The House


Dreamgirls

Remember that scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake Blues catches the Holy Ghost while watching James Brown lead a leaping, flying congregation of black folks in a gospel blowout? That's the spirit—the soul—of Dreamgirls, Bill Condon's film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical. Writer-director Condon adores the most spectacular, super heroic aspects of what used to be called The Black Experience as surely as Blues Brothers director John Landis loves JB's permed pompadour. It's all flying negroes and flying hair.

As embarrassed as some white critics (and one White critic) have been about Dreamgirls' lumpy mix of flamboyant negritude with bland, cruise ship arrangements of faux Motown pop, black audiences have mostly returned the love. Here, the music's quality matters less than its thematic resonance; the characters' thinness and broadness are less important than their vibrancy and familiarity. Dreamgirls is a white moviemaker's sorta wrongheaded but sincerely besotted Afro fantasia, destined to go in the Ebony subscriber's collection alongside Carmen Jones, Wattstax, Sparkle, The Color Purple and Coming to America. Love is what keeps this parade float of a movie aloft—until a failure of nerve and insight built into the Broadway original sends it floating far away from emotional reality on the helium of hope.

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TAGS: beyoncé, Bill Condon, danny glover, dreamgirls, eddie murphy, jamie foxx, jennifer hudson


Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth is a thoroughly mediocre movie—not egregiously bad, but dull and unremarkable and easy to dismiss. At least, it would be easy to dismiss, were it not for the insane across-the-board critical acclaim that it's managed to garner. It's not enough for these people to say "go see a sweet little fantasy flick, it's good;" they must instead find deep and redemptive significance in what is at best a fairy tale retread with fascist gunfight appendices. But the fact that the film is a repetition of the fairy tale structure is exactly what people find so profound: Roger Ebert led the charge with his predictable declaration of "A fairy tale for grown-ups!" that was mirrored by other critics, as if dressing up a bedtime story with Franco references and bloodshed were doing anything other than gilding a wilted lily.

The film itself does little to engage the mind. We are introduced to 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she drives with an official escort into a forest compound somewhere in Spain; it's the waning days of WWII, and her new stepfather—the bloodthirsty fascist Vidal (Sergi López)—has designs on her pregnant mother's child, which he expects to be the son to carry on his name. In true fairy-tale fashion, the film sets up the Wicked Step-parent as an oppressive ogre so as to give the put-upon child a reason to fantasize—and perhaps subconsciously call those fantasies to life. Sure enough, she's soon visited by a fairy who leads her into an abandoned forest labyrinth to find a wacky-looking faun (Doug Jones) at the center. Turns out Ofelia's the reincarnation of a long-lost princess from a fantasy world (whatever it's called; I blacked out during the exposition), and that she has to perform some tasks in order to restore her position.

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TAGS: Doug Jones, guillermo del toro, Ivana Baquero, pan's labyrinth, sergi lópez


Charlotte's Web

To say that the new film version of Charlotte's Web doesn't dishonor its source sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it's actually the highest praise. E.B. White's novel has survived not just because of its charming premise, cleanly-drawn characters and hints of allegory, but because it's a perfect book. Every paragraph, sentence and word pulls its weight. Like the title object, it's a functional work of art. So is Gary Winick's film version, which casts Dakota Fanning as Fern, the precocious farm girl who assumes responsibility for a doomed runt pig (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay), then watches in astonishment as the pig becomes a curiosity, a celebrity and then an object of quasi-worship, thanks to the selfless devotion of Charlotte the word-embroidering spider. Like the book, Winick's movie is as solid and cleanly rendered as a Greek sculpture. It doesn't advance the art of cinema, nor does it mean to, but it does something just as rare: it stands up for true classicism. It's not a subversive/self-aware quote-mark-enclosed film school homage to prewar Hollywood; it's a 21st century movie so economical yet satisfying that it seems to have been ghost-directed by William Wyler or Walt Disney in about 1939.

