, Flight was minimal by the film-maker’s standards, and successful with it: sparse treatment suiting the strong performances and powerful story. All the surround-sound bells and whistles and digitally enhanced fireworks in the world can’t quite shake us out of the feeling that we’ve seen it all before.

Speaking of tentpoles, “The Walk” takes its cues from the circus, where 8-year-old Philippe first laid eyes on a tightrope act, and from which his flamboyant performance style eventually sprung, with the coaching of possibly Czech circus honcho Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley, sporting a wild Europudding accent worthy of “The Room’s” Tommy Wiseau). We worked really hard to put those audience up on those towers and on the wire.” With no former high-wire experience, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt trained directly with Petit, who optimistically insisted that the actor would be able to walk on the wire alone after “an elaborate workshop” for eight days. “He’s such a positive thinker, he believed that I would and because [of that], I started to believe I would,” he said. “When you believe that you can do something, that’s when you can do something – and he was right. Gordon-Levitt was always going to be a strange choice to play Philippe Petit, a hyperkinetic and highly gesticulative showman with impish blue eyes, wild orange hair and a thick French accent.

This proves a big hurdle as Gordon-Levitt’s mop-top Philippe opens with some cringe-inducing direct-address, musing on the obvious question of “Why…? Resemblance matters, since the 1974 World Trade Center coup has made Petit an international celebrity of sorts, his story known by children (a significant percentage of the PG-rated film’s intended audience) and retold in James Marsh’s terrific 2008 documentary, “Man on Wire.” That’s a problem for the marketing department, which must battle whatever resistance audiences have to watching the kid from “3rd Rock From the Sun” gad about in a weird wig and contacts, though it’s quickly forgotten in the context of the film (certainly, it’s no worse a distraction than Johnny Depp’s “Black Mass” performance, though Gordon-Levitt goes to the additional trouble of delivering a significant portion of his dialogue in French). To stop believing that — to mean it when we say we’ve seen everything — would be to give up on art and surrender to cynicism. “The Walk,” Robert Zemeckis’s painstaking and dazzling cinematic re-creation of Mr. Whatever one thinks of the accent, Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne have captured Petit’s voice — the real, honest-to-God way he expresses himself — and Gordon-Levitt wins us over from the outset, hanging out in the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

The result is a stunning visual experience that captures what the site was like in 1974, when Petit was racing to complete his stunt before the project’s official opening. In his gripping 2008 documentary account of Petit’s career-defining act of subversive performance art, Man on Wire, director James Marsh made no excuses for the egomaniacal side of his daredevil subject. For the whole of its two-hour running time, it plays like a Disney cartoon, right down to the hammy sidekicks who aid Petit on his mission (the exception is Petit’s girlfriend, Annie Allix, who Charlotte Le Bon somehow suggests may be a living, breathing person). Of course, no film can touch on these landmarks without conjuring memories of their tragic collapse, though “The Walk” reminds us that while New Yorkers still bond over the question, “Where were you on 9/11?,” a quarter century earlier, before the South Tower was even finished, witnesses to Petit’s walk were forever transformed by what they saw. (That very notion inspired Colum McCann to write his brilliant tapestry novel “Let the Great World Spin,” which revolves around Petit’s high-wire act and, in the author’s words, “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”) Few filmmakers have accomplished more seemingly impossible feats onscreen than Zemeckis, and here, the “Forrest Gump” helmer again proves his magician’s ability to blend character and technology in such a way that virtuoso style springs organically from the material itself.

With its narrow windows and vertical patterns, the 1963 building at the corner of Woodward and Jefferson Avenue is perhaps the architect’s “best expression of the tall building idea,” according to Detroit Free Press writer John Gallagher, whose latest book is “Yamasaki in Detroit: A Search for Serenity” (Wayne State University Press). There are moments in “The Walk” where the camera does impossible things, whether hovering above Philippe’s head as he balances some 1,300 feet off the ground or peering through an advertisement torn from a French magazine, upon which Philippe has doodled a thin line between the not-yet-built Trade Center towers. But in Gordon-Levitt’s self-regarding performance, the character is borderline obnoxious, right up until he acquires some vulnerability by virtue of the void stretching out beneath him.

The film also works too hard at injecting charm into Petit’s back story, not to mention finding contrived reasons for him to speak English with the band of “accomplices” he assembles in Paris as he prepares for his coup. Zemeckis’s films — not so much its loss or recovery as its stubborn persistence. “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away” and the “Back to the Future” movies are stories of optimists battling the cruelty of history and the indifference of the universe.

As Gallagher describes in his introduction, “Only by standing amid one of his projects can one feel the surprise and delight that Yama strove so hard to create.” Those reactions hit audiences of “The Walk” when Petit does his famous wire walk. The idea of a Frenchman obsessed with conquering America is subliminally planted early via not one but three French-language versions of jukebox classics — “Sugar Sugar,” “Black is Black,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” And Philippe’s guitar-strumming sweetheart Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) is introduced crooning Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” en francais.

Zemeckis uses the jazzy strains of Alan Silvestri’s score to instill the feel of a crime caper or a heist movie, but for much of the running time, conflict remains absent. You could argue any of those categories but in my experience, if you focus too much on labeling things, you probably aren’t paying attention to what’s good about it,” said Gordon-Levitt. Photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibony) signs on to help, also enlisting Jean-Francois (Cesar Domboy), a math whiz who speaks little English and is terrified of heights. Zemeckis, referring to lines in the film, added, “All artists are anarchists in some way — some more extreme than others, but it’s something that I think artists are supposed to do. Petit, he’s interested in tackling the impossible, which is to say in discovering new possibilities for delight and awe and celebrating the transformative power of human creativity.

