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Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

TheWalkPosterDirector Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.


Related Articles and Posts

Movie Review: World Trade Center

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

Promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BVSPosterThe hype for Hollywood’s first major competition to Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies begins today with the release of a Comic-Con trailer for Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (watch the trailer here). The long trailer is exciting, overblown and sufficiently enticing in terms of generating interest based on plot, character and action.

The new teaser is also relatively conventional. Done in that Wagnernian-operatic, apocalyptic score reminiscent of music for The Omen (1977) that everyone with a big action movie seems to use, certain situational settings and scenes dissolve in and out, introducing main characters and reintroducing those based on 2013’s Man of Steel. This is DC Comics’ entry in the comic book-based movie wars and it looks to be big, bloated and foundational to a huge new franchise for the San Fernando Valley studio.

Featuring Amy Adams (Her) as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, with Diane Lane (Secretariat) as Kent’s mother, Batman v Superman sets the tone by evoking the previous movie, though the teaser is framed primarily by the new character, Bruce Wayne/Batman (controversially cast Ben Affleck), bearing no relation to previous Warner Bros. Batman movies. What else is evident in the trailer is abundant: The Joker, Lex Luthor and other evils are implied as the conflict between superheroes takes shape, this happens as Bruce Wayne is apparently harmed by Superman, who is revered as a god, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) comes into the picture. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) apparently portrays Lex Luthor (“the red capes are coming”) in the trailer’s least successful tease. Jeremy Irons (Casanova) plays Alfred the butler. Laurence Fishburne (Blackish) reprises his role as the newspaper publisher. Holly Hunter (Always) plays a politician. Scenes and subplots appear to include major military involvement, crumbling skyscrapers and possible sidetracks to comics characters for DC Comics’ the Justice League.

Batman v Superman is directed by Zack Snyder (The Watchmen, Sucker Punch, 300), whose record is mixed to bad in making movies and there are already several credited writers. Whether this movie, which is gaining enormous audience awareness based on the social media-driven release of this trailer at Comic-Con, is a flop or a hit depends upon the relevance and coherence of the story and whether Affleck (The Company Men) and other cast members, especially Eisenberg judging by the teaser, pulls off a clean, convincing performance. With a hint of an element of hero worship, at least there’s the hope that Batman v Superman could beat Marvel’s increasingly incoherent, convoluted Avengers series by putting old-fashioned American heroism for justice back on top, though Warner Bros., DC Comics and Snyder ought to consider turning the volume, hype and disclosure of circumstance down, not up, before the picture goes to theaters.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: Inside Out

InsideOutPosterLike Disney/Pixar’s Up (2009), and other recent animated pictures, such as Frozen, Inside Out is muddled. The story of a child’s emotions—joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness—as characters is more of a sketch than a full-length feature.

Inside Out lacks humor. The plot feels forced. Characters are artificial. The ideas upon which the story is based, if one can make out a plot and theme, are dubious. For instance, main character/emotion joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) drives the child character and the entire movie. Is this good? Inside Out, co-written and co-directed by several people, never addresses or answers the question. This is one reason why this is not a kid-friendly movie.

Of course, I said the same thing about Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (2001) for the same reason. Its animated interchanging of reality and an underworld of evil monsters mixed with good monsters struck me as potentially harmful to a child. I’m not an expert on child development or psychology. But I’ve noticed that Pixar’s movies, with the exception of the intelligent Ratatouille (2007) and the original Toy Story trilogy (1995-2010), tend to get lost in deep, dark and abstract messages that man is doomed in an arbitrary malevolent universe and the best one can hope for is a small slice of decency. Up pairs an abusive old man and a disturbed boy to ordinary effect. Wall-E (2008) is a bleak, depressing account of a machine with human qualities. Even the megahit Finding Nemo (2003) is bland. They each involve innocents, such as children, in chronic peril at risk of extreme danger facing imminent death.

Inside Out, which expands the sameness and spreads it thin, is similarly lifeless. An only child is uprooted from Minnesota, where she plays ice hockey, and moves with her bland, uninteresting parents to northern California, where she has trouble adjusting. Her mother and father, whose idea of parenting is to act out their arrested development with the intonation of an NPR report, approach their new lives with the enthusiasm of filing tax forms. But the family’s barely in Inside Out, which is all about sadness and joy and an imaginary and loud and obnoxious friend (a Jewish stereotype) named Bing Bong. These three, more than the three humans, dominate the plot.

