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.
The acclaimed play The History Boys (**1/2) won a half-dozen Tony Awards earlier this year, but don't expect similar accolades for this hit-and-miss screen adaptation. Everyone involved with the theater production -- director Nicholas Hytner, writer Alan Bennett and all the principal performers -- is present and accounted for in this celluloid rendition, a development which actually becomes a vice when it's obvious the film will never completely transcend its stage roots. The literate story centers on the relationships between eight smart lads attending a posh school in England during the early 1980s and the three teachers who mold their minds in different ways: the inspirational Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose habit of casually laying his hands on the boys might soon get him into trouble; new professor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose radical approach to education piques the interest of some of the students; and the no-nonsense Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a caring teacher who's least likely to mince words. Griffiths, Moore and de la Tour are all excellent, and their characters prove to be far more interesting than the young charges whose dilemmas fill up the majority of the screen time. The dialogue in Bennett's script is more riveting than the situational developments, but Hytner's obvious attempts to open up this visually immobile piece yields decidedly mixed results.
Another movie season, another inspirational sports yarn torn from the headlines of history. So in most respects, We Are Marshall (**1/2) traffics in the same kind of predictable underdog uplift championed in The Rookie, Miracle and oh-so-many-others. But real life provided a tragic twist, and that's what makes the otherwise familiar We Are Marshall a cut above the norm. Set in 1970, the picture centers on what transpires in a sports-crazed town in West Virginia after nearly all the members of the Marshall University football team (as well as several coaches and fans) are killed in a place crash. After much hemming and hawing while trying to figure out the right thing to do, it's decided that the sports program will be resurrected from the ashes as a way of honoring the fallen players. Cue the entrance of Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughney), an outsider who arrives in town to serve as the new squad's head coach -- and also to help community members move on with their own lives. Except for Anthony Mackie as the team captain, the actors portraying the players are a nondescript lot, meaning the emphasis is shifted to the adult characters. And it's these seasoned actors (among them David Strathairn and Ian McShane) who best punch across the heavy burden that threatens to crush the spirit of this town. We Are Marshall is never as emotionally draining as this material requires, but it gives it the old college try and comes close to succeeding.
Critics generally haven't been kind to Sylvester Stallone (and after being subjected to mega-bombs like Cobra and Over the Top, who could blame them?), but even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa (**). Stallone's career has been over for years, yet here's the big lug, now 60, returning to the role that made him a star three decades ago. That there's now a sixth Rocky movie, coming 16 years after Rocky V, is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it's hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn't a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he's essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline -- Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age -- only takes shape once the picture's nearly over. Through the first three entertaining films in the franchise, Stallone went the distance with the Italian Stallion, but since then, the character's been stuck on an endless treadmill. Get off, already.
The frenzied family tale Night at the Museum (**) plays with fire by employing three overexposed actors -- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams (only Will Ferrell is missing) -- and potentially allowing them to run rampant through an overstuffed fantasy yarn. Mercifully, though, Stiller is muted, Williams is similarly restrained, and Wilson ... well, Wilson is still pretty annoying (two out of three ain't bad). Stiller plays Larry Daley, the new night watchman at a museum where the exhibits come to life after the venue closes for the day. The benevolent Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) is helpful to have around, but Larry has his hands full evading Attila the Hun, dealing with a mischievous monkey, and settling squabbles between a miniature cowboy (Wilson) and an equally diminutive Roman commander (Steve Coogan). A clever premise (adapted from a children's book) is hampered by lackluster scripting and directing, though Ricky Gervais provides some choice comic moments as the supercilious museum head. If nothing else, this should command the attention of kids who have grown tired of having their pictures taken with Santa. (Note: In addition to playing regular movie houses, Night at the Museum will also open in the IMAX Theater at Discovery Place.)
The draggy dragon yarn Eragon (*) bored me silly, but I imagine it might appeal to folks who have never before seen a fantasy flick. Specifically, it might fill the bill for kids who have somehow managed to miss all the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films (are there any?). The movie is based on the popular book written by Christopher Paolini when he was a mere lad of 15. It was a huge success among most, though not all, teen readers (my 15-year-old daughter, herself weaned on fantasy, thought it was tripe), and if the movie is faithful to its source material, then the lawsuit-happy George Lucas corporation has grounds to sue for plagiarism. Let's see, a naive farmboy decides to take on an evil empire (more so after his uncle is murdered by soldiers seeking the boy) with the help of a wisdom-spouting mentor and a devil-may-care maverick. What's more, he also has to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil ruler and his supernaturally endowed enforcer. The key difference is that instead of a lightsaber, the lad comes equipped with his very own dragon -- and there's no Death Star in sight, just a deadly star in the form of lead Ed Speleers. As Eragon Skywalker, newcomer Speleers is about as charismatic as a comatose possum, and even capable actors like Jeremy Irons (as Brom Kenobi), Djimon Hounsou (as Ajihad Calrissian) and Robert Carlyle (as Darth Durza) are soundly defeated by the dreadful dialogue and indifferent pacing.