(On Cable TV, April 2015) The incredible story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 managed to walk a wire between the two towers of the just-completed World Trade Center, was so exceptionally well covered in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire that a docu-fictional take on the same event didn’t feel necessary. But get Robert Zemeckis in charge of The Walk, give him a decent budget, put Joseph Gordon Lewitt in the lead role and suddenly, things look far more promising. Zemeckis, always impressively able to augment reality with special effects, here uses a joyously expressionistic tone to reflect Petit’s unbounded enthusiasm as his character (standing on the Statue of Liberty, a postcard-perfect view of pre-2001 Manhattan behind him) explains his life and the wire-walking caper. While some of The Walk’s first half-hour drags a bit (“Oh no, a flashback within a flashback!” is a bad sign in any film, and this one is no exception), the visually inventive tone of the film works well at keeping our interest until the film’s standout sequence, a vertiginous set-piece showing Petit walking from one tower to another … and then again and again, gently mocking policemen sent to arrest him, bowing to his audience and paying homage to the towers for making this stunt possible. It’s hard not to smile while watching The Walk, so infectious is Petit’s exuberant joie-de-vivre. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt had a tough role in trying to come across credibly as Petit (the real-life character, as demonstrated in Man on Wire, is simply incredible), but he manages it well … and his Parisian French is so well done at times that I wondered if he was dubbed. (But no, it turns out he speaks French almost fluently, and worked hard at nailing the accent for his performance.) Combined to the physical component of his roles, it makes for an exceptional performance. Nearly as amazing is Zemeckis, seamlessly using special effects and practical sets to create now-impossible sights. The luminosity of the 1974 New York portrayed in the film is spectacular, and the camera moves enabled by the virtual sets are enough to make viewers agog. (See it on the biggest screen you can, unless you easily get vertigo) Perhaps best of all is the feeling that The Walk complements rather than duplicates or nullifies Man on Wire: It’s a terrific story, and Zemeckis had the required means to present the story as best he could.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are times during Premium Rush where it’s not clear whether we’re watching a straightforward action thriller, or a glorification of the New York bike courier subculture. But why can’t it be both? After all, it’s practically a given that if you want to write an easy story set in any subculture, you bring in money, violence, chases and corrupt cops. Here, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt easily buffers his credentials as a hot young actor equally capable of playing action hero as he is in delivering sometimes-awkward dialogue: he plays the best of the Manhattan couriers, soon involved way over his head as a hilariously intense Michael Shannon chases him down. It’s all slap-and-dash by-the-number plotting, but writer/director David Koepp keeps things moving at a satisfying pace through interludes zooming around New York, hopping back and forth in time as the glory and danger of being an NYC bike courier is graphically described. There’s some satisfying black comedy in the way our protagonist sees the world, and some meta-amusement once viewers understand the way the cycling set-pieces are lined up in a row: Here’s some Central Park racing, here’s stunting in a warehouse; here’s a hip reference to flash-mobbing… You’d think that 2012 was a bit late in the movie-making game to deliver such blunt material, but Premium Rush is that kind of film: no subtext, straightforward dialogue, convenient coincidences and half-hearted plot justifications. (Well, maybe not even half-hearted –No one ever thinks of using the subway in this movie.) Does it work? Sure, but only in the barest sense: It moves along, delivers the goods with a bit of visual flourish and Gordon-Lewitt manages to be not annoying in a generally annoying role. But that’s it: If you’re thinking about Premium Rush as being anything but a glossy Hollywood look into bike messenger subculture, it’s disappointing. The film doesn’t sustain a serious second-guessing of its assumptions, and relies on stock clichés far too often to be respectable. Simply put, it could have been quite a bit better –either as a thriller or as a look into the subculture.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There really isn’t anything new to this romantic comedy, but it’s a small triumph of capable execution. From the whip-taut dialogue of the opening sequence to its cheerful ending, Friends with Benefits is a clever self-aware take on the romantic-comedy formula. The fast-paced dialogue makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot to be said about the hipness of the film’s assumptions as coupled to the solidity of its morals. It’s a bright and cheerful comedy, funny except when it becomes convinced that it has to be serious for a while. Justin Timberlake adds to his growing repertoire of thankless roles, whereas Mila Kunis is an able sparring partner. (Woody Harrelson’s performance is also a small delight.) Friends with Benefits‘ witty script and solid dialogue (as well as brief appearances by Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone) reminded me of Easy-A, which is all too reasonable given that both films come from writer/director Will Gluck. As much as it would be easy to criticize the schematic nature of the film’s romantic angle, its heavy dose of unreality or the carefully delimited nature of the film’s irreverence (those satin bed-sheets surely get arranged strategically, don’t they?), there’s still a lot of sheer movie-watching pleasure in watching a slick rom-com gorgeously shot. New York looks beautiful in this film, and Gluck’s direction has a nice flow helped along by some fluid camerawork. It amount to a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, one that doesn’t push any boundaries but entertains charmingly.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.