Judge Clark Douglas is gonna rouge his knees and roll his stockings down.
Our review of Chicago, published August 25th, 2003, is also available.
It began with a hit…
"This trial…the whole world…it's all show business."
Facts of the Case
Veteran showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment) and aspiring showgirl Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger, Appaloosa) have both been imprisoned for murder. They're absolutely guilty of the crimes they've been charged with, but are nonetheless determined to find some way to regain their freedom. Both have spent a sizable amount of money in order to secure the services of slippery attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere, Arbitrage), who has a knack for getting desperate criminals off the hook. In the midst of the dual trials, the two women become locked in a fierce battle for the limelight, employing sensationalistic stories of all sorts in order to ensure that the media remains obsessed with them. Never mind whether they're convicted of murder—the real question is which of these two will become the bigger star.
Every so often, some website/magazine/newspaper will publish a list of the most overrated Oscar-winning films of all time. In recent years, Chicago has been showing up on such lists with some regularity, and it's easy to understand why. It's the very definition of a "style over substance" picture, a flimsy, shallow extravaganza of a movie that somehow managed to beat out such powerful works as The Pianist, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York (all of which have just as much technical proficiency and vastly more narrative depth). Sure, the film probably shouldn't have been a Best Picture contender, but it's a shame its infamous win has caused so many to be so dismissive of it. As a modern movie musical, it's a rather entertaining affair.
As with many musicals, Chicago is at its best when its characters are singing. The film opens with Catherine Zeta-Jones performing a stunning rendition of "All That Jazz." Zeta-Jones was a professional singer and dancer before her days in Hollywood, and it's immediately clear that she managed to retain those skills after moving on. Her voice is powerful, resonant and sultry all at once; she tears through the number as if it had been written specifically for her. "Man, I had forgotten how awesome this movie is," I thought to myself. Unfortunately, one of the film's biggest problems is that it never quite manages to top its opening scene. The movie sets the bar too high for itself.
Still, what's left is hardly worth scoffing at. The early prison numbers (Queen Latifah's swaggering performance of "When You're Good to Mama" and the kinky "Cell Block Tango") are a ton of fun, John C. Reilly infuses his big song ("Mr. Cellophane") with extraordinary pathos and the screen generally lights up any time Zeta-Jones turns up (the film may not have been a deserving Best Picture winner, but Zeta-Jones certainly earned her Best Supporting Actress trophy). Zellweger isn't quite a match for Zeta-Jones in the vocal department, but that seems acceptable given that Velma is a stage veteran and Roxie is supposed to be a newcomer. Richard Gere (in yet another role that was originally offered to John Travolta) doesn't have much vocal range, but he gets by on his sleazy charm and tap-dancing skills. Director Rob Marshall and his crew fill most of the musical numbers with plenty of intoxicating visual flair, but never so much that it overwhelms the actual music. Much of the film has an intentionally stagebound look; the movie seems to be making a sincere effort to recreate the Broadway experience for those who didn't get a chance to see it live.
While Marshall handles the musical numbers with panache, he stumbles whenever he's saddled with the dramatic scenes. The story the film offers may be wheezy and formulaic, but you only really notice it when the music stops. Despite the fact that the cast is comprised of talented dramatic actors, the dialogue is alternately wooden and corny. In the years since Chicago's release, Marshall has opted for style over substance to increasingly disappointing effect (reaching a low point with the interminable Nine). Still, the thin story is mostly just a convenient way to connect the fun musical numbers (as opposed to Nine, which used a thin story as a convenient way to connect lousy musical numbers), so the fact that it's lame doesn't actually hurt the film all that much.
Chicago (Blu-ray) Diamond Edition sports a brand-new 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, and boy, does it sparkle. The level of detail is simply tremendous; it's a considerable upgrade from the previous Blu-ray release. Depth is strong throughout, shadow delineation is terrific and the film's original grain structure has been left intact. Gorgeous. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 Surround mix is similarly superb, really immersing the viewer in the theatrical glory of the musical numbers. The music really soars in the mix, while the dialogue and sound-design is always crystal-clear. While it's true that only serious audio/videophiles will really appreciate the upgrade, the effort is certainly appreciated. This is a film that relies heavily on its technical virtues, making the technical aspects of the disc all the more important.
Some new supplements have been produced for this release, too. "Chicago in the Spotlight: A Retrospective with the Cast and Crew" (142 minutes) is a feature-length documentary (divided into multiple parts) that offers an entertaining, comprehensive look at the making of the film. In an era when special features aren't getting as much attention as they used to, the effort is greatly appreciated. You also get a commentary with Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon, plus some extended musical performances, a DVD copy and a digital copy. The downside? Quite a few of the supplements included on the original Chicago Blu-ray release have been exised (including the bonus musical number "Class"), which means that fans of the movie may need to hold on to both copies. This is a frustrating and easily-avoided problem. Overall, the release justifies the double-dip, but falters a bit due to its failure to include the older supplemental material.
Chicago is still big, ridiculous fun. As a cinematic celebration of the musical and as a showcase for some top-notch singing and dancing, it works like gangbusters. As a dramatic experience, it's…eh, okay, I guess. Adjust your expectations appropriately and you'll have fun.
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