Tuesday, 28 March 2006
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements, courtesy of Amazon.com and additional staff reports:
On the Street: That big ape is back, and he's about to punch a hole in this week's DVD sales charts Universal's two-disc edition of King Kong is so nice they repackaged it twice, offering both widescreen and pan-and-scan single-disc versions as well. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em or so says Warner with their single-disc edition of the original 1933 King Kong, while Sony's doing the mash with a new "Monster Edition" of 1998's Godzilla. It's hard to get some respect amongst these big boys, although Paramount has Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson's feature film debut with Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Meanwhile, Sony's Memoirs of a Geisha and Fox's Stay are new from theaters, while a quartet of Criterion releases include 3 Films By Louis Malle and Vittorio De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us. Here's this morning's notable street discs, available at Amazon.com:
Monday, 27 March 2006
Disc of the Week: Director Louis Malle's career has been one of astute observation of the human condition, often most pointedly examining childhood and the loss of innocence. Most famous in the U.S. for his notorious 1978 film Pretty Baby, in which the young daughter of a New Orleans prostitute is prematurely thrust into adulthood, Malle's previous pictures had returned again and again to similar themes. In his early comedy Zazie dans le métro (1960), a 12-year-old girl escapes from relatives and explores Paris alone. The protagonist of Murmur of the Heart (1971) is a young teenage boy in 1950s France who, during the course of the film, discovers smoking and drinking, endures a pass from a priest, and loses his virginity to his own mother. Other films, like Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Black Moon (1975), look at social constructs through the eyes of children, using their as-yet-unjaded viewpoints as a tool for commenting on the world's oddities and inequities. Arguably the best of these films is Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), a semi-autobiographical remembrance about boys in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France, which not only casts a detailed eye on the cruelties and passions of children but uses this setting to also examine how one thoughtless action can bring tragedy and a lifetime of guilt.
12-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) returns to his school in the country after spending a break with his wealthy parents. It's 1944, and the school is located outside the occupied village of Fountainebleu. He's a boy accustomed to both the privilege of his upbringing and the deprivation of his life at school, where the students never have enough to eat and are warehoused in a massive, austere dormitory. Julien, we discover, is not a popular boy, and he slowly becomes friends with a new student who's even less liked Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), mockingly called "Easter Bonnet" by the other boys. Most of the film details the small things that the friends experience together: taking lessons in a bomb shelter during an air raid, getting lost in the woods after dark, sharing a peek at dirty postcards, and squabbling over petty differences, as they feel both affection and resentment towards each other in what becomes an increasingly complicated relationship. Julien does some snooping after he determines that "Bonnet" isn't Jean's real name, and he discovers that his friend is actually a Jew named Kippelstein, and at the school under the protection of a benevolent priest. When the Gestapo visits the school, Julien unthinkingly betrays his friend and must watch as Jean, the priest, and two other boys are whisked away by the Nazis.
Louis Malle has said in interviews that Au Revoir, Les Enfants is autobiographical, but only in the loosest sense. He was a schoolboy at Petit College d'Avon, near Fontainebleau, when he was 12. He knew a Jewish boy, but not well, and witnessed his school's principal being arrested for hiding Jews after the principal was betrayed by a kitchen worker who was a Nazi informant. So it's interesting that Malle's film, based on an experience that he claimed haunted him for years, would cast his own alter-ego as the one responsible for the arrest of his classmate particularly since the picture is so finely detailed that it feels as if it's crafted entirely from memory. Julien is an arrogant, spoiled innocent who understands that there's a war going on but not the reasons or the true dangers involved. "What's a Jew?" he asks his brother, who responds that "they don't eat pork." Shocked by this, Julien then asks, "But what is their crime?" His first glimpse at anti-Semitism comes during a visit from his mother, who takes him to a restaurant where French police attempt to eject a Jewish diner. "I have nothing against Jews," his mother airily announces. "Except for that Léon Blum. They can hang him." The first film Malle made in France after a decade of working in England, Italy, and the United States, Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a subtle and stylish work, almost too assured for its own good as well-crafted a memoir as it is, it still feels like a hazy memory that relies on eloquently presented nostalgia rather than visceral punch. Despite being a film about children, the film's message is that of an older, more weary Malle who wants to lecture, albeit gently, on the subject of personal integrity. The school's principal, Father Jean, instructs Julien to be kind to Jean because "the others look up to you," and he uses his sermon on parent's day to talk about Nazi collaborators: "We live in a time of discord and hatred. Lies are all-powerful. Christians kill one another. Those who should guide us, betray us. More than ever we must beware of selfishness and indifference I understand the anger of those who have nothing while the rich feast so arrogantly. I don't mean to shock you, but to remind you that charity is a Christian's first duty." It's a message that was as timely in 1987 as it was in 1944, and one that resonates profoundly today. Malle's film is beautifully photographed and delicately presented, and it offers a singularly profound moment in which one boy learns the consequences of forgetting, even for a flicker of an instant, the importance of charity and integrity.
