Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / *** (PG)

Lucy: Georgie Henley
Edmund: Skandar Keynes
Peter: William Moseley
Susan: Anna Popplewell
The White Witch: Tilda Swinton
Mr. Tumnus, the Faun: James McAvoy
Prof. Kirke: Jim Broadbent

And featuring the voice talents of:
Aslan: Liam Neeson
Mr. Beaver: Ray Winstone
Mrs. Beaver: Dawn French
Mr. Fox: Rupert Everett
Maugrim: Michael Madsen

Buena Vista presents a film directed by Andrew Adamson. Screenplay by Ann Peacock, Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on the novel by C.S. Lewis. Running time 139 min. Rated PG (for battle sequences and frightening moments).

C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia is a play on the fantasies of children. Lewis used his series of fantasy books to progress Christian ideals into a tale children would want to visit and return to again, and in the process he created a mythology, much like his friend and fellow Oxford alumnus J.R.R. Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings, that became a lasting fascination in British literature. In this, the first live action version of the second book in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, audiences will find a world just a fleshed out and magnificent as the recent Lord of the Rings film trilogy and much more grown up and frightening than the children’s book upon which it is based.

LW2 (as it has become known on the web and is much easier to type out) tells the story of four siblings – two girls, Susan (Anna Popplewell, Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Lucy (new comer Georgie Henley), and two boys, Peter (William Moseley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) – who are separated from their parents due to World War II. They are sent to the stuffy mansion of a Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) under the care of the cold Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne, The Frighteners). In this kid unfriendly environment the children are left to their own devices when it comes to being kids and eventually a game of hide and seek leads the youngest, Lucy, to a wardrobe that hides in it the doorway to another world.

The world on the other side of the wardrobe is a land called Narnia. It has been cast into an everlasting winter by the White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton, Constantine). Jadis has falsely claimed the throne as Queen of Narnia, and her tactics of terror keep her in power over the woodland creatures that populate Narnia. Lucy is lucky to stumble upon Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy, Wimbledon), a Faun – half human, half goat – who helps her escape detection from the White Witch to his own peril. When Edmund follows Lucy into the wardrobe, however, Jadis is the first being he meets. She convinces Edmund to bring his siblings to her, and when all four children enter Narnia they learn of a prophecy, which foretold their coming and states that their fate and Narnia’s are intrinsically intertwined. When it is learned that the great lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) is on the move again, the children must choose a side.

Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) is certainly a student of the Peter Jackson School of Glorious Realizations of Fantastical Lands through Digital Effects and Grandiose Natural Settings. His Narnia could come directly out of Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth in the Rings trilogy. Narnia is not quite so gloomy as that world, but it is no coincidence that Jackson’s Weta effects and costume shops were responsible for much of the look and atmosphere of the film. Narnia is world of talking beavers and centaurs (half man, half horse creatures) more so than the trolls and orcs of Tolkien’s world, but many of the latter do slip in to Lewis’s as well. This gives Narnia a much more severe and dark delivery than it has ever received before, something a little heavier than Lewis’s young people’s literature naturally suggests.

Much has been made of Narnia’s religious allegory nature, which is obvious to people who know anything about C.S. Lewis. Aslan’s Christ-like sacrifices for his people and subsequent resurrection and Edmund’s Judas figure betrayal of his loved ones are fairly thinly veiled, but nothing is so blatant as to overshadow what is really a children’s fantasy. This is as it was in Lewis’s book and is presented here with no greater emphasis on the Christian themes, but they are there for those who want to look.

What stuck me the most about this adaptation of LW2 is how much more adult it seems than the story I remember reading as a child. Since the adaptation is fairly faithful to the original material, I am tempted to think this has more to do with the fact that I am no longer a child than the material itself being changed. Adamson has said that he took liberties with the final battle in the film, which takes up twenty minutes of the film. He stated that Lewis only devoted about a sentence to it in his book, which is more of an exaggeration than his film’s version of that battle actually is, but he does allow much of the brutality of war show in this depiction of the battle. This could be a little harsh for younger viewers.

