Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Star is Born: “Dreamgirls” is a Moving, Stylish Piece of Musical Cinema

Yes, it’s true that "Dreamgirls" is very good musical; perhaps the best since "Chicago." Of course with films since then such as "Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers" that’s not exactly saying a lot. "Dreamgirls," which was written and directed by Bill Condon (who wrote the Oscar-nominated "Chicago" screenplay), is a movie musical that can be enjoyed by those who don’t know anything about the Broadway show; myself included. When I first heard of the film I assumed "Dreamgirls" was an original piece, however I learned that it was an early ‘80s musical loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross & the Supremes. It has a jazzy R&B sound that employs many talented voices and an intriguing, although not altogether original, story.

Perhaps the headline of the year is the breakout performance of American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson. The finalist scores the role of a lifetime as Effie, whose emotions and dreams get stomped on when she’s forced out of a smalltown1960s female R&B group (The Dreams). Like big stars before her, she’s destined for big things, but she’ll have to wait until the third act before she gets any hope of her dreams being fulfilled. The other two members of the talented trio are Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx becomes the girls’ manager and before you can say Gladys Knight & The Pips, stardom comes their way. Hudson is definitely the standout here, and while she’s not the best actress to ever grace the silver screen, it's impossible to deny the sheer emotional power that she emulates during her song numbers. She moved the audience I was in to tears and thunderous applause; in the middle of the film!

Yes the story is something that been seen countless times before: small town singers hit it big and obsession with fame gets the best of them. But Condon tells his story in such a flashy, entertaining way that you never realize you’ve actually heard it all before. He’s skilled at making the song numbers catchy and engaging, while letting it all make sense. Yes there are times when characters breakout in song, (during catfights, no less) but most of the music takes place on stage or in the recording studio. This is truly a beautifully filmed vision of dreaming big and achieving big time success.

And who could talk about “Dreamgirls” without mentioning the return to form of Eddie Murphy? While I’m not exactly Murphy’s biggest fan, I know talent when I see it and he’s got it. He slips easily into the role of aging Motown star James “thunder” Early. Murphy can actually sing despite having previously recorded “Party All the Time” way back in the ‘80s.

"Dreamgirls" is a well crafted movie musical, with performers and filmakers in top form, that sweeps you up and entertains for its entire running time. It’ll be interesting to see how it does come Oscar time, and while it’s not one the best films of year, you really don’t need to look much further to find such a winning time at the multiplex. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Christmas Gory: “Black Christmas” is a Treat For Blood Fiends, Fruit Cake for Everyone Else

If you thought Arnold Schwarzenegger staring in “Jingle All the Way” was a holiday horror film, wait until you see “Black Christmas.” Horror movies have covered many holidays over the years, from the iconic film Halloween, to the horror-spoof April Fool’s Day to the, killer-in-miner suit flick My Bloody Valentine. I guess it’s only a matter of time until a horror movie is set on Thanksgiving with murderous Native Americans. Or what about a psychotic killer slaughtering voters on Election Day? Somebody please page Wes Craven! It was inevitable that a remake of 1974 not-so-classic slasher “Black Christmas” was in order. While that original film had the benefit of a small budget with some suspenseful moments, this new film is filled with more expensive style and some of the more gruesomely graphic violence since Hostel. In fact there are more gouged out eyeballs than Eli Roth could have ever imagined putting onscreen.

If there’s anything really wrong with this new Black Christmas it’s that it is completely awkwardly structured. I don’t go into a gore fest actually expecting a “well-made film” but I at least want some coherence. A bunch of college girls stay home for Christmas in their sorority house. They basically sit around the house recalling the story of the wacko family that used to live in their sorority house. And wouldn’t you know the psychotic children who used to living there are celebrating a murderous Christmas homecoming. The blandly written girls refer to each other by name when the other is not present, so we have no idea who they heck they’re talking about. They’re like, “Where’s Clair,” or “Have you seen Kelli?” And I sat there thinking who the heck are they talking about? Director Glen Morgan hardly has character exposition in mind, but at least he gets spends little time getting to the good stuff. And while the girls sit around drinking wine, the sorority mother (do these even still exist?) entertains the girls with the backstory of wacky Billy and how he killed his family and now lives in a mental institution. These flashbacks, although filled with cool angles and a sense of style, should have been regulated to the opening of the film instead of breaking up the present day scenes.

This is one of the most gory films I have seen in a long time. This movie puts The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, Saw, etc to shame. The violence is old-fashioned 1970s exploitation gruesomeness and you couldn’t ask for anything more in a film set on the wonderfully cheery holiday of Christmas. And Morgan lingers on the blood. He doesn’t cut away or use flashy editing to make it “scarier.” I’m talking bloody close-ups galore! This film, like the Final Destination films, (in which Morgan and James Wong made together) has some of the most exciting and original deaths in recent memory. And this is perhaps the only film in which I’ve seen a death by candy cane.

