By repackaging tumultuous true-life tales into tidy three-act narratives, traditional biopics undermine the very authenticity they steadfastly strive for, offering up only-in-the-movies fantasy and structural predictability in place of scraggly, erratic, unruly realism. James Mangold’s Walk the Line is the latest case in point, recasting Johnny Cash’s rise to fame in the ‘50s and ‘60s as a redemptive fairy tale in which the singer, brought up poor and mistreated by his coldhearted pa (Robert Patrick) in rural Arkansas, overcame personal tragedies to find peace, love, and emotional/spiritual liberation with fellow crooner and future wife June Carter. As with Taylor Hackford’s phony Ray—a similar cinematic study of a drug-abusing Southern artist with a unique voice, a taste for women, and psychological wounds stemming from the childhood death of a sibling—Mangold’s film functions as a musical genius-makes-good fable, charting with by-the-numbers precision Cash’s efforts to realize his singer-songwriter dreams, his battles with the pitfalls of success, and his eventual clean-and-sober salvation thanks mostly to the yeoman efforts of his guardian angel. Though Joaquin Phoenix’s solid turn as the country star mercifully forgoes the mannerism-heavy mimicry of Jamie Foxx’s unjustly lauded turn as Ray Charles, Walk the Line missteps by routinely forgoing credible biographical grittiness in favor of glossy Hollywood mythologizing.
Of course, much of Cash’s appeal came from his own self-mythologizing, a process finalized in the ‘90s with the help of producer Rick Rubin via his American Recordings albums with the musician. And thus it’s unsurprising that Mangold’s shadow-laced silhouettes of Cash penning a tune while in the Air Force, or on stage duetting with June (a brunette Reese Witherspoon), strive for larger-than-life iconography. Predominantly set in his pre-Man in Black days, Mangold and Gill Dennis’s script (based on Cash’s autobiographies Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography) uses the singer’s legendary Folsom Prison concert as a framing device for his life story—including his rabble-rousing tours with Elvis (Tyler Hilton) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Waylon Malloy Payne) and his infamous drug bust—though the main focus is on his on-the-road romance with Carter, a lifetime performer whose divorcee status marked her as a kindred outsider spirit to the eccentric, rebellious Cash. As Cash was married throughout much of this courtship, Walk the Line offsets its boisterous touring action with scenes of deadening domesticity involving his discontented wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and their neglected daughters. Primarily, however, these hedonism-versus-responsibility dichotomies, when not contributing to the story’s numbing familiarity, merely provide Mangold with opportunities to dutifully detail Cash’s adulterousness, spousal maltreatment, addiction to pills, shirking of familial duties, and callous selfishness.
Phoenix approximates Cash’s inimitably gravely baritone and self-destructive swagger, and his scenes with an outstanding Witherspoon—who beautifully employs her trademark cheeriness to hint at hidden traumas and insecurities—exude a longing and pain that’s otherwise sorely lacking from this stripped-down portrait. Yet boasting uninspired symbolism (a black crow preceding the Folsom show) and a generic mise-en-scène (including predictable music montages to cover less-than-gripping material), Mangold’s biopic fails to capture any sense of how Cash channeled his inner misery into stark, workingman classics like “I Walk The Line” and “Big River.” When brother Jack (Lucas Till) tells a young Cash that “You can’t help nobody if you can’t tell ‘em the right story,” the sentiment—when matched with Cash’s rebel persona—echoes Get Rich or Die Tryin’‘s belief in ugly truth-telling as a means of social good. But rather than making Cash seem like a seminal music outlaw, Mangold’s film shrinks him down to merely another guitar-strummer with paternal problems, in the process largely ignoring the religiosity (and, specifically, the doomsday imagery) that formed a fundamental component of Cash’s dark, brooding songs. Reconfigured into an uplifting romance about love’s transformative power, this vision of Cash’s life detrimentally disregards the looming specter of heaven and hell that hung over the artist’s portentous work. As such, Walk the Line winds up existing somewhere in the mediocre purgatorial middle.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynn, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Payne, Shooter Jennings Director: James Mangold Screenwriter: James Mangold, Gill Dennis Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 136 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2005 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay
After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.
Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.
Will Win: BlacKkKlansman
Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Should Win: BlacKkKlansman
Review: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Makes the Most of Growing Up
The film is noteworthy for its rumination on the subtle costs of its characters’ newfound prosperity.2.5
Time plays a key role in the How to Train Your Dragon films, with each successive entry following up on the characters after several years in order to trace the impact of actions they took. The third film in the series, The Hidden World, sees these characters and their island in the sky greatly transformed from their humble beginnings. Berk, once a barren village inundated with brutal dragon hunters, is now practically impregnable, a haven for the endangered dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is also now its chief, and his companion, Toothless, is the reigning alpha male of all dragons. As a result, The Hidden World doesn’t lend itself as easily to the showstopping spectacle of its predecessors, which saw Hiccup and Toothless doing battle against stronger and often bigger enemies, but it remains noteworthy for its rumination on the subtler costs of these characters’ newfound prosperity.
Early in Dean DeBlois’s film, much is made of the way that Hiccup and his friends have come to take their dragons for granted; raids to free captured dragons only succeed as a result of the enormity of the freed dragons compensating for sloppy human error. Complacency has made the film’s heroes prone to negligence, and the holes left in their security are quickly exploited by Grimmel the Grisley (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter who, having almost single-handedly brought the Night Fury species to extinction, is now targeting Toothless. Not unlike that of other villains in the series, Grimmel’s motivation is simple, but he differentiates himself from, say, Drago Bludvist in his calm, eerily playful demeanor. He easily slips through Hiccup’s lax defenses, and while he could easily kill Toothless within the film’s first act, he spares the creature for the purposes of playing mind games on humans and dragons alike.
Grimmel’s psychological torment results in short bursts of guerrilla warfare, and much of the film’s action scenes tend to revolve around the heroes contending with Grimmel’s own dragons, garish creatures with retractable tusks, scorpion-like tails, and an equal ability to breathe acid and flame. Their attacks feel truly frightening, in no small part for the way the camera tumbles along with these creatures’ skittering and rapacious lunges. Seeing such vicious, disorienting fights play out amid the vividly colorful world of The Hidden World is jarring, exacerbating the sense that Grimmel has completely upended the characters’ usual understanding of conflict and badly exposed their inability to adapt to new situations.
That struggle to evolve also marks the film’s secondary conflict: the internal debate that Hiccup comes to have over his and other humans’ relationships to dragons. The film’s title refers to a mythical realm of dragons that Hiccup seeks in order to build a new, more secure Berk in perfect harmony with dragons. Gradually, however, his notion of utopia is challenged by the increasing realization that even the well-meaning, dragon-loving citizens of Berk still treat their beasts as subordinates rather than as equals. This comes to a head when Toothless, thought to be the last of his kind, comes into contact with a radiant, white-colored female Light Fury and his erstwhile devotion to Hiccup takes a back seat to his biological drive to hook up. Much of the film concerns Toothless attempting to perform courtship rituals to impress his potential mate and increasingly pulling away from his human master in order to spend time with his love interest. Scenes of Toothless clumsily performing dances and other mating rituals are humorous, but underneath his stumbles is a mildly tragic reminder of how alone he’s felt despite living among so many other kinds of dragons.
The difficulty that Hiccup has in accepting his companion’s independence exposes that, for all that the character has evolved as a leader across this series, he’s yet to fully mature. The Hidden World, not unlike Toy Story 3, is fundamentally about the act of growing up and letting go, of coming to terms with the impermanence of relationships. If the film sometimes feels too small in comparison to its predecessors, it manages to make the most of its quietest moments, acknowledging that some aspects of getting older are scary, and that accepting the sacrifices of growing up is as much an achievement as overcoming any living, breathing villain.
Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, David Tennant Director: Dean DeBlois Screenwriter: Dean DeBlois Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 104 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: Paddleton Is an Unintentionally Creepy Ode to the Man-Child
The film largely plays its scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing its actors to indulge their worst tendencies.1.5
Director Alex Lehmann’s Paddleton owes quite a bit of its sensibility to actor and co-writer Mark Duplass, who—along with his brother and collaborator Jay Duplass—specializes in cinema that fetishizes kindness and decency, sometimes at the expense of drama. The Duplass brothers have perfected a cinema of artisanal mildness that has grown increasingly sentimental, with the prickliness of The Puffy Chair giving way to the platitudes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the HBO series Togetherness. And the wearyingly precious Paddleton continues this slide into self-pleased insularity.
Michael (Duplass) spends all his considerable free time with his upstairs neighbor, Andy (Ray Romano). Like many characters conceived by Duplass, Michael and Andy are enraptured with the cocoons they’ve created for themselves. Each night, they get together at Michael’s and eat pizza, solve puzzles, or watch the kung fu movie Death Punch, which pivots on notions of loyalty that they’ve internalized as representing the steadfastness of their friendship. When the men feel like leaving the house, they play a game they’ve made up called Paddleton, which is basically handball with a metal barrel added at the back of their makeshift court for extra scoring. And that’s pretty much it, as Michael and Andy have no lovers, family, or other friends or hobbies. In fact, they look at one another with such pregnant, hang-dog adoration that one wonders if they’re dating (an assumption shared by one of the film’s few supporting characters), which would be much healthier than the apparent truth of the situation.
Michael and Andy are decent-looking, middle-aged, presumably straight men who’ve decided to play house together. This premise is ripe for satire (of the rigid co-dependency of hetero men) or pathos (pertaining to people scarred by trauma, who’re hiding from life), but Lehmann largely plays this scenario with a straight and gooey face, coaxing his actors to indulge their worst tendencies. Duplass and Romano are shrewd and intelligent performers, but they have a similar maudlin streak; in their respective careers, they tend to value schlubby inexpressiveness as a barometer of truth and realism. (Two respective TV shows, The League for Duplass and Vinyl for Romano, allowed the actors to channel their inner wolves.) In Paddleton, Michael and Andy are so disinterested in external life they seem deranged, though the actors play this terror for homey cuteness, and Lehmann often lingers on close-ups of their emoting, leaving the audience with nothing to discover for itself. The film’s sanctimonious devotion to these man-children is deeply, unintentionally creepy.
Understanding that this buddy shtick isn’t enough for even a direct-streaming comedy, Lehmann and Duplass have added a tear-jerking gimmick: Michael learns in the opening scene that he’s dying of cancer, and he decides that he will take a fatal medication before his illness becomes too painful. In other words, Michael will commit medically assisted suicide, which Andy objects to. One assumes that this conflict will be the driving force of the narrative, but Lehmann and Duplass aren’t interested in the moral implications of Michael’s dilemma, which never causes a significant problem for his platonic love affair with Andy. This plot turn is here to lend the flabby sketches an unearned sense of import, as every meaningful detail of illness is elided. How does Michael, who works at an office supplies store, afford expensive medications—or even to live by himself? What will he say to his family? Such concerns are irrelevant to the film’s hermetic celebration of Duplass and Romano’s chemistry.
Michael and Andy’s desire to seemingly live forever as teenage boys, gorging on pizza and films during sleepovers, is fleetingly interrogated. There’s a promising scene where a woman, Nancy (Dendrie Taylor), hits on Andy in a hotel hot tub, as Andy’s shyness gives way to sheepish, self-hating terror. Here, Romano finally has an emotion to play other than dorky amiability, and the actor rises to the occasion, suggesting with his cowering physicality that Andy is haunted by sexual failure. But the filmmakers nip this scene just as it bears fruit, moving on to yet another unthreatening stanza of pseudo-comedic communion as if determined to see Paddleton cancel itself out before our eyes.
Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Alexandra Billings, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor Director: Alex Lehmann Screenwriter: Mark Duplass, Alex Lehmann Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2019