Whatever the maturity level this film is aimed toward, it is a good movie. It retains both the details and adventure of its source material and tells a good story for people who may not be initiated into the world of C.S. Lewis. It doesn’t present something quite so epic or far reaching as The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps that is the difference between Tolkien and Lewis right there. Lewis was trying for something simpler and perhaps more accessible. His work was inspired by a more personal attempt to deal with World War II; Tolkien was a little more interested in the nature of man and his place in the world as a whole. The Lord of the Rings rose to the level necessary to tell that story, the same is true of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Lords of Dogtown / *** (UR)

Jay Adams: Emile Hirsch
Tony Alva: Victor Rasuk
Stacy Peralta: John Robinson
Sid: Michael Angarano
Kathy Alva: Nikki Reed
Skip Engblom: Heath Ledger
Philaine: Rebecca De Mornay
Topper Burks: Johnny Knoxville

TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Stacy Peralta. Running time: 107 min. Unrated director’s cut, originally rated PG-13 (for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior, all involving teens).

To be honest, I was never any good at skateboarding. But when the 80’s skate craze, born of the stars of professional boarding known as the “Bones Brigade”, hit Topsham, Maine; I was there with my entire non-in-crowd clique. I had the “rat tail” hair cut and went to the local bike shop, with its corner dedicated to capitalizing on the skate punk craze, to pick up my first wide board. I was torn between that cool squiggle of the Alva boards that I can only assume is Tony Alva’s actual signature of his last name, and the pure alien sounding nature to the Powell-Peralta boards. I eventually went with Powell-Peralta for my first board, but when I landed a sad ramp launch in just the right way to snap that board in half about a year later, I went back an got the most badass Alva model I could find.

Lords of Dogtown tells the story of skateboarding’s rise from just a novelty sport to the father of the X-games sport that it is known as today. It concentrates on the three inaugural stars of skateboarding in the seventies: Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta. Beginning when the three future stars were merely wanna be surfers for the Zepher board shop team in Venice, California. The reckless nature of this particular youth culture is evidenced immediately as we are introduced to these characters and the supporting cast as they attempt to surf the choice waves under the Venice Beach Pier, where the obstacles can be deadly.

When the season is against the waves weather-wise, the reckless nature of these kids is not abated. Street skating is their escape when the waves are down, and they are always searching for ways to make skating more like surfing. The key to this trick is the invention of the polyurethane wheels which allow the boards to grip the concrete so they can carve back and forth just as they do on the waves. These kids are skilled enough in their practices that it takes no time for them to develop a new style of skateboarding based on surfing and soon Zepher shop owner and Guru Skip Engblom is putting together a team for competition. As they gain notoriety for their revolutionary style of skating, they become known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown.

Dogtown is not in the greatest economic condition and as such these children come from a harsher climate of life than most think about when they think of Southern California. Adams (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) seems to struggle the most without a father and with a mother who either did one too many hits of acid in the sixties or just stopped maturing at the age of twelve. Alva (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas) has a strained relationship with his father, who would like his son to aspire to something that could get him out of the slums. Peralta (John Robinson, Elephant) is the only one of the team who has a job, and Skip gives him a hard time about being “one of us,” even denying him a spot on the team until he wins the first skate competition as an individual, not on the Zepher team. Engblom doesn’t let Peralta go home that evening without an invitation to be on the team.

The Z-Boys live with a constant need to push the limits of life. It reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders in the way these kids try to breathe in life through reckless abandon. Be it partying too hard for their own good, exploring drugs and sex at ages that would frighten any parent into finally sitting down with their kids to discuss the drug and sex issues, or just looking for the perfect carve. While all of these avenues are explored in detail in this film, it is that final category that leads the Zepher team to invent the practice of skating a drained swimming pool during a summer drought that leave many of the area’s private swimming pools unused. It is in this final category where the film also finds its greatest moments with some skating sequences as good as any of those old Bones Brigade videos that I used to watch with my skating crew and dream of a life being paid only to skate.

Another area where Lords of Dogtown excels is in its casting. The three leads; Hirsch, Rasuk and Robinson; come off of some rousing independent efforts, and director Catherine Hardwicke does a wonderful job carrying that independent flavor over to a more mainstream picture here with her actors’ cut-from-life portrayal of their characters. Hardwicke does an even better job pulling career transformative portrayals from a couple of her supporting cast members, Heath Ledger and Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) is nearly unrecognizable as Adams’s tripped-out mother, Philaine. And Ledger (The Brothers Grimm) proves that if Oliver Stone filmed The Doors today he would have a perfect replacement for Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. The film is as much about the downfall of Ledger’s character, Skip Engblom, as it is the Z three; and I think it is a glimpse of what Morrison might have been if he hadn’t become a world famous rock star.

Hardwicke also delivers that raw nature of independent film to her directing style, which tells the story in the chaotic nature that reflects the lives these people led. Hardwicke, a former production designer, is coming off rave reviews from her first directing effort Thirteen. Lords of Dogtown is a less significant story than that teen drama, but proves her strength in empathizing with and capturing the realities of youth culture.

Screenwriter Stacy Peralta also comes off of critical successes as a sports documentarian, including his own documentary on this same material Dogtown and the Z-Boys. For his first dramatized script he shows a good ability to capture naturalistic dialogue, although his structure favors the documentary format and he over-sentimentalizes the conclusion of the story, which involves a fourth Z-Boy, Sid (Michael Angarano, Sky High), who succumbs to cancer.

Unfortunately for Lords of Dogtown its audience appeal is probably fairly narrow. I’m not sure how much people who aren’t into extreme sports are going to care about these characters, or even how their lives are changed by their unlikely fame. But for those who are into skateboarding and youth culture, this story holds many intriguing moments and a good deal of gnarly skating footage. For the true disciples of the sport, the film is peppered with cameo appearances of the sport’s legends, including all three of the Z three featured. Peralta in particular provides the source of his signature headband look as the director of the Charlie’s Angels episode in which he apeared at the height of his fame that suggested it to keep the hair out of his face. But my favorite cameo was by boarding giant Tony Hawk as an astronaut who shows negative ability on a board.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

King Kong / **** (PG-13)

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschman
Preston: Colin HanksJimmy: Jamie Bell
Hayes: Evan Parke
Bruce Baxter: Kyle Chandler
Lumpy: Andy SerkisKong: Andy Serkis

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson. Based on the original film story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Running time: 187 min. Rated PG-13 (for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images).

I’ve been reading books about 70’s cinema lately, what many critics call the last great decade in Hollywood filmmaking. It was the age of the auteur, when studios allowed directors free reign to make the films they wanted to make, the way they wanted to make them. Many great directors were cultivated during that decade when the box office and the art house became one, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Terrance Malick. Since then the auteur director has had to rely on independent film companies to get their films made and most of the great auteurs of the 70’s have either died, become studio suits themselves, or simply faded away. It seems only Spielberg and Malick are still making movies the way they want to anymore. Even George Lucas is making films more for his fan base now than for himself. With King Kong Peter Jackson may just prove to be the first great director to rise up through the studio system since that memorable decade.

Jackson, fresh off the ultra successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, says the original 1933 King Kong inspired him to become a film director when he saw it for the first time at the age of nine. I myself held a similar passion for the material. I remember one fall day in particular in which I kept excusing myself from yard clean up duty with my father to sneak in and watch it every two minutes. I would even reenact the entire Skull Island sequence in the woods with friends, each taking our turns getting shook off some fallen log in the woods by our imaginary Kong.

Jackson’s own love for the material shines through in every frame of this loving remake. He and fellow Rings scribes Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have a great deal of fun paying homage to the original Kong by interweaving lines of dialogue from that screenplay by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace into various scenes that play up their corny nature, including using some for dialogue in the movie within the movie. There is even a scene where Jack Black’s movie producer/director makes a reference to that original King Kong production when he asks if he can get Kong star Fay Wray to be in his latest jungle adventure. His assistant tells him Wray just started a picture for RKO. “Cooper must have got her,” he responds.

The filmmakers also have a good deal of fun playing with the notion that in the original Kong Fay Wray’s love interest is a typical male bravado-driven sailor character named Jack Driscoll. In the new version Ann Darrow (the Wray character) is first taken aback by the rugged nature of the captain of the Venture, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschman, Downfall); this is a scene where some of those original lines are exchanged. Later Ann mistakes the more intelligent looking sound engineer for Driscoll, making for an embarrassing Meet Cute with the real Driscoll. But Adrien Brody’s (The Pianist) Driscoll in this Kong is a hero of a quite different nature, a man who understands more about the inner workings of human nature and love than his way around a gun or a ship.

