Walk the Line (20th Century Fox, 11.18), a frank, straight-from the-shoulder biopic about the late Johnny Cash, is making a lot of moves right now. It played Telluride last week and will hit the Toronto Film Festival very soon, so I guess it’s time to jump in.
I was cool with it, felt good about it and admired it in most of the ways that usually count. For above all (and because there are many pleasures in the way it unfolds), Walk the Line is a solid, strongly composed thing — cleanly rendered and always touching the bottom of the pool.
Walk the Line costars Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash) and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter)
Just as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck plays, appropriately, like a live 1950s TV drama, Walk the Line is constructed and delivers like a good Johnny Cash song…no b.s., down to it, aching emotions right there on the sleeve.
It’s easily Mangold’s best film ever, and from the guy who directed Girl Interrupted, the respectable Cop Land, the unsettling Identity, the nicely composed Kate & Leopold and the excellent Heavy, that’s saying something.
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And you can definitely take Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon’s performances as Cash and the apple of his eye, June Carter, to the bank. They’re both spot-on…fully believable, living and breathing on their own jazz, and doing their own singing and knocking down any resistance or concerns you might have about either one being able to inhabit or become the real deal.
Phoenix is a lock for a Best Actor nomination, and Witherspoon for a Best Actress nom — no question.
And yet the more I think back upon Walk the Line, the less certain I feel about its chances in the Best Picture competition.
Who cares, right? It is what it is, and let the Academy go twiddle their thumbs. You will not in any way feel burned by this movie, and in many ways it will leave you with a feeling of finely-honed honesty and conviction…isn’t that the bottom line?
Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, backstage after a show they gave in ’56.
But I have to be dirt straight and say that the story of the film, which can basically be boiled down to “when will Johnny and June finally get married?”, didn’t exactly throttle me.
Walk the Line is very austere and manly, but when you look at it in sections, it’s just a standard showbiz saga progression thing…this happened, that happened, this happened, etc.
But the real reason it might run into trouble with the Academy is one that David Poland alluded to in the mid-summer but didn’t touch last week in his review out of Telluride, which is that Walk the Line is a bit too much like Ray…it’s too deja-vu.
Both films tell stories about a famous but flawed musical performer…the boy-born-into-southern-poverty thing, the rural hand-to-mouth upbringing, the sympathetic loving mother, the brother dying in childhood and marking the singer-to-be for life, an early marriage followed by drug abuse and infidelity, the cleanup detox scene, etc.
And frankly? It doesn’t get you emotionally all that much, although it does get you in retrospect because it feels honest and solid and doesn’t flit around. This movie never snickers or leers or tugs at your shirtsleeves — it says it plain, take it or leave it. And that grows on you.
The basic arc of this thing is, when will Johnny Cash attain a state of togetherness and a lack of encumbrance due to this or that gnarly issue (drug problems, marriage to first wife, etc.) to finally win over June Carter and get her to accept his marriage proposals? When will Johnny and June finally get hitched? That’s the basic shot.
It’s not meant as a put-down, but I don’t happen to feel that this or that woman (I don’t care how beautiful or giving or strong-of-spirit she is) can save any man’s life. Happiness can only be self-created — it must come from within. I understand and respect that Johnny felt differently and needed June like a rose needs rainwater, etc., but I couldn’t empathize.
But I did feel it…that’s the odd thing. I felt a sense of absolute completeness, of bare-boned reality and complexity…in no persistent way did Walk the Line make me feel under-nourished.
Make of this what you will. I obviously can’t figure it out myself, but I’ve tried to be true to the spirit of this film by just saying it and letting the chips fall.
Bears vs. Birds
Conventional wisdom says it’s too early to make any calls in the Best Feature Documentary race…except this isn’t quite accurate.
There are two developments that are very much in the wind right now. The first is the near-certainty of March of the Penguins being one of the nominated five. The second is a faintly odorous possibility that Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which is ten times the movie that Penguins desperately wishes it could be, might not even be nominated.
There’s some chit-chat about the Academy’s documentary branch getting picky over Penguins because the U.S.-released version isn’t the film that was acquired by Warner Independent, but a re-do of the original French-made doc…but I don’t foresee anything stopping its Oscar ascendancy.
Penguins has made way too much money ($63,566,739 domestic as of 9.5, and $79 million worldwide) and the icky cuddly factor — those tuxedoed Emperors endlessly trudging across Antarctic wastelands and protecting their unhatched eggs — is too oppressive and pernicious.
On 9.6 Gold Derby columnist Pete Hammond went so far as to float the possibility of March of the Penguins being a Best Picture long shot, since “several [Academy] members have been mentioning [Penguins] as their absolute favorite film of the year.”
