Ray

Posted on October 27, 2004 at 9:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug abuse, including heroin, drinking, a lot of smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad and tense situations, character killed, character goes through agonizing detox
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, frank coverage of segregation era
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

An extraordinary actor plays an extraordinary person in “Ray,” the life of a brilliant musician and performer who triumphed over poverty, blindness, and racism through talent, passion, and courage.

It is an almost insurmountable challenge for an actor to play someone the audience knows so well, especially someone like Ray Charles. It would have been easy to make it a caricature instead of a performance, to imitate him instead of being him. But Jamie Foxx (Collateral, On Any Sunday, Ali) creates such a real and vivid person that we almost forget that he is re-enacting someone else’s life. He captures Charles’ mannerisms but not as imitation, more like channeling. The way he moves and talks and holds his head come from deep within the characterization. Foxx’s background as a musician (he has a degree in classical piano) and the prosthetics he used on his eyes that left him functionally sightless during filming lend a great deal of authenticity as well. He shows us Charles’ intensity and his charm. And he achieves the near-impossible by making us feel close to a man who did not let people close, a man who sang, “You Don’t Know Me.”

The movie’s two greatest strengths are Foxx’s incendiary and fully-inhabited performance and Charles’ peerless music. There are also outstanding supporting performances, including Kerry Washington as Charles’ wife Della Bea, Regina King as back-up singer (and mistress) Margie, and Curtis Armstrong as Atlantic records executive Ahmet Ertegun.

But it never surmounts the biopic hurdles, the ones that separate real stories from made-for-tv-style formulas.

First, it focuses too much on Charles’ personal life. What is most interesting is his music, and too often this movie tells us instead of showing us how revolutionary Charles was as composer, performer, and producer. There’s too much with people saying “You can’t do that!” and “No one’s ever done that before!” and “Look! We’re number one on the charts!” and not enough of showing us the process, the inspiration, collaboration, or the passion that made the music.

Furthermore, the movie makes the mistake of trying to cover too much, compressing decades into hours. There are peripheral characters we care about and never see again and peripheral characters we never know enough about to care when we do find out what happens.

Its biggest failing is over-simplifying the influences and developments in Charles’ life and music, with a return to the old style of biographical movie-making. It has too-frequent revelatory flashbacks that tie his reactions and each of his songs to particular revelations and turning points. It begins to feel like a “greatest hits” compilation, skipping from high point to low point (and, like Charles, from woman to woman) in a clutter of incidents instead of a story, matching songs to events as though it was a Disney musical. It is a tribute to Foxx’s commitment and focus at its center that the movie has any sense of direction at all.

But there are many moments of great power as Charles says he must be paid in singles so he cannot be cheated and insists on owning his own music instead of letting the studio control it. He breaks through musical barriers that separate R&B from country and societal barriers that allow a black man to perform in segregated venues. And every time he plays and sings, it is pure magic.

Parents should know that the movie has very strong material for a PG-13; it’s more like a PG-16. There are frequent sexual references and situations (non-explicit), as Charles has relationships with many, many women, even after he is married. One of the women becomes pregnant. Characters drink, smoke (constantly) and take drugs, including marijuana and heroin. A character OD’s (off-camera), and there is a harrowing scene of detoxing after Charles decides to end his 20-year heroin habit. Characters use very strong language. A child is killed and another loses his sight. A strength of the movie is its frank coverage of the pre-Civil Rights era, where the “Chitlin’ Circuit” was the (almost) all-black venues where black performers were booked. In one understated scene, it makes clear that no restaurants would allow black customers, so they had to make arrangements at the homes of black people along the way. In another scene, Charles refuses to perform in a facility that does not allow black customers and is sued by the promoter and banned from the state of Georgia as a result.

Families who see this movie should talk about what made Ray Charles strong and what made him weak. Should he have left Atlantic? How should he have treated Jeff after Joe told him what he did? Which of Aretha Robinson’s advice to her son was the most important to him?

Families who enjoy this movie should sit down together to listen to the astonishing range and power of the music of Ray Charles. They will also enjoy some of the best of the other biopics featuring musicians, including Coal Miner’s Daughter, with an Oscar-winning performance by Sissy Spacek as country star Lorretta Lynn, The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey as the pioneering rock musician, and Lady Sings the Blues, with Diana Ross as Billy Holliday.

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Birth

Posted on October 27, 2004 at 6:35 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Creepy and tense atmosphere, some shoving
Diversity Issues: Mild stereotyping of "family retainer"
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

In the middle of a story that lurches from unsettling to preposterous by way of sheer ookiness, there is a moment of sheer, breathtaking bravura, shared by actress and director.

At her engagement party, Anna (Nicole Kidman) has just been told by a 10 year old boy that he is the reincarnation of her late husband. Soon after, she and the fiance are at the theater, after another unsettling confrontation with the boy. Director Jonathan Glazer gives us a close-up of Anna’s face and then stays there for what is in these MTV-ADD days of skittery jump cuts and cluttered, flashy edits, a seemingly endless shot. Both Glazer and Kidman are flying without a net. A take of that length risks making the audience uncomfortable, taking them out of the story. Most actors would feel they had to do something show-offy to hold our attention. But Kidman trusts us and she trusts herself. She doesn’t use tricks. She doesn’t bite her lip or wipe away a tear. She just lets her longing and disbelief touch almost imperceptively on those impeccable features. It is a wonder to see.