The film opens in a gloriously reproduced 1933 Manhattan, where producer/director Carl Denham (Black, School of Rock) is about to have the plug pulled on his latest film by the studio. In his own typical brash nature, Denham steals the existing reels of his pictures and rushes the launch of a sea voyage to a location shoot. He has told everyone on his crew that they will be filming in Singapore, when in reality he has obtained a map to an uncharted island where he plans to film its discovery. To incorporate this discovery into his latest jungle adventure film he has enlisted the gifted New York playwright Jack Driscoll to pen his screenplay. But Driscoll has no plans to sail with Denham to continue writing the script on location, and in a scene that wonderfully illustrates and foreshadows the cutthroat lengths to which Denham is willing to go to get the film he wants Black gets his chance to chew the scenery as only he can.

Denham is also short a leading lady since his actress has bailed on him and Wray is not available; but in Ann Darrow, an out of work vaudeville performer, he finds his perfect damsel in distress, and more importantly the costumes will fit her. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.) seems perhaps an over qualified actress to play the wide eyed starlet, but she brings a depth of character that plays heavily into the Beauty and the Beast nature of the King Kong myth.

The film has a fairly light tone, save for a few ominous glances from the crew of the Venture when they discover their true destination, until the ship wrecks on the rocky shores of the aptly named Skull Island. When the film crew lands on the island itself to begin filming things go from bad to worse, and suddenly the movie becomes more than your average adventure flick. The people they find inhabiting the island are savage and feral, we will learn this is the rule of Skull Island. They are like some sort of Lord of the Rings beasts, but with human faces; and they desire Ann for sacrifice to the giant ape Kong.

The middle section of the film takes its audience on a fantastical adventure through the island as the film and ship’s crew chases the giant ape in a rescue attempt. The inhabitants of the island are obviously what captured Jackson’s imagination in the original, as it did with most fans with its stop motion animation of dinosaurs great and greater. With the technological advances of CGI made by Jackson’s own Weta Digital and grandiose sets from Weta Workshop, the dinosaurs and other giant beasts become the greatest yet. With action sequences that span from a ten dinosaur pile up to one of the nastiest death scenes ever awarded an actor for Andy Serkis’s Lumpy the cook, probably given in appreciation for being the acting model behind Kong here and Golem in The Lord of the Rings, to the strangest high flying fight ever seen between Kong and no less than three T-Rexes; there is no doubt Jackson’s imagination had even Spielberg saying, “Well, I never would have thought of that one.”

But what really makes this film work it the solid relationship built between Watt’s Darrow and Serkis’s Kong. No longer is Kong just some giant perverted ape obsessed with a scantily clad human female. Kong is given a back story here as the last of his kind; and Darrow makes a genuine empathetic connection with the beast. This relationship serves to strengthen the final act of the film, when Denham captures the ape and brings him to back to New York as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” attraction, so it no longer plays merely as a spectacle of a B-movie monster destroying well-known landmarks of the Big Apple. There is true sorrow to be found in Kong’s fate, as well as the fate of the human characters in the film and when Black utters the final words of dialogue (the very same ones as in the original), “It was beauty killed the beast,” there is a depth to them that goes beyond the clever play on Kong’s obsession with the blonde heroine.

I can imagine some people might feel Jackson goes too far with some of the spectacle sequences (mostly on Skull Island), but the film itself is sparked from spectacle. It is an adventure of pure fantasy, stemming from a fairly absurd premise. Even in 1933 the idea that an island containing all these prehistoric beast remaining undiscovered is outlandish to say the least. It is a tale for a Saturday afternoon monster feature program, but Jackson uses all his resources of story telling to both pay homage to the original production and turn it into something beyond Merian C. Cooper’s original. Jackson’s Kong is like a forest grown up from the single sapling planted by Cooper at the dawn of cinema. It is a feast of cinema that embraces the escapist entertainment and emotional expedition which only the medium of film can give.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Yesterday/ **** (R)

Yesterday: Leleti Khumalo
Beauty: Lihle Mvelase
Teacher: Harriet Lenabe
Doctor: Camilla Walker
Husband: Kenneth Khambula

HBO Films presents a film written and directed by Darrell James Roodt. Running time: 96 min. Rated R (for pervasive strong violence).

Yesterday is one of those films that inspires critics to write proclamations about it like, “a celebration of life” and “a beautiful, touching human experience”; and while those phrases obviously do come to mind (since I wrote them here for you to read); such clich├ęs are really beneath a film this delicate and beautiful. Yesterday also has the distinction of being the first ever Zulu language film to be nominated or even submitted for the Foriegn Language Academy Award, and while this is also notable enough for me to mention in the first paragraph of my review of it, it is also something that loses its importance under the pleasure of viewing the film itself.

