Embracing the Melodrama Part II #102: Chicago (dir by Rob Marshall)

ChicagopostercastIt’s strange to refer to a best picture winner as being underrated but that’s exactly the perfect description for the 2002 film Chicago.

When Chicago was named the best picture of 2002, it was the first musical to take the top prize since The Sound of Music won in 1965.  Until the box office success and Oscar triumph of Chicago, it was assumed by many that a musical had to be animated in order to be successful.  After Chicago won, the conventional wisdom was changed.  Dreamgirls, Nine, Rock of Ages, Hairspray, Jersey Boys,  Into the Woods, Les Miserables, none of these films would have been produced if not for the success of Chicago.  It’s also due to Chicago that television networks are willing to take chances on shows like Glee and Smash.  And while I think a very valid argument could be made that we would all be better off without Glee, Smash, and Rock of Ages, you still can not deny that Chicago both challenged and changed the conventional wisdom.

And yet, despite its success and its continuing influence, Chicago is one of those best picture winners that often seems to get dismissed online.  Some of that’s because, by winning best picture, Chicago defeated not only The Two Towers (which is arguably the best installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy) but also Roman Polanski’s searing masterpiece, The Pianist.  Critics often point out that The Pianist won for best adapted screenplay, best actor, and best director but Chicago somehow managed to win best picture.  They suggest that the Academy was either worried about the implications of giving best picture to a film directed by Roman Polanski or else they were blinded by Chicago‘s razzle dazzle.  They argue that Chicago was merely an adaptation of an iconic stage production, whereas The Pianist and The Two Towers were both the result of visionary directors.

Well, to be honest, I think those critics do have a point.  The Pianist is one of the most emotionally devastating films that I have ever seen.  The Two Towers is the perfect mix of spectacle and emotion.  And yet, with all that in mind, I still love Chicago.

And it’s not just because of scenes like this:

Or this:

Or even this scene of Richard Gere tap dancing:

If you’ve been reading this site for a while then you know my bias.  You know that I grew up dancing.  You know that I love to dance.  And you know that I automatically love any film that features a dance number.  And, since you know my bias, you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, of course Lisa likes this….”  And you’re right.

But you know what?  Even if nobody danced a step in this film, I would still enjoy it.  (Though it would be odd to see a musical with absolutely no dancing.)  Chicago is not just about spectacle.  Instead, it tells a very interesting story, one that is probably even more relevant today than when the film was first released.

Set in 1924, Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger).  Married to the decent but boring Amos (John C. Reilly), Roxie wants to be a star.  She has an affair with slrazy Fred Casely (Dominic West), believing that he has showbiz connections.  When Fred finally admits to her that he lied in order to sleep with her, Roxie reacts by murdering him.  Because Roxie is pretty and blonde and claims to have been corrupted by the big, bad, decadent city, she becomes a celebrity even while she sits in jail and awaits trial.

Also in the jail is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a nightclub singer who killed her husband and sister.  Roxie idolizes Velma but, after Velma snubs her, a rivalry forms between the two.  Roxie hires Velma’s lawyer, the slick Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).  During the trial, Roxie becomes even more popular, Velma grows jealous, and the only innocent women on death row — a Hungarian who can’t speak English — is ignored and executed because she doesn’t make for a good news story.

Chicago is a cynical and acerbic look at both the mad pursuit of celebrity and the pitfalls of the American justice system.  In its way, it’s the film that predicted the Kardashians.  (If Roxie had been born several decades later, it’s not difficult to imagine that she’d build her career off of a sex tape as opposed to murder.)  Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are both sociopathic marvels in their respective roles.  Even Richard Gere, who, in other films, can come across as being oddly empty, is perfectly cast and surprisingly witty in the role of Billy.

Director Rob Marshall does a great job of making this stage adaptation feel truly cinematic.  At no point does Chicago feel stagey.  Perhaps Marshall’s smartest decision was to tell the entire film through Roxie’s eyes.  Every musical lives and dies based on whether it can convince the audience that it would perfectly natural for everyone onscreen to suddenly break out into song.  Chicago is convincing because, of course, Roxie would view her life as being a musical.

