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Stocking Stuffers 

No classics among Xmas releases, but a few good films nonetheless

Jennifer Hudson couldn't even make it to the top on American Idol, so what could she possibly bring to the big screen? If Dreamgirls (*** out of four) is any indication, plenty. Delivering a knockout performance that all but dares the Academy to ignore her for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Hudson is a revelation in the role of Effie, the lead singer for the R&B outfit The Dreams who's relegated to backup vocals once savvy yet sleazy manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides that the noticeably thinner Deena (Beyonce Knowles) would better help the Supremes-like group hit it big (the third member, well-played by Anika Noni Rose, is content to remain in backup mode). On the narrative level, this adaptation of the Broadway smash is only too happy to wallow in its show biz clichés, content to let other ingredients (the music, the acting) carry it along. Yet Hudson is so powerful that the film suffers whenever we're left with just Beyonce or Foxx. Luckily, Eddie Murphy is on hand providing some prickly tension as fading star James "Early" Thunder, while writer-director Bill Condon stages the musical numbers for maximum impact. But it's Hudson who owns Dreamgirls; her delivery of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is worth a standing ovation -- or at least a recount on American Idol -- all by itself.

A fictionalized look at the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Good Shepherd (***) is an unlikely candidate to enjoy a wide release during Christmas week. It's methodical in its style and intelligent in its execution, which in some circles will translate as dull, slow-moving and impenetrable -- hardly words anyone wants to hear during the hustle and bustle of the cheery Yuletide season. Yet patient viewers will find much to appreciate in this chilly yet absorbing drama, which takes the cherished ideal of patriotism and turns it on its head. On the heels of The Departed, Matt Damon delivers another bold performance that seeks no audience empathy -- here, he's cast as Edward Wilson, whose role as one of the founders of the CIA finds him over the course of several decades having to contend with all manner of Cold War shenanigans, including the presence of a mole within his own agency. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Robert De Niro (who also appears in a key supporting role), The Good Shepherd repeatedly runs the risk of losing viewers with its flashback-laden structure drafted by scripter Eric Roth. But the strength of the film rests in its clear-eyed vision of Edward Wilson, whose fierce devotion to his country in turn strips him of his humanity and reduces him to a suspicious and paranoid cipher, an American too busy fighting unseen enemies to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that his nation provides for him.

Anyone who's seen the trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness (***) knows that the movie has only two things on its mind: 1) Win Will Smith an Oscar and 2) drive up Kleenex profits by unleashing a flood of sob-worthy moments. Whether it succeeds in achieving either goal remains to be seen, but 1) Will Smith does indeed turn in a strong performance (though hardly the year's best) and 2) the picture is skilled enough to generate some genuine pathos to go along with the more calculated melodramatics. This is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a failed salesman in the 1980s who tries to raise his son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) even as he descends further into poverty. Chris can't turn around without something bad happening to him -- it's not enough that he's struck by a car; he has to then lose one of his shoes in the accident and limp to work with one foot clothed only in a sock. How much of this is factual is unclear -- it's anybody's guess whether screenwriter Steven Conrad is laying it on this thick for audience members or whether God had indeed laid it on this thick for the real Chris Gardner -- but the moving and sincere work by Will and his real-life son Jaden (a confidant and relaxed actor) cuts through all pretensions (even the instant happy ending) and allows The Pursuit of Happyness to earn at least some of its tears.

The new family film Charlotte's Web (**1/2) is a live-action treatment of E.B. White's beloved children's book, but there's already been a dazzling screen version of this tale. No, I don't mean the 1973 Hanna-Barbera animated take, best remembered today for Paul Lynde's appropriately snarky work as Templeton the rat. Instead, I refer to the 1995 feature Babe. OK, so it wasn't based on White's book, but with its story centering around a cute little pig learning about farm life, it shares the same sense of magic and wonderment: As with the book Charlotte's Web, the movie Babe convinced us that we were witnessing a classic come to life right before our very eyes. This new screen version of Charlotte's Web is mostly faithful to its source material (though some expected -- and tiresome -- flatulence gags have been added), but because Gary Winick's direction rarely rises above the level of competent, and because Babe has already perfected the talking-animal feat via its Oscar-winning effects, the end result is pleasant but not much more than that. As the voice of Charlotte, the spider who befriends Wilbur the pig and plots to save him from the slaughterhouse, Julia Roberts is suitably soothing, while Steve Buscemi provides the proper measure of ego and arrogance as Templeton. The supporting voice actors, including Oprah Winfrey as a goose and horse whisperer Robert Redford as a horse, tend to get lost in the occasional frenzy of the tale, which on screen works better in the more mature passages (e.g. Charlotte explaining the cycle of life to Wilbur) than those focusing on slapdash antics.

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