(Universal, 2004) D: Taylor Hackford w/ Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington. Rating: NNNN
The basic problem with biopics is the tension between the desire for some fidelity to facts and the demands of storytelling, pace and structure. The two-disc DVD of Taylor Hackford's outstanding Ray Charles biopic both explores that tension and neatly end-runs a common and somewhat chicken-hearted DVD device for dealing with it, the extended version.
That version, included with the theatrical cut, gives us a lot more Ray and some very important scenes. But it shuns any attempt to present itself as an alternate cut by announcing the extra scenes with two musical notes supered into the frame corner, then lurching a bit as it goes into and out of the extra material. It wrecks the movie as movie even as it deepens the story and tells you exactly where Hackford's sympathies lie. It may also cause playback problems on some DVDs; that lurch may be a function of mine.
On the commentary track that plays alongside the theatrical cut but not with the extended version, Hackford clearly intends to give us the best insight he can into the interplay of storytelling and fact. He details exactly how and why he shaped things, and sounds guilty when he confesses to making something up. Unlike many directors, he prepared his remarks beforehand. His talk's a little work of art in itself, and should be required listening for anyone setting out to comment on his or her own movie.
Jamie Foxx is an amazing actor, the kind who vanishes into the heart of a role. You'd never recognize him as the wimpy cabby from Collateral, and you never think of him as an actor when he's playing Ray. His segment commenting on the role, including footage of him jamming with Charles, is the disc-two highlight. More of that and more on Charles's involvement in the film - apparently extensive - would have been welcome.
But mostly what we get on disc two is the same deleted scenes from the extended version plus two, this time with the option of Hackford commentary, and some tributes to Ray Charles. Overall, disc two comes across as thin.
It's a regrettable weakness in an otherwise great package for a terrific movie packed with intelligence, energy, soul and lots of that great Ray Charles music.
EXTRAS Director commentary, extended version, deleted scenes, interview with Hackford, Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles doc, tribute to Ray Charles doc, theatrical trailer. Anamorphic wide-screen, 5.1 sound. English version; English, French and Spanish subtitles. Supplementary material in English only.
Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster
(Sony, 1966) D: Jun Fukuda, w/ Pair Bambi, Akira Takarada. Rating: N despite the anamorphic wide- screen digital transfer, high-quality subtitles and inclusion in the 50th Anniversary Collection, this is, tragically, one of Godzilla's worst efforts. Godzilla literally sleeps through the first 50 minutes, while Mothra slumbers until the final five, rousing just long enough to spit at Godzilla and carry the castaways to safety. Godzilla looks baffled and more than a little disappointed.
Who can blame him? Deprived of a city to stomp, he's stuck on a tiny desert island with only a measly heavy water plant to stomp and a mere giant lobster to battle. The former folds at the first step, and the latter lasts about two seconds. There isn't any more.
The effects are suitably effective. The guy in the giant lobster suit looks convincingly like a guy in a suit, and the miniatures look very small. The incidental pleasures - irrelevant dance numbers, imitation spaghetti western and surf music and the Pair Bambi duo taking over from the Ito sisters as Mothra's magic munchkins from outer space - are too few and too thin.
And you're thinking, "So what? This is Godzilla! Cheesy is his middle name." And so it is. But remember, Godzilla's been in the business 10 years longer than James Bond and has more than twice as many titles to his credit. He's huge. At his best, Godzilla's cheese transcends; he's the loopy avatar of a spirit that's animated cinema from Willis O'Brien's 1925 Lost World through Jurassic Park.
Some of Godzilla's better stompings are out there. Check out Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and stomp your own private Tokyo.
Extras: Japanese and English versions, English subtitles, anamorphic wide-screen high-definition transfer.
When Will I Be Loved
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) D: James Toback, w/ Neve Campbell, Dominic Chianese, Fred Weller. Rating: NN is james toback the most deluded director working today? There's a case to be made, and he makes it himself on the commentary track. We're set up for the story to start when two characters meet, but Toback takes 35 minutes to get there. Meanwhile, the street hustler works his cellphone on Manhattan streets and Neve Campbell's sheltered middle-class would-be artist masturbates in the shower, has a lesbian encounter with a friend and talks with a prospective employer. Much of this is improvised and feels like filler; scenes that could play in a minute ramble on for four. Others seem dropped in at random. Very little of it advances the plot or characters.
Now flip to the commentary and listen to Toback explain how the scenes are really playing. But does Campbell's chance meeting with actress Lori Singer, playing herself, really suggest lesbian interest, as Toback suggests, or just awkwardness in the face of celebrity? Are we really wondering how the characters will meet, or do we just want to get on with it? Is Toback's own performance really self-mockery? Is that even possible when it's an exact copy of his performance in the interview section?
By the one hour mark, the story's under way, and Campbell, who's always engaging, has a good scene with Dominic Chianese's media magnate, who wants to pay her a huge sum for sex, and another with Fred Weller's hustler, who thinks he should get the money. Then it's into the big plot twist and straight to the climax and we're home in 81 minutes. Almost half of them wasted.
Campbell and Toback want us to make up our own minds about the character, but they've given us neither enough material to work with nor enough reason to care.
Extras: Commentary by Tobac, conversation with Toback and Neve Campbell. Dolby 5.1 in English and French version, English and French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, February 8
Bright Young Things
(MGM, 2003) Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies energetically adapted by English comic genius Stephen Fry.
(Sony, 2003) Czech period romance (WWII) for those with a taste for long, slow heartbreak.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2004) Unusual, thoughtful romance from Nick Cassavetes.
Murder One: The Complete First Season
(Fox, 1995) Steven Bochco's slow, complex crime drama may work far better on DVD than it did on network TV.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb