Monday, 2 November 2015

The Walk (2015) - Movie Review

There are very few filmmakers whom possess such a stranglehold on pop culture history as Robert Zemeckis. Whether it’s his audience-pleasing favourites like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back To The Future trilogy, his critical darlings like Forrest Gump and Cast Away or even his cult classics like Used Cars and Death Becomes Her, the man likely owns a decent part of the collective cinematic mindset. Through his willingness to adapt not only to newer filming techniques but also to the Hollywood system at large, he has more than earned his place in the pantheon of directing greats. That, and he will also hold a very near and dear place for me personally, since he’s also one of the only directors still working today that has a consistently good track record in terms of effects work; it’s kind of astounding just how well a lot of his films have visually held up. So, when news hit that the king of dual role casting was behind a new release, it became clear that this is something I would be watching even without the whole critical routine.

The plot: French street performer and tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a dream: To perform his act on a wire strung between the towers of the World Trade Center. With the aid of accomplices Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) and the training of circus veteran Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), the heat is on to forge a plan to infiltrate the still-incomplete towers, hang the wire and have Phillippe do what he does best in what would be the artistic crime of the century. That is, if the stress and sheer audacity of the feat doesn’t get to him first.

This might be composer Alan Silvestri’s best work in years, and a great surprise for someone who loves his work as much as I do. Despite how much he has evolved as a composer over the years, he honestly sounded his best when he delved into his jazzier side like he did back in the 80’s. After hearing him fade into the background of crowd-pleasing orchestrals when I know fell well he is capable of more, it’s a real treat for the ears to hear him melding his older work and his more recent lush instrumentation. Mostly in the scenes set in France and in the setup for the titular walk, we get the too-cool-for-the-room jazz drums and double bass that made Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s score so awesome, whereas the walk itself has the grandiose feel that he brought to the table for films like The Avengers. Add to that the French pop covers we get at the start, like the nice renditions of Candy Girl and These Boots Are Made For Walking, and this film starts on an amazing footing based on its music alone. Given how rarely I go into detail on the music in these reviews, consider that an indicator of just how good it is here.

Given how we’re dealing with a story based on not only actual events, but the kind of actual events that are just screaming for film adaptation (let’s ignore the documentary Man On Wire because, frankly, I don’t want to make unfair comparisons to films I haven’t watched yet), it feels weird how straight this isn’t played. Every few lines, we keep getting characters freely announcing how insane/surreal the entire caper is. Now, admittedly, how determined Gordon-Levitt as Phillippe is to make it work despite how crazy it ultimately is helps add to his character, but it would have been greatly improved if the script allowed these actors to take the premise with less winking to the audience. This isn’t helped by the framing device involving an amazingly out-of-place Gordon-Levitt on top of the Statue Of Liberty as he narrates the events of the film. While the narration itself is perfectly fine and makes for some good pathos during the walk itself, the idea of having the actor on-screen and directly telling the audience said narration makes this feel a bit kiddified. It feels, at times, less like a proper film and more like a IMAX educational short that would bring in school excursions by the bus load, despite how much we’d rather watch Gordon-Levitt in The Dark Knight Rises on there instead.

Something else that contrasts harshly with the reality the film presents, and in a far more damaging way, is the rather uncomfortable feeling gotten from seeing the Twin Towers standing upright again. Knowing how much that tragic day would change America and the world at large, it’s unsettling to say the least to hear people talking about them with such reverence. As much as I would rather call this a mere side effect of the setting, it isn’t helped by the dialogue which makes a point of mentioning the 'new association' people have with the Towers after Phillippe made his walk, along with the closing narration that just feels off. It’s admirable that this film was made at all, considering how those ill-fated events are still fresh in the minds of a lot of people, and it’s good that the filmmakers dedicated the film proper to the victims of the attack, but it does cast a shadow over the film that can be more than a little distracting. Consider also that this is Zemeckis back in his more family-friendly shoes, and this all gets a bit weird after a while.

While the preparation for the caper itself is excellent, thanks to the great direction and acting (particularly from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose charm even makes the on-screen narration somewhat tolerable), and the caper is also tense, exciting and lets me scratch that itch for good heist flicks, it’s the walk itself where the film reaches its creative height. Time for Subjectivity Time again! Now, because of how much I pride myself on being able to deconstruct films as best I can, I rarely find myself getting properly sucked into a film these days because I keep focusing on the elements that make up the images I’m seeing: like I can only see the forest for the trees.

However, at a certain point during the high wire act, much like what Phillippe himself saw thanks to the Zemeckis-brand superb effects, everything else fell away. The exquisite camera work, the effects, Gordon-Levitt’s acting chops coupled with his insistence on performing his own stunts, with him being taught to wire-walk by Phillippe himself no less; it all coalesced together into an entirely immersive whole. It reaches a point where the audience is no longer watching Gordon-Levitt walking across a rope in front of a green screen; they are watching Phillippe himself walking across a rope tethered between the Twin Towers. That feeling of transcendence is what all filmmakers (the good ones, at least) strive for and, in order to get me to feel that, Zemeckis and co. just have to be doing something right.

All in all, Zemeckis doesn’t seemed to have slowed down. Like, at all. The cast all do tremendous jobs, with Gordon-Levitt, Kingsley, Le Bon, and a very dearly appreciated return of James Badge Dale each adding to the bigger picture in the best way possible, the cinematography and editing is polished, the music shows Silvestri at his best in several years and Zemeckis turns all of these ingredients into an experience that even managed to penetrate my own cynicism: Pure and entire immersion. Regardless of where it lands on my list, just for that fact alone, it almost demands to be seen by young and old alike.

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