This Is the Life 

This week at the movies: Ray and Birth.

Biopics are awful. Let's just get that out of the way, shall we? No film genre is so historically stodgy, so dull, so consistently conventional. No matter the subject, they all have the exact same story arc -- rise, fall, redemption. Rinse and repeat. And the bad news about Taylor Hackford's Ray is that it could be the archetypal example of this sorry genre.

Ray Charles is an irresistible subject for this kind of treatment. As a beloved and recently deceased cultural hero who triumphed over addiction, racism, and disability, it's a role waiting for an Oscar moment, and you'd better believe Jamie Foxx is already clearing mantel space.

From the stiff chronology to the slideshow segues to the hackneyed flashbacks to a truly awful final stretch that goes from a too-snappy Freudian deus ex machina to a classroom-doc wrap-up, Hackford and co-writer James L. White do everything in their power to trip this film up. And yet Ray succeeds in spite of it all.

A lot of this success has to do with acting. Given the blindness, the sunglasses, and the identifiable mannerisms, Charles might be easy to mimic, but give Foxx credit for nailing the role. Following excellent performances in Any Given Sunday, Ali (a far more failed biopic but supplying perhaps Foxx's best performance as Ali's cornerman), and Collateral, Foxx's Ray completes his transition to A-list status.

But it's the "Hey, it's that guy!" factor in the supporting cast that's really special. Ray may boast more immensely likable but underrecognized actors in good roles than any movie this year: Kerry Washington plays Charles' gospel-singer wife Della Bea. Best known for her supporting role in Save the Last Dance but best seen in her lead role in Jim McKay's great indie Our Song, Washington might have the most glowing face of any young actress in movies today. Energetic Regina King (who hasn't had a role this juicy since playing Mrs. Show Me the Money in Jerry Maguire) is a joy as Margie Hendricks, the lead Raelette who has Ray's illegitimate child and whose torturous relationship with the star feeds scorching duets such as "Hit the Road Jack" and "(Night Time Is) The Right Time." David Krumholtz, the Sizzlin'-lovin' eldest son in Slums of Beverly Hills, gets to grow up as savvy, constantly bemused agent Milt Shaw. Ike Turner lookalike Thomas Jefferson Byrd (brilliant in Spike Lee's Get on the Bus and Bamboozled) pops up as a bandmate who helps Charles get hooked on heroin. Best of all are Richard Schiff (intensely mopey Toby on The West Wing) and Curtis Armstrong ("Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds and the "Sometimes, Joel, you just have to say 'What the fuck'" guy from Risky Business) as the patron saints of record geeks, Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, respectively.

That brings us to the other thing that Ray gets right: the music. That Ray Charles isn't a cultural figure on par with Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles can only be explained through racism, a case this movie doesn't make. But the genius of "The Genius" is something it nails. Recording-session scenes -- such as the one where Charles begins to break away from his influences (particularly Nat King Cole) by playing with Ertegun's "Mess Around" or the excitement you see on the faces of the Raelettes as they're coached to greatness --are thrilling even if they're mostly too brief. An obviously embellished if not outright fictional scene where "What'd I Say" is written on the spot to fill time at the end of a concert is electric. The song surely wasn't conceived this way, but the experience of the scene is true to the sense of spontaneity you get whenever the song is played.

If Ray misses anything it's in not underscoring enough the historic transition Charles presided over merging gospel and R&B into soul. You get the reaction of his audience to the new sound, but without the on-screen presence of the gospel standards that Charles rewrote, the audience doesn't hear it. But what the audience does hear is still plenty. Ray is a music movie in which the music -- and the film's attitude toward it --makes up for the deficiencies in moviemaking.

-- Chris Herrington

In Birth, the latest film directed by Sexy Beast helmer Jonathan Glazer, an extraordinary premise is set forth against a realistic backdrop and acted out by realistic people. Anna, an ordinary woman (played by the unordinary Nicole Kidman), has just announced her engagement to Joseph (Danny Huston -- director John's son). It's been 10 years since her beloved Sean died suddenly while jogging in the park, and now Anna is ready to move on. Or is she? As if on cue to spoil her potential happiness, a young boy who shares Anna's departed husband's name wanders into the home of Anna's affluent mother and makes a startling announcement: He is Sean. The Sean.

At first, the boy is doubted, of course, but then he starts to demonstrate that he knows things. Things that only the departed Sean could have known. He recognizes furniture. He remembers that he and Anna got married 30 times in 30 churches. He remembers places where he and Anna "did it." Surely this is a joke, right? Well, it's not very funny. "Does Mr. Reincarnation want some cake?" asks Anna's mother (played by wry and wonderful Lauren Bacall). He does.

There is an immensely rewarding pace in Birth that makes itself evident just when Anna starts wondering if there might be something to the young boy's claim. Instead of sinking into a race-against-time format or conjuring up some urgency that requires car chases, death wishes, or, heaven forbid, special effects, Birth allows events to unfold in a deliberate but unforced near-crawl. Every day -- be it an exceedingly important one or one like any other -- still has 24 hours in it, and Birth treats time with the utmost regard. Sean, while claiming to be a reincarnated dead husband, still has to go to school. People have to go to work.

Everything about the way Birth unfolds seems exactly how real people might behave in these circumstances. They are skeptical to the point that we too would be skeptical, angered at the point when we ourselves would be angry. Its characters are bestowed with a respectability in that regard. Even as Anna becomes more and more obsessed with the boy's claims, her surrounding family gets more and more worried about the potential harm of the situation. A lesser film might have them plot against the boy or send Anna to therapy or Do Something Drastic. Instead, they just worry aloud -- as I think most people would do.

When the ever-patient Joseph erupts against the boy in the middle of a private concert (for sitting behind him and kicking his chair, as young boys do), his attack is not merely a dramatic, cinematic outburst; it is a fit of rage. These emotions are those of a confused, angry person instead of a Hollywood construct of the jealous boyfriend. His actions, like those of each of Birth's characters, are unpredictable and palpable. When Anna allows young Sean to take off his clothes and join her in her bath, one gasps, not because it's sensationalistic or even sexual (it's not), but because it is so honest and true to what Anna must be feeling.

Cameron Bright plays the boy, Sean. He is deadpan almost throughout yet has the presence of a little adult. There is a staidness and a posture that makes it very easy to believe that there is a husband -- a man -- somewhere inside the boy. He makes it easy to believe that Anna is confused. So are we. Is this a hoax? Is this boy the real thing or a gifted liar?

A pall hangs over the wealthy condominium where most of Birth takes place. Everything's just a bit dimmer than it should be. The atmosphere is thick. You can almost smell it. There is, likewise, a musicality to the film that helps articulate its themes of birth, life, and death within that pall. The film's beautiful scoring is filled with near-sacramental themes that evoke baptism, childhood, marriage, funeral. In one scene, Anna and Joseph have gone to the orchestra, and for almost a full minute, the camera indulges in a close-up of Anna's face as a tempestuous movement is played that is reflected clearly in Anna's eyes. This moment is like the rest of the film, edging us slightly to a place we may not want to go, to a mystery we may not want to solve but feel we must

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