The notion of this very handsomely photographed but exceedingly bland and cutesy-poo doc even being floated as a Best Picture possibility is, of course, appalling. “At any rate,” Hammond continues, “Best Picture or not, Penguins is the elephant in the room, the 800-pound gorilla in this year’s documentary race.”
Of course, there’s another three and a half months to go, and with this a chance that some other fine docs might punch through and elbow the penguins aside.
Docs like Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight (Sony Pictures Classics) or Steve James’ Reel Paradise (Wellspring), or three docs about to be seen at the Toronto Film Festival that are generating solid buzz — John & Jane, The Giant Buddhas and The Smell of Paradise.
Of course, if the people who nominate docs didn’t have such oddball tastes (their past preferences have indeed been comical), they would be telling Hammond and others who regularly poll them for shifts in the wind that Grizzly Man is as much of a lock as Penguins …right?
March of the Penguins is a fairly good film, but Grizzly Man is a great one.
The only reason Penguins is being talked up as a Best Doc gorilla is because it’s commercial, and the reason it’s commercial is because it reeks of endearment. Or rather, because women and older couples have found the birds adorable, and because a disturbingly high percentage of top-drawer critics have given Penguins raves or enthusiastic passes. (It got a 94% positive rating from the Rotten Tomatoes elite.)
And one of the reasons Grizzly Man doesn’t have the buzz it deserves is because it’s only made $1,732,539 so far. (Actually, for a doc about a guy who winds up getting eaten by a bear, a domestic haul that’s approaching $2 million isn’t bad.)
Of course, people who know movies know that future moviegoers will be watching Grizzly Man with utter fascination 100 or 200 years from now while Penguins will have been long since tossed onto the sentimental slag heap.
Grizzly Man is thoughtful, disturbing, eye-opening high art and not in the least way an exercise in obvious emotional pandering.
I’m just as friendly with Laura Kim and Mark Gill and I’m just as happy that Penguins has rescued Warner Independent from financial trouble as the next guy. But sentiment and rooting for friends is not what this story is about.
“I share your general view of the sentimentality of Penguins vs. the harder, more unsparing perspective of Grizzly Man,” says Variety critic Robert Koehler. “But within the extremely limited context of Oscar viability, Penguins clearly has the edge.
“Still, there’s considerable space for [people] to enjoy both films on their various levels. After all, there are some extraordinary sequences of pure wildlife survival in Penguins, and the sheer technical capacity to be able to film the animals at such intimate range has to be regarded as a pretty amazing achievement.
“But the film’s resultant second life as a teen girl’s cuddly summer getaway movie is the result of hucksterism, and good timing.
“Herzog’s contemplation of the horrific consequences of the best-laid intentions is obviously the more considerable piece of cinema — which the Academy will also obviously overlook. (When have they ever acknowledged him?) But Oscar Schmoscar, I say — that crowd’s inability to recognize the best in non-fiction in world cinema is a running joke.
“I think you’re going overboard in pitting this as a battle between a work of art and an aw-shucks nature movie,” says L.A. Daily News critic Glenn Whipp. “Sure, it’s sentimental, but it’s also thrilling and a visual stunner. It’s not just cute penguins and to dismiss it like that is simple-minded.
“Is it as good as Grizzly Man? No…but then Grizzly Man might just be the best movie of the year. Just about any movie from 2005 suffers by comparison.”
Grizzly Man director Werner Herzog
Penguins is popular with the Academy, says Hammond, “partly because [the membership] recognizes the technical difficulty of the achievement, but also because it’s ultimately a story of pure survival and provides hope against all odds for rebirth. That’s an increasingly powerful message these days for many people. It goes beyond ‘cute penguins’.”
I’d like some opinions, please…riffs, laments, exhortations. Bears or penguins? And the odds of the Academy recognizing the worthiness of Herzog’s film and at least nominating it are…?
“I was reading your Wired comments about what that Variety critic said about Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown out of a screening at the Venice Film Festival, and I had to reply because I’ve not only read the script (as you have) but seen it.
“I got my hands on a copy of the script almost a year ago and ever since I’ve had ridiculously high expectations for this film. I was worried that I was setting myself up for disappointment with the expectations I was nursing, but I shouldn’t have worried. I got to see a work-in-progress cut last week and I loved it. Right now it would be up there with Almost Famous as my favorite Crowe film.
“The only complaint I can think of off the top of my head is the length. It wasn’t too long for me, but I can understand how others could say that it feels too long. I guess that cutting 10 to 15 minutes probably would help the pace of it, but sometimes there’s more to a film than pacing.
Elizabethtown director-writer Cameron Crowe
“Both Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst are quite wonderful and have fantastic chemistry together. Bloom manages a convincing American accent and pulls off a modern-day, sword-free role extremely well while Dunst is adorably quirky. The whole cast is superb in their respective roles and the soundtrack is fantastic, just as you would expect from a Crowe film.
“I honestly don’t know why it didn’t get a better reception at Venice. The only thing I can think of is that this is a very ‘American’ movie and it may not translate well to European audiences. It will probably play better in this country than anywhere else.
“A reviewer out of Venice wrote that ‘there have been arguments on various internet boards with one side of the debate saying Elizabethtown is just like Garden State. It isn’t. They share premises — young man’s parent dies, he goes to funeral and then meets a girl — but the treatment is completely different.’
“Here are a couple of reviews that are more in line with how I saw Elizabethtown.” — Carmen with no last name.
Moment to Moment
Starting today and lasting until the end of the Toronto Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow night and lasts until 9.18, this column will be composed with a typical catch-as-catch-can approach required by the deluge of movies to be seen and the 18-hours-a-day running around.
That means no more Wednesday and Friday turnovers. A story here, a photo there, a Word item or two popped in…whatever. If you followed this column during the Cannes Film Festival last May, you know what I’m saying. It’s going to be very whenever and woolly-bully.
“I noticed you do quite a bit of bashing. Is there nothing you like? I saw you just did quite a bit of bashing of Keira Knightley. I realize you are entitled to your opinion but so am I. I’m sure Keira and her family are crying all the way to the bank.”
Wells to Keira Defender: Yeah, she’s made a good amount of money. So…?
Keira Defender replies: “I’m all for constructive criticism but all you’ve done is parasitic criticism. You’ve torn down a fair amount but done nothing to try to help. Those that can, do. Those that can’t, criticize.”
Wells to Keira Defender: You don’t seem to have read the column all that much. I like a lot of things. Check out my reviews of Capote, Grizzly Man, Constant Gardener…my appreciation of the great Rachel McAdams, etc.
Keira Defender replies: “Why not do something productive for society instead of tearing people and things down in the sadistic way you have? You can teach, read to the elderly, flip burgers. Who knows, you might actually be a stranger in paradise if you were to do something productive for the human race.”
Wells to Keira Defender: What you’re saying, Erin, is that you find it preferable that people (journalists included) exhibit no standards at all. In order to be pleasant and kind and perpetuate decency and charity, they should say that everything and everyone is wonderful, delightful, fine, etc. You are talking about a kind of fascistic order. There is no telling what’s good and what has value in this world without feeling and expressing what’s bad and cheap and undeveloped. Francois Truffaut once said that “taste is a result of a thousand distastes.”
Keira Defender replies: “I’m not saying everything is wonderful, nor will I say it. There are a fair amount of people who feel the same way. What you said about Keira is cruel.”
Wells to Keira Defender: Tough.
Keira Defender replies: “But in the meantime, Keira Knightley has far more fans than you can possibly imagine. Women want to look like and/or be her and men want to be with her.
“I conducted a poll at my local library. I had a picture of Keira and a headshot of her smiling. I asked 30 people if they thought she was pretty or if her smile was nice. I received quite a few positive responses and less than ten negative ones. What’s that tell you?
Wells to Keira Defender: Less than ten negatives out of thirty people questioned? In other words, what…eight or nine? What does that tell you?
Keira Defender replies: “I sent along the links and a copy of my letter to some folks and they feel the same way. Those that responded loved my letter. Keira already has a low enough opinion of herself. She doesn’t need people making cruel remarks to help enhance that idea.”
Wells to Keira Defender: Says who? How do you know what opinion she has of herself?
Keira Defender replies: “I read.”
Wells to Keira Defender: You “read”? What, the supermarket tabloids?
Keira Defender replies: “Perhaps it would do you a great deal of good if you were to stop being so cruel and try to be fair and just. If you wish to respond by calling me names or belitting me, don’t bother writing back. I have very easy access to the delete button. I fear no living man. Critique that.” — Erin Hopkins, 23 years old, from “California” (she wouldn’t say what part of California or the name of her town).
“Any chance you will be checking out the work print of Eli Roth’s Hostel in Toronto?
“It’s playing at midnight on the last night of the festival, and I’m dying to hear if it’s any good…or just pure schlock.
“Not sure if you’re familiar with Roth’s Cabin Fever, which made a splash at the festival three years ago. It’s actually nothing special, just a good little horror movie, but Tarantino loves him and exec produced Hostel, I believe.” — Mike Winton.
Wells to Winton: Honestly? Tarantino being a fan and exec producer on this one scares me a bit. That says to me, “Watch it.”
A kilometer to the west of Osgoode, Ontario, roughly a half hour’s drive south of Ottawa.
Rideau canal, south of Ottawa.
Ontario College of Art in downtown Toronto.
Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek in scene from Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust, which didn’t play last week’s Tellruide Film Festival despite whispered expectations.
Campbell House, downtown Toronto.
Also about a kilometer west of Osgoode, Ontario.