The Criterion Collection offers Au Revoir, Les Enfants as part of their "3 Films by Louis Malle" set, packaged with Lacombe, Lucien and Murmur of the Heart. The new, high-def digital transfer (offered in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is superb, showcasing Malle's muted color palette without sacrificing sharpness or detail. Supervised by director of photography Renato Berta, it's a virtually flawless presentation, made by scanning the original 35mm negative in 2K resolution, digitally color corrected, and then restored to remove scratches, dust, and noise. The dual-layer disc was encoded at the highest possible bit-rate, offering a truly stunning presentation. The remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (in French, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, coming through the center channel of a 5.1 system but so clean and clear that it's hardly even noticeable that it's monaural. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a booklet containing essays by film critic Philip Kemp by Francis J. Murphy, a historian who specializes in the history of modern France. Au Revoir, Les Enfants: The Criterion Collection is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Spike Lee and Denzel Washington scored personal bests over the weekend with Universal's Inside Man the hostage thriller took in $28.9 million for an easy first-place win, giving both director and star their highest-grossing opening weekends. Also new was Hollywood Pictures' video-game chiller Stay Alive which landed in third place with a $11.2 million break, while LionsGate's Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector took seventh with $7 million. Critics gave Inside Man overwhelming accolades, while Alive and Cable Guy were broadly dismissed.
In continuing release, Warner's V for Vendetta slipped to second place with a $12.3 million frame and $46.1 million after 10 days, while Paramount's Failure to Launch remains the top comedy on the board with $63.8 million after three sessions. Rounding off the top five is Disney's The Shaggy Dog starring Tim Allen, which is nearing the $50 million mark, and Fox Searchlight's The Hills Have Eyes has been a fair midlist performer with $35.5 million in the bag. Still drawing fans is Disney's doggie-drama Eight Below with Paul Walker, which now holds down $77.1 million. And off to DVD prep is Sony's critically reviled Ultraviolet, which will close out around $20 million.
Opening Wednesday is Drawing Restraint 9 starring Bjork and writer-director Matthew Barney, while new titles going wide on Friday include Basic Instinct 2 starring Sharon Stone, the urban drama ATL, the thriller Slither, and Fox's animated Ice Age: The Meltdown. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New spins this week from the team include Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Stay, The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection, The Children Are Watching Us: The Criterion Collection, Godzilla: Monster Edition, Ring Around the Rosie, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, Au Revoir, Les Enfants: The Criterion Collection, and The Fifth Cord. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.
