The Walk

Posted on October 1, 2015 at 12:17 pm

If you have vertigo or acrophobia, you will have trouble with “The Walk,” the story of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. If you don’t have vertigo or acrophobia, you might have after you watch the movie, with the most stunningly realistic 3D effects ever put on screen. At least I think they’re still just on the screen. It sure feels like it goes on way, way behind it.

Copyright 2015 Sony
Copyright 2015 Sony

“Man on Wire,” a documentary about Petit’s 1974 stunt, or, as he might prefer to say, coup, won an Oscar in 2008. In this film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with an accent that just manages to avoid Pepe LePew dimensions, plays Petit, a street performer who saw a photograph of the World Trade Center in the waiting room of his dentist and was instantly consumed with the dream of a walk in the sky, more than 1300 feet above the sidewalk, between the towers. Like Petit himself, the movie does not bother with the question of why this might be a good thing to do. If pressed, he might just say, like Mallory, “Because it’s there.” The problem is that he doesn’t have an answer but still keeps talking and talking. For no reason we keep going back to Petit narrating the story from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. It is distracting and dull.

Petit could not or would not articulate it, but I think I know why. When huge institutions get together to create a world-record setting edifice — taller than the Eiffel Tower, the Frenchman notes — there is something irresistibly enticing about coming back as a lone soul and literally topping it. Director Robert Zemeckis, who can get more excited about the technology than the story in his films, may identify with that challenge. Petit wanted to walk across the sky, with an audience to appreciate it. And Zemeckis wants to recreate that experience for us, taking us to the roof of the Towers, and inviting us to look down.

Still, while we love movies about dreamers of impossible dreams who make them come true, we do like to have a reason, and Petit edges over the line from audacious dreamer to inconsiderate narcissist, despite Gordon-Levitt’s considerable appeal. This lends a hollow quality, overcome less from the story of the film to what is in our own hearts as we watch, knowing what the tragedy that lies ahead for the World Trade Center.

What works well in the first part of the film is Petit’s tutorials with a tightrope master played by Sir Ben Kingsley and the procedural elements once Petit and his team get to New York and start preparing as though they are getting ready to rob a bank. Indeed, it becomes a heist film of a sort because they have to find different ways to sneak into a building that is still under construction and gather the information they need to figure out how to install the cable and keep it from swaying or buckling. And then to install it. There are a lot of problems along the way, including Petit stepping on a nail and injuring his foot and dropping his black turtleneck from the roof when he is trying to assume his performer persona. They omit, however, my favorite detail from the documentary: Petit explains that in America, if there’s pencil in your pocket everyone assumes you are part of the construction team and are entitled to be there. Like the loss of the buildings themselves, Petit’s ability to exploit lax security is a poignant reminder of what we no longer have.

The last half hour or so of the film is breathtaking and well worth the price of admission in IMAX 3D. You will feel that you are on the tightrope with Petit. As the crowd gathers below and the police arrive (who thought a police helicopter would be a good idea?), Petit is suspended in the clouds, mentally, emotionally, and physically. For just a moment, Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt bring us up there with him, and his dream, however frivolous and ephemeral, becomes ours.

Parents should know that this film has very risky and dangerous behavior, vertiginous 3D effects, brief nudity, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What big dream would you like to make come true? Who would you want to be your team?

If you like this, try: the documentary “Man on Wire”

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Posted on November 1, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Denzel Washington is at his best playing a man who is at his worst.  “Whip” Whitaker is a brilliant airline pilot who flies commercial jets.  He is also in deep denial about a substance abuse and addiction problem that is out of control.  We see him waking up in a daze next to a naked girl, taking an angry phone call from his ex-wife, and medicating his hangover with some alcohol and cocaine.

And then he climbs into the cockpit and takes off into a heavy, gusting rainstorm.  And then something goes very, very wrong.  The plane takes a nosedive.  No one has time to figure out what is wrong and almost no one would have enough time to figure out how to land the plane safely.  But danger hits Whip like another snort of cocaine.  He is suddenly fully present, awake, and in command.  He issues quiet but commanding directions to the co-pilot and senior flight attendant and he comes up with a daring series of maneuvers from jettisoning the fuel to rotating the plane that allow him to land in an open field, with a minimum of injuries and fatalities.

Director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future,” makes a welcome return to live action after a 12-year detour to work on motion capture animation (“Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Mars Needs Moms”). He does a masterful job staging a thrilling but almost unbearably intense plane crash, which ends with a striking image as white-gowned Baptists from the church in the field race toward the plane to help rescue the passengers.