Yesterday tells the story of a mother and daughter. The mother is named Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, Sarafina!), the daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase). They live in the small village of Rooihoek in South Africa’s Zululand. Yesterday’s husband (Kenneth Khambula, I Dreamed of Africa) is a mine worker in Johannesburg and lives away from home most of the time.

Life in Rooihoek is hard for these families without fathers (most of the men work in the mines). It is harder for outsiders in the village. Yesterday was an outsider before her marriage and it took many years for her to be accepted as one of the townspeople. Yesterday befriends a teacher (Harriet Lenabe, Hotel Rwanda) who comes to the town looking for work and finds an opening. Beauty is a year away from being old enough for school, and Yesterday is very excited for her daughter for the opportunity to go to school she never had herself.

Yesterday falls ill and must go to see a doctor in a town that is over a two hour walk away. When she arrives, the line to see the sole doctor is long; and she is turned away until the following Tuesday, when the doctor will return. It takes several weeks before Yesterday can see the doctor (Camilla Walker), who eventually informs her of the disease she suffers from. I am reluctant to reveal what is wrong with Yesterday, as then it becomes yet another notable facet of the film that distracts from its simple beauty. Yesterday’s illness is very important to the film and what it is about, but I will leave that to the viewer to discover.

What impressed me first about this important work were the beautiful landscapes in this harsh African wilderness. The Dark Continent is often depicted as a dirty, restrictive place, where life is oppressive and there is little joy. The world shown here by director Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!, Cry, the Beloved Country) is one that is full of beauty and has a complete spectrum of life’s emotion. The photography and lighting by cinematographer Michael Brierley (Second Skin) captures a beauty that feeds the meaning and emotional power behind the story, yet still shows what a beautiful world it is in which these people live their lives of triumph and tragedy.

Yesterday finds herself in between two worlds. One that holds modern disease and medicine, and the industry in which her husband must make their living; and that of the village where witch doctors still practice the healing of its own, and any nonconformity is viewed as an affront against the community. Through all this Yesterday keeps her chin up with a lofty spirit. She lives only for her daughter and Beauty’s entrance into school becomes a goal for Yesterday to live for. Even her husband offers her no empathy; but when he needs her, she is there. Yesterday gives to all in her life the strength of all that she feels came before her, and so she is a hero beyond aspirations.

It is hard to write of this film and not take an exalted tone, but that is really where a film of Yesterday’s simple power belongs. It never received a true theatrical release in this country, only appearing at a scattering of film festivals, and premieres this month on HBO. An early 2006 DVD release is planned; and it is a film that should not be missed.

Once again the MPAA ratings board has pulled an atrocious play on nonsensical judgment with award of an R rating for this picture. Not only is the rating abusive to the gentle and educational nature of the film, but their reasoning behind it makes less sense than any they have ever cited before. I feel ashamed even reporting it. “For pervasive strong violence.” There is a scene of domestic violence in the film. One scene. Less than a minute in length. And the violence is actually obscured by the setting, it occurs off screen essentially. Very tastefully done. I have no clue of where they culled the descriptor “pervasive”. Aghast am I.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Walk the Line / ***½ (PG-13)

John R. Cash: Joaquin Phoenix
June Carter: Reese Witherspoon
Vivian Cash: Ginnifer Goodwin
Ray Cash: Robert Patrick
Sam Phillips: Dallas Roberts
Luther Perkins: Dan John Miller
Marshall Grant: Larry Bagby
Carrie Cash: Shelby Lynne
Elvis Presley: Tyler Hilton
Jerry Lee Lewis: Waylon Malloy Payne
Waylon Jennings: Shooter Jennings

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by James Mangold. Written by Gill Dennis and Mangold. Based on Man In Black and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash. Running time: 135 min. Rated PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency).

Early on in the Johnny Cash musical biopic Walk the Line we see a young boy looking up to a radio, listening to the 10 year-old June Carter, as if this device were some doorway to gain entrance into Valhalla. This boy is J.R. Cash, who will grow into the country folk legend who recorded an album live in Folsom Prison. His father yells at him to shut that noise box off, or some such sentiment, and the kid has no reaction what so ever. After he is yelled at two or three more times, his brother Jack, “the good one”, pleads with him to shut it off before their father comes in the room. J.R. relents for his good natured brother and the course of his life is set, at least up till that famous concert.

