Sunday, September 27, 2015

Giving Them a Soul

The Walk (2015) - Zemeckis
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Forget about Joseph Gordon-Levitt's ridiculous Pepé Le Pew French accent. Forget about his weird toupé and blue contact lenses, forget about candy colored fairyland a.k.a. Paris in the first hour. Robert Zemeckis's new film The Walk still works as a thrilling movie experience because of its 20 minute sequence of 'the walk' itself, shot in stereoscopic 3D and presented in IMAX.

The film is a dramatization of a real event that took place in New York in 1974. A crazy little Frenchman, Philippe Petit, aided by his friends, pulled a stunning and ultimately awe inspiring stunt - high-wire walking between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, then still under construction. The thing is, we know about this event already, thanks to James Marsh's superb 2009 Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire which played out like a great caper film.

Even though the film says it is based on a true story, the look and feel of The Walk is nothing but. Gordon-Levitt narrates his story from the CGI-ed torch of Statue of Liberty, looking like a caricature of a Frenchman in some corny children's book. The tone of a street performer/tightrope walker's early life is that of a fairy tale - an exotic foreign circus manager Papa Rudy (played by weirdly deflated Ben Kingsley) taking little Philippe under his wing, romancing a wide-eyed gamine street musician, Annie, (Charlotte Le Bon), and Philippe performing in the impossibly clean Paris street under CG Eiffel Tower. There is even a Keystone cop chase sequences in black and white for no apparent reason.

After successfully executing the walk between two steeples of the Nortre Dame, things get into a high gear once Philippe and his friends, who believe and shares his dangerous and beautiful vision, set the date of their coup and fly over to New York. With the help of newly recruited accomplices - a street smart electronics salesman (James Badge Dale) and a wildly mustachioed American insurance executive (Steve Valentine), who has an office on the 82nd floor of the North Tower as their inside man, they scout and execute the clandestine plan to get the wire across from the South to North Towers with the bow and arrow, while evading the eyes of security officers and construction crew.

Zemeckis is obviously targeting the widest audience with The Walk. Things are kept energetic and humorous and colorful, faithfully following the almost childlike enthusiasm of Petit as we saw in Man on Wire and his Oscar acceptance speech. But as an adult living in a cold, hard world and one of eight millions who calls New York home, I had a very hard time buying into the juvenile tone of the film. And is it only me who feels that Gordon-Levitt's face is growing more and more insincere every year? He'd make a great villain one day.

But it's all about the thrill of experiencing the walk itself between the 110 story Twin Towers: as we are watching from all the impossible angles as Philippe starts walking on the thin steel wire stretched across 140 feet. Especially when looking down, Zemeckis accomplishes the impossible feat of duplicating what it must've been like on the wire 1,300 feet above the ground. All it lacks from the real thing is the wind blowing on your face. Somebody invent The Blowervision already!

I always thought the Twin Towers were ugly. But I never knew that gazing at them from Radiohead concert at Liberty State Park a week before 9/11 was the last time I'd see them standing. Seeing the truss of the Twin Towers automatically gives many who remember a strong emotional response. Zemeckis handles 9/11 aspect of the WTC much more gracefully than I expected. One of the more poignant moments, Annie declares that what philippe's daring-do accomplished was to give a soul to those buildings. Petit's special bond to the towers was sealed early on, but it was to be forever.

But one of the reasons why Man on Wire is a superior film is seeing the emotional responses of the two events on people's faces. We can read it on faces of Petit and everyone involved as they reminisce the walk in that documentary coupled with the fate of those towers. You can't fake that even with all the technology in the world.

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