Monthly Archives: February 2007

Dreamgirls (2006)

When the smoke cleared after the 2006 Academy Award nominations, there were some media members in disbelief. How could Dreamgirls, an expensive, glitzy musical that many perceived as the front-runner for Best Picture, fail to even get nominated in the Best Picture category? Theories abounded; the mostly white Academy couldn’t acknowledge a movie steeped in black culture, the film fell prey to backlash against a momentous hype machine that rubbed people the wrong way, or even that it was unfairly judged against recent musicals, like 2002’s Best Picture winner Chicago, instead of being judged on its own merits. After having now seen the film, I have an altogether simple explanation: the Academy thought there were better movies and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five reasons why Dreamgirls just didn’t cut it.

1) The film just falls apart after the halfway mark. The focus is on the rise of the all girl group the Dreamettes in the 1960s Detroit music scene. Effie (Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) is the strong-willed lead singer with big curves and a big voice. She’s pushed out of the way by her band mates so pretty face Deena (Beyonce Knowles) can front and sell records. Effie is our star and she doesn’t take the news well, and explodes in an emotional fury that results in the film’s true showstopper song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” Trouble is, there’s still an hour of movie left. The second hour of Dreamgirls feels like a plot layover, as our characters don’t do much more than stuff their hands in their pockets and grumble. It’s astonishing how deflating the second hour to this movie is, and the film cannot sustain a viable interest or energy, leaving the audience to tap their toes to songs that already ended an hour prior. It’s a troubling sign when a film peaks at the halfway point and seems to only stall and sputter after.

2) The songs are not that special. Dreamgirls would have been far more entertaining if what we got was some honest, soulful, groove-inducing Motown music. Instead, what we get is the same pop filler that the characters bemoan what commercialism has transformed their music into. None of these ditzy ditties are very memorable and many of them start to just blend together, thanks in part to montage-obsessed editing. The other focus of Dreamgirls is on the rise of Motown, how a very Berry Gordy-like figure, played by Jamie Foxx, patterned black music and made it hit for white listeners. I think this was the most depressing part of the film for me, the fact that I could have done without the music in a musical.

3) The tone lacks clarity and can be grating. For about 80% of the movie when the characters sing it’s on stage as performance. Then two characters sing their displeasure with each other and the audience is like, “What the hell?” I accept the laws that govern musicals, and people spontaneously bursting into song and choreographed hoofing does not bother me, but whatever the choice it needs to be consistent. When the audience is used to seeing the singing contained to the stage, it becomes jarring when it transpires in reality. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) cleverly worked around this problem in his screenplay for Chicago by placing all the song-and-dance moments as glimpses into one woman?s musical-obsessed psyche. It seems so careless and easily remedied, so what were they thinking?

4) Dreamgirls is desperate for Oscar attention. At the end of the movie, after an awfully messy run to the finish line, come the end credits, however they aren’t so much as end credits as they are “for your consideration” ads. When the director of photography credit appears you see a man in a camera crane. When the costume designer is credited we see her sketches and the real outfits side-by-side. Some of it is silly, like when the casting director is listed and we see, no kidding, a checkerboard of faces, like the movie is saying, “This is what a casting director does, look.” The sequence is moderately annoying and a little patronizing, but it is a splendid example of the filmmaking ethos. It feels like the over zealous studios thought that by throwing together a bunch of musical staples and covering it with fancy decoration that they could fool audiences into thinking they saw a full-blooded story.

5) You fail to feel for any of the characters. In the rush of production numbers and period detail, the characters all suffer horrendously. The Dreamettes are obviously a take on the Supremes, and Deena is obviously supposed to be Diana Ross; they even recreate iconic Diana Ross pictures with her. By this token, it seems like the filmmakers felt they could slack off on characterization and just banish their actors to the ghettos of genre archetypes. I didn’t feel for anyone, even Effie once she got her walking papers for being essentially fussy, overweight, and sticking with her integrity. She tries to pick up the pieces of her life but even she seems disinterested once the stage lights no longer shine upon her. The characters have about a dewdrop of depth to them and can be summarized each by one sentence. Shallow characters and a less-than-compelling second half doom the movie.

There are enjoyable aspects to Dreamgirls, notably the performances from the supporting players. Eddie Murphy experiences nothing short of a career resurgence playing Jimmy Earl Haley, a groundbreaking soul singer with a fiery stage presence. Murphy puts his all into the performance and is such a live wire that Dreamgirls seems downright downtrodden without him. Former American Idol contestant Hudson has been collecting accolades for her diva-like performance, and while her singing is full of bluster and verve, I cannot say the same for her acting. She gives a solid overall performance but doesn’t try hard to hide her inexperience with acting. I wouldn’t have given Hudson an Oscar, but then I wouldn’t have given Oscars to a lot of the eventual winners (Julia Roberts, your hardware rightly belongs to Ellen Burstyn).

