Tinseltown Treats

The Baltimore Sun

Dreamgirls delivers the real glitter. When it opens Christmas Day, that alone could make this a sparkling holiday movie season. Sure, the December schedule overflows with heavy-duty Oscar bait and brow-furrowing fare: Ed Zwick's tale of civil war in Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond; Robert De Niro's CIA history, The Good Shepherd; and Steven Soderbergh's postwar Berlin thriller The Good German. And they may turn out to be worthy and exciting movies, answering the Yuletide call for peace on earth and good will toward men.

Yet Dreamgirls does all that and has a good beat that you can dance to. It's not a perfect movie (I'll hold my review for the opening), but it's full of splashy artifice, high spirits and adrenaline. And shouldn't Christmas at the movies feature at least one film with an air of celebration?

Chicago proved that a sizzling movie musical released at holiday time could score with audiences and critics and extend the holidays into the new year. Of course, since then, we've had Rent and Phantom of the Opera, both misconceived or botched and based on dated or highly flawed libretti. And though I heartily enjoyed The Producers, it had nothing to offer musical-comedy lovers except a direct transcription of the play.

Luckily, the writer-director of Dreamgirls is the same Bill Condon who did Gods and Monsters, the provocative and moving film about Frankenstein director James Whale, as well as the not-so-terrific Kinsey and the fabulous job of reconceiving Chicago's script for the screen (Rob Marshall directed it). Nothing Condon has done in Dreamgirls is as striking as the bold ploy of telling Chicago from antiheroine Roxie Hart's point of view. But Condon fills the contours of Michael Bennett's stage musical about the rise and disintegration of an archetypal '60s girls' group known as the Dreamgirls - and I mean fills those contours to overflowing. He drops the pretense that the Dreamgirls aren't the Supremes, and the material is stronger for it.

Here, when the group and their manager and songwriter sing about being family, we get the full meaning and irony, because we see members of their real families, too. Condon provides juicy historical details about payola and gangsterism and African-American artists making bumpy inroads into a white-dominated (and white-bread) pop culture. He fleshes out an era of political turmoil marked by riots and assassinations. And off the cuff and along the way, he also illuminates changing attitudes toward substance use and sex in what suddenly became known as "lifestyles."

Dreamgirls reminds us of the power of stars. Everyone who's hungered to see Eddie Murphy fulfill his talent will finally get a taste of all he can do as James "Thunder" Early, an uncontrollable soul man who in this version of the musical contains a strong strain of Marvin Gaye. A new star is born with Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol also-ran who plays the girl with a voice and personality too strong for the group; she redeems the literally show-stopping number that Jennifer Holliday turned into a screamfest on Broadway. As for Beyonce Knowles, she displays the self-awareness and the discipline that can turn her pop tinsel into gold - and it's a funny in-joke that the diva who played Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember is playing a Diana Ross-type being groomed to play Cleopatra.

Underexploited genres such as musicals can bring new audiences into theaters. They can also prove that filmmakers who subsume their themes into flesh-and-blood entertainment can convey a truer sense of American society than scolds or message-mongers.

The musical isn't the only genre that should get a shot in the arm this winter. My favorite Christmas movie of 1998 was the sequel to the 1995 classic Babe, the now-forgotten Babe: Pig in the City. As a fairy tale of an imperiled innocent in a chaotic and threatening metropolis, it ranked with Carol Reed's Oliver! (my favorite Christmas movie of 1968). As well as a genuinely Dickensian Yuletide film, it was a continually surprising and inventive call for interspecies understanding and civility: I still treasure the deep-seated humor and solemnity of a host of disenfranchised city animals lining up for food and expressing their appreciation to Babe, their provider, with the simple, resonant words, "Thank you, pig."

Full-blown computer-animation has swamped the wizardry that made live animals seem to talk in the Babe movies. Even Babe's producer and director, George Miller, succumbed to the CGI craze with his current hit Happy Feet. But Babe's more subtle type of sorcery promises to make a comeback with the new version of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.

The makers of this live-action Charlotte's Web (opening Dec. 15) have striven to be far truer to the original than the 1973 cartoon feature, which featured banal songs like "Chin Up" and "I Can Talk!" With the ever-magical Dakota Fanning as Fern and Julia Roberts supplying the voice of Charlotte, the spider who takes over the protection of Fern's pet pig, Wilbur, the movie promises to express what Eudora Welty thought the book was all about: "friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time."

Plus, it boasts that virtuoso of weaselly character parts, Steve Buscemi, as Templeton the rat, under the direction of Gary Winick (Tadpole, 13 Going on 30) from a script by Susannah Grant (Ever After, Erin Brockovich) and Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run). With this pedigree, Charlotte's Web may have audiences saying, "Thank you, pig."

Sword and sorcery are in short supply with no Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or Harry Potter film in the offing. But Eragon (opening Dec. 15), the large-scale adaptation of youthful author Christopher Paolini's unexpected 2003 best-seller, may do more than fill the void. It surrounds newcomer Edward Speleers with the likes of Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou and John Malkovich, and its tale of a youthful dragon-rider leading a rebel army against an evil king promises to follow in The Lord of The Rings tradition of making adults feel like kids again - and making kids feel like adults.

After all, flights of imagination can speak to us as directly as topical melodramas. To me, the key line of post-Sept. 11 moviemaking came when Frodo bemoaned being thrust into apocalyptic times, and Gandalf responded: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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