The Walk (2015)

★★★

The Walk PosterDirector: Robert Zemeckis

Release Date: October 9th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Adventure; Biography; Drama

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.

The Walk - Charlotte Le Bon & Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): TriStar Pictures

Inside Out (2015)

★★★★★

Inside Out PosterDirector: Pete Docter

Release Date: June 19th, 2015 (US); July 24th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black

If you’ve spent years agonising over the possibility of a live action Numskulls film — and let’s face it, who hasn’t? — you’re finally in luck. Inside Out takes the premise of said comic strip and imbues it with a visual vitality not always achievable on paper. But more than that, the film smartly and effectively explores the social complexities of growing up, and does so amidst a level of confidence not relayed from Pixar since Toy Story 3. One thing is absolutely certain: the creative minds behind the studio’s latest imagination emporium are no numbskulls.

The film follows youngster Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose bright and bubbly exterior matches her consistently joyful interior. See, Joy (Amy Poehler) is Riley’s overriding emotion, she having commandeered a monopoly on her host’s mind since birth. A sudden shift in locale from her beloved, chilly Minnesota to an unhomely San Francisco disturbs the eleven-year-old’s mental hierarchy, leaving Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) in charge.

As you can probably imagine, this loss of cheerful guidance sends Riley down a path of greater isolation in already isolating surroundings. Happy core memories — which power five primary islands, including Family Island and Goofball Island — are tinged with solemnity via Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose clumsiness catapults her and Joy away from the central hub. You buy into the film’s simple story, desperately urging the odd couple back to Headquarters, even if the various structural nodes take a while to fully grasp.

The inside of Riley’s head assumes a life of its own, where reality has been remodelled with a rainbow-like gloss. Fittingly, we find out it’s a movie studio (aptly called Dream Productions) that is responsible for the creation of dreams. With her rectangular hair and sharp glare, Riley’s dream auteur resembles Scarefloor clerk Roz from Monsters, Inc. Pete Docter, who helmed Mike and Sulley’s fun frightfest, also directs here and does so with incessant invention, answering questions about how the mind is constructed before we even get the chance to think them up. At one point the action calls for a dream to become a nightmare, and as such Dream Productions’ feature film evolves into a horror movie starring a huge scary clown.

Inside Out often takes its visual cues from Toy Story, both materially and comically. Just as that franchise portrays Slinky, a stretch toy, in Sausage Dog form, here Anger wears a shirt and tie combo normally associated with workers who are fed up with their job and full of scorn. Anger is also the lead emotion inside Riley’s father’s head, a playful jab at male stereotypes; men are either grumpy, preoccupied by sports or hilariously militaristic when it comes to getting things done at the last minute. We stalk the camera during a superbly written family dinner scene as it invades the inner workings of mother and father (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), showing their respective reactions towards Riley’s morose attitude.

Fear is unabashedly spontaneous, in a state of terminal alarm and never boring to watch — Bill Hader just about steals the show with his squawking audio performance. Joy glows, whereas Sadness is a murky blue colour, small and forever huddled up. Phyllis Smith’s voice work as the latter channels Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer to perfection. Disgust, obviously, carries the poise and style of a fashion expert.

Throughout we constantly weigh up whether the emotions are controlling Riley, or if it’s Riley who is controlling her emotions. On occasion you can’t help but give into the sprightly visual splendour and the barrage of smart gags, but even in these moments the film steers well clear of all that is routine. For adults Inside Out could be a hypothetical examination of mental illness, or simply a voyage into the psychologically transformative nature of ageing. For children it’s also about growing up, only the immediacy of events on screen are sure to hit home with greater verve. The film affords young viewers an optical veracity that likely mirrors their ongoing experiences.

Pixar hasn’t shied away from misfortune in the past — see the first ten minutes of Up, or the abandonment arc in Toy Story 3 — and the studio continues to respect its audience by maintaining that mature philosophy here. Joy is undoubtedly a positive influence on Riley’s life, but her mistrust of Sadness is telling. The establishment of a ‘Circle of Sadness’ is a somewhat autocratic control mechanism thought up by Joy to restrict Riley’s emotional output. Joy doesn’t want her young anchor to ail, not realising the process of ailing plays a crucial role in a person’s development.

Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley champion lightheartedness in equal measure, matching seriousness with amusement: less imperative memories are tossed away at the onset of teenagehood, at which point bouts of important knowledge (US Presidents, piano skills) succumb to materiality (the perfect boyfriend). The funniest running gag, which centres on an annoying advert with a catchy theme song, is irksomely on point. This mixture of slapstick, witty and child friendly — though not childish — comedy gives the movie a peppy air. “That’s it, I fold,” bemoans a Jelly Bean-esque builder whose house made of cards keeps collapsing.

Long-term memory is visualised as a gigantic maze library. The filmmakers even explore abstract thought; the realisation of our overly analytical side (something writers can relate to), where notions and ideas and truths are deconstructed and subsequently flattened to the point of nothingness. It’s a brilliantly incisive scene that implores us not to be too self-critical or too self-diagnostic.

The primary message throughout Inside Out is a reassuring one. Sometimes it’s okay to be sad. Or angry, or fearful, or disgusted. These are feelings that will eventually subside and offer in their place a stepping stone to happiness, and to other, more complex and interesting emotions. Docter’s film is rich in subtext, one of those that you should watch again and again and could pick apart all day thereafter. This warrants examination both inside and out.

Inside Out - Emotions

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures