Friday, October 29, 2004

Ray

He was blind by the age of seven, but Ray Charles Robinson didn’t let that stop him from becoming one of the world’s most beloved entertainers. His mother drilled into him the idea of not letting anyone turn him into a cripple; the choice was entirely his own. What this latest film about Ray Charles shows so well is how he made that choice on a daily basis. He recognized his own talent and knew he could convince others to believe in him if he first believed in himself. Unfortunately, there wasn’t always much to believe in. Ray goes behind the success and shows the real Ray Charles, from his consistantly failing marriage to his deep-seeded drug addictions. These kinds of biographical movies often fall short because there aren’t many actors who can pull them off, but Jamie Foxx absolutely shines in the greatest performance of the year.

Ray Charles began as most great artists do, traveling from town to town looking for work. The film wastes no time showing the extraordinary challenges Ray has to face that some would take for granted, such as walking up the stairs to the bus. He demands to be paid with one-dollar bills, because he knows he’d be cheated otherwise. The color of skin isn’t the least of his struggles, either. Amidst all these challenges, though, Charles never settles for discouragment, nor mediocrity. He is always moving forward. Just as he begins making a name for himself, he realizes that his employers have been cheating him, financially. Rather than try to work it out, he immediately confronts, rebukes and leaves them, no questions asked. He knows he can’t survive without room to grow.

Everyone he comes in contact with admires his talent, but he faces the familiar ailment of not having anything unique to offer. His manager correctly identifies the problem, telling him, “No one wants another Nat King Cole.” Ray’s records are selling, nonetheless, but it’s not enough for him. During his first conversation with his future wife, she tells him, “I wonder who the real Ray Charles is.” He says he doesn’t know, but we get the sense that he doesn’t want to tell. He later writes I’ve got a woman, which reveals his true style; a completely original cross of R&B and gospel. She’s initially appalled, but can’t deny the power of his sound. He divides crowds at night clubs, causing some to shout that he’s hellbound for playing the devil’s music, but most people quickly get over it. Ray Charles’ music is just too good to pass up.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray is nothing short of brilliant. Foxx never goes over the top, but manages to capture all of Charles’ flair. He delivers the Ray Charles trademarks, most noticably his smile during performances, but he also gets the little things right. The way Foxx speaks, walks, and even the way he holds his arms after each song all reflect a performance designed to stand up under scrutiny. I started out watching Foxx closely to see how he would handle the role, but within minutes I forgot the performance and felt like I was watching the real Ray. Foxx doesn’t sing his own songs, but this is a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers. When striving for authenticity about a completely unique musician, who are you going to get that can sing like Ray Charles?

Ray moves back and forth between scenes of Ray’s journey through the music world and scenes of his childhood. He was raised on a farm in northern Florida where he witnessed the death of his brother at a very young age. Although Ray was clearly not to blame for his brother’s drowning, he never forgave himself. Throughout the film he periodically relives the incident, the first time being especially effective. While packing his suitcase, Ray suddnely believes the case to be filled with water. Panicked, he shuffles through his soaked shirts and closes his hand around a limp, young arm. He recoiles in terror, only to realize his imagination has gotten the best of him. These scenes say more about what’s happening inside his head than dialogue ever could.

His relationship with his wife suffers through a long series of lies and addictions. While packing a bag for him, his wife discovers a set of drug needles. She blasts Ray for keeping the secret from her, but he basically ignores her and continues with business as usual. Soon, it’s not just his wife that notices. During a recording session, a studio representative expresses his concern to Ray’s manager, to which the manager responds, “What do want me to do about it? Listen to that sound, man!” What Ray slowly realizes is how he betrayed his promise to his mother about never letting anyone turn him into a cripple; through his series of lies and addictions, he’s completely crippled himself. When one of his back-up singers becomes pregnant with his child, Ray denies her request to leave his family for her. She almost laughs and cries simultaneously, telling him in one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, “Between your music, your dope, and me, you’ve already left your family, Ray.”

The tale of Ray Charles’ life is a great story, but often a sad one. It’s a story of how the people he loved never came first; his music was always more important. Ray emerges as a portrait of a real man, and this wonderfully honest portrayal doesn’t necessarily paint him as either good or bad. Ray shows Ray Charles for what he was, nothing more. It knows exactly what is needed to succeed, which is more than most films know.

Friday, October 8, 2004

Friday Night Lights

We’ve all seen that mediocre sports film, haven’t we? It’s the one about the washed-up team without a chance that ends up rallying around a coach, overcoming every obstacle to defy the odds, and failing to surprise anyone in the movie theatre by winning the big whatever. That film has over a hundred titles and the cast varies occasionally, but it’s essentially the same one every time. Thankfully, Friday Night Lights is not that movie.

Based on a true story, Friday Night Lights has a different tale to tell; not a tale of disappointing football players, but of disappointing people. It doesn’t show a team in shambles, but rather an entire community...an entire world. The high school football players in this story aren’t students who play football on the side. These are kids who don’t have anything else. They live and die on the field, and all that matters in life is scoring more points than the other team before the clock runs out. The trouble is that nothing lasts forever, and after 10 years of experiencing nothing but 100 yards of life, the world begins to look too big for comfort.

The film is set in Odessa, Texas, 1988, and the first image on screen is a seemingly endless West-Texas sky. One the one hand, the possibilities are endless and the sky’s the limit. The film doesn’t waste any time getting down to the reality of that imagery, though: the sky is endlessly repressive; there’s no escaping it. The Permian Panthers are led by Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), a veteran coach who seems instantly down to earth. Thornton is the perfect choice as the simple man just trying to do his best. Everyone else expects infinately more of him than his best, and this is where Friday Night Lights stands alone. The protagonist team is fully expected to win. The entire town has made up its mind before the season ever begins, and the biggest struggle for this team is living up to its own expectations.

The story itself is obviously true; it’s not the kind of tale a screenwriter would craft. Everything about it seems real. There’s no cheesy conversations between the coach and the struggling athlete or melodramatic pep-talks at halftime. In fact, there’s not even much of a romance, something many sports movies attempt, but don’t know how to handle. There are still scenes involving conversations and pep-talks, they’re just not overdone. This serves as a double-edged sword, though, because the movie isn’t very uplifting or inspiring. In fact, it’s almost depressing. In a small town where high school football is everything, there exists a vicious cycle of generations that grow up too fast.

One of the most powerful moments comes when three students are sitting on the side of the road, talking. The conversation is pretty grave, centering on the remainder of their shaky season. One boy tries to call everything into prospective, reminding his friends, “We’re just seventeen years old.” One of his comrades turns around immediately and asks retorically, “Do you feel like you’re seventeen?” Of course not. Their youth was the price of the life they were born into. Another jarringly raw moment is when an injured player breaks down in tears and realizes for the first time in his life that he might have to do something besides football. None of them are ready to leave the game, but high school is coming to an end, whether they win or not.

Friday Night Lights looks better than most sports movies. The film itself is gritty and almost a sandy color, much like West-Texas itself. The camera remains unusually active, refusing to hold still for more than a few seconds, and occasional extreme close-ups help keep it visually interesting. Performances are good all around, including a surprisingly sharp appearance by Tim McGraw as a drunken, verbally abusive father. Billy Bob Thornton remains well within his everyman element; his Gary Gaines is the only character who realizes what life is really about. Everyone else learns the hard way.