A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 439 – Stomp the Yard

Stomp the Yard – May 13th, 2011

I would like to include some excerpts from an email exchange between myself and my husband before I get into my review. The first is a response to a list of movies Andy sent me for approval:

The only one I’m iffy on is The Devil’s Backbone. I mean, Stomp the Yard isn’t one I’d have picked up otherwise (I don’t watch every dance movie, honey), but I’ll watch it. The Devil’s Backbone looks to me like horror, and I’m not big on horror, if you hadn’t noticed. I know it’s del Toro, but it’s still horror.

Andy responded thusly:
Okay- I’ll hold off on Devil’s Backbone. Is Stomp the Yard worth owning for $6? And will it hurt me?

And my email is the last response:
$6 isn’t much, but I’m not rubbing my hands in glee at owning it, so ditch it if you want.

When I got home Andy showed me what he had bought. And in the stack was this movie. I asked why he’d bought it. Oh, he said, you told me to. I had to pull up the above email exchange to prove that no, I had not told him to buy it. He made that decision all on his own. Not that I mind! I just don’t like having anyone put words in my mouth. But really, I don’t have any problem with Andy having bought this movie. It wasn’t anything super new for me, but it was fun and had some entertaining scenes and more than a few nods to the ladies.

There are a lot of men in this movie. I’m not sure who the target audience for the movie was, but the majority of the cast is male and there’s certainly a lot of machismo on display here. Men with attitude get up in each other’s faces and act tough and argue over who gets the girl. And what’s on display here is most certainly a bunch of dudes doing dude stuff. The movie is about rival fraternities training for a national step competition with the lead character being a young man who’s come a more street background than the other guys he ends up with. This movie doesn’t precisely read as a chick flick. And yet there’s no shortage of good looking guys and our main character, DJ, seems to have no problem taking his shirt off to show off his chest and abs. And there’s a nice strong plot in here involving the female lead, April, and both her and DJ’s objections over other men in her life trying to make her decisions for her. So what I’m saying is that I think this movie’s doing a nice job of being appealing to a wide crowd and I like that.

The plot is fairly predictable. I knew about ten seconds into the movie what was going to happen and it did not disappoint me. DJ and his brother get their crew involved in a hardcore dance competition where there are some very nice moves (one in particular had a guy bouncing off his shoulders in a circle and yeah, that’s sexy) and a lot of what looked to me to be krumping. But then, I’m most certainly not an expert. There was a lot of big movement, hard hitting sort of stuff going on though, which is what I expect from krumping. There was also a lot of other stuff and I don’t have names for the moves being performed but it’s an aggressive opening. One brother worries about the crew they’re going up against and the other says it’ll be cool and come on. With an intro like that you know someone’s going down. Fast forward a bit and the surviving brother is off to Atlanta to go to college and stay out of trouble. But since this isn’t a movie about a young man studying and mowing lawns you know there will be trouble. That’s how these movies go.

Trouble appears in the form of two rival fraternities, Mu Gamma and Theta Nu. Mu Gamma’s step team has won the national step championship for many years running and Theta Nu is looking for an upset but their team just can’t quite cut it. DJ sees the teams, decides they’re all a waste of time and he’d rather go after this girl he keeps seeing, April. It comes as no surprise to find that she’s dating one of the Mu Gammas and he’s an asshole. It also comes as no surprise that DJ is set up to be her alternate love interest. Even before DJ joins one of the frats he’s getting cozy with April, taking her out for drinks and getting her to tutor him in history. But what I like about the whole April thing is that DJ’s approach to her is largely to see how her current boyfriend, Grant, treats her and to point out to both of them that she doesn’t need to take that crap. She deserves better. It’s a theme that comes up again later when the inevitable drama happens and DJ finds himself off the step team right before nationals and yet again a man in April’s life is trying to use her as a bargaining chip. It’s heavy handed, yes, but I don’t midn a movie that explicitly states, more than once, that a woman isn’t a thing to be traded and decided for. She gets a say over her own life. Nope, not protesting that at all.