But the rest of the movie is just an “I wonder what they were thinking.”

Or maybe “I wonder if they knew what they were thinking.” I’m not saying everything always has to fit together, but this movie keeps changing its mind about its most basic premise.

Ambiguity is fine — it’s always good to see a movie that has enough respect for the audience to leave something to the imagination. But inconsistency is another thing entirely, and in this movie it just leaves the viewer feeling cheated. Ambiguity only works if the incomplete pieces don’t clash with each other. It’s okay to leave blank spaces as long as the pieces that are there fit together.

The idea of having a loved one return after death is an enticing one, featured in many films, good and bad. The ones that work have some point of view that resonates with our desires (Truly Madly Deeply) or our fears (Blithe Spirit). This one seems to have given more thought to its elegant decors (marvelously evocative) than to its underlying theories. Has Sean returned to prevent Anna from marrying someone who is hiding his true nature? Was Sean less than the devoted husband Anna wants to remember? Is this just a disturbed boy, obsessed with a beautiful woman? Any of these could have been the basis for a good movie, but the film just hints in those directions and then doubles back. And what are all these grown-up people doing living together in one apartment? It’s sort of the Upper East Side version of the Ponderosa.

Meanwhile, the film gets creepy in ways it apparently does not intend. It is bad enough when Anna tries to shock 10-year-old Sean out of what she hopes is a delusion by asking him how he intends to satisfy her sexually. It is close to awful when he takes off all his clothes and climbs into the bathtub with her. And the last fifteen minutes make no sense whatsoever.

In the midst of all this mess, there are some lovely performances, especially Alison Elliot as Laura, Anna’s pregnant sister, Arliss Howard as her husband, and Ted Levine and Cara Seymour as Sean’s parents. All create real characters in their brief screen time. It’s always nice to hear Lauren Bacall’s clipped diction, but it only reminds us of the many far better movies we have enjoyed her in.

Parents should know that the movie includes sexual references, including adultery, and an explicit (and completely gratuitous) sexual situation as well as situations that come close to sexual abuse of a minor. A young boy takes a bath with an adult woman and later they kiss. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language. The only minority cast member plays a somewhat stereotyped family retainer. The themes may be very disturbing to some audience members.

Families who see this movie should talk about their own views on life after death. What would they like to hear from those they have lost? What should we say now to those who are still here?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other movies with this theme, including Ghost, Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Blithe Spirit. They will also enjoy seeing some of Bacall’s best work in To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Designing Woman.

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Movies

Surviving Christmas

Posted on October 19, 2004 at 7:09 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language for a PG-13
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, marijuana joke
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

In what is intended to be one of the most revealing and touching scenes in “Surviving Christmas,” the main character turns a lovely gesture into a crass, garish, and cringe-inducing display. Take away the revealing and touching part, and you’ve pretty much got a description of the movie itself.

After an opening montage of Yuletide misery concluding with a sweet grandmotherly woman putting frowns on her gingerbread men and then sticking her head on the oven (funny, huh?), we meet Drew (Ben Affleck), a wealthy advertising executive. He is pitching a new campaign for spiked eggnog and the theme he proposes is that the best way to get through the holidays is to have everyone in the family a little shnockered. And the client goes for it! Funny, huh? Um, no.

Oh yes, it’s that kind of movie. Failed attempts at humor land with a crash on top of failed attempts at plot.

Drew’s girlfriend dumps him because he has never introduced her to his family and wants to go to Fiji for Christmas. Horrified at the thought of being alone on Christmas, he offers the family now living in his childhood home a quarter of a million dollars if they will pretend to be his family through Christmas.

This idea of a spoiled young man hiring a family worked poorly in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star and it works just as poorly here. The family is headed by the unhappily married Tom (Gandolfini) and Christine (Catherine O’Hara). Their son Brian spends all his time in his room surfing the internet for porn.

Their daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) is horrified to find her family rented out for the season and refuses to participate. Then we have a long, inexorable, almost unendurable slog through the “aw” moments when everyone starts to develop warm feelings for everyone else and the “oops” moments when the former girlfriend with the stuffy family gets his expensive gift and thinks she will drop in on Drew to start things up again. Oh, yeah, Drew gives Christine a makeover with a photo shoot and the pictures turn up on Brian’s favorite porn site. And oh, the lack of hilarity when the actor Drew hires to play his grandfather sends his understudy. And then there is the painful attempt at humor in having Drew’s girlfriend see him kissing Alicia and thinking it’s his sister. And then the big reveal which pretty much undercuts the entire premise of the movie, not that anyone should devote the brain cells necessary to attempt to resolve the inconsistency.

James Gandolfini does his best to pretend he is not actually in this slack, dumb, boring, and charmless movie by hiding behind a beard. The rest of the cast look as though they wish they had thought of it, too. They all have that bleak, glazed, “maybe, with any luck, this will go straight to video and never be heard from again” look. As for me, I sat there with a bleak, glazed, “maybe this movie will be over and I can go home and try to keep people from going to see it” look. Surviving Christmas? All I wanted was to survive the movie.

