The Walk (2015)

The WalkIn 1973, wire walker Phileppe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems content to entertain the Parisian public in exchange for small change and the occasional hard-boiled sweet. When a chance broken tooth lands him in a dentist’s waiting room, however, he becomes fixated on New York’s World Trade Centre after seeing the Twin Tower’s featured in a magazine article. Determined to walk between the towers, Petit turns to veteran circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) in order to learn the finer details of knot-tying and rope-rigging. He also recruits girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) as accomplices, and shortly after a dry-run at Notre Dame flies the three of them out to America so that they might begin plotting the “coup” in earnest. The plan: to rig a cable at 1350 feet so that he might tightrope between the two tallest buildings on Earth.

Over the last fourteen years audiences have become so used to contemporary films and other fiction being referred to as post-9/11 that there will inevitably be some who are surprised to discover that there was a time before the Twin Towers had even been built. Perhaps counter-intuitively, so iconic and well-integrated were the structures, you only have to look back just over forty years — to 1973, when they were first opened. The same year, that is, that Robert Zemeckis’ story — and, for that matter, the real-life story of Philippe Petit — actually begins. We meet him in Paris where he is performing for passers-by, juggling at first and later traversing a tight-rope tied between two lampposts, but it isn’t long before he sets his sights on something much, much bigger — the original Mission: Impossible.

On the surface, The Walk has a lot going for it. It is, after all, a tremendous true story, and one that has only really been explored once before on film, in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Both films focus on the heist elements of the story, chronicling what was very much a crime, but only The Walk has Zemeckis calling the shots. Only his second live-action movie since Cast Away, the Back to the Future creator reasserts himself by combining his genius for physical performance with his understanding of stereoscopy, perfected over the course of his four-film flirtation with motion-capture animation. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most interesting and ambidextrous actors working today, and it should come as no surprise that the film’s climax — in which Petit walks, unaided save for a metal cable and balancing pole, between the towers, no less than six times — is one of the most simultaneously breathtaking and breathless scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, the build-up leaves rather a lot to be desired. It has been reported that not only did Gordon-Levitt learn to walk the high-wire in eight days (thanks, it must be said, to Petit’s personal tuition) but he also became fluent in French. Both are obviously impressive feats, and each duly demonstrates the actor’s obvious dedication to his craft, but while the former fact results in a more credible performance the latter sadly does not. Instead of putting what he has learned into practice, Gordon-Levitt is only ever really required to speak English with a vaguely French accent. His clumsy narration doesn’t just open the film, however, but returns at regular intervals to undermine it throughout, often spoken directly to the camera while Gordon-Levitt straddles an equally unconvincing Statue of Liberty. It’s a horribly misjudged framing device that hamstrings the film from the get-go. Evidently, the film isn’t just a tribute to Petit’s talents but to the Twin Towers themselves, and 1970s New York is painstakingly recreated from the ground up. France, however, doesn’t enjoy quite the same verisimilitude, and the scenes set across the pond feel comparatively specious and superficial. The soundtrack jars, too.

The Walk is undoubtedly the main event — worthy, perhaps, of the price of admission on its own — but it’s a shame that more couldn’t be done with the character of Petit or the other important figures in his life. Zemeckis has rather conspicuously cast French (and French Canadian) actors in his film, in small supporting roles, but although Clément Sibomy and Charlotte Le Bon do ultimately manage to impress it is despite the material they have been given rather than because of it. The Walk is a spectacle, teased from the very beginning, whereas the journey to the towers could have made a more satisfying movie. Like Petit, Zemeckis should have taken things one step at a time.

3-Stars

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

ExodusOn an official visit to Pithom to meet with Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), Moses (Christian Bale) — adopted son of Seti I (a miscast John Turturro) and brother to Prince Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) — encounters a slave (Ben Kingsley) who reveals his true lineage: Moses himself was born a Hebrew slave. Following the Pharaoh’s death, the now King Ramesses confronts Moses about the rumour and banishes him to the desert. Nine years later, while living in exile with his wife and son in Midian, Moses is contacted by Malak (Isaac Andrews), a boy claiming to represent God. Following the encounter, Moses leaves Midian and returns to Egypt where he plans to use his military experience to train an army of slaves. When Ramesses refuses to grant his people’s freedom, Moses and Malak unleash an attack not just on Memphis but the entire country.

We all know not to judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to cinema we aren’t always as open-minded. The movie poster is an art form in itself, and it’s often the case that forgettable films are preceded by similarly uninspiring posters — whether it’s the infamous rom-com lean, the latest Brit-flick with a white background or whatever happens to be plastered to the nation’s buses. This year there has arguably not been a worse poster than that for Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. Featuring its two leads rendered in an incongruous combination of grey-scale and gold, poorly photo-shopped onto a backdrop of cloudy skies and a black and white pyramid, it’s the sort of nightmarish image usually reserved for only the worst kind of straight-to-DVD rubbish.

It should come as a surprise then, that not only is Exodus: Gods and Kings competently coloured, composed and photographed, but it’s actually rather good. Scott may have fallen into disrepute following the one-two of Prometheus and The Councelor, but there’s no denying that he isn’t an esteemed director with more than a few classics to his name. Exodus may not reach the heights of Alien or Blade Runner (or even Gladiator), but it shows enough storytelling prowess and proves sufficiently intelligent to be considered seriously: not least for the strong performances given by Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and an unrecognisable-in-all-but-lisp Ben Mendelsohn, the impressively implemented 3D special effects and the innovative and interesting approach taken by the director in adapting such a well-known story. Why does the river run red? Why, that would be the crocodile-eating crocodiles, of course.

If Darren Aronofsky’s Noah recast Genesis as a treatise on environmentalism then Scott’s film uses Exodus to discuss terrorism. He invites his audience to side with Moses, a freedom fighter who orders an attack not on Ramesses but on the latter’s people: those who serve his palace. When this proves ineffective, Moses turns to God for help. Innocent people are then subjected to a series of increasingly devastating plagues: first their water supply is tainted, then their crops fail and their livestock are culled, and finally their children are killed by a mysterious affliction. Many have criticised Scott’s decision to anachronistically cast Caucasian actors in Middle Eastern roles, but if his intention is to draw parallels between Western (predominantly white) excess and Egyptian godliness, or Jewish justice and Muslim jihad, then it serves him well. How are these attacks any different from those perpetrated by modern day terrorists? We may not have to worry about the wrath of God (‘theirs’ or ‘ours’); nowadays people don’t have to turn to the heavens for comparable weapons of mass destruction.

Then again, this is little more than interpretation and inference (on the part of someone with only a limited understanding of the Bible story itself); Scott might have had other intentions for his film, but the fact that Exodus: Gods and Kings is provoking such questions stands it in better stead than most. After all, Moses is an important character in a number of faiths, and whatever Scott’s intentions it is nigh impossible to comment on one iteration without commenting on others. Even as an atheist it is difficult to ignore the political, philosophical or moral implications of Scott’s film. This isn’t a parable; it’s a premonition.

3-Stars

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)

Night at the MuseumWhen the enchanted exhibitions at New York City’s Museum of Natural History begin to act even stranger than usual, forgetting themselves and attacking the guests at a special evening event, night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) delves into the history of the magical tablet responsible in search of answers. He learns that upon its discovery in 1938 it was transported to New York along with the remains of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), while the rest of the pharaoh’s tomb was taken to the British Museum. Together with Ankmenrah, Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), a Neanderthal (Stiller again), a Capuchin monkey and Larry’s son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), he travels to London to meet the pharaoh’s parents. When the tablet is in range, Lancelot (Dan Stevens) and Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley) awaken, much to the confusion of the museum’s own security guard, Tilly (Rebel Wilson).

Well, that explains it: the reason that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was so utterly witless was that the tablet of Ankmenrah was malfunctioning all along. Who knew? Unfortunately for viewers of Secret of the Tomb, Shawn Levy’s third and hopefully final assault on the credibility of an esteemed scientific institution, the issue remains unresolved for most of the film, meaning that things have to get worst before they can get better. As such, prepare yourself for more father-son issues as Larry attempts to talk a re-cast Nick out of a DJ-ing career in Ibiza; more monkey business with Dexter including but not limited to an extended and inexplicable make-out scene; and more textureless effects-work as a Triceratops, a nine-headed snake and Pompeii join the bounty of disappointing would-be attractions from the other films.

Compounding things further is the distinct lack of anything that could even loosely be considered comedic. Since 2009, of course, jokes have gone out of fashion in Hollywood, so audiences must instead contend with the sort of improvised gibberish that should have been left to die on stage where it belongs. The usually pretty funny but always very R-rated Rebel Wilson has been drafted in to fulfill this requirement, but you soon get the impression that all of her best work has been sacrificed to satisfy the censors. Instead we get a reference to her pony-tail looking like a yellow poo and various other observations that shouldn’t have made the outtakes. At least Wilson is allowed to speak, however, which is more than can be said for poor Mizuo Peck. Despite appearing as Sacagawea in all three films, Peck has been given almost nothing of note to do. This time she gets less lines than even Alice Eve, who plays herself in a stage production of Camelot, alongside Hugh Jackman in one of the most excruciating attempts at meta-humour in recent memory.

The supporting cast in general is hopelessly underserved, with Wilson (Owen, this time), Coogan and even Williams often sidelined in favour of Stiller (who here plays two characters instead of one). Larry and his Neanderthal doppelganger get one half-decent scene together, locked in the museum’s staff room for reasons that already escape me, but otherwise Laa’s inclusion is never fully justified; director Shawn Levy already has Attila the Hun should he require someone to grunt or groan. The most successful new addition is arguably Lancelot, though even Stevens — so good in The Guest — is pretty painful to watch. He’s clearly already struggling with the slapstick humour, so every time Lancelot’s given something even marginally more sophisticated to do he fails miserably — he’s not even funny with a half-melted nose. Worryingly, Ricky Gervais gives probably the best performance in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, comedic or otherwise, and gets the only audible laugh when called upon to vouch for Stiller’s security guard. Having been fired earlier in the film, he does so while feeding pigeons in Central Park and pretending to shout at children supposedly on a school trip. There’s also a nice moment with the lion statues from Trafalgar Square, but it’s over before it’s even begun.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb isn’t hateful — the fact that it is one of Williams’ last films gifts it with a certain poignancy, while Levy’s emphatic attempts to reference previous movies in the series despite not having any fans to service are almost endearing — but it is awful. There’s not a trace of character, wit or drama to be found. For better stories, why not visit an actual museum?

1.5-Stars

The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Boxtrolls 3DIn the years since the mysterious disappearance of the Trubshaw child, the subterranean boxtrolls of Cheesebridge have been held responsible for his death and Archibald Snatcher tasked with their immediate extermination. Little do the townspeople know that the boy is alive and well, now renamed Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and living happily beneath their feet in what he believes to be his rightful place. Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickels (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), is making progress, however, and before long Eggs is watching his makeshift family dwindle into single digits. Determined to help them defend themselves, he dresses as a human and sets out for the surface where he encounters Winnie (Elle Fanning), daughter of the town’s mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), the leader of the White Hats tasting rooms of which Snatcher aspires to become a member.

Timeless isn’t a word you get to use very often in the world of animation. Even the so-called classics — Disney’s Golden Age or Pixar’s early years — are rooted in the moment, doomed to antiquity as audiences move on from one technique to the next, be it hand-drawn, computer-generated or motion-capture animation. Yet the term applies to Coraline, to ParaNorman, and now to The Boxtrolls. LAIKA is different to other animation studios; as Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar pursue pixel perfection, designing and then redesigning their technologies to produce ever-more realistic snowflakes, raindrops and blades of grass, LAIKA has side-stepped obsolescence completely by taking itself out of the race. Even Aardman and Ghibli look harried and try-hard next to LAIKA.

The studio’s films have always been more thoughtful, patient and subversive that its competitors’. There are no musical numbers, pop-culture references or flights of surrealist fantasy designed to pander to or placate the more impatient members of the audience, but rather a shared understanding that the filmmakers will share something special with those willing or able to wait. The Boxtrolls is perhaps LAIKA’s funniest film to date, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less scary, thought-provoking or emotionally intelligent. In fact, you are often invited to question the comedy; after all, should you really be laughing at a little girl’s blood-lust, a father’s negligence, or a henchman’s crisis of identity? Talking dogs and racing snails this ain’t.

