The Walk


The ultimate vertigo.

The ultimate vertigo.

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.

Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.

No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.

This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.

Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.

Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).

Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.

Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.

Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.

Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: India’s Daughter

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Zaytoun


Stephen Dorff can't understand why he isn't a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

Stephen Dorff can’t understand why he isn’t a star and neither can Abdallah El Akal.

(2012) Drama (Strand) Stephen Dorff, Abdallah El Akal, Ali Suliman, Alice Taglioni, Loai Nofi, Tarik Kopty, Ashraf Barhom, Mira Awad, Joni Arbib, Ashraf Farah, Adham Abu Aqel, Nidal Badarneh, Hezi Gangina, Morad Hassan, Michel Khoury, Osamah Khoury, Doraid Liddawi. Directed by Eran Riklis

The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli is one of the world’s great tragedies. From the west, our perspective is that if only cooler heads could prevail on both sides perhaps they could live together in peace. Closer in however the perspective changes and things get a lot more complicated.

In 1982, Lebanon is in civil war and the Israelis are making noises about invading. Palestinian refugee camps house cells of the PLO who from time to time lob rockets into nearby Israel. Young Fahad (El Akal) lives in one such camp in Beirut but despite having a fairly laid back father and grandfather, he skips school regularly to sell gum and cigarettes on the streets of Beirut. The Lebanese themselves are not overly fond of the Palestinians who bring nothing but trouble. They chase Fahad and his friends and sometimes shoot at them. Fahad however s 12 years old and invincible. As for the camp, well, they’re more concerned that Fahad get his training by the PLO. Their homeland isn’t going to reclaim itself, after all.

That all changes with sudden ferocity when Fahad’s father is killed by a falling bomb. Fahad’s feelings for the Israelis moves from disdain and disrespect to downright hatred. Shortly afterwards, Yoni (Dorff), an Israeli fighter pilot, is shot down and captured by the PLO. Fahad is given the job of guarding the prisoner whose return to Israel might well bring about the exchange of many of their brothers-in-arms.

Fahad, still seething with hatred and sorrow, torments the prisoner and makes his feelings known to Yoni. When Yoni grabs one of Fahad’s friends to get some leverage to escape, he finds that he can’t harm the child even to secure his freedom. After he lets him go, Fahad shoots him in the leg.

While Yoni is recovering in the local clinic, an incident occurs that gives Fahad second thoughts about his current situation. He approaches Yoni who’s offered to take Fahad to Israel with him if he helps him escape. Yoni seizes the opportunity and agrees. The two steal out into the night.

At first they are antagonistic towards each other (Fahad swallows the key to Yoni’s shackles in order to make sure he can’t run off) but as time goes by, they are forced to rely on each other and they reach an understanding. For starters, Fahad lugs around with him a small bag, a soccer ball (he idolizes the Brazilian star Zico) and an olive tree which he means to plant at the family’s home in Palestine. Yoni thinks he’s nuts at first but slowly grows to realize what the olive tree means. For Fahad, his aha moment is that Yoni is not such a bad man and if one Israeli can be decent, perhaps they are not all as bad as his PLO trainers have made them out to be.

This is essentially a combination of a road film and a buddy film set in the Middle East. Naturally the politics of the region play a heavy role in the plot. Riklis, who previously directed Lemon Tree and  The Syrian Bride, both fine films as this one is as well. In many ways, this is a much more mainstream Hollywood-like film than the other two. Riklis seems to have a real empathy for the Palestinian cause; while he doesn’t come out and say in any of his films that he is in support of their determination to create a country for themselves, all three of these films are seen not from the Israeli viewpoint but from the Palestinian and in all three cases the Israelis are seen as bureaucratic and somewhat insensitive to say the least.

Dorff has been quietly putting together some really quality performances lately (see Brake) and in a just world would be well on his way to the A list. Unfortunately this isn’t a just world and so his work goes mainly unnoticed in small indie films. This is one of his stronger performances and one can only hope that someone is noticing.

El Akal has been in 12 movies in six years and at 15 years old looks to have a pretty strong career ahead of him. While I was a bit frustrated by his performance here – in some scenes he shows tremendous emotional range while in others he is as wooden as the tree he carries around with him – the moments when he is on his game he literally carries the movie. If he can be a little more consistent with his performance there’s no telling what he can achieve.

