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March 7, 2003

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

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 butter.

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 uberhero.

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" this year!

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 home.earthlink.net/~dleheny