"Chicago" (Miramax), 113 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Rob Marshall; Written by Bill Condon, Maurine Dallas Watkins, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, based on the musical.
Catherine Zeta-Jones: Velma Kelly
RenÃ©e Zellweger: Roxanne 'Roxie' Hart
Richard Gere: Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah: Matron 'Mama' Morton
"The Pianist" (Focus Features), 148 minutes, R
Directed by Roman Polanski; Written by Ronald Harwood, based on the book by Wladyslaw Szpilman
Adrien Brody: Wladyslaw Szpilman
Emilia Fox: Dorota
Michal Zebrowski: Jurek
Ed Stoppard: Henryk
To fully appreciate "Chicago," we would need to locate the musical in the history of drama from the "Merchant of Venice" to "Evita," from the Ring cycle to "Damn Yankees." There is an essential guide: recall that Socrates makes the education for the guardians in his best city one of "music and gymnastic." So the guardians take up the equivalent of John Wayne movies and martial arts. The best city will form the souls and bodies of their guardians so that their strengths don't turn against the community they exist to protect.
But "Chicago"'s singing and swaying RenÃ©e Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones play killer Zs—butchers of the men in their lives. Their music and gymnastic is devoted to self-promotion and glory, not the good of the City of Broad Shoulders. Joined by a lawyer and the prison warden, they become a gang of thieves who use their vices to create lucrative stage careers for themselves. This Machiavellian scheme can't work without an appreciative audience—one that revels in corruption—along with useful idiots in the media. But how should we react today, as we look on these performers attempting to seduce their audience?
We've seen this before in John Gay's (pre-Rousseau) "Beggar's Opera" (1728), and its Marxist transformation of Macheath into the murderous capitalist by Bertolt Brecht in "Three-Penny Opera" (1928). Brecht would turn us into revolutionaries. The 1959 pop song, "Mack the Knife," drains all the "class warfare," to use a currently popular term, from the Mackie Messer of the Brecht play. Unfortunately, a former Austrian house painter would prove a more severe critic and discerning disciple of violence than Brecht's Weimar audience.
"Chicago" does not exceed in absurdity the O.J. Simpson trial. The Zs' characters might have been as dead as Evita, but they keep singing and dancing. They not only accept Evita's equation of politics and entertainment, they go beyond and make everything a matter of entertainment. To say the least, they are not teachers in either the sense of Marlene Dietrich's Lola Lola or Mame. Though one might prefer the spectacle of "Moulin Rouge" or the prudence of "Oklahoma," "Chicago" has plenty of bang within it despite the whimper of its ending.
"The Pianist" dramatizes the story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman's survival of World War II Nazi rule. While he strives to act honorably under horrific conditions, his goodness brings about attempts by others to aid his survival—a sympathetic guard, courageous Poles, and even a German officer. Szpilman is a kind of Spielzeug, or toy of others; events and people allow him to be a spectator and survive the war. His music floats above political and moral life. This can be terrifying nihilism or exhilarating liberation. "The Pianist" reminds us that war, the ultimate gymnastic, has purposes beyond politics. It also reminds us that the ultimate music discloses the highest activity. The greatest art subordinates itself to the Divine—absent from this film. But by pointing to these lacunae, "The Pianist" is edifying in a way that few films are.