Sunday, November 27, 2005

Reel To Reel:
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Scary Sequences and Fantasy Violence

Seeing a new Harry Potter movie is like going to a high-school class reunion every couple of years. You know these people, you love these people, and you see how their lives are changing -- both for the better and worse. Unfortunately for Harry, it's always for the worse. Fortunately for his best girl friend Hermoine (Watson), it's always for the better, as she's picking up teenage beauty to go along with all those smarts. A few snarky Muggles (non-magic folk) might argue you can change anything with a wand, including acne.

For the fourth installment of the series, director Mike Newell picks up the baton from Alfonso Cuaron and continues into deeper, darker territory while still preserving the magic touches Potter fans demand and expect.

The film opens with what could be the wizarding world's equivalent of 9/11 -- the Quiddich World Cup is firebombed by Death Eaters, followers of the evil Lord Voldemort (don't say his name), right before Harry's eyes. But life goes on, and Harry goes back to school at Hogwarts with yet another new Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher, "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a nutty exterminator of evil. Harry's dreams reveal something's about to go down involving him and you-know-who, but he can't put the pieces together.

The film contains no Quiddich matches -- even with the World Cup scenes -- but it does host the Triwizard tournament, which I guess you could call Merlinian Gladiators. (Can you imagine Larry Czonka doing color commentary on a battle with a dragon?). Students from two other wizarding schools are being hosted at Hogwarts: the girls of France's Beauxbatons and the boys of Bugaria's Durmstrang. The latter is home to Viktor Krum, a star Quiddich player and chick magnet. Only one wizard from each school is chosen to compete by a magical cup which holds names of those desiring to enter. But for some mystical reason, the cup chooses two from Hogwards: Cedric Diggory, the captain of the Quidditch team, and Harry.

We've got a problem. Not only is the competition too dangerous for underage wizards, somebody else put Harry's name in the cup. But who? However, the rules are absolute. Cedric, Harry, a girl from Beauxbatons and Krum are the challengers. One of them will emerge as champion -- if they survive.

Harry and his pals are growing up. The teenage angst of the last picture is remixed into the frustrations and angst of getting a date as Potter and his best friend Ron look to ask somebody to the school dance. But who? Hermione, she's got Krum. It always seems easier for the girls, doesn't it? Not quite, as you will see.

The latest Potter film stays true to the notion that it's the reality, not the fantasy, that draws people into this continuing story. The Harry Potter saga is really a coming-of-age story spread out over seven (or maybe more) books that just so happen to have magical appeal. The film adaptation of Goblet Of Fire has been distilled down as much as possible without breaking it, but like every other picture in the series, it never matches up to the book in depth, although Prisoner of Azkaban came the closest with its emotional legs. A plan to break this book into two pictures was thankfully scotched, as the filmmakers have been able to slowly drift away from a slavish loyality to the text. The film is still long, at two hours plus, but it's as good as you're going to get.

Reel To Reel:
Walk The Line

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Drug Abuse, Mild Sexuality

Johnny Cash would have ended up another washed-up singer, downtrodden like those he sang about, if he hadn't risen to the challenge of Sun Records executive Sam Phillips, who demanded more than the washed-up gospel act Cash offered him. That music already sold. That music wouldn't sell any more. What did Cash have of his own?

Cash offers him a song he'd written in the Air Force, "Folsom Prison Blues," and instantly, we see a musical metamorphasis as Cash becomes the gritty voice that would influence country and rock music forever. It is Walk The Line's best moment, and it is played perfectly.

Joaquin Phoenix embodies Cash effectively, right down to the guitar, which he learned to play for the role. His performance here isn't as mesmorizing as Jaime Foxx's embodiment of Ray Charles last year, but it's darned close enough. Equally compelling and almost overshadowing is Witherspoon, who is irresistable as the twangy June Carter, a country legend in her own right and Cash's obscession. And yes, both Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing.

Cash's pursuit of Carter is the picture's framework, as we follow the Man In Black up the charts and down the spiral of drug addiction. His first marriage to Vivian Cash produces children but little love. Cash is always on the road, apart from family but closer to the woman he pines for, who conveniently is part of the Sun Records tour. June Carter goes through one marriage and then another in an atmosphere where divorce is abhorrent and sinful and, unfortunately for her, public. Cash hurts from the scorn of his father, who still blames him for a saw accident which killed his brother. Carter refuses to have anything to do with Cash off the stage, but she is slowly reeled to him in a tug-of-war romance spanning years. Here are two people who know they need each other but yet can't take it all the way for fear of mutually assured destruction.

Walk The Line is a drawn-out love story more than a musical biopic, and it works like that. Cash's music is given its due, but his performance at Folsom Prison, the live recording which many consider his masterpiece, is almost an afterthought. Chances are you won't mind.