As I write this, The Walk has been out in IMAX-branded and other “premium large-format” theaters for about a week. When it opens to regular theaters, more people will be able to see it, but I still encourage you to find the largest screen possible. Go ahead and pay for the 3-D as well, since Robert Zemeckis shot this re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s spectacular high-wire act stereographically, rather than post-converting it like most movies do. On a large screen, in 3-D, the experience is immersive, and even profound.
As a caveat, there have been reports of vertigo turning some audience members’ stomachs. This didn’t happen to me, but I believe it’s a real possibility. As dizzying as some scenes in Everest were, The Walk is significantly more convincing. Back in the days of real side-of-a-building IMAX shows at science museums, the movie was preceded by suggestions to turn away, or put your head down between your knees if you started to feel disoriented. This is the first time in the age of movie-theater IMAX that I felt they should have brought that back.
No, The Walk affected me on a much more neurological level, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Much of it is a simple restatement of the history leading up to le coup, which you can probably get more factually from the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on Wire. Working as an unlicensed street performer in Paris, Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with decent French pronunciation but an atrocious French accent) sees a magazine article about the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York. His dream becomes to string a wire between the towers and walk across.
We rush through Petit’s training with Rudy Omankowski (Ben Kingsley), his relationship with his “first accomplice”, Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), and the rest of the group that would help him pull off his stunt. There are some digressions, and some visual flourishes on Zemeckis’ part — analogues of the juggling and pantomime acts Petit mastered besides his wire-walking. But soon the distractions fall away, and everything is pointed towards le coup, and Petit’s preparations.
Petit rushes us through like a carnival barker, and yet something about his enthusiasm and the twinkle in his eye is infectious; it’s no wonder he could find his accomplices, and we’re quickly at his side despite the insanity of it all. There are flaws in the story, but Zemeckis is secretly rigging up the emotional cavaletti that will support the story of le coup itself.
Petit’s setup is peppered with scares and setbacks, each one preparing us for his walk. A scare with a guard drives Petit to hide under a canvas, which just happens to cover the space above an open elevator shaft where the sheave has yet to be installed. Perched on an I-beam across this yawning abyss, Zemeckis rarely points his camera down, but we feel the emptiness below Petit just the same. Later, Petit must jump out to the edge of the roof to retrieve the fishing line shot by arrow across from the other tower. His capering shows us just how comfortable he is, and reminds us of the terrible distance to the ground. Then, when passing the steel cable across the gap, it slips nearly out of the accomplices’ grasp, reinforcing the weight and scale of this undertaking.
At the same time, Zemeckis is telling us the story of the Towers themselves, and how Petit’s walk changed them. They went up as eyesores; “giant filing cabinets” that leapt from Lower Manhattan like an underbite; just another blow to the character of a once-great city, sinking into the doldrums of the 1970s. Looking up from the ground, they never seem to stop. From the top, seeing little Petit framed
against the opposite tower in the background, the scale is simply obscene. And yet, by walking through the air between them, Philippe Petit turned them into a place where miracles happened. And Zemeckis has the wisdom to elide explicit mention of their fate.
By the time Petit checks the rigging on his tower and assembles his pole, Zemeckis has everything in place. The void opens below the wire, as it stretches out forever. The pole turns slowly, carefully, balanced between the weight of years leading up to this moment, and the solemnity of the task at hand. There are twenty minutes left to see the walk, but Zemeckis, masterful in his showmanship, salutes us as Petit steps out onto the wire. And I weep.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
In 2006, Laurel Hester died. It was the end of a long, hard, painful battle with metastatic lung cancer, like many others that have brought so much grief to so many families across the country. But in Hester’s case, there was something else: her family was Stacie Andree, and though their domestic partnership was recognized by the state of New Jersey, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office where she’d worked as a police lieutenant for over twenty years would not allow her to assign her pension benefits to Andree the way she could have if she were married to a man.
The problem hinged on a decision by the county’s board of “Freeholders”, the local legislature. The state law recognizing domestic partnership extended spousal benefits to all state employees, but gave counties the option of following suit. And as one of the few GOP strongholds in the state, Ocean County was not inclined to go along unless forced. And Hester’s case was just the wedge issue to force them.
