Positive Movie Oscar Outlook, Part 1
I want to start by saying that I have full faith in our President
and in Secretary Tom Ridge, both of whom seem like great Americans and
even better Christians. So this isn't really a complaint, but the
Orange Alert status made me put my movie reviews on hold for months.
Someone said on TV, I think on Fox News because the words were short
and the person was screaming them, that movie theaters are "soft
targets." With all the buttered popcorn we eat here in the midwest,
they're not kidding! Actually, I like Raisinets, which I also get with
Anyway, I stayed away from theaters for a few months, choosing to
lock myself in my apartment, and using duct tape (which I thought was
actually spelled "duck tape" until Fox News had a little news ticker
about it) to cover the windows and doors, and to seal my toilet shut.
After a few weeks, my neighbors started to complain about the smell,
but I figured that the various eviction notices were part of a clever
terrorist plot. I have a new place now. It's smaller, and I have to
share it with a guy named Larry who spends his time "smoking the
green," whatever that means, but the important thing is that I can
call it home.
The Oscars are only - yikes! I just wet my pants with excitement,
and I'm not exaggerating - a few weeks away, so I needed to "get
smart" about the contenders as quick as possible. So in the next few
days, I'm going to review four of the five movies nominated for Best
Picture. I've decided to leave out "The Two Towers." I know it sounds
artsy and all, but I think that Academy voters will be just as
reluctant as I am to tolerate some kind of freak show movie with a
bunch of dwarves and other disabled people putting on some kind of
interpretation of September 11th attacks. I pray to God that President
Bush, Tom Ridge, and John Ashcroft get rid of funding that allows
"arty" stuff like this to be made.
That leaves four other nominees, and I'm reviewing two of them
today: "Chicago" and "Daredevil."
Let me start with "Chicago," the film that single-handedly revived
the movie musical. It may be hard for readers to remember, but
musicals used to dominate the Oscars; they won "Best Picture" every
year from 1928 ("Flapper Sullivan and the Flim-Flam Floozies of Old
Broadway"), through 1959 ("Ben Hur"), through the 1970s (both "Jesus
Christ Superstar" and "Godspell") all the way to 1985 ("Krush Groove,"
starring Sheila E.). Then "Out of Africa" began a long, horrible spell
in which lots of Oscars went to movies about depressed Danish people.
The spell is about to break. "Chicago" is the best movie of this or
any other year, and it manages to be both a musical and sort of a
thoughtful think-piece about the musical form. Because the studios
have been hesitant to release musicals (mainly because no one wants to
suffer from the unfavorable comparison to "Krush Groove" or "Breakin'
2: Electric Bugaloo"), lots of people predicted that "Chicago" would
never even be released. But this is one movie that's not afraid to say
"I'm out and I'm proud, and I'm not going back in!"
In "Chicago," Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is a young woman with
big dreams, which she mostly has while having sex with her
extramarital lover. She is framed for murder by Velma Kelly (Catherine
Zellweger-Jones), and ends up going to jail. I won't ruin the plot by
describing it in detail, but let me just say that it has a lot to do
with some songs and some dance numbers. Before you know it, almost two
hours have slipped by, and you're at a murder trial. The big question:
will it include a musical number? I pronounce "Chicago": Guilty!!!
Roxie's lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), is brilliant in
defending his client. While grilling a hostile witness, who bears a
strange resemblance to Catherine Zellweger-Jon...hey! I just put this
together! Now this makes more sense. Anyway, while he's grilling her,
Richard Gere does a special tap dance known as the "Tunneling Gerbil."
Shaking his booty left and right, Gere brings down the house and the
entire medical clinic.
What's really great about the whole "movie musical" form is that it
really transports you to another place. In real life, most of us don't
just break out into song, though I have been known to start singing
"We Built This City" sometimes when I manage to pull off a really
sweet filing maneuver at one of my temp jobs. In "Chicago," we are
whisked out of our own lives, and into the private, vengeful fantasies
of the various Hollywood people who got their start in "Kiss Me, Kate"
productions in high school.
Other highlights of "Chicago"? Queen Latifah is wonderful as Mama
Warden, whose main song has the excellent rhyme "Talk is cheap and if
talk got any cheaper/They'd be selling Nike tongues instead of
sneakers." The songs come up at unpredictable moments, like when the
background music fades out for a half second and then a character
says, "It reminds me of a little story..." The music perfectly
captures the 1920s, with clarinet honks and whistles that really
scream, "If only 'The Sting' had had us, maybe it would have won an
Oscar!" And best of all, this is a movie that keeps its word. When I
saw this movie "Fargo" a few years ago, I was surprised and
disappointed to find out that it took place entirely in Minnesota (all
of you know about Wisconsin's big rivalry with Minnesota; go
Badgers!), and not at all in whichever Dakota Fargo is in. But when
"Chicago" calls itself "Chicago," it delivers the goods. This movie
starts and finishes in Chicago.
And what a finish! I thought that the trial was the climax, but
then there was not one, not two, but three more musical numbers! I was
really beginning to think (and to hope, actually) that this movie
would never end!
You'd think that there would be no overlap in the audience for a
movie musical and for a movie with Ben Affleck in a tight leather
outfit, but you'd be wrong. I loved "Daredevil" as much as "Chicago,"
and I think it is the best movie of this or any other year.
Ben Affleck was born to be a leading action man. If you think about
his big action movies ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "Reindeer Games,"
and "The Sum of All Fears"), they're all successful because he is so
convincing. With his deep voice, his jutting jaw, and his commanding
presence, Ben Affleck is the action star of the past, present, and
future, all rolled into one package. In "Daredevil," Affleck has his
most rewarding role of all: Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who, unlike
most blind lawyers, midnights as a superhero.
In a way, one is tempted to say, "Don't quit your day job.
"Daredevil (which is the name that Matt takes for himself) isn't
really much of a superhero. When he had radioactive goo spilled in his
eyes as a child, he went blind, but he got super powers in all of his
other senses (smell, hearing, taste, touch, grip, punch, kick,
balance, etc.). We know this because we are told this in a long
flashback sequence that also includes a thoughtful, very complete
narration. In fact, Ben Affleck himself arrives at every screening of
"Daredevil" and helpfully provides an additional Powerpoint
demonstration that neatly details his life as a child, why he's so
angry, and what his strengths and weaknesses, and likes and dislikes
are. It's sort of like having a Playboy centerfold layout of
Daredevil, which now strikes me as a very good idea. Though I know
that I'd probably just feel guilty and angry ten minutes after seeing
one, so maybe it's just as well. My internet web shrine to Ben Affleck
is already over its bandwidth limit, and my Kleenex budget has kind of
gone through the roof.
So Daredevil has these superpowers, but it turns out that they're
really no more impressive than the powers of his girlfriend (Jennifer
Garner), who studied karate as a child; Bullseye (Colin Feral), who is
wiry and Irish; and Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), who is black. In
fact, it appears that Daredevil is really a better fighter than only
two people in the movie, his friends Jon Favreau and Joe Pantoliano,
both of whom are doughy and white.
Which makes this a superhero movie about the inner struggle of the
superhero. Daredevil is troubled because his father was a prizefighter
who specialized in beating up black boxers; he is then killed by a
black man. Daredevil grows up to wonder whether he too can beat up a
black man, which is where the whole tension with Kingpin comes in.
This movie is so eager to show white-on-black violence that it might
be worth thinking about Daredevil not as a superhero, but rather as an
But the real contribution of "Daredevil" as a movie is in its "high
concept." Just like the main character, its director, Mark Steven
Johnson, is also blind. He managed to direct the movie by getting
instructions from some 13-year-old readers of the "Daredevil"
comicbook series, who spent time on the set telling him what kinds of
shots would "look cool." Although his advisors had to take special
Kleenex breaks while watching co-star Jennifer Garner practice her
karate moves, Johnson has managed to create the most unforgettable
film yet by a blind director. The action scenes are refreshingly
chaotic. I'm proud to say that 70% of the time, I could figure out who
was fighting who. This is a movie that isn't afraid to challenge its
audience to imagine what it would be like to be blind and also to be a
self-appointed superhero whose main abilities appear to lie in the
field of civil law.
So which of these will win Best Picture? I hate to choose, because
both "Chicago" and "Daredevil" are so great. But some research
revealed that the director of "Chicago," Rob Marshall, is a Wisconsin
native, and Johnson, the blind director of "Daredevil," was born in
Minnesota. It will probably seem unfair to my five readers who aren't
midwesterners, but loyalty matters where I come from.
Say goodbye to Hollywood! I predict that Oscar comes to "Chicago"
On a scale of four or five stars, I give "Chicago" five stars plus
one for the Oscar, and "Daredevil" five stars plus one for its
sensitive handling of the subjects of blindness and racial violence.
Twelve stars total.
Earlier Positive Movie Reviews can be found at