Just as ParaNorman wasn’t really a film about zombies, The Boxtrolls has precious little to do with its titular tricksters. This is a film about ignorance, impotence and demonising the lower classes; the boxtrolls might not be human, but it is the townsfolk who are truly inhuman. Lord Portley-Rind can’t see passed his tasting room, to the detriment of his family and the town itself; Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles spend so much time contemplating their culpability that they overlook their own redemption; and Archibald Snatcher is so obsessed with breaking into high society that he refuses to accept his own allergy to cheese. Below ground things are no different; Eggs is trapped by his own identity while his adopted family have mistaken cowardice for survival instinct. Evil isn’t the issue; weakness is.

There is as ever much to admire on the surface too. The animation is as exquisite as ever, with LAIKA’s trademark characterisation again proving that characters don’t always have to be cute to be beautiful. There is perhaps too much prologue, spent in the company of speechless boxtrolls and a babbling baby, but there is never a shortage of things to marvel at. Eggs is a delight, just as Coraline and Norman were before him, but in many ways Winnie is the more interesting character. She is the perfect juxtaposition of outer prettiness and inner perversion, and many of the biggest laughs come from her inappropriate obsession with the macabre. This time, however, the most memorable characters rank among the villains: Ben Kingsley channels Robert Helpmann to make Snatcher the 21st Century’s Child Catcher (now prone to cross-dressing and lactose intolerance), while Frost and Ayoade are an utter joy as Trout and Pickles (“I’m agreeing so as not to upset you”; “I’m still seventy percent sure that we’re the good guys”). And don’t even get me started on Tracy Morgan (“Leeches!”).

Up there with the year’s best 3D animated movies (on a par with How To Train Your Dragon 2, if not quite as crowd-pleasing as The LEGO Movie), The Boxtrolls is another towering achievement for LAIKA. It may not dominate the box office, or change the way that animated movies are made forever (or at least the next few months), but as long as it finds an audience and facilitates a fourth movie then directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi have done their job beautifully. After all, everyone knows that slow and steady wins the race.

4-Stars

 

Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender's GameYears after an alien invasion, in which the formic race’s attack on Earth was foiled by jet-fighter pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), Andrew “Ender” Wiggan (Asa Butterfield) is scouted for Battle School by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) of the International Fleet. Impressed by his tactical ability and ethical code, Graff keeps a close eye on Ender as he adapts to life on the space station, wins the respect of his peers and shows promise in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity training area where teams of students must work together to beat the competition.

Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name by director Gavin Hood (who rightly swapped the buggers of the book for the formics of the film), Ender’s Game finally arrives on the big screen after various false starts and troubled productions. Originally set to star Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace actor Jake Lloyd in the leading role, with Card imploring fans to give the young actor another chance, the project was delayed until Hood came on board in 2010. Lionsgate then had to distance both itself and the movie from Card, whose involvement was being criticised by LBGT groups — some demanding boycotts — due to comments made about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Even without the history and controversy Ender’s Game had its work cut out for it if it was to find an audience. Marketed as yet another Young Adult adaptation, the film would have to compete with the likes of Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters, Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it would have to do so with a cast that perhaps skewed older than most. Harrison Ford, as idolised as he is by men of a certain age, is unlikely to appeal to a child weaned on Harry Potter, while Asa Butterfield is best known for Hugo (more of a critical success than a box office one) and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

In fact, Ender’s Game has more in common with Starship Troopers or even District 9 than it does Twilight. This is science-fiction with subtext rather than just space opera, and taking its cues from a story written nearly thirty years ago by an out-of-touch Mormon it is surprising just how relevant it still feels today. Certain tropes will certainly feel familiar — the Battle Room is the film’s Quiddich pitch or vampire baseball field and the final act is spent mostly in a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ simulator — but the rest is rather more novel. Children are assessed by video games, war is largely fought using drones and e-mails are censored by those in command. It’s also surprisingly — and remarkably — brutal; the film could easily have been subtitled: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Ender’s Game is a very pleasant surprise with some impressive performances (Ford and Butterfield in particular stand out, while The Kings Of Summer‘s Moisés Arias certainly makes a splash), but the script doesn’t quite do the subject matter justice. The dialogue is stilted, the pace is at times plodding and some of the set pieces are a little beyond the budget’s means. That said, with the weightless scenes standing up even in comparison to those in Gravity there must be some style to compliment the substance.

