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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: Two films have multiple Oscar nods

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Feb. 27, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Way back in 1975, my sister Patty and I were in New York City. We saw the original Bob Fosse production of Chicago. Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera starred as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. The lawyer, Billy Flynn, was played by Law and Order regular Jerry Orbach who, at that time. was famous as a song and dance man.

I was impressed by the musical, but to my mind the new movie version by Rob Marshall is much better. In fact, if any movie musical is able to bring back the musical genre as a popular type of movie it will be this version of Chicago.

Yes, Chicago is a cynical story of the razzle-dazzle 1920s Chicago mob world. It is a story of “anything goes.” But Rob Marshall has made it come alive for today’s audiences by the incredible staging and lighting of the musical numbers.

Most of the songs are images within the mind of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). Within the numbers Marshall allows the story to continue to move. As in the original innovation of Rogers and Hammerstein in the early 1940s production of Oklahoma!, the songs continually are integral to the story.

Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) wants to become a famous singer in tumultuous Chicago during the 1920s. But along the way she kills her lover. She ends up in jail and finally gets a corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to defend her. He uses the tabloid press of the time to make Roxie look like a very sympathetic character.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelly, a famous singer who also is a man killer. There is competition in jail between Roxie and Velma for fame, fortune and freedom.

The prison warden of this corrupt world is played by Queen Latifah as a character who is always on the take.

But the story is secondary to the presence of the actors and the incredible musical numbers that become, in a sense, one show-stopper after another. It is reported that in some cities the packed audiences actually clap after the musical numbers.

Catherine Zeta-Jones opens the film with the signature piece All That Jazz. The highly stylized and sexualized motif is so strong that she almost stops the movie before it really begins. It is extraordinary and terrific. Queen Latifah almost steals the movie during her song, “When You’re Good to Mama.”

Richard Gere pulls off the mock musical press conference where Roxie sitting on his lap acts as ventriloquist’s dummy. He is also above the scene pulling the strings of the reporters, whom he is controlling. For a person who has never danced, with the help of film editing, he succeeds.

John C. Reily, who plays Roxie’s loving and naive husband, sings the poignant “Mr. Cellophane.” Sure, it is in the realm of the whole movie’s cynicism, but it has a haunting, sad lilt to it.

Renee Zellweger continues to amaze as an actress. She pulls off her song and dance numbers with impressive style. She convinces you she could be a diva.

But it is Rob Marshall as director who makes Chicago the triumph that it is. You will want to tap your toe to the great John Kander and Fred Ebb songs as Marshall takes you on a trip to and artificial and unreal world that takes your troubles away.

Chicago is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). There is violence, sexuality and strong language. Personally, I would rate it R. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Chicago A-III - adults.

*****

For 18 years Robert McKee has been giving workshops on how to write a screenplay. The book version of his workshops is available for $35. In it he explains, in rather dogmatic fashion, the dramatic structures that go into writing a screenplay.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has teamed up with director Spike Jonze to deconstruct the normal way of writing a film in the unusual and thought-provoking film Adaptation. It is a film that breaks all rules of a normal Hollywood film to enable us to see the complications in the creative process. It is a difficult movie to reconstruct.

Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is trying to adapt a real book by Susan Orlean titled The Orchid Thief. The original story appeared in The New Yorker.

Charlie runs into writer’s block working on a lyrical piece about orchids that most people would say could never become a movie. At the same time his twin brother, Donald (also played by Cage), moves in with Charlie. Donald is as carefree as Charlie is shy and obsessive. As Charlie struggles with his adaptation, Donald out of the blue decides he, too, will write a screenplay and sell it for big bucks.

Charlie is condescending to his brother. But with Charlie’s suggestions that are meant to repel him, and a workshop by Robert McKee, Donald sells his over-the-top screenplay for a big figure.

Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks we see Charlie struggle with the story of Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) meeting and interviewing the orchid man, John Laroche (Chris Cooper). Susan is a cultured Manhattan writer who flies to Florida to meet the impassioned, toothless flower hunter. The movie, as it appears in Charlie’s mind, is her struggle to write the story of a person she finds intriguingly alive to life. In the process she reflects on her own life and its seeming sameness.

One particularly striking scene is a dinner party at Susan’s in New York City. There she describes the unrelenting desire of Laroche to find lost orchids in the Florida Everglades. The sophisticates talk about Laroche like he is a cross between The Beverly Hillbillies and the Noble Savage.

As we see the story in Charlie’s mind, we come to the place where he doesn’t know how to end it in his adaptation. He even goes to New York City to ask for help from Susan. In one scene Charlie is alone with her in an elevator at The New Yorker. But his shyness prevents him from speaking to her. Finally, he invites his brother to New York to impersonate him and speak to Susan. The result is hilarious, with sadness underneath. Charlie is so desperate to find an ending he even goes to a weekend workshop put on by Robert McKee. Brian Cox plays McKee wonderfully as he spouts imperial dogmatic truths.

The final result is the last 30 minutes of the film, which you will either love or be disappointed by. To me, the adaptor is saying that if you followed McKee’s rules of how to write a movie, this would be the ending. It can be said to be done with a certain sense of cynicism.

Personally, I found Adaptation a mind-blowing experience. It is a writer and director’s movie. It is a bit like going to a college philosophy class that really gets you thinking. It is like no other movie you have seen. It purposely does not fit into any of the normal categories.

To top it off, the acting is incredible. Nicolas Cage does pull off playing two dramatically different characters with aplomb. Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. She is one of finest living actresses of our time. Chris Cooper again shows us what character acting is all about. He is superb.

Adaptation is certainly one of the best films of 2002. If you are ready for a mind-blowing roller coaster ride, it is the movie for you.

Adaptation is rated R for language, sexuality, some drug use and violent images. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting classification is A-IV – Adults, with Reservations.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney. His reviews also appear in the Cheney Free Press.)


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