Tuesday, 21 March 2006
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements, courtesy of Amazon.com and additional staff reports:
On the Street: Warner kicks off this week's street list with The Busby Berkeley Collection, which includes such catalog treats as Footlight Parade, Dames, 42nd Street, and Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935. Arriving from Sony after previously announced street-dates are Capote and The Squid and the Whale, while Paramount has Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, a reissue of The Ten Commandments, and South Park: Season Seven. Meanwhile, fresh from the cineplexes are Disney's Chicken Little, DreamWorks' Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, and the Weinstein Co.'s Derailed. Here's this morning's notable street discs, available at Amazon.com:
Monday, 20 March 2006
Disc of the Week: Billy Wilder is remembered as one of the great American directors of Hollywood's golden age, despite the fact that he wasn't American by birth. Nonetheless, he figures into one of the era's most significant, if sometimes overlooked, cliques the Austrian/German émigrés, a collective that included Eric von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Joseph von Sternberg, Otto Preminger, Marlene Dietrich, and Peter Lorre. All achieved success as expatriates in the U.S. film industry, although each could be considered an outsider from the Hollywood mainstream. Their shared experiences and sentiments many abandoned Germany due to the rise of Hitler and, in Wilder's case, a Jewish heritage led to frequent collaborations. Wilder's first roommate in America was Lorre; his first co-writer was Lubitsch. Directors von Stroheim and Preminger took roles in his movies. Among his peers, Wilder would eventually achieve the greatest successes, pioneering film noir with Double Indemnity (1944), earning an Oscar for the first serious film on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend (1945), directing the definitive screen comedy, Some Like It Hot (1959), and giving Hollywood its sharpest look at itself with Sunset Boulevard (1950). All of which barely scratches the surface of Wilder's contributions to cinema he also gave Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon career-defining roles. But it's hard to overlook just one more genre that we can thank Billy Wilder for: Without Stalag 17 (1953), Hollywood may never have planted its flag in muddy, overcrowded POW camps, searching for the next big movie.
Adapted from the hit Broadway play by former POWs Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, Stalag 17 opens with a familiar Billy Wilder motif: the voice-over narration, here provided by Cookie (Gil Stratton), the right-hand man of the camp scrounger, Sefton (William Holden). Although "scrounger" doesn't quite do justice to Sefton's sense of enterprise. Interred in a German luft stalag during the cold winter of 1943 with a motley bunch of non-commissioned officers who have little to do but kill time, he not only controls the majority of smuggled goods such as cigarettes and cameras, but also brews moonshine from potato peels, organizes "horse races" (with rats), and arranges for a telescopic peep-show into a Russian women's camp across the way. As far as Sefton is concerned, it's every man for himself, and he doesn't consider trading with the German guards for privileges to be collaboration, but just a way to make life a little easier. However, after two escapees are gunned down moments after they cut the fence, the men of Stalag 17 are convinced that a stoolie's in their midst, and Sefton's chummy relations with the Germans make him the prime suspect. Matters aren't helped by the arrival of two bomber pilots, Dunbar (Don Taylor) and Bagradian (Jay Lawrence), who managed to booby-trap a munitions train after getting shot down. The camp commandant, Col. von Scherbach (Otto Preminger), intends to revoke Dunbar's Geneva rights as a saboteur. The men soon devise a plan to thwart Dunbar's firing squad but as long as they think Sefton is the informer, they have no chance of pulling it off.
When taking in a range of classic American titles from Double Indemnity to The Seven-Year Itch (1955) and The Apartment (1960), one might think that Billy Wilder had turned his back on Europe forever however, while on the surface a rousing comedy and escape film, Stalag 17 must have resonated deeply with the director. The real "Stalag XVII B" was not in Germany, but in Austria, a mere 40 miles from Wilder's native Vienna, and while the entire production was shot on Paramount's soundstages and at the Calabassas Ranch, the fact that it all represented a continent under the jackboot of the Third Reich can't be overlooked it's why Wilder was drawn to the story in the first place. Playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski originally pitched Stalag 17 to Paramount (it was rejected four times) before mounting a New York production. After the play became a long-running smash, Wilder considered it a valuable property. Nonetheless, such didn't mean he didn't throw out most of the original dialogue as was his custom, he and writing partner Edwin Blum kept the basic plot and little else, often writing scenes the night before shooting and tailoring dialogue to the actors' performances. Wilder was coming off a box-office disaster with Ace in the Hole (1951), which meant that Paramount was expecting a cash-cow from Stalag, and while both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas were considered for the role of Sefton, William Holden seems the best of all possible choices as a crude, burned-out cynic who barely acknowledges that a war is even underway. Wilder also allows for generous amounts of levity throughout, often deviating from the plot to highlight comic relief by Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, who originated their roles on Broadway. The tone-shifts are bold, but they also illustrate just how much of a verbal director Wilder was, always driving his story with rapid dialogue and throwaway asides. "They don't make movies about POWs" Cookie says as the film gets underway. It wouldn't be true for much longer though, and if the definitive entry remains John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963), it owes much of its success to Billy Wilder, who proved you could shoot a movie in a POW camp, as long as one remembered that humor was a captured soldier's primary method of survival.
