Sunday, October 11, 2015

'SCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THE SKY: a review of "The Walk"

Based upon the memoir To Reach The Clouds by Philippe Petit
Screenplay Written by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
**** (four stars)

"I won an Academy Award when I was 44 years old but I paid for it with my 20s. That decade of my life from film school til 30 was nothing but work, nothing but absolute, driving work. I had no money. I had no life...The goal from here on is to balance my passion, because I do love it so much. It's kind of like the old saying about climbing a ladder and then realizing that it's up against the wrong wall. When you make one of the biggest movies of all time and you win an Academy Award, it forces you to look into the void, because it doesn't ultimately fulfill anything."
-Robert Zemeckis
Interview with Academy Of Achievement: A Museum Of Living History 1996

For nearly 40 years, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has long established himself as one of our greatest cinematic magicians. Time and again, Zemeckis has delivered one eye popping sight after another and always filtered through his ever inventive directorial vision, providing generations with films that are truly for the ages.

Just think, within his very first film "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978), he gave us a front row seat to wide-swept Beatlemania and somehow made us feel that we were witnessing The Beatles even though they never appeared upon screen. Or how about the deliriously awesome spectacle of witnessing human beings interacting seamlessly with cartoon characters in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988). What of regarding Goldie Hawn parading through scenes with a shotgun blast hole blown completely through her middle in the wicked satire "Death Becomes Her" (1992). Or the life odyssey of a bumpkin, played beautifully by Tom Hanks, rubbing shoulders with all manner of historical dignitaries and iconic celebrities as if he were actually, truly present in "Forrest Gump" (1994). Zemeckis has allowed us to travel with Jodie Foster through the universe and back in "Contact" (1997) as well as through harrowing existential crises as presented in both "Cast Away" (2000) and "Flight" (2012). And of course, we cannot even begin to ignore the collection of air-tight time travel conundrums, paradoxes and near catastrophes experienced and endured by Marty McFly and Doc Brown in the...well...timeless "Back To The Future" trilogy (1985/1989/1990).

With the arrival of "The Walk," I feel that Robert Zemeckis has made one of his most magical films. It is exquisitely filmed and the ultimate effect is nothing short of exhilarating (even in 2D!). But beyond the sheer spectacle of the high wire escapade, Zemeckis has also presented a film that is not only multi-layered but one that just might possibly be his most personal, in regards to his artistic drive and determination and the successes and potential failings that accompany a relentless attention to his specialized brand of imagination and ingenuity. Yes, everyone is heading out to see Ridley Scott's "The Martian" and with a new film from no less than Steven Spielberg, as well as the rapturously well reviewed "Steve Jobs" waiting in the wings, there is the possibility that "The Walk" just might find itself lost in the cracks. But trust me, dear readers, Robert Zemeckis has delivered the goods once again, triumphantly so, and I would just hate for you to miss this glorious film upon the BIG SCREEN that is was purely designed to be seen.

"The Walk" stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a thrilling, fully engaging performance as real life French high-wire artist Philippe Petit as he prepares and performs his historical (and illegal) tightrope walk between the two, as yet unfinished twin towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.

Over the course of just a hair over two hours, Zemeckis, utilizing the direct to the camera/audience narration by Petit, takes us through Petit's childhood, origins as a French street performer and fascination with becoming a wire-walker, his romance with street musician Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), his teachings from legendary tightrope performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and his voyage to New York as he builds a covert crew to assist him with his covert quest to nearly reach the clouds.

The film's dazzling, nearly 20 minute, climax features Philippe Petit's historic walk to the awed eyes of the citizens of New York plus his crew and the arsenal of police officers hoping to reel Petit back to safety.

Robert Zemeckis' "The Walk" is unquestionably a feast for the eyes from the 1970's period details to the almost vertigo inducing sequences miles high above the ground. For those of you who just may see this film in 3D, I firmly believe that Zemeckis has pulled out all of the stops and you just may find yourselves hanging onto your theater seats so as not to feel as if you are falling off of the world. Awards season had better to be most generous to Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who in collaboration with Zemeckis, has fashioned a visual palate from beginning to end that is completely immersive and stunning, making the special effects entirely seamless with the real world surroundings and actors.