The film opens just moments before that famous concert with Cash staring at a table saw blade. It is really no surprise when the film then flashbacks to his childhood that his brother will meet an untimely end involving such an instrument, but that incident of his brother’s death marks Cash for life and provides him with both a self loathing and a drive to become something better. Their father, played with frightening severity by Robert Patrick (Copland), clearly favored the older brother and harbors much resentment toward J.R. that he survived, while his good son died.

The film barely mentions Cash’s service in the military as the place where he first develops his own musical talent, and after his service he never seems more out of place than as a family man trying to drum up a living as a door-to-door salesman. This is where Joaquin Phoenix’s (Gladiator) performance as the Man in Black first begins to emerge as the greatest yet of this fine actor’s already impressive resume. It is role built for a glorious performance, embodying an icon and revered artist, who is a hero but has descended to the depths of the human soul to become the great man people recognize. In that sense Phoenix has it made, but Phoenix grounds the role solidly in that “Man in Black” persona. He makes no excuses for the bastard Cash was most of the time; and unlike last year’s big musical biopic Ray, writer/director James Mangold (Identity) and co-writer Gill Dennis (Without Evidence) don’t try to forgive the character his demons, because his struggle with the vices of fame and fortune are not really what this movie is about.

After seeing the film my wife asked me why they didn’t title the movie Ring of Fire; perhaps Cash’s most popular work and one that figures into his romance with June Carter, who also wrote the lyrics. While those “Ring of Fire” lyrics could be said to fit his life of living hard and abusing drugs; the lyrics of the Cash penned song “I Walk the Line” are much more fitting to the film’s true subject, which is that awkward romance between Cash and Carter.

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the ties that bind
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

Although Cash wrote this song long before he finally won Carter’s hand, it seems, in the light of this film, this song could only have been written about her.

Carter is just about the perfect role for Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde), whose warm heart, intelligence, and good nature become the object of Cash’s obsession and the guiding light of both Cash’s life and this film. Witherspoon has the spunk necessary to allow the audience to understand how she could have toured along with the adolescent personalities of a group of performers that included Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison (although you never see Orbison partaking in the party nature of the other kids). God! What anyone today wouldn’t give to have seen that tour.

While all the drinking, drugs and general bad behavior of the rock star scene here is breaking no new ground (although even that part is solidly told), it is the unconventional romance between Carter and Cash that makes this film unique. As I said before, no apologies are made for Cash’s proclivities, which make it hard to find romantic appeal in the character, for both the audience and the character of June Carter. But it is that same good-heartedness of Carter’s that Cash has strived for his entire life trying to live up to his dead brother’s image, which makes it possible to believe that Carter truly sees the good in this man or can love him despite his darker natures. It is these contrasting personalities and their unlikely effectiveness together that Phoenix and Witherspoon so adeptly tap into in a way it is hard to imagine from any other pairing, which drives this romance to its happy conclusion on stage in Toronto when Cash’s proposal is finally accepted by Carter.

But I cannot let another important element of Phoenix and Witherspoon’s portrayals of this famous couple go unnoticed. These actors, along with finding unique attraction of personalities, perform their own vocals impeccably in this music heavy drama. It is striking how much these two sound like these wonderful singers. Even as the credits roll and we hear an original recording of Cash and Carter, only an owl’s ear can distinguish the difference between theirs and the actors’ voices.

It is truly surprising to me that the filmmakers actually pulled off the feat of this strange romance. I don’t remember disliking a character’s action in a film as much as I did Cash’s, especially in contrast to Carter’s, and still wanted these two lovers to end up together so much. Perhaps the fact that I knew they did, and that even their latter days were the stuff of story books (he died only four months after she did in 2003), had me on their side to begin with. But much credit goes to the performers who make these icons so down to earth and the movie seems less like a heightened reality and more like some couple’s true life meet cute… without the cute.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire / ***½ (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Alastor Moody: Brendan Gleeson
Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Cedric: Robert Pattinson
Viktor Krum: Stanislav Ianevski
Fleur Delacour: Clemence Poesy
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Mike Newell. Written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 157 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images).

