Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley
In 1896 the Lumière brothers screened one of their debut films, L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. Legend mischievously has it that audience members, shocked by the sight of a steam locomotive moving towards them, fled from the vicinity with vigour. It’s one of those historic stories draped in romanticism that you desperately want to believe, and films such as The Walk give credence to stories such as those. The Walk isn’t as authentic as James Marsh’s brilliant Man on Wire, but then that documentary never dangled us 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan.
Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not believe in “getting a permit”. He can say that again. After biting into a sugary sweet, the French street performer scuttles over to his local dentist and then moans about having to struggle through two hours of toothache as he waits for an appointment. He ain’t the only one squirming for two hours; if you don’t get along especially well with heights, things might get a bit tetchy. Petit’s pain-stricken time at the dentist acts as a catalyst for what he would later call the “artistic coup of the century”: a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.
But before we can ascend, there is stuff to do. Narrative, or set-up, or something. The visuals down on ground level are oddly ropey. It’s as if the film is trying to mix a Toy Story-esque texture with real life, and it doesn’t quite work. The objective is clear and sort of understandable: to evoke a fairy tale quality that supports Petit’s impossible task, one bearing mythical connotations. But the uncanny aesthetic funds a light, sprightly momentum when perhaps something grittier would have been more interesting — the real Petit, for instance, has never shunned away from acknowledging his foolish qualities. In fairness, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does energetic vanity well.
Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne do at least shed some light on Petit’s stubbornness. The performer’s selfish mantra in the pursuit of artistic merit places unfair stress on his friends and family, a sentiment also explored in Everest. As such Petit veers exceedingly close to unlikeable, which would be fine if the film wasn’t so hell-bent on trying to sell him as the dream-conquering saviour of New York. The screenplay takes liberties with specific true events. In Man on Wire, Petit admits to cheating on his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) immediately after achieving his goal, but the film shies away from this revelation and the alternative it proposes is unsatisfactory.
Petit’s characterisation could be bolder. In an interview on the Empire Podcast, Zemeckis revealed why he chose to selectively colour his lead: “The character I thought the audience could identify with is the one that I portrayed”. His reasoning is fair, but the director is underselling his audience’s willingness to empathise with shades of grey. Towards the end, one of Petit’s comrades suggest he has finally given soul to the Twin Towers, which might also be a fabrication. But at least this is part of Zemeckis’ attempt to pay homage to the World Trade Center post-9/11, and the idealistic notion is actually quite sweet.
Back in France we occasionally rendezvous with Ben Kingsley, playing tutor Papa Rudy, who sports a non-specific European accent — it’s all over the place and nowhere in particular. One of the team members recruited by Petit to fulfil his self-penned destiny suffers from vertigo, while another, who spends the film intoxicated on drugs, jokes about the height of the stunt (though to be fair, the latter’s Shaggy from Scooby-Doo demeanour is quite amusing). Petit himself donates to this atmosphere of farce with statements such as, “I whisper so the demons won’t hear me”.
It is all quite ludicrously caper-ish. Ocean’s Eleven atop the world’s tallest building. As the team plans Petit’s vertical-turned-horizontal heist, the tightrope walker dawns a number of amusing disguises: reporter, construction worker (foot impaled by nail included), tourist, businessman. Composer Alan Silvestri even occasionally treats us to Mission: Impossible’s famous vacillating whistle. The soundtrack also borrows from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, fielding a cantankerous drum and jazz beat aided by the prevailing tension. Thankfully there is no rushing during The Walk.
Inevitably, the outing has to wade through a sea of invasive anticipation. Most of the events that occur during the opening two-thirds are fine, but we’re only really here to trial the fearful majesty of high, high, high-wire walking. Following Petit’s lead — his calming influence is a saviour — the first time we peer over the edge of the World Trade Center an undeniable rush of exhilaration and terror ensues. This is where Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography really comes to fruition, at night unveiling a wonderful neon carpet below, and during the day capturing the voluminous bustle of New York City. The towers look incredible too; it’s nice seeing them relayed in such a positive light.