The movie is divided in three parts; the opening act which focuses on Fahad and his life in (and near) the camp; the second is his and Yoni’s dangerous trek through Lebanon to get across the border – with the help of a Bee Gees-loving taxi driver who provides some needed comedy relief – and the third Yoni and Fahad in Israel and their quest to get Fahad to a home whose location he only vaguely knows. They are all three different in tone; the first harsh and sometimes shocking (a woman is executed for infidelity while Yoni and Fahad negotiate with the cab driver to get them to the border), the second more of a thriller as the two are hunted by the Lebanese military but also by the Palestinian guerrillas. The last act is a bit more warm-hearted and sweet-natured. The three mesh surprisingly well together but that third act is a bit of a letdown after the tension of the second.

I liked the movie about equally with Riklis’ other works. I can’t say that it gives any more insight into the conflict than what we already know – that the two peoples, other than their religious differences, are essentially much more alike than they’d probably care to admit. At the very least they both share a love for a harsh and often unforgiving land which has a beauty all its own.

REASONS TO GO: Dorff delivers another strong performance. Some good suspense and drama.

REASONS TO STAY: El Akal is inconsistent. Some actions taken by the characters aren’t explained well.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence and children in harm’s way; there’s smoking (some of it by children), some foul language and some adult themes and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Zaytoun” is Arabic for “olive” and refers to the olive tree Fahad carries around with him throughout the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Defiant Ones

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Aftermath

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters


Logan Lerman, wearing his hoodie, keeps a sharp eye out for George Zimmerman.

Logan Lerman, wearing his hoodie, keeps a sharp eye out for George Zimmerman.

(2013) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Douglas Smith, Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Fillion, Anthony Head, Leven Rambin, Jake Abel, Missi Pyle, Connor Dunn, Paloma Kwiatkowski, Ron Perlman (voice), Octavia Spencer (voice), Shohreh Aghdashloo (voice). Directed by Thor Freudenthal

When you’re a demigod (the offspring of one mortal parent and one Greek God or Goddess), life pretty much sucks. You can save the world and still end up feeling like a loser.

At least, that’s the way it is for Percy Jackson (Lerman). The son of Poseidon who saved the world from a plot to use the world’s most dangerous weapon to kickstart a war between the Gods that would have devastated the planet is kind of moping around a year later, wondering if he was indeed a one-quest wonder. Upstaged in nearly everything by Charisse (Rambin), daughter of the God of War, his friends Grover (Jackson) the satyr and Annabeth (Daddario) the daughter of the Goddess of Wisdom have his back but the headmaster at Camp Half-Blood, Dionysus (Tucci) can’t even remember Percy’s name let alone his fame.

When the camp’s defensive barrier is attacked (a magic tree), it appears that the only way to sustain it is to retrieve the legendary Golden Fleece of Jason and the Argonauts. However, that rests on an island in the Sea of Monsters (what we humans call the Bermuda Triangle) and the way there and back is perilous indeed. He will have to deal with traitorous demigods, crazed cabbies, monsters of all size and shapes and a dorky half-brother (Smith) who happens to be a Cyclops. With his friends at his side, how can he be beaten? Well, quite often actually…

The second movie in the series based on Rick Riordan’s wildly popular young adult books, like the first film, uses Greek mythology as a jumping off point. However, that film was kind of poorly written with plot points that lacked coherent explanation and suffered a bit from too close to Harry Potter for comfort. Those sins are still very much in evidence here and while the special effects are more spectacular in the sequel, the thrill factor is much less in the second film than it was in the first.

Lerman has blown hot and cold as a young leading man. His sad sack Percy doesn’t have the heroic qualities of a Harry Potter although he does find his inner hero by film’s end (that’s not much of a spoiler). Here, he doesn’t hold up well to Rambin, who is sexy and charismatic and whose character exceeds Percy in nearly every category as Rambin does Lerman here. Lerman is beginning to remind me of Shia LaBeouf in a negative way.

