Thursday, December 29, 2005

Movie Review: The Happy Elf

U.S. Release Date: 12/6/05 (DVD)
Running Time: 0:45
Rated: NR
Cast (voices): Rob Paulsen, Carol Kane, Mickey Rooney, Lewis Black, Harry Connick Jr., Kevin Michael Richardson

Director: John Rice
Producers: Harry Connick Jr., Ann Marie Wilkins, Scott Landis, John W. Hyde
Screenplay: Andrew Fishman, based on the song by Harry Connick Jr.
Music: Harry Connick Jr.
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment/IDT Entertainment

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Based on Harry Connick Jr.’s song of the same name – a cut from his encore Christmas album, entitled “Harry for the Holidays” – The Happy Elf is a short-film that aspires to be the next animated holiday classic. Although, Harry Connick Jr. himself has said that the film was built “off of the skeleton lyric that [he] had.” Connick’s use of the word “skeleton” should be proof enough that stretching a film out of a song is a bad idea. While novels and short-stories have been adapted into decent full-length films, adapting a song into a movie is just about as logical as turning an SNL skit into one.

While The Happy Elf may seem to be a good excuse to gather the family around the hearth, it merely serves as a 45-minute diversion for only the youngest of viewers. Its dialogue is weak; its character development is near nonexistent; its CG-animation is run-of-the-mill; and, its storyline is basic and unmoving.

Eubie the Elf (Rob Paulsen) is one of Santa’s helpers. He is overzealous to the point of annoying, and no supervisor wants to manage him. However, when the “Naughty-and-Nice” department becomes backed up with checking Santa’s list a second time, Eubie gets assigned to the task. In checking to see which kids were naughty and which were nice, Eubie discovers that an entire town, called Bluesville, made the naughty list. With a last minute effort, Eubie attempts to restore the Christmas spirit in the dreariest of townspeople.

Rob Paulsen does an adequate job as the energetic, motor-mouthed, bucked-toothed Eubie. With the same frenzied voice he used to play Yakko on WB’s “Animaniacs,” Paulsen easily emits a character that appears to have taken a high dosage of Prozac. Also, with her same whispery, New York-accented voice that she applied as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Scrooged and as Valerie in The Princess Bride, Carol Kane creates Gilda—Eubie’s love interest and the one character who possesses awkward and over-exaggerated lip movements. In addition, Lewis Black as Eubie’s boss, Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus, and Harry Connick Jr. as Lil Farley (the narrator) perform equally well.

In terms of comedy, most of The Happy Elf’s jokes fall flat. With lines like, “He started it; she escalated it,” “I could have a panic attack just thinking about it,” and “This conversation is giving me hives,” screenwriter Andrew Fishman tries to crack a few smiles, but looks of tedium are sure to result. The Happy Elf also attempts to reach the adult audience by quoting a few well-known productions. When the one-woman show of the Smiling League of Bluesville (S.L.O.B.) demands “Serenity Now,” it rings false sentiments of “Seinfeld.” When Eubie exclaims, “Wax on; wax off,” it is only the umpteenth time we have heard this Karate Kid quote, and when someone asks a worker at "The What Factory” what factory he works at, his answer of “Yeah, that’s right,”—only mimicking the “Who’s on first” Abbott and Costello routine that tired everyone out over 60 years ago.

In the long run, The Happy Elf is suitable for any child under the age of seven. Any one over the age of seven will most likely be insulted by wasting three quarters of an hour. While the film is colorful and gets across its “Kids need to be well-behaved all year round” message, the picture trudges along—even wasting time by having the main character say “Goodbye” in about 30 different languages and show his Mouse Trap-esque thought-process to arrive at an idea. Also, even though the majority of Connick’s tunes are catchy, the instruments are basically inaudible—resulting in the musical numbers sounding more like a cappella charts, with a recording playing down the street and around the corner.

Considering Eubie’s overused motto is “Think big, and you can do great things,” too bad the production team didn’t take the protagonist’s words as advice. The Happy Elf: “A new animated Christmas Classic,”—in Anchor Bay Entertainment’s dreams. Give me Rudolph and the Misfit Toys, Frosty, Charlie Brown, or the Grinch over Eubie the Elf any day. (* out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Movie Review: The Bridges of Madison County

U.S. Release Date: 6/2/95
Running Time: 2:15
Rated: PG-13 (Mature themes, brief nudity)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak, Jim Haynie

Director: Clint Eastwood
Producers: Clint Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Studio: Warner Brothers

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When Clint Eastwood takes over a production, he makes it his own. He stars. He directs. He uses his talent to the best of his abilities. In the case of The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood shines, but not bright enough to block either Streep in her wonder or the intense romance based on the novel by Robert James Waller.

Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is your typical 1960’s housewife. She does all the cooking, cleaning, and caring. Born in Italy, Francesca once had dreams and aspirations of her own. However, now married, she is limited to living in an Iowa farmhouse that has been passed down through the generations to her husband. Her two children don’t give her the time of day and constantly slam the kitchen door closed. Her husband shows her no affection and doesn’t offer to help out around the house.

Cue Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood). In town to photograph a few of the county’s covered bridges, Robert meets Francesca (whose husband and children are away at the Illinois State Fair for four days) and the two begin to converse. After a few iced teas and an intriguing conversation, a relationship quickly buds and blossoms. Only, at the end of the fourth day, Francesca must decide to either leave town with her soul-mate or remain faithful to her family.

The outcome of this decision is already apparent to the viewer, because the entire film plays out in the fashion of a flashback. As Francesca’s son Michael (Victor Slezak) and daughter Caroline (Annie Corley) read their now-deceased mother’s journals, they are shocked to learn that she was involved in an affair with Robert—the man she describes as her one true love. Through these readings, Michael and Caroline come to know Robert and the relationship that he and their mother shared, and in doing so, they also find themselves.

Even though the son and daughter storyline is undoubtedly the weak point of the film, it is absolutely essential to the “looking-back” structure. At times, when Michael and Caroline occupy the screen, the film feels awkward, yet its core lies in the romance. The love between Robert and Francesca easily burns the heart and sets the tear ducts into motion.

Although some may find it morally difficult to attach themselves to a character that is having an affair, the story is about more than infidelity. It is a life-altering opportunity and a chance for a woman who has lost herself – who feels nonexistent in her own life – to express her true self and experience the passion of connecting to someone on a most intimate intellectual and emotional level. For a woman who barely gets any attention from her family, she immediately cherishes the prospect to share a few lines of Yeats, smoke a few cigarettes, and drink a few beers. The film is about finding love where, under the circumstances, it is forbidden. Whether or not Francesca’s actions are justified, is irrelevant and immaterial to the storyline.

Accentuated by two heartrending character portraits from Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, it is obvious why this film is a female favorite. Streep alone – with her impeccable accent, melancholy facial expressions, and alluring body language – contributes to the film’s relaxed pace and magical aura. Eastwood also fares well—throwing his Dirty Harry stereotype out the window and playing a man of depth, heart, and muscle.

Curl up on the couch with The Bridges of Madison County. It is a poetic, profound, and even erotic romance that depicts an affair growing from the smallest seed. Like a bridge, this film is firm, steady, and well-supported, and like an old covered bridge, this movie is truly a rare find. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Movie Review: King Kong (2005)

U.S. Release Date: 12/14/05
Running Time: 3:07
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, frightening images)
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis, Jamie Bell, Kyle Chandler, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks

Director: Peter Jackson
Producers: Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh
Screenplay: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Music: James Newton Howard
Studio: Universal Pictures

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When Peter Jackson set out to recreate King Kong (a film already done twice-over in 1933 and 1976), he was handed $200 million and elevated expectations to follow in the greatness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What he has helmed is a near immaculate action-adventure pic and a love story for the ages. Even though its hyper-extended running-time nearly causes the kettle to bubble-over, King Kong is still a tour-de-force of action, adventure, and intensity and an emotional roller-coaster powerful enough to set your heart aflame.

After Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) loses her job as an actress/dancer at a vaudeville theater, she is left to roam the streets of New York unemployed. Seemingly by chance, she meets Carl Denham (Jack Black), a filmmaker who is pressed for time to find a leading lady to star in his next film. When Darrow first learns that the film is set to film in Singapore, she displays a lack of interest. However, once Carl mentions that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is aboard, Ann is immediately attracted to the project, and once Driscoll lays his eyes on Darrow, another attraction surfaces. Little does Ann know that she is setting sail on a most-dangerous mission to locate...Skull Island.

Hoping to stumble upon the uncharted Skull Island, to use its scenery as the backdrop for his film, Carl convinces the Captain (Thomas Kretschmann) of the ship to stay on course—in accordance with his oilskin map. Even after a minor detour, the ship’s crew and passengers soon find themselves traversing through a thick fog—only to crash into dry land.

