Anika Noni Rose, Beyonce Knowles, and Jennifer Hudson in DreamgirlsDREAMGIRLS

You may have heard that, in the middle of Bill Condon's Dreamgirls, former American Idol belter Jennifer Hudson lets loose with a power ballad that has the audience cheering and applauding at its finish. If the screening I attended is any indication, this rumor is untrue. The audience cheers and applauds the number way before Hudson's finale. And no one in their right mind could blame them.

There's always something a little bizarre about hearing applause in a movie theatre. (We all know that the filmmakers and performers can't hear us.) But there's also something incredibly touching about the sound, as it's a reminder that applause doesn't merely signal enjoyment, but gratitude, and I - and many of my fellow audience members - could not have been more grateful for Hudson's staggering, mid-film performance. As she tore through her rendition of Dreamgirls' show-stopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" - the wailing, achingly heartfelt vocals of Hudson's Effie eliciting applause three separate times before the song ended - the movie auditorium housed the sort of electric charge that (if you're lucky) you occasionally feel during a live performance; it felt as if we alone would be witness to this unrepeatable musical miracle.

We wouldn't be, of course. Every audience for Dreamgirls - and I assume that will end up including many, many people - will experience the exact same, shiveringly fine performance and will probably find themselves equally moved to applaud. And not for the last time. This adaptation of the long-running Broadway show, a slightly fictionalized take on the musical ascension of Diana Ross and the Supremes (here called the Dreams), is filled with scenes in which you feel - as Hudson's solo demonstrates - that your emotions are uncontainable. Eddie Murphy, portraying a precursor to the late James Brown, attacks his numbers with a revitalized ferocity; Beyoncé Knowles - who spends most of the film doing an appropriately passive take on the Diana Ross mystique - eventually lets loose with an unexpectedly devastating demand for respect in a new song, "Listen"; the reunited Dreams gather at the finale to finally, truly enjoy the adoration of their fans. Dreamgirls is filled with more memorable moments than any fan of movie musicals, in this day and age, has the right to expect, and it has been exquisitely well-designed.

But, God, how I wish the movie itself were better. In trying to cover some 20 years of musical history in the span of two-plus hours, Condon has taken on an almost obscene challenge with this project, and it makes sense that the writer/director has to rely on the cinematic shorthand of montage to pull it off; we're often witness to the passing of years in less than a minute's worth of screen time. Yet the frequent chronological leapfrogging leads to occasional incoherence in plotting: Effie and the Dreams' snaky manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), begin to have relationship problems almost before the audience is aware of their having a relationship; Effie tells us that she drank away a half-million dollars when we've never seen her take so much as a sip of booze; Anika Noni Rose (a sensationally vibrant performer), in her role as the Dreams' Lorrell, goes from giggling chanteuse to put-upon matron in record time. We spend too much time in Dreamgirls playing catch-up with the storytelling, or filling in the blanks where the storytelling fails us.

Yet the bigger problem is that Condon didn't really find a way to lick this material as a movie musical. Film is an inherently realistic medium and musicals are inherently unrealistic, and for Dreamgirls' first half hour or so, it seems as through Condon has figured out a way to present the songs without the convention appearing alienating; instead of having characters spontaneously burst into song, the numbers are delivered as actual performances in front of audiences, or as rehearsals that segue seamlessly into their eventual live presentation. But roughly 40 minutes into the film, Condon switches tracks, and has the people on-screen begin talking - or rather, shouting - at each other in melodic, rhymed verse, and the change is incredibly disorienting; it's as though a new director showed up and picked up where Condon left off. From that point on, the movie vacillates between the two styles, never with any rhyme or reason, and it begins to look as clunky as Chris Columbus' Rent. The musical numbers are staged with finesse - they're not hyperactively edited, as similar sequences were in Chicago - but Condon's "book" scenes have a flat, TV-movie dullness about them; despite excellent work from the film's actors (among them Danny Glover, Hinton Battle, and Keith Robinson), the passages in which characters don't sing threaten to stop the movie in its tracks.

Considering the power of the musical numbers, though, this remains a mere threat. Dreamgirls may not be the great movie musical many of us were hoping it would be - Moulin Rouge remains the lone 21st Century endeavor to lay claim to that title - but it's a very, very good one, and when you get the chance to experience performances the likes of which are given by Hudson, Murphy, and (for that one unforgettable moment) Knowles, complaining about the film's weaknesses seems petty. Go, enjoy, and feel no weirdness about applauding; Dreamgirls is worthy of our gratitude.


Michael Gambon and Matt Damon in The Good ShepherdTHE GOOD SHEPHERD

Matt Damon has become the cagiest of actors, which makes him an ideal lead for Robert De Niro's epic CIA drama The Good Shepherd. In his smart, shrewd action-pic performances as Matthew Bourne, half of the fun lies in watching Damon's mind racing to stay two steps ahead of the plot, and the performer is similarly inscrutable here as CIA head Edward Wilson, whose silences become emblematic of an entire shadowy organization for which the revealing of information - factual or emotional - can be a fatal mistake. De Niro's film, with a canny script by Eric Roth, spans four decades of political intrigue, and while the pacing of this 150-minute work is deliberate, I'm not sure that it's ever dull. By taking a nuts-and-bolts approach to espionage, De Niro makes the intricacies of bureaucracy endlessly involving - like Wilson, you keep feeling you're this close to unraveling the movie's many mysteries - and splendid actors such as Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, William Hurt, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, and the director himself are always on-hand to keep you riveted. Granted, the film's women are treated poorly - Tammy Blanchard has little to play but an image of paradise lost, and Angelina Jolie, after a lively entrance, is all but forgotten. But even this relative failing makes narrative sense, as the CIA of the '50s and '60s was a distinct boy's club; the film's male characters aren't much interested in the women around them. The Good Shepherd - which seems to me the season's most unjustly neglected film - is spectacularly involving, and while it's chock-full of clandestine meetings and hush-hush encounters, I wish that the movie's greatness, at least, wasn't being kept such a secret.

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