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Eyes of the tiger 

Underdogs go over the top in three holiday releases

A '60s girl group reaches the top, but only after fronting Deena (Beyoncé), a beauty with crossover appeal, and benching the raw sound and plump physique of the more talented Effie (Jennifer Hudson). This movie stars Beyoncé.  Does no one see the irony in this?  

As the top-billed chanteuse of DREAMGIRLS, Beyoncé wears a fabulous wardrobe of '60s and '70s wigs and gowns, but her acting is timid. Hudson, who made her name on American Idol, steals the movie right out from under her as the diva who sabotages her roiling talent with a bad attitude. Jamie Foxx is cast as an amoral hustler, but seems wary of acting too villainous and ruining his newly minted leading man cred. Eddie Murphy propels his scenes as James Thunder Early with a feral intensity. A singer too down and dirty to play the Copa, he's soon buried by more commercial (whiter) pop music.

Thankfully, Dreamgirls, which was a boffo Broadway play 25 years ago with a legendary performance by Jennifer Holliday as Effie, does not follow the well trod triumph over adversity story arc of Ray and Walk the Line. Instead, it's about failure, the shadowy side of fame. The pastiche score of R&B, Motown and disco sounds is convincing, but devolves into one power ballad after another (with one new tune especially added to boost Beyoncé). American Idol confirms the public's insatiable thirst for these anthems, but enough already.

Dreamgirls attempts to reinvent the musical form by confining most of the singing to staged shows, but more resembles an operetta in its paucity of non-sung dialogue. With Foxx's fire tamped down and Beyoncé posing prettily in skintight satin and glittery caftans, the hungrier Hudson and Murphy dominate Dreamgirls. —Laura Boyes

Dreamgirls opens Monday.

click to enlarge He can float, but can he sting? Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa - PHOTO BY JOHN BRAMLEY
  • Photo by John Bramley
  • He can float, but can he sting? Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa

It is no grand revelation to observe the parallels between the fictional life of Rocky Balboa and the undulating career arc of his creator, Sylvester Stallone. For more than an hour of ROCKY BALBOA, the sixth installment in the film series, the franchise nearly stages its greatest comeback, successfully situating itself as an elegy for a faded icon (both boxer and actor) and a dying sport.

As written and directed by Stallone, we witness a middle-aged Italian Stallion subsisting off his faded glory and living amongst the ghosts of his past. He wiles away his days holding vigil at the grave of his beloved Adrian, tries to rekindle his relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia), tours the decaying remnants of his South Philly neighborhood with the curmudgeonly Paulie (Burt Young), then dons a dinner jacket and recites old war stories for the amusement of patrons in his Italian eatery. By the time the strains of "Gonna Fly Now" once again blare through the loudspeakers, the syncopation sounds the same but its verve feels more like a dirge.

However, once another recycled training montage (yes, including sparring with sides of beef and chucking down egg yolks) segues into one final (?) fight against the current champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon (played quite adequately by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver), the film loses its focus and spirit. Contrivance and a plague of pop-culture corporate tie-ins—ESPN, HBO, GoldenPalace.com, etc.—wrest away control and the mood of the film, plunging us into one of the more poorly staged of all Balboa's brawls. In the end, the film is not unlike its centerpiece Las Vegas exhibition bout: a meaningless spectacle that fails to advance the Rocky lore. —Neil Morris

Rocky Balboa opens Wednesday.

Charlie's Angels mastermind McG gets serious with WE ARE MARSHALL, his based-on-a-true-story tale of Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, but the results take a genuinely moving true story and impose a traditional "underdogs come together" sports film onto it.

It's a shame, because the original story offers little in the way of inspiring sports moments, but does paint a story of a shattered community rebuilding. The film recounts how in November 1970, a plane crash wiped out most of the Marshall University football team from Huntington, W.V., along with the coaching staff and numerous boosters. Despite an initial decision to cancel the football program, students, Huntington residents and surviving players made a plea to keep it alive, and a replacement team was hastily formed.

The new team wasn't great, but it represented something important to the community—and the film, unfortunately, chooses to focus on recruiting team members, the big game, etc. The emphasis is on quirky new coach Matthew McConaughey and his haunted assistant coach (Matthew Fox from TV's Lost, who looks like he's getting paid by the grimace) soldiering forth amidst heart-rending music and the type of sports montages parodied in Team America, while Huntington itself is only seen through the eyes of a bereaved fiancée (Brokeback Mountain's Kate Mara) and her grieving almost-father-in-law (Deadwood's Ian McShane). Mara and McShane are good actors, but their Moonlight Mile subplot feels disconnected from the rest of the film—even though it's the one major narrative strand directly dealing with the tragedy. Other characters have their "why did I survive" moments, but they're shuffled aside in favor of sports movie clichés.

There's a good story in Marshall, but the simple facts of the real story are more poignant than the film's by-the-numbers melodrama. And why does every film about a small town have someone who wants to go to California? —Zach Smith

We Are Marshall opens Friday.


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