A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Stomp the Yard

May 13, 2011

Stomp the Yard

I’d like to stress, just for the record, that Amanda did NOT request that I buy this movie. I bought it way back at the start of the movie a day project when we were trying to get more movies that would appeal to Amanda into our collection to counterbalance all the movies I had purchased over the years without her consent. She asked me to pick up Bring it On and Drumline and in my mind this movie just kind of fit that genre so I suggested we get it as well. She wasn’t immediately sold on the idea and told me I didn’t necessarily need to pick it up. I bought it anyhow of course.

The truth is that I feel like I’ve seen this movie before (even though I haven’t) but that’s okay because some stories are worth watching again. And this version of the story did offer a couple of surprises here and there.

The familiar story is that of the talented outsider who learns how to become a member of the team and brings them to a higher level as a group. Bring it On, Drumline, Stick It and this are all cut from the same cloth. Our talented outsider today is DJ, a gifted krumper and street dancer. When he (against the advice of his wise-beyond-his-years brother) encourages his dance crew to beat and humiliate a rival LA dance crew a fight results. It costs DJ’s brother his life and subjects DJ to a quick montage of shame.

That’s just the set-up though. The real action of the movie starts when DJ’s kind aunt and uncle bring him to their alma mater Truth U. His uncle, the captain of the Hammer from the Matrix sequels, gets him a job as a groundskeeper at the college so he can work his way through school. Dispite his street roots DJ very quickly proves himself to be a conscientious hard worker and student. Of course he still longs for his dancing days. Then he discovers the local fraternities and their step-dancing rivalry.

Here we get another whole slew of cliches. There’s the studious fraternity where nobody is aloud to take the easy way out and hard work is respected. There’s the privileged frat full of spoiled guys who simply expect to win and aren’t above video-taping their rivals to steal their material. Of course the Theta Nus (the good guys) haven’t won the step dancing championships in ages and are considered tired and washed up. The Mu Gammas on the other hand strut around because they’re reigning champs with six wins under their belts. Perhaps DJ can infuse the Thetas with fresh ideas using his street background and thus bring them victory?

Things are complicated somewhat by the fact that DJ finds himself falling for a girl named April who is going out with the second in command of the Gammas. Oh, and her father is a Gamma and is a powerful bigwig in the school faculty.

Considering just how familiar this whole plot is, and how full of tired cliches, it is pleasantly surprising how much I enjoyed the movie. For one thing the dancing is great. It’s sometimes hard to follow because of the hyperactive camera work and flashy editing, but there are some astonishing dancers here and some moves I had never seen before. (Most notably there’s an awesome movie in the opening dance-off where one guy repeatedly throws himself onto one shoulder blade and rolls around to leap back to his feet. It’s so cool.)

The other thing that’s surprising about this movie, although it appears somewhat sudden and doesn’t have quite enough establishing motivation behind it, is DJ’s dedication to bettering himself, learning and becoming a part of something bigger than himself in the fraternity. At the start of the movie DJ is sullen and doesn’t want much to do with this whole college thing. When things begin to fall apart near the end of the movie, though, DJ is most concerned because his bright new future, which he has been trying so hard to reach towards, is being taken away from him. I like that arc, I just wish that there was more in the movie to explain this transformation – it just appears to happen.

My other complaint about the movie would be that aside from DJ and April nobody else in the movie is particularly well defined. There’s DJ’s room mate (in his absolutely VAST freshman double which seems to have room for about twenty people) and his sponsor in the frat, and his rival and his aunt and uncle and April’s father… all these characters who don’t really have any character of their own and exist only to serve DJ’s story. I would have liked to have gotten a feel for who some of these people were, but I never did.

The whole movie is like that I guess. It’s DJ’s story and everybody else is along for the ride. Things happen to him and he makes decisions because it moves the plot forward, not because it makes sense for his character. (Why does he obsess over April in the first place? He shows himself to be sensitive to her feelings and her desires later on, but it all starts out with him just seeing her out of the corner of his eye and in slow motion.) The dancing is really cool though.

May 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dance & Charm School

February 8, 2011

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dance & Charm School

I can’t remember what movie I saw the preview for this on, but it looked like a touching and moving film. It looked like it had some humor and fell into that category with The Full Monty (another Robert Carlyle movie) of movies where dance solves all problems. The preview depicts a movie about a widower who ends up going to a dance class and finds some solace there. While this is an accurate short plot summary of this movie it doesn’t even begin to encompass the film we watched tonight.

Writer director Randall Miller has done something extremely odd here. He’s taken a 1990 nostalgic short film about young boys in the sixties and expanded it into a feature film with a completely different tone. The short (which is featured on the DVD as well) is preserved almost in its entirety, but cut up and sprinkled throughout the movie as background for a character who isn’t even featured in the A plot, really, except as some kind of guiding force. William Hurt’s narration is replaced by John Goodman, who plays an adult version of one of the boys in the short, Steve Mills. The way that Steve fits into the plot of the feature film is that he was on his way to attend a dance class, in hopes of re-connecting with a girl he knew when he was twelve, when his car crashes. The only person on the scene of the crash is a bereaved baker named Frank Keane. Frank is the main character in the feature – and Steve’s story is framed as a sort of inspiration for him. Frank attends the dance class in Steve’s place and discovers something there that he wasn’t expecting.

