Sunday, May 19, 2013

CHICAGO (2002)


CHICAGO was the first musical since 1968's OLIVER! to win best picture, and its victory marked the full blown return of the once all but forgotten genre of the Hollywood musical.  And while the film certainly owes a debt to the classic musicals of early decades, its darker tone and unlikable characters  (not to mention its more realistic way of introducing musical numbers) marks it as a decidedly different kind of musical.  As a fan of musicals, I'm glad they made a comeback, especially in such the  high kicking style of this enormously entertaining film.
The history of recent movie musicals is definitely an interesting one: for decades, they were often box office gold for the studios.  From the Astaire-Rogers films of the 30's all the way to the smash hit GREASE in 1978, they seemed unstoppable.  But in the '80's, they all but disappeared; part of this may have been because 1982 saw the release of ANNIE and the inevitable GREASE sequel, GREASE 2,  both highly promoted films that tanked at the box office.  Another reason may have been the rise in popularity of MTV, which brought new music and singing (or lip syncing) stars right into people's homes, saving them a trip to the theater. To a new generation of film goers, the idea of paying to see a musical in a movie theater seemed silly.  Oh sure, films like FLASH DANCE (1983) and FOOTLOOSE (1984) would feature lots of music and dancing, but there would be no spontaneous bursting into song, none of the sudden break with reality that the old musicals featured that now seemed passe'. In 1992, the Disney studio tried to revive the musical with NEWSIES, and the result was another flop. (Ironically, NEWSIES would eventually become a successful broadway show). Except for the singing in animated films,  the musical seemed dead in Hollywood.   That changed in 2001 when Baz Luhrmann's wild, lurid MOULIN ROUGE! was a box office success.  Meanwhile, a revival of Bob Fosse's CHICAGO was a huge, surprise hit on Broadway.
The story of CHICAGO began as a stage play back in 1926; written by Maurine Watkins, its story was based on real life murder trials covered by Watkins as reporter for the Chicago Tribune.  It became a silent film in 1927, and then another movie called ROXIE HART in 1942, featuring Ginger Rogers in the title role.  In the 1960's, Gwen Verdon, wife of  legendary Broadway director and choreographer Bob Fosse, read the play and suggested he adapt as a musical.  The show eventually opened on Broadway in 1975, but its initial run was seen as a disappointment.  Fosse planned a movie version in the 1980's, but his death in 1987 ended that, and it looked like the show would be forgotten.  But when that 1996 revival of CHICAGO was a huge success, becoming the third longest running show in Broadway history,  Hollywood could resist musicals no longer!
It was Miramax studios that was considering an adaptation and looking at various directors; Rob Marshall, a choreographer who had directed a well received TV version of ANNIE in 1999, pitched to the studio heads the idea of making most of the musical numbers in the film take place in Roxie's imagination, thereby making the transition from people talking to people singing more natural to modern audiences.  The studio loved the idea, and Marshall got the job, with screenwriter Bill Condon hired to adapt the film.  Renee Zellweger, flying high after her starring role in 2001's BRIDGET JONE'S DIARY, was hired to play Roxie Hart, despite her lack of musical training.  Catherine Zeta Jones, who began her career onstage in British musicals, was cast as Velma Kelly.  After Hugh Jackman turned down the part of shyster lawyer Billy Flynn because he felt he was too young for the role (a decision he later admitted he regretted), Richard Gere won the role.  Although Gere had done musicals before, dancing was new to him, but he and Zellweger worked hard getting themselves in shape for the film, and they both had no trouble winning audiences over.  Made on a budget of around $45,000,000, and buoyed by almost universally positive reviews,  CHICAGO would go on to make a healthy $170,000,000  in the US.

Catherine Zeta Jones

Set in 1924, the film is about Roxie Hart (Zellweger), a young wannabe singer, who shoots and kills her lover Fred (Dominic West) when she finds out he's been lying to her about getting her career started.  While in jail, she meets Velma Kelly (Jones), a famous singer who also shot and killed her husband and sister after catching them in bed together.  Meanwhile, Roxie's sad sack husband, Amos (John C Reilly), hires corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere) to defend her, and Flynn immediately gears up a media campaign to get Roxie off.