After the crash, two things become clear.  Whip saved the lives of all but six of the people on the plane, something no other pilot could have done.  And Whip was severely impaired at the time because he has an enormous substance abuse problem and an even bigger denial problem.  A sympathetic union rep (the always-reliable Bruce Greenwood) and savvy lawyer (the always-excellent Don Cheadle) try to protect Whip — and, not incidentally, the union, the airline, and its insurer.  They challenge the toxicology report which shows the levels of alcohol and drugs in Whip’s blood at the time of the accident, so that it cannot be reviewed as evidence by the NTSB.  And they warn him that he had better straighten out before the hearing.  But before he leaves the hospital, he is visited by his closest friend and drug dealer (a brilliantly funny John Goodman).

In the hospital, recovering from the injuries he suffered in the crash, Whip meets Nicole, a recovering drug abuser (Kelly Reilly of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sherlock Holmes”).  They have an eerie encounter in the stairwell with an outspoken cancer patient (a terrific James Badge Dale) who chills them with his gallows humor.  After they get out, Whip invites Nicole to live with him, in part because he feels sorry for her and in part because he is no good at being alone.  He must learn that it is his behavior that isolates him, no matter how much he tries to hide from it. And he senses that the same qualities that make him so good as a pilot may make him vulnerable to addiction.

The script wobbles and many people will find the ending unsatisfactory.  It is not clear how we are supposed to feel about the religious themes that are raised by some of the characters and Whip’s ultimate choice may seem insufficiently supported.  We know not to expect an easy answer about how his problems started or what he thinks of himself, but we are entitled to a clearer understanding of what matters to Whip than we get.  Still, Washington may win a third Oscar for the depth, understanding, courage, and humanity of his performance.  He is always mesmerizing on screen and the power of his charisma and the subtlety of his performances makes it easy to overlook just how specific he is as an actor.  But he has always been a little reserved, a little held back.  He is smart and dedicated enough to use that quality to good effect in creating his characters.  But here he opens up more than he ever has, allowing us to be disturbed by Whip’s carelessness and irresponsibility and the way he hurts others but holding on to our attention and loyalty.  Washington is the finest actor in Hollywood and it is genuinely thrilling to watch him.

Parents should know that this is a frank portrayal of substance abuse and addiction with drinking, drunkenness, drug use and drug dealing.  Characters use very strong language and the movie includes explicit sexual references and non-explicit sexual situations and pornography.  There is also an extremely graphic plane crash with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion:  Which characters help Whip lie?  Which ones don’t?  Why?  How do the qualities that make Whip a good pilot make him vulnerable to addiction?  What will his answer be to the question he is asked at the end of the movie? Why do the people in this movie refer to the passengers and crew as “souls?”

If you like this, try: Substance abuse classics like “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “The Lost Weekend”

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Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Posted on November 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis wisely chose the most unquenchable of stories for his technological marvel. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, already filmed with everyone from Michael Caine to Patrick Stewart, George C. Scott, Vanessa Williams, and Mr. Magoo in the role of the skinflint who learns to give, can hold its own even surrounded by the most dazzling of special effects.

I actually gasped at one moment as the camera flew over London. It was not just that the Victorian setting was so meticulously created, though I plan to go back just to revel in the details. It was that I had never before seen a camera move so fluidly through so many different vantage points in the midst of a convincingly immersive 3D experience. It evokes a visceral sense of buoyant jubilation and freedom that immediately connects us to the movie’s setting, making us feel completely present in the story as it unfolds.

We meet Ebeneezer Scrooge (voice of Jim Carrey) as he is bidding farewell to his partner, Jacob Marley, now laid out in his coffin. Scrooge literally removes the coins from Marley’s eyes. It may be a custom, but money is money. Seven years later, Scrooge is well into his bah, humbug mode, turning down a Christmas dinner offer from his nephew Fred (voice of Colin Firth), turning down a charitable donation, and grudgingly agreeing to allow his poor clerk Bob Cratchit (voice of Gary Oldman) a day off to celebrate with his family. Scrooge goes home to eat his gruel by himself when, in one of the film’s most thrilling effects, Marley’s flickering greenish ghost appears, heaving the heavy weights he bears through the door ahead of him. As we all well know, he is there to announced that Scrooge will be visited by three spirits who will teach him about Christmas past, present, and yet to come.