What I do protest is that so little time was spent on DJ’s decision to pledge. You knew he was going to. That much wasn’t a surprise. But there was this lead up with both fraternities coming to him knowing he would be good for their step teams and him saying no, he doesn’t want to join a frat. And then he goes to Heritage Hall and sees how the Greek system has a pretty awesome background for people of color and that’s it. Suddenly he’s pledging. It’s a scene with no dialogue that takes about thirty seconds and I’d have liked a little more of a journey for him. This is not to say that the reasoning the movie gives him isn’t legitimate and it is followed up at the end of the movie, it’s just that it’s not given nearly the time I’d like to have seen it get.

My only other real problem with the movie is the plot point near the end where DJ’s suspended from school and therefore benched from the team. Oh, the part where the rival team digs up information on how his brother died and DJ’s whole rough past? That I saw coming and I’ve got no real problem there. It’s how this sort of movie goes. But then there’s the set-up with April being the Provost’s daughter and the Provost telling DJ “Stop dating my daughter and I’ll get you reinstated.” And I’ve got to say, while DJ was brought before the ethics committee for lying about his criminal record it seems like the Provost’s actions would be an ethics violation in and of itself. I mean, really? That’s pretty low. Sure, it adds drama and all, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear concrete proof that people in positions of authority in universities have done shady things with said authority. But no one bats an eye at this aside from making it more personal. But whatever, this movie isn’t really supposed to be ultra-realistic. It follows a set formula and the drama had to come from somewhere.

Really, the purpose of this movie isn’t the plot or the romance or the dramatic tension, though I’ve got to say that while none of them were terribly surprising they were fairly well played. The point of the movie, though, is the stepping and dancing and competition. Of which there is plenty. There’s the wild and frenetic dance battle at the beginning and then the more orderly step challenge when DJ gets to college. There’s some less wild battling in a club and then more stepping once DJ pledges and then more stepping and dancing and stepping and dancing and rehearsing and practicing and one more battle before we get to the big climactic scenes at the national championships. And I’ve got to say, I love the dancing. I never took dance classes as a kid and while I like to think I have some rhythm, I am not a dancer and never will be. Not any style of dance. But man do I love to watch people with skills show them off. Which is why I wanted to glue the camera down every time the dancing started.

Seriously, I enjoyed the acting and even though the script wasn’t subtle and the plot wasn’t shocking I did have fun watching it all. But the camera work during the dance scenes started to work my nerves by the end. It’s all full of jump cuts and fast movement and it circles around the dancers and gets in close to see their faces and I don’t want to see their faces! They are dancing! Let me see them moving! And the fast cuts just end up obscuring more than they reveal. Then, to top it all off, things will slow down into slow-mo for a few seconds, then jump cut to another angle. And the music just keeps playing, which makes me feel like it’s more layered on after the fact than something the people on screen are actually dancing to. It’s frustrating as hell because there’s some good stuff going on there and I wanted to see it all. If you’re making a dance movie, you’ve got to find a way to display the dancing. I realize that the cinematographic choices were likely made to try and enhance the mood of the dance going on, but they ended up leaving me feeling like I wanted to see more of what actually happened.

Now, it might seem that I’ve had a lot of criticism to vent about this movie and yes, I have some issues with it. But really, those issues aren’t enough to make me dislike the movie. Sure, I’d have liked to see more of DJ’s decision to pledge. Yes, it would have been nice if someone had said “Seriously, there has to be an authority we can report this to,” when the Provost tried to bribe DJ. Some less frenzied camerawork might have been nice for a few of the dance scenes. But put that against an attempt at some depth of character for DJ, which I think was accomplished. Put it against the nicely handled plot with April standing up for herself and DJ not selling her out. Put it against the wealth of dance scenes and choreography. And it just ends up not being too big a deal. There’s good acting here and a story that could have been fleshed out more but gets enough meat to it to be interesting. There’s a more seriously handled plot than I was expecting and it’s all coherent and cohesive and it’s just plain fun to watch.

