Harry Potter Meets His Marker, By Kurt Loder

Also: Joaquin Phoenix brings Johnny Cash back to life in 'Walk the Line.'

“Goblet of Fire”: Harry Potter Meets His Marker

The dangers that Harry Potter has faced over the course of his last three movies — lumbering trolls, soul-withering Dementors, a riot of giant spiders, and of course fresh-caught Cornish pixies — are as nothing compared to what he’s up against in this latest installment of the series. Now he must contend with murderous mazes, hideous mer-people, Death Eaters on the march, Voldemort on the rise, and, most terrifying of all, in a way, the necessity of finding a date for the big Yule Ball.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is the first film in the Potter series to be rated PG-13, and understandably so — it deals with some fairly heavy emotional material and, especially towards the end, verges on becoming a horror movie. But it also features the most spectacular effects of the four pictures shot so far. One extended sequence, in which the broom-borne Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is chased among the towers of Hogwarts by a flying, fire-breathing dragon that can even claw its way around on the sides of buildings in pursuit of him, is a state-of-the-art thrill ride. And the Yule Ball itself, held in a huge, gleaming ice palace inside Hogwarts, is a scene of grand enchantment.

There’s a wonderful new character, too — “Mad Eye” Moody, the latest occupant of that most luckless of Hogwarts staff positions, teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts. Moody is a battered old wizard with a fake leg and a prosthetic eye that clicks and whirs like an electronic camera lens, and can even swing around to see what’s going on behind him. The splendid Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who played a similarly daft character in the 1995 “Braveheart,” digs into this part with enormous relish.

The world of Hogwarts is further enlarged this time around by the arrival of students from two other great wizarding institutes — the elegant girls of the French Beauxbatons Academy and the hulking lads of the Durmstrang Institute, which is located … somewhere near Russia, apparently, judging by their accents. These two groups have been invited to Hogwarts to take part in the Triwizard Tournament, a magical competition that’s held only once every hundred years (the Yule Ball is its ancillary social event), and which is so hazardous that contestants are advised not to make any post-tournament plans that would absolutely require that they be alive.

Whether Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) will survive this event is the question with which we’re most concerned, of course. Also, will Harry work up the gumption to ask the lovely Cho Chang to the Ball? Will Ron ask Hermione? And does any of this matter as the black-robed Death Eaters storm onto the scene, heralding the return of their dark master, the evil Lord Voldemort? As Hermione says, “Everything’s going to change now, isn’t it?” And as Harry says, “Yes.”

As author J.K. Rowling lays it out in the book, with characteristic precision and her usual unbounded imagination, this is a wholly engrossing story — an epic tale of good and evil and loss and yearning. Transported to the screen, however, it has sustained a few dinks and dents. First of all, one understands that the filmmakers (Mike Newell is the director this time out) are faced with a young cast that’s aging at an immutable biological rate, and are desperately trying to get these movies made before the principals grow too old for their parts. But it’s a race they’re beginning to lose. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are supposed to be 14 years old now. Radcliffe, who’s 16, and Watson, who’s 15, can pass for that age. But Grint, who’s 17, really can’t; he seems much older, and it throws his scenes with the other two off.

It must also be said that with the influx of so many new characters, some of our favorite old ones, like the scheming Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and the fabulously oily Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), are reduced to mere walk-ons. Gary Oldman’s Sirius Black doesn’t get even that — he’s been converted into a special effect, a glowing, mask-like face that rises up out of the embers in a dormitory fireplace.

Most problematic of all, however, is the appearance, in all his evil glory, of the great Dark Lord himself, Voldemort (played by Ralph Fiennes). In the book, this character can step out in front of the curtain behind which Rowling has kept him hidden to useful effect — we can’t actually see him, so he can still haunt our imagination. In the movie, when we do see him, a slight slump of disappointment is inevitable. Despite the pasty face and the snakey, slit-like nostrils, it’s an actor we see — a very good one, but not the creature we’ve harbored for so long in our heads.

This is the reason Conan Doyle never brought Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s great nemesis, too far out of the shadows. And why Thomas Harris was so ill-advised to yank the disturbing Hannibal Lecter out of “The Silence of the Lambs” and set him up as a witty sophisticate with an amusing idiosyncrasy in a book all his own. Evil shrivels in the light. Fortunately, in the next two Potter books waiting to be filmed, there’s enough darkness to blot out the sun.

“Walk the Line”: Present at the Creation of Rock and Roll Music

In his recent memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan sums up Johnny Cash with the bedazzled admiration of a life-long fan. Cash’s voice, Dylan says, “was so big, it made the world grow small… Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller.”

Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cash in the new film biography, “Walk the Line,” doesn’t particularly resemble the man, and when we first hear him singing one of Johnny’s songs — doing a shaky, first-time rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” for a skeptical Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) in the Sun Records studio in 1955 — we’re a little skeptical ourselves: Phoenix doesn’t really sound like Cash, either.

But as the movie progresses, a striking thing happens: we notice that the actor is evocatively approximating Cash’s baritone gravity and his country reserve; and by the time we hear him singing another of Johnny’s canonical hits, “Home of the Blues,” we marvel at what a precise job of mimicry he’s doing — the filmmakers have clearly started slipping in actual Johnny Cash tracks for Phoenix to lip-synch to.

Except they haven’t. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Cash’s soulmate, June Carter, do their own singing. And the actors who play the key musicians in the movie — Dan John Miller and Larry Bagby as Cash’s original backup duo, the Tennessee Two; Waylon Payne as Jerry Lee Lewis; and Tyler Hilton (of “One Tree Hill”) as Elvis Presley — actually are musicians, and they actually play the music. This was a risky strategy on the part of director James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted”), but it works — mainly, I think, because Mangold brought in the astute roots-music producer T-Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) to record the performances. Thanks to Burnett’s obsessive concern with period authenticity (he rounded up microphones that dated from the 1950s, and guitars, too — they had a thinner coat of varnish than instruments produced today, and thus a different sound), the performances in the movie have the raw drive and whiplash snap of a new kind of music, rock and roll, and we feel as if we’re seeing it being born before our eyes.

The film has the familiar structure of a biopic, but it’s carefully focused: Mangold is concerned almost exclusively with Cash’s life from 1955, when he signed with Sun and immediately started scoring hits (“Cry! Cry! Cry!,” “I Walk the Line”), to 1968, the year he recorded his celebrated live album, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” and finally persuaded the loving but reluctant June Carter to marry him.

Naturally, we do get the gist of Cash’s childhood, growing up poor on an Arkansas cotton farm, where his cold, disapproving father (chillingly played by Robert Patrick) blames Johnny for the gruesome death of his older brother, Jack. Later, we see Cash doing his military service at an Air Force base in West Germany, where he buys his first guitar and writes his first song. Next, we watch him working dispiritedly as a door-to-door appliance salesman in Memphis, until one day he slips into the little Sun studio and witnesses a teenage truck driver named Elvis Presley howling out the rockabilly classic-to-be, “Milk Cow Blues.”

At this point, the movie becomes a portrait of the artist as a wild young man. Johnny rounds up two Memphis car mechanics and turns them into a minimalist band. Their rudimentary musicianship, combined with Cash’s stark, almost recitative singing, results in a pared-to-the-bone sound that’s new and uniquely compelling. After signing with Sun, Johnny and the boys set off on brutal, one-town-after-another tours with Presley, Lewis and other rock pioneers, driving themselves and schlepping their own gear and popping pills like jellybeans just to keep going.

Riding along in one of these caravans is singer June Carter, whose mother, Maybelle, was the guitarist of the renowned Carter Family — the group that helped create modern country music. June is intrigued by Cash’s own music. (“How’d you come up with that sound?” she asks him. “What sound?” Johnny says.) But although they’re immediately attracted to one another, Johnny is married, and June is reeling from a recent divorce. She also starts noticing that Cash is a mess — a beer-swilling pill-head. He continues to pursue her, but she marries again (briefly), and he sinks deeper into self-inflicted misery. He goes on to have hit after hit, but by the early ’60s, his pill habit has become a full-blown addiction, and he starts screwing up: kicking out footlights, collapsing onstage and getting arrested for various out-of-control escapades, like trying to smuggle amphetamines across the Mexican border into Texas in his guitar case. All of this prompts June to co-write a song for and about him called “Ring of Fire.” It becomes one of Johnny’s biggest hits.

At its heart, “Walk the Line” is a love story, and it’s a great one on film because it was a great one in real life. (After their marriage, Johnny and June remained devoted to one another for 35 years, until her death in 2003, which was followed four months later by his.) Phoenix and Witherspoon bring this story alive with singular commitment, and Witherspoon, especially, lends the movie a wit and kick without which it might have been seriously unbalanced. A Nashville native herself, gone brunette for this part, she plays period country — with large hair, rustling petticoats and an accent as thick as a MoonPie — without a hint of cultural condescension. It’s a wonderfully funny and affecting performance.

“Walk the Line” is unusually moving without ever becoming mawkish, in the usual biopic way. It’s a virtual reincarnation of a peerless American artist, and when June finally gets her man straightened out and looks him over and says, “It’s good to see you again,” anybody in the audience who knows Johnny Cash’s life and music will be thinking the very same thing.

—Kurt Loder

Check out everything we’ve got on “Walk The Line.”

Visit Movies on MTV.com for Hollywood news, interviews, trailers and more.