But is the walking part of The Walk just a stunning gimmick, or is it a genuine cinematic experience? Probably a bit of both. As Petit steps onto his wire you brace yourself in much the same way someone would prior to pelting down a steep slope on the world’s fastest roller coaster, but the sequence also incorporates classic movie tropes: burgeoning threat, visual amazement, a visceral personal reaction. There is one moment involving a seagull that almost ruins the spectacle (it’s ridiculous and unnecessary) but thankfully that dissipates quickly.
If 3D is one of modern cinema’s aggravating realities then this is the way it ought to be used. For around half an hour, the format contributes to the genuine awe you feel when balancing between the towers. Zemeckis has set a new benchmark in three-dimensional movie-making. Upping the ante? That’ll be a tall order.
Guess what the next genre is? It is a mystery, isn’t it? No, it really is a mystery. Okay, enough of the shockingly bad jokes.
Not one of the more prominent genres, mystery tends to flirt around the edges of just about every other genre, without actually sticking out. However, there are a number of films which are defined by their mystery element. Personally, I am drawn towards films containing a mysterious element over most other types of films — mainly in the hope that such a film will keep me guessing all the way until the end.
Mystery films tend to be hit or miss — either the outcome of whatever mystery is going on is surprising or shocking or entertaining, or it is not. It will be to nobody’s surprise, then, that the five films on my list I consider to be five hits.
I have decided to change the format slightly from my previous Genre Toppers posts. The reasoning behind this is that I think reading large paragraphs over and over again can sometimes get a bit tedious, so hopefully this change will keep things more interesting. This newer format seems to work well with the mystery genre in particular, but who knows — I may use it again in the future.
From the acclaimed director David Fincher, Zodiac tells the story of one of San Francisco’s most notorious serial killers, known only as the Zodiac. Boasting a strong cast containing Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, the film depicts the events surrounding the police investigation into the murders carried out during the 1960s and 1970s, and why the murders were occurring.
Where The Mystery Lies
Who is the serial killer known as the Zodiac, and what do the cryptic clues being sent to the police mean?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Fincher’s target audience: Interestingly, Zodiac is David Fincher’s second-highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% of critics enjoying it (second only to The Social Network at 96%), whereas it is Fincher’s lowest revenue-taking film, grabbing only (yeah, only) around $85 million worldwide. Why? Primarily because Fincher aimed the film towards a typically older audience, rather than playing up its slasher element and in turn appeasing only “16-year-old boys,” as Fincher put it.
Style and the 70s: Obviously I was not around in the late 1960s/early 1970s in order fully understand what those years were like, but Fincher certainly goes a long way to making sure Zodiac captures the tone and style of them. Everything from smoky newsrooms to wacky attires are in full display here, and although the film lasts over two and half hours, it is worth watching at that length just to enjoy the cinematography.
Delightful dialogue: The performances from the three leads in Zodiac are very convincing, and this is helped in no small part by the deliberate and encapsulating script the actors exchange between each other. Fincher has a knack for using excellent, well-crafted scripts (take Se7en and The Social Network as two prime examples) and Zodiac is no different. Gyllenhaal, Downey Jr and Ruffalo do the film and its words justice — in fact, the positive audience reaction combined with the lack of a well-rounded ending proves just how well the actors and writers have done to make the film so enjoyable.
A slick, stylish and slow burning mystery drama, Zodiac keeps audiences interested through its exceptionally well-strung dialogue and interesting performances.
Released in 2009 and directed, written and produced by Stuart Hazeldine, Exam takes place in an alternative history and is set almost entirely in one room where a group of eight very different people must use their initiative to gain the employment they each desperately desire.
