by Philip Price
Expectations are never high for anything from the notorious Eli Roth. Roth, whose most recent picture I was witness to only a few weeks ago in “The Green Inferno,” was a delayed bit of intrigue that turned out to be little more than a traditional gore-fest without any substance. And so, when his latest comes down the pipeline and features a rejuvenated Keanu Reeves (“John Wick” really helped that guy’s rep) you want to be interested. When you hear that the film was adapted from a 1977 film called “Death Game” that featured Colleen Camp (who makes a cameo appearance here) you also want to be hopeful. Still, the story is rather familiar and there isn't much of a reason to believe that Roth will necessarily bring anything new to the ‘Fatal Attraction’-table. That said, there are plenty of interesting ideas at play here and by the end of the film I'd developed something of a respect for the filmmaker for at least attempting to say something about the generational differences in with which sex, sexuality and the sanctity of marriage are viewed. Like any film that touches on such subjects and has been made by someone with enough perspective to know that love can be the only genuine thing we have in this world and that sex as presented by popular culture is largely a world of fantasy there are hard facts to be dealt with and bold statements to be made. While the tide of whose side we're on is continually turning in this psychological thriller, the thing the film lacks that might make it all the more compelling is a certain slyness. It's all about the way something is said rather than what is necessarily being said and Roth has a way of being so blunt and on the nose that it undermines the poignancy of what he seems to want to say. Still, the movie plays out with such inherent intensity that it's hard to look away or not find many of the elements entertaining if not on a something of a disturbing level. The progression of the mind games that our two female leads endow Reeves character with are up to par with any seasoned antagonist, but Roth's inability to remain restrained makes for a finale that screams the movie’s ideas at our faces rather than chillingly delivering a question that individual audience members might be afraid to answer about themselves.
We begin this journey into expectation versus reality by meeting Evan Webber (Reeves), a loving family man with a beautiful wife (Ignacia Allamand) and two children (Dan and Megan Bailey). It is when two young women show up at his door in skimpy outfits and drenched by the rain that the movie asks how devoted he'll be able to remain? That’s the question Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) intend to find out the answer to in “Knock Knock.” The set-up is that it’s Father’s Day and Evan’s wife and kids have planned a trip to the beach, but seeing as he has to stay home and work he will have the house to himself. This doesn't seem to be an issue, in fact Evan will likely get a lot more done with the kids out of the house, but of course this is when Genesis and Bel show up. Initially under the impression that the girls got caught in the rain and just need to make a phone call for a ride home, Evan soon comes to realize they’ve got much bigger plans for him.
The most attractive aspect of “Knock Knock” is that it purports to be a thinking person's thriller in terms of style and repercussions. It doesn't present characters in a one-dimensional sense, but rather strives to give a fully formed portrait of our three main characters. We may initially believe that Evan is generally a good guy who makes a single bad choice and we may initially believe that both Genesis and Bel are nothing more than psychopaths looking to get a rouse out of this random target, but the layers are nicely peeled back to reveal much more. Screenwriters Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo are sure to not necessarily give motivation or backstory to either Genesis or Bel, but when it comes to reasoning we get a dialogue-heavy set that spells out every point the two girls stand to make a statement about. When the film plays it coy, such as when Bel divulges a backstory about how what we assume was about her step-father raping her, its darkly disturbing and plays with the many possibilities of why these two young ladies have come around to performing the acts they do in order to prove what they believe they knew all along. With Genesis and Bel in particular we are given a glimpse into psyches of not only females, but females of a certain generation that have dealt with higher divorce rates and being exploited as little more than sexual objects in the media. Unfortunately, women seem to be taken advantage of in more ways than men could ever imagine in our society and in many ways Genesis and Bel are on a mission to rectify that treatment by exposing how men, no matter how well put-together or pre-packaged they may be, are all the same on a basic human level. When you put two young women in skimpy outfits drenched by the rain at their front door the outcome is always the same.
What takes away from these big steps in the right direction is simply the lack of a competent tone. It's as if the film wants to go for something of a deranged attitude that is both wacky in its actions yet serious about its themes and Roth is unable to ever strike a balance between the two. It doesn't help that it's next to impossible to take Reeves' performance seriously. There are moments, especially as the film builds to its climax where the girls play a demented game show with Evan, that the actor is little more than laughable. Reeves is required to have something of a full-on breakdown and while the guy is certainly giving it his all it's impossible not to crack. While it is easy to see what Roth was going for in presenting Reeves as this traditional hero type, but turning those expectations on their head so as to get the bigger point across the film instead ends up cheapening itself. Izzo and De Armas on the other hand are terrific in their idealistic, but perverted roles. Genesis and Bel come onto Evan presenting these kinds of ideas that Evan's generation have of the generation just below them: that since they've grown up with internet pornography that this kind of no strings attached sex, threesomes and bi-sexuality are no big deal. The girls play into this idea they know Evan has of them before they even speak a word and catch him in this scenario they believe no guy can resist. Of course, on the other side of things is the argument that Evan will have had no choice, that the girls basically forced him into sleeping with them and no matter how true this is there is no defense for Evan or any guy when the girls ask him, "Why didn't you think of them (his family) when you were inside of us?"
It's a blunt, but shockingly honest way of approaching things and highlights what is also one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film in that will undoubtedly make many squirm. While the tactics may not exactly be fair, the questions are and I like that Roth, his writers and the majority of his cast are able to pull off this kind of switch in what we see and what we expect as opposed to the substance behind our presumed shallowness. If only Roth were able to take those ideas and themes and convey them in a feature that was a little more subtle in its approach and a little more refined in their technique than we might have had something truly juicy to devour here. Instead, the characters squeeze these juicy ideas dry before we can ever make it to them to try and get a drink. The good intentions are here, but the ability to execute effectively still seems to allude a director whose strong suit has never been his subtlety. In the end, “Knock Knock” is an entertaining film that will make for a fun, campy night on the couch, but falls short of having any real ambition or shining as bright as it could have mainly because of its biggest star.
by Philip Price
“The Final Girls” is one of those movies people who love movies could likely watch over and over again. I say this because I've watched it twice already and enjoyed it even more the second time around. Everything about the film is calculated to perfection when considering the genre it is both lampooning and writing a love letter to. Here, writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller use this self-aware technique not to make fun of the actions of their own movie, but more to examine the staples of nostalgia and how what eventually become these staples begin as innocent, unintentional marks of the decade from which a movie is born. We're unaware of the tropes being created by the countless super hero blockbusters of our current cinematic landscape, but in 20 years there is no doubt the twenty-somethings will find a strange comfort in movies that attempt to recreate the tone and energy of what we can't see in front of us right now. It's an interesting experiment and one that pays off in spades for a certain type of audience member. Lucky for me, I feel a part of the generation that will get the most out of this take on the slasher film that was born out of the ‘80s horror boom. There are two kinds of spoofs, ones where the characters and genre trappings are exaggerated for mere comical effect and then the ones that mean to point out the aspects that, while admittedly being horrible, also make the characters and genre so endearing. What “The Final Girls” clearly intends to do is show us why these ‘80s films about teens dying horribly gruesome deaths have become so endearing to the current generation. The answer is we find a kind of solace in the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Leatherface and Michael Myers that wasn't available in the elaborate mind of Jigsaw or the allusive ‘Paranormal Activity’ villains. It's an atmosphere that feels foreign to the smart phone era and is a reminder of what the world was like when we were innocent while still appealing to our now adult nature with its horror aspects. “The Final Girls” capitalizes on each of these components to play perfectly into everything a certain set of audience members need to feel fully enraptured not only in the events taking place in the film, but our own thought processes about such films.