Paramount's Special Edition release of Stalag 17 updates a previous DVD edition with a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a splendid, pleasant black-and-white source-print that shows little in the way of damage or collateral wear with strong low-contrast details, while the restored monaural audio (DD 2.0) is crisp and clear. Playwright Donald Bevan is joined on a commentary track by actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton, while featurettes include "Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen" featuring writer-director Nicholas Meyer, biographers Bob Thomas and Ed Sikov, and others (22 min.), "The Real Heroes of Stalag XVII B" (24 min.), and a photo gallery, which includes an on-set still of Marlene Dietrich, who dropped by the camp one day for a surprise appearance. Stalag 17: Special Collector's Edition is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: Pre-release publicity may have suggested that V for Vendetta would generate more money, but with a $26.1 million debut, the film easily took first place on the box-office chart for the brothers Warner and Wachowski, Also new was DreamWorks' She's the Man, an update of Shakpeseare's Twelfth Night starring Amanda Bynes, which arrived in fourth place with $11 million. Critics gave Vendetta mostly good reviews, while Man took home mixed notices.
In continuing release, last week's winner Failure to Launch starring Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker slipped to second place, adding $15.8 million to a $48.4 million gross in just 10 days, while Disney's The Shaggy Dog starring Tim Allen also held up during its second frame, adding $13.6 million to $35.8 million so far. Rounding out the top five was Fox Searchlight's The Hills Have Eyes, which has racked up $28.7 million. Warner's 16 Blocks with Bruce Willis and Mos Def has cleared $30 million, while Disney's Eight Below starring Paul Walker is one of the late winter's big earners with nearly $75 million. Despite horrible reviews, Sony's Ultraviolet has scraped together $17.6 million. And off to DVD prep is LionsGate's Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which finishes out with a modest $10 million.
New films in 'plexes this Friday include Inside Man starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster, as well as the thriller Stay Alive. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week include Derailed, Chicken Little, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Stalag 17: Special Edition, and South Park: Season Seven. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 14 March 2006
In the Works: Here's some new disc announcements, courtesy of Amazon.com and additional staff reports:
On the Street: Oscar notables make the street list this week, including Warner's Good Night, and Good Luck and New Line's A History of Violence, while new from DreamWorks is The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Buena Vista has a "Director's Cut" of Remember the Titans under wraps, and Warner's Agatha Christie's Miss Marple Movies Collection includes five classic mysteries. Here's this morning's notable street discs, available at Amazon.com:
Monday, 13 March 2006
Disc of the Week: As history often reveals, one war begins after another has concluded and for the United States, the peace dividend from World War II seemed to exist for mere months at best. Former allies quickly faded, with the Soviet Union establishing satellite governments in Eastern Europe, while the People's Republic of China emerged under the control of Chairman Mao. The Soviets developed an atom bomb much faster than anyone predicted, thanks in part to espionage activities, which led to the highly publicized trials of Alger Hiss (found guilty of perjury) and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (convicted, executed). The Berlin Blockade was established in 1948, resulting in a year-long allied airlift. Two years later, a shooting war erupted in Korea. And in the midst of it all, American citizens built bunkers and lost sleep over the idea that atomic bombs could strike the nation's cities. Inevitably, some were convinced that the enemy was here the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was established in 1946, gaining its greatest notoriety for the subsequent Hollywood blacklist. Meanwhile, just a few years later, an enterprising junior senator from Wisconsin decided to launch his own crusade against communists, whom he was convinced worked at sensitive levels of the nation's government. He even claimed to have a list of names. In retrospect, his political career was brief, and he never had the sympathy of Presidents Truman nor Eisenhower. But the name Joe McCarthy has since become synonymous with the "Red Scare," and as long as a nation at war fears enemies within, the very concept of McCarthyism will resonate. George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck may be a period film, but of all of the 2005 Best Picture contenders, it was the most contemporary with its admonition that we "must not confuse dissent with disloyalty."
