Film Length: 113 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 encoded 1.85:1 (separate 4x3 encoded 1.33:1 Pan/Scan also available)
Audio: DD 5.1 (English, French), DTS 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Feature Commentary, Deleted Musical Number, Behind-the-scenes Featurette
Release Date: August 19, 2003
Well folks, this is what makes it all worthwhile. Movies like Chicago are the verdant oasis in a reviewer’s desert sands (that’s the jaded wisdom that comes from doing your second review ). CHICAGO is something very, very special. In my opinion, CHICAGO is brilliant.
Having never seen the stage-musical production, I cannot directly compare the film adaptation. But the film stands so solidly on its own and it is from this vantage point that I’ll offer my review.
CHICAGO is a story/musical based in 1920’s Chicago (surprised?) and is inspired by historical events of the time. The story establishes itself with the murders committed by two women who are then imprisoned in a women’s jail. One woman is a stage hit sensation (Velma Kelly) and the other (Roxie Hart) is a chorus girl who longs for her place in the spotlight and who inwardly lusts after Velma’s success. As the story evolves, we watch how these women use their passion for fame and the public’s appetite for sensationalism to gain recognition and manipulate their outcome despite some difficult odds. This story is about the empowerment of women who use every tool and talent they posses to beat the system. Through the assistance of her lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) Roxie manages to harness the power of the press and steer the judicial system in her favor. Plenty of subtext layers to sift through for you movie-onion-peelers out there.
What makes this movie so good?
I had the pleasure to first view CHICAGO on 35mm at a theater on Broadway in NYC. It was somewhat ironic to be watching a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical just a few doors down from Broadway. Then again it was entirely apropos. The energy this movie conveyed had all the dynamics of a live performance and when we walked out of the theater I had the same sensation that I get when leaving a stellar live-theater performance. I felt the same way again when viewing the DVD last night. That’s good movie-making.
CHICAGO feels like a cross between the film Cabaret and Moulin Rouge. It has the dark earth-tone color pallet and raw edginess of Cabaret. It’s gritty, brassy, and unashamedly sexy. Like Moulin Rouge we have camera movements, scene transitions, and surreal images that take us out of ourselves and ride on the vehicle of imagination. Like both films the energy is intense and you have to “let go” to really experience it.
There’s just too much to praise about this film to allow me to explicate every creative device employed by Director Rob Marshall…so never-fear, we’ll get on to the technical merits of the DVD soon enough. But I do want to discuss what I consider to be a key to the film’s success: Marshall’s decision to contextualize the musical numbers in one of two ways: either performed “on stage” in the “reality” of the film or to express them through Roxie’s dream world.
In Roxie’s fantasy life, we find a place where daily events transform into mind-blowing musical numbers choreographed to chill-inducing perfection. There are three significant benefits to approaching “musical” sequences this way (versus the traditional “burst into song on the sidewalk” methodology of the classic movie-musical). The first benefit of Roxie’s dream world is that it gives Marshall an effective way to distinguish the musical performances in his film from their live-stage counterparts…he’s created an entirely new expression for CHICAGO and it’s one that works. It works so well, in fact, that having seen film I honestly can’t imagine the songs presented any other way (some of the songs like “Reached for the Gun” seemed written explicitly to be choreographed the way we experience them in this film).
Secondly, because all the singing and dancing in the movie is given this “sanctioned” context of either being on-stage or taking place in Roxie’s imagination, modern movie goers feel comfortable with the experience and don’t cringe from embarrassment or giggle when the actors starts singing. And even seasoned musical lovers, who might not have had a problem with following the bouncing ball, now don’t have to engage their willing suspension of disbelief; Marshall’s musical-framing technique has done that work for you by removing the “rules” that would have required it.
And thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Marshall affords himself an abundance of artistic freedom in how he’s able to present the musical sequences by removing them from the context of reality. If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann used this same technique…removing the “reality based” context during many musical sequences (people don’t really walk on clouds floating beneath winking moons) to break the rules and achieve success.
What more to say? CHICAGO is a near “perfect” film. It’s fit-and-finish are tight as a whistle. How often do you walk away from a movie thinking to yourself , “self, that was some kick-ass editing!”? Well get ready: Marshall is a master of scene-changes…he synchronizes the imagery on the screen to the soundtrack and then bounces back and forth from angle to angle, dream to reality, pivoting on an image or visual to always keep the viewer in balance and the direction focused. Brilliant. Fifth Element Diva Scene… you’ve got company.
What’s the most assured way to make you think that your 16x9 34” direct-view 480 progressive monitor needs to say bye-bye? Take your preview copy of CHICAGO to your friend’s house and watch it on his front projection system. Yes everyone should be as lucky as me. My buddy’s got a well calibrated Sony 10HT (16x9 LCD HD resolution) projector which puts out a really good 96 inch diagonal picture. The only real caveat of the Sony’s rendition is its relative lack of deep black reproduction…relative to CRT displays that is. The Sony’s black-level is actually very close to projected film (after proper calibration) and has an excellent built-in scaler to render fine level detail that at times really does convince you that you’re watching a projected film and not an electronic signal off a 5 inch disc.
So there we were feeding a 480P signal (from a Panny RP-91) to the Sony and what did we see? In short, a stunning, incredibly film-like image that (except for one minor caveat) reproduces the source film-print faithfully and convincingly even when projected on a large-scale and viewed from about 1.5-1.75:1 screen widths away.
Be warned: Those who haven’t seen a theatrical projection of this film may view the sometimes low-contrast images and often dull color pallet as “not a great transfer”. To top it off we even have some film-grain (dah-dah-dah-daaahh...scary organ music) visit the scene from time to time. These are all aspects of the image that are part of the film elements and as such are part of the overall artistic expression intended by the director. Fear not.
It’s rare to find a DVD that contains this much real picture detail. To my eyes, the Miramax folks have resisted the urge to filter out high-frequency detail (a common practice to facilitate MPEG compression). On the contrary, we have a finely-detailed image that communicates the rich textures of film nearly beyond reproach. I’d imagine that a 1920 x 1080 high-definition image might look better, but not that much better. Close-ups do an excellent job of rending picture information that more than satisfies—but that’s the case with many lesser transfers as well. Where this DVD really excels is in the “micro detail” that keeps faces in focus even when they recede into the distance or background of the scene. And when you’re looking carefully into those backgrounds you won’t see ANY MPEG compression artifacting EVER. I should add that this includes the commonly seen "banding" where gradual gradation/shading shows up as a series of discrete colors/tones in a band-like artfict (like the opening scene of DareDevil and around some street-lights in Dark City). No color-banding anywhere to be seen in CHICAGO despite the constant fades, disolves, and dark-tone gradations. Incredible.
I don’t know how they did it. This is VERY challenging material to compress and Miramax has given us what looks like a super-bit compression job. Smoke, fog, film-grain, and some serious motion all conspire to tax the MPEG codec and yet the image on that 96” screen looked smooth, natural, silky, and film-like with nary a macro-blocking artfact to be seen. Disney has managed to fit the entire movie—with fine detail intact—along two 5.1 DD soundtracks, a DTS 5.1 soundtrack, a 2.0 commentary track and a 30 minute featurette all on the same disc with no compromise to the image quality of the feature film that my eyes could detect. Whatever the miracle MPEG2 encoder is that Miramax is using, the rest of the DVD industry needs to find out about it and use it. BRAVO.
Just as with hi-fidelity audio, I tend to judge hi-fidelity video on what it doesn’t do to the signal (ie, less is more when you're talking about "mastering" an audio or video signal). And thankfully DNR is another thing that hasn’t been done to the video on this disc. I could detect no “crawlies” or shifting pattern noise that I often see with transfers where some technician has decided to “apply some digital noise reduction to clean up the picture”. Subtle picture changes like moving smoke, background patterns like wallpaper, or the random noise from the fine-grain of the film elements are just rendered naturally with no “digital signature”.
Ok I’ll try to keep this brief. Those of you quivering in your shoes right now hold tight. Yes, there is some edge enhancement on this disc. The first thing I have to say is that it bums me out because the haloing from EE is totally unnecessary and IMHO never serves to “improve” the picture even on small displays. However, let me put everything in perspective by saying that the EE on CHICAGO is extremely minimal and only becomes distracting if you’re sitting 1.5 screen widths or closer to the 1.85:1 image. From about 1.75:1 screen widths (which I personally feel is as close as one should get to DVD source material in general) I could barely pick out a few halos in two or three key scenes if I tried. But without consciously looking for them the image smoothed out into a smooth, fluid picture that didn’t reveal any distracting “video” processing. Those of you watching your images from more than 1.75:1 screen widths distance will likely see no haloing artifacts at all. Once the disc is in your hands I’ll be interested to hear from those of you with front projection systems to see if you’re impressions concur.
A good DVD transfer is one that looks as much like the film elements as is possible in a 720 x 480 digital frame (whether one likes the way those film elements look is an entirely different matter). CHICAGO comes about as close to achieving this goal as any DVD transfer to date. This transfer presents as much detail as is possible within the resolution limits of standard definition DVD and has virtually NO digital compression artifacting and sets a new standard for compression as far as I’m concerned. Except for some occasional extremely minor haloing for those sitting closer than 1.5:1 screen widths distance, CHICAGO is a PERFECT transfer. So putting it all together…
Picture: 4.9 / 5
Screen Captures: As soon as I’m able to I hope to provide some screen-captures and post them in here. Give me time to find a PC with a DVD drive and a way to host the pics on a server that won’t cost any $$. If I find I'm not able to I'll say so here so you won't keep waiting...
Both the 5.1 Dolby Digital and 5.1 DTS mixes are pure reference (even the French track is in 5.1 DD!). Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m one of those “I can hear the difference between those digital cables” kind of audiophiles. Folks, let me tell you that the 5.1 audio mix is recorded/mastered to audiophile standards. Bass is solid and defined. The mix spreads wide and isn’t all packed into the center channel. Speaking of the mix, it also doesn’t suffer from the “L-C-R” hard left-center-right mixing technique you often hear where sounds are just dropped into either the left, center or right channels as though those were the only options (what Michael Osadciw refers to as "multichannel mono"...great term!). Instead we get a nice even “spread” of sound that places sound sources across the entire soundstage…between (and behind) the speakers and extending even outside the speaker array depending on the acoustics in your listening environment. Surround use is balanced perfectly…the surrounds are used judiciously but never to distraction and they contribute to a full and saturated acoustical presentation.
The vocals are clear, ring fluidly, and have “air”. There’s lots of front/back soundstaging to the musical mixes…lead vocals are placed up front and center and the backup chorus is placed behind. On my friend’s B&W 801 Nautilus speakers driven by a Lexicon MC 12 decoder/preamp and Lexicon amplification (yes, now feels like my AV receiver should join my TV on ebay as well!), the chorus was clearly placed several feet behind the lead. Instrumentation is also imaged with aplomb and the result is natural and life-like presentation that just makes you go Ahhhhhhhhh. The complex sound of the massed chorus vocals is rendered with astonishing resolution and sounds airy and lush. Just to contrast, I’ll pick on the audio for Moulin Rouge for a moment which while it sounds great, is mixed/mastered presenting a much more flat presentation with little sense of front/back imaging and with massed vocals that come accross a bit more congested.
The DTS rocks big-time here and tops the already-excellent DD soundtrack. The DTS seems recorded at a slightly louder volume, but pleeeeaaase resist the urge to tell me that this is the reason why it sounds better. Trust me…adjusting the volume knob keeps the improvements that DTS brings in tact. Basically everything that the DD mix does right, the DTS just does better: Vocals take on a more lush and liquid sound that (to use a term from my audiophile days) sounds more “analog”. Imaging and soundstage depth improve significantly to my ears and it just sounds like the musical presentation has been brought into focus. Vocals become even more airy are surrounded by a believable acoustic space. Timbres and musical texture have more realism with the DTS mix (I hear these same improvements on my own system as well where I screened the disc the next day to confirm). Those of you familiar with Pacific Micronsonic's HDCD decoding--the difference between the DD & DTS tracks reminds me of the difference between a standard 16-bit CD sound vs a properly decoded HDCD.
Sound: 5 / 5
Extras are adequate, but not abundant. Most impressive is the director’s commentary (the screenplay writer takes part in this too but the director Rob Marshall seems to do most of the talking) which I found interesting, relevant, and educational. The commentary is very extensive and most of the time the background movie soundtrack is kept at low-volume…only occasionally does the commentary pause long enough to justify bringing the soundtrack-volume back up to normal listening level. Now that’s making good use of the commentary track! Commentary is recorded in 2.0 DD and is not flagged for pro-logic playback (only your front L/R speakers will produce sound).
We’ve also got a 4x3 lbxed (2.0 DD) deleted scene of a musical number that was cut from the film. The director and screenplay writer talk about their decision to remove this scene after much thought, and I agree with their decision and think it would have slowed down the film despite the nice singing from Queen Letifah (who is just AWESOME in this movie BTW). But you’ve got it here to check out so hopefully stage-musical buffs who may have missed it in the feature film will find that comforting.
Also included is a nice 30 minute featurette that’s nicely done. Interesting trivia, screen-tests and some nice behind-the-scenes info about the actors and other movie-making related decisions make it better than average and more than the usual 30 minute movie-infomercial these things sometimes turn out to be. The video is 4x3 full-frame and I’m drawing a blank but I seem to recall the audio being 2.0 DD.
No trailer. Bummer, but I’ll assume that it might have pushed disc space over the limit and compromised picture quality. In any case…given all the features included, the trailer would have been the one I would have chosen to sacrifice.
Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, and French.
While I think CHICAGO could have easily deserved a 2-disc bells-and-whistles Special Edition, I think that extras that are included will satisfy most fans. The good thing is that the extras have rewatch appeal and are genuinely interesting…so even without full-blown 2-disc SE I feel content. Did I mention how astonished I am that they managed to pack all this stuff on the disc…including DTS and optional 5.1 French sound…and STILL the picture is absolute reference?
A marvelous masterpiece of movie-making comes to you on DVD on August 19 with a near-perfect image transfer and absolutely reference-setting audio quality. Extras take the quality versus quantity approach and most fans should be satisfied. What more to say?