The Christmas blizzard at full force, and no sign of letup: Dreamgirls. Broadway backstage musical -- not, that is to say, backstage on Broadway but backstage in Motown -- charting the breakthrough of R&B into the pop mainstream in the Sixties, more specifically the rise of a girl group called the Dreams (rhymes with Supremes), and attendant heartbreaks, breakups, downfalls, and assorted other banalities. True, a musical can get away with a banal storyline if the music is good, but these Broadway-ized soul tunes are as insipid as they are incessant. It seems it's not easy to write another "Where Did Our Love Go?," another "Come See about Me," another "My World Is Empty without You," another "You Can't Hurry Love." And the one familiar number, the one unforgotten number, the big abandonment solo of former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson (big voice, big figure), screams out for earplugs if not a muzzle. Neither is it easy, evidently, to be another Aretha Franklin. Beyoncé Knowles looks glamorous enough as the Diana Ross diva who metamorphoses into disco queen Donna Summer (under the Svengalian guidance of the Berry Gordy stand-in, Jamie Foxx); and the period clothes and hairdos -- something near a beehive on Eddie Murphy when we first meet him, higher and higher than Jackie Wilson -- are enjoyable as expected. Writer and director Bill Condon, who adapted the screenplay for Chicago but whose own directing credits run to Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, shows it's not easy to be Stanley Donen.
The Good German. A nostalgist's film noir, one more black-and-white postwar thriller, over a half-century tardy in its arrival, for the buff who has run through Crossfire, Cornered, Notorious, The Stranger, Berlin Express, and Captain Carey, U.S.A. , among numerous others, and who still has a hunger. Reassuring archaisms, such as the 4:3 aspect ratio for the opening credits (afterwards widened only to 1.66:1, it looks like) or the blatant rear-screen projection behind a stationary moving car, coexist uneasily with latter-day liberties in matters of sex and profanity. Steven Soderbergh, who has dabbled in black-and-white before (most of Kafka, most of his sequence in Eros, but never till now whole hog), knows where to place the low angles and inky shadows, though he doesn't know so well how to maintain pace and flow. George Clooney, who has also had black-and-white experience in his self-directed Good Night, and Good Luck, fits right in, thanks to his "classical" movie-star good looks, scuffed up a bit in repeated beatings; and Cate Blanchett, as a Berlin prostitute with a presumed-dead but intensively sought husband, seems to be able to adapt herself to anything, including the German language with English subtitles.
We Are Marshall. Triumph-over-tragedy true story about the resurrection from literal ashes -- a 1970 plane crash -- of the Marshall University football team, the Thundering Herd, in the small West Virginia steel town of Huntington. A golden opportunity, obviously, for filmmaker McG (Charlie's Angels and its sequel) to expand his heart if not his name. For the purpose, he adopts a closeup-happy style that seeks to squeeze every drop of emotion from his actors, like grapes in a winepress. Admittedly, the spreading of the bad news and the immediate responses to it deliver a can't-miss punch. Once past that, however, the movie turns tragedy not so much into triumph as into triteness: the underdog formula. (See, from earlier this football season, Gridiron Gang and Invincible.) A somewhat goofy Matthew McConaughey plays the foolhardy volunteer coach, the only man in town -- an outsider, duly noted -- who sports the gaudy plaid pants and jackets of the period; and David Strathairn is the saturnine straight man, the beleaguered college president who persuades the NCAA to relax its strict rule (ancient history, now) against the use of freshmen in varsity athletics. On that score, it's a seeming oversight that no mention is made of the standing class of freshmen (Class of '74) who wouldn't have been travelling with the team and would be an eligible class of sophomores the following year. Another oversight, or blind spot, in the game action, is the blissful unawareness that a fumble in college football at that time (more ancient history) could not be advanced by the recovering player unless plucked out of midair before it hit the ground.
The Painted Veil. Somerset Maugham's middlebrow brew of sin and redemption among colonial Brits in mid-Twenties China, where a brave bacteriologist but vindictive cuckold (Edward Norton) drags his faithless spouse (Naomi Watts) into the midst of a cholera outbreak in the backcountry. The spiritual growth of the flighty wife ("When love and duty are one," counsels the Mother Superior at the local orphanage, "then grace is within you") will restore sufficient happiness to the union, not long before its tragic end, that the husband can stop plastering down his hair and go fluffy. Directed by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, also featuring Watts), this follows after at least two other screen treatments of the novel -- the better known of which is one of the lesser Garbo vehicles -- and, for all its location shooting and its air of "independence," it's still stiff and stuffy. Much of that is intrinsic to the original author, and some of it's imported through the stagy British accents of the stars.
The History Boys. Alan Bennett's much-decorated theater piece comes to the screen with its original stage director and cast intact: Nicholas Hytner, that would be, and Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore, Frances de la Tour, et al. A permanent record, as it were, further decorated, for the occasion, with extraneous bits of rockin' musical accompaniment and jumpy cutting. The blue-y, icy, ashy palette, meantime, rather curiously resembles Martin Scorsese's imitation in The Aviator of the antique two-color process. It seems safe to assume that the color in the stage version was more lifelike. As to the content: the foreignness of the British school system -- an octet of Oxbridge candidates prepped by a trio of tutors -- will be easy enough for American viewers to grasp, though the Yorkshire accents will present them with persistent difficulties. The two male teachers -- the portly old quotation-dropping, education-made-fun one and the lean young results-oriented one -- each have more than a teacherly interest in the lads, but that is thankfully not the main focus. It's just another element in the composition. To say what might actually be the main focus presents its own difficulties. (Both teaching methods have their pros and cons. The only viable antagonist is the stiff-necked and overacted Headmaster. And the lads, while physically well differentiated, are democratically indistinct as personalities.) It might be easier just to say the focus is diffuse.