"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pearl Harbor

“Like I see these people on the Internet saying, ‘Oh, it’s a travesty that Michael Bay is doing this story.’ ‘Oh, why’s he doing it?’ ‘Oh, he’s going to wreck it.’ It’s like shame on those people, you know? Shame on them!” – Michael Bay

I have this sick fascination with the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor (2001). It is just so awful, but kind of mesmerizing in its awfulness. The movie was his attempt to shift gears and show the world that he could do something other than mindless action movies. With this movie, Bay, armed with Randall Wallace’s subpar John Milius-esque screenplay, thought he could replicate the formula of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) complete with Earth-shattering box returns. It was almost as if Bay expected the Academy to park a truck up to his front door and dump a bunch of awards on his doorstep because he was making an IMPORTANT MOVIE. One can almost imagine him thinking to himself, “This will be the movie they’ll remember me for,” with the same kind of hubris not seen since Charles Foster Kane thought he could make the news he was supposed to be covering.

Only that didn’t happen. Pearl Harbor didn’t make Titanic-sized numbers at the box office (although, $449 million worldwide ain’t bad), the critics hated it (let’s face it, by this point his movies had become critic-proof as the film’s producer Jerry Bruckheimer put it, “We made it for people, not critics.”) and it was nominated for more Golden Raspberry Awards than Academy Awards. Although, to be fair, it did win an Oscar for Best Sound Editing – hardly the dominance that Cameron’s movie demonstrated the year it walked away with 11 Oscars. The failure of Pearl Harbor was some kind of reality check for Bay and he retreated back to familiar turf with Bad Boys II (2003) and is now the caretaker of the Transformers franchise.

Bay lays it on thick right from the get-go as we watch two young boys play make believe they’re shooting down German planes in their father’s old biplane, the sequence awash in the golden hue of nostalgia as a crop duster flies overhead in slow motion while Hans Zimmer’s wistful score swells. It’s Tennessee 1923 and Bay then flashes forward to the best friends as aspiring hotshot fighter pilots in 1940, challenging each other like some sort of prototypical Top Gun (1986). One guy even says admiringly, “Those are some smooth aces,” and manages to do so with a straight face. This is only the first of many howlers courtesy of Wallace’s script.

Cut to Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) being chewed out by his superior, Major Jimmy Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) for his screwball antics. Rafe is assigned to duty in England where World War II is raging, much to the dismay of his best friend Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) who confronts him about it thus setting up the true romance of Pearl Harbor. No, it’s not the Hallmark Movie on steroids love affair between Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale, but Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s bromance. The scene depicting their tiff over Rafe leaving is the first indication that these guys were cast for their looks and not their acting, especially Hartnett who is borderline unwatchable at times. It’s not what he says per se, but how he says it – so wooden – that is so bad. The dialogue they’re forced to utter does them no favors.

The introduction of the beautiful nurses that Rafe and his fellow pilots are destined to meet reminds one that aside from choreographing explosions, Bay really knows how to photograph women, bathing the likes of Beckinsale, Jennifer Garner and Sara Rue, among others, in warm, inviting light as they gush about the hunky pilots they screened days ago. For whatever it’s worth they are all well cast and look like they came from that time period.

Rafe and Evelyn’s (Kate Beckinsale) meet-cute is largely played for laughs, both intentionally (he acts like a clumsy fool) and unintentionally (the dialogue is howlingly bad). As the scene dragged on I started to feel sorry for Affleck who not only has to try and sell this clunky dialogue, but do it with a bandage on his nose and acting like a child that needs to be taken care of, which is intended to be romantic, but comes across as laughable and insulting. And this is supposed to be the most romantic thing that has ever happened to Evelyn?! Dear Lord…

At first glance, the attention to period detail looks convincing, but a significant portion of the film’s Wikipedia page is spent pointing out the many historical inaccuracies, which is surprising with a production that had that kind of budget you’d think they’d have hired some decent technical advisors, but I can see Bay waving them aside in favor of his version of this time period, historical accuracy be damned! It’s Michael Bay’s version of the 1940s. Did he learn nothing from Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), another notorious WWII big budget fiasco? At least Spielberg was trying to make a comedy; Bay has no such excuse with the unintentional hilarity that ensues between explosive action sequences.

Bay is on stronger ground with his depiction of the plane battles where Rafe engages with German planes over England. They are exciting and Bay does a nice job conveying the chaos of aerial battle as planes dive and roll amidst machine gun fire. However, things get complicated when Rafe apparently dies in battle and Danny and Evelyn wait months to get cozy as they console each other. Danny is a little less awkward in flirting with Evelyn than Rafe and Hartnett looks most comfortable in these scenes as he lets his hunky good looks do all the heavy lifting.

Big surprise, Rafe isn’t dead after all and shows up after Danny and Evelyn have consummated their relationship in typical Bay fashion – slow motion amidst virginal white parachutes. Awkward! Oh yeah, she’s pregnant with Danny’s baby. We have to endure this mind-numbingly dull soap opera for over an hour intercut with teases of the Japanese preparing for war while Dan Aykroyd’s Captain Thurman tries to convince the military brass that Pearl Harbor would be a probable target because it would devastate the Pacific fleet. Naturally, Danny and Rafe settle their differences by kickstarting a bar brawl. Fortunately, the Japanese sneak attack allows them to settle their differences fighting side-by-side.

“It’s like, people die all over the world in earthquakes, whatever, you know, in much huger numbers than at Pearl Harbor. But there was something; there’s something. You wonder, What is it? You think, Okay, only three thousand people died, but there’s something, you know?” – Michael Bay

About 86 minutes in and what we’ve been waiting to see, or, as Martin Lawrence puts it in Bad Boys II, “This shit just got real,” as Bay presents a chilling shot of low-flying Japanese fighter planes zooming by two boys standing on a grassy field. He intercuts tons of planes advancing while most of our heroes are asleep, blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen. Not surprisingly, the best part of Pearl Harbor is the actual attack on the place because it allows Bay to do what he does best – blow shit up. Bay tries to replicate the shock and awe of the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a visceral depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’s able to use CGI to follow a Japanese bomb as it is launched from a plane and drops into a battleship, which ends up taking you out of the picture as you marvel at the stylish technique.

This sequence gives Bay a chance to indulge in explosive mayhem (or Bayhem) and man, does he ever cut loose. He makes sure we are thrown right into the middle of the action. There are some truly unsettling shots, like an ominous one of a Japanese torpedo traveling underwater and we can see the legs of countless men treading water above. That being said, it’s hard not get caught up in the carnage as we see scores of innocent sailors get blown and shot up. Not to mention, as badly as they are written, we care a little bit about what happens to Rafe and Evelyn and their friends. And yet, Bay can’t resist sticking blatant jingoistic images like the shot of American flag submerged underwater alongside men trying to stay alive.

He also can’t resist shooting the aftermath of the attack stylishly, smudging the lens with a Vaseline effect, distorting it so as to avoid an R rating with all the bloody casualties. There is the occasional odd shot, like a group of shambling burn victims framed like something out of George Romero zombie movie. Rafe and Danny help rescue men trapped in damaged ships and Bay frames Hartnett in a glamour shot, his hair stylishly mussed up, which feels sneakily exploitative and cheapens the pain and suffering around him.

Historical figures like President Roosevelt (Jon Voight) are reduced to caricatures and in what is meant to be a dramatic moment, but comes off as unintentionally ridiculous, he rises out of his wheelchair to make a point about the resilience of the human spirit. This gesture instead invokes a similar moment, although played for laughs, in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The last third of the movie features Alec Baldwin at his most Baldwin-iest as he barks out orders and makes inspirational speeches almost recalling his arrogant motivator of men from Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). The actor does his best to make his cliché-ridden, rah-rah dialogue sound half-decent through sheer force of will, but it isn’t easy.

Pearl Harbor might have been a passable movie if it had ended after the attack but no, we’ve got to end things on a feel-good high and so there is the tacked on Doolittle Raid, which transforms Pearl Harbor into a revenge movie. You can almost imagine Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer brainstorming ideas – how can we give Pearl Harbor a happy ending? The Doolittle Raid also seems to be included as a way to punish Danny for stepping out with Evelyn behind his best friend’s back. And so Danny gets to die a noble death while Rafe ends up with Evelyn to raise the dead man’s child.

Pearl Harbor attracted a large number of young actors into its vortex with the likes of Jennifer Garner, Sara Rue, Jaime King, and Michael Shannon who I’m sure their agents all told them to do the movie as it would be a big boost to their careers. There’s also a few dependable veteran character actors, most notably Tom Sizemore, who brings a much-needed gritty charisma that fresh-faced pretty boys like Affleck and Hartnett can’t.

When my wife and I saw Pearl Harbor in a theater – like many we are suckered by the rather solemn, impressive-looking trailers – three-quarters of the way through she felt a rat brush by her foot. We realized that maybe we weren’t the key demographic for this movie and the presence of rats was a sign. We beat a hasty retreat and upon leaving the theater demanded our money back. We met an usher on a butt break who asked us what we thought of the movie. We told him of our woes and asked him how it ended and he bemusedly recounted the Doolittle Raid and the fates of Rafe and Danny. He did a better job of telling the story than Bay!

Pearl Harbor may feature the most harrowing depiction of the battle on film, but surrounds it on both sides with instantly forgettable filler. It has an odd place in Bay’s wrongraphy. It is the director at his most restrained with some shots lasting at least a couple of seconds before an edit (that’s a snail’s pace for him). It’s not that Bay made a movie about Pearl Harbor, but that he did a bad one. Shame on him! Instead of becoming a chapter of history like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 that we will always remember, Bay’s movie belongs to a chapter of cinematic history we’d like to forget. One good thing came out of this recent experience of watching Pearl Harbor – it finally sated my curious, morbid fascination with it. I don’t feel the need to every watch it again.


Jones, Kent. "Bay Watch." Film Comment. July/August 2001.

Laskas, Jeanne Marie. "The Life of Michael Bay." Esquire. July 2001.

Friday, September 19, 2014

In the Line of Fire

The commercial and critical success of Unforgiven (1992) gave Clint Eastwood the opportunity to direct projects that interested him and be choosier in which films he acted. During the 1990s, he focused on appearing in and directing his own films with some he starred (White Hunter, Black Heart), others where he took on a supporting role (A Perfect World) and some where he wasn’t in them at all (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). The notable exception was In the Line of Fire (1993), which Eastwood starred, but did not direct – instead Wolfgang Petersen was brought in to helm the project.

There was a lot of anticipation for In the Line of Fire as Eastwood would be appearing opposite John Malkovich, a highly-regarded actor that got his start in the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and broke through in films with a deliciously amoral turn in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Line of Fire would see him playing a more standard villain, but no less compelling thanks to the actor’s trademark commitment to the part. The film went on to be a big commercial and critical success.

Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a veteran Secret Service Agent breaking in a new, younger partner, Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), by throwing him into an undercover sting operation that shows how much he has to learn. Frank effortlessly shoots two assailants and casually arrests the ring leader while Al barely escapes with his life. This entire sequence is done in the kind of economical fashion we’ve come to expect from Eastwood films while providing insight into Frank and Al and their new partnership.

After the bust, Frank follows up on a complaint about an apartment’s missing tenant and makes a chilling find: on a wall is a collage of photographs and newspaper clippings about the John F. Kennedy assassination with suggestions that the apartment’s occupant plans to kill the current President of the United States. Frank checks up on the man renting the apartment and finds a fake identity so he and Al go back the next day to find the place cleaned out except for a solitary photo of the Kennedy motorcade with Frank circled in red. It turn outs that he was one of the men protecting Kennedy that day and failed to save him – something that has haunted Frank ever since.

That night, a man calling himself Booth (John Malkovich) calls Frank at home to inform him that he plans to kill the President. Frank uses what clout and seniority he has to get assigned to protect the President despite his age and reputation as a “borderline burnout with questionable social skills,” while also teaming up with a beautiful fellow agent by the name of Lily Raines (Rene Russo). Booth continues to call Frank at his home, taunting him and so begins an intense cat-and-mouse game as the latter tries to figure out where and how the former will try to kill the President. Will Frank be able to protect the President or will he fail like he did with Kennedy?

Thankfully, In the Line of Fire doesn’t shy away from Eastwood’s age or question his ability to do his job alongside much younger people. When his boss and good friend (the always terrific John Mahoney) calls him a dinosaur, incredulously asking if he can still cut the mustard, Frank replies wryly, “I’ve at least one pair of good shoes in the back of the closet somewhere.” The film makes a point of showing Frank huffing and puffing as he sweats it out running alongside the Presidential motorcade. There is even an amusing scene where his coworkers pull a prank on him with paramedics waking him up, while he’s on a break, with a heart attack scare. And yet, what he lacks in physical prowess, Frank more than makes up for in experience and instinct.

Eastwood has always been a smart actor that knows how to work within his limited range while managing to add little flourishes and variations to the kinds of roles he’s played many times over the years. Frank is yet another maverick law enforcement character that the actor effortlessly inhabits. One gets the sense that Eastwood knows he’s too old for the role and has fun with it. He’s also not afraid to play a flawed character. Wracked with a nasty bout of the flu that impairs his judgment, Frank misreads a moment and the President is publicly embarrassed. Eastwood also has a nice scene towards the end of the film when Frank tells Lily about that fateful day in Dallas, 1963. The stoic actor shows an impressive amount of vulnerability as his voice wavers at one point and his lip quivers as Frank comes close to breaking down. It shows how much is at stake for Frank and how personal stopping Booth has become. It makes the final showdown between the two men that much more important because so much is at stake.

Booth is a wonderfully evil role for Malkovich to sink his teeth into, which he does with gusto. Booth is a master of disguise so that no one can remember what he actually looks like and Malkovich approaches the role as if Booth was an actor preparing for the part of a lifetime. The actor brings a chilly determination to the role, playing a ruthless killer not afraid to kill two women who witness a slip-up in one of his disguises. One of the most fascinating aspects of In the Line of Fire is when Frank finds out about Booth’s true identity and how he used to be a CIA assassin by the name of Mitch Leary as recounted in a nicely played scene where Frank and Al cross paths with a CIA agent (an uncredited Steve Railsback).

Once Frank confronts Leary about his true identity, it is the first time the killer breaks his controlled façade, which Malkovich handles brilliantly. Leary blames the government for making him what he is: “Do you have any idea what I’ve done for God and country?! Some pretty fucking horrible things! I don’t even remember who I was before they sunk their claws into me!” Frank goads him by calling Leary a monster to which he replies, “And now they want to destroy me because we can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside now can we?” This is perhaps the best exchange between Frank and Leary as Eastwood and Malkovich rise to the occasion. The best parts of In the Line of Fire are the battle of wills between Frank and Leary that play out largely over the phone. As the film progresses Frank gets increasingly frustrated and Leary coolly confident as he tries to get inside the agent’s head. It is great to see the likes of Eastwood and Malkovich square off against each other, their different approaches to acting bouncing off each other.

