Monday, December 25, 2006

Plenty to Unwrap

One of the advantages of having Christmas at home is that I usually end up copious amounts of movies on or around Christmas (another obvious advantage is that there's no one around to shout 'Don't open the presents, it's not even December yet!'). This year, along with my traditional Christmas Eve viewing of 'Eyes Wide Shut,' I found a couple wonderfully terrible made-for-tv Christmas movies to watch (at the encouragement of my wife), a new release and a couple others I've finally gotten around to seeing.

I was one of the few who didn't shoot up the sky with a Tommy gun after seeing Condon's 'Chicago' -- my main complaint being that its songs and antics were too draining -- but predictably bought into the Oscar buzz surrounding 'Dreamgirls.' I was ready to put my 'Chicago' complaints behind me after the first act of 'Dreamgirls' -- during which it attains an energy, rhythm and genuine giddy-ness rarely seen these days -- but when Condon slowly starts putting on the brakes during the second half of his movie, I felt my enthusiasm similarly dampen.

While 'Dreamgirls' is good and I will recommend it, a Best Picture award for this movie will be even more of a shame than 'Crash' winning last year over 'Brokeback Mountain.' Compared to 'Chicago,' it is inferior in almost every way, starting with the story. Even if the plot was not loosely based on The Supremes' triumphs and success, it would still be achingly similar to every Behind the Music humble beginnings/rocket to stardom/crash to earth/rebound story ever told. As soon as the Dreams make it big, a group of five educated adults could leave the theater and brain storm what cliches of fame and fortune the rest of the movie will touch on -- and probably be right about 95 percent of it.

Before sleepytime in the last couple acts, 'Dreamgirls' is a marvel of musical entertainment, with showstopping songs delivered with overwhelming passion, combined with a career performance by Eddie Murphy as a James Brown-like singer and Jamie Foxx as a driven but serpentine producer. The movie is at its best when showing how hard the company works on the road and behind the scenes to get a chance in the white-run music industry. The first act is helped by economical storytelling and exposition, two elements that are lacking in the movie's latter stages.

The problem Condon makes himself is introducing needless plot points, which stretch on but then are tied up later with a bat of an eye. A large part focuses on Deena Jones' (Beyonce) film career and Curtis' (Foxx) efforts to make a black version of 'Cleopatra.' We are given a scene with Deena auditioning for a film role behind Curtis' back while he allegedly rounds up mob money for his project -- but both of these storylines meet cursory endings with almost no consequence (in the former's case, Curtis forgives Deena seemingly on a whim, literally less than a minute after accosting her).

On paper, the extra storylines should have served to flesh out the main characters and given emotional weight to the movie's sendoff performance, but that's hardly true since half of the quartet onstage for said concert are still virtual strangers to the audience -- the only thing we learned about Lorrell was that she liked men, and nothing is ever known about Michelle save for her name. 'Dreamgirls' has an outstanding cast and mostly good songs, but I saw nothing that would elevate it from the level of entertainment that many movies reach to the pinnacle of brilliance that supposedly only one film per year attains.

At 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I found myself the only one awake in a house with nary one wrapped present. My standard fare, 'Eyes Wide Shut' had been ingested earlier, so I went with a wildcard choice -- along with Maker's Mark paired with the best egg nog ever -- and the result couldn't have been better. I had recently picked up the famed Alien Quadrilogy (along with the Mel Brooks Collection) as part of Deep Discount DVD's buy one get one deal for select Fox boxed sets, so I was able to pop in the Ridley Scott's cut of the '79 classic (the Quadrilogy is half off at Amazon and a certified steal for $32 at Costco).

Because Aliens occupies such a large part of my early film history (more on that in a later post, hopefully), its predecessor has always been a little hazy in my memory. Somehow I envisioned 'Alien' as tepid compared to the lavish sequel, but a fresh viewing reminded me that it is usually superior to James Cameron's version in terms of pacing and storytelling. Like 'Halloween,' part of the appeal of 'Alien' is reliving a variety of horror devices for the first time, which are now commonplace and cliche. Action taking place in dark, closed corners, just a few glimpses of your monster -- Scott may have made these choices based on budget, but it works perfectly.

An underrated decision by Scott was his choice to push up most of the action -- it really begins at the chest-burster scene -- to the one hour mark of the movie. All the time before that isn't wasted on character backgrounds and comic relief, rather we see how the different characters think and it's never served up to us on a platter just who will be the last one standing. More than any crewmember, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is by-the-book and relies on her knowledge of the ship and its tactics. She is able to escape the ship because of her intimate knowledge of its procedures and technology (all shown to us in that first hour). These skills of Ripley are best showcased in the final climax, when she shows no panic at her surprise visitor and deals with it mechanically. Watching 'Alien' with egg nog (+ bourbon) in hand and snow on the ground outside made for a grand Christmas Eve night.

A Perfect Day
My wife took the liberty of TiVo-ing a multitude of Christmas movies, leading to the inevitable showdown with a couple of made-for-TV lumps. Of the two, one was surprisingly watchable -- this wasn't it. An apparent TNT production starring Rob Lowe and Christopher Lloyd, 'A Perfect Day' had a serviceable budget aiming for a sincere redemption story along the lines of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' but it appears that the greatest hurdle for the director was convincing Lowe to act. I've never seen a movie that is dragged down so much from one actor's performance. Although the story was nothing new and the script offered little, Lowe never once flinched from his 'at least our shooting schedule is only two weeks!' face.

Lowe plays Rob (was the character name a compromise?), a recently fired something or other who decides to finish a book he started in college, which leads him to surprise fame, which leads the movie into every 'what about your family/friends' convention, which was used to greater effect by The Cheetah Girls. There's some would-be M. Night Shyamalan twist involving an 'angel' (Lloyd, yes he's still alive), and by the end I think Lowe winced hard enough for a smile to come through.

A Christmas Do-Over
This movie grabbed my attention when I realized: a) it was an unapologetic Christmas spin on 'Groundhog Day' and b) it starred Adrienne Barbeau and Jay Mohr. The latter was noteworthy because this movie was made on such a shoestring budget and obviously took advantage of being able to re-use footage for the plot. Oh the plot -- um, something about Mohr's character going to his ex-wife's family's house for Christmas and then he can't leave because a boulder blocks the only road out (one of those land-locked peninsula towns we hear about so much) and then his day keeps repeating again and again. Mohr is a pretty good physical actor and is given some respectable material, allowing the movie to sidestep its many unintentionally goofy moments. One thing 'A Perfect Day' and 'Christmas Do-Over' had in common was scenes with CGI snow, which looked accordingly horrible -- didn't they have some cheap way of filming fake snow before CGI?

The Other

This was a big surprise, it really blew me away and can't believe I hadn't heard of it before. Adapted for the screen from Thomas Tryon's novel by the author, 'The Other' immerses us in an idyllic rural community in 1935 with a family that has a history of tragedy. Little Niles Perry is constantly at play with his twin brother, constantly avoiding scrapes of youthful trouble, but we slowly start to catch on that something is not as it seems. The once-perfect country atmosphere slowly degrades as tragedies mount, and the tension keeps increasing until a startling end. As Dennis Cozzalio shrewdly pointed out, the twist that makes 'The Other' work is trotted out about 45 minutes earlier than Shyamalan would have chose, and it's completely believable. I don't want to say too much, but this is superb subtle, atmospheric horror from the early 70s and was recently released on DVD.

No comments: