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Making nice with the musical

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Let me preface this review by saying I generally despise musicals in a very, very serious way. I still have nightmares about Moulin Rouge, and the mere thought of seeing The Producers on Broadway is nearly enough to make me vomit blood. I bought my mom the Sound of Music DVD last Christmas, with the caveat that she never, ever play it while I'm within a five-mile radius.

            I don't know if I'm getting older or gayer or both, but there have actually been a couple of musicals I've enjoyed over the last couple of years. They were all unconventional, however, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the tuneful episodes of both Oz and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), so I'm not entirely sure they count. Still, I wouldn't know good singing and dancing if it crept up behind me and shouted, "Hello, gorgeous!"

            That said, I found Rob Marshall's Chicago (opening Friday at the Little) to be an exhilarating film packed with amazing performances. Based on Bob Fosse's 1975 production (which, in turn, was based on a non-musical stage play from the '20s), Chicago is a timely celebration of murder and the manipulation of the legal system to foster celebrity. Then as well as now, doing things you're not supposed to can lead to major media coverage (just ask O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Winona Ryder, and Trent Lott).

            The aforementioned stuff you're not supposed to do starts almost instantly in Chicago, as Velma Kelly (Golden Globe nominee Catherine Zeta-Jones), one-half of the popular Kelly Sisters act, has just offed both her other half and her better half before hopping on stage and belting out a scintillating, smoke-and-gin-fueled version of "All That Jazz." Meanwhile, a far less successful entertainer named Roxie Hart (Golden Globe nominee Renée Zellweger) is getting "auditioned" by a man (Dominic West) who says he can make her a big star. When Roxie finds out he's just stringing her along, she flies into a post-coital rage and kills him.

            After an unsuccessful attempt to get her sad-sack husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the heat, Roxie is dragged off to prison where she encounters the now-larger-than-life Velma, whose double murder has been front-page tabloid fodder since her incarceration. Roxie strikes up a friendship with prison warden "Mama" Morton (Golden Globe nominee Queen Latifah), who suggests she hire undefeated defense attorney Billy Flynn (Golden Globe nominee Richard Gere), who guarantees he can get anyone off for $5,000. Trouble is, Flynn is already Velma's lawyer, and when he agrees to help Roxie, he turns her into the city's newest criminal star. This, of course, leads to a fair amount of jailhouse animosity between Velma and Roxie, though, sadly, not much pulling of hair, tearing of clothes, or scratching of eyes. This Rob Marshall (he co-helmed the Broadway production of Cabaret with Road to Perdition director Sam Mendes) sure ain't no Russ Meyer.

            Each of Chicago's many song-and-dance numbers is rooted entirely in the imagination of one of the film's characters, which is nice for two reasons: 1) It makes each one of them dark and surreal, and 2) They're all quite integral to the film's plot. The most visual of the lot is Flynn's press conference-turned-marionette performance (called "The Press Conference Rag"), but the song that sticks with you the longest is Reilly's heartbreaking "Mr. Cellophane" (don't worry --- his voice is slightly better here than in Magnolia).

            Because of the singing and dancing, Chicago's cast must pull off roles that are much more physically challenging than anything they're used to doing or we're used to seeing. Again, I wouldn't know if Richard Gere was tapdancing decently, or if Zeta-Jones's voice comes close to matching Chita Rivera's (she was the original Velma on stage, and has a cameo here), but it all seemed pretty incredible to me. Zellweger's part seemed the most challenging, both physically and emotionally, and I think she really nailed it --- it's one of the year's best performances.

Antwone Fisher, on the other hand, is yet another year-end, by-the-numbers, button-pushing biopic, but this one is sub-par even when compared to its sickly, tired brethren. It's a dime-a-dozen film that's being touted as a hit simply because it's Denzel Washington's directorial debut --- otherwise, you never would have heard of it. The mere possibility that this and My Big Fat Greek Wedding might be Oscar contenders makes me physically nauseous. If that happens, I might have to burn something down.

            I guess we're supposed to overlook the dull, formulaic storytelling just because Fisher is based on a true story. Antwone (newcomer Derek Luke) is introduced to viewers as a serviceman in the United States Navy. Shortly after said introduction, we watch our protagonist dispense a bathroom beatdown to an unsuspecting shipmate for absolutely no reason. After a quick trial, Antwone is sentenced to receive three sessions with Navy headshrink Jerome Davenport (Washington), whose method of counseling troubled young men involves saying "OK, OK," before every sentence.

            Antwone refuses to talk at the first session, but eventually begins to open up, which is when we learn about his troubled past. He was born in a prison, put in an orphanage, and, ultimately, in a foster home where he was the victim of physical, mental, and sexual abuse. In short, Antwone has major abandonment issues, which manifest themselves via violence and the crappy way he treats his new girlfriend (Joy Bryant).

            Two things become obvious very quickly: Davenport likes helping Antwone because he's reminded of himself as a youngster, and Antwone will somehow help Davenport rekindle his dormant marriage. And when Davenport pushes the reluctant Antwone to attempt to find both his abusive foster mother and his real family, it's pretty obvious how Fisher is going to end, as well. The only mildly interesting material here are the flashbacks to Antwone's youth. Everything else is just typical, manipulative crap.

            If someone were to put a gun to my head and force me to identify something positive about Fisher, I'd have to go with Luke's performance. It's decent, though certainly not of Oscar quality. Washington directs the same way he acts --- boring, safe, routine, predictable, and, apparently, worthy of oodles of unwarranted admiration. Anyone mentioning this film in the same breath as upcoming gems like About Schmidt or Adaptation deserves to have the stuffing pummeled out of them.

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Interested in more movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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