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American Legend
By Shawn Stone

Ray
Directed by Taylor Hackford

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of Ray Charles to our musical culture. At one point in the new biopic Ray, Charles (Jamie Foxx) explains to his wife that he’s trying to do “something new in music and business.” Whether merging gospel and R&B, or country music and soul, he was a visionary who understood the connections between seemingly disparate forms of music—connections obscured, mostly, by the dictates of corporate and racial boundaries. And, as a composer, he could transcend these genres and make something new in a way that earlier figures (like, say, Bing Crosby) could not.

The odd and wonderful thing about Ray is that the film not only conveys this insight into Ray Charles’ music, it’s an entertaining, dramatic portrait of the man himself. You’ve read it before, no doubt, but believe the hype: Jamie Foxx gives a stunning performance as Charles. Yes, he was one of the bright spots on the ensemble TV comedy In Living Color, but, then again, so was Jim Carrey—and Carrey can’t give up his treasured mannerisms for any price, even an Oscar (which Foxx is being tipped for). Foxx also stole many scenes from Will Smith in Ali, but that wasn’t exactly hard work. Foxx immerses himself in the role; if you ever saw Charles in concert, or just grew up with him as a frequent performer on TV variety shows, you’ll be amazed.

The film begins as Charles leaves his Florida home in the late ’40s, and follows a more-or-less straight chronological path through the years, with pertinent flashbacks to his childhood. We see how his fierce mother (Sharon Warren) toughened him up to face the world sightless; how he found his musical voice; how he nearly wrecked his life with dope; and how he became rich and famous by trusting his own vision.

Of course, as he was a musician, there’s plenty of woman trouble. There’s his innocent, country-girl wife Della Bea (Kerry Washington), and “road wives” Margie (Regina King) and Mary Ann (Aunjanue Ellis). As usual, the sinners prove more interesting than the virtuous, because screenwriters are always more interested in the sinners. (And King, in particular, is a strong presence.)

There have been a number of times in his career when director Taylor Hackford has lived up to the first part of his last name; he has certainly made his fair share of overbaked potboilers. That said, he has also coaxed a number of usually preposterous actors into seeming almost human (think Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman), and toned down the method excesses of others (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne). Hackford’s a solid, old-school craftsman with a killer instinct for the big moment.

Hackford’s talent for the latter pays off a few times in Ray, most notably in the scene where Charles and the band first perform the breakthrough hit “What’d I Say.” The joy of discovery and creation is imagined with just the right combination of art and showbiz. (And showbiz is as essential as art in understanding who Charles was.) His careful craftsmanship holds the film together, as the many flashbacks and expository montages clear up points in Charles’ story, not confuse them.

Happily, the filmmakers used Charles’ own recordings for the soundtrack. That you don’t really even think about this after the first few scenes is the best indication of what Foxx has accomplished.

The Best and Brightest

The Incredibles
Directed by Brad Bird

There are two great moments, early on, that set up The Incredibles as something slightly darker than, say, Monsters, Inc. First, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) groans about having to go to his son Dash’s (Spencer Fox) “moving-up ceremony.” “He’s going from the third to the fourth grade, for crissake!” wails this once mighty superhero, formerly known as Mr. Incredible but now—thanks to skyrocketing malpractice rates, an anti-superhero feeding frenzy and inevitable age and domesticity—treading water in a sea of purposelessness as an insurance adjuster. Wife Helen (Holly Hunter), herself formerly known as Elastigirl, reprimands him, but Bob maintains his position that “they” are elevating mediocrity. Later, Dash bewails that he is forbidden to use his own superhuman talent, which is running faster than the speed of light. Again, the thoroughly domesticated Helen advises that to use those powers would be akin to bragging that Dash is better than everybody else, while in reality, “everybody is special.” To this, young Dash mutters, “which means nobody is.”

A world in which superheroes are denied the right to use their powers, even for societal good? A movie that openly implies that such baby-boomer driven phenomena as moving-up ceremonies and supervised play are somewhat evil? Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The Incredibles is something of a labor of love for writer-director Brad Bird, whose previous movie, the gem The Iron Giant, was too little seen. As much a paean to the struggles of underappreciated artists as it is a treatise on modern domesticity, The Incredibles is probably the first Pixar and maybe the first Disney release that addresses the complexities of middle-aged despair and raw envy.

When Bob gets a call from a mysterious stranger named Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), offering him a chance to get back in the superhero game, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Not only is he dying a slow death in suburbia, despite his genuine love for Helen and the kids—including teen Violet (Sarah Vowell) and baby Jack-Jack—but he’s just lost his job. Adding insult to injury is the fact that old crony Lucius (Samuel T. Jackson), formerly known as Frozone, is tiring of their weekly undercover attempts to right wrongs with the help of a police scanner. So Bob begins the process of rediscovering the joys of being Mr. Incredible, so much so that he gets back in shape and becomes a better husband and dad. Then, when Syndrome (Jason Lee), a would-be superhero, kidnaps Bob, it’s up to Helen, the kids and Frozone to save him.

