The Arena Grand theater is a masterpiece, and it's currently showing a masterpiece, CHICAGO, just rightly voted Oscar's best picture.  My advice:  see them both, asap!!!

By way of introduction:  this "dual review" marks my first for the new web site.  By way of disclosure, the operators of the Arena Grand Theater---along with the legendary Drexel East and Grandview Theaters---are Jeff and Kathy Frank.  They are old friends of mine, and Jeff has kindly agreed to provide passes to those films I review.  He understands that I will be panning those films I don't like. 

I will, however, be lavishing praise on all three of these gems of theaters.  Here we are on solid mutual ground.  I've always loved the Drexel and Grandview.  They are oases of class and taste in an industry now dominated by crass and fake.  They combine the old style grace of the golden age of cinema with brilliant and often daring choices of product and programming.  More on them as the opportunity arises.

For tonight lets deal with the Arena Grand.  In the heart of the Arena Distict,  this gem of a theater complex is easily accessible from all sides of the city.  It has extremely convenient adjacent parking for a buck.  It epitomizes what a downtown should be like. 

Inside, unlike nearly all other multiplexes, the atmosphere is clean, civil and comfortable.  It's designed for movie goers rather than mall rats.  It's a great place to watch films.

That said, seeing CHICAGO there is a real treat.  Essentially a long, graceful and often mesmerizing music video, it derives its power from some great songs, a healthy dose of humor and three brilliant performances. 

At the top of the list, Catherine Zeta-Jones is absolutely terrific, and deserves a lifetime achievement Oscar for American cinema's greatest athletic performance by a pregnant woman.  Admittedly, she didn't yet "show" when CHICAGO was made.  But she can sing, she can dance, she can act and she can dominate the screen, no matter what the size of the embryo she was carrying.  As the leading light of the hypnotic and exciting "He Had It Coming" early in the film, she sets an energy level that carries the film the rest of the way.  Her highly knocked-up Oscar night duet with superb co-star Queen Latifah put a fitting exclamation point on an amazing tour de force.

The Queen herself is also a piece of work.  As the tough but warm prison matron who frames CHICAGO's cynical take on life behind bars and in front of the camera, she sings and acts like a charismatic master.  She is strong, funny, talented and attractive, a dynamite combo in a neat role.   

But it's Richard Gere who's the big surprise.  Having faxed in performances to a wide range of predictable dogs, Gere here actually sings, dances and mugs for the camera in ways that are always endearing and often impressive.  Dating back to AMERICAN GIGOLO and its flacid sequal, PRETTY WOMAN, this guy should have been an airhead flash in the pan.  Instead, he's proven to be not only a thoughtful and committed Buddhist peace activist, but a broad-ranging talent with legs and a voice.  In CHICAGO, he's great fun to watch, pulling off his role as a sharpster defense attorney with the humor and dignity needed to hold the film together.

The only real weakness I found in CHICAGO was the lead, Renee Zellweger.  She can sing pretty well.  She can dance pretty well.  She can act.  But for me she lacks the screen charisma the film's music and screen power deserved.  I found her adequate but well shy of the charismatic force of her three co-stars.  Put a Nicole Kidman or Madonna in that role and you've got a much stronger film.

But what's there is more than strong enough.  I haven't seen all the competition.  And maybe CHICAGO's fame-is-fleeting story line goes on a tad too long.

But this is a clearly a major work of art.  Great candy for the eye and ear, a plot that holds, some terrific writing, beautiful and imaginative staging, and, above all, at least three really wonderful performances.

Perfect fare for a great venue.  See it soon.  See it often.  And see it at the Arena Grand.