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
GANGS OF NEW
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
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
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
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.
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
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.
(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.