Skip to main content

Yes, I am mad. But this, this is my dream.

The Walk
(2015)

(SPOILERS) The first half hour of The Walk is so tonally at a loss, I feared the entire movie would be a bust. Robert Zemeckis mistakes the France-set, laboured scene-setting antics of Phillippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for disarming charm and a zesty tone. This, combined with Gordon-Levitt’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! French accent, suggests a fundamental miscalculation from the bottom up, a blunder as inadvisable as its director’s decision to spend a decade in world of motion capture. Fortunately, once the picture is on the safer ground of the “heist” (or “coup”, as Petit refers to it), the same high wire navigated by James Marsh’s superior doc Man on Wire, only here with added the visuals, natural momentum kicks in.


This is ironic, as one of the drawbacks of Man on Wire was that, while it effectively communicated Petit’s passion and obsession, it didn’t shine much of a light on who the participants were as people. While The Walk also fails to delve into who Petit and co became since (one particularly wonders about Barry Greenhouse, the insurance executive who facilitated their access), the early section attempts to grant Petit a biography, and it flounders completely. 


Partly, it just isn’t very interesting; so he was a street performer (including some excruciatingly unfunny mime bit between Petit and his to-be girlfriend Annie Allix, played by Charlotte Le Bon), and his parents threw him out, and he meets up with Ben Kingsley, as most people do at some point if they’re in movies for long enough. His spark to cross the Twin Towers on a wire is similarly forced, and all the while Gordon-Levitt’s over-cajoling narration has exactly the opposite effect of persuading us this character has a story worth sticking around for.


It’s easy to see why Zemeckis went down the heightened route of presentation and flourish, complete with a very artificially staged Petit “standing” atop the Statute of Liberty to deliver his account. Man on Wire is, after all highly theatrical, for all its documentary status, with re-enactments and a thriller structure, and the lion’s share of that is down to Petit’s persona as the central force (to be fair to the director, he states he began developing this project a decade ago, before Man on Wire came to be, but comparisons, and no doubt influences, are inevitable). But the result is off-puttingly broad, closer to Death Becomes Her’s mugging than keeping the foot on the ground it needs. That is, until Petit arranges his test exercise, traversing Notre Dame Cathedral (the follow-up, Sydney Harbour Bridge, is omitted, probably because three such feats would feel like diminishing returns).


While Zemeckis and co-screenplay writer Christopher Browne, adapting Petit’s To Reach the Clouds, have slightly sexed up the tale (mainly through compressing the time it took to tease the plan out – three trips to New York were necessary, although the apparent detour to go back and see Ben Kingsley’s Papa Rudy for some advice, complete with scale models of the edifices, is bizarre – but also such dramatic devices as giving him a bleeding foot during the walk, and the shaking of the wire right at the end), for the most part it’s unnecessary to doctor the facts. One point they don’t include is the victorious Petit ungallantly opting for a celebratory shag with a passing groupie, probably sensible as it wouldn’t foster sympathy for the protagonist.


Of which, Gordon-Levitt is naturally more winning a presence than the real Petit, able to convert the arrogance into something more personable. As such, Zemeckis could perhaps have pushed a bit more; we are told that Petit isn’t showing his co-conspirators due deference, rather than really seeing it, and this is dealt with through the clumsy comedy of Petit waking them up in the night and thanking them (mid-nailing up his “coffin”, amidst pre-performance anxiety); it’s hard to marry this kind of whacky guy schtick with the smooth, expertly staged laughs of Back to the Future.


Le Bon rather disappears into mix, while Kingsley is Kingsley, commanding and dependable. Of Petit’s French chums acrophobic Jeff (César Domboy), who accompanies him to the rooftop, comes off best. Not so well-conceived is Benedict Samuel’s goofy stoner, so over-the-top it’s like Zemeckis never saw the ‘60s himself (or perhaps it’s because he did). The standouts are Valentine, complete with extraordinary goatee and gleefully white-collar rebel bent, and James Badge Dale’s local fixer Jean-Pierre, returning to the Zemeckis fold post-Flight and sporting a ridiculous perm.


After a run where Gordon-Levitt appeared able to do no wrong, The Walk at least shows up that he’s merely human. His natural charm is buried in there, but the surface trappings are frequently embarrassing or misjudged. In attempting to capture Petit’s enthusiasm and bon homie he goes too big, and his look is unnecessarily artificial. But that suits Zemeckis these days, unfortunately. He appears to approach a project with the technical specs in mind first, even now he’s back in live action (God knows how that Yellow Submarine picture would have turned out). Do we really need to see the steel rope forming between the Towers, through the miracle of Petit’s CGI-imagining, in the near-last shot?


But in terms of the vertiginous feats, the real attraction to the director, he doesn’t fail. I was surprised to learn (I saw this in 2D, and it’s still fairly on-the-ledge; I don’t think I needed extra heady heights) this wasn’t a natural-3D movie, given Zemeckis’ thrall to all innovations technological (often at the expense of content), but no. The extreme craziness of Petit’s feat is only compounded as we breathe a sigh of relief on the completion of his crossing. Only for him to go back out for more. And more. Including all manner of insane poses; looking down, lying down, kneeling down, saluting his audience, taking up ballet poses. Sheer madness (he did eight crossings in all over 45 minutes, and Zemeckis certainly succeeds in telegraphing that he was out there for a good long while).


Unlike Man on Wire, Zemeckis, as a man partial to sentiment (though thankfully not as much as his sometime mentor Spielberg), can’t resist invoking 9/11. So Petit, who is garlanded with the accolade of breathing life into edifices no one was particularly partial to previously, wistfully notes he was granted a pass “forever” to visit the observation decks of the Towers. Man on Wire was a minor hit in 2008 (relatively, for a documentary, one which won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar). It’s now twice that time since 9/11, and the tepid audience reception greeting The Walk suggests maybe people are tired of being reminded of an event that has, entirely for ill, informed the 21st century paradigm to date (unless it’s Back to the Future predicting it, of course; then it will get millions of hits on YouTube). Or perhaps it’s just that The Walk, when it settles in, is an engrossing but flawed picture, and anyone interested in the story has probably already read or heard Petit’s first-hand account.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…