Our familiarity with the story is an anchor in the sea of new visual stimuli, and it keeps our focus on what is happening to the characters, even when the technology goes slightly askew. Zemeckis said that the good news about making a motion capture film is that you can do anything. Whatever you imagine can be realized. But, he added, the bad news is that you have to do everything. The blank screen is there and every single detail, every button on every coat, every log in every fire, every reflection, shadow, and snowflake have to be separately created in three dimensions and designed to interact with every other element we see. Some of the figures are more solidly created while others seem a bit stiff and rubbery. Firth’s Fred is particularly awkward. Some of the scenes are hyper-realistic while others, like a dance at the Fezziwig’s Christmas party, play with space and weight, not always in aid of the story. It gets too frantic, especially during a non-Dickensian insert of a chase scene that has Scrooge shrinking like Alice in Wonderland. The decision to double up on voices (Carrey plays all three spirits, Oldman plays Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Marley and Robin Wright Penn plays both Scrooge’s sister and his girlfriend) is distracting and occasionally confusing.

But oh, there is a visual sumptuousness here to rival even the merriest Christmas celebration. Scrooge’s flights through time, the glorious bounty of the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Victorian streets, the costumes, the warmth of the fire, the magic of Scrooge’s first dance with Belle — make this an instantly indispensable classic. It’s all there, Scrooge’s bitter loneliness to his thrilling giddy-as-a-schoolboy realization that he can change, and that the power of giving is greater than any power of having. And for the people who gave us this great gift, God bless them everyone.

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3D Animation Based on a book Drama Fantasy For the Whole Family Holidays Remake

Happy Birthday ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Back to the Future’

Posted on July 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Two movie classics celebrate big birthdays this week. “Back to the Future” turns 25 and “Airplane!” turns 30. Both helped to define their eras and stood the test of time as enduring favorites.

One of my favorite critics, Ali Arikan, has a superb tribute to “Back to the Future.”

Marty McFly has more in common with George Bailey than the film’s slightly cynical conclusion suggests. His adventure in the ’50s is literally based on self-preservation, but this is only derivative of his true goal. Recall the aforementioned scene at the dinner table, as Marty looks longingly, sadly, but lovingly at his parents, wondering where it all went wrong. The same look adorns his face just before he says goodbye to Doc, and the frequent times he runs into the younger selves of the townsfolk. Ostensibly selfish, his quest is, nonetheless, for the good of the community: personal success is just a welcome by-product. Back to the Future has a joyously optimistic view of the human race: it believes that, given the means, we would stand up to the physical laws that govern the universe (which Carl Sagan famously called “god”) just to make our loved ones happy. No wonder the film’s signature tune is called The Power of Love.

Hard to believe, but we’re only five years away from the time Marty McFly visits in part 2, the one with the flying skateboards.

“Airplane!” was in some ways a throwback to some of the wilder comedy of the vaudeville era like “Hellzapoppin'” and its joke-a-minute structure was in part influenced by the television show “Rowen and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Coming just ten years after the Oscar-winning “Airport,” it seemed a brash, subversive, iconoclastic upending of just about everything ever taken seriously. It was a surprise success. Made for just $3.5 million, it earned 83 million in North America alone and is 10th on the American Film Institute’s list of the funniest movies of all time.

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For Your Netflix Queue Great Movie Moments

The “Christmas Carol” Train Tour

Posted on October 1, 2009 at 12:00 pm

If the “Christmas Carol” train comes to your town, try to get to see it. Robert Zemeckis, who made “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Back to the Future,” loves to push the technology envelope, and this time he has gone well into WOW category with an animated 3D experience that is so immersive you will try to catch the snowflakes with your tongue.
The train has a tantalizing array of exhibits including handwritten pages from author Charles Dickens, costumes, drawings, and behind-the scenes footage showing the amazing technology behind the film, scheduled for release in November. You can see actors, including Jim Carrey (who plays seven roles), Gary Oldham, Robin Wright Penn, and Colin Firth, their faces covered with what look like black chicken pox so that motion capture cameras will pick up every detail of their expressions and movements. You can even have your own features morph into the characters and have the picture emailed to you. But the best part is the brief footage of the film itself. The 3D effects are stunning and it is a lot of fun to see 21st century technology employed to re-create Victorian London. I am really looking forward to seeing one of my all-time favorite stories produced with such imagination and detail.

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