Film critic David Poland was nearly beside himself with Dreamgirls‘ omission from the Best Picture contenders. He argued that had it been nominated it would have won (I’m not sure how that logic works, but I do have a bridge I’d like to sell Poland). Dreamgirls is not bereft of technical charms and entertainment, but to posit this as anything above a mediocre musical is just plain madness. The characters barely leave an impact, the music is the same pop pap it laments, and the movie just simply peaks too soon. There’s nothing daring or innovative with this song and dance revue, and for long periods it feels like a pandering exercise in dress-up and nostalgia. I suppose in the end the Academy just thought there were five better movies than Dreamgirls, and, for once, I agree with them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Number 23 (2007)

“Nobody likes you when you’re 23.”
-“What’s My Age Again?” by Blink 182

I know math scores have been systematically dropping with America’s youth, but have we gotten to the point where numbers themselves are scary? The Number 23 is a thriller built around the spookiness of a digit greater than 22 but a little less than 24. Does anyone have nightmares about walking down an empty hall only to have the number 23 pounce from the shadows and scream, “Boo?”

Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is a dogcatcher that gets bit on the job. This event causes him to be late for a scheduled birthday rendezvous with his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). She wanders into a local bookshop and picks up a worn, self-published book called The Number 23 as a present for her hubby. The book seems to be littered with private details from Walter’s life and he’s left dumbfounded. The main character is haunted by the number 23, which seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Walter starts to see the number dominate his life and fears that he too will fall victim to its control. Walter is also worried that his life will start mimicking that of the book, including the part where he goes psycho and kills his loved ones.

The film spends the majority of its time on two obsessions: the book and the number 23. Now, the number conspiracy is just ludicrous and silly, and it contorts and strains to prove its message. In the flick, someone will scream about some important date in, say, 1940, and then go theorize that it has eerie significance because 19+4+0 equals, tada, 23. But why not 1+9+4+0, or 19+40, or even 1+940? Because then it doesn’t work. Sometimes you take the date, sometimes you add up the numbers in the month, sometimes you need to add up the numbers in the month and the year, sometimes you add and then multiply and then divide numbers (like the contrived manner of making the word “pink” part of this theory); the point is that it’s all arbitrary and worthless. You could go through the same convoluted dance with any number. The same effect happens with cold readings where a “psychic” will spout some vague declaration (“I feel like someone with an ‘R’ in their name died in the last five years”) and rely on the sucker, in this case the audience, to imbue it with some personal meaning (“Oh my God, there was a guy on my street named Rick that died four years ago!”). And all of this relies on the assumption of accurate record keeping for time.

Being haunted by a reappearing number is just dumb, but reading a mysterious book that depicts your own life and predicts you will become a murderer, now that’s interesting. I wish The Number 23 had spent more time with this idea instead of the numerical nonsense. I wanted more questions and contemplation about a book that knows all instead of a number that people bend over backwards to locate in their daily lives. And yet, even this storyline needed a metaphysical jolt. The conclusion follows the most boring, tame, and predictable route that can be best explained. The second half of The Number 23 needed to be more Stephen King and less James Patterson. The psychological aspects of this conundrum are barely explored before the movie seems to lose interest even with its own brand of hokum. Debut screenwriter Fernley Phillips takes the path of least resistance to the finish line.

There are some leaps in logic and character motivation throughout. The Number 23 has a strange moral reminder, namely that of a dog that saw something bad and has convinced its doggy self to do something about it, which means spontaneously appearing all over town like a nagging ghost. It is just another plot point that goes too far and breaks credibility, especially since The Number 23 wants to be remotely plausible. Another example is a murder victim who berates her would-be killer while he holds a knife to her throat. She says, among other things, that he’s a freak, she never loved him, and then the final dagger is aimed straight at some long-suffering daddy issues. I doubt anyone picks “knife to throat” as the time to unload their personal grievances. The dialogue also suffers from being so serious to the point of hilarity: “Is 23 a blessing or a curse?” What? Huh?

Director Joel Schumacher (Phonebooth) seems to be having a fun time getting his hands dirty with the material. He can get carried away, and sometimes he uses a sledgehammer when he should have used a slight tap to establish mood. Still, this is one film that you cannot blame the oft-reviled director for ruining. He attempts to goose up this psychological thriller with some persuasive visuals, but all the tricks can’t hide the fact that The Number 23 needs a lot more bite to come across as edgy. It’s too plodding to be disturbing; it’s mostly dank.

Carrey seems an ill choice for this material. Dark brooding doesn’t come natural for America’s foremost manic funnyman; he has some dramatic skills, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a spot-on Andy Kaufman are proof of that, but this isn’t drama, it’s serviceable, gussied-up trash and Carrey doesn’t have the reservoir to show us the dark depths of the human soul. It is somewhat comforting to see Madsen getting more roles since her 2004 Oscar nomination, but she seems to be parlaying that nom into a permanent slot as “wife to lead.” She at least gets to vamp it up in the story within a story as a raven-haired femme fatale.

Even with the preposterous killer number thing, this is a movie with remarkable guilty pleasure potential upside. It’s equal parts interesting and frustrating, and builds a good head of steam before totally unraveling in the last act. The Number 23 is a psychological thriller that just needed better focus with its own obsessions.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Prestige (2006)

Christopher Nolan can do no wrong in my book. The director of Memento, Insomnia, and Batman Begins has bewitched me with his clever non-linear storylines and artistic vision. The Prestige is 2006’s second period set magician movie, and in my opinion it’s the better of the two. Nolan’s film lacks the magic of The Illusionist, instead focusing more on the bitter realities of obsession, self-destruction, and the lengths that men will travel for vengeance. The script centers on a pair of dueling magicians (Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman) that are each trying to discover the other’s trick and top them. The storyline is as twisty as a pretzel and told in Nolan’s familiar non-linear fashion, building to a very dark reveal. Whereas The Illusionist sweeps viewers up with the wonder of magic, The Prestige is all about how tricks are orchestrated both on and offstage. The results are a tad cold; you don’t really feel for either magician. The movie is itself a trick but one grandly told with excellent slight of hand. The final act takes a step outside of the film’s tone but it works for me, and it’s been weeks since I last saw the haunting final images and I still cannot get them out of my mind. The Prestige is another notch on my Nolan love meter.

Nate’s Grade: A

Shut Up & Sing (2006)

With the clarity that a few years offer, can we all agree that what happened to the Dixie Chicks on the eve of the Iraq War was insane? Lead singer Natalie Maines, in concert in London, told the crowd that the group was not for war and was ashamed President Bush hailed from Texas. What followed was a maelstrom of irrational behavior; boycotts beckoned, people protested, and long-time Dixie Chicks fans threw out their CDs and called the group traitors, my God, someone even sent a death threat, all for disagreeing with a country’s march to war. Shut Up & Sing chronicles their lives at the time of the 2003 controversy and their 2006 follow-up album, mostly compromised of songs inspired by the anger and frustration they felt. The documentary itself is nothing too slick or overproduced; it really just follows a headlining group through the most volatile time of their life. For that, it’s intensely fascinating and bizarre to watch the Chicks backlash, but there’s little else as compelling. Several of those in protest questioned the Dixie Chick’s patriotism for questioning whether the war was necessary, and some said they should be strapped to bombs over in Iraq. Four years later, 3500 American deaths, no WNDs, scandal after scandal, no discernible way out, a civil war, and a president that can’t even get the time of day, I wonder how many of those decrying the Chicks would be apologizing to them today. Another highlight of Shut Up & Sing is the most ludicrously ignorant statement I may have ever heard, courtesy of Toby Keith defending his songwriting skills: “She said ‘We’ll put a boot up your ass’ is ignorant, and that anyone could write that. Well, she didn’t write it.” Bravo Mr. Keith, bravo.

Nate’s Grade: B

Hannibal Rising (2007)

People love a good villain, and is there any greater villain in modern movies than Hannibal Lector? The flesh-eating, etiquette-minded fiend was most memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Even though he was only in the film for a whopping 16 minutes (the shortest screen time ever for a Best Actor), Hopkins stole every second. The character has resurfaced in additional movies like 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.

The history behind Hannibal Rising is that long-time film producer Dino Di Laurentiis owns the rights to the Hannibal character and essentially told author Thomas Harris, the man behind every Hannibal book, that he was making another movie starring America’s favorite cannibal, and it was going to be a prequel set amidst his boyhood days, and he was going to do it with or without Harris. With a proverbial gun pointed at his head, Harris decided if anyone is going to ruin his character it might as well be himself. He simultaneously wrote a new Hannibal book and a screenplay for it, both tied to be released within a few short months of each other. The results are about what you would expect for an artistic venture born from people wanting more money.

Hannibal Lector is a young kid living in Latvia. His family even has an ancestral castle but this doesn’t matter because it’s 1944 and the Germans and Russians are going at it. His father and mother are mowed down by gunfire as his family flees to a cottage in the woods for protection. Sadly, this will not be the worst thing that happens to Hannibal. A group of deserted soldiers, led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans), finds the cottage and takes refuge in it, hiding from their superiors, the ongoing battles, and the viciously cold winter. Long story short: there’s nothing to eat and the soldiers kill and eat Hannibal’s sister to survive. Flash forward to 1956, and Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is a rebellious Stalinist youth. He escapes his boarding school and heads out to France to find his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him about the ways of the samurai and sharpens his fighting skills, because that’s what Asian people do in Hollywood movies. Hannibal is haunted by nightmares of his sister’s murder and his inability to protect her. He vows to find the current whereabouts of the men who took her from him and exact bloody revenge.

I guess when you get down to it I never needed to know the back-story to Hannibal Lector. He was such a dominating, frightening, and fascinating presence in Silence of the Lambs, someone who could worm his way inside your head and download everything he needed to know to exploit you. And yet, the man still adhered to his own set of standards, as Clarice remarked that he only ate the “rude.” He’s like a kinky literary professor. In 2005, Hannibal Lector was declared by the American Film Institute as the greatest film villain . . . ever. What I’m trying to get at is that no explanation for what made Hannibal into the demented figure he is would ever be satisfying. I don’t need to know why Hannibal is how he is, just as I didn’t need to know why Willy Wonka is; they just are. There’s also a logistical quirk: because we know this is a prequel, it means Hannibal Lector is never in any danger. He has to survive to populate more books and movies. Hannibal Rising was doomed to fail the second anxious studio execs got dollar signs in their eyes.

The film really drops the ball by turning the most unique villain in modern literature into a mere creepy kid out for vengeance. Hannibal Rising is a gloomy revenge flick dressed up to feel more astute and highbrow, but it’s nothing but a run at Charles Bronson Death Wish territory. Hannibal tracks down his sister’s killers one by one and plots his bloody revenge, and with each death the film seems to deflate. The character is given a stable of psychological devices you’d find in trashy serial killer page-turners. The fact that he remains moderately sympathetic is a testament our warm feelings for a guy that eats people. Hannibal Rising also ducks risky territory by making the marked men bastards even 10-something years later. They’re either corrupt authority figures or petty criminals; Grutas even runs a houseboat that he cycles sex slaves in and out of. Splendid. Now, it would be truly daring if the film had the courage to show these men as people trying to do right in the world, continually haunted by the choices they made to survive. That would call into question the nature of violence and forgiveness. The film even hints that Hannibal might have unknowingly eaten his sister as well. The psychological ramifications of that could be really interesting. But no, that’s too much, so what we get are a bunch of sneering stock baddies for Hannibal to systematically pick off.

Hannibal Rising shows its agenda with one very telling scene. When young Hannibal is living with his aunt he scours through her collection of samurai art. Then one mask catches his attention and he places it against his face, and wouldn’t you know it, the mask looks very similar to the one he will eventually wear like 40 years later. Why even include this scene? In 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal wore this famous mask for all of one scene. The filmmakers are tipping their hat at what we know with Hannibal; the film is more concerned with reminding us about our memories of a character off screen than the one that’s in the story.

Despite all these failings, Hannibal Rising still manages to be passably entertaining. I credit director Peter Webber (Girl with Pearl Earring) and actor Gaspard Ulliel. Webber keeps the pacing light for a two-hour movie and adds a fine Gothic feel with a crisp, autumn look. He tries hard to bring some art to an overly glorified revenge flick. Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is something of a minor revelation. He digs deep into his character and finds a perverse pleasure in his portrayal of the cinema icon. He’s scary and weird but manages to still be grossly entertaining even when he’s doing gross things. It’s the sheer power of his performance that makes the film worth watching. I didn’t see this coming from the cute, boyish lovesick kid from Engagement, but Ulliel creates a clockwork-like performance of sinister eeriness. When he glares, his eyes burning with sharp intensity, he has this little dimple on one side of his face, like a permanent mark from evil grinning. He has a terrific look to him and I’d dare say there would be plenty of surprised moviegoers that find themselves thinking Hannibal Lector is a tad sexy. Hopefully Ulliel is destined for better things after mastering English so well, something his Engagement co-star seems to still be struggling with in American movies.

There really is no reason for this movie to exist. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just entirely unnecessary. It’s passably entertaining and has some grisly gore to it but much of it is pure genre. I’m more interested with the older, wiser Hannibal than this young pup. In the pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hannibal Rising sure wants to be a tasty dish. The problem is that this dish has already gone cold.

Nate’s Grade: C

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