One wouldn't expect Edward R. Murrow to be a dynamic television presence, which he never intended to be in any case. A long-standing reporter with CBS, Murrow first rose to fame during World War II, where he began his legendary Blitz broadcasts with the words "This is London." It's also where he happened upon another famous phrase, ending his reports with the "good night, and good luck" that Londoners regularly offered each other. At his heart, Murrow was a radio man, an elocutionist, a rationalist who believed that the power of the word surpassed all. As such, he distrusted television, which he famously described as "wires and lights in a box," a manipulative visual medium that had the power to persuade, but also to sedate and numb. Still, TV was where broadcast journalism was headed, and Murrow continued to pioneer on the small screen with the investigative program "See It Now" and interview show "Person to Person." And despite his misgivings, "See It Now" would serve as the platform for his most famous journalistic battle, which forms the centerpiece of Good Night, and Good Luck starting with the 1953 dismissal of an Air Force enlisted man over sealed charges alleging communist sympathies, Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) bring to light some dubious U.S. military policies, and then follow it with another program that critiques the country's foremost commie-baiter, Sen. Joe McCarthy. It's a moment that marks the birth of serious television journalism, even if Edward R. Murrow's finest half-hour couldn't prevent the rise of sitcoms and game-shows, where TV quickly found its most profitable voices.
Thankfully, Edward R. Murrow's legacy remains intact despite the fact that his "See It Now" program lost its prime-time position, one of the show's directors, Don Hewitt, would launch "60 Minutes" in 1968, which stands as the single most successful television show of the past three decades, as well as an unapologetic inheritor of Murrow's journalistic ideals. For this, Good Night, and Good Luck is a welcome look back to a previous generation where news reporters were just beginning to figure out how to use the enormous power of television, with a knowing concern that they also could abuse it. If George Clooney's film were merely about that, it would be more than enough, particularly with his winking inclusion of vintage materials, such as a cigarette commercial (smoking Kents "makes sense") and a Liberace interview that's brimming with double-entendre. However, the film's parallels with today's post-9/11 headlines are its most salient features and Clooney admits that he hopes to cast doubt upon such things as the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, and Guantanamo Bay detainees. Defenders of the Bush administration doubtless will claim that none is "McCarthyist" in the strictest sense, but rather an expansion of law enforcement, similar to Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus or the FBI's roving wiretaps on Mob suspects. But Murrow's words seem oddly prescient as he insists that "the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one." As Murrow, David Strathairn moves from noted supporting actor to an Oscar-nominated leading role, here capturing not only Murrow's rigid on-screen persona, but also his causal side among "Murrow's boys" in the newsroom, and even brief moments after the camera fades and he reveals unspoken emotions. Clooney was concerned about casting someone too famous as Murrow; as for McCarthy, he felt it was virtually impossible, leading to the senator playing himself via film footage. Newsreels fill out much of the scenes exterior to the CBS newsroom and a local bar, including McCarthy's famous non-denial denial on CBS and Annie Lee Moss's appearance before the McCarthy committee. The best is McCarthy's own defense at the Army-McCarthy hearings, during which Army lawyer Joseph Welch uttered the words that finally ended his career: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"
Warner's DVD release of Good Night and Good Luck features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Clooney and longtime pal/co-writer-producer Grant Heslov offer a tongue-in-cheek commentary that's full of Clooney's self-effacing dry wit (e.g., "Nobody in this movie got paid a lot of money, because we put together a huge package for ourselves.") Also on board is a behind-the-scenes "Good Night and Good Luck Companion Piece" (15 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Good Night, and Good Luck is on the street tomorrow.