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TAGS: 13 going on 30, Cedric the Entertainer, charlotte's web, dakota fanning, e.b. white, john cleese, julia roberts, Karey Kirkpatrick, kathy bates, oprah winfrey, robert redford, Susannah Grant, tadpole


Children of Men

About a third of the way through the science fiction thriller Children of Men—set in a fascist, childless future England wherein radical activists led by Clive Owen and Julianne Moore try to safeguard the world's only known living pregnant woman—there's an action sequence so stunning that it slapped the professional detachment right out of me. When it began, I dropped my notebook and pen and bolted upright in my seat, and as it kept unreeling for several minutes without a cut, piling incident upon incident, moving from tight closeups to wide shots revealing a small army of foes chasing our beleaguered heroes, I began to lean forward, as if believing, on some level, that the extra centimeters gained by the change in posture would help me get closer to the movie, even enter the movie, like Alice stepping through the looking-glass.

The sense of spiraling panic is multiplied by director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's decision to shoot the entire setpiece in one take—an all-or-nothing approach that meant that if one or two details hadn't come off as planned, the whole sequence would have been unusuable. This choice makes the setpiece's inherent dramatic power insperable from its status as a directorial and photographic performance.

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TAGS: alfonso cuarón, children of men, Claire-Hope Ashitey, clive owen, emmanuel lubezki, julianne moore, michael caine


Doctor Who

Doctor Who Season Two (or Season 28, depending on your anal-retentiveness) has been a string of entertaining highs and lows, in terms of both quality and intensity. It's been a season of returns, renewals and reinventions. We've met Cybermen, a werewolf, clockwork robots, Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, and at the edge of the universe, maybe even Satan himself. We visited a current parallel Earth and also a New Earth in the year 5,000,000,23. There were trips to 1953, 1879, 2012, and the 51st century—a time that led to a tour of 18th century France. Sarah Jane Smith came back to us and Mickey Smith said goodbye. K-9 was blown up and put back together. Jackie Tyler died, but Pete Tyler lived. Throughout the adventures, there were only three constants: the Doctor, his TARDIS and Rose Tyler—at the end of the two-parter "Army of Ghosts" & "Doomsday", we bid a gut-wrenching farewell to one of them.

Rose Tyler: "Planet Earth. This is where I was born. And this is where I died. For the first nineteen years of my life nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever. And then I met a man called The Doctor. A man who could change his face. And he took me away from home in his magical machine. He showed me the whole of time and space. I thought it would never end. That's what I thought. But then came the Army of Ghosts, then came Torchwood and the war. And that's when it all ended. This is the story of how I died."

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TAGS: army of ghosts, Billie Piper, Christopher Eccleston, doctor who, doomsday, Freema Agyeman, Noel Clarke, recap, russell t davies


Rocky Balboa

"Do not let those numbers drive you crazy," fiftysomething ex-boxer Rocky Balboa tells his yuppie accountant son in the film that bears both their names. "Use an eraser. Get rid of 'em all."

I never thought I'd use the phrase "metatexual comment" in a review of a Rocky movie, but a thing is what it is. The line occurs in a sweetly awkward scene between a broken-down, working class dad (Sylvester Stallone) and his slick white-collar son (Milo Ventimiglia) in the lobby of a glass-and-steel office building. But while it's presented as a tossed-off bit of character development, it plays like an unsubtle plea to the viewer: "Forget the other four sequels and give yourself over to this one, because it's not another unnecessary, money-grubbing, button-pushing, factory-tooled product. It's a back-to-basics melodrama about a shambling old boxer re-entering the ring for a no-stakes bout with a young, powerful champ, not because he thinks he can beat the kid, but to prove he's still got heart. Honest to god, we're not yanking your chain this time. Look, ma, no Roman numeral!" That's a nice try at encouraging collective amnesia, but after a three-decade career built on commercial, political and sometimes racial opportunism, Stallone's latest comeback attempt is a dictionary-ready example of too little, too late.

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TAGS: Burt Young, Geraldine Hughes, James Francis Kelly III, milo ventimiglia, rocky, rocky balboa, sylvester stallone


La Belle Noiseuse

The closing two weeks of the Museum of the Moving Image's Complete Jacques Rivette retrospective feature screenings of two films covered in a previous article (Divertimento and The Gang of Four), as well as three other works of recent vintage (Secret défense, Va savoir, and The Story of Marie and Julien), the first of which is an essential masterpiece.