These intentions all become apparent when we're introduced to our core group of present-time protagonists. Being in their early twenties creates their necessary admiration for the time period and the allure of what makes these kinds of movies so celebrated. There is leader by default Max (Taissa Farmiga) whose mom, Amanda (Malin Akerman), played one of the countless victims to an ‘80s horror icon in the vein of Jason and died 20 years later when Max was in her most formidable years. Her best friend is Gertie (Alia Shawkat) who personifies the indie/hipster vibe to a T while also having a nerdy step-brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) who counts himself among the biggest fans of that ‘80s slasher film Max's mom starred in. Duncan is heading up a screening of "Camp Bloodbath" at a local theater for himself and other fans of the film and is keen on getting Max to come and make an appearance. Max is hesitant, especially since the screening will take place on the anniversary of her mom's death, but is persuaded when Duncan promises to do the remainder of her classic literature homework for the semester. This puts traditional jock Chris (Alexander Ludwig) in something of an awkward position as he'd asked to tutor Max with her homework so as to seemingly get to know her better as his feelings for her are more than obvious from the get-go. Still, he's a handsome, well-liked and rather confident guy so he shows up at the screening for what he likes to call "emotional support." His presence also brings Vicki (Nina Dobrev) into the fold as she and Chris recently broke up and she's nowhere near over it. It's also clear that Vicki and Max have some type of history with one another, but this isn't crucial to the story the film is telling. What is crucial is the fact that during the screening of "Camp Bloodbath", by some magical combination of fire and alcohol, the group are transported into the world of 1986 where the film plays on a loop and this new set of characters must figure out how to make it through to the end of the film without becoming victims themselves.
The crux of the film is that of the relationship between Max and her mother. While the surrounding layers of the slasher film and the horror movie staples infiltrate the proceedings as far as what is expected to happen with the plot and how this reconfigured version will work given the present influence, the story still centers itself around Max and her coming to terms with the death of her mom. While we only see Max with her actual mother on screen for a few minutes at the beginning, the important roles they play in each other’s lives are clearly defined and played effectively by both Farmiga and Akerman. It isn't until Max and the rest of the gang end up in "Camp Bloodbath" that Max comes to the realization she'll come face to face with this character who looks and sounds just like her mother, but who will have no idea who she is or what she's lost. That Akerman has to play this symbol of sorts to Farmiga's Max without being able to let on any further emotional attachment while also tackling the mindset outside of that character as a struggling actress two decades later is something of a dual role where the immediate challenges won't be obvious to casual moviegoers. Akerman handles this responsibility with a seeming ease as her movie persona, Nancy, is the typical guitar-strumming quiet type that will lose her virginity for the first time in this first summer of freedom and then be mercilessly killed for doing so.
The implications are ripe for exploring not only the archetypes consistently present in these kinds of films, but in Max again taking on the role she was forced to fill with her actual mother. There is this mentality in Max where she feels the need to protect and shelter her mother from the real world and she again takes on that role under the circumstances of running away from a masked madman with a machete. The film even goes so far as to allow Amanda's personality to creep through into what makes up Nancy given bits of Amanda were bound to appear in the character she's playing, but this allows for a level of emotional heartache in Max who is finding it more and more difficult to discern between the allusion and the reality of the situation. This dilemma is what propels the film forward. There is plenty of other stuff going on around this core conflict, but that the writers/director were able to gain such genuine emotional ground in what is otherwise a broad comedy says something for the skill level at which they're operating. Furthermore, the culmination of the film is one that is able to bring these strands together in a way that ultimately justifies this relationship between mother and daughter that's been building to an inevitable conclusion as well as validating the use of the ‘80s horror film structure. It is an unenviable task considering how great the set-up for this film is, but that “The Final Girls” was able to one-up my expectations for its finale only makes it all the more gratifying.
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson piles on the synth-heavy soundtrack and the clear John Carpenter and Wes Craven influences in both his visual approach and pacing while Fortin and Miller take care of the tone in the characters and dialogue they've created specifically for "Camp Bloodbath." Whether it be Kurt (Adam Devine) who is the ignorant jock only working at the camp to deflower as many fellow counselors as he can or Tina (Angela Trimbur) the overly-horny female counselor who finds pleasure not only in sex, but getting stoned these affable but idiotic players make up the core of the original cast and provide much of the comic relief on both levels. Middle grounders such as Blake (Tory N. Thompson) are relegated to the expendables crowd while the likes of Paula (Chloe Bridges), who is the original "final girl" of the film, is only given a certain amount of screen time before Max and her cohorts have to figure out a new resolution than following the safe bet around. This is all to say that The Final Girls knows how to play with its tropes and it plays with them well. From the haunting chants that serve as a precursor to the appearance of big bad Billy Murphy, to the obligatory flashbacks that tell of his origin story, and even on to the somewhat tried, but still funny (and gorgeously rendered) slow motion shots that only stand to make the otherwise quick deaths of people we've grown accustomed to more affecting. Everything about the film clicks.
On top of this mountain of detail that has already been poured into the writing, the aesthetic, and the look that Strauss-Schulson and cinematographer Elie Smolkin have crafted to both mirror their inspirations while using camera movements that place us more inside the celluloid the film is, more than anything, consistently funny without being obvious or overly-lewd. Sure, the basis of "Camp Bloodbath" is that anyone who has sex will die, but the film uses this as a point of satire rather than an excuse to indulge in such acts itself. This is appreciated as “The Final Girls” makes a point to show what happens to these young actors who give these kinds of movies their all and in return can't find work afterwards because of the cheapness of such experience. That “The Final Girls” doesn't become what it is parodying, but instead takes a formula and comments on it while improving upon it is a rare feat and one that should be appreciated by being watched again and again if not for how hilariously entertaining it is, but for all the perfectly placed details you no doubt missed the first time around.
by Philip Price
“Pan” is utterly forgettable. There is no reason for this re-imagined and retooled version to exist beyond Warner Bros. attempting to get in on the current trend of turning classic fairy tales and more specifically, classic animated Disney films, into some kind of live-action confection. What doesn't work here though is the fact the Peter Pan story has been told so many times before and given we've all likely seen at least two iterations of J.M. Barrie's story (even the kids this movie is targeting will have seen Disney's 1953 adventure countless times) there is nowhere for this film to go that doesn't feel like it's either retreading familiar ground or desperately stretching. Unfortunately, the latter is what director Joe Wright's new film does as it options to go back to the beginning and tell us the now obligatory origin story that basically covers all the stuff that happens before all the good stuff happens. The real issue here, though, is in the script from writer Jason Fuchs who contributed to the last ‘Ice Age’ film and is the sole screenwriter on the upcoming ‘Wonder Woman’ feature (not instilling a lot of faith there). There is a lot going on here which only creates more and more issues for the film as it goes on, but the source of each of these issues seems to stem from the main issue of the base story never truly recognizing itself. Each scene is strewn together with no connecting strands, no substance and thus nothing for the next scene to build upon. It's as if Fuchs was figuring out the story for himself as he went along and once he was done, never bothered to go back and write a second draft. Once upon a time I would have killed to see Wright take on huge, fantastical material such as this, but in his first big-budget studio effort the director has delivered what couldn't be a more underwhelming and, like I said in the beginning, forgettable experience.
And so, we walk into “Pan” with the promise of a story that will lead to the one we know so well, but even that seems to be too much for the film to handle. What we are instead dealt is a story of self-discovery that has a 12-year old Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) figuring out his past and how he came to be "the chosen one". Yep, it's that kind of story-the one where an unsuspecting hero is plucked out of their unremarkable circumstances to become the only beacon of hope in a hidden world that has none. He's there to restore peace and order to the galaxy Neverland. These tropes have simply been applied to the story of Peter Pan while Fuchs crosses his fingers and hopes that by throwing in familiar faces like a young James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) that audiences won't notice the laziness of what is actually occurring on screen. I doubt the screenwriter has put any thought into how he'd transform the budding friendship between Peter and Hook this film portrays into the sworn enemies we all know they become. What's worse is he'll never be forced to figure it out because there is no way this thing is getting a sequel let alone its own franchise. Introducing Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) isn't a bad idea, but while Jackman tries his damnedest to give the character some kind of zest he is essentially a walking MacGuffin that gives Fuchs someone to place all the blame on for everything that has gone wrong in Peter's short life as well as give him the worst of motivators so as not to seem completely pointless. This motivation includes mining Neverland for Pixie dust so that he may live forever which inevitably leads the action to a small, hidden society where Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) resides and that also holds the key to a sacred world where pixies (like, you guessed it, Tinker Bell) run wild. It all wants to make sense, but it is constructed so sloppily and with such an apparent lack of care that we find no reason to invest ourselves.
