Saturday, May 19, 2007
Dreamgirls (USA, 2006, Bill Condon) and Blood Diamond (USA, 2006, Ed Zwick) are given the old one-two one-two, snicker-snack, and then we all go galumphing back.
Why do we bother? Because they are there.
I am postponing the cooking of supper to be followed by the watching of... Dreamgirls... sigh; goddamn wife hit the video store. She also brought home Blood Diamond, about which I am considerably more enthusiastic. Seen it?
I've seen them both. Dreamgirls is awful, terrible shite. Worse than TV movie of the weak (pun intended). Enjoy. At least Blood Diamond is a step up from the movie of the week fare. Not a great film, with too much emphasis on action (and on the Europeans), not enough on ideas (or the way this all affects Africans). But Leo's good, Jennifer Connelly is beautiful and the African playing opposite them, Djimon Hounsou, whom I've liked since Amistad, steals the show.
Shoot me! Not since my brother dragged me to Dune, and then immediately afterwards in an attempt to erase it, Cotten Club, have I been subjected to such a hellish double bill. I write this review as a desperate purgative, an enema after. Your cursory comments beforehand were right on the money and I cannot generate any new wealth, but I have to spend your earnings just to cleanse myself, a spa for my mind.
While it is far from my favorite form, I am not hostile to the musical. There are a handful that I know and like. As little thought that I've given it, the fundamental difference between the MGM paradigm and the next generation has nothing to do with whether or not Hollywood adapted an existing Broadway production. For both periods, this went on in some cases and in other cases Hollywood generated its own properties directly. So I'm reckoning that the problem with DG has nothing to do with it being a film adaptation from the stage. (On the other hand...) What seems to me to be the difference between the MGM heyday and the subsequent period is the that book of the former was always escapist claptrap about romance and show business itself and blah blah, whereas the latter took its stories from classical literature or real historical events or at least a genuine period setting. So I'm reckoning that the problem with DG has nothing to do with it being an instance of the latter. (On the other hand...)
On the other hand number one, I reckon the problem with DG has everything to do with it being a film adaptation from the stage. Simply put, where's the dancing? I have no knowledge about the original stage production. Perhaps it has no dancing. But if it doesn't, I am prepared to say that the original stage production was a violation of the form, possibly the result of the theatre being mis-conditioned by a certain filmic conception, who knows? My point is that "The Musical" absolutely requires dancing as much as singing in order for it not to degenerate into a mere revue, a half-assed cabaret act that truncates the whole aesthetic of the musical.
Ah, but perhaps it will be countered that there is no place for dancing in DG given it's historical subject matter. The choreography of their live shows aside, the Motown story is fundamentally about a sound coming out of a radio, right, hit records and pop charts? The Supremes and Barrry Gordie and all that is a matter of music, pure and simple, correct?
To side with this argument would be to import from content in order to justify form and as dialectically groovy as this might seem, when it comes to the musical form, the argument is bunk. No dancing, no musical. And if you are going to go for an alternative hybrid form that disposes with either dancing or singing, then it is mandatory to fill the gap with what is basic to either the play form, dialogue, or the cinema, images - neither of which DG offers in the slightest.
On the other hand number two, the historical subject matter of DG is ultimately what bites the show on its own ass. The music in DG doesn't just suck, it really sucks because it is offensively anachronistic. It may appear that the dreadful music is the result of sacrificing any fidelity to Motown on behalf of a slavish devotion to the Broadway show tune. This is not incorrect but it is too direct. The point is that the death of solid Tin Pan Alley writing for the musical was long upon us when DG was created and the infection of the Andrew Lloyd Weber all-bluster shown tune into post-Motown/pre-rap "urban contemporary" female pop was the commercial norm. In short, fucking DG is a fucking Whitney Houston record that will not shut the fuck up!
I had "You Can't Hurry Love" on the turntable even before the credits rolled for DG. A few tunes later, we had moved from Motown to Stax and Atlantic. By the time Areatha was covering Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," thank god, the dream was over. And another thing, I know you told me you saw Jamie Foxx do good work in some movie, but if I have to see that motherfucker in one more the-story-of-negro-melody movies, I'm writing him off.
Turning to BD, this is Rambo for liberals. It falls somewhere between something as good as Salvador and something as bad as (I'm guessing) Black Hawk Down. Yes, it's nice to see DiCapprio continue to widen his range and as the man in the process of unseating Tom Cruise from his throne, he is proving himself to be the superior thespian. Yes, Jennifer Connelly is my type and she does what she is supposed to do here, in a part for a woman which is refreshingly well written; indeed, some of the hardball dialogue between the two of them is satisfying as much for it's critical consideration of the foreign 5th Estate in the situation as for it being a matter of flirtation. And yes, Hounsou was good, especially considering he spends a lot of the film trotting silently next to Leo, when he does get to explode with passion, he makes the most of it. But this movie is a hunk of junk.
The excessive action, I criticize it only in passing for being sensationalistic violence and a diversion from entering into the social substance of the history. BD is yet another example of Hollywood reducing reality to an atmospheric backdrop for personal drama. The film is not crassly exploitative but it remains product that cannot advance anyone's political intelligence, it's goody two-shoes moralism notwithstanding. Suffice to say that the best line in the film is delivered by a walk-by character, an old man who says about the diamonds in his nation, "we better hope they never discover oil". Meanwhile, the whole focus on "smuggling" and "war zones" as the source of the problem, the message that illegalism and corruption are at fault, that under "regular" conditions of capitalist production and trade African diamond mining is non-problematic; well, BD ain't no Darwin's Nightmare.
But you know, the excessive action, I criticize it also for being the lame glue of the narrative. The plot becomes quite implausible as the films progresses. I will not get into details unless you reply that you need me to provide them. They go from one scene-with-dialogue to the next in ways that are geographically contrived and it seems to me this is supposed to be made credible by interspersing scenes-without-dialogue throughout. Simply put, the action is a cover for bad story-boarding. A lot of the edits would show themselves to be narrative gaps if not for the holes of the swiss cheese being filled by gun play and car races. We accept all of this chronologically and in so doing are sold a geographic load of bullocks.
This is accompanied by the standard ruse of films that fail to show us what we need to see to make sense of the story, the characters must tell us. At least we do not have to endure a voice-over but still, it's lame how often in BD one character tells another character something the other character would already know, in fact, to inform the audience. Perhaps the most offensive example of this is when they are flying away from the refugee camp where they have located the man's family excpt his son, whereupon the journalist explains to the man why he is even in the airplane and not with his family at the camp. But this speaks to the whole business about the man and his son, which is supposed to be the key to his motivation and is therefore central to the plot and is therefore central to the moralism of the story - the whole business is clunky and mechanical in the extreme. I don't know if this could have been done in an acceptable way but I do know that any serious attempt would have to begin by putting Hounsou's character in the first violinist's chair and DiCapprio's in the second fiddler's seat.
Can't have that though. Might involve seriously entering into the social substance of the history. So it is that stories that are supposed to ring true ring false when told by people who regard other people's reality as so much raw material for their own fantasies. Forget about Salvador or Black Hawk Down. BD reminded me of Indiana Jones in the end.
Don't get me started on Black Hawk down. Rarely has a film simultaneously pissed me off with it's irresponsibility and impressed me with its technical expertise. The films of Leni R., perhaps?
You can trust me. I won't ask for detailed deconstruction of the offending scenes, particularly when there are so many you could fill a book. And to what purpose? It would be a giant waste of your energy, when we both know the truth about these films. I'm not so deluded as to believe that such a detailed critique would have an effect on either film's fan base. Nor would it much affect either film's critical reps. But that both can boast that they were Oscar-nominated (not as best film, mind you, but still) tells you how firmly (not to mention botox-riddled) middle-brow old Hollywood is. Yes, the music in Dreamgirls was awful, as were the performances. You single out Foxx, who is clearly on medication throughout. Compare this to the work he did in Collateral (and I thought you had seen this--it's the film where Tom Cruise plays the cold-blooded ruthless assassin who forces Foxx to ferry him around L.A. from one hit to the next) and the mind boggles. But the beauty of Dreamgirls is that EVERYBODY sucks equally and uniformly. I mean shit, Eddie Murphy got nominated for THIS? Fuck, his work in Daddy Daycare is more convincing and entertaining. Beyonce is supposed to be Diana Ross? Wha...? Jennifer Hudson (another Oscar nom here) shrieks and screams like a demon throughout. Somebody needs to show here where the on-off switch is. And the whole decades passing over the course of an hour is painful to watch in its clumsiness. One clunker of a scene after another,a deathly procession of ineptitude. Probably the worst film I saw last year.
Which is why I'm not going to be quite so hard on Blood Diamond, though, like you I decry it's Euro-centrism, it's over-reliance on action sequences and evasion of some (most) of the really important issues of the whole diamond-mining business in Africa. But at least the actors were pulling their weight, and despite the awkwardness of the whole father-saving-son narrative that backended the story, I was at least emotionally engaged by the characters (again, probably most credit should go to the actors, not the director or script) enough to care about how the whole thing was gonna play out. A flawed film, but at least not an inept one.