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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The Missing Person


Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

Nothing is cooler than a dick, a dame and cocktails.

(2009) Mystery (Strand) Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Linda Emond, Yul Vazquez, Paul Sparks, Paul Adelstein, Kate Arrington, Anthony Esposito, Liza Weil, Daniel Franzese, Merritt Wever, Gary Wilmes, Betsy Hogg, Hailey Wegryn Gross, Coati Mundi, Neisha Butler, Jennie Epland, Abbie Cobb, Sakura Sugihara. Directed by Noah Buschel

There’s something to be said for a good noir film with a rumpled gumshoe on a tarnished quest, beautiful dames in dimly lit bars and plenty of cigarettes and martinis.  Not only is it a throwback to a simpler bygone age but in many ways it’s as American as a cowboy movie – although the Europeans (particularly the French) have proven themselves quite adept at the genre as well.

John Rosow (Shannon) is just such a private detective but Phillip Marlowe he ain’t. He does have rumpled down real good though. Anyway, he’s just kind of squeaking by and he fills his down time which there is plenty of with booze. Then he gets a phone call and a job – to board the California Zephyr train in Chicago and keep tabs on a man named Harold Fullmer (Wood).

The more Rosow follows Fullmer, the more suspicious he becomes – although that suspicion is tempered by frequent trips to the bar car. Fullmer isn’t necessarily who Rosow thinks he is and Rosow realizes that there is a connection between he and Fullmer that is unexpected – but crucial. This will lead Rosow to a moral dilemma that has no real right answer – just choices to be made.

Like any good detective story, the devil is in the details so I’m being a bit vague in my description of the plot. The Missing Person isn’t a traditional noir in the sense that there’s sex and violence a’plenty, but it is more noir in mood and convention. This is a modern noir, very much a product of the last half of the first decade of the 21st century but it has the DNA of a Raymond Chandler novel buried deep within.

Shannon has become one of the better actors in Hollywood; he’s as versatile as they come and while he may have a face only Willem Dafoe could appreciate, it’s an expressive face as well. John Rosow is a lost soul adrift in a post-9/11 world that he doesn’t quite understand. The drinking is to relieve the pain of loss and at unexpected times Shannon allows that pain to come to the surface and it can be devastating when he does.

Buschel doesn’t mind quietly poking holes in the whole noir ethos (tall characters bump their heads on ceilings and other moments of transcendent but very real silliness) but he has enough respect for the genre not to make fun in a snide way, more like the affectionate joshing of old friends. While he chose to make his characters more like kids dressing up in adult costumes and play-acting in many ways, the movie is anything but childish. In fact, it’s more adult than a lot of movies out there in that it carries a moral complexity that requires the viewer to examine his or her own moral compass in regards to Rosow’s conundrum. Sounds like a mathematical formula, doesn’t it?

In any case, this is mighty fine viewing but do be warned – it can meander in places, particularly in the middle third of the film. There were times I got the impression that Buschel himself wasn’t entirely sure how to move the film from point D to point E and the plot flounders when that happens. However lovers of old fashioned detective stories who like their stories hard-bitten with an intelligent chaser will be delighted to discover this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice juxtaposition between noir conventions and modern pop culture. Shannon gives a bravura performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never seems to know what direction its going in.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language, a smidge of violence and sexuality and plenty of scenes of drunkenness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John is seen to emerge from the California Zephyr at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. However, the California Zephyr doesn’t go to Los Angeles; it terminates at Emeryville just outside of Oakland.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,896 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Bang

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn tells Sandra Bullock he's old enough to take a bath by himself; she's skeptical on that score.

(2011) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Anderson, Hazelle Goodman, Adrian Martinez, Brooke Bloom, Stephanie Kutzuba. Directed by Stephen Daldry

 

Grief is an emotion we all must deal with at some point, but sometimes we must deal with it too soon. For the families who lost loved ones in 9-11, how does one explain to a child that a person flew a plane full of gasoline into a tower full of people and because of that their mommy or daddy are never coming home again? How does one cope with having to explain that while dealing with their own grief?