Of course, one doesn't go into a movie hoping for it to be bad and given that I've always enjoyed the 1953 animated version as well as being a child of the ‘90s thus automatically loving Steven Spielberg's “Hook” I was looking forward to what another of my favorite directors might do with the material. There is clearly a lot of imagination that has gone into this piece. The first half hour or so is especially engaging (or maybe that's just because I was still optimistic at that point) as it features a young Peter and his friend, Nibs (Lewis MacDougall), at an Orphanage in England during World War II as they cook up schemes and hatch plans to try and allude the tyrannical nun that keeps them on a strict schedule (and diet). These early moments that allow us to get to know Miller's Peter are both informative and interesting without trying too hard. It is once we enter Neverland that the sets and the special effects get bigger and bolder colored as if to try and hide the lack of character development. It's almost as if the bigness of the production was overwhelming to everyone, including Wright, to the point they didn't feel they could even manage all of the moving parts and so what we have is a motion picture of talking heads that tell instead of show and don't allow the film to infiltrate the smaller interactions thus making this $150 million production feel cheap. What is worse than the cheapness though may be the transparency of the majority of the performances. We'll start with Jackman's Blackbeard given the most likable actor on the planet is certainly giving it his all. Luckily, Jackman at least gets to play the pirate as ruthless (he's kicking kids off a plank half an hour in), but again the character overall is such an archetype and conduit for all this exposition that Jackman never really has the opportunity to dig in. Hedlund comes out the worst of everyone as he's so desperately trying a Harrison Ford impression that never works it's cringe-worthy and for all the talk around Mara's casting she barely registers so there seems no point in making a fuss of it.
I could be wrong, though, and I could be wrongfully accusing both Wright and Fuchs for shortcomings that are not of their doing, but studio meddling in the wake of the films three month delay. There are certainly signs that there were a significant amount of notes being handed down and edits being made given the lack of cohesion from scene to scene, but even in the tone one can see the strides being made to cover up the darker tale I'd like to assume Wright was going for. Wright is known for his rather bold and unique approach to things whether that be in his ability to apply different styles to different genres or simply in the filmmaking techniques he uses-there is always a level of inventiveness that is unavoidable to his work. This can be glimpsed in the early portions of “Pan” when the pirates of Bishop's (Nonso Anozie) ship fall through the ceilings of Peter's orphanage and pluck children out of their beds as if they were in a cirque du soleil show. It is interesting visually, it adds a fresh layer to the proceedings and it is both intensely creepy and energizing at the same time. In short, it works to accomplish the kind of tone the film seems intent to carry out. Even as we venture into Neverland and Jackman's Blackbeard is introduced to us via Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" there is an understanding that something specific was being sought here. While we once again hear popular music thrown into this fantastical setting a few scenes later with the Ramones’ "Blitzkrieg Bop," there is no use of the technique throughout the remainder of the film making these two short instances something of a question mark. The real question though is why does a studio give a director like Wright the Peter Pan origin story with such a massive budget only to reduce what his vision was to the blandest sampling of origin stories ever told? Much like “Fantastic Four” earlier this year I can only imagine we would have seen a much better or at least more interesting film in “Pan” had the powers that be not so actively tried to contain their product to a box, but rather let the creative forces that they've enlisted actually breathe.
by Philip Price
From the opening frames it is clear that “Pawn Sacrifice” looks to analyze and discuss the psychology of this young man who would become the world’s greatest chess player. From a screenplay written by Steven Knight and directed by Ed Zwick we are introduced first thing to an eight year-old Bobby Fischer (Aiden Lovecamp) in Brooklyn who is already being positioned by his Russian mother, Regina (Robin Weigert), to look out the windows for spies and people who might be on the trail of her cause. Apparently she is some type of activist as she's already had her son and daughter, Joan (Sophie Nélisse), rehearse what they are to say if someone asks them about her. It is an initial state of fear and suspicion that Bobby seems to never be able to shake. The fact he is to become the most famous chess player in the world, used as something of a pawn himself in the political dealings between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, only intensifies this paranoia that causes his mental health to fall apart faster than a watermelon in the hands of Gallagher. Of course, what has to be considered is how much this nurturing state and how much Fischer's love for chess both influenced his eventual mental state. By the time Fischer was 12-years old (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) in 1955 he was already something of a prodigy, the U.S. chess champion as well as already beginning to push his mother, and almost everyone else, out of his life. The basis for who he would become was already there, but this inability to separate the game of chess from his identity and thus the inability to look at the world any different than he would a chess board somewhat forced Fischer to succumb to the tone of the game and live his life in that timbre. Needless to say, this constant state of delusion becomes taxing on both Fischer and those around him, but dammit if it isn't fascinating to see unfold through the glass door.
