Chicago (2002)

My relationship with Chicago can best be described as dysfunctional. When it was released I was in the 6th grade, and I was absolutely obsessed with it. Part of the appeal was certainly the raunchiness, as it was possibly the dirtiest movie I had seen at that time (sex scenes! garters! loose morals!) but as I get older the shock wears off. (Duh.)

With age and repeat viewings, I also find myself more critical of it. The film’s “protagonist” Roxie Hart becomes less and less likeable and the sound editing rather gimmicky. The choices in directing mesmerized me in my youth, but now I find them rather obvious and dull.

However, while the content is less impressive to me, its style and what the movie represents bring the movie significant more weight and, in my opinion, make it more and more essential. The musical numbers are all very well staged, particularly the unforgettable “Cell Block Tango.” Furthermore, Chicago has the honor of being possibly the only noir movie musical.

Yes, it’s a musical (black) comedy, but there’s no one to root for here; everybody’s got loose morals, and in the end, two murderesses beat the system and become celebrities. What?

Movies like this would never have flown in classical Hollywood, so Chicago is a jewel in the noir crown. The take-home message, essentially, is that we can get away with terrible crimes and that we should stop at nothing to get what we want. It’s the standard Hero’s Journey, but with murder and dishonesty as tools to use to achieve our ends.

While I do think the film runs a bit long, for the most part it is a supremely entertaining movie harkening back to a time when the movies were meant to be fun; the characters are cynical and conniving, but doggone it they’re gonna sing and dance and we’ll all have a good time.

This is a movie where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole, with fantastic musical numbers but a few lagging dialogue scenes in the second hour, but the film has such an important role both in modern noir and in the modern musical where it is undoubtedly an essential viewing for contemporary cinema. “Isn’t it swell?”

Amadeus (1984)

This masterpiece falls within two unpopular categories: 1, it is a period piece and 2, it runs at almost three hours. Few of our generation have seen it, despite its stellar critical reception and numerous awards won (including the Academy Award for Best Picture). In my opinion, however, it is part of the elite circle of long-running films that is so entertaining the time flies by; others include Gone with the Wind and Titanic (and certainly not the almost-four hour Ben-Hur which needed immense trimming).

On the surface, it is a biopic about Mozart through the eyes of a competitor composer, Salieri, but it offers a rich commentary on fame and celebrity. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are perfect as Salieri and Mozart, respectively, and through the swiftly moving screenplay we see their first meeting, growing competitive natures, and ultimately forgiveness and acceptance. In one of the film’s best scenes, they collaborate on Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and we see two masters at work: Mozart in bed, dictating the melodies and harmonies as Salieri commits the music to paper. While this situation is very likely a fictional one, it is a fascinating and engaging look at the creative process when it comes to songwriting, an art very rarely explored in the movies.

Even beyond the content, another impressive feature of the film is its style. Almost every scene is played to excess, with elaborate wigs, costumes, and Mozart’s childish and vulgar (yet hilarious) behavior. Without being as blatant as films like Marie Antoinette (2006), Amadeusmanages to feel contemporary despite its late-18th century setting.

While it is difficult to find three hours’ free to plop down and watch an epic period piece, Amadeus is well worth the effort. You have never seen anything like it and likely never will.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

This is one of the (sadly) few films that commands multiple viewings. I won’t spoil any of the plot details but it’s one of those movies where everything comes together at the very end, practically forcing you to re-watch again and again. I first watched this when I was a pre-teen and rediscovered it last Spring Break. Since then I’ve seen it about ten times and I still discover new things every time I watch it.

When I re-watched it tonight, I found several new details: a woman asks her neighbor for her hold lamp back (possibly linking her to a web of crime), a man’s associated with a cup of coffee at a dinner party (which comes into play earlier in the film). At face value it may not sound like much, but this movie is a wild psychosexual ride through the dreams and desires of a young Hollywood hopeful. Every individual and every detail comes into play and manifests itself in intriguing and significant ways.

What I appreciate so much about this film, and its filmmaker David Lynch especially, is that it rewards multiple viewings. On the surface the movie is two unrelated mini-films, with a handful of cross-references, but you gather more clues and piece together more and more of the puzzle with each additional viewing. I can’t pretend I understand Mulholland Drive100% but I come closer every time I watch it.

Even taking aside the mesmerizing storytelling and unique structure, this movie is nonetheless entertaining and thrilling. It can best be described as a neo-noir thriller, though it is at times terrifying (with the scariest scene I’ve ever watched, I can’t even look at the screen) and heartbreaking. It also has what may be the healthiest and most honest love story I’ve seen at the movies.

What makes Mulholland Drive so exceptional is its metafictional self-awareness. At its core, it is a mystery involving two women, one grappling with amnesia and the other a rising Hollywood actress. It plays with all the standard Hollywood cues we’ve seen for decades: the femme fatale, the wide-eyed optimist, the cynical Hollywood elite, and many others; but the way the action plays out distorts the grasp you think you have on the story.

It initially clings to all the rules of Hollywood only to break them halfway through; the film hinges on a haunting scene at a nightclub where the emcee emphasizes that everything they are hearing is a tape recording; it is all an illusion. From this pivotal moment, all bets are off, as the film throttles in a totally different direction and plunging the characters into a gritty and seedy Hollywood underworld and an ultimately tragic conclusion.

This fantastic manipulation with the audience’s expectations and the immeasurable depth of the colorful Hollywood the characters reside in bring me back to this movie every month or so. I can never turn down another trip up Mulholland Drive.

Cabaret (2012)

Last Saturday I impulsively went to see the John Kander and Freb Ebb musical Cabaret. What a wonderful and arbitrary decision it turned out to be! The show was staged at Fort Mason, which as you might expect is a former military base. The space was essentially a big auditorium with a few permanent seats, with a handful of tables set up to establish the cabaret nightclub atmosphere. (I tried to sit at one of these tables but to no avail, the ticket taker was a grade-A tool.)

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. If you aren’t very familiar with the show Cabaret, it has been performed in many different incarnations; the original Broadway production is worlds apart from the film, as well as the well-known oversexed 1998 Broadway revival. This production brought together the best aspects of each, with songs and storylines exclusive to each previous version of the show.

What I was especially pleased with was how well this production handled the source material. Despite its immense popularity, Cabaret has always to me seemed a bit of an oddball show. As a product of 1960s Broadway tradition, it filled with lots of fun and bubbly jazz numbers, which it somehow manages to balance with the dark themes of Nazism and the inevitable tragedy facing the characters. Having never seen the original production (duh) I can’t say how well that managed it, but I am very happy to say that this independent version did so. It adds depth to seemingly carefree songs with heavy emotion and weight. When the show’s protagonist (or the closest thing to one, since the characters are practically amoral and cowardly) sings “Life is a cabaret, old chum” toward the show’s finale, her eyes are in tears; she knows what she is singing is false but she still forces herself to believe her own words.

The major fault with this production was with the orchestra; they were often overpowering the un-miked (and therefore very imrpessive) singers, making the lyrics hard to decipher if you are unfamiliar with the score. I knew the songs inside and out so for me it wasn’t a problem, but I imagine some of the clever lyrics were lost on greenhorns.

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Cabaret. A Saturday night well spent!