Where The Mystery Lies
The eight candidates are given one piece of paper and are told that the exam only consists of one question… but what is that question, and what is the correct answer?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Unknown cast: A problem a film can sometimes face when it boasts a worldwide star is that the audience do not believe that such a level of star can actually be the character they are portraying (particularly if the character is a normal, everyday person). Exam benefits from a relatively unknown cast — apart from Colin Salmon, although he does not appear very often throughout the film, making his character seem even more important and separate from the candidates. The candidates themselves each bring their own nuances to the table, coming across as genuine employment seekers and making the film much more believable and engrossing.
Simplicity is key: As you can probably gather from the synopsis above, the plot of Exam is very simple: eight candidates, one job, one question. That is it. Not only does this make the film easy to follow, it places more emphasis on the situation the characters find themselves in and adds focus to the characters themselves (in essence, this film is a character profile). The mystery is also heightened because it is not confusing — rather, it is intriguing.
Perfect pacing: Hazeldine ensures the film does not dwell on particular plot points, moving things along before they become stagnant, and coming back to events if need be. Again, this keeps the flow of the film just about right and ensures the audience’s attention is grasped and maintained. Also, the progression of the plot and the characters are both very well handled, generating more and more tension until the atmosphere becomes just about unbearable.
Exam is the perfect example of how to make a small, low budget film with a simple plot and still be able to keep it intriguing, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Guy Ritchie helms this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as former adversary Irene Adler. The story follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to uncover the perpetrator of a series of violent murders and prevent this perpetrator from taking over the British Empire.
Where The Mystery Lies
Holmes and Watson must decipher how their familiar foe plans to control the British Empire — but how has the murderer returned from his apparent execution?
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
At home with Holmes: Robert Downey Jr plays an enormous part in how enjoyable this film is — his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is one of wit, intelligence, controlled chaos and downright hilarity. We are all used to seeing Downey Jr in charismatic roles (as Iron Man, for example) and here he seems completely in his comfort zone, which shows by way of his mesmerising depiction of Holmes — rivalled only by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal in the hit television series, Sherlock. But not all the praise must be solely heaped on Downey Jr, as Jude Law is very effective in working as a buffer for Holmes to play off of. Mark Strong is as menacing as always playing the villain of the piece and Rachel McAdams is delightful as Irene Adler.
Visually unique: The cinematographers and set designers deserve a vast amount of compliments for their old-fashioned-yet-energetic set pieces. It is a tremendous achievement in making London appear as it did back in the 19th century, but at the same time upholding a sense of freshness. Craftsmanship at its finest, if you ask me. Also, the slow motion fight sequences look effortlessly assembled and add an extra dimension to the film.
Action-packed: Guy Ritchie certainly does not hold back in terms of fight scenes (there are plenty) and explosions (they are in there too). At its simplest, Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining action film with plenty of well-choreographed physical encounters and a fast-moving plot which keeps the action going and prevents the film from losing its momentum. The action takes place everywhere too — from underground to occult chambers to the top of massive cranes.
Quick-witted, funny, sometimes silly, but always entertaining — Sherlock Holmes is just about everything you expect from a Robert Downey Jr-led film.
Shutter Island (2010)
Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island sees Martin Scorsese team up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since The Departed in 2006, and the fourth time overall (soon to be a fifth, with The Wolf Of Wall Street hitting cinemas in late 2013). DiCaprio stars alongside Mark Ruffalo as two U.S. Marshals — Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule respectively — who attempt to uncover the mysterious happenings on Shutter Island.
Where The Mystery Lies
Daniels and Aule must find out the whereabouts of a missing patient, but what is the real reason they have been summoned to the island? (That is all you are getting, sorry!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Creating a separation: The chemistry between DiCaprio and Ruffalo is very underrated here, in my opinion. It is obvious that the two are outstanding actors, which is once again apparent in this film, but they also work exceedingly well together, in turn creating a sense of disconnect between themselves and the rest of the residents of Shutter Island. This is essential to the story, and thus the performances from both DiCaprio and Ruffalo (and also Ben Kingsley to be fair, who plays Dr. John Cawley) are a key part to the success of Shutter Island.
Shudder Island: There is an eerie and unnerving atmosphere generated throughout this film, and the creep factor increases as the film delves further and further into the mysterious happenings on the island. The film switches for brief moments to an almost comedic tone, but that tone is swept away by dread almost as soon as it begins. The unnerving atmosphere is aided, of course, by the sense that the two U.S. Marshals, although called to island by those on it, are alone and not wanted.
Musical mayhem: Another major player in the eerie atmosphere, the musical involvement in Shutter Island is as close to perfect as possible. From the foghorn sounding booming interludes throughout, to the seemingly out-of-place uplifting belts of opera (which completely add to the intentional confusion and lack of transparency during the film), the score is outrageous-yet-brilliant.
I am a big fan of when DiCaprio and Scorsese work together because they always deliver, and Shutter Island is no different — in fact, it is my personal favourite output produced by the combination of the two.
The Prestige (2006)
From the man who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, comes The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Scarlett Johansson. Jackman and Bale play two previously partnering magicians who have turned fierce rivals after an accident split the pair up. It is the ultimate battle of wit and nerve as each magician aims to better the other by creating and performing the greatest illusion of all time.
Where The Mystery Lies
It is a film about magic, right? Well, not entirely. Although a mystery element does exists and runs throughout — just how did he do it? (Again, that is all you are getting — I really cannot give too much away here!)
Three Top Five Clinching Reasons
Coming full circle: It would be a crime for me to sit here and write about what happens during the climax, because it is masterfully accomplished on-screen in my eyes. Everything from the beginning through to the main act (pun sort of intended), to the dialogue during the film build up to a quite extraordinary revelation, and one which I got nowhere near figuring out. I do not want to overhype the ending so much so that it will be an inevitable let down no matter what, but trust me, it is very good and it perfectly polishes off the non-linear plot the film possesses.
Caring about characters: Nolan allows each character to breathe (much like he does in the majority of his other films) and this allows each actor — even those whose characters only play a minor role — to fully develop their role and ensure the audience can become emotionally invested in them. The dynamic between the two duelling magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is electric at times, and the lengths they go in order to get one up on each other become believable due to the hatred Jackman and Bale successfully generate. Less prominent characters such as Michael Caine’s stage engineer, John Cutter, and Rebecca Hall’s Sarah Borden, Alfred’s wife, add further layers to the main duo, whilst Scarlett Johnasson’s Olivia Wenscombe acts as a spanner in the works.
More than just magic: As I mentioned above, although The Prestige contains a lot of magic, that is not the primary focus of the film. For me, the primary focus is the tumultuous relationship between two men and all that their relationship embodies, in terms of trust (or lack thereof), deceit and jealousy. Using magic as a background their relationship and these characteristics bolsters the overall plot, but it is the three aforementioned factors which give The Prestige substance.
When talking about mystery the first destination is always magic, and The Prestige is Christopher Nolan’s way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat — just when you think he is being slightly over-ambitious, he absolutely nails it.
So there you have it, five excellent mystery films. Here are some honourable mentions:
Final Destination (2000) — Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat (pun intended). But in all seriousness, although Final Destination is technically a gross-out horror, it does have that mystery element to it ensuring that it does not just become a gore-fest. Which is basically does anyway. I tried.
Phone Booth (2002) — Similar to Exam in the sense that it is primarily set in one location, Phone Booth is intense and pacey, with a decent lead performance from Colin Farrell and an extra creepy voice-only performance from Kiefer Sutherland.
The Da Vinci Code (2006) — At approaching three hours long, The Da Vinci Code had a fair amount of people almost sleeping, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tom Hanks is a guy I could watch acting all day long.
A Perfect Getaway (2009) — This is about an hour of really disconcerting build-up surrounding three couples, one of which has a murderous streak. Then it goes a bit too action-like and loses some momentum. Regardless, a solid whodunit outing.
