+ "Walk the Line": The consensus seems to be that James Mangold‘s Johnny Cash biopic is good, but not great. There’s near universal acclaim for leads Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (David Denby at the New Yorker says "As I watched Phoenix sling his guitar around and gun it at the audience
in Cash’s shambling style, I couldn’t imagine anyone better suited to
play the role," while Ella Taylor at LA Weekly claims that Witherspoon "brings not just vivacity but a depth and breadth" to the role of June Carter), but not so much for the general direction of the film. David Edelstein at Slate feels that Mangold "gets the big things right," but has the typical biopic arc and gaps; David Denby just generally finds "Walk the Line" to be "a lot less interesting than
it might be": "Can the central lesson of Johnny Cash’s life really be that he was a loser until a good woman shamed him into growing up?" A.O. Scott compares the film to "Ray" (as does almost everyone else) and finds it lacking: "Mr. Hackford structured his
film around Ray Charles’s creative life, inviting us to understand how
he fused various elements of the American musical vernacular into a new
and distinctive sound. While Johnny Cash achieved something comparable,
Mr. Mangold’s film offers more tribute than insight." And Ella Taylor, while generally enjoying the film, finds there’s something a little too pat about the story.
Stephanie Zacharek at Salon, on the other hand, argues that "Walk the Line" may be conventional, but that "its conventionality is part of its power": "This is a democratic and accessible picture." And Roger Ebert of course raves about the film (though he stops short of giving it the full four stars), but says most interesting that he went into the film not knowing that Phoenix and Witherspoon were doing their own vocals:
Knowing Cash’s albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to. The closing credits make it clear it’s Joaquin Phoenix doing the singing, and I was gob-smacked. Phoenix and Mangold can talk all they want about how it was as much a matter of getting in character, of delivering the songs, as it was a matter of voice technique, but whatever it was, it worked. Cash’s voice was "steady like a train, sharp like a razor," said June.
But the massive monetary prize for our favorite review of the week surely goes to the Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, who sounds epically world-weary as he describes "Walk the Line" as a perfectly functional, formula-following movie that leads him to the following prestige-pic-punch-drunk conclusion:
The fact is that neither "Walk the Line" nor the even more tedious "Ray" exerts nearly the fascination of last year’s "Beyond the Sea," an obviously bad movie about a limited performer of minor cultural significance and yet a weirdly compelling psychodrama, allowing director-star Kevin Spacey to match Bobby Darin‘s patented insincerity with his own. In no way obsessive, "Walk the Line" is more sincerelyâ€”which is to say, more boringlyâ€”sincere. It doesn’t leave you with much to think about, except maybe the empty vibrato of effective ventriloquism.
+ "Breakfast on Pluto": What’s oddest about Neil Jordan‘s latest and possibly most bizarre film is the way that both Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir and the New York Times’ Stephen Holden seem to have talked themselves into liking it. We’re not trying to say that it’s impossible to give the film a good review, but Holden’s piece parrots the extensive press notes that came with the film a little closely, and O’Hehir sort of sidesteps much opinion on the film, simply using it to introduce a lengthy interview with Jordan.
It’s hard to blame them, though â€” who doesn’t carry a bit of a torch for Jordan? His films may be all over the place, but they’re never not interesting (well, with the possible exception of "High Spirits," which we’ve never seen but which looks truly awful), and he’s so dedicated to the mechanics of film â€” no seams showing, each film’s rawness seeping in slowly and where you least expect it.
Anyway, the New York Press‘ Matt Zoller Seitz reluctantly calls the film a failure:
It’s all so wide-ranging and eccentric that I really wish it worked.
"Pluto" is the kind of movie that a great director’s fans will be tempted
to overrate. It touches on so many established Jordan elements
(ideologically driven violence, personal and physical transformation,
the hidden sensitivity of brutish men, the coexistence of polite and
impolite society and social outcasts’ instinctive tendency toward
fellowship) that it sometimes feels richer, more precise and more
complete than it really is.
(He also points out one of the great filmmaking truths: "In movies, when a character puts on an animal suit, it’s only a matter of time before he beats somebody up.") Michael Atkinson at the Village Voice is less hesitant in finding flaws:
"Breakfast on Pluto" may be Jordan’s wildest mis-shot yet, so dense with dying fizzle and limp ideas that I began to wonder if Jordan has an evil twin, or if there are in fact several Neil Jordans, among them at least one literate stylist and one humor-handicapped village idiot.
[N]othing prepares you for the malevolent force that is Lord Voldemort and the brilliance of the actor playing him, Ralph Fiennes. Dressed in a flowing black robe that seems to float off his body rather than hang, Mr. Fiennes moves with lissome grace, his smooth white head bobbing like a cork on a sea, his fluttery hands and feet as pale and bright as beacons. For years, the movies have tried to transform this delicate beauty into a heartthrob, but as "Schindler’s List" proved, Mr. Fiennes is an actor for whom a walk on the darker side is not just a pleasure, but liberation. His Voldemort may be the greatest screen performance ever delivered without the benefit of a nose; certainly it’s a performance of sublime villainy.
At the very least, that should merit its own MTV Movie Award category.