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Working toward harmony: (l-r) Witherspoon and Phoenix in Walk the Line.

Long Hard Road
By Shawn Stone

Walk the Line

Directed by James Mangold

Conservative commentators often argue that Hollywood is out of touch with mainstream America. They’re right, but it’s not because the ruthless capitalists running the studios are flaming liberals. It’s because they don’t trust people’s taste. Or, they’re too invested in chasing a teenage audience that isn’t worth going after. Or, they’re just dumb.

At any rate, almost every major studio passed on making a film of Ray Charles’ life. Has there been a more popular and influential artist in the last 40 years? When it was finally made, Ray was a success. Similarly, almost every studio passed on a Johnny Cash biopic; Walk the Line took eight years to get made. And this was the story of a legend who staged a late-career renaissance on a popular and critical scale not seen since, well, Al Jolson’s late-’40s comeback.

Ray Charles and Johnny Cash had parallel lives in many ways, so it’s not a surprise that Walk the Line’s structure is quite similar to Ray’s. It just didn’t need to be so similar. A flashback to a hardscrabble childhood marked by tragedy is followed by fun-but-hard living, great musical success and a plunge into the depths of addiction. Then, triumph.

Walk the Line does manage to draw you into, first, the difficult lives of the Cash family in the Depression, and then, the life of the young adult Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) as he struggles with a difficult marriage and attempts to start a musical career. It’s when the film finally concentrates on the man and the music that Walk the Line really takes off.

Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter) do their own singing, a risky move that pays off. (Six months of intensive training with musician-producer T-Bone Burnett was worth it.) Witherspoon proves the better singer, but Phoenix—with a little help from some reverb—is pretty good, too. When they perform the famous Carter-Cash duet “Jackson,” it’s the most convincing moment in the film.

After famously hooking up with Sam Phillips’ (Dallas Roberts) Sun Records, Cash gets a few hits and goes on tour with the likes of Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and future wife Carter. This is exciting stuff: Director James Mangold captures the excitement of the era and the performers. Phoenix is compelling, his performance just the right balance of youthful eagerness and danger. Payne is his match as the wild Jerry Lee, however; too bad he disappears so soon.

It’s at this point that the film, like the real-life Cash, takes a wrong turn. Nothing goes together better than musicians and drugs; life on the road turns Cash into a pill-popping freak. Mangold (Copland; Girl, Interrupted) is not exactly known for his light touch, but there are times that he seems to be wallowing in Cash’s addiction. Clearly, addiction is terrible and debilitating, but the real Cash had to be functional at least some of the time. For contrast, there is, inevitably, Ray, in which Charles is carefully portrayed as walking the fine line between innovative composer-bandleader and hopeless junkie, making great records and suffering horribly. While Phoenix is never less than convincing, if Cash were this strung out all the time, he couldn’t have been a success at all.

But addiction is where the film finds the dramatic basis for the story’s ultimate redemption: Carter’s devotion to helping Cash get clean. And while it’s a less expansive view of both of these great artists’ lives and work than was possible, it still manages to be moving and, in a mournful way, effective.

The Cup’s Half-Full

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Directed by Mike Newell

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth installment in the saga of the boy wizard, is directed by Mike Newell, and like Alfonso Cuarón before him (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Newell has done it his way. Unlike Cuarón’s enchanting adventure, which stands on its own as a movie marvel, Newell’s adaptation is an enjoyable but uneven effort, one that zips between high peaks of excitement but at the expense of emotional lyricism. And though initiates of J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry will delight in the film’s myriad Hogswartian details, the uninitiated may find themselves as befuddled as a Muggle by the labyrinthine plot (summed up by one character as “devils are in the walls”).

Granted, Newell had the greater challenge, since Goblet of Fire is a longer, darker, and more convoluted yarn. It also contains the tricky challenges of pushing the three leads, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) into hormone-fueled adolescence, as well as pitting Harry against his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), with a potentially disturbing intensity. Under Newell’s less-than-delicate treatment, the flirtations of the young wizards are a cloying distraction (Harry’s embarrassing choke at the sight of his charming sweetie Cho, played by Katie Leung, excepted) that awkwardly thrusts Hermione into crushes with Harry, and Ron, and the Bulgarian quidditch captain. This takes valuable time away from the novel’s nefarious conspiracy, and pushes Watson into uncharacteristic fits of overacting.

The student ball that brings Hermione to tears could’ve benefited from the rapid-fire pace that, early on, truncates a thrilling visualization of the Quidditch World Cup, sending in Death Eaters (in marvelously spooky garb) and putting Harry under suspicion of dark magic before the audience knows what’s hit the stadium.

The film’s spectacular set pieces bring an impressive amount of description to the screen. Among the most fantastical sights are Harry’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament, where he does battle with an astonishingly nimble horntail dragon (among other amazing creatures), and his graveyard showdown with Voldemort. Fiennes lives up to the expectations of die-hards with a sensually eerie performance that shows the Dark Lord’s sadistic narcissism in full bloom even while holding the promise of greater horror to come.

Goblet of Fire also bubbles with humor: Brendan Gleeson is both comic and ferocious as the unbalanced new teacher, Mad-Eye Moody (whose telescopic eyeball gets a laugh with every REM), and Miranda Richardson gives an amusing glint of lechery to her magic gossip columnist. But Newell is not as proficient with actors as Cuarón, and Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore, played to understated perfection in the previous film, is now blustery, even bellicose—at one point, he shakes Harry by the shoulders, an action that’s at odds with the supremely understanding headmaster’s usual demeanor.

As expected from Newell, nuance is not a priority. Loaded with incident (right down to an unnecessary CGI cameo by Gary Oldman), and abrupt changes in tone, the poignancy of Harry’s inexorable ordeal is blurred by hubbub. Though Goblet of Fire is far from a disappointment, some fans may be hoping a little hocus-pocus will bring back Cuarón in time for The Half-Blood Prince.

—Ann Morrow


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