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Walk the Line

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Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The 2006 Oscar nominations are announced, with, to noone’s surprise, Brokeback Mountain leading the pack. Most of the major categories seem to be already locked up — Picture (Brokeback), Director (Ang Lee), Actor (Hoffman for Capote), Actress (Witherspoon for Walk the Line, barring a Huffman upsurge), Supporting Actress (Weisz, The Constant Gardener.) Of the Best Picture candidates (Brokeback, Capote, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck), the only one I haven’t seen is Crash, but given its very mixed reviews, I’d be extremely surprised if it’s a better movie than Syriana or The New World.

Biggest snub? Jeff Daniels should be in Best Supporting Actor for The Squid and the Whale (William Hurt took his slot for A History of Violence.) Speaking of Supporting Actor, that category’s a two-man race between Clooney for Syriana and Paul Giamatti for Sideways. Giamatti’s been nominated for Cinderella Man, but many of his votes will be for the prior, passed-over film, just as Jim Broadbent won for Iris (over Ian McKellen as Gandalf) because of his performance in Moulin Rouge. Also, say what you will about Episode III, but it should be nominated in the visual effects category, even if Kong should win.

The most competitive of the major awards looks to be in the original screenplay division (Adapted will go to Team Brokeback, McMurtry & Ossana). If Clooney doesn’t win director or supporting actor, he could very well win here for GN & GL. Or, the academy might decide to reward a movie they otherwise overlooked: Syriana, Squid & the Whale, or Match Point. Hard to say — I guess I’ll go with GN & GL for now.

Golden Year.

As you probably saw, the Golden Globe winners were announced, with Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay) and Walk the Line (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, all on the Comedy-Musical side) cleaning up. (Other winners included Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote, Felicity Huffman for Transamerica, George Clooney for Syriana, and Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener) With the exception of Weisz, no real surprises. I’d like to have seen Jeff Daniels take something home for The Squid and the Whale, but Phoenix was a fine choice too.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Understand Your Man.

While there’s no one hard and fast rule to a good artist biopic (and, indeed, last week’s Capote belies to some extent what I’m about to say), it should capture what’s innovative and idiosyncratic about its subject, and help to explain why we should care about their artistry. And, while James Mangold’s reasonably entertaining Walk the Line has its moments, and Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are both excellent, I ultimately found this movie somewhat frustrating. For, except for occasional flashes, the movie, I think, misses the chance to do Johnny Cash justice — you never really get a sense of what was so unique and extraordinary about him. And, even considered solely as the romance of the Man in Black and his long-suffering muse, June Carter (of the fabled Carter Family,) Walk the Line stumbles ever so slightly. If you came into this film knowing nothing about Johnny Cash or June Carter Cash, I’m not sure this movie makes their case. Too often, it follows a standard Behind the Music “rise, drug-addled-fall, and rise again” structure, which makes it feel like it could be about, well, anybody.

To its credit, the film starts off well — We begin on a chilly day outside Folsom Prison in 1968, as a guard nervously listens to an ominous throb emanating from and through the high, grey walls. Slowly, it resolves into a readily identifiable Cash backbeat, and we go inside to find the Man in Black’s band waiting for him to take the jailhouse stage. But Cash is lost in reverie, struck by the sight of a buzzsaw blade in the prison shop room. For a soon-to-be-obvious reason, it takes him back to his boyhood days picking cotton in rural Arkansas, where the sounds of trains going someplace else are always in the distance, and the only respite from the sweltering heat is the voice of young June Carter on the radio. Ok, so far, so good…Mangold has shown that he’s not afraid to keep everything a little impressionistic, to color his palette with iconographic Cash-isms and help the man’s music breathe through the picture.

Unfortunately, though, most of the film thereafter feels depressingly literal. After apprising us of a childhood tragedy, the film takes us through Cash’s early days in the Air Force, his increasingly loveless first marriage to Vivian Liberto (Ginnifer Goodwin, looking like Audrey from Twin Peaks and feeling like a stock biopic trope), his rise to fame, his subsequent addiction to Go Pills, and his ultimate redemption thanks to a good-hearted woman, always there to help out a good-timin’ man in his hour(s) of need. This is all capably handled, I guess, but too often it feels rote, in an Insert-Rock-Star-Here kinda way. Worse, aside from one discerning monologue by rock-n-roll impresario Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) at Cash’s first audition, the film never really gets to the bottom of the singer’s appeal. We see Cash on his all-star Sun Records tours — and thus get impersonations of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Phillips, among others — but the film never explains what was unique about Cash among Phillips’ impressive stable of talent. (No Dylan here later on, though…but Cash’s close friendship with Bob is explicitly referenced several times, including a timely cover of “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and a lively use of “Highway 61“‘s police whistle intro.)

