Monday, December 25, 2006


There's a little secret about DREAMGIRLS, the famed Broadway musical that gave the world the classic anthem "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." A little secret that has only been shared by a small coterie of people. Simply put, that secret is this: DREAMGIRLS isn't really very good. A book that is a pretty tired parade of showbiz rags to riches cliches (guess what? Fame Isn't All It Is Cracked Up To Be) and a couple of pretty good songs. Under Michael Bennett's then-revolutionary staging, the show did supply a couple of goosebump moments (including "And I Am Telling You"), but my principal memory of DREAMGIRLS is of Jennifer Holliday throwing the single greatest temper tantrum in the history of live musical drama. She was electrifying. Not much else about the show was, though.

So it can't be a surprise that my hopes for the film were not high. Could Bill Condon, a perfectly competent filmmaker (KINSEY and GODS AND MONSTERS) work the cinematic equivalent of Michael Bennett's magic on this rather uninspiring material? Or would he follow the lead of the unspeakable Rob Marshall in creating the atrocious film of CHICAGO, easily the worst film ever released by a major studio, casting a bunch of non-singing actors, or worse, non-acting singers, shooting each scene from every possible angle but the correct one, and editing the whole mess with a rusty blender?

If DREAMGIRLS never quite hits the lows of CHICAGO, it doesn't entirely hit any new heights either. The characters are two-dimensional, at best, and the story remains trite and largely uninteresting, except for a couple of finger-snapping payback moments. The casting is mostly better than expected, happily, and thank God they can all sing. Eddie Murphy delivers the film's most assured performance: his musical numbers and his book scenes are equally exciting. Jennifer Hudson is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and her "And I Am Telling You" is easily the film's highlight. The biggest surprise in the film is the comatose work of Jamie Foxx, who brings absolutely nothing to the film whatsoever, delivering the living definition of a one-note performance.

At least part of the reason for the remarkable impact of Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is that it is the first (if not quite the only) time that Condon actually lets his cast sing for more than a second at a time. All of the other musical numbers are very heavily edited in the way of most recent musical films: there's a cut after every three words or so, from a closeup to a long shot, or to a high shot, or to something else to illustrate the passage of time/make some plot points, or basically to just about anything that will break the continuity of the song and remind you that you are watching a movie. Condon seems particularly fond of showing me the back of his singers' heads. God forbid we should just get a chance to watch somebody sing. Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is a potent reminder of what musicals are all really ultimately about: the pure pleasure of watching people sing. Condon similarly lets Eddie Murphy's songs and Beyonce Knowles' performance of a new song entitled "Listen" stand more or less on the talents of his actor/singers rather than on his editor, and these scenes are by far the best in the film as a result.

Think about that for a minute: actor/singers who can actually sing. After the horrors of Woody Allen's misguided EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and the aforementioned CHICAGO it is a real treat to hear people who know their way round a song get a crack at a movie, rather than Renee Zellwegger, Richard Gere, or that Gerard Butler person.

Worth seeing? Sure. Why not. See it in a theatre with good sound.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


David Lynch's latest film, the first since the surrealistically over-rated MULHOLLAND DR. Clocking in at a completely indefensible 2 hours and 48 minutes, EMPIRE covers some of the same territory as MULHOLLAND: we're once again in a no-man's-land of narrative and cinematic tricks, where Nothing Is As It Seems To Be, and everything is as Lynchian as it can possibly be.

Insert that little sound of frustration and annoyance that Marge Simpson makes here.

The story, or stories, seem to center on an actress named Nikki Grace, played admirably by Laura Dern. Nikki is making a film, and finds that the line between herself and the character she is playing seems to be fading. We also find out that an earlier production of the film in progress (in Poland, for some reason) was halted due to the murder of the two leads. We get scenes from the film that Nikki is making, scenes from Nikki's life that seem to mimic the film Nikki is making, scenes from the earlier Polish production, and scenes from the life of Nikki's Polish counterpart which seem to refer to moments in Nikki's life and Nikki's film, and scenes that might be dreams, and a sitcom featuring humanized rabbits, and a lot of other stuff that will probably make sense with repeat viewings.

If there are any repeat viewings. INLAND EMPIRE doesn't quite sink under the weight of all the metacinematic trickery, but it never really takes off, either. Lynch does begin the film brilliantly,though. The old sense of effortless Lynchian menace, which he seems able to induce at will out of ordinary settings and with a few rumbling sound effects, comes across very quickly and excitingly. But then something else happens. What had been an exciting tingle of dread gives way to a familiar sense of the familiar, that I'd seen it all before. Elements of LOST HIGHWAY, BLUE VELVET, ERASERHEAD, even the red curtains from TWIN PEAKS, and unfortunately big chunks of MULHOLLAND all inform INLAND EMPIRE.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a director working on similar themes and ideas and motifs from film to film. But with Lynch it feels like he's just plain repeating himself. Nothing's being learned, nothing's being digested, just chewed over and over and over.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


“I don’t do sadness.”

One day Bob called me over to the computer, sat me down, and saying, “Watch this,” played a video clip. About three minutes later the clip ended and I got up to find the reduced-price mailer I had gotten for SPRING AWAKENING, a clip of which Bob had just shown me. We saw the complete show earlier this week, and I’m having a hard time getting certain parts of it out of my head. In a good way.

The show is a musical version of Frank Wedekind’s apparently notorious 1890’s play, which has been banned off and on over the years. I’ve never read the play. Is the play banned because it dares to deal in a frank way with the sexual and emotional maturation of children, or because it lays the blame for what happens to these children squarely on the repressive trinity of Church, School and Home?

Anyway, the play focuses on a pair of schoolboys, Moritz and Melchior. Moritz is the school misfit, not unintelligent but rather clearly having a rough time with puberty: his hormones are really gushing. Melchior seems to be the school’s star, handsome and intelligent, clearly meant for Better Things. Moritz is being picked on by the school administration, Melchior begins a relationship with a young girl named Wendla.

The plot isn’t really the thing in this show. Anyone with any experience of narratives at all will be able to see where the story is going. What is at stake is the relentless energy and passion on that stage, the way that the screwed up hysteria of youth has been captured in a work of theatre that never condescends to the characters or to the audience. There’s none of the sentimentality or self-congratulation that mars RENT, no tacked-on pseudo-happy ending or self-righteous gabbling about the end of the millennium. A scene that evokes the ghosts of the past is powerful and harrowing and deeply moving, especially in comparison with a certain idiotic scene in GREY GARDENS.

Per Addison DeWitt: I am available for shouting from rooftops and dancing in the streets. (I thought that went out with Woolcott!)

Here's the clip.