A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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August 12, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , ,

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