A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 165 – Center Stage

Center Stage – August 12th, 2010

Tonight is the finale of the current season of So You Think You Can Dance, and we’ve done a few dance movies for it so far this season, so why not end on one? This is one of the rare movies in our collection that I’ve seen but Andy hadn’t. The funny thing is that one of his sisters is a ballerina. So I was looking forward to his views on this as someone who knows more about ballet than I do. I never took a single ballet lesson when I was young. The closest I got to dance class was a few meetings of junior cotillion where they showed us the box step and the hustle (yes, seriously). I never really wanted to do ballet. And yet I’ve seen this movie about 20 million times.

After I finished college and had to leave my sweet campus library job I was unemployed for about a month and a half. This sucked, but we had super deluxe cable that had three different HBOs, so at least I had plenty to watch. But the HBOs did this weird thing where they cycled movies through from one to the next. Therefore there was about two weeks when I could turn on the tv and this would be playing somewhere. I saw it a lot. Enough that a few of the songs used (the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of Higher Ground in particular) are now inextricably linked to the dance numbers they’re used for here. I don’t know what drew me to this movie, but I love it.

It’s not super complicated, even though it tries hard to have a love triangle. The thing is, it’s hard to have a love triangle when almost nothing happens between two points of it and the third blinks in and out. It’s more about the aspirations of a group of young ballet students who want to be professional dancers. It’s got jealousy and drama and the requisite pitfalls, from body image issues and eating disorders to lack of talent to career crushing injury (anyone else watch SYTYCD and still worried about Alex, or just me?), even if the injury ends up not being so bad, so everyone can have a happy ending. Well, everyone we give a damn about, anyhow.

There are six students that get enough focus to be considered the lead ensemble. There’s Jody, the supposed star of the movie. She’s not as well trained as everyone else and her feet aren’t great and she isn’t turned out the way she should be, but she shines when she dances so none of that matters! In fact, that very sentiment is at the core of her character arc and is stated outright during the opening audition montage. There’s Eva (played by the always awesome Zoe Saldana – one of my first views of her and I loved her immediately as she’s probably the best actress and character in the movie), a scholarship student from Boston who’s got a chip on her shoulder and a somewhat defeatist attitude. She pisses off teachers and seems to hate everything, but she’s truly an excellent dancer under it all. There’s Maureen, the best dancer in school. She’s also got a chip on her shoulder and tosses off bitchy remarks, but is under enormous pressure from her mother and also hiding her bulimia. We don’t get to know the boys quite so well. There’s Erik, who’s black and gay and that’s about all we get to know about him. There’s Sergei, who’s Russian and straight but has a girlfriend in the San Francisco Ballet, and that’s all we know about him. And there’s Charlie, who’s white and straight and single and therefore a hot commodity in the school. The boys are all excellent dancers, especially Charlie, and that’s about it for them.

And then there’s Cooper Nielson, the principal dancer for the American Ballet Company (which the school everyone else is at feeds into) and a total cad. Excellent showman and dancer, yes, but with an ego the size of Jupiter. He is, in a word, entitled. Privileged, if you will. The world aligns for him, and when it doesn’t he throws a snit. When his girlfriend (and co-star) dumped him to marry the director of the company he took off for London for the season and has only just returned at the beginning of the movie, dead set on showing up the ABC. He makes one point in the triangle. Jody makes another. And Charlie’s the third. The problem with that plot is that there’s almost nothing between Jody and Charlie. He asks her out, but only after she’s gone out with Cooper and fixated on him and prior to that there’s a single scene of them dancing in a club, but it seems more like a performance than chemistry. And then Cooper ditches Jody after one night, then seems to fixate on her again after casting her in a piece he’s choreographing, then he and Charlie have a dance off. It’s a little forced. So much so that the entire piece Cooper choreographed is actually a summary of the triangle itself. This is a plot that felt the need to refresh your memory with Cliff’s Notes at the end. But I’ll get back to that.

What I like far more are Maureen’s and Eva’s arcs. They’re not surprising in any way, but they’re less forced than the Charlie/Jody/Cooper triangle, and where Jody’s plot is the fantasy where the girl who’s totally wrong is brilliant anyhow and gets the starring roll and the guy, Maureen and Eva both tackle some more realistic stuff. And eventually their arcs meet, which is nice. They start out hating each other, with Eva seeing right through Maureen’s bullshit Little Miss Perfect act and Maureen sneering at Eva’s Too Cool For This attitude. By the midway point, when casting for the big school showcase pieces is done and Eva realizes she’s blown her chances at getting a good part and managing to get into a professional company, you’ve seen her struggle with letting people tell her what to do and admitting this is important to her. Maureen, meanwhile, is realizing that it’s not important to her, and she’s gone and gotten herself a boyfriend who’s not a dancer, and is slacking off in rehearsals. She’s still puking though, and clearly ambivalent about the choices she’s made. Much as I like Susan May Pratt, I don’t always entirely believe her in this character, especially when her boyfriend calls her on the purging and she bitches him out for it. But it’s not enough to toss me out of the moment. In the end they both get what’s best for them, which is to be expected, but it’s a clearly bumpy road to get there.

