In “The Walk,” Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Gallic Guy Cannot Ruin the Majesty of Zemeckis’ 3D High-Wire Thrills

Walk

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

Have you seen James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire (2008)? It tells the story of famed French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who, in August 1974, hung – somehow – a solid wire between the (at that time) almost-completed World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan and then, for almost 45 minutes, performed the impossibly dangerous feat of walking back and forth along its length. That film was a marvel of cinematic portraiture and historical journalism, giving us the incredible details of the caper-like plotting that allowed Petit and his cohorts to pull off their coup, and allowing us great insight into the mind of the man who would risk his life for such a stunt. What that film couldn’t do was recreate the thrill of the actual walk along the tightrope, though I hardly noticed the lack, so caught up was I in the intrigue.

And now along comes Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureForrest GumpContactCastawayFlight) – entertainer and technological pioneer – with his own dramatized telling of the same story. Zemeckis is not always the subtlest of filmmakers – his beats are often heavy – but he believes in cinematic spectacle, and this new film delivers the goods … on that end. Filmed in IMAX and 3D (at the screening I attended, it was just in 3D, with no IMAX), the movie is a testament to the power of the moving-image medium to transport us to great heights of narrative grandeur. In this case, those heights are, in fact, literal.

Where the film (mostly) fails is in its initial one-hour set up of the actual climb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Premium Rush) plays Petit, and when we first meet him, he is standing on a platform at the top of the Statue of Liberty, looking over the Hudson River at the Twin Towers. It is from this vantage point that Petit narrates the film with French-accented expositional commentary to tell us, time and again, what we are already seeing on screen. As you can no doubt tell, I find this device irritating, as I do Gordon-Levitt’s Manic Pixie Gallic Guy. The secondary characters (including Charlotte Le Bon, of The Hundred-Foot Journey, and Ben Kingsley, of well, everything) – so richly drawn in Marsh’s documentary – are there (barely) to support Zemeckis’ vision of the mercurial artist at work. Although, even then, we hardly get to know the man, Petit, himself. Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt is a charismatic enough performer that he can hold your attention, accent and all, with nary a screenplay to back him up.

Despite these problems, what happens once we arrive in New York for the main event makes up for (almost) all of these defects. Not only does Petit soar over the cityscape; so, too, does the film. I have not heretofore suffered from excessive vertigo, yet I was on the edge of my seat for much of the second hour, sometimes scarcely able to look at the screen. What Zemeckis, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) and the visual effects team have accomplished is simply a wonder. Without a single gunshot or violent act, the filmmakers have created one of the most visceral cinematic experiences of the year. I can only imagine what the movie feels like in IMAX, but I don’t know if I could survived that additional level of filmic envelopment. So I recommend it, but with the caveat that it is not for the vertiginous and/or faint of heart, or for those who cannot forgive its weaker first half.

10/2/15: Midday on Space Exploration at the Movies (and TV)

[Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Rodricks Space Exploration Collage

Since the early 1950s, as the Cold War truly got under way and the rocket race heated up, the filmmakers of Hollywood – first in film, and then on TV – began to imagine what space exploration might look like. After all, if new telescopes could see far into the galactic heavens and we could launch missiles high into the sky, it hardly seemed far-fetched to predict that we would one day walk on the moon. Though populations world-wide were terrified of atomic bombs and worried about the nuclear arsenals built up by the Soviet Union and United States, it was, in fact, the competition between those two superpowers that motivated their respective governments to put money and intellectual resources into their space programs, hoping to be the first to send a man beyond earth’s orbit. The Soviets reached space first – with Yuri Gagarin – but the Americans were the first to set foot on the moon – with Neil Armstrong. All the while, Hollywood kept making their own cinematic versions of space travel, from Destination Moon (1950) to Forbidden Planet (1956) to the 1960s TV series Lost in Space and Star Trek to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the 1970s, with new special-effects technology, the look of space exploration changed, with films like Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979), which posited a universe (past and future) where space travel was the norm and ordinary folks took it for granted. Where Star Trek had imagined space as an exciting “final frontier,” Alien held out the possibility that life on other planets might destroy us.

Some movies have tried to focus on the science – rather than the science fiction – of space exploration, among them Apollo 13 (1995), Gravity (2013), and Interstellar (2014) (sort of). Whatever one thinks of any of these films, we can all agree that we have come a long way since French filmmaker Georges Méliès first put space travel on the silver screen in his 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon. And now, on Friday, October 2, 2015, we have a new film, The Martian, from Ridley Scott (director of Alien). Where will it fall on the spectrum of movies about space? Join us on that Friday, at 1pm, on WYPR 88.1 FM, for the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – and  William U’Ren – Assistant Professor, English, Goucher College – will discuss Hollywood’s depiction of space travel, in film and TV. Note that we will only be discussing films that deal with humans traveling into space, and not aliens coming to earth.

Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live. If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts on your favorite space-travel films and TV shows in the comment section of this blog.

Enjoy the show! This will actually be the last one that Dan Rodricks will do as host of Midday, as he is moving on to other projects. So join us to say goodbye, at the very least!

In “The Intern,” Nancy Meyers Asks, Once More, What Women Want. The Answer, Yet Again, Is … a Man

Intern

The Intern (Nancy Meyers, 2015)

Ah, Nancy! For years now (in films like What Women WantThe Holiday and It’s Complicated), you have been writing and directing films that put women front and center – professional women, with impressive credentials! – only to undermine the power of that image with a strange brand of (unintentional?) misogyny. On the surface, your films look, at first, like feminist confections, but then you always end up trafficking in the worst kind of feminine stereotypes. No matter what their strengths and achievements, your protagonists are inevitably emotional, irrational, and in need of a man to make things right. Even a career woman needs love, no matter what the cost, you always remind us. At least in Something’s Gotta Give – my favorite of yours – you bring the man down a peg as much as the woman. How broadminded of you …

In The Intern, Meyers turns things around (a bit), taking the perfect man and turning him into good ole Dad – or, at least, a father figure – in the form of Robert De Niro, who once wowed the world with his kinetic energy in films like Taxi Driver, and now spends his time mugging for the camera in films like Last Vegas (and The Intern). De Niro plays 70-ish Ben, who was once an executive at a phonebook (remember those?) company and is now a retired widower in need of something to fill his days. When he sees a flyer advertising a “senior intern” program at a local (Brooklyn, NY) e-commerce company, he jumps at the chance to apply, just to have something to do. The movie opens with Ben recording his application video, intercut with a montage of his present-day life, which includes a trip to San Francisco to see his son and grandchildren and, back home, an awkward exchange with a local widow – played by a very funny, if under-utilized, Linda Lavin (of “Alice” fame) – who has her own plan for how to cure Ben’s loneliness. Lo and behold, the company – an internet fashion retailer called “About the Fit” – calls Ben in, and he gets the gig. If it all seems a bit easy, it is, helped along by the usual easy-listening soundtrack of composer Theodore Shapiro (We’re the Millers). Still, De Niro, hamminess aside, is pleasant enough to watch, and there are a few gags that score.

So what is a “senior intern” to do? Well, no one knows, really, least of all the founder and CEO of the company, 30-ish Jules – played by Anne Hathaway (Interstellar) with her usual spunk – but Ben is assigned to her, anyway. She ignores him, until Ben makes himself so indispensable to the entire office (he’s that just that kind of guy) that she just has to take notice, and before long he is driving her to and from work, watching her kid, and spending time in her (amazing) Brooklyn brownstone with house-husband (sorry, “stay-at-home dad,” as Jules corrects Ben) Matt – a very forgettable Anders Holm (Unexpected). And why does Jules – successful internet mogul that she is – need and respond to this new older masculine presence? Well, it turns out that all is not perfect at home or at work: she never sees hubby, and when she does, they’re both too tired to talk or get it on; she can’t spend even the minimal time with her daughter that she should; and her investors think she should take on a “real” (male) CEO to allow her to work less and focus on the company’s vision. Since what we see on the screen kind of supports these facts and assessments of her performance (maybe not the male CEO part), it’s hard not to agree that, yes, she needs help. And with Ben so competent, he’s just the fellow to save the day.

It’s all relatively harmless, and occasionally touching and funny, but all to often it’s just a little regressive for my taste. Ben even finds a more appropriate – for Meyers’ taste – love interest in the form of the beautiful office masseuse played by Rene Russo (Nightcrawler), charming as ever, and, of course, 11 years younger than Ben (Lavin’s character is just too old and pushy). If the film were 30 minutes shorter and with all of the exposition cut out – Ben to Jules, “You can do it on your own” – it might be more watchable and I might forgive it its faults in the breezy rush to the finish line. But so often, it’s a bit of a slog. Then again, if you’ve loved every other Nancy Meyers film, then you might be used to her aesthetic and not mind any of it. If so, then go see it in the full confidence that the director is true to her own legacy.