Once ashore, the sailors and the production team encounter a group of savage natives who begin to slaughter the crew members. In the mix, the natives kidnap Miss Darrow and attempt to sacrifice her to the beast hidden behind a wall. After observing this beast – a 25-foot ape, whom the natives call “Kong” – grasp Darrow in his palm and head into the jungle, Carl bands together with the other men and follows Kong into the foliage. While on their quest to save the girl, the men encounter everything from a dinosaur stampede to an infestation of the world’s largest insects. Meanwhile, Darrow witnesses a ferocious T-Rex battle and a certain primate’s fixation with her blonde beauty.

Months before King Kong’s theatrical release, an online poll asked the public how they felt about the reported 187-minute running-time. The most popular response was, “Who cares? I’m there!” Now, after sitting through the feature, it is obvious that a good 30 minutes could have easily been cut. While Jackson’s Lord of the Rings pictures warranted an inflated three-hour running-time, King Kong simply feels unnecessarily long.

To add to its extensive length, King Kong does have a few petty faults. Some may argue that there are one-too-many prolonged gazes between the beauty and the beast. However, it is equally arguable that the extended eye-contact allows for the perfect height of sentimentality and assists in adding credibility to the CGI ape’s emotions. Also, the character of Jimmy (Jamie Bell) could have been cut entirely; his side-story is irrelevant and distracting. In addition, with King Kong, the suspension of disbelief must be taken into account. Could a young woman really withstand the clutching grasp of Kong and the whiplash – equivalent to 12 car accidents – which he provides? Is it feasible to assume that anyone not central to the storyline has a greater chance of being crushed, beheaded, or eaten than the film’s main players? Could Kong easily adjust to the snowy climate of New York in two shakes of a lamb’s tail? Plus, exactly how does the crew escort a sleepy 25-foot-tall ape to the States, on a tramp steamer that has already taken on water? (At one point, anything not bolted to the ship was thrown overboard in fear of the ship sinking.) Nonetheless, by no means do these discrepancies bog down this monumental motion-picture, and even if you find yourself shifting your weight throughout, the bulk of the shifting will come in the film’s second hour—when a shift from the meat of your seat to the edge will inevitably occur.

To couple the greatness of the action, King Kong is also well-acted. Naomi Watts is utterly iconic—playing the emotional, yet sultry, blonde role that Fay Wray once screamed her way through. Watts is perfect for the part, because she possesses the uncanny ability of being able to muster a jungle of emotions and emit them all through a single teary-eyed gaze. Jack Black, although questionable at first glance, pulls off his dramatic turn as the frenzied and money-hungry filmmaker. If you can avoid the myopia of picturing Black as Dewey Finn from School of Rock or the lead singer of Tenacious D, then you will most likely appreciate his work. Andy Serkis, who previously performed the voice and motions of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, fares well as Lumpy the cook and also does a gracious job of executing the ape’s every motion. In addition, Serkis gets by far the coolest death of all the film's characters. Adrien Brody, Kyle Chandler (formerly from CBS’s “Early Edition”), and Colin Hanks are also pleasing in their limited roles.

Considering the majority of the movie’s midsection is non-stop action, the hardest question for the teenage boy in every male – since “What is the meaning of life?” – is “What is your favorite scene from Jackson’s King Kong?” While the T-Rex battle will most likely take the cake for the action-hounds, those with a softer side will appreciate the beauty in watching Ann and Kong observe a sunset and later dance playfully on a frozen Central Park pond.

King Kong is hands down an awe-inspiring, kinetic motion-picture that possesses an octane level high enough for rocket fuel. It’s the biggest blockbuster of the year—combining all the pluses of the 1933 original, Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, and Cameron’s Titanic. King Kong is certainly worth every dollar of its $200 million budget and worth every dime of your ticket price. Grab the biggest tub of buttery popcorn you can find and curl up with the King; it has all the trimmings of a mid-summer classic, yet it’s undeniably an early X-mas gift. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Movie Review: Reservoir Dogs

U.S. Release Date: 10/92
Running Time: 1:36
Rated: R (Strong violence and language)
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Lawrence Tierney, Christopher Penn, Kirk Baltz, Quentin Tarantino

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Producer: Lawrence Bender
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Studio: Artisan

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When you throw sharp dialogue, an ingenious structure, and extreme violence in the same boat, and ignite it all with a spark by the name of Quentin Tarantino, you get a bonfire big enough to burn its image into your iris. Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s freshman film, is certainly the type of film that impacts the impressionable; it is taut, gripping, and gut-wrenching. While it plays out in the style of a borrowed Brit crime caper (influenced by Scorsese and Woo), it still gushes with unflinching originality.

After a jewelry heist goes wrong, four hired con-men (who are given the names of colors to conceal their identities from one another), their boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) all converge in an empty warehouse. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) attempt to analyze how the robbery went awry, and in their evaluation, they believe one of the hired hands is a rat.

Meanwhile, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) lies on the floor critically injured and bleeding buckets, and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrives with a hog-tied cop (Kirk Baltz) in the trunk of his car.

No review would be complete without mentioning the “ear scene” – in which Michael Madsen dances to the Stealers Wheel tune, tortures a cop to the point of slicing off his right ear, and then douses the “pig” in gasoline. This several minute sequence displays the idiosyncrasies of Tarantino’s method of mixing gore and comedy and also proves that Madsen can be cooler than a cucumber. However, this is not the only sequence worthy of note.

Throughout the picture, a variety of other moments are also capable of causing you to cringe, laugh out loud, or even both simultaneously—showcasing Tarantino’s guts, glory, and guile. The opening conversation – culminating in Pink’s motion not to tip – dually results in a few musings and laughs. The execution of the commode story – in which Roth’s character speaks the voiceover (a technique Tarantino uses again in Sin City) – is transfixing; yet the scene itself is both witty and intense. Also, while the closing shootout may be bleak and brutal, it justly suits the dark humor that preceded it.

With its ample allowance of dark humor, Reservoir Dogs satisfies not only in script but also with structure. To showcase the jewel heist, its preparation, and exactly what went afoul, the viewer is gradually given the pieces of the puzzle in a series of rewound clips. This non-chronological, energetic approach packs twists and turns around each corner.

In addition to its twists and turns, the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs is, in a word, ideal. As the sand of the film’s hour glass transfers from top to bottom, the viewer is treated to tunes like: “Little Green Bag,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “I Gotcha,” “Fool for Love,” “Stuck in the Middle with You,” and finally Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut”—all as part of “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ‘70’s.” By avoiding a score and sticking with a soundtrack, Tarantino certainly enhances the overall experience.

In the minds of many, Reservoir Dogs is Quentin’s most tightly-focused and best work. If not the best, then it arguably comes a close second to Pulp Fiction. It’s a gangster movie without the Italian Mafia stereotypes; it’s a comedy without a heart; and, it’s a film with “masterpiece” branded on its forehead. If you want to have your stomach bathed in blood, lassoed tight, then violently wringed out by the coarsest of hands, then Reservoir Dogs is your ticket. I highly recommend it. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Friday, December 09, 2005

What to Watch This Christmas

Each and every Friday throughout the calendar year, fresh theatrical releases find their way into cinemas worldwide. With genres abounding from drama and comedy, to action and romance, there is always something for all tastes. Nevertheless, come late November/early December, Hollywood typically attempts to get movie-theater goers into the Christmas spirit by emptying their wallets for one or two holiday-oriented features. This year the evidence would be 20th Century Fox’s The Family Stone. (Films like Jarhead, The Ice Harvest, Just Friends, and Rent are also set during the holidays, but according to popular definition, these are not “holiday” pictures.)

Whatever your appetite, there is without a doubt a wide variety of Christmas treasures available on both DVD and VHS that offset other cinematic lumps of coal. Hopefully, the following list will provide you with an understanding of which films should help decorate your mantel and which motion-pictures should be buried beneath the North Pole.

Let us first start with the classics. Before the 1970’s, Santa’s cinematic sack was stuffed with lots of gifts of joy and spirit. I’m sure everyone is more than familiar with both the stop-motion animated favorite of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and the cartoon animated classics of Frosty the Snowman (1969), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and the 30-minute A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), but some of the most endearing Christmas films to date came long before Alaska and Hawaii were added to Santa’s schedule of U.S. stops.

In 1946, Frank Capra helmed the outstanding story about celebrating life, entitled It’s a Wonderful Life, and one year later Kris Kringle was on trial with the fantastic Miracle on 34th Street. Finally, to round out the early Christmas ornaments, the thoroughly entertaining White Christmas (1954) is undoubtedly a holiday musical favorite.

Moving on, post-disco era to present, there are a few films that take on the comedic aspects of the holiday season, including the outright uproarious A Christmas Story (1983), the popular choice of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and the equally enjoyable Home Alone (1990). Also, newly added to the comical collection of Christmas features is the amusing Elf. So, whether it’s watching Ralphie nearly “shoot his eye out,” the Griswald’s family fun, Kevin defending his house, or Will Ferrell playing a six-foot tall elf named Buddy, either way, be sure your bladder is emptied of all eggnog before viewing these comedic treats.

On the other hand, if it’s originality you are searching for (that is far from a strictly inspiring or sternly side-splitting motion-picture), there are a few twinkling lights on the tree. Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (2004) is highly recommended; both its computer animation and elements of faith are outright astounding. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) is out-and-out innovative—combining the creatures of Halloween with the spirit of Christmas. Also, Scrooged (1988) is a unique and pleasant take on the frequently remade classic A Christmas Carol. In addition, for more of a dark comedy that isn’t afraid of offending anyone, search for none other than Bad Santa. Bad Santa is hands down one of the funniest films of 2003, and in terms of its Christmas laughter-inducing level, it’s right up there with A Christmas Story—just with a completely different (and more adult-oriented) tone.

In contrast, there are some full-length feature films of the Christmas variety that aren’t so hot in terms of quality. The Santa Clause (1994), its sequel (2002), and Schwarzenegger’s Jingle All the Way (1996) are cute, but just nominal, while Tim Allen’s more recent holiday endeavor, Christmas with the Kranks, is downright detestable. For a better understanding of more Yuletide refuse that should be thrown out with the leftover fruitcake, look no further than 2004’s Surviving Christmas (which was out of theatres before turkey day) and 2005's The Happy Elf (which went straight to DVD). And finally, to round out the holiday-season films that I would not touch with a 39-and-one-half foot pole is the horrible horror film Jack Frost (1997), its even more abhorrent sequel, Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (2000), and Santa Clause Conquers The Martians (1964).

Regardless, ‘tis the season to be jolly, so make sure you find a film that gets you into the spirit of the season—be it an inspirational drama, a hysterical comedy, or a fantastical fairy-tale. Hence, from me to you: happy viewing and happy holidays.

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Movie Review: Walk the Line

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 11/18/05
Running Time: 2:16
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, drugs)
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Patrick, Dallas Roberts, Dan John Miller, Larry Bagby, Shelby Lynne, Lucas Till

Director: James Mangold
Producers: James Keach, Cathy Konrad
Screenplay: Gill Dennis & James Mangold, based on the biographies of Johnny Cash
Music: Johnny Cash (songs)
Studio: 20th Century Fox

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One would assume that with the recent influx of musical bio-pics (Ray and Beyond the Sea), the rise-fall-rise formula – tweaked with infidelity, drugs, and music – would become stale. However, Walk the Line does the two-step around both Ray and Beyond the Sea by incorporating the heartfelt love story of June Carter and Johnny Cash. Under Mangold’s direction, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon dish out two faultless character portraits. Consequently, these nominee-worthy actors’ ability to cover Cash and Carter’s classic hits elevate Walk the Line’s entertainment value to plentiful.

The film chronicles the life of county music legend John R. Cash (Joaquin Phoenix). Born in Arkansas on a cotton farm, Johnny lived through the death of his older brother Jack (Lucas Till), and was told by his father Ray (Robert Patrick) that God took the wrong son. After spending a good amount of time in the armed forces and with his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), Johnny finally gets his break. He auditions for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and before he can say “sarsaparilla,” he is aboard a tour with the likes of June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Johnny quickly takes a liking to Miss Carter and thoroughly desires to be with her. However, a few things – their own marriages, children, and Johnny’s drug addiction – stand in the way.

Phoenix and Witherspoon provide spirited and sharpened images of their characters and belt out their own unflawed vocals. Yes, Joaquin does stumble a bit vocally when singing in the airport hanger, but just like a developing singer, with time and a microphone he becomes, “steady like a train…and sharp like a razor.” While Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Cash is not as impressive as Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles, Phoenix still does his own singing (unlike Foxx)—making Phoenix’s performance an honest and capable bid to take home the “Best Actor” prize. As for Witherspoon, it is a pleasure to see her turn towards more serious acting; she cannot be unsuccessful with such respectable and dynamic roles like this one.

In conjunction with Phoenix and Witherspoon, Robert Patrick plays Johnny’s stern and unsupportive father with the perfect intensity. Ginnifer Goodwin also adds a nice touch to the cast; although, her role is limited. In addition, Tyler Hilton, Waylon Malloy Payne, Johnathan Rice, and Shooter Jennings all cover the parts of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings respectively with looks of steel and personalities of gold.

Overall, Walk the Line is a finely told tale of the pangs of Cash and Carter's love for one another and one of the better bio-pics of recent past. This musical bio-drama makes you want to strap on a guitar, slick back your hair, and go find every chart of music that bears Cash’s name. With its hub of the story centered on the two friends and soul mates, who truly loved making music together, Walk the Line rises above its formula. It is an authentic love story driven by raw human emotion and one of the better pictures of the year. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005