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 Project #36: Singin’ in the Rain [1952]

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.

Singin' in the Rain [1952]

Singin’ in the Rain [1952]
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Genre: Comedy/Musical/Romance
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds
Runtime: 103 minutes

It has come to the point where I should probably stop saying I don’t like musicals. I have never had much interest in the genre, but the last few I have seen — Moulin Rouge, My Fair Lady, Dancer in the Dark — I enjoyed quite a bit. Now I can add another to this quickly growing list: Singin’ in the Rain.

What can be said about this 1952 classic that hasn’t already? The songs have been immortalized in American pop culture, so much so that I hear the title song during every trip to the local Jewel Osco grocery store (it plays when the produce sprinklers kick on). The film’s influence is massive — The Artist bears more than a striking resemblance — and it has all sorts of accolades to its name: two Oscar nominations, eight mentions in multiple AFI lists, a ranking of #86 overall on IMDB, a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And, to top it all off, it is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time.

Singin' in the Rain [1952]

The film’s story is a simple one. Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a wildly popular silent film star who has been on a roll lately thanks to his collaborations with leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). With the onset of talking pictures looming, their studio, Monumental Pictures, decides to make the transition. Lockwood and Lamont are up to the task, but there is one small problem: Lamont’s voice is far too grating for “talkies.” At the suggestion of Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), the studio decides to dub Lina’s voice with that of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), Don’s new flame. Naturally, conflicts arise because of this, but this is a light-hearted musical and it doesn’t get into dark territory at all.

Really, this is all about the song-and-dance numbers, and they sure deliver. This was my first Gene Kelly film, and his performance blew me away. Not only is he ridiculously charismatic, but the dude can dance, too. The choreography in this is just insane, and his numbers with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds ae often mind-boggling. Some of the physical stunts they pull during their routines are beyond impressive. The three of them have natural chemistry, making their complex numbers look effortless. Jean Hagen is also a treat as the stereotypical dumb blonde, and she was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Singin' in the Rain [1952]

My only beef with the film comes from O’Connor. While I appreciated his talents, I found his character to be a little too silly/over-the-top for my liking. I know that many love his big solo routine, Make ‘Em Laugh, but it was just too slapstick for me. Regardless, that is just a small blip on what is otherwise a fantastic musical.

Singin’ in the Rain really is a delight, and it is just one of those rare movies where it’s near impossible to not have a smile on your face for most of its running time. Plus, something must be said if a film has made me second-guess my stance on its genre — maybe there’s something to this, after all?

9/10

 
For more reading on this American classic, I highly recommend these two articles:
Movies That Everyone Should See: “Singin’ in the Rain” from Fogs’ Movie Reviews
What a glorious feeling! Musings on Singin’ in the Rain from FlixChatter

Singin' in the Rain [1952]

Movie Project #26: Dancer in the Dark [2000]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Dancer in the Dark [2000]

Dancer in the Dark [2000]
Director: Lars von Trier
Genre: Drama/Musical
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse
Runtime: 140 Minutes

My experience with Lars von Trier is limited to the movie Antichrist. While that film was brutal and absolutely horrifying at times, it captivated me in a way that most recent titles have rarely been able to do. It was clear to me that von Trier is a talented director, and I was eager to see more of his work. This led me to Dancer in the Dark, von Trier’s intriguing version of a musical.

The ever-enigmatic Björk stars as Selma, a Czech immigrant who works endless hours to save up money for eye surgery for her son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). A hereditary degenerative disease is causing her to go blind, and she wants her son to have the surgery at a young age to hopefully prevent this from happening to him as well. Selma picks up shifts at all hours of the night, trying to maximize her work schedule before she cannot see at all. She also has a passion for musicals, and has been practicing for a role in a local play. Selma is a bit scatterbrained, to put it mildly, and she frequently goes off into her own little world in the form of daydreams. This is where the film delves into its own version of a musical, as her daydreams transform her surroundings into wild song and dances.

Dancer in the Dark [2000]

There are others in Selma’s life as well. Her best friend, Cvalda (Catherine Deneuve), is a fellow co-worker who always looks out for Selma and takes care of her in times of need. Selma is renting a trailer home on the property of local policeman Bill Houston (David Morse) and his wife Linda (Cara Seymour), both of whom assist her by watching Gene while he is alone. Finally, there is Jeff (Peter Stormare), another co-worker who is infatuated with Selma and does anything he can to help her out.

With so many positive influences in Selma’s life, it sounds like a peaceful and reflective film, right? Uh, no, it’s pretty fucking depressing.

One traumatic moment involving betrayal and death changes the complexion of everything, and soon Selma’s life is thrown into chaos. It is at this point where the film grows incredibly bleak, and it gradually becomes hard to watch. This has human emotion in its rawest form, and some of the character behaviors are downright maddening. Not an easy watch by any means.

Dancer in the Dark [2000]

Björk in the lead role is an interesting choice, and she does a pretty damn good job for not being a real actress. She is quirky and does well to bring compassion to her character, and her contributions to the soundtrack are wonderful. Of course, she has a very distinct style and not everyone will embrace her singing. I thought she was great, but some of her lip syncing during the musical numbers was way off the mark. I got a kick out of some of the song performances, but the lip syncing in general was just terrible and sometimes it took me out of the moment.

Catherine Deneueve and David Morse, in particular, delivered memorable performances as well, and did a great job in their supporting roles.

Dancer in the Dark, while bleak and disturbing in nature, is a well-crafted film that rather fantastically feels like a mix of musical, documentary and drama. The film’s raw emotional style isn’t for everyone, but I rather enjoyed it. Can’t wait to see more of von Trier’s work.

8/10