"Pure razzle-dazzle"
Dir. Rob Marshall; writ. Maurine Dallas Watkins (play) Fred Ebb, John Kander, Bob Fosse (musical), Bill Condon; feat. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Christine Baranski (PG-13)

News flash: In the modern world, fame is fleeting, people will do anything to get it, and once you're in the realm of celebrity the truth doesn't count for much.

That is the dullest thing about Chicago, and it is to the film's credit that it can beat this theme into the ground without making you think about it long enough to be unimpressed. You didn't come here for enlightenment, after all; Bob Fosse could cram a convincing worldview into two hours of fishnets and "jazz hands," but this film has left its Fosse roots far behind. It is ambitious enough for director Rob Marshall & Co. to try to get a Western audience excited about a musical again, without trying to imitate a master.

Love the fishnets: Catherine Zeta-Jones

Marshall has definitely given us something to be excited about: From the chaotic hustle of the opening number to the show-stopping, wall-of-lightbulbs finale, there is not a lot of time to be bored. With all his cross-cutting between dramatic action and musical numbers, he dances around the complaint many contemporary viewers have about vintage musicals — that the songs feel like obstacles for the movie to overcome, rather than the centerpieces they are meant to be.

In fact, Marshall goes a little overboard with his MTV-era cutting. Certain dance scenes, such as the one in which a half-dozen hot murderesses recount their crimes, are so viscerally appealing that the director's insertion of flashback footage just gets in the way. Other transitions are more natural, as in an early sequence where an interrogation lamp becomes a spotlight, turning a criminal investigation into a performance and back again.

The real find here is Zeta-Jones, who sings and moves with real ferocity; if Chicago were to spark a movie-musical renaissance, CZJ's stock would shoot up. Folks might start referring to Michael Douglas as "that guy who's married to Catherine Zeta-Jones." There's something very sharp about casting her as the showgirl whose fame is being eclipsed by the plainer, less charismatic Zellweger; you might find yourself actually feeling for the cynical older woman, who so clearly ought to be on top.

Never mind that both CZJ and RZ play murderesses who are trying to one-up each other on the police blotter; according to Chicago, that's just a part of the game.

"A creepy curiosity"
Dir. Roberto Benigni; writ. Benigni, Vincenzo Cerami; novel by Carlo Collodi; feat. Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Carlo Giuffré, Peppe Barra (G)

The moment Roberto Benigni's puppet comes to life, he is a problem child. He immediately destroys Gepetto's apartment, then runs out into the street, making a racket, tripping people, and injuring vegetables. His septuagenarian creator risks a coronary to catch him, and is arrested when he does.

Benigni's epic is a series of such episodes: Pinocchio is born with a child's tendency toward mistakes, and an adult's capacity to make them. The adults who encounter him are amazed enough by his mere existence that (in modern terms) they enable him. He disappoints them again, and the cycle starts anew. The film reads Pinocchio as a fable written by Gepetto, an embittered patriarch who wishes his delinquent, drug-addict son would stop screwing around and take his father out to dinner once in a while.

Roberto Benigni's nose grows in Pinocchio.

I remember my childhood experience of the Disney cartoon as dark and very scary. Benigni has distilled all of that creepiness and eschewed cuteness. His characters are unlikable. The fantastical ones — including the eponymous puppet — bear scant makeup, a suspension of illusion that offsets the elaborate background special effects in a jarring way. If the characters share any of the scenery's charm, it is difficult to glean through the horribly overdubbed English. It is tragic to watch Benigni's lips move and not to hear his absurd voice.

Benigni has not made a children's movie. In his Pinocchio, fantasy and magic are taken for granted, means to an ugly, moralistic end that hangs its creator even as it liberates its hero. In this, and in so many other ways, it serves tribute to Benigni's inspirator in the project, Federico Fellini. Interestingly, its failings also closely resemble those of its ill-fated cousin, AI. Perhaps, like Steven Spielberg, Benigni just had to get this problematic idea worked out in film — a self-flagellation to punish his own hubris — so he can once again direct his efforts at the rest of us.

"Bland and embarrassing"
Dir. Spike Lee; writ. David Benioff; feat. Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox (R)

Everything about the marketing for this film indicates that it is about some critical juncture in a man's life: In the last day of drug-dealer Monty Brogan's life as a free man (he is going to prison tomorrow), we're going to see him metamorphose into a thoughtful human being, renouncing his old life and starting a new chapter (and maybe, just maybe, making a last-ditch run for the border).


The 25th hour before Monty's imprisonment is much like the first: morose and melancholy, but not remorseful — and not very rewarding to watch, either. Instead of giving us some reason to care about Edward Norton's amoral character, Lee has tied Monty's sadness about getting caught to the epic mourning of post-9-11 New York City. Over and over, we're reminded of NYC's loss: pictures of fallen firemen; a lifeless dialogue scene shot with Ground Zero as a backdrop; a long, elegiac credits sequence documenting the city's new skyline — which has a real poignance that is wasted here, shown in relation to a character who doesn't merit our grief. Certainly, Spike Lee feels his city's loss deeply, but wrapping that up in this story is as ridiculous as, say, using Pearl Harbor to lend pathos to a silly romantic triangle.

Laughable equations of grief aside, the film is nearly as blank as Monty's conscience. It's one long expository two-shot after another, all talk without saying anything worth hearing. Speaking of hearing, Terence Blanchard's mournful jazz score is pretty, but it may be the worst film music he's written, hitting us over the heads with clunky melodrama and exaggerating Lee's missteps when it might've helped smooth them over.

The only interesting thing Lee does here is to steal from himself in a long, "I Hate NY" rant that mimics the ethnic-slur-fest in Do the Right Thing. It's not original and it's not pretty, but it's an intriguingly dissonant note in an otherwise forgettable film.

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