By the time the film reaches 1962 (at which point the real Fischer would have been 19) Tobey Maguire has taken over the role. After the Russians ultimately failed to meet his expectations in a tournament that would crown him World Champion he forced himself into something of seclusion for three years before being approached by lawyer, Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg). Marshall, an alluded to government operative of some sort, hoped that Fischer might consider facing world champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), of the USSR so as to bring the Cold War confrontation down to a simpler level. Fischer agreed under certain conditions including one that placed Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as his second. When Fischer eventually faced off against Spassky he quickly deduced his competitor was playing for the draw and if there was one thing Bobby Fischer didn't do-it was play to draw. Fischer more or less shot himself in the foot and lost to Spassky as he'd rather do that than draw only to return two years later to begin the road to the World Championships where he would again inevitably face Spassky once he reached the top. While there have been features and documentaries concerning Bobby Fischer before (“Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Bobby Fischer Against the World”), “Pawn Sacrifice” is more or less the first scripted narrative that attempts to take on the core years of the chess prodigy's life and take a wide look at this man's life the way a traditional biopic might. This is also the downfall of the film as the whole thing does feel rather traditional-and if you already know the story of Fischer, rather predictable. Still, the film has plenty of peaks to go with these obvious valleys as Maguire was somewhat born to play this role and that the film cares enough to go deeper than surface level with its subject is inspiring and ultimately what makes the film worth investing in. That is, the investigation into Fischer's psyche.
I specifically say investing in because never do Zwick, Knight or anyone else on the creative team attempt to make Fischer an appealing guy we might feel any kind of sympathy for. In fact, the more the film goes on and the more Maguire's Fischer becomes concerned and suspicious of the possibilities of what could be happening around him the more we grow weary of him. There were more than a few times that I wanted to yell at the screen telling Fischer to just, "play the damn game!", but obviously that would only mean Fischer's mentality was really making an impression on me, truly affecting me as an audience member and I guess that would be considered a good thing as we typically are impressed when a film is strong enough to elicit an emotional response. Granted, this wasn't necessarily a positive emotional response, but it was the appropriate response to Fischer that the film conveyed those around him at the time were dealing with as well. As Fischer, Maguire is supposed to inhabit this tedious, arrogant and inconsiderate persona and while he definitely hits each of these nails on the head in different scenes what is really spectacular is the moment of epiphany we have late in the film where we realize just how good he is at embodying this man and his corrupted state of mind. This aspect of Maguire's performance is done in a kind of symmetry with how Zwick builds the tension and intrigue around the chess games themselves. How does one dramatize chess? Well, Zwick takes the approach of never actually showing Fischer play a game or anyone play a game for that matter once Maguire takes over the role and up until Fischer faces off against Spassky on July 11, 1972. This technique makes these showdowns between Spassky and Fischer all the more tense and all the more loaded given all that Zwick and Knight have put in place prior. It is a real culmination of all the pieces that have been pushed into play, making those scenes where Fischer studied the moves and styles of his opponents and goes over techniques with Lombardy in their hotel rooms all the more meaningful and all the more extraordinary in the level of dedication committed.
At one point in the film Lombardy tells a story of another chess player who shared a similar fate as Fischer. What is interesting here is that Spassky, despite being the World Champion for what seems like a solid amount of time, never fell into this kind of entrapment by the game of chess. While Schreiber is often given little more to do than get in and out of vehicles or off and on planes Spassky becomes something of a model chess player that we tend to want to root for given Fischer's madness begins to look like a play to avoid the inevitable. That Spassky graciously bends to some of Fischer's more ludicrous demands shows he is an honorable sport and of a sound mind. While his is likely a less interesting dramatic story, he is the guy you end up taking a liking to over our intended protagonist. Lombardy is another kid, like Fischer, who grew up in the boroughs and even beat Spassky when they were younger. As Lombardy, Sarsgaard is our bridge between the paranoid mess that Fischer eventually becomes and the real world of the audience that is searching to find some sanity or understanding in Fischer's irrational actions and outrageous demands. Maguire plays this schizophrenic personality as someone who doesn't understand that the world doesn't bend to his every whim. Fischer comes off as a man who feels the world owes him a thousand favors because he's a genius at a game. He is an aggressive personality that can only be cajoled to do something by those he considers worthy of his stature and even then he still ignores three phone calls from President Nixon. It is in these final, tension-filled moments between Fischer and Spassky that Zwick turns the tables and while not necessarily endearing the audience to Fischer makes us realize the genius of his insanity. With so many possibilities (after only four moves, there's more than 300 billion options to consider) how does one even comprehend thinking ahead as many moves as Fischer seems to have figure out in his head? It is in this instance, this true crest of everything the movie has been working towards that we not only buy into Fischer's fractured mind, but buy “Pawn Sacrifice” as a spiritual portrait of that mind.
by Philip Price
“Man on Wire” is the Academy Award winning documentary from 2008 that preceded this dramatization of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit's walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. What made the documentary such a critical success and one of the more all-around entertaining documentaries ever made was largely due to two factors-1) Petit himself and 2) the heist-like nature required to pull the stunt off. Petit is a character who needs no exaggeration. To watch him describe his mentality and desires in the documentary was to paint so vivid a picture that re-enactments were never needed. There was also a surplus of photos and footage from around Petit and his accomplices planning and executing this rather risky gamble to fulfill one man's crazy dream that filled in the gaps when Petit wasn't acting out his recollections. So, the question is why would anyone want and more importantly why does anyone need another version of a story that has already been told in a magnificent (and no doubt more honest) way? The documentary was filled with drama and tension so why dramatize it further only to restrict it to a narrative structure that would likely end up making the distressing story rather passionless. There seems to be no definitive answer as to why this new interpretation was necessary within director Robert Zemeckis' film, but strangely it seems to make perfect sense given the man behind this particular vision. Zemeckis has always been a filmmaker who likes to push the envelope when it comes to technology and trying things other filmmakers wouldn't dare attempt. In Petit's story the director has found an inherently dramatic, fun and literally breathtaking tale that perfectly accommodates the type of innovative filmmaking methods he likes to march out and test on his audiences. And so, while “The Walk” may not be a movie we all needed, that certainly doesn't make it one worth ignoring. In fact, it's rather invigorating once it gets going.
If you're not familiar with “Man on Wire” it's hard to recommend you see it before seeing “The Walk” given you'll more or less be watching the same movie consecutively. Of course, this new version of the film is a more linear story that features a pure dramatization of the events that are mostly talked about in the documentary, but still, you get the same basic story with the same highs and lows. With a widely loved documentary already out I'm sure this gave Zemeckis and his co-screenwriter Christopher Browne a limited feeling on what they could change, condense and add. The two do an admirable job of breaking Petit's story down into the three essential acts that give us the original inspiration of the main character (played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the setting of the objective and then (in the final hour) the full execution of the act that will define our character’s life. Giving us more insight into what guided Petit into wire walking in the first place than “Man on Wire,” “The Walk” introduces us to Petit's real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) who was a popular circus performer in France. “The Walk” also gives stronger reason to believe in Petit and Annie's (Charlotte Le Bon) relationship. The two are given their due as a couple, but their story never takes over the main narrative as this is not a story about a boy and a girl, but more a boy and his wire. There was no way around it, but I was happy to see the film stick to the same outcome concerning these two as what real life held for them. It is in a dentist office one day as he's waiting to be called that Petit sees a picture of what will eventually be the Twin Towers in New York City. He immediately sets this goal of hanging his wire between them as his ultimate coup. Aided by an unlikely band of international recruits that include Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), Jeff (César Domboy), Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), Jean-Pierre or J.P. (James Badge Dale) as well as Albert (Ben Schwartz) and David (Benedict Samuel) Petit overcomes insurmountable odds to conceive and execute his mad plan.
