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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ray

Knowing next to nothing about the life of Ray Charles, I found Ray to be more powerful upon reflection than while watching the film. That said, the movie is compelling enough to watch, and has plenty of good music throughout that takes it to another level of entertainment.

The story takes its audience from the beginning of Charles' professional career to the point that he is an unquestioned superstar. (A brief montage of pictures covers the rest of his life.) Frequent flashbacks to a difficult childhood ultimately help explain the sometimes ruthless musician. This can also be seen as a story of overcoming adversity as Charles battled his drug addiction and the difficulties that come with being blind.

It takes time, possibly a touch too much time, to begin to grasp the personality of Charles as depicted in the movie. Womanizing, drug addiction, and a business acumen seemingly devoid of loyalty, were predominate characteristics of a person the viewer is often left apathetic about. But as flashbacks and later scenes reveal all he went through — a childhood that included watching his younger brother die and going blind not long thereafter, along with numerous incidents in which trusted associates either leave him out of things or blatantly try take advantage of him — the man becomes more and more understandable.

The flashbacks were some of the most poignant scenes in the film. His mother, played by Sharon Warren, is shown as an incredibly strong woman, fully capable of preparing her son for the difficulties ahead. C.J. Sanders, playing young Ray, turned in an overlooked performance of such a young man slowly losing his sight. A late scene between Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Warren (with Terrone Bell playing Ray's dead brother, George), never fully explained but shown almost as a hallucination of the older Ray as he goes through withdraw, is very powerful.

As the movie unfolded, I thought that while Foxx was good, the hype that surrounded his performance was overblown. However, the man never missed a step, never offered an untrue moment in depicting the very independent, determined yet vulnerable Charles. In one of the most worthwhile DVD extras I've seen, footage of Charles (who was involved with the film before he died) and Foxx drove home the remarkably accurate portrayal the actor offered — from the musician's physical gyrations while performing to his unique speech pattern.

Ray takes a while to have its full impact, but is nonetheless very much worth watching.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Casual Critic — Spanglish

Adam Sandler took on a rare dramatic role in Spanglish, and though he did a decent job of pulling it off there isn't a lot of other even mild positives in this movie. The first 45 minutes of the film, can only be categorized as odd, drags on only to offer those who stay with it little reward.

Spanglish depicts the Clasky family as it is essentially falling apart . . . sort of. The film's biggest problem is that it spends too much time early on with the woman who eventually becomes the Clasky's housekeeper and her daughter, characters that were no doubt meant as catalysts for change by the family. In fact, opening and closing narration would lead you to believe this was their story, but they merely become tangled up in the bizarre family dynamic the film tries to offer up for your entertainment. If you're confused, I'm right there with you.

The relationship between John Clasky (Sandler) and his daughter (Sarah Steele) salvages the film. They seem to get that their wife/mother (Te'a Leoni) is too wrapped up in herself to offer them much, so they latch on to each other. However, this relationship wasn't explored nearly enough.

Leoni's character may be a microcosm of why Spanglish comes up short. There's simply nothing for the audience to grab on to as far understanding where this superficial-whack-job-who-attempts-to-takeover-the-housekeeper's-daughter-because-she's-more-of-what-she-wants-in-a-daughter-than-her-own-daughter . . . phew . . . is coming from, until she blames her mother's alcoholism at the very end by which time nobody cares.

Evelyn Norwich plays the kooky, alcoholic grandmother who used to be a famous singer. Like the housekeeper and her daughter, this character at least seems to have a job in the film — comic relief with a touch of wisdom. Unfortunately, it was too obvious to work.

Thanks to Sandler and Steele, Spanglish is barely something to watch for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Casual Critic — Barry M. Bloom's Larry Bowa: I Still Hate to Lose

Barry M. Bloom's Larry Bowa: I Still Hate to Lose may offer Philadelphia Phillies' fans their only glimpse of a fiery, passionate player (or manager) that actually cares about winning games this year. Written in cooperation with Bowa, the book offers a look at the career of the guy who was the Phils' last on-field link to the one championship in their 100-plus year history.

The cliche'd "overachiever" come to life, Bowa carved out a career in Major League Baseball that has now touched four decades despite being doubted every step of the way. His drive to win comes right through the pages, which offers plenty of the behind-the-scenes stuff you'd expect from such a book.

Appropriate for a guy known as the quintessential "baseball guy," the book focuses entirely on Bowa's career offering almost nothing about his personal life. It starts with the signing of his first pro contract for $2,000 after he went undrafted, and you actually believe him when he says, "I didn't care about the money."

The most interesting aspect of the book was Bowa's relationships with players he played with and managed. He's very honest (though I suspect pulls some punches) about his relationship with Mike Schmidt, who was originally brought in to supplant Bowa at shortstop. He's equally honest about dealing with Phils management as a player and, later, a manager.

Bloom gets a bit bogged town tying up loose ends of the careers of seemingly every guy Bowa ever dealt with. For me, some of the details of a particular season got a bit dull, but that's probably more about me than a flaw in the book. In fact, having wavered in my fandom of the Phils and baseball in general over the years, the baseball details about the Phils were actually enjoyable to me.

A twist that neither Bowa nor Bloom could have perceived was that the book ends just before the 2004 season — after which Bowa was fired as manager of the Phils. Reading Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade talk about how Bowa was just the guy they needed offered plenty of irony and, I guess, things to ponder about how people really work.

This is worth the read, but, I suspect, mostly for the true fan.