Johnny Cash as a cuddly sinner redeemed by love? Why not Bob Dylan as a mixed-up kid looking for pappy? Dylan got Scorsese, luckily, but Cash got stuck with James Mangold and Walk the Line, reverently reductive down to the black crow that opens the saga, pecking at trash just outside of Folsom Prison, 1968. The entire place hums with anticipation, the convicts stamping their feet and slamming their tables, but the Man in Black (Joaquin Phoenix) is in the back, staring at a saw to trigger a flashback, and the first of the inescapable parallels with Ray, last year's ode to another musical legend -- fraternal guilt, an older brother killed in a 1944 accident during his childhood in Arkansas, a gloomy father (Robert Patrick) comparing music to a can's rattling. From there to an Army stint, marriage to first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and failed career as door-to-door salesman, before strumming gospel on a Memphis porch with his buds. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips deems his spiritual singing soporific, so Cash, asked for a musical epitaph, assembles lines scribbled years earlier at his air base and growls out "Folsom Prison Blues." "I shot a man today, just to watch him die" rings out in that gravely baritone, as uniquely black as his pompadour and eyes, and presto, off to the charts, to hang out with fellow rockabillies Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne), Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton) and, most notably, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon).
Last Days pondered Kurt Cobain for the spiritual death of a generation, while Get Rich or Die Tryin' at least had the self-reflexive novelty of palming off 50 Cents' life as "enacted" by the rapper himself. Heartfelt and entirely conventional, Walk the Line proposes a Johnny Cash biopic as sincere karaoke, with the performers incidentally using their own pretty good vocals -- Phoenix's evocation is more performance and less mimicry than Jamie Foxx's nailing of Charles twitches, while Witherspoon locates the nerves of steel and insecurities behind the twang, peepers, chin, and grin, from Grand Ole Opry vaudevillian to earth-mamma nurturer. No less a self-mythologizer (and genius) than Charles, Cash brandished a darker brand of dazzle, and, accordingly, the picture feels meatier yet more sedate, more attuned to Mangold's studies of loners (Heavy, Copland, Girl, Interrupted) than to Taylor Hackford's sizzle. "We are all going to Hell for the songs we're singing," Lewis jokes, and that same night Cash is introduced to drugs and groupies, but his famous spiritual knots here are to be safely soothed by June's love, spunk, and cold-turkey intervention. Unlike other '50s rockabilly artists, Cash's voice, thus his art, was much closer to Thanatos than Eros, suspended between Hades and Heaven, sorrow scratching out of his soul, though, according to the movie, tidily delivered by the end of the last reel, demons calmed, under Carter's protective gaze. Did the filmmakers even hear "The Man Comes Around"? No valentine should be this starched.
A less crowd-pleasing venture, Paradise Now is a tenser and much more interesting view of troubled souls dealing with the world around them. Guitar-pickin' gives way to terrorism, and director Hany Abu-Hassad gets inside the psyches of his young main characters (Kais Nashef and Ali Suliman) while Mangold simply polishes Cash's aura. The setting is Nablus, occupied by the Israeli army and teeming with Palestinian rebels; the medium-shot introducing the two childhood friends (mechanics at a repair shop, arguing with a customer over a crooked license plate) suggests volatile simmering, a boiling pot in the foreground spilling over, but the filmmaker keeps the thorny issues under control, calm bellying tensions. Nashef and Suliman share a smoke in a hill overlooking the town, an explosion is heard, though the perfunctory mild alarm signals this isn't uncommon. Then they learn they've been chosen for a martyr-assignment, one day before sneaking into Tel Aviv with bombs strapped to their torsos. "Whoever fights for freedom can also die for it," so "let me be a martyr," rallies Suliman to his comrades' camera, Uzi in hand, until Abu-Hassad injects an absurdist-humanist touch by jamming the camera, after which the terrorist-to-be remembers to tell his mom to buy groceries. (Such tapes, we later on learn, are a hot item at photo studios that double as video stores.) Shaved and shorn, the two venture across the green line, explosives under their "wedding suits."
The journey is interrupted before it even starts, separating the guys so Nashef, the more grimly determined of the duo, can wander off and experience doubt and fear, still literally a walking bomb. Suliman scrambles through Nablus looking for him, but it's comely human-rights activist Lubna Azabal who ponders alternatives to violence, revolt other than detonations as "God's will." Indeed, celestial salvation is promised the two ("And after that?" "Two angels will pick you up"), yet it is a specifically male humiliation that fuels their journey, in both occasions related to fathers (Nashef's was an executed collaborator, Suliman's an emasculated citizen) and to a supposedly transcendental sense of sacrifice. Azabal herself is the daughter of a much-admired fallen warrior, though she's here as a pacifist voice, arguing that suicide bombings will only make things worse, while Nashef, in an unbroken take, monologues about the intertwined notions of oppressor and victim on both sides of the conflict, a speech doused in the unbearable chill of subjugated (and, finally, resigned) anger. More than four decades since Otto Preminger first surveyed the Palestinian condition, and here we are now, scarcely closer to an answer yet with a film to consider the conditions that might lead to such appalling acts of revolt. Paradise Now deserves praise, even if Abu-Hassad is careful enough to offer ambiguity rather than statements -- not to roll out any spoilers, but the mere fact that there are two protagonists allows the picture the save-ass option of multiple answers.
All right, one paragraph for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Chapter four in the boy-wizard franchise, and still no good scenes, interesting characters, or true imagination: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Hogwarts chums Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) well into puberty, though no facial hair or threesomes yet. Rather, we get plastic emotions and merciless CGI as rival schools compete for the Triwizard Tournament, Harry and other European apprentices diving for bodies and running through mazes. Ralph Fiennes shows up in a graveyard, latex stretched over his visage to turn him noseless, as Lord Voldemort, which somehow makes it okay for the reviewers to call this installment the "dark" one, arguably the same ones who thought that Batman Begins reflected the dread of the universe. To be fair, The Prisoner of Azkaban wasn't really that bad, possibly because Alfonso Cuarón, the director, unified the infantile elements into sinuous cinematic movement. Goblet of Fire abounds in dreams, balls, dragons, visions, underwater detours and budding sexuality, yet Mike Newell stages everything somewhere between James Ivory and Peter Weir; imagine Gilliam cutting loose with this material, or Boorman, Argento, Neil Jordan. What's left to do but watch the brigade of sly British pros (Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Richman, Robbie Coltrane, Miranda Richardson, Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall) entertain themselves through sheer skill? For real magic, go watch the The Passenger reissue, or Sarah Silverman.
Reviewed November 24, 2005.