This story was already the subject of an 2007 Academy Award-winning short documentary, which inspired Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to adapt a longer narrative screenplay for Freeheld. While sticking largely to the facts of the story, Nyswaner’s script manages to give heft and contour to a key turning point on the road to marriage equality in the United States.
The most notable improvement is the ability to start at the beginning of Hester and Andree’s relationship, presenting it as so utterly normal. Hester (Julianne Moore) was a deeply closeted police detective. Andree (Ellen Page) was an auto mechanic. They meet playing volleyball, and start dating. Just like any heterosexual couple might.
In fact, the only notable difference is the way Hester feels she has to hide her relationship. Maybe that’s not a fair statement; it’s not clear from the adaptation, but the Ocean County police chief and prosecutor told Hester in no uncertain terms that she had to keep the fact of her sexuality hidden. But she snaps at Andree for answering the phone at her apartment, introduces her as a friend or roommate, and avoids any public interaction. It actually sounds eerily close to the way Page herself recently described her own closeted behavior; she takes on all the hurt she worries she once caused.
And then there’s the cancer, and Hester’s rejected request for pension benefits. The script does insert one sympathetic Freeholder (Josh Charles), but the board strives to maintain an outward unanimity which prevents him from voicing his sympathies. There’s also Hester’s partner, Dane Wells (Michael Shannon), who stands as a sole voice of support for her within the department, though in fact there were other officers who testified at Freeholder meetings on her behalf.
But the ball doesn’t really get rolling until gay-marriage activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carrell) gets involved, along with a busload of protestors to pack Freeholder meetings with picket signs. This, despite Andree’s desire to focus more on Hester’s recovery — a long shot, realistically — and Hester’s insistence that she doesn’t want to be a gay-marriage activist herself, just equality and fairness for Andree.
Once Goldstein and Garden State Equality arrived, the momentum slowly builds, putting increasing pressure on the Freeholders. At the same time, Hester’s condition worsens, and time runs thin for the board to change their mind. And while the result isn’t exactly a surprise, even if you weren’t previously aware of the case, it’s still a story worth repeating.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Baz Luhrmann can get away with an anachronistic, choral rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Joe Wright cannot. Nor “Blitzkrieg Bop”. In a movie full of cringe-inducing moments, those two were particular low points.
The script for Pan — by writer Jason Fuchs, whose only other feature was also an insulting mess — was pulled from the Black List of unproduced screenplays, establishing that sometimes they’re there for good reasons. The only thing that saves Pan from utter trash-fire status is that it got picked up by a fantastically visual director like Wright.
This version serves as an origin story for Peter Pan, because even century-old properties with many adaptations already among the most famous and treasured children’s movies needs an origin story. The opening narration tries to defend this point, saying “you can’t understand the end of a story until you know the beginning”. And while that was true in the case of Maleficent and could have been for Cinderella, it only works if you actually do something interesting with the story. Pan is merely another adventure that takes place before the original one, and even the biggest inversion it attempts goes nowhere.
Peter (Levi Miller) lives in an orphanage in London under the Blitz. This, despite the original story being from Edwardian Britain, so something like a Dickensian workhouse would probably fit better. No matter; soon enough he is snatched up by a flying pirate ship which dodges RAF fighters — ah yes, that explains the choice of period — and transports itself to Neverland. Peter and his fellow orphans are pressed into mining service for the evil Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
There is no reason for this villain not to be Hook, except that Fuchs wants to make James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Sam “Smee” Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar) into sympathetic figures. You might expect this to lead up to a dramatic inversion, where Pan and Hook start as friends and end as enemies after Blackbeard falls — the opening narration all but promises that much — but if that’s the plan then the filmmakers must be expecting to make a Pan II in short order. A frightening prospect.
Blackbeard is mining for crystalline fairy dust — “pixum”, I suppose in analogy to gypsum — which for some reason has a rejuvenating effect on him rather than imbuing the power of flight. At the same time he’s clashing with the island’s natives: a mashup of American, African, and Australian aboriginal stereotypes, led by the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). They are waiting for a savior who will come and lead them to victory against the pirates, and obviously this is Peter, though he must prove it to them by flying. And yes, this is Avatar all over again, though one key turn is ripped off wholesale from Star Wars.
