Some quick thoughts on the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, except for the one I haven't seen yet:
* Chicago -- I was jazzed into seeing this -- as who could not be? -- by the wildly overenthusiastic praise of William Price Fox, whom I assume to be a knowledgeable movie fan, but who greets this movie like an adolescent girl. Pardon me if that sounds snotty; it's just that the adolescent girl I saw it with, my daughter, saw it with about as much joy as her dad did. It's a gloriously fun movie, no question, but the first thing you notice about it is the hovering spirit of Bob Fosse, who was not only responsible for helming the original musical, but who oiginated the very style of it over 20 years ago, in All That Jazz -- that whole life-is-a-musical set-up that everyone is fawning over. That and the way it has absorbed so many familiar ideas from other musicals. It's the best movie musical since Moulin Rouge, and in its own way it follows a similar format of musical sampling. Having said that, let me add that "The Cellblock Tango" and Queen Latifah's "Reciprocity" were dynamite, and that Catherine Zeta-Jones was a real revelation, much more so than Renee Zelklwiger, who has the face but not the body for this kind of role. Zeta-Jones has the kind of great energetic showbiz flesh that betrays little sign of effort; Zellwiger just looked too sinewy, like she'd prepped herself in way too many gyms for the roles. It was the 1920s, for heaven's sake; no one cared back then if you had been working out. Zellwiger is no Jean Harlow.
* Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers -- Okay, I saw it at Christmas, so my memory is a little dim. First off, this was my favorite part of the Tolkien story, which I didn't much care for; Tolkien is no writer. Still, Frodo and Samwise and the captive Smeagol reminded me of Anthony Mann's film The Naked Spur, where the bounty hunter Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh have a long, hard hellacious trail ride with the captured Robert Ryan, who is very good at working on the nerves of his captors. The trip in the book was more relaxed, less heavy than what came before or after; it was like a picaresque. As he demonstrated in Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson was the perfect director for this project; he may be the closest thing to a David Lean our age has to offer. He makes epics with a great amount of soul and passion, and the movie is captivating all the way through. I was a little didsappointed not to see the spider Shelob; hopefully she shows up next year.
* Gangs of New York -- What is it with Martin Scorsese? The projects get bigger, longer, classier, more ambitious and every single one bears some glorious example of textbook-perfect framing and cutting. And yet, his mojo hasn't really worked in years; he's trying too hard to be himself. Look at his best films -- Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull -- and you see movies in which you know without question that the director has invested a good deal of his own blood. In the films of the last decade or so, he just seems to be floundering. There are a lot of good things in Gangs, namely Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, but it's overlong and whatever points it made about race and religion didn't seem especially challenging. It's a bit of a bloody spectacle; bloody and strangely bloodless.
* The Pianist -- The first thing you notice: yes, this is a Polanski film. It has the same stylistic precision of Knife in the Water and Chinatown, the same pitiless searching gaze; you see it in Adrian Brody's eyes. This story of a master pianist who manages to survive through Hitler's ghettoization of Poland, losing first family, then friends, and finally spending a great deal of the movie by his scared, lonely, emaciated self, is a brutal picture but not a brutalizing one. There's a plenitude of Nazi violence in it, but it's never sensationalized, overy dramatized, or dwelt on at length. It keeps a perfect gaze and moves at an unhurried but urgent pace.
* Hope to see The Hours sometime soon.