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Review: Walk the Line

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Johnny Cash is back in black, as the high-class Behind the Music train chugs along this week. As you might expect, Kate & Leopold director James Mangold hits all the predictable notes, so I might as well answer all the predictable questions: Yes, Joaquin Phoenix is a terrific, soulful impersonator, who nails Cash’s gallows grimace and powerful drawl. No, Reese Witherspoon isn’t just good as June Carter; she’s stunning, playing the born performer with showbiz sass and matrimonial rage. And no, Mangold’s slick movie doesn’t have anything more to say than Ray. It’s the same ol’ no-good, dirty egg-sucking dog, and it hasn’t learned a new trick.
    The music, of course, is brilliant, and a concert re-creation of Cash’s famous Folsom Prison gig is an electric charge you can feel in your chest, but it’s all thanks to Cash’s irresistible persona, and some fantastic performances. Mangold pulls unexpected stuff out of Phoenix and Witherspoon, but ultimately, it’s hard to imagine why or how anyone would make such a pedestrian film about such a mythic man. With Cash, you’ve got to give in completely to the myth or attack the real messy story of how he became an icon, and what he meant to his fans. (There’s a fascinating movie to be made about Cash’s intense relationship with the Reverend Billy Graham and how used each other to burnish their respective reputations.) Cash was both larger and more carefully calculating than this traditional biopic allows. Ultimately, Mangold walks the middlebrow, sentimental line, afraid to herald the myth of the Man in Black, or to truly slip inside that funereal suit. — Logan Hill

Review: The Syrian Bride
If the past decade of films from the turbulent Middle East have taught us anything, it’s that the cliché about great art flourishing amid great turmoil isn’t always true. For every decent film about Israel and Palestine, we’ve gotten hundreds of one-sided political docs and woe-is-me melodramas. At the outset, Eran Riklis’s The Syrian Bride doesn’t promise anything different: Mona (Clara Khoury), a Druze woman living in the Golan Heights, is preparing for her marriage to a Syrian TV star. Because of the highly sensitive border situation between Israel and Syria, once she goes into Syria, she can never return. Thus, she and her family have to arrive on one end of the border fence; after she crosses over, the celebration will continue on the other side, and she’ll never see her family again. Some party, huh?
    To his credit, Riklis uses this central dilemma not as a problem to be solved, but rather as a basic existential fact, weaving the various strands of his family drama around the impending nuptials without ever really getting into the messy politics of the situation. The story’s diffuse narrative initially makes for uneven results, as Riklis brings in Mona’s family, particularly her brothers — one a playboy, the other a prodigal, married to a Russian — but whenever the story remains focused on Mona, it works beautifully. Clara Khoury’s performance is a hypnotic marvel, and around her intense glare Riklis manages to make even the open spaces of the Golan Heights feel like a prison. The Syrian Bride takes a while to get going, but when it finally wakes up, one wonders if there may be more gems where this one came from. — Bilge Ebiri
DVD Review: It
Some sex icons age better than others. Among the queens of the silents, Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford look archiac, while Clara Bow, the original “it girl,” retains an ageless vitality — a fact that came home to me when I discovered my grandfather liked her as much as I do.
    I feel strange crushing on one of Grandpa’s contemporaries, but Bow is irresistable. Dorothy Parker jabbed, “Who needs ‘it’ — she’s got those,” yet Bow’s appeal goes beyond good looks. Perhaps because of her rough childhood, she radiates toughness, loyalty and flirtatious good humor. In It, her essential film, she’s plucky and lusty as she woos her dapper boss (“Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!”) The title refers to sex appeal; one character remarks that Bow is “positively top-heavy with it,” and modern audiences may be surprised to find themselves agreeing.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald liked her, unsurprisingly. She’d be a hit at Gatsby’s parties. Gossip tarred her with promiscuity. Her every move suggested a sauciness out of step with the public reserve of her peers, and indeed, she outsexes them to this day. Gish flickers in the mind’s eye, swathed in musty dresses, a pale-faced, spectral beauty. Clara Bow is as cute as the girl next door in overalls and a T-shirt, springing gamely and enduringly from the screen. — Peter Smith
Date DVD: The Edukators
If your date loves classic comedy, snap up the terrific new seven-disc Harold Lloyd Classic Collection, but if she prefers revolution to pratfalls, bowl your lefty lover over with fuck-the-rich film The Edukators. Hans Weingartner’s drama is one of those many that tackle youth, class and globalization head-on, and it’s also one of the few that doesn’t immediately collapse into cliché. More than that, it’s a terrific chance to catch German star Daniel Bruhl, one of Europe’s most exciting — some might say “hot” — young actors. The film tracks three young college-educated activists who go around breaking into the homes of the rich. Instead of stealing from them and giving to the poor, they just rearrange the furniture and “educate” them — leave behind cryptic messages like “Your Days of Plenty of Number.”
    The trio is beginning to tire of simply pricking upper-class consciences when one of their stunt burglaries goes wrong, and they decide to abduct a homeowner. The rest of the film unspools in an utterly un-American, earnest way, essentially, as a teen movie about something more than getting laid (which hardly happens here anymore, but is a throughline of Daniel Bruhl’s films). In this case, it’s all about three young people grappling with complicity and capitalism, which would play out as awfully as it sounds, if only it weren’t delivered with such brilliant acting and a keen eye. If you’ve soured on the recent, overrated lefty American indies like Bomb the System or This Revolution, this should give you and your date some hope for something better, in the cinema and outside it. — Logan Hill

 

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