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Unwrapping The Reels

Holiday films come in all sizes

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The year-end holiday releases are still arriving at a rapid clip, yet the seasonal surprise is that, for all the big-budget, high-profile titles in this week's crop, the best of the bunch turns out to be a small, unassuming documentary that's literally music to the ears.

Hardly the comprehensive Motown documentary that many music fans might be expecting, Standing In the Shadows of Motown is nevertheless terrific entertainment, a captivating movie that pays tribute to a group of largely unknown musicians collectively known as The Funk Brothers. Basically Berry Gordy's "house band" during the heyday of the Detroit sound, these men backed up such Motown luminaries as Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as they produced hit after hit between 1959 and 1972. Director Paul Justman (miles removed from his first directing credit, something called T&A Academy 2) doesn't rely simply on talking heads, though in this instance that would have been entirely justified, given the rich anecdotes spun by the surviving musicians; instead, he mixes present-day interviews with archival photos, a few dramatic reenactments and footage from a recent concert in which most of the Funk Brothers reunited (legendary bass player James Jamerson is among those who has passed away) to play Motown classics fronted by the likes of Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins and Joan Osborne (soaring through a lovely version of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted"). Curiously, Gordy's rocky relationship with his employees is treated with kid gloves, but this is a mere quibble when juxtaposed against the film's utter success in bringing alive the music of Motown -- and the memories of the men who orchestrated its success behind the scenes.

There's no hemming and hawing on projects like Gangs of New York, those epic undertakings that result in inflated budgets, overlong shoots, studio bickering, and reams of newspaper copy predicting failure (see Apocalypse Now and Titanic). A quick answer is all but required by curious moviegoers: yes or no? In the case of Martin Scorsese's 170-minute achievement -- hell, yeah. The bad news for Miramax is that it's unlikely such a grim picture will make back its $100 million cost, especially at Christmastime. Instead, the studio will have to console itself with the fact that it has produced one of the year's most notable films, a historical drama that presents a compelling revenge yarn set against the backdrop of New York in the mid-19th century, with an explosive climax that brings the draft riots of 1863 to chilling life. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a strong-willed kid who seeks to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson), the leader of a borough's immigrant crop, at the hands of "Bill the Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis), the brutal yet clever ruler of the "natives." It'd be a mistake to dismiss this as a period Death Wish -- there's genuine tension in Amsterdam's mission, and Scorsese and his crackerjack team spare no expense in immersing us in what amounts to a grungy hell on earth. DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are both solid, yet it's Day-Lewis' riveting work in an unexpectedly complex role that puts New York over the top.

Last year's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring proved to be one of those rare films that actually improves with each viewing; that may turn out to be the case with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers as well. After an initial watch, however, this second chapter doesn't quite match the majesty of its predecessor, though that's hardly meant as a knock -- a rousing, far-reaching spectacle of unlimited ambition, TTT scores on enough fronts to ensure that it will ice the rest of the holiday competition. But whereas Fellowship did a nice job of balancing quieter moments with the bombast, this installment is largely all action all the time, with the few expository scenes practically presented as asides (too many good actors -- Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto -- are given short shrift in this outing); what's more, the movie doesn't deepen or expand the tale's themes as masterfully as The Empire Strikes Back added to Star Wars's mystique. But as a stirring story of unsullied heroism, it's a winner, and as an action epic, it creams the competition, providing some of the best battle sequences ever created on film. And while the planned campaign to win a Supporting Actor Oscar for the CGI-created Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) seems far-reaching, he turns out to be the best special effect in a movie crammed with them.

"But what I really want to do is direct" is an age-old adage that has seemingly fallen from the lips of every Hollywood employee from screenwriter to key grip, but because of their clout, it's the members of the acting profession who get to realize this fantasy the most. December will see the directorial debuts of George Clooney and Nicolas Cage, but first it's Denzel Washington's turn with Antwone Fisher. Washington doesn't do a damn thing fancy in his first at-bat behind the camera, and that turns out to be his strong suit. The screenplay's the story here, and Washington gets out of its way, letting his actors (including himself) relate it simply and honestly without feeling the need to gum it up with show-off stylistics. Antwone Fisher wrote the script, based on his own life story, and he and Washington luck out by having an engaging newcomer named Derek Luke handle the heavy lifting. This talented young actor gives his all in this drama about a troubled sailor whose anti-social behavior brings him into contact with a Navy psychiatrist (Washington) who eventually helps him get to the root of his emotional problems. Luke enjoys an easy rapport with his co-stars (his romantic interludes opposite the bright Joy Bryant are especially pleasing), and the film's Psychology Lite is effective enough that we buy into the satisfying resolution.

Devotees of Gene Roddenberry's baby will want to apply their own four-star rating to Star Trek: Nemesis, even more so since it's the first ST motion picture in four years and, depending on the grosses, might be the final Enterprise outing to be produced for the big screen (much has been made of the poster's tagline, "A Generation's Final Journey Begins"). More casual fans, on the other hand, will likely find this 10th chapter in the sci-fi saga to be a diverting amusement that doesn't quite rank with the best in the series. If this is indeed the final flick, it goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper but somewhere in between: draggy in some spots, exciting in others (the final half-hour especially delivers the goods), the plot concerns itself with the battle of wills between Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart, commanding as always) and Shinzon (Tom Hardy), an enigmatic figure who turns out to be Picard's corrupt clone. In addition to returning as Data, Brent Spiner co-wrote the script with ST mainstay Rick Berman and Gladiator scribe John Logan, and the trio made sure to include several surprises for the Trekkie contingent, including a few cameos, a wedding between two principals, and an unexpected send-off for one major character. It's enough to keep the loyalists satisfied until somebody comes up with the next major Trek enterprise.

The romantic comedy Maid In Manhattan obviously wants to be Jennifer Lopez's own monogrammed version of Pretty Woman, but the end product is more like Pretty Woeful. As far as actor-singers go, Lopez isn't rancid like, say, Madonna -- she hits her marks and conveys the proper emotions -- but as a vibrant on-screen personality, there's simply no there there, resulting in characters about as flavorful as tepid tap water. In Maid, from a story by Home Alone writer John Hughes (no surprise) and directed by Smoke's Wayne Wang (big surprise), she plays a hotel employee who, in one of those "mistaken identity" crises that were pulled off with more elan by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers back in the day, finds herself wooed by a compassionate Republican (or is that an oxymoron?) who erroneously believes she's another hotel guest. Ralph Fiennes plays this politician, and it's nice to see the tormented star of The English Patient and Red Dragon in a more relaxed mode; otherwise, this unimaginative effort moves with martinet precision through the usual cringe-worthy circumstances, including the expected moment where Lopez and her sisters-in-service shimmy to the Golden Oldie Flavor of the Month. In this case, it's Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out," though reaction to the movie itself brings to mind an earlier Ross tune: "Run, Run, Run."

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