3-Stars

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3Nothing’s been the same since New York. Having helped save the world from an angry God and his alien army by flying a nuclear missile into a wormhole, Tony Stark has–understandably–been finding it a little difficult to sleep. Spending his nights at work in the basement, he has created a new armour that assembles itself, the Mark 42. Unfortunately, this has had an impact on his relationship with girlfriend and CEO of Stark Enterprises Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), issues that are –again, understandably–exacerbated when he gives their home address to The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a ten-ringed terrorist looking to teach America a lesson. The resultant attack leaves Stark disarmed in Tennessee,  Potts in danger and Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) left to track down The Mandarin himself, as the newly star-spangled Iron Patriot. Read more of this post

Hugo in 3D (2011)

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), orphaned after his father (Jude Law) was killed in a fire at the museum where he works, has unofficially inherited his watchmaker uncle’s (Ray Winstone) duties at one of Paris’ busies railway stations. Forced to feed off the scraps of the commuters and the professionals working throughout the station, Hugo has only an incomplete automoton for company as he struggles to finish his late-fathers restorative work between his absent uncle’s duties, his daily foragings and – perhaps most important of all – his occasional trips to the cinema. After having been caught by the station’s toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) trying to steal machine parts and instruments, and subsequently introduced to the old man’s god-daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), he begins an apprenticeship which will ultimately change all of their lives forever.

And to think, I wasn’t even going to watch Hugo. With only the film’s trailer to go on, I quickly dismissed it as twee children’s fodder, not even the knowledge that it was Martin Scorsese’s first foray into family friendly filmmaking seemed enough to sway me from my indifference. Good thing, then, that the country’s critics stood up and took collective notice, taking every opportunity to praise the piece and demand that anyone who really loves cinema go and see it immediately. While I’m not quite willing to cry masterpiece, or rethink my own Top 10 list for 2011, I’m certainly glad that I didn’t let this one slip me by.

I was hooked from the very beginning, with an intricate set of cogs and pistons morphing expertly into the city of Paris. From our omniscient vantage point, we are taken into the streets and through the atrium of a bustling train station before finally settling on the orphaned eyes of Hugo Cabaret. It is a phenomenal opening sequence, one which efficiently introduces us to the film’s environment and hints at the inventive and intriguing ways in which Scorsese will come to utilise the third dimension.

A celebration of imagination in all of its forms, Hugo is an absolute delight. While it might start out as a relatively unremarkable tale of love and loss, a human Mouse Hunt, as the audience is brought up to speed on how Hugo happened to wind up living in the walls of a Parisian train station, the story soon opens up to encompass Isabelle’s love of books, Hugo’s love of movies and Georges Méliès’ devotion to the art of filmmaking itself. It is once the film’s focus spreads beyond the loss of Hugo’s father that the film truly takes flight, its recreation of historic cinematic moments an absolute wonder to behold; from imagined train crashes to a daring clock-face escape, Hugo is never short of spectacular.

Naturally, with a focus so wide, Scorsese inevitably winds up spreading himself a little thin. Jude Law, Ray Winstone and Christopher Lee barely cameo, while each of the other characters drawn together within the clockwork of the central train station struggle to make much of an impression. There is nothing particularly memorable about Richard Griffiths, Emily Mortimer or Frances de la Tour, with Sasha Baron Cohen falling back on a leg brace for a jarringly slapstick attempt to make an impact. The film’s emotional centre lies in the surrogate family of Butterfield, Moretz, Kingsley and Helen McCrory, and only once the film realises this does it reach such heights of splendeur.

Hugo, then, is a beautiful and balanced slice of nostalgia, its understanding of destiny and happiness both timeless and charming. Whatever the failings of the story – that it lacks a definitive throughline – is nevertheless an affecting and intriguing experience. Scorsese’s own, intoxicating love of cinema shines through, making this perhaps the most heart felt and personal movies of his career. As one man’s ode to the defining love of his life, a dramatised, whirlwind history of the movies for the next generation of moviegoers, it is damn near perfect.