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"Walk the Line"

Directed by James Mangold ("Copland", "Identity").
Written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold.  Based on the autobiography of Johnny Cash.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Patrick.
Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  12/03/05


I couldn't name a single Johnny Cash song and I really dislike ("hate" would be a bit too strong) Reese Witherspoon, but I have to admit that the new film "Walk the Line" is quality stuff.  Not blazin' a trail quality stuff--the film runs the familiar rags-to-riches-to-drugs-to-redemption sequence to perfection--but it's still a great time at the movies, and in a year where few films have been great but many have been good, "Walk the Line" might get the call come Oscar time, certainly for its performers if not for the overall product.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Cash, from the age of about 20 onward, and we ride his life from his upbringing in Arkansas under a father (Robert Patrick, in the thankless oppressor role) that treats him rough through his time in the armed services--behind a desk--and then on the beginnings of a music career that spanned what seems like a forever.  Along the way, he does tours with little-known performers like Elvis Presley (Tyler Hilton), Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and June Carter (Witherspoon), a woman that he clicks with right away.  Sure, he's married and he's got a couple of kids, but as we all know--because the movies tell us so--it's tough being on the road as a married man, what with all of those pretty girls throwing themselves at add that into the equation, and you've got a whole lot of drama (or "Ray", depending on your point of view).

Obviously, once we establish the Cash talent, we focus more on the rocky struggle between June and Johnny, especially his drug addiction, that (very) brief stint in jail, more touring, more redemption, more blah blah blah.  Eventually, we get to that point where Johnny finally figures it all out, and we get the predictable end game.

You're right--I didn't like that last half-hour, and I never like the point where I must watch the famous star lead delve into those few months or years where they have to find themselves through losing all their cash or doing crack every morning or going through the rough divorce...sure, it happened in real life, but it always takes something away from the cool ride we experience in the setup of the story.  This is the result of seeing a couple hundred movies a year, but it's also the problem with these rise-fall-start-to-rise biopics:  why not make a movie where we get just the first few years where everything is going well?  No one has EVER tried it!

But, everything up to that point about "Walk the Line" is stellar, and it has to start with the two lead performances.  Phoenix has been great before (and should have won the Oscar he was nominated for in "Gladiator") but he has never been this good, from capturing Cash's passion to the subtle disappointments he shows whenever he is jilted by June to the thousand-yard stare he gives us whenever he wakes up from another rough night.  You should know that I don't know Johnny Cash from Bo Diddly, so I have no idea if he captures what most people know of Cash; that doesn't matter when the movie starts, because as a movie character, the performance is flat-out cool.  And, to know that both he and Witherspoon did all of their own singing for this role (my buddy Chi didn't believe it until they showed it to us in the credits) only adds to the legend.  He's a shoo-in for a nod this year as well.

I think it was Witherspoon that surprised me most, though; normally, I am reaching for the switchblade whenever she is onscreen, as this is mostly due to her choices for films (God-awful only begins to sum up "Sweet Home Alabama", "Vanity Fair" and "Legally Blonde").  I originally thought that Witherspoon was going to be something special after doing "Election" and "American Psycho"; since then, she normally takes the big check for the shitty film, so maybe doing "Walk the Line" will remind her that it's nice to do something of quality every so often.  Of course, maybe she's doesn't care, but she sure seems to care in this film, her best work since "Election."

The music is great--I actually envisioned buying the soundtrack for this film after seeing it--and director James Mangold gives us plenty of Cash's songs from the late 50s and 60s, plus a number of sequences during Cash's touring shows once he finally divorced the wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) that he had neglected for so long.  The support is great; there's even a few good laughs sprinkled throughout.  The film does get long in the tooth late (and drags, as mentioned above), but does have a cool scene near the end where Cash plays at Folsom Prison in '68 for a live album recording that is one of the film's best sequences.

Good stuff.  We'll see how this plays out come awards time.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09