The Harry Potter film series has truly entered the realm of the serial series. The magical world of wizards and giants and trolls and dragons has become a place audiences return to every year and a half to see old friends, meet new people and face ever growing challenges. We return to watch Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, grow from children through adolescence into adulthood, eventually. And we come back to learn the destiny of Harry, whose fate becomes increasingly more intertwined with the mysterious evil wizard who is responsible for his parents’ deaths, Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth film based on the popular adolescent book series by J.K. Rowling depicting the fantasy world where those with the gift of magic are schooled from childhood at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As the series has progressed it has matured from a child’s fantasy to something a little more in depth, a little more intense, a little more meaningful. As the first film in the series to receive a PG-13 rating from the MPAA ratings board, Goblet of Fire gives us the darkest and most intense Harry Potter yet.

The movie opens in the summer before Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts at the Quidditch World Cup. Explaining what Quidditch is would take too long and proves my point about how involved the viewers of the Harry Potter films must be by this point. The ceremonies are interrupted by an attack organized by the followers of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who has spent years reconstituting himself after a spell intended to kill the infant Potter backfired. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is fifteen as he begins his fourth year at Hogwarts, not yet old enough to participate in the inter-wizard school competition the Triwizard Tournament. Somehow, however, his name ends up in the drawing of contestants and he must participate in the series of challenges set forth to him and his three elder piers, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) and Fleur Delacour (Clemence Posey). Harry is given pointers on how to survive these trials, which include facing a full grown dragon, by the school’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson).

As with each of the previous Harry Potter sequels Goblet of Fire introduces a few new teachers, villains and friends. The most notable of this episode’s cast additions are the introductions of Mad Eye Moody and the often talked of but as yet unseen (until now) Voldemort. The casting of Brendan Gleeson (Kingdom of Heaven) and Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardner) continues the producers’ string of perfect casting choices for the series. Gleeson, always a brutish hulk, has a warmth to him that makes you want to trust him as someone to take Harry under his wing; but he also carries an instability to his presence that sells the “mad” of his nickname (the “eye” he gets from the makeup department, with plenty of quease) and makes you question whether his intentions for Harry are pure. Fiennes has touched upon his darker tendencies before this turn as Voldemort, which carries some echoes of his performance as a serial killer in the most recent adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Fiennes seems to be drawn to roles in which he appears to have no face. Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow), however, is wasted in her role as the witch tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter, whose role in the story is cut down considerably from the book.

One of the most wonderful things to observe with the Harry Potter films is the growing maturity of the three main characters; Harry, Hermione and Ron. These are kids who age like real kids despite their fantasy environment. Harry is dealing with a crush along with the pressures of the Triwizard Tournament. Ron feels betrayed by Harry’s inclusion in the tournament along with living in denial about his feelings for Hermione. Hermione also harbors feeling for Ron, but finds herself crushing on Viktor Krum. It’s high school soap operatics all over again.

As the characters have matured only a bit through their growing pains in the third installment, the direction by Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile) has come much further back to earth. Although I greatly enjoyed the raw directorial style of Alfonso Cuaron for Prisoner of Azkaban, Newell’s toned down style serves the action well in Goblet of Fire. The adaptation, while necessarily cutting heavily from the book, comes across as a solid treatment that doesn’t hint at missing pieces like the third installment did.

The greatest drawback of this fourth picture in the series is the loss of John Williams as the score composer. Patrick Doyle’s (Secondhand Lions) score lacks the adventurous spirit of Williams’ work. Even when Doyle works Williams’ established Harry Potter themes into his composition, they lack strength. Doyle so far has scored mostly stuffy British society flicks, and was a poor choice to take over for Williams in my opinion. Harry Potter demands a dramatic composer accustomed to the action genre, preferably with the opera based techniques that Williams incorporates into his work. Alan Silvestri would have been my choice, but hopefully Williams bowed out because he was booked with four other scores to compose this year, all big budget releases, and will return for the next Potter.

Harry Potter has become as much of an adventure for the audience by this time as it has for the characters in it. Unfortunately for those who haven’t been in on it from the beginning, you’ve missed the boat; but you can always go back and watch the series from the first film (which admittedly loses a great deal on a small screen). But as one who didn’t miss the boat, this reviewer can’t wait until the summer of 2007 to visit with his friends at Hogwarts for another, even darker adventure. I can only hope that the absence of screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) will not have as noticeable an impact on the material as Williams’ nonattendance this time around.