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This post needs a disclaimer to the effect that I just loooooooooove both these films.

Chicago (Best Picture, 2002)

I love musicals, but it can be difficult to take them from merely a rollicking good time to a rollicking good time AND a critical assessment of our society.  CHICAGO is an unabashedly cynical look at the way our culture glorifies criminals, manipulates news cycles and judicial proceedings by playing to the crowd, and quickly loses interest in the celebrities we’ve created.

CHICAGO revels in its cynicism.  No alliances are sacred, no line uncrossable in the self-serving pursuit of fame and money.  At times you think that maybe the oily lawyer Billy Flynn, admirably played by the equally oily Richard Gere, is the true voice of the story.  “That’s Chicago,” he keeps telling his clients when another, bigger, more sensational story steals their limelight without warning.  Other times, the voice of the story seems to be Matron “Mama” Morton, made larger than life by Queen Latifah.  She never pretends that she’s in it for anything other than money.  Mama plays to the egos of the murderers under her care, milking them of all the cash she can manage.  Granted, she does get them contraband, publicity, and assistance when the price is paid.  Her one solo song, “When You’re Good to Mama,” steals the first half of the film, and it’s not just because Queen Latifah gets the best. dress. ever.  The whole film is about the “system of reciprocity.”

There’s a really disturbing subculture I learned about from watching CRIMINAL MINDS known as “murder groupies.”  It’s the people who idolize and even fall in love with notorious killers.  I’d bet you anything that Jodi Arias’ mail right now contains really creepy messages swearing love and making sexual propositions.  CHICAGO looks at another version of this subculture.  The way our media glorifies murder by giving it so much air time makes it into the entertainment that the Billy Flynns of the world can exploit.  Look at the “We Both Reached For the Gun” routine in CHICAGO, where all the reporters are marionettes controlled by Billy, and Roxie Hart herself is a ventriloquist’s dummy, also controlled by the lawyer.  Think about the Lucy Liu cameo in CHICAGO.  She’s the killer in a triple homicide.  As Billy tells his dinner companions about this triple homicide he’s just heard about, they’re laughing hard.  It’s comedy.

Some final, less serious thoughts.  First, a big round of applause to Catherine Zeta-Jones. I could watch the whole movie with just her and no Roxie Hart.  And what athleticism goes into this whole movie! The women of the Cell Block Tango are phenomenal.  I also want their boots.  Lastly, I love that Taye Diggs is in this film, calmly mediating between our world and that of Roxie’s fantasies.  I just wish he got to sing, since that man has a voice like velvet.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Best Picture, 2003)

As an admitted Tolkien-a-holic, it’s a challenge for me to consider writing a coherent set of thoughts about LOTR: ROTK in five hundred words or less.

I could compare the movie to the novel, or the theatrical release to the extended edition.  This was the first time I’d seen the theatrical release since the extended edition came out, and I was kind of surprised by some of the things omitted – the Mouth of Sauron, for instance, or the moment when Eomer finds Theoden and Eowyn on the fields of the Pelennor.

I could rave about the respect for and knowledge of Tolkien’s creation evident in every detail of the film, from the script to the set design to the careful creation of sets, costumes, makeup, and props.  I could mourn the loss of the late great Bob Anderson, who trained the actors in their fight choreography.  I could also consider the extraordinary and less acknowledged contributions of the stunt, riding, and scale doubles.  I’m particularly impressed by the riding doubles, to be honest, and whoever trained those horses. Remarkable!

I could talk about Howard Shore’s extraordinary score.  It is grand and intimate by turns, and the use of recognizable themes makes one think of the leitmotifs in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas, which is based on similar sources to those Tolkien knew in his capacity as a professor at Oxford University.  I could write a passionate piece explaining just why Andy Serkis deserved an Oscar for his jaw-dropping performance as the dual personalities of that tortured creature Smeagol/Gollum, and why human performances behind CG characters should still be considered for acting awards.  I could consider the tragic heroine Eowyn, or think about the film’s expansion of the roles of Elrond Half-Elven and Arwen Undomiel, his daughter.  I could explain why I see Aragorn as a composite of Britain’s Arthur and Alfred.  I could speculate as to the magnitude of headache Elijah Wood left filming with every day, thanks to Frodo’s endless angst and distress being mostly communicated through his eyebrows.  I could even mention the fact that I’ve gotten academic credit no less than three times for studying THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  I’ll refrain from mentioning the time I met Sir Ian McKellen, though…

So many options, and already I’m almost out of room.  So I’ll talk about an aspect of the stories in book and film that I particularly like.  Billy Boyd’s Peregrin “Pippin” Took and Dominic Monaghan’s Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck are, to me, two of the most interesting characters in the story.  Both of them are forced to grow up, particularly Pippin.  Tolkien says hobbits come of age at 33, so if we make that comparable to our culture saying we’re adults at 18, then Pippin, at age 27, is essentially a teenager.  It’s no wonder he gets into trouble and has impulse control.  The Fellowship has a seventeen-year-old boy along, and we all know how mature THEY are!  He is the carefree child dropped into a situation that is more serious than he understands, and is forced to grow up quickly in a time of war.  Merry’s a little older, a little more world-wise and mature, but he too is forced into knowledge and loss of innocence.  His passionate devotion to Theoden is a quietly moving thread in RETURN OF THE KING.

Really, I could write many posts on the films and books of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  Both, in my opinion, are masterpieces.

Headstone for J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien. Beren and Luthien.

Headstone for J.R.R. and Edith Tolkien. Beren and Luthien.

Next Up: Million Dollar Baby (Best Picture, 2004) and Crash (Best Picture, 2005)