Oskar Schell (Horn) has a particularly close relationship with his dad Thomas (Hanks). Dad often sends Oskar on what he calls Reconnaissance Expeditions, kind of an elaborate scavenger hunt.  His dad may be a jeweler by trade but he’s a dreamer by nature – he tells his son that there once was a sixth borough of New York City that floated away years and years and years ago, never to return. His son believes him, just as he believes his Dad implicitly when he tells him that Central Park was once part of that fabled sixth borough.

Then Dad goes to a meeting one bright beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He is still in there when the towers come down, molecules in the sky floating placidly in the dust and the debris. Oskar’s mom Linda (Bullock) and he must bury an empty casket since no body could be recovered; this upsets Oskar very much, so much so that he refuses to get dressed for the funeral (he attends in PJs and bathrobe), refuses to sit graveside (he remains in the limo with his grandmother (Caldwell).

A year after Oskar is still very much in pain. He is a brilliant kid with a logical and ordered mind; he can’t wrap his head around the “why” of 9-11. Nothing makes sense. Then, while rooting around in his dad’s things, he accidentally knocks over a vase which shatters, revealing a key in a small envelope with only the name “Black” neatly written on the envelope to give a clue as to where the key fits.

And as it’s a key and there must be a lock that it belongs to. Moreover, Oskar knowing his Dad’s penchants for subtle clues, believes that this is a quest he must undertake to hold onto his dad for just a little bit longer, the final words of the father to his son. Oskar will find the lock if it takes him the rest of his life.

He begins visiting everyone in the New York City phone book with the last name Black. There are 462 of them in the five boroughs and Oskar believes one of them has the lock that the key belongs to. They must. They have to. Otherwise the universe is truly a meaningless collision of random events and there is nothing ordered, nothing logical, just random chance.

Aiding him on his quest is the mute Renter (von Sydow) who is a boarder in his grandmother’s apartment. He is an old, sage gentlemen who seems to have demons of his own, but no voice. It isn’t ever clear if he can speak and chooses not to, but he does write notes and helpfully has the words “yes” and “no” inked on the palms of his hands.

His journey will take him throughout the five boroughs  and into a series of lives, some sweet and kindly, others not so much. His quest to keep his dad with him a little longer may well be the means in which Oskar will find a way back into living his own life.

Do bring a lot of tissue paper because you’re going to need it. Some of this is really hard to watch as you see a little boy’s pain, pain that he can’t even begin to cope with and his powerless mother taking the brunt of his rage because he has no other way to deal with this enormous loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.

However if you’re planning on seeing a Hanks-Bullock star-fest, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hanks only appears in flashbacks, while Bullock is a kind of just there until the last reel when she delivers some of her best work since The Blind Side. You’re mostly going to get Horn and that’s a good and bad thing.

Horn is making his feature debut. He has some talent – he has some very emotional scenes and this role asks – no, demands – a great deal from him. In a way, I think it asks too much. He must carry the movie on his frail shoulders and for much of it he does, but there are times when it feels as if he’s acting and a role like this calls for feeling it and feeling it deep. Accomplished actors would have a hard time with that and Horn does a pretty good job all things considered. You really can’t ask more of a young actor than what Horn gives here.

Keep in mind that the role is of a child dealing with something adults generally have a hard time with. Oskar lashes out, develops quirks that may be infuriating at times – and to top it all off he’s kind of an insufferable know-it-all who isn’t very patient with people who can’t or won’t keep up with him. He isn’t always likable and that can be different to relate to for an audience.

Von Sydow, the iconic Swedish actor, acts entirely without dialogue and gives a magnificent performance, conveying his emotions with a twitch of the eyebrow here, a shrug of the shoulders there, and most of all with his eyes. It’s a masterful performance and while it hasn’t gotten much buzz for Supporting Actor consideration, it’s kind of a shame it hasn’t – he deserves it.

There are some moments that are over-the-top precious and try too hard to push our buttons. There are other moments that are incredibly moving and cathartic. Sometimes we learn to deal with our own pain by understanding the pain of others. This is one such opportunity.