Rene Russo does her best with an underwritten role and shares some nice scenes with Eastwood, including one early on where Frank and Lily casually flirt on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, a romantic subplot between the two agents is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and could have easily been removed as it is completely unnecessary. It seems only to serve Eastwood’s vanity. Thankfully, this subplot plays a small part and is dropped partway through when the pursuit of Leary intensifies.

Director Wolfgang Petersen does a nice job juggling all the thriller aspects with the more personal, character moments so that we care about what happens to Frank and understand what motivates Leary. As he demonstrated with Das Boot (1981), Petersen is adept at orchestrating action sequences as evident in the exciting rooftop chase between Frank and Al and Leary. I also like how the film shows Frank doing all kinds of investigative legwork. He follows up leads, interviews people and so on to track down Leary. Frank has to rely on his intelligence to piece together the clues that Leary has left scattered behind like a trail of bread crumbs.

Producer Jeff Apple first became fascinated by the Secret Service as a teenager. In 1983, he decided to develop his idea into a film. He raised enough money independently to hire fellow New York University classmate Ken Friedman to write the screenplay. This version featured a flawed older agent with a younger one involved with a television anchor. The Kennedy assassination was not included at this point. They were shopping it around Hollywood 18 months later. Two months after that, director Michael Apted showed some interest in the concept, but wanted a few script revisions.

Dustin Hoffman was the next person to show an interest in the script. He had a deal with Columbia Pictures and the project came close to getting the go-ahead. However, a week later the studio’s management team was replaced. The new chairman did not get along with Hoffman who left Columbia as a result. Two years later he had a new deal with Warner Bros., but had lost interest in the project. Apple spent two more years shopping the script around again.

A young executive at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures was interested and asked for a rewrite. After struggling for years, screenwriter Jeff Maguire met with Apple (the two were friends) and rewrote the script on spec. This version drew the attention of Robert Redford. After he moved on, it was then suggested that they go after Sean Connery. Maguire revised the script so that the older Secret Service agent was Irish-born and liked Kennedy. Connery was given the script, but decided to appear in Rising Sun (1993). Executives at another production company requested that Maguire rewrite the script for someone younger, like Tom Cruise, to play the agent. This involved jettisoning the Kennedy assassination element and the screenwriter refused, holding out for a better offer despite being broke.

A friend gave his script to a casting director who gave it to someone at United Talent Agency. Within a few days, Castle Rock Entertainment and Paramount Pictures were bidding for it. The former won in April 1992 and Eastwood got involved soon afterwards. Eastwood and Maguire met and discussed who should be cast as the villain with the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson mentioned. Eastwood’s agent said that another of his clients, John Malkovich, was available. When Malkovich first read the script he didn’t think it was right for him because it was so mainstream and he was used to doing art house fare. However, he was a fan of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, a fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, and was interested in playing an assassin. He was also a fan of Eastwood’s work and thought it would be fun playing opposite him.

Eastwood had final approval of the film’s director and chose Petersen because he liked the man’s work on Das Boot. He felt that the European would have a different perspective on the American subject matter. “I didn’t want somebody who was brand new to the field. I wanted somebody with experience.” Years before, Petersen had actually written his own Secret Service script entitled, The Invisible Men. There were problems with it and he postponed the project, but remained interested in the subject matter. Petersen was a long-time fan of Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns and so when the actor brought him on board to make In the Line of Fire, the director called and got Ennio Morricone to score the film. Petersen encouraged Malkovich to improvise during principal photography and this included messing with Eastwood. For example, during one of the phone conversations between Frank and Leary, Malkovich unexpectedly yelled the line, “Show me some goddamned respect!” This actually made Eastwood break into a sweat.

In the Line of Fire enjoyed most positive reviews among critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Eastwood is perfect for the role, as a man of long experience and deep feelings. He is set off by an inspired performance by Malkovich, who is quiet and methodical and very clever … Most thrillers these days are about stunts and action. In the Line of Fire has a mind.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “In the Line of Fire is so neatly constructed that even though Frank and Mitch confront each other quite early, the tension of the virtually movie-long chase does not let up until the end … In the Line of Fire is one of the few Hollywood suspense melodramas that don’t seem to ignore the realities of the world outside. It uses them.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “it’s hard to see how In the Line of Fire could be anything less than rock-solid entertainment-and indeed, it is. Yet it’s never more than that. Though the movie is engrossing, it lacks something: fire, weirdness, originality.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “In his uniquely snaky way, Malkovich is terrific. He’s a particularly effective antagonist for Eastwood because Malkovich’s powers are verbal – he can twist a word like a pretzel – and Eastwood’s are physical.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Petersen brings many of the same qualities as Eastwood himself would to the project, including a lean, unadorned style, a concern with pace and an emphasis on keeping the audience intrigued.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe called it, “watchable, great fun.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “Eastwood gives a captivating performance as a flawed hero, the same sort of role he’s been playing for years, most recently in Unforgiven. Because of the praise he’s received lately as a director, people may forget he’s a classic, minimalist actor.”

In the Line of Fire is an expertly made political thriller with an enthralling cat-and-mouse game at its heart and two fascinating characters pitted against each other. Petersen orchestrates all the elements like a seasoned pro with no-nonsense direction that doesn’t draw attention to itself, instead letting us get caught up in the story and the struggle between Frank, the determined agent, and Leary, the equally committed assassin. The end result is an engaging popcorn movie with nothing on its mind other than to entertain, which it does admirably.


Cagle, Jess. “The Touch of Evil.” Entertainment Weekly. August 6, 1993.

Eller, Claudia. “In the Line of Fire: Whose Movie Is It Anyway?” Los Angeles Times. July 13, 1993.

Rea, Steven. “For Line of Fire Director, A Chance to Work with a Long-Ago Hero.” Philadelphia Inquirer. July 11, 1993.

Verniere, James. “Clint Eastwood Stepping Out.” Sight & Sound. September 1993.

Weinraub, Bernard. “With Line of Fire Writer Discovers Ending for Hollywood-Failure.” The New York Times. July 20, 1993.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Walk the Line

Since Oliver Stone’s polarizing hallucinogenic biopic The Doors (1991) played fast and loose with the facts of Jim Morrison’s life, musicians, or their estates, have exerted much more control over how they are depicted on film. This resulted in films that either skirted around the issue of musical rights by depicting musicians before they became famous (like The Beatles in Backbeat) or creating a thinly-veiled fiction version (like Grace of My Heart being based largely on Carole King). The other option is to play ball with the surviving musicians or their estates, which often results in a sanitized version of their lives (like De-Lovely), but hey, at least the filmmakers get to use their music.

Every so often you get a musician that isn’t afraid to show the darker aspects of their lives depicted on film. Such is the case with Johnny Cash, legendary singer/songwriter with a checkered past to say the least. While rubbing elbows with the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash created music that crossed various genres like country, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel. Fueled by a steady supply of alcohol, drugs and women, the Man in Black garnered the reputation of a maverick within the industry. Before he died in 2003, Cash worked closely with filmmakers responsible for Walk the Line (2005), a biopic that chronicled his early life, so that his addictions weren’t glossed over. Neither was the turbulent marriage to his first wife, which its subsequent dissolution led to marriage with fellow musician June Carter who helped him kick his addictions.

Capitalizing on the popularity of Ray (2004), Walk the Line applies the same plot structure – their lives have parallel arcs and hit the same dramatic beats. Like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash struggled with substance abuse, but was able to beat addiction with the help from the love of a good woman. Unlike Charles, who wanted to be loved by millions (including being a shill for Pepsi), Cash became successful on his own terms, turning his back on the country music industry when they failed to support him.

The film begins with one of Johnny Cash’s most famous gigs – playing in front of a rowdy crowd of convicts in Folsom Prison circa 1968, which cemented his outlaw status. While a room full of rowdy inmates stamps their feet in time with the music, Cash is deep in thought in a back room as the film flashes back to his humble beginnings as a dirt poor sharecropper in the Deep South. As a child, Cash was tormented by an abusive father (Robert Patrick) and plagued with guilt over the death of a brother he idealized at an early age. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) grows up and serves in the Armed Forces and then returns to Tennessee where he tries, unsuccessfully, to become a door-to-door salesman, all the while quietly cultivating his musical inclinations.

This is the film at its most formulaic as director James Mangold trots out the usual biopic tropes – the strict father vs. the nurturing mother and the tragic childhood event that haunts Cash for the rest of his life. This material is important in that it shapes his worldview and provides insight into what motivates him to become a musician and what also fuels his demons. It’s not until Cash becomes an adult and is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix that Walk the Line gets interesting. It’s not that the film breaks out of the biopic formula, it’s that he is such a fascinating actor to watch. There are moments where Cash is brooding over something and Phoenix doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to because it’s all in the eyes. He is one of those rare actors who can suggest a rich inner life behind their eyes. In Cash’s case, it was an inner torment that fueled many of his songs.

Not surprisingly, the best scenes in Walk the Line show the evolution of several signature songs, culminating in the scene where Cash performs in front of Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) for the first time. At first, he plays a gospel song done the same way by many others before him. Philips calls him on it and challenges the musician to do something different and that means something to him. Cash doesn’t say much, he just takes the criticism and we can see the anger building in his eyes. Philips’ critique pushes him to play “Folsom Prison Blues.” It is at this moment that Cash transforms from hesitant performer to confident musician. It is also the moment where Phoenix comes to life and so does the film.

Once he meets country singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) backstage at a concert, it’s love at first sight, but it’s a courtship that would take years before she finally relented and married him. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have fantastic chemistry together both on and off the stage as they take us through Cash and Carter’s initial attraction to each other and show how it deepens over the years.