Shame, then, that these spectacular visuals are undercut with silly voiceover which has Gordon-Levitt explaining his thought-processes every step of the way. We see Philippe, forever the clown, don an elaborate series of disguises as he and his friends case the joint — a job made considerably easier after stepping on a nail forces him to use crutches, even if the foot injury is sure to complicate the stunt itself. Bringing three accomplices over from France, Philippe recruits a handful of Americans, including wild-mustachioed Steve Valentine as their inside man and James Badge Dale as a slick electronics salesman. And unsurprisingly for a filmmaker like Zemeckis, who has shown a defining fascination with technological magic, it’s the focus on the specifics — research, planning, rigging, setbacks and lucky breaks — that finally tightens the storytelling grip.

Philippe may not be short on charisma, but Dale gets to do the fancy talking — and steals nearly every scene he’s in — whenever they’re trying to hide their French accents. While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and his acrophobic friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one. Despite a preordained outcome that pretty much nixes any element of surprise, he builds suspense into the placement of the cable and its strategic support wires, the last-minute defection of jittery team members, the appearance of security guards and the more surreal introduction of a “mysterious visitor,” who appears on the rooftop at the eleventh hour like some kind of brooding Don Draper stepping into a dream. Zemeckis can get a little carried away at moments like these, indulging a “Vertigo”-like fantasy in which Jeff goes spinning off into the open elevator shaft where Philippe and Jeff duck to hide from a passing security guard — though it’s helpful to remember that he’s playing to his widest potential audience since “The Polar Express,” and he’s trying to psyche the kiddies up for the main attraction, once the guard leaves and the men can finally step out onto the observation deck.

Wolski’s camera swoops like a bird, traveling the distance of the towers in both directions, giving us Petit’s point of view as well as hovering above him. Oddly, the rooftop scenes yield some of the movie’s least cinematic footage, a bit too obviously shot on ground-level soundstages (though real-life details keep things lively, as in an amusing bit where Philippe inexplicably strips off all his clothes to retrieve the arrow shot between the towers). It may fumble the preamble but The Walk works where it counts most, creating a spectacle of balletic beauty out of an act that otherwise remains inscrutable to the screenwriters. Maybe Zemeckis is just saving his mojo for the moment when the wire is finally suspended between the buildings and Philippe is ready to take his first step out into the void.

Despite his intense physicality and manic energy, both the character and performance remain constricted by a script that tells rather than explores. “I am mad. Dariusz Wolski’s often-virtual camera, occasionally relying on performance-capture and other visual-effects tricks that he and Zemeckis innovated during their ugly but ultimately useful all-CG phase. But all of the bustling 3-D IMAX mugging and pratfalling is really just the warm-up act, as is the mildly diverting tale of the period in Philippe’s life leading up to what he calls “the coup.” Glimpsing a pretty busker on a Paris street (she’s singing a Leonard Cohen song in French), he steals her audience and then, bien sûr, her heart. As Philippe moves back and forth between the towers, pausing to sit, look down and taunt the police officers gathering on either roof, Zemeckis puts stereoscopic 3D to maximum advantage: Gazing from above, the wire rests just below screen level, we hover above, and Ground Zero sits a full quarter-mile in the distance. Zemeckis does emphasize the point that New Yorkers were ambivalent about the towers that so radically altered the Manhattan skyline, crediting Petit’s captivating stunt with engendering affection for the twin steel-and-glass monoliths as construction neared completion.

The choice to allude only obliquely to their disappearance after the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks, via a somber fade in the closing shot, shows welcome restraint in a movie whose final-act achievements erase the shortcomings of its belabored buildup. The digitally projected picture appears fuzzy and out-of-focus on such a big screen, making it tough to judge (or fully appreciate) whatever care went into re-creating period details too far off to make out.

Still, in addition to being a staggering spectacle, it is also an imminently relatable human story, and that should read loud and clear on any screen. Whereas the earlier sections suffered from an absence of dramatic conflict — Philippe is immune to doubt, averse to introspection and impossible to argue with — the Manhattan chapters hum with practical, tactical excitement. Camera (color, 3D), Dariusz Wolski; editor, Jeremiah O’Driscoll; music, Alan Silvestri; production designer, Naomi Shohan; supervising art director, Felix Lariviere-Charron; art director, Jean Kazemirchuk; set decorator, Ann Victoria Smart; costume designer, Suttirat Larlarb; sound (Dolby Digital), William B. Sands, Brandon Proctor; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Baillie; visual effects and animation, Atomic Fiction; additional visual effects, Rodeo FX, Legend3D; visual effects and stereo producer, Camille Cellucci; stereoscopic supervisor, Jared Sandrew; special effects supervisor, Ryal Cosgrove; stunt coordinator, Marc Desourdy; wire walking & stunt double, Jade Kindar-Martin; hire-wire coach and consultant, Philippe Petit; assistant director, Darin Rivetti; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. The film becomes a poem of metal and concrete, a symphony composed in glass and rebar, light and air and brought alive by an antic, crazy inspiration.

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