But, like I said, it is an extremely pretty movie. The reveals of Peter’s back-story are broken in half so we get not one but two imaginative flashbacks, one in the rippling wood of a tree stump and the other in the bubbles of mermaid lagoon. Oh, speaking of which, Cara Delevingne lends her face — but not any actual acting — to the mermaids. I mean, it’s not like we need more than one actual female character around, right?
The world is very, very pretty, but that can’t save a misconceived story. There’s lots of exposition, but little real emotion, and the actiony “good parts” are few and far between. Yet again, Fuchs seems to want to fall back on the old excuse that it doesn’t have to be any good; it’s just a kids’ movie. And again, I offer this advice: demand better.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
The Martian joins the recent spate of hard-ish science fiction movies that aim for a certain amount of realism over the usual space-operatics. Of course, it immediately invites comparisons to Interstellar and Gravity, so let’s get these right out front: this is a far better film than Nolan’s misguided paean to 2001, but it falls well short of Cuarón’s deep meditation on tragedy, loss, and recovery.
The thing that sets The Martian apart from these other films is its focus on the particulars of the science it discusses. Interstellar may have been explicit about the astrophysical theories it drew on, but it can only ever describe their general contours. The Martian, on the other hand, sticks much closer to home, in a recognizably near-future setting. The technologies and concepts are much more down-to-Earth — er, Mars — and so we get a lot more actual science.
Or at least that’s the idea. I had the privilege to watch The Martian with a real-life rocket scientist, who could recognize that a lot of the fine points that were fudged. She’d also read Andy Weir’s novel, which evidently went into a lot more detail with even greater inaccuracies. In a way, by shaving off a lot of this material in his adaptation, Drew Goddard managed to find a kind of balance between showing enough science to carry the hard sci-fi spirit and showing so much that the seams where the whole thing falls apart become more apparent. That said, it still becomes markedly less plausible as the story wears on.
We first meet Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after an astounding, but necessary coincidence: as a massive dust storm forced the Ares III mission to abort operations on the Martian surface, he was struck by debris that managed to short out his transponder and plug his suit enough for him to survive while the rest of his crew thought he was dead and escaped to orbit before joining him.
But, of course, he’s not dead, and he has to figure out how to survive until the next planned mission can rescue him, starting with using the last three weeks’ worth of six astronauts’ vacuum-sealed waste to improve the Martian soil enough for him to grow more food. Then, since the habitat’s transmitter was broken in the storm — because of course it was — he must find a way to contact Earth again to let them know he’s alive. And, having made contact and plans, he must make preparations for his end of them, which should be pretty boring unless something goes wrong.
Which of course it does, exactly on cue. This is not exactly subtle writing here. For the most part it’s fine and interesting stuff, seeing a thumbnail sketch of the science and engineering hackery that might come up on a crewed mission to Mars, with the aforementioned caveats in mind. The big problem comes at around a hundred minutes in, with about forty left to go, when the plausibility takes a decisive hit. There’s a distinct break, and everything after that plays a lot more like a standard sci-fi blockbuster. It feels like at some point Weir had written himself into a corner, and didn’t really know how to end the story. Goddard and director Ridley Scott, of course, are under pressure to deliver an exciting, tense, cinematic ending. Just playing out the plan with “… and it worked!” doesn’t really make for a fun mass-market movie.
But even forgiving that concession to mainstream forces, The Martian has about all the depth of a technical manual. Which, admittedly, is better than the forced injections of human sentiment Interstellar delivers with all the understanding that an actual Martian might bring. Still, even with Goddard shaping and contouring Weir’s story it never really aspires to touch the human condition beyond our remarkable problem-solving skills. Even the obvious emotional note — the Ares III crew’s guilt over leaving Watney behind — falls flat in the brief shreds of screen time they’re allotted.
What’s missing is the deep subtext Cuarón worked into Gravity, though it seems to have flown under many people’s radar. As a story crafted by technicians, The Martian avoids the mistakes Interstellar blundered into by avoiding things they’re just not very good at. But a story with no poetry in its soul can only ever say so much.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
TV news famously tends to adopt an editorial stance of “if it bleeds, it leads”. Last year’s Nightcrawler took a look at the dark side of what that kind of selection pressure might lead to, but it may be more important to notice what it leaves behind. As the news spends more time on all the lurid, lizard-brain stories, it spends less time on issues of real substance and long-term import. They don’t leap out at us the way more sensational fare does, even though it’s a lot more important for us to pay attention to them.
Ramin Bahrani has a great talent for taking these drier issues and bringing them vividly to life. Three years ago he tackled the dark side of modern agribusiness in At Any Price. And now, with co-writer Amir Naderi, he addresses the wave of foreclosures that followed the housing crash of 2008 in 99 Homes.
The story is set two years into the crisis. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a contractor in Florida, but housing development has busted and he can’t find work. It’s harder still, since he’d taken a home equity loan on the house where he lives with his mom, Lynn (Laura Dern), and son, Connor (Noah Lomax). It’s the house he grew up in, and where he wanted Connor to grow up. And when his arguments fail to sway a judge whose courtroom runs like an assembly line, it’s the house he finds himself tossed out of, repossessed by the bank, and managed by real estate broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).
Dennis doesn’t give up easily. After checking his family into a motel filled with people in similar situations, he chases Rick down and finds the last thing he expected: a job. Another family on the verge of eviction stopped up their sewer line and fled, and Rick needs a contractor willing to get his hands dirty cleaning up the mess.
It’s not the last crappy job Rick has either; he takes Dennis under his wing, showing him all the tricks of his trade. There are legal ones — like convincing families to take a cash payoff to quit their stake before the coming foreclosure — and less-than-legal ones — like stealing major appliances from shuttered houses to get Fannie Mae to pay Rick’s company to replace them. And, sooner or later, Dennis will be on the other side of the door, standing with the local police as they serve an eviction on some other family.
Bahrani takes us from house to house, showing how many different families the housing crisis affects, and how each responds in their own way. Some accept their fate quietly; others rage. Some resort to theft to stay in their homes. Some get destructive, to spite the banks before they leave. Some lash out in violence. Nobody is happy.
And, in one of the most striking scenes in the film, that’s true of Rick just as much as anybody else. Shannon is always wonderful at imbuing his characters with brooding, but textured menace. Rick isn’t a demon, deriving joy as he inflicts pain and misery on the people around him. As he points out, people go into real estate wanting to put people into homes, not to take them out. But when the storm came, he found himself near the surface; if he needed to push someone else down so he could stay afloat, that’s what he had to do. And if Dennis’ way back into his family home means throwing someone else out of theirs, so be it.
Bahrani excels at putting agonizingly human faces on these otherwise impersonal tragedies. Unfortunately he tends to leave out the necessary step back to see the larger picture. It’s true that Rick is himself a victim who has turned victimizer in order to survive, caught up as he is in a zero-sum worldview of fixed, scarce resources. Bahrani trusts in his audience to see that assumption and question it for themselves.
I’m less trusting. This is, after all, a nation where one of the two major political parties lives almost entirely on exactly such mean-spirited, xenophobic populism. “Fear and despair!” they command: “There is only so much to go around, and if one of Them gets it, they must take it from you!” They thrive precisely because their supporters have been convinced to jealously protect what they have, and to fear the Other. Half the country believes in the exact same kernel of despair that leads Dennis down the same road Rick has already been.
And while 99 Homes may suggest the moral rectitude of sacrificing self-interest in the name of greater, more worthy ideals like fair play and a square deal, it never quite gets around to disabusing these people of this poisonous assumption. It may be more honorable to play the hand you’re dealt instead of stealing another player’s cards, but it’s more hopeful to realize that the game can be cooperative. That “the greater good” can be less about reshuffling the goods and more about making all the goods greater.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
From the moment Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) sits down at the table across from Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn), we’re waiting for a con that never comes. He’s got a glib, friendly patter, and they’re sitting at a poker table; obviously he’s a con man. Except that he’s not trying to grift money or valuables — at least not directly. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say Curtis is a pick-up artist of sorts. And though his relationship with Ben isn’t sexual, it does feel faintly romantic, placing Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s fourth collaboration, Mississippi Grind, somewhere in the outskirts of queer cinema.
Lots of buddy road pictures have two guys bonding, but there’s something more complicated going on here. And yes, I’m as surprised as anyone else to say that about a movie starring Ryan Reynolds, and doubly so to say he’s a better choice than Jake Gyllenhaal, whom he replaced. Curtis is the same sort of slick, amiable, Van Wilder sort Reynolds almost always plays, but modulated into a minor key that makes him suddenly a lot more textured and interesting. He isn’t a problem gambler, the way Gerry is, but he latches onto them compulsively.
