Our holiday weekend included a couple of trips to the local multiplex.
I was surprised my wife wanted to see “Rocky Balboa,” but we went and weren’t disappointed — probably because we had such low expectations and the movie exceeded them.
The guy’s still a likable character, and Stallone was smart enough to remember that what was initially appealing about Rocky all those years ago was the small world he inhabited and how he negotiated life’s littlest problems. He keeps the flash and razzle-dazzle to a minimum until the final fight sequence, when we enter the over-the-top world of Vegas, televised boxing, and extreme product placement.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a great movie. Stallone pulls on the heartstrings so many times you’ll have rope burn by the end, and the fight is another one of those brutal slugfests that no real fighter could endure, particularly if they wanted to shoot a final scene without a broken face. “Not as bad as it could have been” isn’t much of an endorsement, but it’ll have to do.
We also went on Christmas morning to a 10:50am showing of “Dreamgirls,” figuring the theater would be empty that early on a holiday. Wrong! The place was packed. I guess by that point, plenty of people needed a break from the family get-together thing, and the only places to get away on Christmas Day were the movie theater or Walgreen’s.
I had seen “Dreamgirls” on Broadway in the early 80s, and was interested in how well it transferred to the screen, and whether its heavyweight cast helped or hurt.
The buzz is about Jennifer Hudson, the “American Idol” loser who gets the showy role of Effie, the Dreamgirl who is tossed aside on the ride to fame. She gives the same scenery-chomping performance that earned Jennifer Holliday standing ovations on Broadway, and her two big songs earned a lot of applause from the crowd (an unusual and uncommon phenomenon in a one-way medium like a movie theater, where the performer isn’t present — I wonder if they do that at home in front of the TV, too).
The problem I’ve always had with Effie is that the script wants us to have sympathy for her, but she’s really an unpleasant person, a total diva with lots of talent but no discipline and no interest in anyone else. Of course, there’s the irony of her singing her big song, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” followed immediately by her leaving, though not of her own volition.
“Dreamgirls” succeeds when it sticks to its ersatz Supremes success story, with Beyonce as Diana Ross, Foxx as Berry Gordy Jr., and Murphy as a combination of Wilson Pickett and James Brown (who, coincidentally, had died that morning). There’s also solid work from Danny Glover and a few people you’ve never heard of.
I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who felt a little squeamish watching the group obviously modeled after the Jackson Five doing their number on a TV special. What made me smile the most was the shot at Pat Boone and all the other safe white acts that stole and covered songs by early black performers.
Unfortunately, “Dreamgirls” is guilty of the same sin. The movie is about Motown music, but what we get is pure Broadway — the raw sound and appeal of those R&B classics stripped away and replaced by lush orchestrations and arrangements that the real Gordy would never have allowed. In the end, you walk out of the theater remembering the personalities and performances, but none of the songs that were supposedly The Dreams’ big hits — they are merely devices to drive the plot, unable to stand alone. That’s not what you want from a musical.