REASONS TO GO:. A tremendous story of grief and love. Horn does his best with a difficult role. There are moments that are greatly affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Oskar can be a handful and at times it’s hard to root for him because of his faults. The movie is maudlin in places. Not enough Hanks and Bullock.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes have a lot to do with grieving and loss; some children may find this distressing and disturbing. Some of the images are disturbing and there are some pretty foul words, some of it used by Oskar.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas Horn won $30,000 as a champion on Jeopardy Kid’s Week.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reign Over Me

BIG APPLE LOVERS: The movie is filmed in locations all over New York City, including several that rarely make it onto the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Haywire

Man on Wire


Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

Philippe Petit sets out on an epic journey.

(Magnolia) Philippe Petit, Jean-Francois Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, David Forman, Alan Welner, Mark Lewis, N. Barry Greenhouse, Jim Moore. Directed by James Marsh

Our human nature is to expand the boundaries of our perceptions, whether the physical borders of our environment or the emotional or mental limits of our capabilities. We don’t always know why we must push these limits, but to do so is the heart of our human nature.

Philippe Petit is a French wire-walker and performer. He had run away from home at age 15 to join his own private circus, a street performer expert in magic tricks, juggling and wire walking, for which he was self-taught. After awhile, he grew bored with the feats. It seemed almost ugly to him, and he yearned to transform wire walking into an art.

To be honest, although it isn’t spoken outwardly in the film, he also seems to have a flair for the spotlight. He decided to perform some daring feats of wire-walking whose legality was a bit murky, starting with a wire walk between the twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and one on two towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It was the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that captured his imagination however, and on the morning of August 7, 1974 he stepped out onto a special wire he and his team had managed to stretch unnoticed between the north and south towers and made history.

The feat, which Time magazine called “the artistic crime of the century,” was one of the most defining moments of the Twin Towers until 9-11. It captured the imagination of the entire world. This documentary chronicles the planning that went into it, the execution of the event and its aftermath.

The Oscar winner for Best Documentary Film, Man on Wire has some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a documentary. The personalities of the subjects are nicely captured, and everyone’s role is very clear. Petit in particular is a complex man, and many of the aspects of his personality are represented here. His relationship with Allix is important at the time of the walk, but dissolves as soon as the event is concluded.

The planning that went into the event was meticulous in terms of the mechanics of the walk; getting the equipment up the tower to the roof was less so. Still, it’s fascinating to watch and the re-enactments of the event, the descriptions of how close they came to being detected and their scheme stopped before it started is riveting.

Inevitably, the centerpiece is Petit. When explanations are demanded, Petit shrugs them off. “The beauty of it,” he confesses, “is that there is no why.” He did it just to do it. It is the kind of love that is madness, a joy of life in doing the reckless, the non-conformist’s mazurka. The expression on his face as he dances on the wire between the two towers is all the explanation you will ever need, but it cannot be put into words adequately.

The World Trade Center now inhabits an entirely different locale in our psyche, and wisely director Marsh doesn’t explore that aspect of it. Certainly, the destruction of the towers must have had an impact on Petit but it is the one question that goes unasked; it is much better that way, because the only way for this film to work is to put the Towers where they were that August day; fresh, new, a symbol of a hopeful future. The image of the craters at Ground Zero remains in a different compartment of our memories. In many ways that’s a gift.

This is a movie that has all sorts of emotional resonances; with the daredevil that is Petit, with the urge to do something memorable in all of us, and with the sadness of the loss of something so grand and so meaningful in our lives. Man on Wire can be viewed not only as a documentary of how the deed was done, but also of an allegory of the tightrope we all walk.

WHY RENT THIS: The interviews are compelling and give us a wonderful sense of who the subjects are and their role in the events depicted. While ostensibly a documentary about how the deed was done, it lets us examine the event from a different perspective, one born of our experiences and of the history that followed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Perhaps you don’t like documentaries.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and drug/alcohol use but nothing here that would put off parents from showing this to their children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phrase “Man on Wire” is the description of the incident as logged on the police report by the NYPD after the event.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several documentary features but none really spectacular.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Proposal