For the first hour or so of the film we receive the aforementioned backstory that allows for Kingsley, Le Bon and Gordon-Levitt to provide the groundwork of these characters as well as reinforcing what makes Petit so hell-bent on going where no man has gone before (and never will again). We are treated to the standard scenes of Petit's parents not approving of his lifestyle and career choices, the meet-cute between him and Annie as well as the love/hate relationship he shares with Papa Rudy throughout. As the other extraneous characters begin to be introduced (Jean-Louis and Jeff being the initial inductees) there is a shift in the tone that allows the ambition of Petit to go from just that to something of an actual plan. How Petit and his accomplices afford plane tickets back and forth from Paris to New York or the no doubt expensive equipment it actually takes to pull off a stunt like this are never addressed, though Petit apparently has enough money to pay Rudy to show him how to tie a correct knot (which eventually comes back around to try and cover the bases, but doesn't really). These are all minor complaints though as “The Walk” clearly has one, decisive goal and that is to provide the audience with a thrilling adventure, the likes of which we need to see on the big screen to really appreciate. It is not so much that this first half of the film is filler, but that it all feels rather inconsequential when we see what follows it. There is a scene where J.P.'s character is introduced and we think we will get to know him as well as Albert and David, whom he recruits, a little more before we finally reach the point we've all been waiting for, but the very next scene jumps to August 6th, the day before Petit is set to do his walk. It is somewhat jolting to understand that this quickly a plan has been put in motion, but Zemeckis clearly was intent on giving the actual stunt its due. The director even allows for Petit to recount the plan without cutting to the characters going through with the actions as we expect, but rather lays it all out for us and then shows it to us in all its blood, sweat and tear-laden glory.
The genius of the film lies in the small moments that occur as Petit and his crew ascend the tower and encounter countless close calls that almost render his dreams impossible. With the type of dedication to the daring risks it took to pull something of this caliber off the film automatically takes on the same heist-like qualities of the documentary. Going through the carefully plotted steps also, without trying too hard, brings out the ideas and motivations behind why so many people would risk their own safety and livelihood to make one man's desire a reality. Each of them know that what Petit is attempting to do is crazy and somewhat reckless, but to be a part of something that has never been done before is an exhilarating high some just can't turn down. In this case, it would mean to become a part of history and thus, well worth all the risk and trouble they might encounter. The risks of what might happen if Petit doesn't succeed in walking his wire are never really taken into consideration given most will know he completes his walk successfully, but this is something of the charm of the piece as well. Zemeckis makes no endeavor to dig deep into the crevices of Petit's brain to figure out what makes him tick, but rather only gives us our protagonist's thoughts by having Gordon-Levitt perform a cheesy and somewhat odd narration that places him on the Statue of Liberty with the Twin Towers always shimmering in the background. With what he has to work with, Gordon-Levitt does fine, but it would have been nice to see more of Dale's J.P. who really becomes the face of the operation in allowing his natural charisma to get the team through more than a few tough spots as well as Valentine's Barry who is immediately appealing. A little less of Samuel's David wouldn't have hurt either.
Regardless of all these facets, “The Walk” remains a rousing thrill ride that really capitalizes on the IMAX and 3D aspects of its production. My stomach was churning as Petit put on his costume and prepped himself for that first step onto the wire. There is a moment just as Petit steps out that the music drops out and the silence of birds in the distance is all that's left to engulf us. Unfortunately, this tactic isn't used for long, but it really makes this single moment as effective as it could be. While I would have preferred that Zemeckis use minimal music rather than the sweeping score that comes blazing in his use of "Fur Elise," is a nice touch as it emphasizes the lightness of Petit's tiptoes on the wire. It seemed unlikely that Zemeckis’ film would be able to match the acclaim or even what made the documentary so fascinating and that's not even taking into consideration the feeling “The Walk” was unnecessary, but given we have so few films these days that truly embrace the qualities of big-screen cinema, this film is something of a rare opportunity to viscerally experience the feeling of what our characters are going through. Given its rated PG it's also that rare movie everyone can see and anyone could love. There is something of an event quality to the experience while also serving as a love letter to New York City that will make each and every audience member feel all the more united and ready to cheer.