Now, let’s talk about the dancing. As I’ve said, I’m no expert in ballet. I enjoy watching dance, but in no way can I spot flaws in technique or pinpoint nitpicky goofs in how the movie presents dancing. A goodly amount of it feels right to me, like the scene with everyone breaking in new toe shows and taping up their mangled ballerina feet. But the biggest glaring problems I have with the movie – aside from Jody’s magical ballerina aura or whatever – are in the final dance performance. Even ignoring the fact that the final performance is meant to be a reprisal of Jody’s arc, in case we missed it, which we could have, it has always struck me as massively unrealistic. The goofs section on the IMDB page for the movie claims that there’s nothing wrong with this performance and how it’s presented. I call no way. I’ve been a theater techie. I refuse to believe in the final performance. Because, see, it has a whole bunch of acts, with Jody playing a ballerina who’s sought after by both a company director and a hot shot rebel. And in each act she’s got a different hairdo and costume. I’ll buy the black leotard and bun turning into a blue dress and loose hair – that’s easy enough. But then it’s back to a new black leotard and a tight bun. And then suddenly she’s in red toe shoes, red leotard, super bold makeup and her hair’s all braided and done up with ribbons for the final scene. IMDB claims the movie implies an intermission. To that I say, there’d been at least two performances before this one. That is one long-ass showcase piece. And it goes from act to act. Assume there’s an intermission if you want. I don’t. I blame Jody’s magical ballerina powers. At least it’s fun to watch. Not necessarily ballet, but fun.

Which I think sums up the movie to me. It’s not a ballet. And in the end it’s not entirely about ballet dancers. When Cooper starts up a new company he hires a bunch of his friends from a Broadway-style group he hangs with. His company is clearly not going to be putting on a traditional Nutcracker performance come December. He’s put forth as directly opposed to the head of the school, Jonathan, and I think we’re supposed to see Jonathan as a stick in the mud. We’re supposed to think his way of doing things is outdated. But maybe not, because while it doesn’t suit Jody or Cooper, it does suit Charlie, Erik and Eva just fine. So the school and its faculty has to play a double roll of villains for one set of characters and heroes for the other set, which is messy. So it’s not just ballet. It’s dance. Painful, competitive, difficult, dangerous, heartbreaking as it is. It’s also fun. And as obvious as the plots are, and shallow as some of the characters are, and even with the Cliff’s Notes ending, it’s still fun to watch.

August 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Center Stage

August 12, 2010

Center Stage

Today marks the end of another season of So You Think You Can Dance, so we decided to pull another dance related movie out of our collection to review this evening. Center Stage is a new view for me, but I’m pretty sure I can keep up. It doesn’t appear to be the sort of movie that operates with any kind of subtlety.

Before I get down to actually trying to review the movie I feel like I should talk some about ballet. My sister is a ballet dancer and instructor, and I lived for several years with her and her ballet friends. I often got to be backstage for performances and view rehearsals. What surprised me here was that a lot of the time this movie gets the feel of things so right. Sure there’s a lot of embellishment and melodrama, but most of the things I best remember from living with my sister are there. There’s a scene where the main character Jody examines her bloody and damaged feet. That struck me as pretty honest. And there’s the sudden injury of a principal dancer and his replacement on short notice. I’ve witnessed the scramble to replace a lead dancer, seen the resulting performance and wondered at the magic when the show goes on without a hitch. There really is a lot of drama behind the scenes of any performance, ballet included, and the wonder of it all is that the audience is completely unaware of it and can just take in the show. All of that made its way into this movie, I think.

Sadly, however, the movie was not as magical as an actual ballet performance. My wife suggested a bunch of films for our collection early on in this project which she had seen and I had not. This was because I bought most of the movies we own, and there was a pretty one-sided feel to the list, with a lot of movies that were more to my liking or which I had seen and she had not. This was one of the movies we got to even the score. So after watching it tonight she turned to me and asked “So, did it suck?” To which I instantly replied “No! But…” And I had to think for a while. I knew that there was something about this movie that didn’t quite work for me, and I was having trouble figuring out how to verbalize it.

After pondering for a few minutes I think the problem this movie has is this: it is serviceable. It is the movie equivalent of a core member. It does all the right moves and hits all the correct beats and has a brilliant smile pasted on its face, but it never stretches the boundaries or tries to do anything showstopping or notice-worthy. I don’t blame the actors or the dancing or the direction. Everything in the movie does exactly what it sets out to do, but it’s so unambitious.

