Movie Project #40: Chicago [2002]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Chicago [2002]

Chicago [2002]
Director: Rob Marshall
Genre: Comedy/Crime/Musical
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 113 minutes

I approached my viewing of Chicago with an open mind. I was feeling optimistic — after all, I had went through a good run of musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Moulin Rouge!, Dancer in the Dark) that made me look at the genre with renewed interest. Maybe I was being biased for no good reason and I just needed to see a few strong musicals to make me a fan. I was all set to love this, especially since the film was set in my city (albeit in the 1920s). All of the pieces were aligned, but alas, Chicago didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Based on the stage musical of the same name, Chicago revolves around two murderesses who are in jail and awaiting trial in the 1920s. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is charged with the murder of Fred Casely (Dominic West), her lover who never gave her the broadway gigs he promised her. She dreams of being a vaudeville star like Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is also sent to jail after killing her husband and sister, whom she finds in bed together. Faced with the prospect of death sentences, the two women enlist the services of highly talented lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to set them free.

There is also a sense of jealousy between the two women. Velma is the queen of the roost, so to speak, and she gets all of the headlines due to her past popularity. Roxie is envious of this and does everything she can to weasel her way into the newspapers — much to Velma’s dismay.

Chicago [2002]

Now, while some may find interest in the satirical plot, the appeal of Chicago lies in its bombastic song-and-dance numbers. This is a film that revels in its visual style, piecing together large and exuberant dance routines with a distinct Jazz Age flair. The set pieces are fantastic; the costumes, flamboyant. It’s easy to get lost in the flashy showtunes, despite the fact that most songs are utterly forgettable. “All That Jazz” is a treat, but nothing else really left a mark on me.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem I had with Chicago. Outside of the glitz and the glamour, this is a film with very little substance. I enjoyed the spectacle of it all, but everything felt shallow, and I lacked any real connection to the characters or the proceedings. Taken on its merits, there is a certain amount of charm. I was just hoping for more… substance.

Chicago [2002]

Still, there are some brilliant performances that beg to be recognized, particularly that of Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is absolutely stunning as Velma Kelly, and it was always a treat to watch her on screen. I have no complaints about her winning an Oscar — she really is that damn good. Zellweger and Gere are also up to the task in their performances, though they did not leave as much of a lasting impression. Special mention should be made of two entertaining supporting roles — John C. Reilly as Amos Hart, Roxie’s cuckolded husband, and Queen Latifah as “Mama” Morton, the strong and independent matron of the Cook County Jail.

While I did enjoy Chicago overall, I just didn’t connect with it in the way I was hoping. I get the appeal of it, and its visual style is certainly impressive, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher as to how this won Best Picture in a year stacked with great films.

7/10

Movie Review: Carnage [2011]

Carnage [2011]

Carnage [2011]
Director: Roman Polanski
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Runtime: 80 Minutes

Two eleven year old boys are arguing in the park. We don’t know what about, but does it matter? That’s what kids do. One of the children, Zachary, strikes the other, Ethan, across the face with a large stick. Now we have a messy situation on our hands, complete with a missing tooth and some serious dentalwork needing to be done. This incident brings the parents of the two children together to discuss treatment and punishment options.

And so begins Carnage.

Zachary’s parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz & Winslet), visit the home of Ethan’s parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly & Foster), with the intention of quickly dealing with the problem. Somehow this quick visit turns into an elongated stay, and the entire movie takes place in this stationary apartment.

Carnage [2011]

With this decision, much of the film’s weight is placed on the shoulders of its stars. Thankfully, this is an absolutely all-star veteran cast. Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz are all terrific, and they do their part to make sure this dialogue-heavy film is not hampered by the one-shot location.

Each character has their own quirks, and they all have a certain sense of pride. When little remarks here and there are interpreted as sly insults, the discussion grows heated, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to start ragging on each other. In this regard, “Carnage” is an apt title for the film, as there are some heavy blows dealt to the egos of all involved.

Carnage is a fun, brief film that really picks up once the bottle of scotch comes out. There are moments I could have done without, such as Alan’s frequent phone calls and Nancy’s moments where she gets sick, but for the most part this is an entertaining ride with a tight script.

7.5/10

Cedar Rapids [2011]

Cedar Rapids [2011]

Cedar Rapids [2011]
Directors: Miguel Arteta
Genre: Comedy
Language: English
Country: USA

Oh, Ed Helms, you sly devil. When I saw you for the first time on The Office, I didn’t like your character. Andy Bernard was obnoxious and sometimes just plain annoying, and I didn’t want him on the show at all. Yet something happened. I started to laugh at some of his actions, and then he began an epic rivalry with Dwight Schrute. How could I not like the guy after that? Seeing Ed Helms in one of the best roles in The Hangover helped him earn even more respect from me, so much so that I eagerly anticipated Cedar Rapids, a recent comedy in which he obtained his first leading role.

In this movie, Helms stars as Tim Lippe, a small town insurance agent who is sent by his company to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for an annual industry convention. His goal is to win the coveted “Two Diamond” award for his company. Leaving his hometown is something new for Tim. He makes sure to carry a travel wallet underneath his shirt — he is in a big city after all — and he is impressed by his hotel and its pool: “There’s palm trees and the whole place smells like chlorine. It’s like I am in Barbados or somewhere.”

As a naive young man, Lippe is easily influenced by others at his convention, particularly the amusing trio of characters played by John C. Reilly, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. and Anne Heche. Reilly plays a party animal, par for the course for him, and dishes out some great lines (and lots of “muff diving” references). I was glad to see Whitlock have a good-sized role here, since I don’t recall seeing him in anything other than The Wire. He even makes a couple of hilarious references to the HBO show, which made me very, very happy. Heche fits right in with the guys as a sultry vixen who holds her own and keeps the men on their toes. All four of the main characters provide some very entertaining moments while maintaining a human aspect to them. They never devolve into caricatures of themselves, which is a huge plus.

The actors that fill out small roles are tremendous as well. Sigourney Weaver plays Lippe’s love interest and former grade-school teacher. Kurtwood Smith (aka “Red” from That 70’s Show) plays the leader of the convention, a man who is comfortable in his own skin, to say the least. Alia Shawkat (aka “Maeby” from Arrested Development) is entertaining as a prostitute who Lippe obtains a strange interest in. Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley and Thomas Lennon all have brief cameos, too.

While Cedar Rapids doesn’t really break any new ground, it is a fun ride from beginning to end. The plot pretty much goes as you expect it to, but that’s not a bad thing at all when there is such a strong cast to support it. Big props are deserved for Ed Helms, who does a great job in his first leading role. I would like to see him branch out more next time and try a new type of character, but there’s no denying he is good at what he does. Cedar Rapids is one of the best comedies to come out in the last year or so, and it is well worth seeing.

8/10