Secret défense feels in many ways like a culmination—Rivette's ideologies and obsessions distilled to a perfect essence. Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Sylvie, a medical scientist who discovers that her father's death five years prior might not have been accidental. Reduced to the level of genre, the film could be characterized as a revenge thriller, with Sylvie murderously seeking out her father's former business partner Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) after her brother Paul (Grégoire Colin) produces a supposedly damning photograph that implicates this Mabuse-esque entrepreneur as his killer. Yet the photo retains an unhealthy ambiguity; like a similarly "damning" line of dialogue in Coppola's The Conversation, its meaning differs from person to person. At heart, it proves nothing concrete, but its implications are poisonous nonetheless. Rivette doesn't merely flip his characters' switches—he allows time to pass, lets the virus settle in. We observe Sylvie's routine and, in the process, we get a sense of her world, a Paris subsumed by distorting and dissociative technological advances (even voices on the other end of a telephone possess an eerie and unnerving clarity).

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TAGS: acquarello, emmanuelle béart, emmanuelle cuau, grégoire colin, j. hoberman, jacques rivette, jerzy radziwilowic, jonathan rosenbaum, La Belle Noiseuse, michael j. anderson, momi, out 1, Pascal Bonitzer, Sandrine Bonnaire, secret defense, the story of marie and julien, va savoir


Pedro Almodóvar

I've been working on reviews of a number of new releases, but since I'm not finished yet—and the holidays are eating me alive, schedule-wise—I'm going to cut and run today, and offer an excerpt from my short stack of movie and TV books. This one's from Laurent Tirard's excellent volume Moviemakers' Master Class: Private Lessons from the World's Foremost Directors, an anthology of interviews with the likes of Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, John Boorman, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Wong Kar-wai and others. It's a must-read for anyone who's interested in making movies or simply learning how movies are made, and it's especially good at revealing how the best movies reflect the personalities of their creators.

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TAGS: Laurent Tirard, moviemakers' master class: private lessons from the world's foremost directors, pedro almodóvar


The Good German

When everyone tells you you're drunk, you'd better lie down.

That phrase echoed in my mind as I watched Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, starring George Clooney as a journalist drawn into a Byzantine noir-ish mystery in postwar Berlin. The reviews have been so uniformly negative that I hoped it had simply been misunderstood—that there was something there worth defending; but it turns out to be a rare case where a restless auteur doesn't confound unimaginative critics (which I think Brian De Palma did this year with The Black Dahlia) but instead reinforces their worst-case suspicions about his weaknesses. It's not actively awful, but it's so ambitious, and so misguided and ill-thought-out, that its floundering is somehow more painful. The phrase "filmmaking exercise" is an accurate description. The Good German was conceived as a tribute to, and subversion of, 1940s Hollywood tropes and tics—or so I was led to believe by advance press trumpeting Soderbergh's devotion to classical Hollywood framing, lighting, transitions and camera moves. Unfortunately, that same phrase explains why the film's so shallow, aloof, disorganized and (most surprisingly) technically sloppy. It is mostly definitely an exercise—not a movie, but a notion of a movie. The notion seems half-baked, but it's hard to say for sure. How do you parse a morass?

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TAGS: cate blanchett, george clooney, joseph kanon, manohla dargis, Paul Attanasio, steven soderbergh, the good german, tobey maguire


Evil Santa

My English teacher once told us that Dickens got paid by the word, and in A Christmas Carol, it shows: Dickens spends a ridiculous amount of time telling us Jacob Marley is dead. "You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail," writes Dickens. Two paragraphs later: "There is no doubt that Marley was dead." A page later: "Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years." We get it, Chuck! Dickens may have rambled on and on, but he also blessed us with the character whose name conjures up images of rebellion against the syrupy sentimentality of Christmas. That's right, Dickens invented Billy Bob Thornton.

Wait! I mean Ebenezer Scrooge! In all his appearances (Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Scrooge McDuck, and my personal favorite, Mr. Magoo), Scrooge had nothing but humbugs for those who tried to impose their cheery holiday will. Today's Five for the Day honors Mr. Scrooge's tradition; it is the antidote to all that Christmas cheer: the gloppy Hallmark Channel specials, the radio stations that play 24 hours of Christmas music, and the store ads that sweet talk you into thinking that, if you buy that diamond, your woman might give your candy cane a licking worth $2,500. Here are five items that use icons of the Christmas season to satisfy the Grinch in all of us.

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TAGS: 5 for the day, Charles E. Sellier Jr., madtv, Phoebe Cates, rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, silent night deadly night, south park







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