Anyone who is fan of the splatter film will rejoice for Black Christmas. While the film isn’t necessarily “scary” or “suspenseful” it has enough style and blood to please fans of the genre. And of course it has the necessary scary moments to make the annoying teenage girls in front of me to squirm in their seats. Now here’s hoping that the sequel finds Father Time offing sexually active teenagers on New Year’s Eve. GRADE: B-

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Saved by the Mel: “Apocalypto” is a Spellbinding Success Due to Mel Gibson’s Masterfully Sadistic Direction

The enjoyment I received from watching Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is directly proportionate to how much I ultimately didn’t want to see it. I think the common people will agree with me. I was sick of the trailer by the middle of the year when the film was originally slated to be a summer release. A film about an ancient tribe of people who all speak an ancient language, with no familiar faces? Yawn. I had already seen The Passion of the Christ and even though this new film didn’t star the Savior I didn’t want to see that again. But I gave the movie a chance and by golly it’s amazingly good! This sadistically bloody, action-packed epic, which shames gore pictures like Saw with its excessive use of realistic violence, is a completely thrilling film that had me on the edge of my seat.

If there were any film that is Apocalpyto’s opposite in terms of cast it would be the recent Bobby or any Robert Altman film. Gibson, who co-wrote with Farhad Safinia, has chosen to use unknown actors. And by unknown I mean unknown. Seriously, have you ever heard of Rudy Youngblood? I didn’t think so. Mr. Youngblood makes a strong lead as Jaguar Paw who is a member of a close-knit South American (?) tribe deep in the jungle circa centuries ago. His wife is pregnant and they have a young son. Without warning some Mayan pillagers completely ransack the village in a sequence that is brutally realistic as anything seen in Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Many of the adults are taken as prisoners, leaving some small children behind (including Jaguar Paw's wife and son in a deep hole). And on sets the film’s entire story, which is seen through Jaguar Paw’s fearful but brave eyes. He has no idea what these people have in store for him.

Mel Gibson, who hasn’t exactly been having the best public year ever, proves that he is a tremendously talented person who certainly belongs behind the camera. This is one of the most suspenseful action films I’ve seen in recent memory and it’s emotionally powerful and truthful. The film is essential one long chase, on foot no less, and Gibson applies a sure hand and eye. He has brought a gloriously conceived vision to the screen in a film that in essence shouldn’t really have succeeded to begin with. This could have been a boring, confusing mess, but Gibson knows exactly what he’s doing and has crafted a tremendously entertaining film.

Many will be put off by the fact that the film is, like I said, just one long chase. Jaguar Paw carries the entire weight of the film on his shoulders as his escape from the Mayans makes up most of the film. We really learn little of the Mayan culture or how their society eventually collapsed. We only understand as much as Jaguar Paw can conceive as he is taken prisoner. He and his people are taken to a ritual in which the captives’ bodies are painted blue and their heads are loped off, but not before their hearts are ripped out while still alive. This is a gristly and gory movie that will likely turn off many filmgoers. It’s a movie that doesn’t really glorify the violence, but depicts it as a natural way of life for this ancient people.

Gibson, who deserves a Best Director nomination, has made a film that shouldn’t have succeeded on so many levels, and yet it does. Not for one second was I turned off by having to read subtitles. The detail that was put into the film is extraordinary. You really sense the history behind these ancient people. This is a brilliant story of survival, revenge and family that sucks you in right from the start and never lets go. The two hour-plus running time literally flies by. The film is worth seeing if only for the exciting jaguar (or was that a panther?) chase scene that almost has the power to stop your heart. This is a great film that’s a highly recommended must see. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Like a Surgeon: Partying Travelers Run Into the Brazilian Organ Harvesting Massacre in “Turistas”

Vacation movies can go either way: sidesplitting comedy (National Lampoon’s Vacation, European Vacation, etc) or gut wrenching horror (Hostel, Wrong Turn etc). I think National Lampoon should start making horror films. If they did, they’d end up with National Lampoon’s Brazilian Vacation. But it’s already been made as “Turistas,” in which some South America-bound hotties looking to have a good time end up being unwitting organ donors. Director John Stockwell, (Blue Crush and Into the Blue) known for showing off outside body parts finally gets to show us the inside parts and display enough graphic surgery to make the show Nip/Tuck blush.

We start off with a young woman being strapped down to a table. She’s shaken and disturbed. She cries out “I want to go home.” At this point most people are going to want to take her advice, however, if you enjoy the typical hot vacationers + weirdo locals = graphic torture, you’ll probably want to stick around. Big brother Alex (Josh Duhamel) is chaperoning his sister Bea’s (Olivia Wilde) and her friend Amy’s (Beau Garrett) Brazilian vacation. Somehow the tour bus they’re on ends up at the bottom of a hill, so they’re stranded for hours until the next bus comes. They meet up with fellow travelers Pru, Liam and Finn and party all night at bar located right on the beach.

I’m sure you can guess what happens next. They wake up the next morning in a tub of ice and their kidneys have been removed! Well not exactly. They are drugged and robbed. But unfortunately it takes awhile before any graphic surgery takes place. Meanwhile a local named Kiko takes them on a ten-hour hike through the jungle to his uncle’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. They stop off at some underwater caves for no other reason except for the establishing fact that these caves exist so that when the final chase occurs we’re familiar with the locale. They finally end up at the house, with no one home. In the middle of the night, the surgeon and his team arrive, and some internal organs are finally spilled.

While there are some “suspenseful” early moments, a modicum of impending doom, and some gory parts (finders being cut off, a stick in the eye) the film doesn’t take as long to get to the good stuff as Hostel did. Hostel was definitely a National Lampoons movie that took way to long to get to the gooey goods. Turistas doesn’t take quite as long and even though there’s really only one major organ removal scene, it’s quite graphic and disgusting. It’s obvious that this film is one 10-blade (I'm a Nip/Tuck fan) slice away from an NC-17 rating.

Turistas is definitely standard horror movie stuff. Fans of the genre should enjoy it but everyone else will want to take the film’s opening “I want to go home” advice. I’m sure I could make up some kind of meaningless cinematic reason to see the film. The cast’s beautiful bodies are in sharp contrast with the grotesqueness of the situation they find themselves in. Oh who am I kidding, this movie’s a piece of junk. In other words, it’s a pretty enjoyable. GRADE: B-

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Family Jewel: “Blood Diamond” is Equal Parts Suspense, Brains & Morals

I’ve never found Leonardo DiCaprio to be an actor with very much range. That isn’t to say that he hasn’t tried a variety of roles, many of which I haven’t found him very compelling in. Earlier this fall I utterly enjoyed DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant crime thriller “The Departed” and wouldn’t you know he’s just as enjoyable in Edward Zwick’s thrilling “Blood Diamond.” Both films are gritty and share themes of violence and greed and neither shy away from fully exploring the violent human mind. While it might sound weird at first to hear a South African dialect come out of the same guy’s mouth who started his career on the TV sitcom “Growing Pains,” DiCaprio and the rest of the cast deliver a wonderfully enjoyable story about the morals of the ravenous human condition.

The film is set in the 1990s in the western African country of Sierra Leone. There is a brutal (and that’s an understatement) civil war raging on. The rebels kidnap the adult male locals and force them to search for diamonds, to be unlawfully traded. The boys are sent to rebel training school, which includes machine gun target practice with dummies and live humans. The women and girls are of no use. The boys are completely brainwashed to honor the rebel army. One man who is taken from his family is Solomon Vandy (an intense Djimon Hounsou). While being forced to dig for diamonds, he comes across a large one that will set the film’s entire plot in motion (cue the McGuffin). Solomon is able to bury the diamond for safekeeping and is able to escape his rebel army captors. He hopes the large diamond will be a key in reuniting with his wife, daughters and son (he of whom has begun rebel army training).

Let’s enter DiCaprio in his best performance since “The Departed” as mercenary Danny Archer. Danny is a character who is constantly doing something that is wholly not “the right thing.” He smuggles diamonds and is sent to prison where he hears about Solomon’s hidden diamond. The diamond will mean a big fortune for Danny and could mean a family reunion for Solomon. And so begins a relationship that isn’t exactly what you would call buddy-buddy. While we get to understand DiCaprio’s character it’s hard to predict how he is going to act, which causes tremendous anticipation in the viewer. Danny knows in his head he’s basically just using Solomon to get the score of a lifetime. American photojournalist Jennifer Connelly also realizes this. She befriends both Solomon and Danny on their amazing journey through rebel territory to recover the “conflict diamond.”

This film not only offers a plot that is exciting and completely enjoyable but offers a realistic and moralistic tone that isn’t preachy or forced. We learn early on that people are tortured (i.e., hands lopped off) just so that illegal diamond trade can exist. And where exactly do these precious stones end up? Most likely on your favorite gal’s ring finger. The film does an incredible job of raising awareness of an important issue that I personally had no knowledge of. It’s horrible to think that so many innocent people are killed just so a woman can have an engagement ring loaded with karats.

The film is brutally realistic in a documentary/Schindler’s List kind of way, but it’s never gratuitous. It just helps it feel real. You almost sense that the filmmakers actually shot scenes in this conflict zone. And while the film does use a non-fiction backdrop to tell a fictional story, it almost seems too real to be just a movie. This is a film that shows that violence is occurring in other countries besides Iraq. This isn’t only an intelligent and suspenseful drama, but it has an actual soul. If it causes one person to think about where exactly the diamond came from on their ring and who had to die just so she could have it, then maybe it’s true that art can change the world. GRADE: A-