RAY (PG-13, 135 minutes)
Jamie Foxx gives a tremendous, soul-revealing performance in this gorgeous, surprisingly candid biopic about the late Ray Charles. High schoolers interested in music and cultural history beyond their own era might find "Ray" riveting. Though rated PG-13, the film includes tough scenes of drug use and a graphic drug withdrawal sequence in a clinic. There are steamy moments that occur either before or after implied sexual situations, lots of sexual innuendo, a hinted offer of oral sex, racial slurs, profanity, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, liquor and cigarettes.
Rich in tunes and atmosphere of 1940s, '50s and '60s America, the film traces Ray's musical rise from playing piano and singing like Nat "King" Cole in jazz clubs, to his breakthrough blend of gospel and blues. In scattered, dreamlike flashbacks, we learn of a tragic childhood in the Depression-era South that, if the film is accurate, haunted the man: He saw his baby brother accidentally drown, and soon after he went blind from glaucoma. A poignant scene in which his mother (Sharon Warren) stands back while young Ray (C.J. Sanders) learns to "see" by honing his hearing, is inspired filmmaking by Taylor Hackford. Apart from Ray's musical genius and innate charm, the movie examines his marriage, infidelities, hurtfulness and weakness for heroin.
SAW (R, 100 minutes)
In this clever but bloody thriller, a serial killer traps victims in grotesque, potentially lethal situations from which they can only escape by mutilating themselves or killing a fellow captive. The brainchild of Australian film students, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, "Saw" is a highly effective example of the genre -- if you like that kind of gross frightfest. The title refers to the predicament of having to saw off your own foot to escape certain death. Arrgh. Despite its Halloween-timed opening, "Saw" is not for high schoolers under 17 (she wrote, hopefully).
Though some of the mayhem occurs off-camera, the implications are always gruesome and often graphic: A young woman with a steel "jaw trap" on her head must slice open the belly of a dead man to get the key to the device before it cracks her head open. We see her cut into him in silhouette. There are scenes in which a mother and child are taken captive and threatened with death, "standard" gun and knife violence, strong profanity, sexual innuendo and a muted reference to pedophilia.
BIRTH (R, 100 minutes)
Lugubrious, arty, illogical and never tricky enough to be a Halloween treat, "Birth" plays with ideas about reincarnation and how we cope with loss. Alas, it plays with them verrrrry slowwwwly. Set in an upscale Manhattan milieu, the film's interiors and its actors gleam with elegance. It never ceases to hold one's interest, yet it leads to no emotional, intellectual or even chill-inducing payoff. Inappropriate for high schoolers under 16, "Birth" contains an explicit sexual situation with nudity between adults, a subtly implied hint of sexuality between a woman and a boy, an infidelity theme, rare profanity, brief nonlethal violence, drinking and smoking.
Nicole Kidman plays Anna, a chic, widowed lawyer about to remarry. (In the prologue we see her husband die while jogging; a baby is born at the same moment, setting up the plot.) Anna's fiance (Danny Huston) seems nice enough. At their engagement party, a somber 10-year-old (Cameron Bright) appears and says he is the reincarnation of Anna's late husband and must be with her. Anna's family (Lauren Bacall as her mother) and friends try to debunk his claims, but Anna half-believes him. The ickiest moment shows the boy getting in the bath with Anna, though the scene contains no overt sexuality. In two other scenes, she kisses him briefly on the lips.