“Everest” Thrills with 3D Vistas but Bores with 2D Characters

Everest

Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)

Back in 1996, an IMAX crew filmed sequences on and around Mt. Everest for a 44-minute documentary, released in 1998 – entitled Everest – that profiled a successful climbing expedition to the top (and back) of the world’s highest peak. You may have seen that film at the time, as it traveled far and wide to most science museums and IMAX theaters. This is not that movie (though it was also filmed with IMAX cameras). True, they share the same main subject and title, but only one of them gets the human story right. This is also not that movie.

Filmed in 3D (because IMAX is not enough), 2015’s Everest – from Icelandic action director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns) – does do some things very well. Based on the ill-fated expedition about which Jon Krakauer wrote in his nonfiction bestseller Into Thin Air, the new movie dramatizes, in harrowing detail, the brutal conditions on the mountain. The wide vistas and three-dimensional depth of the frame serve this part of the story perfectly. We feel the cold blasts of wind in a particularly visceral way, and marvel that anyone would attempt the ascent. The film also presents a compelling case for the dangers of commercializing extreme sports: according to its narrative, people died, at least in part, because excess competition to make it to the peak during optimal weather led experienced guides to make poor decisions. Again, the screen format is the ideal choice for this topic, since a crowded IMAX frame feels very full, indeed.

Unfortunately, the elements with which we do not engage, dramatically, are the people. There is a very large ensemble cast – including Jason Clarke (Terminator Genisys), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice), John Hawkes (The Sessions), Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper on “House of Cards“) and Keira Knightley (Begin Again), among others – and none of them are allowed enough screen time to anchor the story. Yes, people die, and death is tragic, but at the end of this particular movie, I was left wondering why I should care that much about the fate of (mostly) wealthy people who chose to voluntarily climb Everest because of the very dangers (for the adrenaline rush that comes with risking one’s life) that led some of them to die. No, I’m not a cold fish (though I felt chilled to the bone watching the film), but I am someone who demands three-dimensional, interesting people about whom to care. Shooting in 3D is not the same was writing in 3D.

By no means is Everest a total loss. The cinematography is stunning, and the movie thrills in many parts. It’s just not particularly memorable beyond that.

In Uneven but Entertaining “Black Mass,” Johnny Depp’s Makeup Team Deserves the Award

Black Mass

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

In 2014, documentary director Joe Berlinger (Under African Skies) released a movie about the notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, entitled Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. I saw it at the Maryland Film Festival that year, and found it to be both a comprehensive look at the life of a career criminal and utterly riveting. Made while Bulger was on trial, in 2013 (he was captured in 2011 after 15 years on the run), and finished after he was sentenced, the film used first-hand accounts of accomplices, victims and witnesses to tell the chilling tale of a brutal psychopath’s rise and fall. We never saw Bulger, but did hear his voice from the courthouse tapes. You know what his main concern was? To make sure that no one thought him a “rat” (he was on file as a former FBI informant). Murderer? No problem. But not a rat. Chilling, indeed.

In 2015, narrative (fiction) director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has released a new movie, also about Bulger, in which we see the man quite a bit. Only here he’s played by Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), who is so physically transformed that many news outlets have been calling him “unrecognizable.” I would agree with that statement. Both his makeup artist and dialect coach deserve an award (as do his blue contact lenses). Whether or not the actor, himself, turns in a particularly memorable performance is up for debate. I enjoyed watching Depp – but then, I always do, as the man has had, has, and probably always will have, a commanding screen presence – but I did not find his characterization of the man he plays especially nuanced. He’s a violent creep who can turn on the charm when he wants to (which isn’t that often), but who never has much to say that isn’t a threat (direct, veiled or otherwise).

His FBI handler, John Connolly, however – played by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) – can’t stop talking. Connolly grew up with the Bulger boys, both Whitey and his younger brother Billy – played by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) – who, for many years, was the most powerful politician in Massachusetts, and as Black Mass begins Connolly is freshly returned to Boston and looking for a way to make a name for himself by taking down the Italian mafia that runs the North End neighborhood of the city. Whitey – a childhood nickname, but he prefers Jimmy – a former convict with time in Leavenworth and Alcatraz behind him, is moving up in the Irish-dominated Winter Hill Gang. Connolly makes a pitch to his superiors that they can use Jimmy Bulger as an informant against the Italians and thereby “clean up the city.” Unfortunately, this arrangement works primarily in Bulger’s favor, as, for many years, he does what he likes, when he likes, under the protection of the FBI. It’s a sweet deal for a very sour man.

Most of the folks involved in the film are professionals – Kevin Bacon (X-Men: First Class), Adam Scott (The Overnight), Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine) and even (a very good) Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), among them – and deliver adequate to fine performances. The film looks great: cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook) knows when to keep the images light and when to make them go very dark. But at the script level, there’s a big gaping three-pointed knife wound at the center of the story:

  1. Who is Bulger and why does he do what he do?
  2. Why would anyone in the FBI take Connolly seriously, since he is so obviously in bed (though not literally) with Bulger?
  3. What does Billy really think about his brother, since their fates are intertwined?

All of that said, the film is frequently entertaining – if grim – and if you like your mob violence in your face, you’ll get it here. If you want a truly mesmerizing account of Jimmy Bulger’s life, however, you’re in the wrong place. For that, there’s always Berlinger’s documentary.

First Episode of 2015-2016 Season of “Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed” Is Now Available

Dragon Digital Media Reel Talk September 2015

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Denise Kitashima Dutton, first guest of the new season.

The first episode of the 2015-2016 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk (the fourth season, overall, and the second season of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed) is now available. My guest this time was Denise Kitashima Dutton, otherwise known as Atomic Fan Girl. We reviewed three films of the late summer: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Straight Outta Compton and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere.

As always, the amazing Dragon Digital Media team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Our next episode will premiere in November. Until then, if you want to watch more of our work, you can check out last year’s episodes in full – Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5, Episode 6 – or watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy! And we’ll see you at the movies!

In “The Visit,” Shyamalan Indulges His Inner Brat

Visit

The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)

Ask yourself this: if not for The Sixth Sense, would you still care about M. Night Shyamalan? In spite of significant flashes of talent (diminishing with each effort) evident in his four subsequent films – UnbreakableSignsThe Village and even the atrocious Lady in the Water – nothing the man has done since that third feature of his, in 1999, has come close to its cinematic grandeur and promise of further greatness to come. He has morphed into a running joke – the man whose films always feature a (supposedly) shocking twist of some sort – rather than the auteur of thrilling nightmares he, once, long ago, seemed destined to become. For me, he reached his nadir with After Earth, but, to be fair, that was the first film of his I had seen in years (so others could have been worse). All of this is by way of preamble that my expectations going in to The Visit – Shyamalan’s latest – were extremely low.

It was with very pleasant surprise, then, that I found myself enjoying the opening. Was this the beneficial consequence of my complete lack of faith in the director, or was there something good actually happening on screen? I rubbed my eyes, pinched my arms, and kept watching. And laughing. That’s right: the wannabe master of suspense seemed to be indulging in his funny side. There’s a hint of that in the trailer, but nothing to prepare the viewer that, for much of its duration, The Visit is presented as comedy. With, oh, a twist . . .

So what’s the story? We meet 15-year-old Becca and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler – played by newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, both, interestingly, Australian – as they are about to leave for a week-long stay with their never-before-seen grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop. It appears that, years ago, their mother – played by the ever-convincing Kathryn Hahn (Rabbi Fein on “Transparent“) – had broken off with her parents over her elopement with the older man whom she married. As the film begins, it seems that said husband has packed his bags and left both wife and kids, and now Becca and Tyler have planned this reconciliation with the grandparents to allow Mom to take a cruise with her new beau. So off they go, leaving Philadelphia, by train, to head west to the tiny hamlet where Mom grew up.

So far, so boring. What makes it not is that Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker working on a personal film about saving her family, and though the trope of found footage is a tired one, by now, this device is what saves the movie. Most of these kinds of movies present the material as if it has been discovered and edited after the events of the story have unfolded, but here we see Becca’s creative process as she shoots and cuts the film “live” (so to speak). She has brought two cameras – one for her and one for Tyler – and so we see her in action as she plans her mise-en-scène. Even better, we hear her self-serious explanations of cinematic language and shot construction as she instructs her brother on how to “create tension in the frame.” Whatever its eventual flaws, the movie is a wonderful primer for young filmmakers on the mechanics of camera placement, and I recommend it to all my students.

