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By James Arnold

Three Cities, Eras and Ways to Survive





CHICAGO (A-3, PG-13): Musicals don't come much more comically glitzy or wittily cynical than Chicago (born on stage in 1975). This energetic movie spoofs the city's infamous Prohibition-era morals with a lively splash of ragtime jazz songs, plus dazzling individual and chorus dancing.

The original creative talents included legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, songsmiths John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret), and performers Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. The best numbers age beautifully: "All That Jazz," "Mr. Cellophane," "Razzle-Dazzle" and the rousing "Nowadays."

First-time feature director Rob Marshall kept much of the original dialogue and style but pushed everything to another level with impressive cinematics—primarily Martin Walsh's editing. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, the film has already won Golden Globes for best picture, musical or comedy, as well as Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger for their acclaimed performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones won a BAFTA Award and is nominated for an Oscar.

The based-loosely-on-fact plot material is scandalous, derived from the political corruption of the time and the public's media-driven fascination with sensational crimes.

Pretty women like Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) and Roxie Hart (Zellweger) sometimes got away with murder, thanks to clever lawyers like Billy Flynn (Gere) and reporters who swallowed the sentiment and spin, and then wrote the stories.

Director Marshall cuts between the glamorous-artsy stage version of events and a more lifelike narrative. A favorite moment for courtroom buffs: Gere's Flynn tap-dancing his way through a crucial cross-examination. The ratings reflect the fact that the sex and violence are mostly offstage. The peak of the sexy, jazzy dance musical with a brain that is Fosse's gift to Broadway, adapted with flash and a style that Fosse would appreciate; satisfactory for adults.


GANGS OF NEW YORK (O, R): The large obsessive talents of director Martin Scorsese are turned loose on his favorite subject (New York), this time the immigrant Irish trying to survive amid mid-19th century poverty and hostility. The result is photogenic, exciting and disappointing. Gangs is not a documentary or docudrama, although historical figures wander through it and some social history is passed along.

We absorb Scorsese's vision of the city then, especially in its immigrant heart, the Five Points area in lower Manhattan: bursting with life and danger, sin and crime, controlled by terror and alliances among bellicose ethnic warlords.

Into this slum cauldron come the Irish, strangers in a strange land, despised and exploited as the latest, most desperate competitors for work and power. The story is basically a city-set western: An Irish boy witnesses his father killed in battle by the obnoxious leader of the natives. The boy returns as an adult to gain revenge for himself and status for his people.

The spectacle and cinematics work: the fires, the public hangings, the street battles, the enormous sets, the crowds, the saloons and music halls, the cruelty and, ultimately, the horrific draft riots of 1863 that devastated the city.

Add also a formidable villain. Daniel Day-Lewis's "Bill the Butcher" is intelligent and shrewd and a ruthless force of nature. As the hero, Leonardo DiCaprio is overmatched in both temperament and wit. More deeply, there is little sense of Irish culture or work or family life, or the faith that sustained them. Lots of sweep, blood and chaos, but minimal humanity; essentially a brilliantly staged combat film; satisfactory for adults.


THE PIANIST (A-3, R): Veteran director Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama, based on Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography, is gripping, horrifying and sadly satisfying. Szpilman, a young classic pianist who played on Warsaw radio in 1939, was forced by the Nazis into the ghetto with other Warsaw Jews but escaped during the evacuation to the death camps. He was hidden by a brave underground of non-Jews and survived.

The Pianist recalls the landmark fact-based Nazi persecution films Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler's List. It follows Szpilman's family through the deteriorating conditions early in the occupation to eventual breakup of families and cruel exodus on jammed freight cars to presumed labor camps.

But The Pianist quickly becomes the personal story of its fugitive hero (Adrien Brody, sensitive to every nuance) and his efforts to disappear in a city that seems perfectly normal except for its bizarre anti-Semitic obsession. Eventually, Warsaw is also gutted by the war. With the terrified Szpilman, we watch it disintegrate from the windows of his varied hideouts and during his furtive forays into the streets.

Finally, we realize this man will endure in a remarkable sequence set in the abandoned ghetto, by 1944 a moonscape of ruin, where (with great irony) he has retreated for safety.

The film's many dark ironies serve as a rare note of hope in Polanski's gloomy but powerful body of work (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown). Oddly, no religious moments here, but Brody's character achieves a dignity rare in current cinema; the film is a testament to both human cruelty and our ability to endure and transcend evil; recommended for mature audiences.


ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) remains a rare American masterpiece of aching moral power. Marlon Brando rattled Hollywood and changed it forever with his performance as Terry Malloy, the rough but intelligent ex-pug who slowly comes to realize he and so many people like him have been cheated in life. Eventually, the working guys defeat evil and the bosses on the corrupt New York docks.

Shot in black-and-white in the Hoboken area and based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, Waterfront has a deep cast and many scorching moments. Catholics may recall it was also an effective Christian crucifixion parable: Terry, finally repenting his own collusion with the mob and speaking out for justice, is mercilessly beaten by union gangster goons as the other longshoremen watch gutlessly.

It also had one of the more memorable clerics in movie history, Father Barry (Karl Malden). The labor priest stands in the hold of a freighter after the murder of a good man and gives an unforgettably rousing sermon. Oscars for best film, director (Elia Kazan), actor (Brando), supporting actress (Eva Marie Saint), screenplay (Budd Schulberg), others.


RELUCTANT SAINT: FRANCIS OF ASSISI (Hallmark Channel, April 13) describes the life and heritage of St. Francis for modern Americans. This documentary produced by Pamela Mason Wagner ably combines journalism and art to cover the great saint's complex career.

Some techniques are familiar: the use of classical paintings, on- and off-camera commentary by experts (chiefly Donald Spoto, whose 2002 book provides the basis for the film), and tracking costumed actors through the Umbrian villages and countryside where Francis moved and lived. A new twist in actor-proofing: There is no dialogue, but the content and meaning of the visuals are enhanced by the voiceovers of the commentators.

It all works rather seamlessly, thanks to the heightened power of the material untainted by translations. (The solid chief narrator is Liev Schreiber, and the words of Francis himself are spoken with effect by Robert Sean Leonard.)

But because so much is covered, the unique moments pass without much time to savor them, especially Francis' dramatic rejection of his father and his historic encounters with St. Clare, Pope Innocent III and the Islamic sultan in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. The film is at its best as a comprehensive overview, emphasizing Francis' role as a peacemaker, friend of the poor and abandoned, and ultimately, mystic.

Producer Wagner also finds a climactic setting for the always moving Canticle of the Sun, with its poignant references to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Death, and the well-loved prayer that Francis did not write (as the film tells us) but that in the 20th century was linked to St. Francis, beginning, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...." This St. Francis tribute is a Palm Sunday treat.


MISTER STERLING (NBC, Fridays): A good man (Josh Brolin), an independent appointee to the U.S. Senate, tries to do nice things and achieves small successes, surprising his skeptical and savvy aide (Audra McDonald). This is the sort of series you wish for, a less cerebral godchild of some of The West Wing creators.


KINGPIN (NBC miniseries): This hyped, slick junk was about infighting in a Mexican family to control a drug cartel. An obvious rip-off of The Sopranos with a different ethnic mix, there was little or no transcendent meaning to offset the envelope-pushing violence. Kingpin had all the Hispanic stereotypes. Religion affected lives only in a ritual and ceremonial sense.

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