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View From The Couch: Ray, Secrets & Lies, more

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RAY (2004). The home theater release date for this biopic about music legend Ray Charles was this past Tuesday, exactly one week after the film captured an impressive six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. So just how good is Best Actor frontrunner Jamie Foxx's central performance? Let's just say that without him, Ray would have only marginally more value than a film about, say, Tiffany or The Village People. Director Taylor Hackford wastes a lot of time going over variations on the same themes: Throughout the first part of his adult life, Ray (blind since age seven) alternates between taking drugs, cheating on his wife (Kerry Washington) and - oh, yeah - emerging as a musical genius. The movie spends most of its time wallowing in the mire, yet shouldn't a film named Ray give us a complete portrait of the man? Just as Ray is learning to tame his demons, the movie ends, cheating us of what we really wanted to see: the musician as humanitarian, as elder statesman, as soulful survivor. Still, it's easy to overlook the flaws in the storytelling with Foxx commanding our attention in virtually every scene - the actor loses himself so thoroughly in the role that it's impossible to tell where Ray Charles ends and Jamie Foxx begins. DVD extras include audio commentary by Hackford, 30 minutes of deleted scenes, two extended musical sequences, and a jam session between Charles and Foxx.
Movie: ***
Extras: ***

SECRETS & LIES (1996). Mike Leigh may have just picked up writing and directing Oscar nods for Vera Drake, yet his real international breakthrough came courtesy of this formidable motion picture, which took the Palme d'Or at Cannes, captured five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and earned the gratitude of art-house dwellers everywhere. Leigh deftly avoids any semblance of soap opera artificiality as he centers his story on the members of a London family, most notably Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful photographer enduring a rocky marriage, and his sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), an open-hearted but lonely factory worker whose miserable lot in life extends to the fact that her daughter (Claire Rushbrook) clearly cannot stand her. But into these messy family ties steps a bona fide catalyst, a young black woman named Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who turns out to be the daughter that Cynthia gave up for adoption long ago. Secrets & Lies is a mesmerizing film, with the emotional stakes raised so high that each confrontation or revelation generates as much genuine suspense as anything in such thrillers as Seven. Blethyn won her share of awards for her raw performance as the long-suffering Cynthia, but Spall is equally effective in his own understated manner; in fact, the scene where his frustrated character finally explodes will bowl over anyone who has ever tried to smooth out their own strained family relations. The only DVD extras are theatrical trailers.

Movie: ****
Extras: *

THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) / NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950). The Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s ruined many a career, but director Jules Dassin (still with us at the age of 93) was one of the lucky ones: Forced to flee the US and set up residence in France, he went on to become the internationally renowned director of such hits as Rififi and Never On Sunday. But before this unexpected swerve in his career, he had shot four consecutive film noir offerings that still retain their power today: Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and this pair which have just been released (separately) on the Criterion label. Thieves' Highway is the least known of the four Dassin noirs, but don't let that keep you away: Like the Bogart flick They Drive By Night (and based on another novel by the same author, A.I. Bezzerides), it takes the noir template on the road, with Richard Conte as a WWII vet passing himself off as a trucker in order to nail the sleazy produce supplier (Lee J. Cobb) responsible for maiming his father. Valentina Cortese, exuding sexuality from every pore, plays the hard-luck girl caught in the power struggle between the two men, and her scenes with Conte -- notably one in which she uses her fingernails to play tic-tac-toe on his bare chest - proudly stand alongside any comparable noir moment featuring a tough guy and a femme fatale. Night and the City, needlessly remade in 1992 with Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, is even better, with Richard Widmark as a petty American hustler hoping to hit it big in London. His girlfriend (Gene Tierney) urges him to give up the con and earn a decent living, but he ignores her advice and concentrates his shady efforts on becoming the biggest wrestling promoter in London -- a career path that places him in dangerous proximity to the crime boss (Herbert Lom) who currently holds that position. Few filled the position of sweaty anti-hero better than Widmark, and he's in notable form here, whether cheerfully duping American big-spenders or fearfully fleeing from underworld thugs. DVD extras on Highway include audio commentary by Film Noir Reader editor Alain Silver and a recent interview with Dassin; DVD extras on Night include audio commentary by film scholar Glenn Erickson, two interviews with Dassin (1972 and now), and a revealing look at the different US and UK cuts of the film.

Thieves' Highway: ***1/2
Extras: **1/2

Night and the City: ***1/2
Extras: ***

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