The American jazz age of the 1920's has always held a certain fascination for later generations, with its cool clothes, bathtub gin, cameras with popping flashbulbs and speakeasies, and that fascination goes especially for the city of Chicago, with its infamous levels of corruption; the film nails all of that right from the start, with a exciting performance of "All that Jazz" from Catherine Zeta Jones in a loveably seedy jazz joint.  Along with capturing the clothes and styles of the flapper era, the opening scene also establishes how we will see most of the movie's musical numbers inside of Roxie's imagination, (Roxie pictures herself taking Velma's place on stage).  It is immediately apparent just how right director Marshall was in making that decision; not only does the imaginary nature of the music  make watching a musical more accessible for a modern audience, it fits the character of fame obsessed Roxy perfectly; she certainly would see her life as a big on stage show with her, of course,  as the star.  And the cutting between the real world and Roxy's fantasy world is often imaginative and exciting, especially when the hanging execution of female prisoner Hunayak  (Ekaterina Chtchelkanova) is contrast with Roxie picturing the same woman on stage performing a disappearing act with a rope.
Really, I find this film  just a joy to watch; it practically  bursts with  beauty and  excitement and  it's never far from another gorgeously shot production number full of dancing and wildly colored costumes.  And the numbers all have wonderfully realized images, like Billy literally using Roxie as a ventriloquist dummy to mislead the press, whom he also plays like puppets, or Billy leading Roxie into a court room seen as a three ring circus with him as a glittery ring leader.    The songs (with music by John Kandar and lyrics by Fred Ebb) are all catchy and memorable, and each performer, from the leads to the supporting roles, delivers them excellently. My personal favorite number is the "Cell Block Tango", in which the music builds slowly from sounds Roxie hears in her cell into a full blown song; it's sung  forcefully by the six female prisoners, with it's memorable "he had it coming!" chorus, and  it combines Fosse's trademark sexy choreography with dark humor ("You know, some guys just can't hold their arsenic.") into a classic scene.

The Cell Block Tango

All of the performances are good, and I especially like Richard Gene as the slippery Billy Flynn; he's not only sings and dances well, but he terrifically embodies Billy's slick hustler style; I love the way that he has Roxie recount her life story while he spells out exactly how he will spin it for the press, or the way he scoops up the money Amos offers to him to pay for Roxie's legal fees after initially rejecting it.  (The fact that Gere was not even nominated for an Oscar for the role is surprising, especially given that Jones, Zellweger, Reilly and Queen Latifah all were [Jones won]).
If the film has a flaw, it's that its dark and cynical tone goes to far; after all, the film ends with two unrepentant murderers gleefully finding fame and fortune! It is interesting to note that in the other two versions of the film, Roxie's fate is quite different: in the 1927 film she is freed from jail, but forgotten by the press and cast out of her home by her husband.  The movie ends with her seeing a paper with her name in the headline washing down the drain.  And in 1942's ROXIE HART her character turns out to be innocent.  Here, there is no such comeuppance or vindication.  There is really only one character in the film that is sympathetic, and that's Roxie's hangdog husband Amos (Reilly's stand out performance of the heartbreaking "Mr Cellophane" is the film's most emotional moment), who stands by Roxie even as he learns of her unfaithfulness, even raising every penny he can to pay Billy, only to have her leave him flat at the end.  Yes, this is a story of ruthless characters, who only care for themselves,(this is the rare musical without a love story, save perhaps for Roxie's love of fame),  from the bribe happy prison matron Mama to the lecherous sleaze bag  Fred that Roxie shoots without compulsion.  But we can't help admire their intelligence and determination: Billy's a corrupt lawyer, but he can play the press (and a jury) like a harp.  And Roxie is smart enough to know when to have a fainting spell and fake a pregnancy to keep media attention on her.  I think the point of the film (and the musical) is that in a violent, corrupt town like Chicago in the 1920's, where, as Billy tells Roxie, "murder is a form of entertainment", looking out for number one is the only way to succeed.  So, Amos's kindness is his downfall, while all of the other characters get what they want though sheer toughness and using what gifts (Roxie and Velma their looks and talent, Mama her position of authority over the prisoners, and Billy his law degree and media savvy) they have to get ahead.  So the film's dark tone seems just right for the film's setting: in a dog eat dog world, Roxie and Velma are the top dogs.


Obviously it's clear how much I enjoy this movie, and  for it's place in helping the return of the movie musical, it's victory seems apt.  The only film I think that gives it competition is Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, the second, and in my opinion the best, of THE  LORD OF THE RINGS films. But I couldn't take away an award from CHICAGO, especially since Jackson's turn would come soon...

Sunday, May 12, 2013



At first glance, the Academy's choice of Ron Howard's A BEAUTIFUL MIND for best picture made perfect sense: it was a handsome looking biopic about the trials and tribulations of a brilliant man, played by Russell Crowe, one of the world's biggest stars,  who had just won an best actor award for GLADIATOR, the previous year's best picture winner.  Furthermore, director Howard was a popular figure in Hollywood, having made the transition from successful TV star to film director smoothly years earlier.  But, like so many biographical films, A BEAUTIFUL MIND was criticized for perceived inaccuracies in the life of its subject, and it's victory may have had more to do with a multimillion dollar public relations push by it's studio, Universal, than any real merit the film had.  Now, it's impossible for any biographical film to be completely accurate, but I do think Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman may have taken one liberty too many here (more on that later).  In any event, I think this overlong film falls far from greatness, with its predictable moments of uplift hitting all the obvious beats, and its glossy, almost too pretty cinematography by Roger Deakins that practically screams "Oscar"!

It all began in 1998 when writer Sylvia Nasar published A BEAUTIFUL MIND, the unauthorized biography of  John Forbes Nash Jr., a Nobel prize winning mathematician who had struggled with schizophrenia for much of his life.  Producer Brian Grazer liked the book and bought the rights and convinced Howard to direct.  Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman convinced them to let him write the script, partly because as a child both of his parents were psychologists, and it was he that came up with the film's central twist, that Nash's insanity would be portrayed from his point of view, with characters the audience assumed were real turning out to be figments of his imagination.  With Goldsman's script set, Howard considered many actors for the lead role in what was becoming a hot property; finally  Crowe was picked for Nash, and  Jennifer Connelly cast in the important role of Nash's wife, Alicia.  Crowe researched the role by watching videos of Nash delivering speeches, and he eventually met Nash himself on the set of the film.  The film was shot mostly on location, with several trips made to Princeton university, and Howard shot almost all of it in sequence, despite the added cost and difficulty, to make the character's changes in the film more natural for the actors.  Upon the film's release, it received mostly positive reviews, despite the aforementioned controversy, and it would eventually go on to make $170,000,000 on a budget of around $78,000,000.

Russell Crowe

Beginning in 1947, it tells the story of John Nash, a socially awkward but brilliant Princeton student.  While in school he befriends his English roommate Charles (Paul Bettany), after graduation he does research and teaches classes at MIT, where he meets and falls in love with and marries Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), one of his students.  He is eventually sought out by government agent Parcher (Ed Harris) to help  break secret Russian codes.  The more he helps, the more he becomes convinced that Russian spies are trailing him and Alicia; soon his paranoia takes over his life and he is institutionalized for schizophrenia.  While in the institution he realizes that both Charles and Parcher were just figments of his imagination.

The interesting thing about this film is that it's almost two films in one: the first film combines a love story about a socially awkward man with a spy thriller, complete with a car chase.  And then, once John is diagnosed, it winds up feeling like a classic tale of overcoming addiction; almost a remake of Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) with schizophrenia substituted for alcoholism.  Really, Goldsman's script hits almost all of the notes found in an addiction story: at first, John is in denial that he even has as a problem, and is forced into an institution, where he is helped out by a tough but supportive doctor (Christopher Plummer), then he hits rock bottom, seems better, relapses, and finally slowly builds his way back to normalcy, aided by a faithful, long suffering wife.  Of the two halves of the film, I prefer the first part, especially in the early scenes at Princeton, where it's refreshing to have a story that values intelligence in its hero, and the visualizations  of his thought processes are well handled. I also like the fact that it is clearly John's intellect that attracts Alicia to him; it's lovely how, on their first date, he finds shapes for her in the stars.  I start having trouble with the film when we first find out that Charles and Parcher are both imaginary; it hurts the plausibility of the film because he spent so much time with both of them, and on repeat viewings it becomes impossible to know just how many scenes are real or just in John's head.  It's also one of the big breaks with the real story that the film takes, in that the real John Nash's hallucinations were only auditory, and while I understand that just showing John react to voices in his head wouldn't make for much of a movie, I think the film errs in making his imaginary characters seem so real and giving them so much screen time; it would have worked better if Charles and Parcher remained in the shadows more.  I also think that both Bettany and Harris (normally fine actors) often over play their roles, especially in their later scenes when he know they're not real (That said, I think this film handles the imaginary characters reveal better than the overrated FIGHT CLUB).  And the second part of the film drags on for too long, with John's inevitable relapse and recovery slowing things down considerably (I also object to the moment where John almost accidentally drowns his infant son; putting a baby in danger is an easy way to get a jolt of out an audience, but  I don't think the story here warrants it).  Even worse, the film takes so long to get to John winning the Noble prize that it seems like an afterthought, and I would have liked to have known more about just what he did to win the award.

Jennifer Connelly

Russel Crowe may have based his performance on the real John Nash, but at times it feels more like he's imitating Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN.  Crowe stammers, shuffles, avoids eye contact when talking and wears a vacant stare long before we find out he's schizophrenic; I think he overdoes these mannerisms to the point where his ability to function at all before his breakdown seems unlikely.  And Crowe's muscle bound torso seems out of place in a college professor.  Still, Crowe does manage to make John likable enough to keep our interest, and the obvious pain he feels on discovering his that Charles and Parcher aren't real is palpable.  Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her work here, and in many ways she has a tougher role than Crowe in that Alicia is both his and the audience's main link to reality.  More importantly, she really shows the hardship and difficulty of loving and living with a man as troubled as John is effectively; she has a strong scene in which she  vents her anger  by smashing a mirror, but we always see that she realizes that John's troubles are not his fault.  In the real world, Alicia divorced John for several years and then remarried him, but since Howard and Goldsman want this film to be seen as a love story, that break with reality  doesn't bother me.


I think it's clear that I have mixed feelings about this film, and in all honesty, I think all four films that were also nominated for best picture  (THE LORD OF THE RINGS:THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, IN THE BEDROOM, MOULIN ROUGE, and GOSFORD PARK) are all better.  I also preferred MOMENTO and THE ROYAL TANNENBAUMS.  So no, I don't think Ron Howard's pleasant but unspectacular movie deserved to win.