The most compelling and heartfelt moments in the film are between Cash and Carter as they clearly brought out the best in each other musically and as soul mates in their personal lives. Phoenix and Witherspoon play well off each other and it’s interesting to see their contrasting acting styles – he’s more instinctive and she’s more technical, but that’s what gives their scenes a unique energy that’s exciting to watch. For example, there’s a scene partway through where Cash and Carter have a nice conversation at a diner where she gets him to talk about his dead brother – something he hasn’t done in years. While Witherspoon is bubbly and charming, Phoenix is wonderfully understated in the way Cash opens up to Carter.

Mangold contrasts this with the next scene where Cash gets into an angry argument with his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin in a thankless role) who doesn’t want him to talk about his experiences on tour or about his music either. This results in an ugly argument that turns violent in front of their children. Meanwhile, he can talk about all of these things with Carter because she’s a musician as well and can relate to his experiences in a way Vivian cannot. Mangold doesn’t shy away from Cash and Carter’s sometimes volatile relationship either. Cash sometimes says cruel things to her, but he does love her and she cares about him. This is evident in the scenes where she helps him kick drugs. Carter sees Cash at his worst, which puts her love for him to the test, but she sticks by him.

At the time he made Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix was a strong actor in search of the right role and found it with this film. He had been miscast in strong films (Gladiator) and been good in weak movies (Ladder 49). Walk the Line is an ideal match with his considerable talents. For all of his understated moments, Phoenix doesn’t let us forget that he’s capable of unpredictable, explosive energy, like when Cash trashes his dressing room in a drug-fueled rage. Mangold’s jittery, hand-held camerawork helps convey the scary intensity of this outburst. It’s a daunting task for any actor to play a well-known public figure and even more so for an icon like Johnny Cash. Phoenix doesn’t look like the man, but he becomes him in other ways, like how he performs in concert by adopting Cash’s trademark moves and approximating his distinctive voice. Phoenix wisely doesn’t try to do an imitation of Cash, opting instead to convey the spirit of the man, capturing everything about him through the eyes, making the role his own.

Reese Witherspoon starts off utilizing her adorable, plucky persona that she’s cultivated for years to maximum effect as Carter, matching Phoenix’s intensity and willingness to immerse herself completely in the role. Carter is the strong, moral center on a tour filled with legendary bad boys – Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. She resists the lures of the open road and constant touring – the drugs and alcohol – that Cash succumbs to and this is part of her attraction to him. It is her purity and loyalty – standing by him even when he hits absolute rock bottom – that is a large part of her appeal for him. Carter is just as stubborn as he is and sticks by him because she loves and believes in him. For awhile it looks like Witherspoon won’t leave her comfort zone, but as the film progresses and the relationship between Cash and Carter deepens, the actress starts to show more sides, like the guilt-ridden look she gives after they have sex for the first time despite both being married and having kids. That last third of the film sees Witherspoon get serious, showcasing more dramatic chops as Carter tries to get Cash off drugs and back out on the road, playing music again. The actress may not have Phoenix’s uncanny, instinctive acting ability, but she is more than willing to give the role everything she has and one gets the sense that she knew just how important a role it was for her and her career.

Walk the Line began with producer James Keach who met and befriended Johnny Cash on the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The musician was guest-starring on an episode that Keach, husband of the show’s star Jane Seymour, was directing. The two men became friends and in the mid-1990s, Cash asked Keach to make a film of his life. After Seymour interviewed Johnny and June, Gill Dennis was hired to write a screenplay with input from Keach in 1997. Keach then shopped it around Hollywood with no interest from the major studios.

In 1999, Keach contacted director James Mangold who was a long-time fan of Cash’s music. Mangold wasn’t crazy about Dennis’ script, which he felt was lacking: “There wasn’t a June story. It wasn’t a courtship.” His producing partner Cathy Konrad felt that the script also “lacked emotional energy and conflict.” Mangold began to write his own script, basing it on Cash’s autobiographies, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography as well as drawing from extensive interviews with Johnny and June before they died: “We pushed very hard to scratch deeper, and to fill in the gaps of the stories.”

In 2001, Mangold and Konrad took their script around Hollywood with no takers because it was assumed that country music wouldn’t appeal to the masses. It wasn’t until Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox, agreed to make it. While Mangold and Konrad felt that they had a beginning and an ending, their script lacked a substantial middle section. They realized that it lacked the personal details of Johnny and June’s courtship. After gaining their trust, Mangold and Konrad were able to uncover incidents that not even their son, John Carter Cash, knew about: “My parents never told me that my mother threw beer bottles at my father and his friends one morning.” They also talked to Cash’s brother, sister, manager and his back-up band, which gave them all kinds of details that weren’t in his autobiographies.

The filmmakers were given a $28 million budget, which meant that their two leading actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, were paid a fraction of their usual fees. Before making Walk the Line, Phoenix was not a fan of Cash’s music, did not play guitar and would not sing. However, as luck would have it, he actually met the man when invited over to the Cash house for dinner. It turns out the Man in Black was a big fan of Gladiator (2000) and actually quoted lines from Phoenix’s character back to the actor. To prepare for the role, Phoenix studied addiction and detox including what it does to the body. Even though Cash drank alcohol and took amphetamines and barbiturates, “it was about drinking. You get this great allowance when you’re an actor – there’s an expectation that you’ll be drinking or you’re not real.” After making the film, the actor entered rehab for alcohol abuse.

To get Phoenix and Witherspoon into musical shape, Mangold and Konrad brought in legendary musical producer T-Bone Burnett to take Phoenix and Witherspoon through three-and-a-half months of daily lessons, rehearsals and recording until being musicians was second nature to them. When Phoenix first started to sing his voice “would go high, and I would sound like I was singing Christmas-carol Cash.” After working with a coach, his singing improved significantly and this leant to the authenticity of the concert scenes. This was crucial for Mangold who wanted “viewers to feel what it was like to be on stage, as opposed to out in the audience.”

Walk the Line received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “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 that it’s Joaquin Phoenix doing the singing, and I was gob-smacked.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “If Witherspoon has the gift of residing in her character, of moving in and living there, Phoenix seems voluntarily consigned to the Folsom Prison of Johnny’s darkness.” In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris praised Witherspoon’s “transcendent joyousness as a still-growing legend within a legend.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman called it “a big, juicy, enjoyable wide-canvas biography with a handful of indelible moments.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Carina Chocano praised both Phoenix and Witherspoon and how they “crackle with wit and charisma, and they give off so much sexual heat it’s a wonder they don’t burst into flames … But the best thing about Phoenix and Witherspoon is their emotional connection, which carries the movie and transcends the material.” However, in his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Emoting plus music does not add up to art, and Mr. Phoenix’s Johnny Cash, after more than two hours, remains stranded in the no man’s land between cliché and enigma.” Finally, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called it “an epic weepie, filled with signs and portents, as well as music. Even more than its subject, the movie may look mean but it walks the straight and narrow.”

Mangold returns to the Folsom Prison concert late in the film at a strategic point when Cash was back on the road to redemption, both personally and professionally. The director does a fantastic job capturing the energy and intensity of Cash’s performance as he goes against the warden’s wishes and criticizes the prison water before launching into a “Cocaine Blues” that Phoenix delivers with just the right mix of defiance and humor. Walk the Line was a fine, return to form for Mangold who started his career with the independent darling, Heavy (1995) and then followed it up with the star-studded crime drama, Cop Land (1997). He peaked with the critically lauded Girl, Interrupted (1999) and then struggled to find quality material, coasting with entertaining, but otherwise forgettable films like Kate and Leopold (2001) and Identity (2003). Walk the Line was definitely a return to meatier, more substantial material.

In what could have come across as a cheesy cliché, Walk the Line climaxes with Cash proposing to Carter on stage in the middle of a song. Phoenix and Witherspoon manage to eschew any cheesiness with an honest display of emotions as Cash lays it all out, telling Carter how he really feels. She can see the sincerity in his eyes and accepts. It is definitely the emotional highpoint of the film as we’ve been on this incredible journey with these two people through the ups and downs of their extraordinary courtship. Walk the Line reminds us how good country music used to be. It is about pain and suffering, not about flash and stadium theatrics from the likes of people like Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift. Walk the Line illustrates how pure the genre was back in the day as the influence of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly swirled around together. There is a primal simplicity to Cash’s music that is missing from the bloated theatrics of the newer generation. Walk the Line is an entertaining, big budget studio film that is well-made and a fitting tribute to the man and his music.


Gallagher, Brian. “James Mangold Talks Walk the Line: Extended Cut.” MovieWeb. March 24, 2008.

Hirschberg, Lynn. “My Name is Joaquin Phoenix, and I Am an Actor.” The New York Times. September 18, 2005.

Waxman, Sharon. “The Secrets That Lie Beyond the Ring of Fire.” The New York Times. October 16, 2005.

Willman, Chris. “Cash Up Front.” Entertainment Weekly. November 18, 2005.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

In 2005, Robert Rodriguez adapted the comic book Sin City into a film with help from its creator Frank Miller who co-directed it. Convincing the veteran comic book writer/artist to come on board was a smart move on the filmmaker’s part as it assured that Miller’s luridly violent noir tales would be faithfully translated. This was achieved through a then-groundbreaking green screen environment that allowed Rodriguez to place his actors in Miller’s stylish world with a striking look comprised of black and white with strategic splashes of color. This innovative approach attracted a star-studded cast that included Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro among others. The final result dazzled audiences and was a commercial success.

A sequel seemed inevitable, but instead Rodriguez went on to team up with Quentin Tarantino on the box office misfire that was the Grindhouse double bill (2007) while Miller applied the Sin City aesthetic to a disastrous adaptation of Will Eisner’s comic book The Spirit (2008). Over the years, talk of a sequel surfaced occasionally with the likes of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie being mentioned in potential leading roles. Nine long years later and the stars (and money) aligned for Rodriguez and Miller to reunite with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). The film promptly tanked at the box office and received mixed to negative reviews. What happened? Did Miller and Rodriguez wait too long? A green screen-heavy film is no longer a novelty. Two cast members with characters in the film had passed away and some roles have been recast. The general consensus seems to be that they waited too long to make a sequel and interest in the film had waned.