Part of the problem with the movie is Zoe Saldana. Her character Eva is so compelling, so well performed and so interesting that her b-plot overshadows the supposed main plot of the movie. It’s not her fault, really, she just so outshines just about everybody else in the movie that when you go back to one of the other characters it feels like a bit of a letdown. All of the most powerful scenes of the movie, for me at least, involved Eva’s interactions. I’ll admit I welled up a little during the scene where she has some reconciliation with her instructor Juliette near the end of the film. A result of this unbalanced nature to the film is that for me the movie kept on going for a good fifteen minutes after what felt to me like the fitting end. Eva’s plot is resolved, and then there’s a whole lot more dancing and stuff to get through which I didn’t care as much about.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s meet the characters. We start out following Jody Sawyer as she tries out for the American Ballet Academy. The opinion of company director and lead instructor Jonathan Reeves is that she lacks polish but has passion. (My wife laughed and said “that’s the whole plot of the movie right there in the opening scene.”) Of course she makes it into the Academy along with the sassy but talented Eva. Once they reach the school they meet a small group of people who form the rest of the cast. There’s Russian ballet student Sergei, who’s girlfriend is all the way across the country in the San Francisco Ballet. There’s the pampered prima donna Maureen whom everybody worships because she has so much natural talent. Everybody thinks she’s all stuck up and whatnot, but she’s got her own problems like her overbearing and interfering mother. And there are a couple other male dancers who are ultimately window-dressing in spite of one of them being a romantic lead. I feel kind of bad for Shakiem Evans who plays Erik, because his character is given so very little to do. The same for Sascha Radetsky as Charlie, who can dance like nobody’s business and ends up getting the girl in the end but ends up seeming so very bland. But the movie isn’t about the guys. It’s unashamedly about the three lead girls and everybody else is just there to drive the plot along.

Right after meeting all the students (well all the students we need to meet anyhow) there’s an extremely clumsy bit of plot exposition that tells us all about Cooper Nielson. He’s one of the instructors in the Academy and his ex-girlfriend has just married Jonathan Reeves. We’re told that he’s been drinking and womanizing overseas in an attempt to forget her but he’s now back. I had issues with the way the movie presents Cooper. It spends a lot of time demonstrating his lechery and his womanizing and his planet sized ego, but it doesn’t seem to want him to be the bad-guy. At least he never gets any sort of comeuppance for his actions. If anything he is rewarded at the end of the film. It puzzled me.

By the time the characters have all been introduced and all of their positions have been firmly established you know everything you need to know about this movie. Maureen has to find a way to deal with her mother. Eva needs to find a way to get past her attitude problems. Jody needs to find a way to utilize her passion to get past all those people who are hung up on her lack of polish. And of course each of them does exactly that. The movie throws you no curve balls. It presents no surprises. It plays out the predestined plot arcs that are presented for you in the first twenty minutes. Oh, it does it well, but that’s pretty much all it does.

Except for the dancing, of course. I quite liked the dancing. The last act of the movie is a sort of dance-off between rivals Jonathan and Cooper. Each of them has choreographed a number to be danced by students from the Academy for a big end of the year performance. It’s presented as a sort of final exam for the students: three male dancers and three female will be chosen to join the company from the student body based on this final number. Jonathan has created a lyrical and effervescent traditional ballet that expresses his love for music and dance. Cooper has put together a crowd-pleasing anti-ballet full of big sets, costume changes and pop music. (In a typically egotistical move, and one which reinforces the sense that the movie lacks anything resembling subtlety, Cooper actually makes his number about two choreographers vying for the attention of a dancer. It made me laugh.)

My problem with this act, and part of my problem with the entire movie, is that I really prefer Jonathan’s number. It has an elegance and simplicity to it. I don’t think you’re supposed to see it as stodgy or old-fashioned, but it’s definitely meant to contrast with the big rousing conclusion which is Coopers dance. Cooper, by contrast, is meant to feel alive and modern, and it is fun to watch, but it requires a LOT of suspension of disbelief to get through. For the most part this movie is played pretty seriously, but then you have the extremely fast set changes of Cooper’s piece and most bewilderingly a complete costume change that takes place not even offstage but in the cut from one angle to another. Perhaps it’s an editing issue? The three lead dancers are posed at the end of one song, the camera cuts to another angle of the same pose but with one of them in a completely different outfit, and they carry on dancing to the next song. It’s extremely odd. I think that it’s supposed to have the exciting feel of the final dance number of Flashdance, with the unlikely rise of the girl who doesn’t dance the way she’s supposed to as a “proper” ballerina, but because Center Stage tries so hard to make EVERYBODY a likable and sympathetic character just with a different viewpoint, it ends up feeling less powerful. It’s harder to root for anybody when you don’t have anybody to root against.

I will say that I enjoyed the movie. I like the dancing, and it was all nice to watch. It’s just that aside from Zoe’s character I didn’t really feel any emotional involvement. I kind of wish that they had reversed the two final dance numbers and made the movie more about Eva than about Jody. I’ll bet you could re-cut it using just the available footage into that movie, and I think I’d like it more. Even if it did end up being really short.

August 12, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment