After so many bad films have washed under this particular bridge, it takes a lot for a movie to really nail me back in my seat anymore. That said, “Ray” is one of those films.
If you don’t read any further, read this: If you love music, if you love movies, if you love the story of an against-all-odds winner, run to see this one. If “Ray” doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, there is even less justice in the world than I thought.
“Ray” is, of course, the biopic of the great Ray Charles, following the blind piano virtuoso from age 8 until the late 1960s, when he successfully kicked the heroin addiction that had plagued him since his early days on the road. I must admit that when I heard Charles himself had given his blessing to the production and storyline of “Ray” before his death earlier this year, I didn’t expect much. My thinking was that any film that simultaneously tries to honor and capture its subject is bound to be the well-scrubbed version of things, all the glory and none of the guilt (while dead men can’t sue for defamation, it’s another matter when the subject of your hard-hitting drama is alive, kicking and litigious). Imagine my surprise, then, when we get Charles in all his warty glow: a man who often has a chip on his shoulder against God and the universe, who instantly punishes weakness in others even as he completely overlooks his own, who goes howling after every woman in arm’s reach.
For every moment you find yourself cheering for Charles’ resilience in a world that doesn’t know what to do with him (when he schmoozes a hostile, Jim Crow-era bus driver by telling him he lost his sight at Omaha Beach, for instance), there will be another scene where his out-and-out cruelty toward the people who love him will almost force you to look away. The result approaches one of the rare, true depictions of a whole human being on film, and it is an absolutely stunning experience to watch it unfold.
Jamie Foxx plays Charles. Known for his tough-guy and comedic roles, Foxx has been taking on some meatier fare of late, most significantly a great turn as a cabbie kidnapped by a killer in “Collateral” with Tom Cruise. This role, however, is a broad jump beyond anything he has tried before (helped along considerably by the fact that the classically trained Foxx actually plays the piano in the film). The term “channeling Ray Charles” has made the rounds among critics, and it absolutely fits here. It’s not just the voice, it’s everything: the talk, the look, the way his lip curls, the way he walks and answers the telephone and smokes a cigarette. By the end, when director Taylor Hackford begins cutting back and forth between Foxx at the piano and what looks like old concert footage, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself wondering, as I did, whether the footage is really Charles, or if it is Foxx, doing his thing.
In short, “Ray” is an absolute joy, something not seen in American film in many a year. See it. Soon.
— By David Koon
? In Argentina in 1952, two young college students bought a ragged-out 1939 Norton motorcycle and set off on a life-changing trip across South America, for no other reason than to do it. While that might make a good movie in itself, what makes it a Big Deal, however, is the fact that one of the young men aboard was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the communist revolutionary who famously helped Fidel Castro win control of Cuba — the same Che Guevara who was assassinated in Bolivia after being captured by CIA-sponsored soldiers (see the wall of your average politically active college student for a photo).
I had heard the good press about “Motorcycle Diaries” and had not thought much of it. Movies about cultural heroes — especially of the political stripe — have a tendency to be long-angle shots of vast white monuments, totally afraid of showing their subject’s faults, sense of humor, weaknesses (you know, all that stuff that is the difference between humans and marble statues).
Seeing “Motorcycle Diaries” however, I know what all the talk was about. No matter your opinion of Guevara’s politics, it’s clear he cared first and foremost about helping the poor and the downtrodden. Here, as we watch the solidly middle-class Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal, who broke on the scene in “Y Tu Mama, Tambien”) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) ride and then trudge through the beautiful terrain of Peru, Chile and Argentina, we watch them go through a sort of Buddha-like awakening to the suffering of the world: people living in poverty, people exploited for labor at a Chilean copper mine, non-contagious lepers treated like pariahs and segregated from the world. In these scenes, director Walter Sales’ masterful lenswork assures the characters usually don’t have to say a thing — all you need to know is transmitted in a language of half-glances and firelight.
All this is not to say that “Motorcycle Diaries” was a black-clad funeral for a hero. Though emotion and humor don’t often translate as well as they should, this was a movie that I found myself laughing out loud at several times, and actually getting choked up over other scenes. Though Menudo-idol good-looking Bernal might have been miscast as Guevara — and the script works a little too hard to make him George Washington-grade honest — in the end, this is a movie that snags one of the hardest things to capture on film: not birth, but a birth of conscience; a normal person waking up to an unjust world and setting his mind to do something about it. Even if you had no idea who Che Guevara was or what he stood for later in life, the results for any viewer would be the same: a stunningly beautiful film about the awakening of a truly compassionate mind.
— By David Koon