Some might complain that A Dame to Kill For is just more of the same. As a big fan of the first film this is not necessarily a bad thing. After seeing Sin City, I wanted to see more of Miller’s stories brought to life. In addition to adapting A Dame to Kill For and the short story “Just Another Saturday Night” from the Booze, Broads, & Bullets collection, Miller created two new stories specifically for the film – “The Long Bad Night” and “Nancy’s Last Dance.” By doing this, he has given the fans a real treat by offering two stories where the outcome is not known and introducing new characters into this universe.

In “Just Another Saturday Night,” Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up amidst a car accident unable to remember how he got there. He proceeds to recall what happened via flashback on a snowy Saturday night. This segment is a nice way to reacquaint us to the brutal yet darkly humorous world of Sin City.

“The Long Bad Night” introduces us to Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a confident gambler who decides to take on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the most powerful man in the city, in a high-stakes poker game and gets more than he bargained for. It’s a lot of fun to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt square off against Powers Boothe, the former playing a young upstart and the latter an evil, influential man.

The centerpiece of the film is “A Dame to Kill For”, which features Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) as a private investigator taking photographs of a businessman (Ray Liotta) cheating on his wife with a hooker (Juno Temple). When the man tries to kill her, Dwight intervenes. He has a tortured past, which involves keeping his homicidal impulses in check.

Afterwards, Dwight gets a call from an ex-lover by the name of Ava Lord (Eva Green), a beautiful woman married to a very rich man. She’s in some kind of trouble and he finds himself drawn into her tangled web yet again. He soon runs afoul of her imposing bodyguard Manute (Dennis Haysbert) who proceeds to work him over. Realizing that he’s out of his depth and bent on rescuing Ava, Dwight enlists Marv’s help, which only complicates things in typical noir fashion.

In “Nancy’s Last Dance,” Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is an exotic dancer still haunted by the death of her lover John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) and is obsessed with avenging his death by killing Roark, the man responsible for it. Over time, she’s counseled/haunted by Hartigan’s ghost, which drives her increasingly crazy.

Actors Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Eva Green slip seamlessly into the Sin City world. It helps that they have that old school noir look, especially Brolin with his chiseled tough guy features and gravelly voice – perfect for his character’s voiceover narration. In no time the actor makes you forget that he plays a character once portrayed by Clive Owen. Gordon-Levitt is excellent as the young newcomer with a secret and manages to elicit sympathy for his ultimately doomed character. Green plays Sin City’s reigning femme fatale. The stunning actress has an alluring, exotic look and can turn a vulnerability on and off at will all the while playing a cold-hearted manipulator of men. Green gives key line deliveries the right venomous spin that makes Ava Lord a fearsome figure in this world.

It’s great to see Mickey Rourke return to the role of Marv, a character he inhabits so well. He brings a world-weary charm and a much-needed dose of dark humor to the film. Powers Boothe, who only had a minor role in the first film, gets a much meatier part in A Dame to Kill For and it’s a lot of fun to see him sink his teeth into such a deliciously evil character. Unfortunately, Jessica Alba is once again miscast as Nancy, the stripper with a heart of gold. While she looks the part, the actress doesn’t have the chops to pull of the tricky evolution of character that goes from sweet girl traumatized by the death of loved one to a revenge-obsessed vigilante. Miller’s stylized dialogue needs to be delivered a certain way. Some actors can pull it off and others can’t. Alba falls into the latter category and it becomes painfully obvious in her segment. Even her dancing is unconvincing.

While it no longer has the technological novelty factor as an incentive (shooting it in 3D really didn’t help either), there is certainly no other film out there that looks like Sin City. There have been a few imitators since, most notably The Spirit and Max Payne (2008), but the look of the film is so specific to its universe that few have dared to emulate it. Rodriguez has said that with the first Sin City he held back somewhat stylistically for fear that it would be too much for audiences. Emboldened by its commercial success, he took the look further and made it even more faithful to Miller’s comic book. So, there are things like Ava being rendered in black and white accentuated with red lips and green eyes, and visual flourishes like Marv recounting past exploits while a tiny car chase revolves around him, or the moody storm clouds that hang heavy in the cemetery where Nancy visits Hartigan’s grave. And why not? It’s not like the characters or the world they inhabit are based on any kind of reality. They exist in a hyper-stylized neo-noir universe drenched in atmosphere.

The dialogue in A Dame to Kill For is riddled with clichés and the characters are drawn from archaic stereotypes, but that’s the point. Miller is paying homage to the Mickey Spillane crimes stories he clearly idolizes. The film immerses itself in noir clichés and wears them proudly like a badge of honor, refusing to make any excuses for trading in them. There’s really nothing more to it than that, which may make the film seem instantly forgettable, but Rodriguez’s film never aspires to be art as it is unrepentedly sexual and violent with very few if any redeeming characters. The first Sin City film came out at the right time and tapped into popular culture zeitgeist. A Dame to Kill For is not so lucky, but you have to give Miller and Rodriguez credit for sticking to their guns and delivering another faithful adaptation of the comic book which may only appeal to fans and probably won’t convert the uninitiated.