Working toward harmony: (l-r) Witherspoon
and Phoenix in Walk the Line.
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.
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
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
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
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
Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by Mike Newell
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 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.
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.