It's as if the folks who run Hollywood thought, Nobody's busy in December, so let's fill their idle hours with lots of movies--serious ones as well as silly. By one count, the studios are releasing 66 features this holiday season, up from an already ginormous 58 last year. (Just on their own, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet seem to be starring in about 30 of them.) Who has the spare time to consume all this fabulous entertainment, other than Donald Rumsfeld?
"We do," your humble critics reply. We've slogged to dozens of screening rooms, propped our eyes open with toothpicks and dutifully agreed (poor us) to be paid to watch the movies you will soon pay to see. Amid the welter of ordinary movies and atrocious ones, we've found nine worthies--some with just good intentions, many that hit the mark. These are the more ambitious films on display this month, and they ardently hope to be around on the last Sunday night in February. For this is the season when kids write to Santa, and Hollywood starts dreaming of Oscar.
DREAMGIRLS Show biz is so in love with itself, some-times it just has to sing. One of the most powerful self-addressed valentines was the musical Dreamgirls, which fictionalized the making and packaging of Diana Ross and the Supremes. The 1981 show, written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger and directed by Michael Bennett, now gets its own makeover--into a just-this-side-of-fabulous movie.
Spanning the '60s and '70s, Dreamgirls is about the pop-cultural battle of glamour vs. soul: of Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), the pretty singer, vs. Effie (Jennifer Hudson), a vocal volcano but a bit plump. Curtis (Jamie Foxx), their manager, banking on Deena's smooth sound and looks to peddle the Dreams to white audiences, will do anything to make the sale. The piece plumbs the lure of compromise, the risk of diluted dreams and broken hearts.
Writer-director Bill Condon has made some compromises too: pumping up the role of a James Brownish belter to get Eddie Murphy more screen time, handing Beyoncé a new ballad to even out a story that belongs to Effie. But, hey, that's show biz, and Dreamgirls has plenty of visual pizazz to match its cast's charisma. American Idol's Hudson is sensational, mixing tenderness and the truculence of an oughta-be star.
It's great to see a movie musical with a smart sense of the genre. All Dreamgirls lacks is the amazing energy and passion of the original. In a way, the film is less Effie, more Deena.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA Last year, as he was preparing to shoot Flags of Our Fathers, his caustic epic about the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood got a script by his researcher, Iris Yamashita, about the soldiers on the other side of the battle and the losing side of the war. That cued Eastwood to make an Iwo Jima diptych and, after scouting Japanese filmmakers, to direct it himself (though he doesn't speak the language). The result is a unique, bifocal view of ground war--the men who fight it, the propaganda attending it, the awful way it ends.