And did I mention that the film features a lot of great dancing?

Because it so seriously does….

So, yes, it can be argued that Chicago beat out some worthier films for the title of best picture of the year.  But, regardless, it’s still a good and memorable film.

MacBeth Trailer Is Dark And Full Of Terrors


Every year there’s always going to be that one filmmaker who takes on the challenge of putting their personal take on one of William Shakespeare’s classic dramas. It’s been going on since the advent of motion pictures and I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

This year it looks like we may have a winner with the latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. The film stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Lord and Lady MacBeth with Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel in the director’s chair.

MacBeth has been getting such advance rave reviews due to it’s screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it entered for competition for the Palme d’Or. The film itself just judging from the trailer below looks like a visual feast that one’s up the dark, gritty aesthetic of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

There’s still no announced release date for MacBeth for the North American market but with the critical buzz surrounding the film after Cannes it won’t be too long til it get one.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #101: Harvard Man (dir by James Toback)

Oh please, Harvard Man sucks.

I watched this 2002 film for one reason and one reason only.  It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and I used love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In fact, now that I think about it, my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer has led to me watching a lot of really bad movies.  Seriously, somebody give Nichols Brendon a role in a good movie and do it now!  I’m tired of reading about him getting arrested at conventions.

But anyway, in Harvard Man, Sarah plays Cindy Bandolini, a student at Harvard.  Her father is a gangster and he’s played Gianni Russo, who is best known for playing Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather.  Cindy is also dating the star of Harvard’s basketball team, Alan Jenson (Adrian Grenier).  Cindy knows that Alan’s parents have just lost their farm to a tornado.  She tells Alan that if he’ll throw an upcoming basketball game, her father will pay him $100,000.  However, Mr. Bandolini isn’t really in on the deal.  Instead, Cindy has set it up herself with the help of two of her father’s associates, Teddy (Eric Stoltz) and Teddy’s girlfriend, Kelly (Rebecca Gayheart).

But what Cindy doesn’t know is that both Teddy and Kelly work for the FBI.  She also doesn’t know that Teddy and Kelly are engaging in threesomes with a philosophy professor, Chesney Cort (Joey Lauren Adams) and that Chesney is also having an affair with Alan.

Got all that?

Good.  Of course, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference because Alan is such a passive character that you get the feeling that he really doesn’t care what happens one way or another.  About halfway through the film, he takes a massive dose of LSD and he spends the rest of the film tripping while all of the various characters chase him across Boston.

And then Al Franken shows up, playing himself.  As Alan wanders across campus, Al Franken walks up to him and says, “Hi, I’m Al Franken.”  It turns out that the future senator is showing his daughter around Harvard and wants to ask Alan what the campus is like nowadays.  As future President Franken speaks in his nasal tones, we get all sorts of fun distortion effects so, if you’ve ever wanted to see Al Franken with a big googly face, Harvard Man is the film for you.  Al Franken’s scenes are, however, partially redeemed by the way that the actress playing his daughter rolls her eyes at her desperately uncool dad.

And, of course, while this is going on, we get random scenes of Joey Lauren Adams giving an endless lecture about ethics.  Why, exactly?  I imagine it has something to do with fooling critics like me and making us mistake Harvard Man for a movie with a brain.

Harvard Man is a pretentious mess of a film but it’s a fascinating example of what happens when every single role in a movie is miscast.  Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart are the least believable FBI agents ever.  You don’t believe for a second that short and scrawny Adrian Grenier could be a basketball star.  Joey Lauren Adams comes across like she’d be lucky to teach at Greendale Community College, much less Harvard.  Al Franken makes for a remarkably unconvincing Al Franken.  And, as much as I loved her in Buffy, Cruel Intentions, and Ringer, I do have to say Sarah Michelle Geller is one of the least convincing Italians that I have ever seen on-screen.

Harvard Man is an incredibly bad film but at least you get to see Al Franken with a googly face,