Box Office: The star wattage of Matthew McConaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker managed to overcome poor reviews for Paramount's Failure to Launch the rom-com debuted with $24.6 million to take the top spot on the weekend box-office chart. Arriving in second place was Disney's remake of the 1959 classic The Shaggy Dog starring Tim Allen, which delivered $16 million, while another rehash, Fox's The Hills Have Eyes, was good for third place and $15.5 million. Meanwhile, Miramax/Weinstein's The Libertine found its way into semi-limited release but failed to break the top ten with $2.2 million. Critics were mixed on Eyes, while the remaining new titles earned mixed-to-negative notices.
In continuing release, LionsGate's Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion tumbled from its two-week run at first place to the fifth spot, but not before generating $55.7 million, while Warner's 16 Blocks starring Bruce Willis and Mos Def dropped to fourth with $22.7 million overall. Disney's Eight Below has been a solid performer with $66.4 million in kibble after four weeks, while the easily confused titles Aquamarine and Ultraviolet are on the fade with less than $15 million each. Count The Pink Panther as one of the few hits we see every year under the MGM banner. And off to DVD prep is Firewall the Harrison Ford potboiler closes out with around $45 million.
New in 'plexes this Friday is V for Vendetta starring Natalie Portman, while Amanda Bynes turns up in the prep-school comedy She's the Man. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the gang include Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Special Edition, A History of Violence, Jarhead, Howl's Moving Castle, Remember the Titans: Director's Cut, Good Night and Good Luck, and Kids in America. It's all fresh under the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
Back tomorrow with the street discs.
Tuesday, 7 March 2006
On the Street: There's little doubt that Warner's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will be this week's best-selling DVD, but there are at least a few other titles worth checking out, including Buena Vista/Miramax's Howl's Moving Castle, Universal's Prime and Jarhead, Paramount's The Thing Called Love, Sony's Buster Keaton: 65th Anniversary Collection, and three new noir titles from Fox, including The House on Telegraph Hill. Here's this morning's notable street discs, available at Amazon.com:
Monday, 6 March 2006
Disc of the Week: A history of American music wouldn't merely be incomplete without Johnny Cash it probably wouldn't make any sense. One of the few genre-crossing artists who absorbed and contributed to the full range of American popular music in the latter half of the 20th century, his scope has been matched by few others; in fact, only Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan could be described as his peers. Cash arrived at the right time, the mid-'50s, at a point when our current pop genres were gaining a semblance of definition, like the topography of a continent in the midst of rapid glacial recession. Assisted by the popular dissemination of radio, as well as touring variety-shows and a burgeoning recording industry, audiences began to form specific tastes in music. And, to a large degree, the audience was defined by a brand-new demographic the Teenager, who emerged in the postwar boom with newfound freedoms and expendable cash, and with such undeniable force that a young and controversial Elvis Presley wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show mere months after the host declared he would never appear at all. Born from the same Memphis recording studio that launched the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Perkins (and thus part of the "Million Dollar Quartet"), Cash was all but assured of his legend, well before his decades-long recording career forged it. Nonetheless, while considered a country artist, he never quite fit into the Nashville mainstream, or any single genre. He would eventually be hailed as everything from a classic blues lyricist to the godfather of gangsta rap after all, long before NWA or Tupac, he sang of shooting a man "just to watch him die." But in the end, he was remembered simply as "the man in black," which isn't a whole lot to go on if you're preparing a major Hollywood biopic.
James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005), based in part on Johnny Cash's own autobiography, covers Cash's story from his early years to his life's most redeeming event, his marriage to June Carter in 1968. Born into a working-class farm family in Arkansas during the Depression, young J.R. Cash (his parents never could agree on a proper first name) forms a close bond with his older brother Jack, who plans someday to be a preacher, while J.R.'s talents appear to be musical in nature. Their stern father Ray (Robert Patrick) is far more attached to his older son a point made clear when Jack dies in an accident, causing J.R. to live with both a lifelong sense of guilt and his dad's long-standing disapproval. Enlisting in the Air Force for a stint in Germany, J.R. adopts the name "John," since the military won't accept initials as a name, and while overseas develops his talent. Returning to the States a few years later, he relocates with his wife Viv (Ginnifer Goodwin) to Memphis, where he takes odd jobs and begins exploring a musical career. He earns a break with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, setting aside Gospel music for his own compositions, including "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Cry, Cry, Cry." However, success puts his marriage to Viv at risk matters not helped by his growing relationship with recent divorcée June Carter, a member of the wholesome Carter Family, America's "first family of country music."
