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Sunday, November 27, 2005


Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Directed by James Mangold

It's the rare bio-pic that succeeds in breaking away from the standard formula of "child suffers adversity, rises from obscurity to become famous, turns into a jerk, almost self-destructs only to be saved and reborn." I wish I could say Walk the Line," the story of Johnny Cash's early career and relationship with June Carter is such a film, but I can't.

I especially liked Reese Witherspoon who haven't really liked in anything since Election. As the smart and tough Carter, Witherspoon turns in the movie's most convincing performance highlighted by her answer to Cash's marriage proposal on the bus. How rare and refreshing it is to see characters talk the way actual people actually talk.

Also good, as usual, is Joaquin Phoenix as the man in black. Phoenix effectively depicts Cash's extremes, sometimes downright meek, as when he proposes to June on the bus, sometimes strong, as when he tells the suits at Columbia that despite their objections he'll play Folsom State Prison, and sometimes outright violent, as when he goes Chief on the dressing room sink. And damn, if Phoenix doesn't turn his face into Cash's. Shapeshifter?

Robert Patrick is also good as Cash's menacing but ultimately weak father Ray. Tortured by his shortcomings, Ray can't help himself when it comes to putting his son down. Patrick deserves more meaty roles like this one.

James Mangold took few, if any chances.

Yes, Phoenix does a great job capturing elements of Cash's style. But more than that, it's the quality of the songs themselves that shine. It makes you want to listen to the real thing which leads me back to...

...a movie like this comes about when filmmakers don't try to do anything more than is required. In a word, they're lazy. The formula is there, written down in Hollywood's lab book. Add this to this and a little of that, mix it up and pour it out. And when I see bio-pics about someone interesting, I sit there in the dark and wonder why they didn't just make a really good documentary instead. Why, if they knew a story was worth telling, do they then have to superimpose it on a reconstruction that at best will look like a serviceable imitation?

That's just me. I know people like movies like this, but that's part of the problem. It's not just the studios that are lazy. It's the moviegoers, too. Like infants, they like their formula. They know when to be happy and when to be sad before the actors even tell them. This kind of movie is more a ritual than a piece of entertainment. Through its predictability, people find reassurance. Everything is lined up and as you like it. It's frustrating because I don't want films to reassure me. I want them to challenge me. Throw me a bone. At least give me something to think about. Walk The Line didn't. My time would have been better spent listening to some actual Johnny Cash music.


At 12/06/2005 2:03 AM, small WORLD Podcast said...

"...when I see bio-pics about someone interesting, I sit there in the dark and wonder why they didn't just make a really good documentary instead."

Money. Plain and simple. Documentaries are more popular and profitable then they've ever been but they still rake in less doucets than dramas.

On a less cynical note, dramas are very good at putting you in the skin on the main "characters" in a way nearly all documentaries are incapable of. Documentaries by their very nature distance themselves from their subjects even as they attempt to reveal and unveil. It's the curse of "objective" journalism.

Back to a more cynical note, a really, really good documentary would go beyond the limitations of their craft. But then you enter the world of subjective journalism ala Robert Moore who often muddies his discourse with his view point.

In the end, there is no such thing as objective journaism. It's just another intentional stance. The only difference is that objective journalism is less overt than subjective journalism.

Shit. Maybe I should just shut my mouth and go see the goddamn movie.


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