We get a hint of this from Simone (Sienna Miller), who Curtis catches up with in St. Louis. She sees his patterns with the clarity of a friend who knows when she can’t save someone from himself, and how to keep from getting herself dragged down with him. She knows all about them, down to the way Curtis bought Gerry a Woodford Reserve the night they met, just like he did with a “George” she mentions, and who knows how many others before that. And she sees it all ending in heartbreak, as it always does.
Gerry, on the other hand, is a classic character: a sad-sack who keeps making one bad choice after another. Or, rather, keeps making the same bad choice again and again. He’s already lost his wife (Robin Weigert) and daughter over his gambling habits. His bookie (Alfre Woodard) is about to send a big guy after him to collect. And still he thinks he can bet his way out of the hole he bet his way into. Mendelsohn always does marvelous character work with supporting roles like Gerry, and it’s a delight to see him get all the screen time of a lead to show off his craft.
Gerry meets Curtis in Dubuque, but he’s not much different from the worn, Midwestern faces we see grinding out their fortunes in backroom poker games all down the Mississippi. Even their eventual goal, in New Orleans, sounds a lot more glamorous than it really is. The city’s name conjures up images of Vegas-style decadence amid the gentility of the Gulf coast, but the reality is just more run-down bars and shotgun shacks, like the ones they’ve seen all along. The racetracks and casinos look the same no matter where Curtis and Gerry land, and changing their surroundings doesn’t change who they are.
These two men are, in different ways, desperately lonely and unhappy. They cling hopefully to the promise of the next sign that will point the way out. And, when no one else will have them, they cling to each other — lovers bound more by need than nurture, more by abjection than affection — dreaming together about the end of their own, personal rainbow.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.
Here in America, migrant workers mostly make the news as political footballs that cynical populists can use to whip up xenophobic support. In all the commotion it’s easy to lose sight of the real human lives of these workers. What must it take for a mother to leave her children and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to find work so she can send money back home to raise them? What effect does it have on those children left behind, asking their caretakers, “when is she coming back?”
It’s not just a question about American immigrants. Poor workers within Brazil travel across the enormous country to find work, and it’s just as fraught with class issues as it is here. Anna Muylaert’s Que Horas Ela Volta? — subtitled in English as The Second Mother — is a meticulously observed look into this dynamic.
Val (Regina Casé) is from the state of Pernambuco, though a ways out from the glamor of Recife. She works as a live-in maid, cook, and nanny for a wealthy São Paulo family. She’s practically raised young Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) for Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) and Dona Barbara (Karine Teles), while her daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila) remains back in the Northeast. Val used to visit home sometimes when she first came, but she hasn’t been back in ten years; the longer she stayed away, the harder it became to go home again.
But everything Val sacrificed was in order to give Jéssica whatever she needed. The schools in Pernambuco aren’t great, but Jéssica is a straight-A student with an interest in architecture and urban planning as instruments of social change. She’s coming to São Paulo to take the entrance exams for FAU: the highly-competitive Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo at the Universidade de São Paulo.
From the moment Jéssica arrives, she bristles at the code of conduct Val considers all but inborn. As a domestic worker, her job is to be unobtrusive and supportive of her employers, putting her own needs second. It’s always “Dona Barbara” and “Dr. Carlos”; never just “Barbara” or “Carlos”. That ice cream is for Fabinho; this is the one we can eat, and not at the family’s table. And don’t even look at the pool. Jéssica chafes at her mother’s restrictions; “I don’t think I’m better,” she says, “I just don’t think I’m worse.”
The distance between Val and Jéssica is mirrored in the relationship between Barbara and Fabinho. Barbara may live in the same house as her son, but Val did more to raise him. The affection she couldn’t give to Jéssica showers on Fabinho. Barbara is fine with Val as long as she knows her place, but when Jéssica shows up and acts like a regular person instead of a poor worker from the sticks, she’s less than pleased.
Every interaction is fraught with the baggage of this class imbalance. Ethnicity and money inform everything we see. Muylaert and Casé are warm and generous storytellers, building characters who conflict with each other, but never turning them into malicious caricatures. Even the worst behaviors we see come from human frailties. There is plenty of compassion here to go around, and to give us some insight into lives we may never otherwise consider.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.