‘The Walk': NYFF Review

27 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Walk’ review: High-wire act falls short of documentary.

Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk is all about “the walk.” That’s to say, the movie comes to dazzling life in its spectacular final 40 minutes or so, when Philippe Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, saunters out on a cable and gives us a vertiginous view of the French tightrope walker’s 1974 aerial feat, when he tiptoed across the clouds between the towers of the World Trade Center. 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.Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper, Inception) stars as Petit, clad in a bad wig and colored contacts that signal a rough start from the very opening of the film. 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. Zemeckis borrows the same device he used in Forrest Gump, having Petit narrate the film as it recounts his early beginnings as a wire walker, his family’s rejection of his creative ambitions, and his eventual tutelage at the hands of a circus ringleader known as Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).

Zemeckis’ delivery of such a sustained money shot — literally breathtaking, stomach-churning, sweat-inducing and exhilarating — should ensure solid numbers for Sony. Luckily, Zemeckis shares his gift for hyperbole, and together, they recreate the wild dream as only cinema can, giving audiences a 3D, all-angle view of an experience that, until now, only one man on earth could claim to have lived.

Petit is a dreamer in the most extreme sense, a man who sees the wire as the only canvas upon which he’s able to truly express himself, and like all good movie dreamers he lets neither familial doubts nor the law get in the way of what he sees as the ultimate “coup”: walking a wire between the Twin Towers. Robert Zemeckis’s glimmering dream of a film, which opens the 2015 New York Film Festival, takes two buildings that have become emblematic of everything that’s frightening and uncertain about 21st century life in the West and redeems them. He said he was been actively looking for material that lends itself to 3D specifically as a storytelling tool. “I thought it had all the elements to make a compelling movie,” he said, later praising the overlapping Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire “that lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking.

The act of trespassing was not legal and involved all sorts of disguises, accomplices, dodges and “spy work,” as Petit referred to it later in his book “To Reach the Clouds,” upon which the new film “The Walk” was based. It turns Petit’s stunt, which was one hundred percent illegal, and completed without a harness, into a kind of pre-emptive retort to the attacks of September 11th, 2001 – a reminder that beauty, fun and the irresistible human impulse to create are the stuff that dissolves terror on contact. 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. Gordon-Levitt was always going to be a strange choice to play Philippe Petit, a hyper-kinetic and highly gesticulative showman with impish blue eyes, wild orange hair and a thick French accent — none of them qualities that audiences associate with the brooding “Looper” star. 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.

It’s all prelude, of course, to the titular walk itself, and it’s obvious that’s the part of the story that got Zemeckis interested in the first place. 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…?

The problem “The Walk” faces is the fact that James Marsh’s 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” told this story rather definitively in the eyes of many. Where does that leave “The Walk,” director Robert Zemeckis’ fancy, fictionalized docudrama version of the grandest act of poetic terrorism ever committed on American soil? Once preparations in New York begin, the movie takes on an entirely different heist movie vibe, replete with high-energy preparation montages and some hilarious bit character moments. (Steve Valentine, as Petit’s inside man at the Trade Center, is a particular standout.) It’s Zemeckis at his ‘80s best, calling to mind the polished, effortless rides he once crafted in movies like Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone, but even that fades away once Petit steps onto the wire. 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. The clunky framing device gets worse when the camera pans back to find him perched in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, although the digital recreation of early-’70s Lower Manhattan that he surveys is indeed impressive.

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 of 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. What “The Walk” has going for it, though, is an awe-inspiring final chapter that will trigger vertigo in countless viewers as Joseph Gordon-Levitt prances out onto a thin wire stretching to infinity.

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. I can only say “The Walk” struck me as an honorable good try of an also-ran, though with some lovely things to offer, especially when the preamble and preparations and backstage dramas wind down and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Petit, takes that first step.

The photography, sound, certainly the visual effects — everything comes together for a unique experience that will make the film stand out from other contenders this season. 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. In predominantly black-and-white flashbacks, Paris street performer Petit plies his slack-rope skills wherever he can elude the cops long enough to gather a crowd. And with the screen filling my peripheral vision and the depth of the image pulling me in, I realized I was having the kind of exhilarating experience that can only be had at the movies. (I only wonder what the film would have been like if it had shot natively in IMAX, taking advantage of its taller, more immersive aspect ratio.) With virtual reality and other immersive experiences factoring so heavily in modern conversations about media, it’s easy to look to those new forms as the best ways to transport audiences into new worlds, but a movie like actually serves as a strong counter-argument. 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.

Like any great magician or illusionist would do, you don’t want to let them see the effects, but the majority was digital [painting].” Aside from wire-walking, Gordon-Levitt also learned to speak French fluently, perfecting a Parisian accent policed by co-star Charlotte Le Bon and other “very honest” French actors on set. “I don’t know if I fooled French people but I fooled Americans,” he laughed. 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.

Paris 1973 is where Petit begins to plan his coup – he sees an illustration of the as-yet unbuilt towers in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, and decides on the spot what he has to do. 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.

In the film, the use of IMAX 3D is incredibly effective — but it’s a visual tool, working in concert with the character work and emotional attachment that the movie has already built up. Essentially, this is just preamble to the film’s crowning set-piece – but it enjoyably sets out why it matters, and is carried off with the panache of a comic heist movie. (Alan Silvestri’s superb score, which switches between pensive strings and antic jazz, brilliantly enhances both of the dominant moods.) And even before the big moment arrives, Zemeckis uses 3D in startling and innovative ways, turning surreally disembodied circus-performers’ legs into a living version of Edgar Degas’s The Curtain, and bringing a new, breath-catching intimacy to a kiss shot in tight close-up. 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. And I wasn’t having an isolated experience in some clunky plastic headset; I was in a theater, feeding off the anxiety and energy of every other person watching at the same time. 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.

The film gets better as it goes, and the last half-hour (especially in 3-D on an Imax screen) is nearly everything it should be: scary, visually momentous, meticulously realized. 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.

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. Zemeckis keeps throwing things (juggling pins, etc.) at the screen in the early sequences, and while the storybook colors and tones of “The Walk” are designed to appeal to all ages, often the film simply feels pushy and insecure. The emotional payoff, when it comes, isn’t out on the New York rooftops, but back in France: a single, subtle gesture from Kingsley that sums up the miracle at hand. 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. While Gallic buddy Jean-Louis takes the North Tower, Zemeckis follows Philippe and afraid-of-heights friend Jeff (Cesar Domboy) infiltrate the South one.

It’s a lesson that’s even more important to remember today, when movies seem ported to things like 3D and IMAX not for any artistic intent, but for the sake of ticket prices and opening weekend bragging rights. On his day, Zemeckis has a better feel for the simple power of this stuff than almost anyone – and that (again, like Mad Max), the best cutting-edge spectacle filmmaking demands a bone-deep understanding of the medium’s past.

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. The Manhattan skyline — digitally rendered to include the towers and to omit more recent construction — stretches out in the background, and the lady in the harbor stoically tolerates the presence of her voluble compatriot. 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 something 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. (At any rate, he shows little interest in the pic’s few subplots and hasty resolution from this point forward.) How long can you hold your breath? Zemeckis could’ve used the same advice, at least as a check on his impulse to dazzle us every second, instead of building incrementally to a breathtaking climax. A year after that unfortunate hack situation, and with new honcho Tom Rothman looking to get the prestige gears turning, the studio could go any number of ways in the Oscar race. 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. We’ll find out soon enough if Petit’s harrowing, beautiful act still resonates with voters looking to add a little bit of eye-popping wonder to their ballots. 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. 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.

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. He has used all his brazenness and skill to make something that, once it leaves the ground, defies not only gravity, but time as well. “The Walk” is rated PG (Some material may not be suitable for children).

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