Cash in 

Success for 'Walk the Line' and "Pride and Prejudice.'

MAGNETIC: Phoenix and Witherspoon as the Cashes.
  • MAGNETIC: Phoenix and Witherspoon as the Cashes.

While I usually find much to hate about bio-pics — too stiff, too worshipful, too narrow or too broad — I’ve got one to add to the handful that I adore: the new Johnny Cash film biography “Walk the Line.”

The critic’s job, in the end, is to torpedo those hulks that are on their way to the bottom anyway, and to quibble over the brasswork on the rest. But the truth is, there isn’t much to quibble over in “Walk the Line.” Powerful, soulful, full of love and hate and the way our past failures can scoop out our hearts like the guts of a melon if we let them, “Walk the Line” takes Johnny Cash down from the testosterone-reeking shelf where we store the demi-gods of American music and makes him a human being again. There is a lot of misery lurking in the folds of Cash’s black jackets, and we get to see it paraded in front of us, walking up and down his spine and roaring like a lion: drink, drugs, self-loathing, denial, the residue of a crummy childhood and a father who wished him dead. Elvis is for tourists and bobbysoxers. Johnny Cash is the real King, crowned by his demons.

Most of the power of “Walk the Line” is due to the incredible performance of Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix seems to have channeled some of his own grief over dead golden-boy brother River Phoenix into Cash’s struggle with trying to live up to the legacy of his brother Jack Cash, his father’s favorite, killed in a sawmill accident. Though the scenes of Cash learning to be a musician (including chill-inducing moments when we hear the tentative first lines of classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues”) are the gears that drive the film, some of the most powerful are those scenes that focus on Cash and his father Ray (played by the underrated Robert Patrick) — scenes which soon turn into subtle, painful little ballets of pride, anger, love and arrogance.

Mostly, however, “Walk the Line” — like the song it draws its name from — is a love story: that of Johnny Cash and June Carter (later Carter-Cash, as played by Reese Witherspoon), and their attempts at defeating the magnetism that existed between them through marriages, divorces, and 20-odd years of touring together. Though Witherspoon’s singing voice is actually better, for my money, than Carter’s made-for-Branson twang (there I go, quibbling again), the chemistry between her and Phoenix is volcanic — a trait multiplied by a story that sees their love so bottled up, deferred, detoured and denounced. Like all great movie loves, Phoenix and Witherspoon make you believe it, especially in those moments when the characters tell themselves they don’t. Though Cash’s first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) is rendered as something of a brittle shrew for the sake of the audience forgiving Cash and Carter their pre-divorce dalliances, that’s the only chink in the romantic armor of “Walk the Line,” which handily got me a little misty-eyed at all the right moments — especially those scenes in which Carter follows Cash down to the door of withdrawal hell as he tries to kick the uppers he had been using for years.

In the end, “Walk the Line” might be the perfect bio-pic, and surely the best since “Ray.” Neither too harsh nor too tender with its all-too-flawed subject, it’ll definitely be on Hollywood’s mind come Oscar time. It’ll be on this reviewer’s mind long after that.

— David Koon

Ooo, Keira
I’ve never read one word of Jane Austen or seen any of her novels brought to the screen — not “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Dumb and Dumber” … oh, skip that last one, it just seemed momentarily to fit in.

But I have made it my goal, at least since seeing her perfect face and delightful, endearing expressions in “Love Actually,” to see every Keira Knightley movie that comes down the pike. Yes, that includes “Domino,” a pile-of-dung of a movie which Knightley still somehow seemed to rise above.

So, with fears that this first exposure to Jane Austen might have lasting, dangerous effects on my psyche, I took in the newest version of “Pride and Prejudice,” opening this week at Market Street Cinema.

Not only is Knightley as delightful as expected, the movie’s release is perfectly timed at least to draw families (yes, the menfolk too) to what is a good story that is terrifically acted. The hearty, fatherly laugh about it all by Donald Sutherland at the end will warm you to the cockles. Director Joe Wright, in his first major film job, also manages some majestic shots of English countryside.

Do you need to know the story basics? Knightley is Elizabeth Bennet, the second of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s (Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn) five daughters. At the opening-scene ball, she meets fancy-boy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), his beeotch sister Caroline, and the snobbish Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) Eldest Bennet daughter Jane (Rosemund Pike) hits it off with Bingley, but Lizzie gets a full dose of the ultra-rich, pinched-up and apparently too-good-for-anyone Darcy, and decides he’s a hopeless case.

But somehow, as fictional love usually goes, the two who apparently can’t stand each other really have this lurking pining underneath, and Darcy, after being a total ass, confesses to Lizzie that, while he’s not very happy about it, he thinks of her constantly. Lizzie doesn’t quite react how he assumed she would. The rest of story explores how they both let go of their faulty preconceptions.

Will Lizzie grow to be a spinster, or will she and all the Bennet girls find happiness? Is Cornelius Booth, who plays early Lizzie suitor Col. Fitzwilliam, cast because he looks like Orlando Bloom’s clone? Will MacFayden, after pulling off a stellar Mr. Darcy, be the next big Brit thing?

Who knows, but I’ll bet there’s plenty more work ahead for Keira Knightley, and more movies I’ll take a stab at that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. I might even be lucky enough to find another gem like this.

— By Jim Harris


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