15 December 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: "Dreamgirls"

December 15, 2006 08:17 PM EST © 2006 by Digital Dogs
A film adaptation of Michael Bennett’s 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls is both a joy and a revelation. Sure to please just about anyone looking for a few hours of pure entertainment, Dreamgirls is the holiday season’s must-see for all. Dreamgirls boasts dream casting, and the cast, the sets, the wardrobe, the staging, and dreamy music are all top-notch. Director and Screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) has a deft touch and his work shines the best via the wonderful work his cast turned in.

Set in the 1960s and 1970s, with a predominately African-American cast, Dreamgirls is loosely based on the lives and careers of Motown supergroup The Supremes, with a special focus on Motown puppeteer Berry Gordy, played here by the always enjoyable and extremely talented Jamie Foxx as Curtis Taylor, Jr. Dreamgirls provides a behind-the-scenes view of how hard it is to become a star, especially if your look is not what is considered the norm… and in this era, the norm for women was a compliant nature, straight hair, and a Twiggy-sized body.

Dreamgirls follows the lives of three women, Effie White, Deena Jones, and Lorell Robinson, who begin their professional singing careers as the Dreamettes singing back-up for soul singer Jimmy Early. Effie has a powerhouse voice and is the lead singer of the group. Behind the scenes manipulator Taylor is desperate for black acts to crossover to mainstream charts and he transforms the girls from back-up singers to lead act replacing the extremely talented and difficult dark zaftig Effie with an easy-going skinny light-skinned Deena. The puppeteer’s instinct for success is right on and his Dreamettes, now renamed the Dreams, become a huge crossover hit, leaving the truly talented Effie behind.

Denials about Dreamgirls will abound, but remember this story is almost the same as The Supremes origin story. Gordy replaced lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross, who Gordy saw as prettier, skinnier, lighter, and more likely to crossover to white audiences. He was right, Diana became a huge international star and Ballard never recovered; she battled alcohol and depression until she died at the young age of 32 in 1976.

Even though Beyonce Knowles supposedly lost 20 pounds to play the lead Diana Ross-alike character of Deena Jones, and even though she is a delight to behold, she still did not show any spark or charisma on the big screen. From her work here, this reviewer does not expect Beyonce will have a long and fruitful film career. The real performance kudos of this film belong to newcomer and American Idol contestant and loser, Jennifer Hudson, who will definitely be receiving an Oscar nomination for her first acting gig as Effie. Another supporting cast member who will likely garner a nomination is Eddie Murphy, who disappears into his billiant portrayal of wild womanizing blues singer, James ‘Thunder’ Early (perhaps modeled on James Brown).

Condon wisely uses the background of the civil-rights movement to move his story along with authenticity using headlines, news clips, and a scene with a startled Effie seeing people riot in the streets outside their rehearsal hall. Hudson’s performance is fierce, raw, and emotional, while at the same time revealing her vulnerabilities.

fileId:3096224743981604;size:inter;Jennifer Hudson as Effie, at only 25, is a huge talent and a true revelation; this reviewer expects her not only to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but fully expects her to win the prize. If Hudson never sings another song, or acts in another film, she will, nonetheless, always be remembered for her transcendent performance in Dreamgirls. She can act, she can sing, and she will break your heart when she does. When she tears into “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. People were moaning out loud during her show-stopping performance of this song and the packed screening room audience broke out into thunderous applause at the end of the song while people took the time to dry their eyes. Hudson’s is a tour de force performance and she will likely be around for many years to come.

Eddie Murphy, in his most daring role in films to date (thankfully not played in drag) turns in another nomination-worthy performance as a star who has used and abused too many women and too many drugs for far too long. Murphy illuminates Jimmy Early’s talent, his humor, and his fear without dimming his charm. As all the cast members do, Murphy does all his own singing, and he reaches down deep for a smart and nuanced performance that will also garner a Supporting Actor nomination. You heard it here first.

A nice touch was to bring back original Broadway Dreamgirl Loretta Devine as a jazz singer at a wake the end of the film, and to see Broadway’s great Hinton Battle (The Tap Dance Kid, The Wiz, and the special musical episode of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) on screen. Production design and set decoration are brilliant, as are the musical numbers. Since the singing is such an integral part of the story you will not find it jarring when characters break out into song.

Some might say that the score is not Motown enough, but DUH, it’s a Broadway score…, which most typically channels story, force, and emotion through song… as it should. Condon adds a few songs to help move the story along and his additions are seamless with the rest of the original score; he dedicates the film to author Michael Bennett who died of AIDS in 1987. This is a beautiful and sublime film that will bring tears of joy to your eyes. Look for its nomination for Oscar’s Best Film of the year.


Digital Dogs rating: A

MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.

Running Time: 131 minutes

Producers David Geffen, Laurence Mark, Director, Screenplay Bill Condon, Book by Tom Eyen, Editor Virginia Katz, DP Tobias Schliessler, Music Harvery Mason Jr, Damon Thomas, Henry Krieger, Actors Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Hinton Battle, John Lithgow, Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose

© 2006 by Digital Dogs


MOVIE REVIEW: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

December 15, 2006 05:09 PM EST
© 2006 by Digital Dogs

Stop right there! Don’t correct the spelling of the word Happyness in the title of this Will Smith outing. It’s a minor plot point that will all become clear when you see this film. Suffice it to say you might also be in a state of Happyness when you leave the theater after seeing this warm and involving true story of a remarkable man as played by another remarkable man, Will Smith. This is the perfect film to see over the holidays with everyone in your family and you will leave the theater with tears of Happyness in your eyes.

This film marks Will Smith’s entry into the world of serious dramatic acting and his work here makes clear that we can expect great things to come from The Fresh Prince. The Pursuit of Happyness is the true story of Christopher Gardner, an intelligent and loving family man in dire straits who is desperately trying to keep his family afloat. He and his wife Linda (Thandie Newton), the mother of his 5-year-old son, also named Christopher (and played by Smith’s real life son, Jaden Smith, who also has a long career ahead), are struggling under constant financial pressures. Their fragile financial state leaves Linda with what she feels is no choice and she decides she must leave them to make a go of her own life.

Suddenly a single – and very devoted – father, Gardner continues trying to sell bone scanning machines he had invested all his available cash into while trying for an internship at a prestigious stock brokerage company. Due to Gardener’s charisma and intelligence he lands the non-paying gig hoping he will end the program with a job offer and a better future. Since no money is coming in, Gardener runs out of funds to pay his rent and is turned out of his apartment with his young son in tow. Heart-wrenching scenes of Gardner and his son sleeping on the subway, waiting in lines to get space in a shelter, even spending nights on the floor in a men’s bathroom in the train station are painful to watch.

Happyness is Italian director Gabriele Muccino’s first English language film and he proves he has a deft touch with actors. Of course, Will Smith’s presence in this film is a beam of charisma and intensity and it is his work that lifts this film out of the Made-For-TV / Movie-of-the-Week genre the script really falls into. Attempts at lightening this sad story with humor involving the bone scanners, a missing shoe, and a speedy Rubik's Cube solution in a cab all help to make Gardner's struggle very human and very real.

A truly American rags-to-riches story, The Pursuit of Happyness is the story of what one man can do to end the cycle of poverty and get off the street. Today the real-life Chris Gardner (who can be seen in a cameo at the end of the film) is a millionaire who has devoted himself to the betterment of others. His story, as told on 60 Minutes and on Oprah, resonates with millions of Americans who are living on the edge, barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. The Pursuit of Happyness is a 21st century It’s a Wonderful Life and is an inspiration to all.


Digital Dogs rating: B

MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for some language

Running Time: 117 minutes

Producers Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, James Lassiter, Steve Tisch, Will Smith, Teddy Zee, Director Gabriele Muccino, Screenplay Steve Conrad, Editor Hughes Winborne, DP Phedon Papamichael, Actors Will Smith, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, Thandie Newton, Dan Castellaneta

© 2006 by Digital Dogs


03 December 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: "Blood Diamond"

December 03, 2006 06:38 PM EST © 2006 by Digital Dogs

As director Ed Zwick (The Last Smaurai, Traffic, Shakespeare In Love, and TV's My So-Called Life & ThirySomething) says about his new film Blood Diamond: “There is no reason why challenging themes and engaging stories have to be mutually exclusive – in fact, each can fuel the other.” He goes on to say, “To me this movie is about what is valuable. To one person, it might be a stone; to someone else, a story in a magazine; to another, it is a child. The juxtaposition of one man obsessed with finding a valuable diamond with another man risking his life to find his son is the beating heart of this film.”

Zwick’s touch is deft and he is the first director who has been able to reach the deeper and more real-life-man inside of DiCaprio. The film runs a bit long, but this is a big story to tell and though Zwick takes his time setting up the plot for us, it’s time well used.

Leonardo DiCaprio is finally a success in his first real grown-up role as an ex-mercenary African smuggler in Blood Diamond after a rare red conflict diamond. Along with co-lead Djimon Hounsou, the two weave a compelling tale about the search for self under the cover of illegal conflict diamond trade and the child armies of the rebels in Sierra Leone. Complete with a dead-on clipped South African accent and a convincing mercenary demeanor DiCaprio has finally grown into his face and his body, though it is Hounsou’s work here that truly deserves attention. Hounsou's co-lead performance here (don't let anyone suggest that his is a supporting role) is Oscar-worthy, though this reviewer would be mighty surprised if he receives the attention his performance deserves.

Set against the chaotic background of the civil war that broke out in the 1990s in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Blood Diamond is the story of two African men, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ex-mercenary from Zimbabwe, and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Honsou), a Mende (descendents of the great Malian Empire founded by Sundiata Keita) fisherman from Sierra Leone. Even though they are both African, their lives couldn’t be more different until their fates become intertwined in a quest to recover a rare stone.

Filmed entirely in South Africa and Mozambique, the scenery is as much as star as the luminaries themselves. Long shots show us verdant vistas with exotic animals that belie the death and destruction going on inside the lush multitude of green. The title, Blood Diamond, refers to a rare huge red-tinted diamond found by forced-labor-miner Vandy. It is a conflict diamond, which are diamonds mined in mostly African war zones by forced labor and are sold to diamond buyers to finance the conflicts, hence the name conflict diamond.

Kidnapped by rebel forces and forced to work as a slave laborer in a diamond mining operation, Vandy finds a rare blood diamond the size of an ice cube and hides it between his toes to escape the evil eyes of his captors. He hides the diamond in a scrap of cloth and buries it deep beneath a toilet pit in the jungle next to a diamond mining river. Of course his secret is too good to keep and almost immediately an evil one-eyed rebel leader, Captain Poison, sees Vandy bury something. When the mining operation comes under attack Vandy takes his opportunity to escape, leaving the blood diamond buried deep within the waste pile. Once free his forced labor Vandy begins a desperate search for his wife and children while the audience meets DiCaprio’s Danny Archer, who is searching for a way out of the cycle of violence and corruption that is his life.

Vandy desperately searches for his wife and children, not knowing that his son, Dia, has already been kidnapped by rebels and forced to become a child soldier and kill on command, and that his wife and daughter are in a refugee camp. There is nothing quite like the sight of little children holding huge AK47’s like lollypops and shooting people dead with no regret, it is a horror that many African children live every day of their lives. Just watching it in a fictional film was painful enough. Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) understands this awful truth and as a reporter is in Sierra Leone to uncover the true story behind conflict diamonds, trying to expose the complicity of diamond industry leaders, here played by one composite character with only one whispered line, Simmons, Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen), who have chosen profits over principles. With Maddy’s help, Archer and Vandy embark on a dangerous trek through rebel territory to recover the blood diamond they are pinning all their hopes on.

The men are on a journey, one with the intent to leave the continent of his birth, the other with the intent to find his family. But each character ends up struggling with their own moral dilemmas. As the moral center of the film, Solomon Vandy, Djimon Hounsou sums it up: “Archer is pursuing a diamond, but Solomon’s diamond is his son." Archer realizes it too late, but his diamond is Maddy.

Though the cast is A list, the film tackles important social issues that are not often seen in major star vehicles. For that alone Blood Diamond deserves a viewing, as does seeing DiCaprio and Hounsou doing their best work. When you add on the two star turns, a minor role for another A lister, Jennifer Connelly, you have a compelling afternoon of enjoyable popcorn munching ahead.


Digital Dogs rating: A-

MPAA rating: Rated R for strong violence and language.

Running Time: 188 minutes

Producers Kevin De La Noy, Gillian Gorfil, Philip Key, Graham King, Darrell Roodt, Paula Weinstein, Ed Zwick, Director Ed Zwick, Screenplay Charles Leavitt, Story C. Gaby Mitchell, Editor Steven Resenblum, DP Eduardo Serra, Actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Arnold Vosloo, Michael Sheen

© 2006 by Digital Dogs


Learn more about conflict diamonds:


How To Avoid Buying a Conflict Diamond
Partnership Africa-Canada
UN Conflict Diamonds


War Photographer

Shadow Company

Cry Freedom & Return To Freetown


Blood Diamond by Greg Campbel

Blood From Stones by Douglas Farah

Innocents Lost by Jimmie Briggs

Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin

How De Body? One Man's Terrifying Journey through an African Warby Teun Voeten

In the Land of Magical Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa by Daniel Bergner

The Devil Danced on Water: A Daughter’s Memoir by Aminatta Forna