Parents should know that the movie includes jokes about incest, pornography, cross-dressing, masturbation, Sonny Bono’s death, and marijuana. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language. There is comic peril and violence, including smacking someone with a shovel. The happy families Drew sees on Christmas include a gay couple, but this is intended to be humorous, not inclusive.

Families who see this movie should talk about how difficult it can be to try to measure our own relatives by the idealized families portrayed in holiday movies and television shows.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other dysfunctional family holiday movies like The Ref, Home for the Holidays (both with some mature material), Home Alone (also starring O’Hara), and of course the classic A Christmas Story.

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Movies

Alfie

Posted on October 19, 2004 at 2:57 pm

What’s it all about, Charlie?

Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers used to be married and they used to make movies together (Baby Boom, the remakes of Father of the Bride and The Parent Trap). Now they are divorced, and they make movies separately. Hers: the very successful What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give; his: the less successful The Affair of the Necklace and now this remake of the 1966 Michael Caine film. The two of them seem to be working through something as both of their recent films were about the exact same thing — the comeuppance of what we used to call a cad.

This film may have had some theraputic value for its director. Its value as entertainment and illumination is uneven at best.

The performances are all top-notch. Each of the women creates a full and complex character, especially Nia Long as the woman Alfie’s best friend loves, Susan Sarandon as an older woman as predatory as he is, Marisa Tomei as a single mom, and Sienna Miller as a beauty whose instability is at first a turn-on and then a turn-off.

The film’s primary and very significant asset is Jude Law, who is brilliant in the title role. He has to make us almost as charmed by Alfie as the women he goes after, even while he is confiding in us what he is really thinking. Very few actors can make an unsympathetic character so appealing or pull off a role that involves speaking directly to the audience, and Law is constantly ingratiating, fascinating, and even touching.

That is less true, however, of the rest of the film. The movie feels as empty as Alfie’s heart.

Parents should know that the movie has very explicit sexual references and situations. Characters use very strong language, drink, smoke, take drugs, and have unprotected sex. There are tense situations and references to abortion. A strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of inter-racial relationships, though a theme of the movie is the way Alfie betrays just about everyone with whom he comes in contact.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Alfie (and the audience) learns from each of his encounters, including the old man in the bolo tie. Which one is the most meaningful to him? Why? What is Alfie looking for? How will that change?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Alfie with a star-making performance by Michael Caine. They will also enjoy About a Boy and The Tao of Steve.

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Comedy Remake

The Grudge

Posted on October 19, 2004 at 2:51 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Characters smoke
Violence/ Scariness: Frequent intense peril and violence, suicide, characters killed, many grisly and disgusting images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong woman
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

This is one of those “Don’t go into the house” movies, a remake of a popular Japanese horror film by Takashi Shimizu, the writer/director of the original.

It is again set in Japan, but this time, it is a group of Americans at the center of the film. As a part of her training, an exchange student exchange student (Sarah Michelle Geller as Karen) is sent out as a substitute for the caregiver of a woman suffering from some dementia. The woman is an American, living with her son and daughter-in-law, and with a daughter living nearby. It turns out the house was once the site of great rage and anguish, giving rise to a curse that attacks anyone who enters. The rest of the movie is basically seeing how all of that plays out.

Shimizu makes good use of shifts in time to pull us into what little story there is. The usual ghost activities (messing up the house, stalking people) are updated a little bit. These ghosts can call a cell phone and get from the lobby to the 16th floor very quickly. There are some creepy images and gotcha scares but nothing can disguise the fact that this is just a “who gets it next and how does he get it” movie. Too much of it is familiar, though, from the mysteriously feral child to the backwards-crab-crawling guy looking horrified at some looming presence. You know if a bloody jaw with teeth shows up, eventually we’re going to have to find out where, or should I say who it came from.

Indeed, the biggest problem with the film is that, like many American remakes (Wicker Park is one recent example), feels it has to explain too much. We get a helpful little ghost re-enactment of the whole story. Horror movies are much more horrifying when they leave the explanation to that part of our imagination where our own deepest fears lie, so each of us can feel personally unsettled right where we live.

Parents should know that this is a very scary movie with a great deal of tension, many jump-out-at-you surprises, graphic violence, and frequent grisly and disgusting images, including graphic wounds, suicide, dead bodies and, pieces of dead bodies. Characters also drink and smoke and use strong language.

Families who see this movie should talk about the enduring appeal of ghost stories and their own views on whether strong emotions can continue to “occupy” a place. They might want to take a look at websites like this one and this one to find out more about efforts to investigate real-life reports of ghosts and curses.

Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original Ju-On: The Grudge and its sequels and some of the other haunted house movies like The House that Dripped Blood, The Haunting, The People Under the Stairs, Poltergeist, and William Castle’s Homicidal, the movie that had a “Coward’s Corner” with a booth set up to provide refunds to people who did not want to see what happened when the character ignored the warning not to go into the house.

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Movies
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