Saturday, October 30, 2004

Reel To Reel:

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jamie Foxx
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Drug Use, Some Sexuality, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: Buzz says Foxx is Oscar-worthy in his portrayal of the late great Ray Charles.
The Bottom Line: He is, even if he's in a picture occasionally clouded by flashback storytelling.

Ray is another of those great pictures that almost never got made. Director Taylor Hackford made this biodrama of music legend Ray Charles independently -- with the blessing of Charles himself -- only after struggling to get funding and then a distributor. Universal Pictures picked it up because a studio head happens to be a huge Charles fan.

This film deserved better treatment from the get-go. Only after Charles' passing earlier this year, after reading various obituaries, did I realize how much innovation Ray brought to his craft: the fusion of jazz, country, gospel and R&B. Charles could inject an old standard with new vitality. This cat could swing. And the picture heaps enough music onto you to make you want to get up and dance.

But it's Foxx who sells it. He has Charles' mannerisms and speech patterns down cold, including the head bobbing, a by-product of the blindness Ray developed as a child growing up dirt-poor in Georgia. Foxx worked with his eyes glued shut, and he's no musical greenstick, knowing how to play piano and even contributing a few vocals when he's not lip-synching to Charles' classic tracks.

Ray follows Charles' life from his first steady gig in Seattle up the ladder of success. We flash back to his early exposures to music, his coping with blindness, and the words of his strong-willed mother. We are also exposed to his herion addiction -- at times in graphic detail -- and womanizing. Charles fathered numerous children with numerous women, but for the sake of comprehension the picture focuses on two, his wife Della (Kerry Washington) and backing singer Margie (Regina King). We also get a fair share of Charles' business dealings, including the groundbreaking agreement he struck with ABC/Paramount to own his own master recordings.

All this might be enough to overload a picture, but director Hackford keeps the story moving and grooving with the power of Charles' music, powered by Foxx. Some scenes feel out of place, and there's a recurring nightmare Charles has about the death of his younger brother. But Foxx outshines the faults. As the real Ray Charles said about Fox before his death, "The kid's got it."

Saturday, October 9, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Team America: World Police

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Phil Hendrie
Rated: R
Red Flags: Strong Language, Graphic Violence, Explicit Sex -- all with puppets

Preconceived Notions: A crude homage to the classic Thunderbirds children's show.
The Bottom Line: A causticly funny, brutally offensive, dead-on satire of the War on Terror.

Team America: World Police is vulgar, coarse, racist, stereotypical, homophobic, xenophobic, gross, anti-intellectual, pornographic and utterly, wickedly funny.

Moderates, we have found your flick. No, wait, hear me out.

The creators of South Park borrowed the look and feel of the cult-classic Thunderbirds TV series -- that kids show with the adult sensability -- to create a puppet-driven action spoof that yanks everybody else's chain while pulling the strings. No target escapes: goofball Hollywood liberals, conservative anti-terror ranters, crummy blockbuster movies.

A la Thunderbirds, the title characters are an elite anti-terrorism team, fighting from a hidden base in Mount Rushmore. They zoom around the world in their planes and subs and helicopters, blowing up terrorists wherever they can find them. That's not hard because the terrorists always look like Osama Bin Ladens carrying blinking suitcases and jabbering jibberish laced with "Allah" and "jihad." Problem is, Team America also blows up its fair share of landmarks, too, from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids, brushing it off with "Damn, missed."

The team is led by Spottswoode, that mysterious man in a wheelchair behind the scenes who's always drinking something and rolling around in every shot. When a team member is killed, Spottswoode recruits a Broadway actor, Gary, staring in the hit musical "Lease" (you figure out the real-life reference) where he belts out "Everybody Has AIDS" as the showstopper. Spottswoode needs Gary to infiltrate -- act his way into -- the terrorists' organization. The fearless leader's words echo Bush administration anti-terror boilerplate: "The terrorists hate you Gary." "The terrorists are planning a major attack." "I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. reports the terrorists are in Egypt." Yes, I spelled that word right. Team America's intel comes from a giant computer voiced by orally-schizophrenic radio jock Phil Hendrie, who also supplies several other voices in the film. Don't ask me what that acronym means.

Gary reluctantly takes the mission and ends up falling in love with Lisa, the team's buxomly sculpted psychologist. True to action-movie form, it's not long before they end up in bed, with a sex scene that had to be re-cut numerous times to dodge an NC-17 territory. Looks like it still got there.

Team America's shoot-everything-that-walks tactics raise the ire of the fictitious Film Actors Guild -- known by its eye-raising acronym. Its peace-pansy left-wing calvacade of stars -- led by Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Matt Damon (in a particularly unflattering portrayal), and others -- organize a world conference under the direction of North Korea's Kim Jong Il. He's a foul-mouthed commie-psycho in huge glasses who can't pronounce his L's and who's secretly plotting to blow the world apart with WMD's as Hollywood brings world leaders together. U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix and Michael Moore also get their lumps.

And some knife-edged satire is saved for action films, namely in two songs -- one dumping on Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor and another riffing on the filmmaking technique called the "montage." Just listen to it.

But Team America's main targets are extremism -- far-leftism, far-rightism, jingoism, nationalism, and the arrogance that accompanies them. That makes this the perfect movie for moderates put off by Fahrenheit 9/11 and whatever the right answers it with. If you can put up with the cussing, you'll laugh your butt off.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Ladder 49

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Intense Fire Behavior, Some Mild Sexuality

Preconceived Notions: Backdraft. Been there, burned that.
The Bottom Line: Backdraft: tribute to fire. Ladder 49: tribute to firefighters.

Ladder 49 could've easily been set in either pre- or post-9/11 America. And it's impossible to tell which. Right there, it earns some brownie points. For the record, it's set in Baltimore. And whereas Backdraft showed intense flame, Ladder 49 shows us intense emotion and brotherhood -- as seen through the eyes of firefighter Jack Morrison (Phoenix) and his commander Chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta), the man leading the charge to save him from dying in a burning building.

Morrison knows this might be it for him. He's just rescued a guy from a towering inferno ("Why is it always the 12th floor?" one firefighter asks) when the floor gives way, leaving him trapped in flame and rubble. As the rescuer awaits rescue, he relives his life: rookie firefighter, hose-man, search and rescue team member, husband, father, member of the firefighter brotherhood. Ladder 49 does not shed any new light on the danger or trauma or heroism of the firefighting profession, but it does let us in on its fraternal bonding. And that's largely why it works. Here are guys who could live right down the street from us, running into burning buildings to save our lives with little regards for their own. That reality catches up with Phoenix's character at one point, and he must weigh whether to keep saving lives or save his own by moving to a desk job.

If you're looking for an effects-driven action picture, this isn't it. But if you're looking for a three-tissue weeper, grab the Kleenex box and walk this way. Ladder 49 milks some sadness, but in a heroic way, not sappily. The ending seems milked for effect too, but give it some points for originality.