A movie like this needs to be exciting and thrilling and the issue is that I never felt those things even once during the movie. It’s just kind of there – I don’t really care much about the characters, the visuals can be nice but ultimately they are like seeing a single red rose in a snowy garden; the color is beautiful but it doesn’t change that the rest of the setting is bland and colorless. The series, beloved by many, deserves better movies to be made from it.

REASONS TO GO: Some spectacular effects sequences. Fillion and Tucci are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too Harry Potter-esque. Lacks chemistry. Percy not nearly as heroic as Harry.

FAMILY VALUES:  Here there be monsters; also some mild foul language, fantasy action sequences and a few semi-scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rambin, a natural blonde, wore a wig for her role as Charisse; Daddario, a natural brunette, dyed her hair blonde to play Annabeth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Story of Us

Uncertainty


Uncertainty

Heads I win…tails you lose!

(2009) Drama (IFC) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Olivia Thirlby, Assumpta Serna, Louis Arcella, Nelson Landrieu, Manoel Felciano, Jenn Colella, Giana Luca, Sofia Luca, Ana Cruz Kayne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ed Wheeler, Michaela Hill. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

 

It is said that every decision we make creates an alternate reality. Take the right fork and life unfolds one way; the left and it turns in a completely different direction. We never know which way things will turn out.

Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) is a Canadian musician waiting for his green card. Kate (Collins) is a Broadway actress and dancer. They have been together for ten months and they are deliriously happy together. They meet in the middle of the Brooklyn bridge on the fourth of July and they are trying to come to a decision as to what to do. Bobby flips a coin; then they both run in opposite directions Bobby towards Brooklyn and Kate towards Manhattan. At the end of the bridge on either side they meet…each other?!?

Here the story veers off into two different directions. The Brooklyn side (in which the couple wears green) is one in which Bobby spends the weekend with Kate’s Argentine parents who are a bit old school. Kate’s mom Sylvia (Serna) doesn’t trust Bobby much and wants Kate to make something more of herself. Kate bonds with her little sister Sophie (Thirlby) who wants to follow in her footsteps while Bobby tries not to feel too out of place.

The Manhattan side (in which the couple wears yellow) the couple find a cell phone left behind in a taxi. When Bobby calls the number on it to get the phone to its rightful owner, he lands the couple smack dab in the middle of a situation. When someone comes to claim the phone, he is shot dead before their eyes. The two wind up running from a ruthless assassin hell-bent on retrieving the phone at any cost.

This is one of those parallel story films that occasionally crop up (Sliding Doors is the best-known of these) but the styles of story are about as dissimilar as you can get; one is a slice of life drama that explores the couple’s relationship and personalities whereas the other one is an action-thriller a la Collateral that moves at break-neck speed. The problem here is that the two storytelling styles are so dissimilar that they actually clash.

The pacing of the thriller gets thrown into painful reverse by the thoughtful reveries of the drama. The effect is jarring and off-putting. The sad thing is that if they had told the stories straight, both of these tales – or either one – could have been a compelling movie on its own, particularly the Brooklyn portion.

Gordon-Levitt is a reliable actor just coming into his own when this was filmed. You can see that he has gained in confidence from his indie films of just a year or two earlier. Collins is a performer who generally does a lot of supporting parts although she’s had lead romantic roles in a movie or two; she has some pretty good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt although Kate is a bit whiny in places.

I kind of wish they’d taken the couple from the Brooklyn film and put them into the Manhattan film; the Bobby and Kate of the thriller do a lot of stupendously dumb things, to the point where it becomes almost farcical. Conversely the Brooklyn portion drags in places, mainly because of the contrast with the high-energy Manhattan portion.

There was a good movie to be made here but unfortunately this turns out to be two mediocre movies crammed into the same reel. It wasn’t a bad idea – it’s just the thriller and the drama aren’t really compatible which ends up making the movie a little bit unsettling and quite frankly, life is unsettling enough without having to get the same feeling from your entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Gordon-Levitt and Collins. Nice idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Thriller and slice-of-life drama don’t mix very well. Sometimes seems awkward and forced.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, sexuality and just plain bad language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was written without dialogue. This was done on purpose so that the actors could improvise their dialogue on the spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Collins doing a scene that was never filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36,689 on an unreported production budget; this is most likely a box office bomb.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: 5 Days of War

Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen