Chicago review by Mike Long

Due to the kind of films that I prefer, I rarely review Academy Award winners, much less movies that have won Best Picture. (The only three that I've written about were West Side Story, Shakespeare in Love, and The Silence of the Lambs.) So, it's a rare treat for me to critique a film that has won this distinguished reward, and it's an even greater pleasure when the film lives up to that honor. Thus, I bring you the winner for Best Picture of 2002, Chicago.

Chicago is based on the famous stage musical which originally featured choreography by the legendary Bob Fosse. In the story, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is a unhappily married woman who dreams of being a famous singer. A furniture salesman named Fred Casely (Dominic West) has promised to introduce Roxie to a promoter, but never comes through. When she approaches him about this, he admits that he was only using. In her rage, Roxie shoots and kills him. Roxie's husband, Amos (John C. Reilly) attempts to cover for Roxie, but she is taken to jail. There, she meets famous songstress Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who shot and killed her husband and her sister, when she found them together. The jail is overseen by "Mama" (Queen Latifah), who will always help the women out...for the right price. "Mama" arranges for both Roxie and Velma to hire Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) as their lawyer. Billy is a slick cad who has never lost a case. As their trials draw close, Roxie and Velma fight for attention from both Billy and the media, as the woman who can score the sympathy of Chicago has a better chance of avoiding an execution.

I've never seen "Chicago" on stage, but from those who have, my understanding is that the majority of the story is told through song and dance, and thus, can be hard to follow at times. (Especially if you have trouble understanding lyrics, as some people do.) So, the challenge before director Rob Marshall (making his feature film debut) and screenwriter Bill Condon (didn't he direct Candyman II?) was to take stay true to the spirit of the show, keep the famous musical numbers intact, and yet, tell a story that would be easy to follow. Fortunately for us, they were able to pull off this feat, and this is what makes Chicago so triumphant. Instead of having the musical numbers intrude on real-life (something that has always annoyed me about musicals), the numbers are made a part of Roxie's imagination. Roxie dreams of being a star, so the parts of the narrative which are addressed by the songs become full-fledged stage productions in Roxie's head. Thus, Marshall and Condon were able to retain all of the well-known choreography and have it take place on a stage, without compromising the story. The non-musical vignettes all take place in real-life settings and make the tales of Roxie and Velma very easy to follow.

While many in the theater will admire Chicago for taking the musical to the screen, for me, the film's greatest accomplishment is that it takes a cast of actors that I typically don't like and makes me forget that for two hours. Zellweger is excellent as Roxie Hart. She exudes a natural sense of innocence anyway, and then juxtaposes this with the murderous sex-kitten which resides inside Roxie. Her singing and dancing are impressive as well. The biggest surprise for me was Catherine Zeta-Jones, an actress that I typically can't tolerate. But, she's great as Velma, a once-proud woman who now realizes that her life may be in jeopardy. Zeta-Jones really brings this character to life, and her dancing is very good. Gere is perfect as the slimy Flynn, but he comes across as very stiff in his dance numbers. Queen Latifah comes close to stealing the show as "Mama" and demonstrates that she has a great vocal range. This great cast helps to elevate what is already a very strong film, making Chicago a must-see.

Chicago comes to DVD from Buena Vista Home Video. (There are actually two separate DVD releases for this film, one widescreen, the other full-frame. For this review, the widescreen version was screened.) The DVD features an anamorphic transfer, which has been letterboxed at 1.85:1. The image is sharp, but there is a noticeable amount of grain in many of the shots, which was quite surprising to me. Still, the image is well-balanced, as the film makes great use of light and dark photography, and the action is easily seen during the dark scenes. The colors are very good here -- Marshall has done a good job of accenting the blacks and reds in the film. The DVD contains both a DTS 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Both of these sound very good, as they offer clear dialogue and make the musical numbers sound great. The DTS track offers a sound that is somewhat cleaner, but in all honesty, it doesn't sound that much different from the Dolby track. Both provide ample amounts of surround sound and some noticeable bass response. But, neither track really blew me away, which is unfortunate as the music should be one of the main focuses of the film.

The Chicago DVD only contains three extras, presumably to preserve space for the audio tracks. We start with an audio commentary featuring director/chorographer Rob Marshall and writer Bill Condon. This is a very good commentary as this duo (who worked on the script together) describe every trick that they pulled to bring the musical to the screen. They give in-depth details about the production, plus point out interesting cues in the film which relate Roxie and Velma. We next 28-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, which is good, but not great. It features a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage, from rehearsals to the set, and interviews with the cast & crew. But, it never moves beyond the typical glossy "press-kit" mode and gives any real dirt on the film. The other extra is a deleted scene which features the song "Class", performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah (This is the song that they performed at the Oscars). This scene can be viewed with or without commentary by Marshall and Condon as they explain why the number was cut from the film.

Trust me, I'm someone who really doesn't like musicals all that much, but I enjoyed Chicago. The story is simple and fast-moving and the dance numbers are very well-staged. The cast is good and the movie proves to be an Oscar winner which is actually good, old-fashioned fun.

8 out of 10 Jackasses

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