Devil (2010) — The mystery genre does tend to attract those single-location films, and we have another here, in Devil. Five people, one elevator and one devil… but who? A rare M. Night Shyamalan appearance in my blog.
Release Date: April 25th, 2013 (UK); May 3rd, 2013 (US)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce
The third instalment in the Iron Man franchise takes place sometime after the events of The Avengers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr) finds himself suffering from nightmares and panic attacks as a result of his experiences in New York with the Avengers. An increasingly apprehensive ‘Pepper’ Potts (Paltrow), Stark’s girlfriend and CEO of Stark Industries, struggles to maintain Stark’s attention due to his obsession with building countless Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, a series of bombings orchestrated by an uncontrollable and decisive terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has left the world in panic. Stark must find a way juggle his personal life with Pepper, whilst protecting her, with fighting back against the Mandarin and the path of destruction he has left behind.
The very first thing I would like to say about this film is that — despite its shortcomings — it is very entertaining. Shane Black has recaptured the fireworks that Iron Man 2 had lost, providing a fast-paced plot. The huge set pieces such as the plane (shown in the trailer) and the dock sequence are hugely impressive, with engrossing action that never at any point lost my attention. As a matter of fact, the action in this film is equally as good as the action on display in Iron Man. Shane Black obviously not only has an eye for amazing visuals, but also an ear for wit as Iron Man 3 produces the best comedy of the three films — primarily from the on form Downey Jr, displaying his usual acting tendencies. The success of the witty, smart script is most likely a product of Black’s work with Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The cast are also solid, with actors such as the dependable Don Cheadle contributing genuine performances.
Having said all of that, I do not believe that Iron Man 3 quite met the lofty heights of Iron Man. The plot, while fun and entertaining, was not as intriguing, and any intrigue it did have in the first half of the film was lost after a key plot development that I will discuss in the spoilers section of this review. The most disappointing aspect of this film for me though, was the misuse of two of its characters. Rebecca Hall — who plays former love interest of Stark and botanist, Maya Hansen — undergoes more attitude changes than Jack Nicholson in The Shining! Whilst she plays the role absolutely fine, the role itself is flawed and might have benefited from a little more screen time, or, in a perfect world, more development.
I have seen many character twists in numerous different films in my fairly short existence, but I cannot remember being more disappointed than by the development of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3. For an hour or so, the Mandarin is depicted as a merciless, creepy, fearful villain — perhaps the best villain of the Iron Man franchise so far. Then, out of nowhere, we discover he is merely an actor (how ironic) hired by Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian to be the face of a new terrorist plot — shielding Killian from any suspicion and allowing him to develop and undertake a plan to capture Pepper Potts and inject her with his Extremis virus (which regenerates body parts) in order to gain Stark’s attention and force him to fix the faults in the virus — or risk losing Potts. Killian is a decent, sly villain however he is nothing compared to the Mandarin and the potential Shane Black had created with that character in the film’s opening hour. I would have much preferred it if Killian turned out to be a sidekick to the Mandarin and not the actual Mandarin himself.
Finally, the last few scenes were also slightly problematic to me. We are to understand that after all off the ordeals Stark and Potts have gone through, that Stark is now putting Iron Man on the back-burner (which obviously cannot be true anyway) to rekindle his relationship with Potts. But then, after having the shrapnel removed from his heart and after destroying his Iron Man costumes, Stark visits the location of his former home and collects part of the machinery controlled by JARVIS — perhaps indicating that he is not done with Iron Man. Where the problem lies for me is that if he did plan on recovering such machinery (the same machinery he uses to create Iron Man suits) why did he destroy all of his Iron Man suits in the first place?
Despite its shortcomings, Shane Black succeeds in creating a fun, entertaining and hugely enjoyable third part to the Iron Man franchise which is funniest instalment to date.