Starring: Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Colm Feore, and Taye Diggs
Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: Bill Condon
Distributor: Miramax (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements

Like Bob Fosse with a candy-colored coating, the new film version of the Broadway hit CHICAGO is both dazzling and sugar-sweet, a blast of shallow magnificence that only sex, scandal, and a chorus line of dangerous damsels can deliver. Legit director Rob Marshall, in his first film outing, imbues Kander and Ebb's classic musical with a virtual minefield of little theatrical earthquakes, glossing over the material's thin spots with a veneer of pure showmanship. Add up all of the details, and it's something just shy of bliss...and the best movie musical since that other Kander and Ebb masterpiece, Cabaret.

For unlike last year's Moulin Rouge, CHICAGO embraces its theatricality while keeping its story straight...coherent, energetic and simple seem to be the rule. In this stylized Windy City, gangsters' molls line up waiting to become stars -- not in Hollywood, mind you, but in the scandal-ridden front pages of Chicago's newspapers, where salacious murderers (and murderesses) thrill an eager populace. CHICAGO follows two of them: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger), a wannabe starlet looking for the fast road to fame, and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a fading cabaret star seeking to rejuvenate a flagging career. Both end up in the Big House, to be defended at trial by the star lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a huckster who's learned that, in Chicago, cases are won in the press, not the courtroom.

Admittedly, it's a tried-and-true story of corruption played for giggles. What makes CHICAGO so special, however, is the unflagging exuberance of its telling. Marshall and his Oscar-winning screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) have hit upon a glorious conceit, that the musical numbers happen inside Roxie's star-addled mind. This disconnect between the reality of crime and the glamour of fame solves the problem of having people sing their feelings, and allows the songs to become something akin to character motifs. Especially impressive are "Roxie", a showcase for the astounding Zellwegger, and the simply magnificent production number "Cellbock Tango", where the women on Death Row tell us, in song and dance, who and why they killed. It's funny, powerful, touching, and disturbing all at once.

Zellwegger, an actress who seems to get better with every film, imbues Roxie with her natural spunky innocence, a trait that proves quite effective when she reveals the hardened killer underneath. Leading the award brigade, though, is Zeta-Jones, a stage-trained talent whose dancing and singing abilities are simply jaw-dropping. It's too bad that Richard Gere, who is a merely competent song-and-dance man, looks so awkward by comparison. As prison matron Mama Morton, Queen Latifah has a blast with her signature number, but John C. Reilly (as Roxie's dweeb husband) and Christine Baranski (as newswoman Mary Sunshine) suffer in roles for which neither is especially suited.

It's not rocket science, this business of making movies. CHICAGO is not complex. And it is not challenging. Its narrative is bone-basic, barely more than a coatrack to hang musical numbers upon. But as coatracks go, it's a damn sturdy one, and in the hands of the impressive Marshall, it revels in its theatrical roots. One may be hard-pressed not to smile from first frame to last. It may not change the world, but CHICAGO is, simply, What Movies Are For.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: Jason Patric, Ray Liotta, Chi McBride, and Busta Rhymes
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writer: Joe Carnahan
Distributor: Paramount Pictures/Lions Gate Films (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, drug content and pervasive language

Much has been made in industry circles of the making of NARC, the new drugs-and-cops thriller written and directed by newcomer Joe Carnahan. Shot on a shoestring budget in a matter of days, the film became the center of heavy Oscar buzz before it was even released. Essentially an actors' showcase for Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) and Jason Patric (Rush) as flawed narcotics officers prone to mistakes (and violent outbursts), the film is solid work that easily achieves its modest aspiration: to wonder aloud at the nature of goodness and reputation in a world of depravity and dishonor.

Shot in a blue-cool urban landscape, the icy winter of NARC contrasts sharply with the fiery emotions of its characters: Nick (Patric), a former undercover narc suffering guilt over a bust gone wrong, is asked by his commander (Chi McBride) to look over the baffling case of Michael Calvess, a cop murdered under mysterious circumstances. When Nick takes the case, he ultimately becomes paired with Calvess' former partner, Henry Oak (Liotta), a loose cannon whose runaway emotions often bleed over into the job.

Dirty cops, good cops: this is William Friedkin territory, and NARC owes more than just a few plot points to Friedkin's classic The French Connection. Why not crib from the best, I say? It's a very effective formula, and Carnahan knows exactly how to twist his whodunit story on a dime. Even as the story reaches its convoluted conclusion, it remains powerful enough to allow Ray Liotta an 11th-hour conversion that leaves the audience speechless. NARC is a cop story that understands the medium amazingly well, and succeeds in provoking and entertaining.

Those who thought Al Pacino a bit overblown in films like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon might be well-advised to stay away, though. Ray Liotta, as Lt. Oak, is an incadescent ball of fury-fueled rage, and his grand theatrics would be off-putting if not for their cold calculation. Patric matches Liotta moment for moment; as two actors who suffer from the reputation of never having lived up to their promise, these two solid pros work in exquisite tandem. Oak and Nick are opposite sides of the same coin, and it is eerily fascinating to watch them go at it.

NARC hearkens back to a different era in storytelling, a darker one, a pre-9/11 one, a time when Hollywood could pull back the veil on policeman without being accused of being unpatriotic. It jolts out of the screen differently from any film in recent memory. This is not to say it's brilliant, but it's different. Enter at your own discretion.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Starring: John Cusack, Noah Taylor, Molly Parker, Leelee Sobieski
Director: Menno Meyjes
Writer: Menno Meyjes
Distributor: Lions Gate Films (USA 2002)
MPAA Rating: R for language

The extent to which you may or may not like Menno Meyjes' new film MAX, I think, depends not on your love for its producer/star John Cusack or its clear command of the medium. Truthfully, there's only one question to ask yourself before you plop down your hard-earned cash at the ticket window. And that is: how much leeway are you willing to give Adolf Hitler as a fictional character?

This isn't a sensationalized question, for Hitler is the central character and concern of MAX...or at least, a young artist named Hitler is, a man who we know will grow up to become the most barbaric killer of the 20th century. In Meyjes' brooding film, however, he is not yet Hitler, Capital H; he is just Dolf (Noah Taylor), an angry, insecure painter whose search for self-expression torments both him and his erstwhile friend, Max (Cusack), a Jewish gallery owner. As the two men quarrel over the nature of art, politics, and the need for an honest experience, Meyjes quietly suggests that Hitler, Capital H, may never have existed if his artistic career had gone in a different direction. Are monsters born, or made?

It's an interesting intellectual argument, but one that is completely overshadowed by the reality of Hitler, Capital H. It is nearly impossible to ask audiences to feel empathy for Hitler, even as a fictional construct...especially empathy for, of all things, his cry-babyish inability to paint a decent picture. The discussions between Max and Adolf, constructed to show the possible development of Hitler's ethical and political barbarism, seem forced and contrived beyond believability, despite their basis in historical fact. For why would anyone want to befriend, much less support, such a man as Noah Taylor's Hitler -- a self-aggrandizing, whiny, immature, insecure little brat? Humanizing Hitler is an interesting goal for a filmmaker, but in this instance it's virtually impossible and well beyond the talents of Mr. Meyjes.

Fundamentally flawed in this way, it should be noted that MAX is beautifully shot, with some remarkable performances. Cusack, in particular, is marvelous, detailed but assured in his portrayal of this man who believes in little besides the passion of modern art. As his beleagured wife, Molly Parker brings quiet heartbreak to her rare scenes.

As an academic exercise, MAX is intermittently absorbing. But when the full weight of reality is laid to rest on its thin shoulders, it crumbles like the house of cards it ultimately is.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2002 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

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