There are the obligatory scenes of mass destruction that provide myriad ways to show just how amazing our superheroes really are. Elastigirl, for instance, can extend her body through several doorways at once and wind her stringy arms around corners—there is a great slapstick scene in which she gets stuck in two separate doors and has to use her wits to disarm several assailants. But she can also stretch her body to form a sort of boat or parachute to protect her kids. In the course of the action, Violet, whose special gift is the ability to become invisible and create impermeable force fields, is transformed from a painfully shy adolescent to a grounded and happy teen. Only Frozone, who shoots walls of ice from his wristbands, doesn’t get enough of a chance to show us his stuff.

The Incredibles is thoroughly entrancing, and it pulsates with a very real emotion that most viewers will recognize as something very close to home. It’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t prattle on about how we’re all the same and other politically correct sentiments, but actually questions the value of deemphasizing individual strengths and talents.

—Laura Leon

You Take More Than You Give

Alfie
Directed by Charles Shyer

As far as pointless remakes go, Alfie is on a par with Psycho for total irrelevance (make that irreverence if you’re a fan of old-school Brit cinema). How could the 1966 original, starring Michael Caine as a ruthless womanizer, possibly have been improved upon? Although Caine’s Alfie was a brute who referred to the women in his life as “it” and encouraged their servitude, the archetype still exists—only the clothes, the attitude, and the lingo have changed. And that, apparently, was the sole inspiration for a remake, with Jude Law ably stepping in as the strapping, golden-haired seducer. Directed by Charles Shyer, a specialist in slick updates (The Parent Trap, Father of the Bride), the 2004 Alfie may be kinder and gentler, but that’s not so much a reflection of less misogynist times as it is the director’s insipid commercial instincts.

The new and improved Alfie (he’s got a superb tailor) is upgraded from working-class Cockney to service-industry Eurotrash. Having immigrated to Manhattan in search of beautiful women, new Alfie finds himself a kid in a carnal candy shop. No desperate housewives or groveling waifs for him; his most serious relationship is with a stunning manic-depressive (Sienna Miller) who parties even harder than he does. Not only that, but Alfie’s narcissism fits right in with the turbo-charged consumerism of present-day Manhattan. “I’m a fashion whore,” he proudly announces by way of an introduction. As in the original, he talks directly to the camera, with all the braggadocio of a successful studmuffin, and very little of the original’s moral bewilderment. Today’s Alfie is aware of the consequences of his devious behavior, but morality simply isn’t an issue anymore. And neither is single motherhood or abortion or, miraculously enough, AIDS or STDs. Despite an obligatory glimpse of a condom wrapper, it could be the swinging ’60s all over again. So what’s this Alfie all about, then?

Well, it’s about a great-looking guy with great-looking clothes in a great-looking city (the cafes, shops, and streetscapes of Manhattan are shot with the same meticulous attention as Alfie’s casually tousled hair). As his heat quotient cools, Alfie pauses for a little soul searching—never minding that Caine’s Alfie wouldn’t know where to begin looking even if he were so inclined. That our shallow but undeniably charming host is concerned only with staving off loneliness comes off as somehow more reptilian than the original’s blindly selfish impulses. He also talks too much, indulging in a running commentary even while in flagrante in the backseat of the limo he drives. Oddly enough, Shyer’s freewheeling makeover (Alfie gets it on with a cocktail waitress on a pool table) is less sexy than the censorious original.

Bill Naughton’s astringent original screenplay has been lightened up with the sparkling glibness of a superior sitcom (by sitcom writer Elaine Pope), and simultaneously dragged out with a sudsy emphasis on Alfie’s emotional missteps: Almost everyone gets teary-eyed at some point, and that’s a drag the original wouldn’t have stood for, even if he did have sex with his best friend’s girlfriend, as does this Alfie. Although the change in locale and some of the plot tweaks are adroit, Shyer mishandles the most important scenes. Alfie’s long-suffering standby girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) opts out of the relationship out of apparent boredom rather than resolution, and his older trophy lover (Susan Sarandon, rehashing her Bull Durham role) is a real trouper, robbing the story of its climactic comeuppance (supplied in the original by a still-bombshell Shelley Winters). Naughton’s eviscerating when-monster-meets-monster moment is softened into a mild ego bruise, leaving Alfie a little lonelier but no wiser.

And to belabor the comparisons (because what other point is there?), let’s just say that Mick Jagger’s geriatric soundtrack emphatically does not give Dionne Warwick’s theme song a run for the money. About the only thing in the new Alfie that does measure up is his pinstripe suit.

—Ann Morrow


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