Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Soul of "Ray"

Happy Halloween! It's as good an occasion as any, I suppose, to start posting my movie reviews, though this review's not especially seasonal. Anyway, I have no idea how regularly I'll be doing this - but I suspect just enough to keep my hand in.


directed by Taylor Hackford
starring Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, and a buncha other people

For a movie that clocks in at over two and a half hours, “Ray” moves at a remarkably lively pace. That’s hardly surprising, given the subject matter. The fact that a movie about the late great Ray Charles never lets up on the momentum simply reflects the incredible richness of the man’s life and his music. As a film, however, “Ray” is better served by the latter, which gives it an irresistible swing and vitality, than the former, which makes the whole production feel frantically overstuffed yet underwritten.

Biopics generally have a tough row to hoe, and artists’ biopics may have it the hardest. By trying to draw explicit connections between life and art, they often take on a graceless literal-mindedness. They also tend to skim the surface of the artist’s life and his work without providing any real insight into either.

To some extent “Ray” falls prey to both tendencies—perhaps inevitably, in light of how much ground it tries to cover. Director Taylor Hackford (“An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Devil’s Advocate,” “Proof of Life”) traces not only Ray Charles Robinson’s evolution as one of the most brilliant innovators of American music, ever, but also his savvy entrepreneurship, his confrontations with racism, his addiction to heroin and women, his troubled marriage and love affairs, interspersed with recurring flashbacks to his childhood, when he lost his sight. The movie shuttles from one phase of Ray’s life to another so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up with where he is, where he’s come from, where he’s going—or when, for that matter, particularly since neither Ray nor any of the other key players in his life ages visibly over two decades. The historical backdrop goes by in a blur, and dozens of characters flit in and out of the picture, mocking any efforts to keep track of their names or their roles in Ray’s life. A few stand out more vividly than others, most notably Curtis Armstrong as Ahmet Ertegun, the wry, clear-eyed visionary of Atlantic Records who helped Ray find his own voice and nurtured his early genre-blending musical experimentation. And among the countless women in Ray’s life, his steel-magnolia wife, Della Bea (Kerry Washington), and sassy backup singer and mistress, Marjorie (Regina King), suitably impress—though both pale next to the white-hot, rail-thin intensity of Sharon Warren as Ray’s young mother.

As Ray himself, Jamie Foxx is a marvel, easily eclipsing his solid supporting turn in last summer's "Collateral." Sketch comedy must have perfected his gift for sheer mimicry: his rendition of the famous voice, mannerisms, body language, even the smile, is so dead-on Ray Charles that it comes as a jar when, in a dream sequence fairly late in the movie, we see him with his eyes open, sans sunglasses, and instantly think, “Hey, it’s Jamie Foxx!” Up until that point, it’s a bravura performance, and clearly also a heartfelt one. Yet as a character, Ray remains oddly elusive, an indefinable combination of charm and hardheadedness, good nature and cold blood, strength in adversity and weakness to temptation. In the childhood-flashback sequences, Hackford seems to be vaguely pursuing two different, and somewhat contradictory, pop-psych theories of Ray’s moral character (or lack thereof). One, far the less convincing and more clumsily executed motif, is premised on Ray’s supposedly ineradicable guilt over the death of his younger brother. The other is somewhat subtler: that Ray’s mother, in teaching him the hard way not to depend on anyone but himself, may have made him incapable of loyalty to anyone but himself. Bad as this was for Ray’s relationships, it was very good for his music—which the movie suggests was the only real vehicle for his self-fulfillment.

Which brings me back to the music. Hackford gets this part absolutely right. Weaving all the greatest hits (spanning from the infectious early hit “Mess Around” to the wistful “Georgia On My Mind”) into the larger arc of Ray’s life without for the most part turning them into artificial showpieces or narrative devices, he lets them tell the story of the sensational musical development, from jazz to gospel and blues to pop and country-western, of one of our greatest original crossover artists. And therein lies “Ray”’s little secret: the soul of this movie about the “genius of soul” lies in the music, not the melodramatic debris of its human relationships. Somewhere, Ray Charles has got to be smiling at that.

RATING: ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Who's your daddy NOW?

I'm no baseball lover, I'll admit it. I've always, however, rooted for the Red Sox, having had lifelong ties to Boston. Or maybe I'm just rooting for the Red Sox fans. I've felt their pain - last year especially, when I was still living in Beantown and made the mistake of watching Game 7 of the ALCS. Now, even 3000 miles away, I can feel their joy - and, no doubt sweetest of all, their glee at finally, FINALLY seeing their team dismantle what has to be the smuggest and most virulently hated sports franchise team in this country. First the Lakers, now the Yankees - is this the year for evil empires to crumble and fall? Can this pattern extend outside the world of sports? John Kerry, if your home team wins it all, can you follow their example?

Here's hoping.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

So it does rain in Los Angeles...

And they really aren't kidding about Angelenos in the rain...I used to think people on the freeways here drove at either 80 mph or 5 mph, depending on the traffic. Driving home from Pasadena on the 110 last night, though, it was raining for the first time since I moved to L.A., and I witnessed the previously unimaginable: an orderly line of cars moving at about 45 mph, and most surreal of all, NO ONE WAS CHANGING LANES. Of course the 110 is precariously curvy, and the pace picked up a little once I hit the 10, but even there people were definitely driving as if they were learning how to drive in the rain - which of course they were. The one aggressive lane-shifter I saw looked kind of lonely yet defiantly dogged, like a solitary cowboy riding into the west.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Just starting today...

Ok, so I finally decided to start this blog just when blogging is probably about to be oh so "five minutes ago." I've actually been flirting with the idea for the past 2 1/2 years, but never went through with it, for the following three reasons:
1) When it comes to web-savviness or web design, I know zilch. Nada. Less than nada. I never even went through the phase in college of creating my own web page.
2) Fear of psychos. Web surfing, yeah, I dig it - even web posting, yeah, I indulge every now and again. But staking out my own spot on the web just seemed like inviting trouble.
3) Aside from aforesaid psychos, who the hell would bother to read it?

In the end, I came around, for these 3 reasons:
1) Expressing my thoughts/opinions isn't a luxury for me, it's a necessity. It keeps me sane. Even if no one's reading or listening. And the beauty of blogs is the design matters less than just having a space to spill your thoughts.
2) If I bug my friends enough, they'll read it occasionally...right? I'm told I'm a good writer.
3) I want a place to put my movie reviews. The first thing you have to know about me is I LOVE movies. My dream job is to be a film critic, and I reviewed films for my college and law school newspapers. Unfortunately, I graduated, and critics' jobs being scarce, I'm on track to becoming a lawyer. But I still gotta get my movie critic's fix. The whole point of being a movie critic, though, is not to write reviews only for yourself, but to communicate your opinions to others. Not necessarily to persuade them, but at the least to make them think differently about a movie, see it in a different light than they would have otherwise.

Of course, movies won't be the only thing I'll opine on - anything that sets me thinking is fair game. The presidential election will probably feature prominently in my comments for the next few weeks.

So here we go. Hopefully I'll know how to access this page again - yeah, that's how web-illiterate I am. Be gentle, it's my first time...