It is a film that sits beautifully with the remainder of Zemeckis' filmography, especially his friskier features like the aforementioned "Back To The Future" series and even the raunchy satire "Used Cars" (1980), as those films each featured a collective of characters hatching all manner of plots and schemes to which we in the audience would fall into sheer delight viewing how their plans would inevitably go awry and how they wriggle themselves out of the jaws of failure over and again. Essentially, Zemeckis has even outdone Director Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean Eleven" (2001) as he has made almost the ultimate caper film, as Philippe Petit, the consummate showman, wishes to deliver an unexpected experience, the likes of which could never be performed again and one that crucially has to be kept secret from the public in order to make its intended impact of jaw dropping awe.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely wonderful as Petit. While his French accent may not be perfect, he more than makes up for any discrepancies through the energy, intensity, balletic physicality and existential pathos he pours into his full performance. His magnetism is as infectious as it is exciting, fully making us understand how Annie, French photographer Jean-Louis (Clement Sibomy), French speaking New Yorker J.P. (James Badge Dale), life insurance salesman Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine) and even a genteel Frenchman named Jeff (Cesar Domboy), who incidentally houses a fear of heights, would follow him entirely during such a foolhardy scheme, and eve remain with him as they endure Petit's arrogance, anger, and moments where he seems to be slipping away into madness. But Petit remains fully steadfast, either with his crew or addressing the audience from atop his perch at the peak of the Statue Of Liberty, fully serving his muse, his inspiration, his reason for being as well as the city of New York itself, making him a figure we want to believe in as well as follow.

Even so "The Walk," just like "The Martian" is a testament to what we as human beings are able to achieve and accomplish just by working together and believing in one another. With that, Zecmekis has crafted a film that works as a metaphor to the life experience itself, for what is the unpredictable nature of life but a veritable tightrope walk each and every day. What of the changes and curve balls life throws at each and every one of us at one time or another. From changes that are either self-induced or forced, to be thrown from one's perceived path into another requires unquestionable strength and agility and may also house tremendous doubts of one abilities and fears of absolute failure. Every step we take each day is yet another step into the void, the unknown and Petit's walk across the twin towers serves as a powerful image to all lives lived but also as a stirring testament to the people of New York City and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  

And still, there is the matter of the quotation with which I opened this review. With Philippe Petit and his crew, I could not help but to think that "The Walk" may also serve as an allegory to the filmmaking career of Robert Zemeckis himself as Petit could easily be viewed as the Zemeckis stand-in, a feverishly creative figure surrounded by a team of individuals, all working to serve his artistic vision no matter where it takes him. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have worked alongside this man for many years and on the projects he has released to the world as well as what role his brand of dogged determination and dedication may have played within his personal life. A final scene between Petit and Annie certainly does present an interpersonal tension that can arise when both people are attached to one person's dreams and I do believe that we just may be asked to wonder how Zemeckis, and therefore, how all of us, are able to achieve that sense of balance in life--itself another tightrope walk that is often precarious yet not impossible.

I am so very thankful as a film-goer that Robert Zemeckis has indeed dedicated himself so thoroughly to his art, repeatedly providing me with glorious times at the movies. But he is indeed a human being first, and I would hate to think that he may have sacrificed a certain sense of personal happiness for artistic glory. Hopefully, he has indeed found that balance and furthermore, with a circle of individuals to offer him support and encouragement in turn.

That is indeed the beauty of a film like "The Walk" as it successfully merges the thrill ride with the profound, one that transcends its primary subject matter, making for an experience that is specific to the life experience of Philippe Petit, personal for Robert Zemeckis and universal for all of us watching, gasping in awe as we regard one risk filled step after another into the unknown.

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