As if to carry on Hollywood's trivializing falsification of black music history this year, Dreamgirls picks up the baton from Idlewild, and runs with it. And I do mean runs -- before even hitting the fifteen-minute mark, Bill Condon's much-anticipated version of the Broadway favorite has already zipped past effigies of The Shirelles, The Platters and B.B. King before settling on its target, namely a 1960s group modeled so shamelessly on The Supremes that Diana Ross reportedly stormed out before the end of the first act at the show's 1981 premiere. Condon sat all the way through, however, and is here determined to puff that slender showbiz-glitz museum piece up to Oscar-season dimensions. Indeed, Oscar buzz has been around the project like Entertainment Tonight mosquitoes, aimed in particular at Jennifer Hudson's performance as the head singer of the movie's hollow proxy for The Supremes (The Dreamettes), who, modeled on the original group's tragic Florence Ballard, gets dumped in favor of Beyoncé Knowles, a skinnier, lighter-piped (and lighter-skinned) backup warbler as their Berry Gordyesque Svengali (Jamie Foxx) arranges the crossover from ghettoized "race records" to mainstream (white, that is) listeners. Hudson's belting of that vintage, masochist staple "And I'm Telling You I Am Not Going" keeps being described by eager-beaver reviewers as a shuddering thunderbolt, but it's really just an avid performer's calculated hysteria, like having the singer fall on you repeatedly; the character's rise and fall (and rise) have been lined with added underdog cachet by Hudson's own real-life drama as an American Idol reject, so that steamrolling media hype has long filled the hole where true emotion should have been.
Condon adapted Bob Fosse's revue for Rob Marshall in 2002, and his previous Kinsey had one sequence (tiny heads proliferating across an animated map to Ella Fitzgerald's torchy "Too Darn Hot") that boasted unmistakable zest for music. Dreamgirls, however, is less this year's Chicago than its Memoirs of a Geisha, a big-top blender churning out synthetic pap for audiences who prefer their minorities glamorously subjugated in clichés; Condon's indifference to black pop is as ruinous as Marshall's racial insensitivity, with his staging of (processed, forgettable) musical numbers as half-assed as his stab at placing the plastic saga on a larger canvas. History? The camera whooshes for about a second over a Vietnam headline during the gang's magical mystery tour, the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. is mixed in with the rest of the continuous noise while, absurdly, Hudson at one point steps out of the recording studio and into a Detroit riot full of silhouettes screaming "Burn it!" The ways racial tensions paved the road to Motown cannot hold Condon's montage-happy gaze as much as glossily reductive mashing of The Jackson Five, Little Richard, and Ike Turner, with the last two marshaled into yet another Academy Award grab by Eddie Murphy's hot-dog cartoon of an aging barnstormer, a cyclonic caricature with far less soul than his SNL portrayal of Gumby, dammit. (Rest in peace, James Brown, your genius is safe.) For the rest, it's a lackluster slog toward disco-era dramatics and the consolidation of the project's fag-hag fandom, with Beyoncé giving nothing more than a flipbook of CD-cover poses. Dreamgirls is a musical for people who've forgotten how to listen, and how to feel.
For all the talk of forceful divas, Condon's interest in female strength in Dreamgirls amounts to a self-stroking desire to replicate the camp inanities of Mahogany and Streisand's A Star Is Born. Pedro Almodóvar is another auteur whose queer eye feasts on eruptions of womanhood, and in Volver, his new work, he name-checks his own cinematic duo (Mildred Pierce arcanely, Visconti's Bellissima explicitly). Let's not get the two filmmakers mixed up -- when Penélope Cruz here is interrupted in the middle of a corpse-cleaning passage and dispels suspicions (and excuses the smear of blood on her swan neck) with an unfazed remark about "women's troubles," we're on an altogether different plateau of feminine adoration. Cruz is introduced, along with practically the rest of the female population in her small La Mancha town, in the graveyard washing the tomb of her mother (Carmen Maura), who died in a fire a few years earlier. Fitting tradition for a place where women outlive and outnumber the fellas and cheek-smooching greetings are amplified into sonic motifs. Cruz and her hairdresser sister (Lola Dueñas) visit their elderly aunt (peppery Almodóvar axiom Chus Lampreave, now poignantly gray and wobbly), who insists she still chats with Maura. (When Dueñas says the aunt cannot even recognize them anymore, Cruz figures that it must be "the wind.") The fact, however, is that Maura does materialize, first during a funeral and then inside Dueñas's car trunk, needing a dye job and to settle unfinished business; Cruz, meanwhile, finds herself suddenly running an abandoned restaurant, with her no-good husband's body stashed in the freezer.
Magical-realist stuff, but done with casual matter-of-factness, like Cruz giving birth in the back of a bus in Live Flesh. It has been nearly a decade since, and both the actress and the director have by now settled comfortably into each other's rhythms, with Almodóvar's late-mid-career mellowness both molding and drawing from Cruz's warmth and emotional ampleness. Volver is Spanish for "return": the mother's return from the dead, Maura's return to Almodóvar's screen following their split 17 years ago, and the auteur's return to the La Mancha of his birth and to the matriarchal worlds of his two most popular hits, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother. Also a return "to form," according to critics who prefer soothing dramedy to punk agitation. (A "comeback" from what? Bad Education?) The plot is studded with buried secrets, murderous jealousy and, above all, the specter of death, yet all of it is tempered by the filmmaker's fond embracing of life's absurdities and sublimities -- a rather peaceful sense that can blunt the sting of even as signature a moment as Cruz sitting on the toilet with her panties pulled down to her ankles, sensing her mother's presence by smelling her farts. Has Almodóvar been tamed? Volver has a provincial timelessness that's very different from the urban turbulence of Law of Desire, yet the emotions beneath the lush surfaces are scarcely less intense, its joy jostling just as much with sorrow. It is not Almodóvar's material that's changed over the years, but his attitude toward it -- surer and calmer and, fine, less fiery, yet should The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie be downgraded just for not being L'Age d'Or? Almodóvar's maturity navigates not only the thin lines between comedy and drama and between body and spirit, but also between rebellion and acceptance.
None of that girly stuff for The Good Shepherd -- Robert De Niro's trudging account of the birth of the CIA envisions its rigorously glum, manly business as the only gateway to worthiness, a view of art that goes back at least to Frank S. Nugent flatly declaring The Informer superior to Liebelei on principles alone. Seen after the ripe, emotional hues of Volver, the film's drained color scheme is particularly deadening, as befits the narrative of the secret agent (Matt Damon) whose humanity slowly (slooooowly) erodes as conspirational dread and institutionalized distrust are erected around him. The protagonist learns to snitch on his loved ones, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 gets botched due to internal leaks, there is a "stranger in our house"; there are muddled whispers and muffled cameos, even Angelina Jolie is set aside for the uniquely uncinematic spectacle of the hardening of Damon's boxy mug. De Niro's previous A Bronx Tale was alive with life-worn details, though his directing here merely heightens the lugubrious sprawl of Eric Roth's screenplay, which hints at everything and characterizes nothing. De Niro surely must have learned direction from working with Scorsese, so it's a shame that he didn't take a look at The Departed, where the trickery of underground surveillance and Damon's blockiness were employed for corrosive farce rather than serpentine self-importance. "Deception, not self-deception," in Martin Sheen's words.
Reviewed December 29, 2006.