by Bill Hawk

Universal, 2004, color, 152 mins.- Universal DVD

Jamie Foxx: “This stuff will take you places that you don’t wanna go.”

As will this movie, if you only think of Ray Charles as that cool old guy who played a mean piano and appeared in Pepsi commercials. After losing his sight at an early age, Charles - played by Foxx - is taught to be self-reliant by his pragmatic mother, and he eventually parlays his piano-playing skills into a ticket out of the impoverished rural south. He starts to make a name for himself on the west coast, and after initially being taken advantage of he develops into something of a hard case - an attitude which creeps into his personal life as well. Before long, he’s touring with bands and cutting records - and sleeping with backup vocalists while his faithful wife keeps the home fires burning. He develops a unique sound that takes him to the top of the charts, laying it down in one take in the recording studio - and fuelling it with his heroin habit. And while he does make a stand that allies him with the emerging civil rights movement, his self-centered nature alienates him from friends and family alike. Between that and getting busted for drugs, he’ll really have to straighten out his act - the question is, can he?

Director and co-writer Taylor Hackford’s take on Charles’ life is almost as conflicted as its subject matter. On the one hand, it doesn’t shirk from showing the man’s dark side, but on the other hand it hews to many Hollywood biopic conventions, with scenes that have the trite, glossed-over feel of an old musical. Not that there’s anything wrong with the music, mind you - Charles lent his voice and playing to the film, and you’ll find it difficult not to keep time with some part of your body when he does his thing. For his part, Foxx channels Charles quite effectively, nailing the mannerisms and keeping the man from being totally unsympathetic. It’s unfortunate that the script saddles Foxx with things like a silly guilt complex straight out of Armchair Psychiatry 101, and that the story peters out only halfway through Charles’ life despite its running time, but the film has as many virtues as flaws and is worth checking out. Extras on the disc include audio commentary by Hackford, an optional extended version of the film, and featurettes. A two-disc edition is also available with additional features.

Warner Bros., 1940, B&W, 95 mins.- Warner Bros. DVD

Bette Davis: “I don’t remember anything more- just the reports, one after another, and then a funny little click and the revolver was empty.”

Well, these things happen. Sometimes you’ve got to protect your honor with a dose of hot lead for the man who is forcing his attentions on you, especially on a steamy moonlit evening on a rubber plantation in Singapore. Davis’ hubby, Herbert Marshall, calls in his lawyer pal James Stephenson to help deal with the situation, and Stephenson can’t help detecting a fishy smell to the proceedings. And wouldn’t you know it, the dead man’s Dragon Lady of a widow, Gale Sondergaard, turns out to have incriminating evidence in the form of a letter from Davis to the guy she plugged- a letter which could raise doubts in the minds of the jury at Davis’ trial. Will Stephenson set his suspicions and his professional ethics aside to spare his friend Marshall from an unpleasant truth, and Davis from the hangman’s noose? Will Davis and Marshall’s marriage survive the strain? And will Sondergaard give Davis daggers only from her eyes, or switch to the more solid variety? The characters, and the truth of what happened, will bend and stretch like the product of Marshall’s plantation before those questions are answered.

This tale, from a play by Somerset Maugham, is an unapologetic melodrama elevated by the polished staging of director William Wyler and some sharply-etched character work from the lead actors. Davis is of course at center stage, playing the material for all that it’s worth and then some- once she starts tossing off lines with that unique voice of hers and flashing those big, deep eyes, you know that you’re in for a fun ride. Marshall makes a meal of his supportive husband role, but it is Stephenson who really shines in the male contingent, effectively conveying the clash between the lawyer’s integrity and his loyalty to an old pal. The picture starts with a bang- several, actually- and maintains a good pace as it winds its way through various exotic settings and events. The story’s wrap-up reflects the old Production Code more than it does Maugham, but its elements of fate and redemption strike an interesting note that undoubtedly had Davis’ fans hitting the Kleenex. Disc extras include a (slightly) alternate ending and some radio versions of the story featuring Davis and Marshall.

Fox, 1977, color, 119 mins.- Anchor Bay DVD

Anne Bancroft: “I swore I’d quit at 35…and 36, 37…and then I closed my eyes.”

Ah, fame- once acquired, it can be very hard to let go of. For ballet dancer Bancroft, whose star is slowly and inevitably fading, there is no real life beyond the stage- a decision that she has had to live with for many years, and a regret that comes into sharp focus when she runs into old colleague Shirley MacLaine again. MacLaine had left the ballet company after getting knocked-up by fellow dancer Tom Skerritt, and has since lived a suburban existence with one atypical facet- she and Skerritt run a ballet school, and all of their kids are dancers. In fact, their eldest daughter, Leslie Browne, catches the eyes of Bancroft and her company’s higher-ups, and before long Browne is in New York prepping for the Big Time. MacLaine accompanies her daughter into a world that she left behind long ago, and as the fleet-footed young lass retraces her mother’s footsteps, all sorts of old questions and resentments bubble up into new conflicts…..

This character-driven drama from “West Side Story” writer Arthur Laurents and “Footloose” director Herbert Ross contrasts the gracefulness of ballet with the less aesthetically-pleasing dance that goes on behind the scenes. The ballet company is a family of sorts, but the good of the company comes before the needs of any individual- as both Bancroft and MacLaine know. Each of them has had to live with their choices, and each wishes that they had some of what the other has. They butt heads as only old alienated friends can, eventually having a cathartic clash that is gleefully over-the-top. Along the way there are a number of dance segments with Bancroft (who had no ballet experience before doing this film) and with Browne, who takes a few spins- in more than one sense of the word- with some guy named Baryshnikov. Recommended for ballet fans or anybody looking for a solid drama about those midlife blues. The only extra of note is a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette.

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© Melt Magazine 2005