The kids are great. DeJonge and Oxenbould not only look like they belong to the same gene pool (and to that of their mother), but share an easy rapport that makes their relationship entirely believable. Shyamalan – witness Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense – clearly has a fine way with young actors, and elicits nuanced performances that combine vulnerability, cockiness and naïveté in equal measure.

Of course, the trip does not go as planned. Becca and Tyler arrive safely in Masonville, PA, and are picked up by Nana and Pop Pop – played by a very good Deanna Dunagan (The Cherokee Word for Water) and Peter McRobbie (the priest in Netflix’s “Daredevil“) – but very soon the plot takes a turn for the creepy and weird. It seems that after 9:30pm the sweet grandparents turn into creatures reminiscent of Japanese horror films. And since Becca and Tyler have, apparently, never taken the lessons of such films to heart – that you should run from scary monsters, rather than towards them – we see this nightly transformation, recorded for the benefit of Becca’s documentary.

Slowly, while still retaining some of its initial humor and charm, the movie begins to sour. As Nana and Pop Pop become stranger and stranger, much is made of the fact that their behavior can be explained by the travails of old age. Funny (perhaps), at first, this notion quickly becomes offensive. Then, once the final (patented) Shyamalan twist comes out, many of the film’s strengths (its lighthearted, easy humor among them) seem out of sync with the very real tragedy at the center of the plot. It’s a disconnect which I cannot entirely accept. It seems that while some of Shyamalan’s fine directing skills are back, there still lurks within him the immature brat who cast himself in the Jesus role in Lady in the Water and, in that same film, made Bob Balaban a film critic who gets eaten by the monster (because, you see, critics had by then turned against Shyamalan and so deserved to die). Despite these significant weaknesses, however, it’s still the best thing the director has done since Signs, which is a noteworthy achievement.

“Grandma” Needs a Defibrillator

Grandma

Grandma (Paul Weitz, 2015)

How I wanted to like this movie (despite its lackluster trailer). I love Lily Tomlin (most recently seen on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie). Not long ago, she appeared on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 to discuss her long career (born in 1939, she made her initial mark on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1970), and I was reminded of all of the quirky humor she brings to most of her performances. Unfortunately, Grandma – though by no means terrible – does not allow much room for her to perform, at all. I blame director Paul Weitz (About a Boy), since most of the actors give lazy turns, with one notable exception: Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams). And when he’s on screen, Tomlin ups her game, as well.

Grandma tells the story of young high-school student Sage – played by Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), not up to the task – who shows up on her grandmother’s doorstep on the day when Grandma (Tomlin) has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia – played by Judy Greer (“Archer“), who is always good, no matter what. Grandma – otherwise known as Elle – is a once-well-known poet who has just paid off all medical debts from her longtime – now deceased – partner’s illness. As a consequence, she has no money, and Sage needs over $600 for an abortion. She won’t go to her mother, Judy – played, eventually, by a very strident Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) – since Mom is everything Grandma is not: uptight, moralistic and structured. It’s too bad, though, because Mom also has money.

So off Sage and Elle go, in search of friends-of-Grandma to shake down for long-ago debts owed, stopping off at the boyfriend’s house first, where said lunkhead threatens the old lady and gets his butt kicked for his pains. In scene after scene, we find occasionally witty bits of sketch comedy and drama that are just as often weighed down by pedestrian direction. There is very little life on screen. It’s as if Weitz were content to have scored Tomlin as his star, only to then forget that a director must guide the actors. So it comes as a sudden surprise when, in a last-ditch effort, Elle drags Sage to an old (male) flame of her own, and we meet Karl (Elliott), who bears a huge grudge towards Elle for how she left him and then wrote about him in a poem. In their scene together, we see what might have been. We feel their history, and actual emotions flow between two human beings. It’s a wonder.

The rest of the film – divided into six parts, each labelled as if in a poem by Elle (1. endings, 2. ink, 3. apes, etc.) – has its few moments of spark, but mostly it fizzles. When Elle and Judy reach their reconciliation – of sorts – at the end, it has long been expected, and so fails to pack an emotional punch. I wish there were more to recommend here, but at least there’s Grace and Frankie available for binge-watching at home. That’s not exactly an amazing series, itself, but Tomlin is much better in it than she is here.