Saturday 17 January 2015

Movie Review: Chicago (2002)

Slick, sexy and sly, Chicago is a brash musical, a sizzling combination of media satire and pure sass.

It's Chicago in the 1920s. Showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones) is a celebrity prisoner, awaiting trial for the murder of her husband and her sister. Wannabe entertainer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is married to the naive but devoted Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) while carrying on an affair with Fred Casely (Dominic West) who claims to have connections in show business. When Roxie realizes that Casely is just leading her along for the sex, she shoots him dead. Despite Amos' attempt to cover for her by claiming to be the shooter, Roxie is arrested and joins Velma behind bars at a prison overseen by the entrepreneurial "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah).

With the crime-obsessed media always looking for the next sensational story about women murderers, Roxie realizes that she can now aim for her dreams. She hires flamboyant lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to represent her, and he fires up a publicity machine to build sympathy for Roxie, with reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) leading the charge to portray Roxie as a victim. All this is at the expense of Velma, who finds herself yesterday's news. But with Roxie's court date fast approaching, millionaire heiress Kitty Baxter (Lucy Liu) is arrested for murder, distracting the media and forcing Roxie to think up new twists to regain the headlines.

Based on the Bob Fosse Broadway show originally produced in 1975 and revived in 1996, Chicago is more relevant than ever in the age of real-time news, saturation 24/7 coverage of sordid murders, and lust for celebrity. The basis of the musical resides in the true stories of accused murderers Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, as covered by newspaper reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. If nothing else Chicago makes the point that not much has changed, other than the exponential magnification of the media's capability for self-induced frenzy, a most useful trait to be manipulated by those seeking the riches that come with cheap fame.

Chicago captured the Best Picture Academy Award, the first musical in 34 years to achieve the feat. And its an extraordinarily fun experience, thanks in large part to an incredibly catchy collection of musical numbers, staged by director Rob Marshall as intrinsic pieces of the plot, often through Roxie's stellar imagination. The many highlights include Velma performing the opener All That Jazz, the women prisoners recounting their stories in the purely magnificent Cell Block Tango, Billy re-imagining Roxie's crime and casting her as a victim for the press to lap-up in We Both Reached for the Gun, Billy explaining the courtroom art of Razzle Dazzle, and then performing an exquisite Tap Dance, before Roxie and Velma bring down the house with Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag. Marshall stays true to the stage show and colours the film with the stark black of satire, frequent backlighting, smoke and fluid camerawork adding breathtaking dynamism to the pointy Fosse-inspired choreography.

And its all drenched in oozing sexuality, Chicago striding into the world of women not afraid to use their bodies as a weapon to get what they want, and equally not afraid to turn to violence when their sexual supremacy is threatened. The edgy stage performances reflect women as wielding power and not afraid to use it. The victims are husbands, lovers, friends, family members and liars who dare to betray the women's love or lust, and it's the job of the Billy Flynns of the world to prove that a woman betrayed deserves her revenge, proportionate or not.

The casting choices are impeccable, and the three lead performances are uniformly excellent, with Zeta-Jones, Zellweger and Gere doing their own singing and dancing. Zellweger plays up her plain Jane personality, a woman whose ambition of stardom is not matched by her looks or talent, but who can nevertheless strive for the limelight with the help of frenemies like Billy and Velma. Zeta-Jones exudes the confidence of a wronged star, and whether on-stage or behind bars, she carries a dominant confidence that earned her the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. And Richard Gere is a revelation, unleashing his inner performer and having a blast with the musical numbers.

Drenched in style and substance, Chicago is rowdy, raunchy, and a rip-roaring riot.

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