In fact, allow me to digress — one of the many fascinating aspects of the Dylan-Cash camaraderie (also briefly featured in one of the most memorable moments of the recent No Direction Home) is that, aside from a shared affinity for murder ballads and mind-altering substances, they were a study in contrasts, at least in the Sixties. Often, the young Dylan seems impetuous and invincible. Keenly aware of injustice, he nevertheless remains unfazed. He’s unrepentant in his anger — To paraphrase Herbert Croly‘s colorful description of Theodore Roosevelt, the early Dylan wields righteousness like a hammer, throwing the sins, taunts, and ridicule of this world right back from whence they came. Or, at many of his best moments, he turns his back on it all. Instead, he illuminates our experience by imagining the world anew, conjuring a landscape (what Greil Marcus has called the “invisible republic”) that renders both grievous sins and exalted sacraments to be often socially conditional, if not absurd and irrelevant.

But Cash — Cash can’t escape his critics, because his worst critic is himself. Nor can he either simply condemn or intricately reimagine Evil, because he has been Evil’s instrument. He’s a man of our world — In fact, he’s the Last Man, the Fallen Man. (“But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.”) Forget righteousness: Cash’s characters are just as cognizant of injustice as Dylan’s, but they also know they’ve done wrongs that can’t and never will be forgiven. They’ve been living desperate for so long they’ve become resigned to it. They walk the line, because they know what it’s like to stray far off the path, and they’ve paid the price in spades. And their adherence to their creed — be it a woman, the Savior, or something else, depending on the song — is all the more heartfelt and admirable because it has been tested, and even broken. In short, Cash has suffered grave consequences, and persevered in spite of them. He’s been through the Ring of Fire and out the other side, and his gravelly-delivered tales of guilt and penitence have set the stage for any number of later artists, including Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and, by no coincidence at all, the older Bob Dylan.

Well, that’s my take on Cash, and there are many others (For example, Ed Champion had a nice read on him last week contrasting Cash with Franz Ferdinand.) But, back to the movie — I barely got any sense of a Cash critique at all in Walk the Line. At best, it assumes you already have an opinion and appreciation of the man coming in, which may be true but still seems like lazy writing. (Or, alternatively, I guess you could say that it attempts to explode the Cash myth — “He wasn’t really a jailbird!” — but that gets us back into staid Behind the Music territory again.) That being said, the fault with the film is not Joaquin Phoenix’s by any means. Admittedly, his singing voice is off — although, whether it be to his getting better or my brain sorting out the cognitive dissonance — he improves as the film goes along. But, otherwise, Phoenix goes for it, and despite often seeming physically and vocally far afield from Cash, he delivers a powerful performance from the inside-out. As Dave Edelstein noted, it’s hard to watch him wrestle with drug abuse and the memory of his dead brother here and not think of River Phoenix. (If anything, I was reminded of Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which is another brilliant performance, although arguably one that doesn’t suggest Tricky Dick to anyone who remembers him.)

Reese Witherspoon is also superb (indeed, award-worthy) as June Carter, who, as in life, I suppose, was both a vivacious stage presence and a model of forbearance. (It’s also great to hear a genuine, unaffected southern accent onscreen. Too often, they sound actorly and are off by hundreds of miles — I’m looking at you, Cold Mountain.) But, the romance at the heart of the film is missing that certain je-ne-sais-quoi. From what little I know about it, Johnny and June Carter Cash are one of those love stories for the ages. She was his angel, his ray of light in the dark (images which the film does try to bring to life.) But, here, and I’m not quite sure exactly who’s at fault, Johnny Cash just comes off as a disciple of the mega-creepy Anakin Skywalker school of courting — i.e., act like a stalker for long enough and eventually she’ll come ’round. Again, I don’t really blame the actors. They do what they can with what they’ve got (although perhaps memories of Phoenix’s turn as Gladiator‘s Commodus are partially at fault.) But, to my mind, if the movie tried harder to sell us on Cash’s unique artistry, perhaps we’d have a better sense of what June, daughter of an estimable clan of folkies, saw in him. As it is, he just seems like an extremely lucky, albeit talented, amphetamine junkie.

And, to close an overextended review, that’s the basic problem with Walk the Line. The parts are all here, but, aside from the occasional flicker of life, the soul of Cash is mostly absent. Perhaps it’d be impossible to do right by him, to capture all the mystique of his music and his persona on celluloid. But, that doesn’t make this film any less frustrating. Try as Walk the Line might, the elusive and unforgettable Johnny Cash remains a ghost rider in the sky.

‘Til Things are Brighter.

Here’s one I’m actually looking forward to: Joaquin Phoenix channels the Man in Black (with Reese Witherspoon as long-suffering June) in the new trailer for Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic.

Rising from a Ring of Fire.

While Todd Haynes works on getting his Bob Dylan biopic off the ground, MTV has a scoop about the Man In Black: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon will play Johnny Cash and June Carter respectively in the forthcoming Walk the Line, to be directed by Girl, Interrupted‘s James Mangold. I’ll give it a chance, for the subject matter if nothing else.

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