Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (B) is a musical backstage drama with style and panache, but it’s conflicted about whether or not the characters sing when they are not on stage. Musicals require a suspension of disbelief, for sure, but within the film, it should be consistent. So the stage numbers are great, and some of the personal ballads are too, just awkward. Beyoncé Knowles is compelling as the attractive star of a girl group, and Jennifer Hudson is an acting and vocal powerhouse as the woman behind the group’s hits who is unlucky in love and fame. Jamie Foxx turns in a nice performance, and Eddie Murphy delivers a sly dramatic turn that lights up his scenes. The film is pulpy melodrama with gorgeous production design and art direction, and the talented ensemble showcases acting and singing chops. If only Condon had figured out the musical conceit like he did with his Chicago screenplay, the film wouldn’t seem so self-conscious.
Explicit and magical, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (A) is a sprawling ensemble about sexual release in modern New York and is one of the best films of 2006. Sook-Yin Lee and Paul Dawson are among the superb members of a cast in overlapping stories of lust, loneliness, longing and liberation. With dandy music by Yo La Tengo and clever animations surrounding a phenomenal menagerie of human characters, this freestyle film is experimental, daring and fascinating.
Larry Charles’ Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (A-) is a splendidly offensive mockumentary comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a vaguely Kazakh TV personality on a cross-country trip to showcase life in America and possibly to find and woo pop icon Pamela Anderson. An innocent abroad for the gross-out generation, Cohen’s character fuses Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers and the cast of Jackass in one singular vulgariate. Cohen’s fish-out-of-water schtick turns a shrewd satiric eye to global poltics, gender roles and sociological mores within an efficient laugh-fest. Director Charles knows just how far to push the madness, and then pushes it even a little more.
Director Brett Ratner botches his shot at the helm of the third entry into an iconic comic book film series with X-Men: The Last Stand (C-). The characters are all back and look basically the same; but none move, talk or relate in the same way Bryan Singer set them up in past installments. Instead Ratner relies on big explosions, larger-than-life set pieces and general bluster. His sound and fury doesn’t symbolize much of anything, and the prophetic “last stand” of the title means it’s time for prequels and reboots already.
Todd Field’s Little Children (A) is a film about unease in modern-day suburbia featuring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as a couple meeting up at the neighborhood swimming pool and having an affair. Meanwhile, a freaky neighbor (Jackie Earle Haley) is possibly on the prowl for his own kind of release in the community. Field once again draws amazing, absorbing performances from his actors and doesn’t give obvious hints about where his plot is headed.
Stephen Frears’ The Queen (A-) is about finding the proper time and place to say one’s peace. For Queen Elizabeth II, perfectly embodied by Helen Mirren, speaking out after the death of Princess Diana is especially difficult. The film details the negotiations between Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and the queen to help put public closure on a nation’s tragedy. The film does a masterful job of showing all the steps it sometimes takes to move a mountain.
Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (B-) is an often lovely art deco tribute to the most American of superheroes with Brandon Routh doing an admirable but thankless job stepping into the shoes of the late Christopher Reeve. Although the film is beautiful to behold, much of the story is a bore. Kate Bosworth is dull as Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey is inspired as Lex Luthor until his master plan involves a bunch of rocks falling down for about 20 minutes in the film’s final act. Still, for its homage to the first two Superman films and restoring the grandeur to the franchise and for small touches such as a supporting performance by Parker Posey and a digital cameo by Marlon Brando, it gets a marginal vote of approval.
It’s a bit ironic that one of the most original filmmakers of our time has made one of his very best films by following someone else’s formula. A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (A) traces a young undercover cop (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrating a South Boston crime syndicate led by Jack Nicholson while the mobster’s protégé (Matt Damon) has simultaneously penetrated the police department as an informer for the syndicate. Both DiCaprio and Damon become deeply consumed by their double lives and the plans and counter-plans of their respective operations; but when they discover there’s a mole in their midst, they must race to expose each other’s identity. This is Scorsese at his most efficient, with each and every sequence important to the plot and every shot of blink-and-you-missed-it importance to the big picture. It’s an astonishing adventure with a great trio of central performances plus many other great ones in the ensemble including Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Vera Farmiga.
Al Gore’s environmental call to action in An Inconvenient Truth (A) shouldn’t make good cinema, but as directed by Dennis Guggenheim, it’s an efficient and effective entreaty for citizens to help combat global warming. As persuasive filmmaking, it makes a stirring case.