Sunday, December 04, 2005

Walk the Line

James Mangold opens his sensational biopic about the life of Johnny Cash amidst the stirring atmosphere of Cash's groundbreaking At Folsom Prison album. Prison guards keep watch as inmated stomp their feet, clap their hands and wait in anticipation for the return from "backstage" of their working-class, rough-talking hero. In the wood shop, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, in a career performance) rubs his fingers across a table saw as his wife, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon, ditto) waits in the background.

Mangold then takes us back to the beginning, to tell the story of how a sensitive young boy who listened to gospel from his momma and on the radio became one of the early-adopters of rockabilly, the voice of a time period, and an inspiration for generations to come.

Walk the Line follows Cash's career from his beginnings with Sun Records (the Cash sound is born out of necessity in an inpromptu audition for Sam Phillips) through his marriage to June Carter after a decade of pursuing her, with a failed marriage and kids on the side.

Like last year's Ray, Walk the Line delves into more than just the man's public persona. Dirt and all, we see Cash's spiral into drug addiction, his abandonment of his first wife (though it's quite obvious he's in love with June from the moment he sees her), his ascension to prima donna, his cathartic relationship with his father, a tough man who blames him for the death of his brother at a very young age.

Phoenix and Witherspoon are positively piercing as the central couple, their chemistry undeniable, their bond powerful and unique. Mangold plays to this strength and his film is all the more affecting for it.

Performances aside, Walk the Line is a powerful piece of work, a modern-day Rebel Without a Cause. Though it appears as a typical awards-baiting picture, Walk the Line manages to transcend its "pedigree" and emerge as a potent bit of filmmaking, the kind of classic Hollywood picture that isn't made enough these days.

Broken Flowers

As a long time fan of Jim Jarmusch's spare, minimalist approach to cinema, I thought that the ever droll Bill Murray would be a perfect match up for this particular material. Though bits of this plodding film work pretty well (everything with Jeffrey Wright and Frances Conroy), Broken Flowers is a mixed bag of vignettes.

Murray plays, with his typical deadpan comportment, Don Johnston (yes, that is played to death for "laughs"), a former Don Juan who receives a mysterious letter that claims he has a son who may be seeking him out. His next-door neighbor, Winston (the terrific Wright) helps him compile a list of potential mothers from Don's past flames. Winston puts together an itinerary and Don heads off to try to solve the mystery of who his son's mother might be.

What follows is a series of brief interludes with former lovers, played by a collection of terrific actresses (Sharon Stone, Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton) that give us know inclination as to why any of them would have been with Don in the first place (he's extraordinarily uninteresting...the whole "Don Juan" thing is utterly unbelievable).

Still, there are moments of greatness. Jeffrey Wright's Winston is a typically obscure Jarmusch creation, realized by a perfectly attuned actor. And Frances Conroy is haunting as the real estate agent who abandoned a "hippie" lifestyle for a pedestrian: it's cliched, but delicately performed.

The remainder of the film descends into pointless melancholy, and Jarmusch relies far too heavily on a type that Bill Murray has now overplayed.

Jarmusch is unquestionably an American original. He's certainly allowed a minor misstep like
Broken Flowers.

Awards season

Well, reviews have been absent for a while again. I've been working on some stuff outside of film reviewing, but with awards season upon us, I'll be catching up on a ton of 2005 releases.

So stay tuned.