The fact that both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon earned Academy Award nominations for Walk the Line, but that the film itself was passed over for Best Picture consideration, raised some eyebrows if anything can be faulted for such, it's likely because each one of the 2005 Best Picture contenders offered some sort of socio-political commentary, which the Academy gravitated towards at the end of the year. Nonetheless, the film wasn't helped by Ray (2004), the Ray Charles biopic that dominated the previous awards season and earned Jamie Foxx the Best Actor hardware. Accolades aside, the Oscars is all about show business, where sentiment is generally overruled by the risk of appearing repetitious. Had rights issues not held up the project for several years, Walk the Line might have arrived in a more favorable climate, although it's able to stand on its own merits. Fundamentally, director/co-writer James Mangold's film hopes to decipher the Johnny Cash mystique, even if it doesn't always glorify it. Here, the man in black isn't always a dynamic figure. At times he's remarkably simple and common, sometimes enjoying simple pleasures, but also capable of drunkeness and violent outbursts as with most biopics, it's a contained portrait of imperfection, where raw talent is meant to outweigh nobility in the audience's measure of sympathy. But where the film manages to better recent entries such as Ray and Ali is that it's actually less of a biography and more of a love story without the presence of Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, we might be left with little more than the pieces of a larger puzzle that don't necessarily form a continuous image. Because of this, Witherspoon's Best Actress win seems less of a gesture and more a recognition specifically, as June Carter she presents not just a beautiful, independent woman, but also one who is worth loving. And if Johnny Cash's music leads us to appreciate the many crossroads contained in American songs, it's June Carter who helps us to simply understand him.
Fox's two-disc DVD release of Walk the Line presents the film in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras on Disc One include a feature commentary with director/co-writer James Mangold, 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary, and the theatrical trailer, while Disc Two includes the documentary "Celebrating the Man in Black: The Making of Walk the Line," the featurettes "Folsom, Cash and the Comeback" and "Ring of Fire: The Passion of Johnny and June," and three extended musical sequences. Walk the Line: Collector's Edition is on the street now.
Box Office: Oscar weekend was a bumpy one for new movies four new titles arrived in cineplexes but none could budge LionsGate's Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, which held on to the top spot for the second week running, taking in $48 million in just ten days, and that for a title reportedly budgeted around $6 million. Bruce Willis and Mos Def took second place in Warner's 16 Blocks, directed by Richard Donner, which debuted with $11 million, while Sony's Ultraviolet starring Milla Jovovich took in $9 million, Fox's teen fantasy Aquamarine was good for $7.5 million, and Focus Features' concert film Dave Chappelle's Block Party landed in seventh with $6.5 million. Critics praised Party and were mixed on Blocks and Aquamarine, while Ultraviolet earned near-universal derison and will likely be one of the worst-reviewed films of 2006.
In continuing release, Disney's Eight Below starring Paul Walker continues to be a strong performer, standing in third place with $58.7 million after three frames, while MGM's The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin has racked up nearly $70 million in one month. Fox's Date Movie with Alyson Hannigan has earned its keep with a $40 million cume in three weekends, while Universal's animated Curious George is bearing down on the $50 million mark. Brokeback Mountain was the lone Oscar contender to return to the chart over the awards weekend. And off to DVD prep is Sony's Freedomland starring Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore, which heads out the door with little more than $10 million.
New films on screens this Friday include The Libertine starring Johnny Depp, Failure to Launch with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew McConaughey, The Shaggy Dog with Tim Allen, and The Hills Have Eyes. Here's the top-grossing movies at North American theaters from last weekend:
On the Board: New reviews this week from the team include Pride & Prejudice, Prime, Yours Mine & Ours, The Thing Called Love, Walk the Line: Collector's Edition, and another look at Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, which arrives in new distribution channels this week from The Criterion Collection. Everything's been added to the New Reviews menu here on the front page.
We'll be back tomorrow with the rundown on this week's street discs.