So there are three movies going on here. The original short, the story of adult Steve with his quest to get to the Marilyn Hotchkiss school, and the story of Frank going to the school in Steve’s place. The result is an odd blend of different tones. It’s a movie about recovering from crippling loss, about trying to find a way to turn back the clock and make better choices in one’s life, and about ballroom dancing. With a sprinkling of romance and humor. To call the movie quirky would be an understatement.

It works though. That’s the strangest thing. It’s a touching and charming movie. And the key to its success is the absolutely astonishing cast that Miller has collected here. Robert Carlyle is fantastic of course. He so deftly captures the quiet desperation of Frank, and it’s a thrill to see him finding a way out of the hole he’s in at the start of the movie. John Goodman’s character Steve is an interesting one, and he provides a lot of power to drive the film. There’s a great cast of supporting characters and oddballs played by big name actors. Marisa Tomei as a mysterious and sad woman Frank meets at the dance class. Donnie Wahlberg as an angry but desperate ladies man in the school. Ernie Hudson and Sean Astin as a couple of other bereaved widowers in Frank’s support group. And a fantastically eccentric performance by Mary Steenburgen as Marienne Hotchkiss, who is teaching the dance class in memory of her mother who founded it back in the sixties. Her performance is so strange, shrill and brittle. She takes a few lines and creates an entire character from them. Not to forget the spectacular dual performance of Elden Henson who stars in the short from the nineties as young Steve and is in the feature film as Frank’s friend and employee Samson. Elden has an effortless charm to him – it makes me wonder why I haven’t seen him in larger roles.

How to possibly describe this peculiar film? Think of it as a combination of A Christmas Story with Up and Strictly Ballroom. All blended together to create something otherworldly and magical. It’s not at all the movie I was expecting from the preview, but I’m extremely glad nonetheless that it is in our collection.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Movie 123 – Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom – July 1st, 2010

We do own a lot of dance movies. Not that I’d really put this alongside Save the Last Dance really, though there are some similarities, but it’s a very different creature. Maybe when I review Save the Last Dance I’ll play compare and contrast. Anyhow, this movie stands out not just because it’s Australian and directed by Baz Luhrmann, but because of the style of the movie and the style of the dancing. It’s not quite parody, but not quite serious. It’s Latin ballroom, with twists that are half the point of the plot.

There’s a bit at the beginning where the main character’s mother is being interviewed by someone, crying and worrying that she’s done something wrong, alluding to a dancing career down the toilet and what a waste it was. As we find out soon, said career is that of her son, Scott Hastings. An up and coming star of the Australian Dance Federation, Scott’s been making up his own steps and getting in trouble with the judges. There’s another interview segment, Scott is identified in a freeze frame with text, we get an interview segment with Fran, a student at Scott’s mother’s studio, and it’s set up to be this sort of quasi-Spinal Tap feel. But that doesn’t stick. In fact, aside from a cut-away to a traffic accident and some flashbacks near the end, the rest of the movie is done in a far more straightforward fashion.

The story follows Scott, who wants to break free of the restrictive rules of the ADF; Fran, a beginner who plays the ugly duckling role, eventually partnering with Scott when he alienates his regular partner with his experimentation; and Scott’s family and the little circle of competitive ballroom dancers and judges. Scott’s been training for the big competition, the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix, since he was six. Fran’s only been dancing for two years and mostly does the tidying up around the studio. Now, there are some predictable turns here. You know that when the ugly duckling character starts to dance with the dashing young man, she’ll eventually turn beautiful (oh hey, you don’t need those thick glasses to see, right? oh my god! without glasses you’re breathtaking!) and they’ll dance together and fall in love. This is not a spoiler. It’s a trope. There’ll be bumps along the way, and other women who are more “traditionally” beautiful, and there’ll be tears and assumptions and all that. And then in the end there’s the climactic dance scene and of course they belong together! Bravo!

I swear, I’m not actually criticizing the movie. Sure, it follows a pretty well-traveled path in regards to Scott and Fran. And sure, I find the whole glasses = ugly thing annoying (somehow her skin clears up as she dances too – someone patent that as an acne cure!) but for one, there are plenty of new steps tossed in with the old and a good dash of humor. And for two, it’s done so very well. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a plot you know already if it’s told well. This movie tosses in some history with Scott’s mother and father and the head of the ADF (played by Bill Hunter in a decidedly less affable role than that of Bob in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert). It’s got the flashbacks to the 1967 Grand Prix. And it’s got the immensely over-the-top ballroom.

Except, okay, everything I know about ballroom I know from a few clips of professional competitions on PBS before my parents changed the channel (they’re not fans) and from So You Think You Can Dance. I’m serious. So while the costumes seem, well, over the top? I seem to recall the dresses being, well, big. And what little I know about American competitive ballroom is enormous in comparison to knowing even if there’s much difference between American and Australian rules. So for all I know, this could very well be a Spinal Tap situation, where it’s a parody that actually manages to get many things spot on.

But really, the focal point of the movie is the dancing. Not only do we get the ballroom in the competitions and the practices, but then there’s Scott and Fran’s dancing. And we get a lot of Scott and Fran. That’s fantastic, because they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch. They start out experimenting, and are instantly more interesting than the students in Scott’s mother’s studio since they seem invested in the dancing, not in the competing. It only gets better once Scott meets Fran’s family and really gets passionate about it, not just invested. The movie is about loving dance and doing it because you feel it and can’t not do it. I almost wish the movie had kept up the whole mockumentary thing it had to start, but then I don’t think it would have worked as well at the end. So, a little uneven, but that doesn’t stop it from being wonderful.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment