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Cashing In 

Give thanks for two worthy holiday films

Walk the Line, the eagerly anticipated screen biography of music legend Johnny Cash, wants to party like it's 1955, but the year that kept entering my mind was 2004 -- specifically, Oct. 29, 2004, which is when Ray debuted in movie houses nationally.

One generally encounters an overwhelming sense of déjà vu when watching a biopic about a celebrity, since they all trace the expected ups and downs in the most conventional manner possible (Oliver Stone's whacked-out The Doors possibly excepted). So never mind that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash may have been one-of-a-kinds in real life: By boiling down their experiences to sketchy outlines, we end up with pretty much the same story. Both were raised in rural Bumfuck; both lost a beloved brother at a young age; both landed their big breaks during exciting and volatile times for music; both were fond of womanizing and taking drugs, much to the chagrin of sympathetic wives cooling their heels at home with the kids; and both cleaned up their lifestyles enough to endure as musical icons until their deaths earlier this decade. Ray and Walk the Line both dutifully record all these travails, transgressions and triumphs, and both end their stories mid-life -- this spares us the spectacle of youthful actors caked in old-age make-up, yet it also denies us the complete arc of a lifetime.

A conventional film doesn't automatically mean a boring one, though, and for all its familiarity, there's plenty to like about Walk the Line (just as there was about Ray). Director James Mangold, adapting (with co-scripter Gill Dennis) two Cash autobiographies, does a fine job of capturing an electric period in rock history without making a big deal about it: How could Cash -- to say nothing of his fellow musicians on whirlwind tours (guys named Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others) -- know he was part of the vanguard of a new chapter in American music? Scenes depicting the big events of Cash's career -- his initial meeting with Sam Phillips, his delightful "Jackson" duet with June Carter, his classic Folsom Prison concert -- are among the film's most memorable, yet even his less-than-ideal domestic interludes with first wife Vivian carry some resonance, primarily because of Ginnifer Goodwin's sympathetic performance in a stock spousal role.

First and foremost, though, Walk the Line positions itself as a love story, one that finds Cash locating his soulmate in country star June Carter. A vivacious firecracker who takes her time in committing to this troubled individual (clearly, she hates the sins but loves the sinner), June has her own demons to tame, most notably attempting to reconcile her two divorces with her strict Christian upbringing. Just as Ray lived or died on the powerhouse performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing) to carry it over the line. Phoenix, all hunched shoulders and slow-burn stares, commands the screen, yet even he's topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election. Phoenix may provide the movie with its voice, but it's Witherspoon who delivers its soul.

Even acknowledging that I liked the third Harry Potter film (Prisoner of Azkaban) less than the rest of the critical community, I'm still puzzled as to why everyone insisted that it was the darkest of the J.K. Rowling stories brought to the screen up to that point. After all, how foreboding can a movie be when it includes a critter known as Buckbeak, a moniker that conveys as much menace as, say, Heffalump or Papa Smurf?

At any rate, it's safe to state that the fourth installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, isn't afraid of the dark. There's a reason that this is the first movie in the franchise to earn a PG-13 rating, and it's not because there's suddenly heavy petting between Hermione and her best buds Harry and Ron (this is Harry Potter, people, not Thirteen). Instead, director Mike Newell, the first British director attached to this veddy British series, and scripter Steve Kloves, forced to whittle down Rowling's enormous tome, steadfastly refuse to coddle the youngest audience members, "family film" status be damned.

The Triwizard Cup competition, undertaken by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and three older students, is fraught with such perils as fire-breathing dragons and piranha-toothed mermaids. A key supporting character -- a likable one, at that -- is unexpectedly killed. And the evil Lord Voldemort, who hasn't been seen since he murdered Harry's parents 13 years earlier, finally makes an appearance (Ralph Fiennes is suitably slimy in the role).

Michael Gambon's second tour of duty as Professor Dumbledore makes us miss the late Richard Harris's presence in the part even more (the twinkle in the eyes that made Harris such a delight is missing from Gambon's less playful interpretation). And with so many characters competing for screen time, I would have preferred more exposure to series veterans like Robbie Coltrane (caretaker Hagrid) and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) and less to newcomer Miranda Richardson (as gossip columnist Rita Skeeter). Yet the series' greatest strength -- namely, the dead-on portrayals by Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione -- never fails to deliver (these kids are wonderful together), and even an overstuffed plot doesn't slow down the proceedings as much as convey that there's much at stake in Harry's increasingly sinister world.

In effect, the Harry Potter pack is filling the void left by the departure of the Star Trek film franchise by offering characters we care about in fantastical adventures. As long as they don't tamper with the formula, this series should likewise live long and prosper.

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