What they do or attempt to do is complicated and tough to follow but it has to do with grasping and trusting emotions—rational thought is reduced to a train, as in train of thought—and restoring the child to a balanced life. Some of the applied and animated ideas, such as tears of joy and seeing a person as whole, are innocuous, fine or better than that. Others, and most, such as values as islands that change in destructive eruptions, are poorly conceived or executed and, in any case, way too abstract and advanced for this type of movie. This is the main problem with Inside Out, which is also remarkably sexist—the girl’s negative emotions are mostly male and the male is treated as a passive tool for female manipulation or sex—and the end product is manic, convoluted and bereft of humor except for a chuckle here and there. The after effect of Inside Out is a feeling I can only describe as hollow, accompanied by the vague, irritating or creeping sense that something is horribly wrong with this movie and what it’s trying to say, do or depict.

The best children’s stories about deconstructing a child’s healthy, proper development, such as books by Dr. Seuss, Fred Rogers’ televised tales on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or Walt Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1949) depict or address the child facing adversity with a strong, playful sense of life, imagination and the idea that one can make sense of the world. Pixar movies increasingly do the opposite. In Inside Out, the child faces adversity with a weak, lonely shrug, little imagination and unidentified, inexplicably conflicting emotions that practically put her at the mercy of an unintelligible world. In this sense, Inside Out is upside down as a movie for kids and those who raise them.

Assault on Free Speech in Texas

Today, a free speech event in Texas was attacked by two gunmen, who were shot and killed by police when the attackers opened fire and injured security guard Bruce Joiner (read the event and assault details here). Because the event, featuring a speech by a member of Dutch parliament, involves a cartoon award bestowed for the best drawing of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, the assault must be presumed to be another Islamic terrorist attack.

Despite—or due to?—the nature of the event, there is no mention of Islam or Moslem terrorism by the statement issued by the conservative, Republican governor of Texas, which mimics every Obama administration knee-jerk response to an act of potential Islamic terrorist violence and merely refers to a “senseless act”.

In fact, before the event, which is sponsored by an activist against Islam who says she sought to exercise free speech on principle, the Texas town’s residents denounced the event on principle, comparing its intent and purpose to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater and denying even the fact that it is an exercise of free speech. One resident spoke out against the anti-Islamic event, which is currently protected by the First Amendment, as a threat to “public safety”. Of course, the oft-cited fire in a theater claim is also a distortion of the freedom of speech; it is totally justifiable to speak up in case of one’s belief that there is an impending emergency, such as a fire, even if one turns out to be wrong.

There is more to learn about today’s attack, such as who sponsored it, the motive of the attackers, and why the government failed again—as in Boston, Benghazi and on September 11, 2001—to stop an act of war by Moslem radicals in spite of mass, unchecked surveillance of the entire U.S. population and government control of travel.

Whatever the specific facts about today’s act of war against America and the individual liberty America once stood—and, still, mostly stands for—May 3, 2015 marks a major turn for the worst for liberty in the United States. Americans should already know that we are at war with state sponsors of Islamic terrorism. Americans should already know that we are in conflict with our own American government, which sanctions, appeases and actively supports state sponsors of Islamic terrorism and seeks to control the everyday lives of Americans.

With this news of an assault on a cartoon event in America’s Lone Star state, especially after the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo, a mass murder of artists for cartoon depictions of Mohammed, Americans can no longer deny, ignore or evade that more Americans—the most religious, Christian, conservative Texans—oppose the freedom of speech. After today, in my estimation, more bad Americans will follow and rise to oppose the freedom of speech in the name of “public safety” and the fire-in-a-theater nonsense.

Today’s attack should motivate defenders of liberty. However, as seen by the town’s opposition to this event, it is likely to motivate the advocates for censorship.

This should make the good Americans and those who support the absolute freedom of speech, such as PEN American Center, CNN‘s Christiane Amanpour, Salman Rushdie—who this week came out in support of PEN’s courage award for Charlie Hebdo—focus and fight more strongly and with more passion and reason while speaking out more often than ever. As Pamela Geller, the organizer of the anti-Islamic event, said and asked: ‘This is a war. This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?”

The few and best Americans must rise to defend today’s artists and thinkers and oppose the voices for tyranny—on the right, on the left and especially those waffling in the middle of the road—with a united and uncompromising stand for reason, egoism and individual rights. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the rational American must never surrender—and never submit to silence, censorship or the sickeningly insidious attack on free speech. This is the real fight of the century. Liberty must be avenged.