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Acting Up A Storm 

Jude and Jamie reach new heights

Back in the mid-sixties, during a period when movies like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Pawnbroker were causing all sorts of headaches for the MPAA's moral watchdogs, one such ruckus-raiser was 1966's Alfie, with Michael Caine in a star-making performance as a callow bachelor whose womanizing ways finally catch up to him. The notorious plotline that had the censors howling involved an illegal abortion sought by one of Alfie's conquests -- it was a controversial element in a box office hit that, like many of the best 60s flicks, has now earned added value as a time-capsule piece worthy of sociological dissection.

The new Alfie also includes scenes centering around an abortion, but because the act is now legal, the moment doesn't carry the same charge that its 1966 counterpart did back in its day. In fact, there isn't much in this update that resonates beyond the screen -- Alfie '66 may still hold import as an artifact of its era, but Alfie '04 likely won't be remembered as anything more than one more unnecessary remake.

And yet, as far as these things go, this one's not bad at all. The setting has been curiously switched from London to New York, and Alfie's escapades now seem almost tame in a nation that frequently celebrates its sexual predators in film and on television. Yet the key to this movie's success rests in the central performance by Jude Law -- this easily represents his best acting to date, and he's aided by a letter-perfect supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei and Nia Long as various sack partners.

During his 2000 Oscar acceptance speech for The Cider House Rules, Caine predicted that Law (up for The Talented Mr. Ripley) would eventually emerge as a huge movie star. So there's a certain poetry in the fact that the same project that turned Caine into a bona fide star might now help Law in his continued rise to the top.

Just how good is Jamie Foxx's central performance in Ray? Let's just say that without him, this new biopic about music legend Ray Charles would possess only marginally more value than a film about, say, Tiffany or The Village People.

Director Taylor Hackford, who has never met a movie he can't stretch well past two hours, wastes an awful amount of screen time going over variations on the same themes: Throughout the first part of his adult life, Ray (who was blind since age seven) alternates between taking drugs, cheating on his wife (sympathetically played by Kerry Washington) and -- oh, yeah -- emerging as a musical genius. Despite an occasional sameness to these scenes -- not to mention a choppy structure that shortchanges many of the supporting players -- the film skips along thanks to the inherent drama in many of the presented conflicts. Yet shouldn't a movie 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. Instead, we might as well be watching The Doors again, given that the movie spends so much time (speaking of Jim Morrison) wallowing in the mire.

Still, it's easy to overlook the flaws in the storytelling with Foxx commanding our attention in virtually every scene. Much more than Will Smith as Ali or Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, the actor loses himself so thoroughly in the role that it's impossible to tell where Ray Charles ends and Jamie Foxx begins. It's a real barn burner of a performance, mesmerizing enough to keep Ray on my mind.

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