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

Movie 345 – Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School

Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School – February 8th, 2011

I had no idea what to expect from this movie. I mean, I expected that there would be a charm school, but other than that, it was a big mystery. We bought it because of a preview, but the content of said preview is lost to me. I’m pretty sure, however, that it did not accurately represent this movie. Because this movie is not simply about a charm school or dancing. It has comedy sure, but it’s got a far more serious note than I thought it would have. And you know it will right from the start, when the main character, Frank Keane, stops on the highway to help a stranger who’s been in an accident. This is not just a cute little story about a dance class. It is a story about where life takes you and the past and the present and the future.

Early on in the movie I thought two of the characters bore a striking resemblance to each other, so I looked up the cast list, fully expecting to find that they were brothers. And no, it turns out they’re the same person, playing two roles in two films, made 15 years apart. The original Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School was made in 1990. It’s a short film, about half an hour long, about a boy and his best friend and how their mothers made them go to charm school in 1962. And while they started off hating it, they soon grew to like it and eventually even started to not hate girls. In fact, they end up liking girls too. Fifteen years later, writer/director Randall Miller expanded upon his short, writing an entirely new present day story around it. And Elden Henson was cast in a minor role as a friend and coworker of Frank Keane. Pretty cool.

The original short is broken up into pieces and peppered throughout the movie as flashbacks. Frank comes across a car accident one day and stops to help. There he meets Steve, who was on his way to meet Lisa, the girl he loved when he was twelve. They promised each other they’d return to Marilyn Hotchkiss’ school on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium, no matter what. Frank promises he’ll go in Steve’s place and tell Lisa what happened. Of course it’s not as simple as that. Frank gets there and is utterly at a loss for what to do. Lisa isn’t there and he ends up staying and learning the Lindy Hop and catching the eye of a young woman, Meredith. And he goes back. Again and again. And as the movie goes we learn about Frank. He’s a baker whose wife committed suicide. He’s lonely and lost and goes to a support group for widowers. But little by little, with the help of the class, he starts to move forward.

The movie is told back and forth. The bulk of the movie is Frank’s story, showing him going to support group meetings, baking, at dance class. But then there are scenes with Steve in the ambulance. And that moment is probably an hour of movie world time, tops, but it’s shown in little bits and pieces. A minute here, two there. And Frank entreats Steve to tell him more about Lisa and the charm school to keep Steve conscious while the EMTs work to save him. And those scenes take us back to 1962 and the short. And every time we go back we learn more about Steve, but we also learn more about the power of this dance class and how it helped people come together and relate to one another. So when we go back to the present day, it’s no surprise that Frank is coming out of his shell. He tells his support group – including a demonstration, which is a fantastic scene where he rehashes the Lindy Hop lesson for the group leader and teaches him how to dance – and soon they’re coming to dance too, one by one.

The present day plot has more going on than can really fit in the confines of the movie. Meredith’s step-brother is a controlling jackass who hits her and slashes Frank’s tires. Marilyn’s daughter has taken over the class but has some sort of long term lack of acceptance that her mother is gone. We only catch fleeting moments about Frank’s wife. And yet, I never really felt that the movie was lacking. It was that those parts weren’t things we were meant to see more of. Because we’re mostly meant to see the dance class. What’s outside the class is in the past, or the future, and we only get to know it in moments, not in swaths. And I like that. Sure, dance seems to fix a lot of problems automatically – the whole plot with Meredith’s brother ties up very neatly and quickly indeed – but other problems are slow in fixing.

I would have to say my only real criticism of the movie is that after the climax, when Frank and Meredith get together and the whole support group has joined the dance class and Meredith’s brother is welcomed back into the fold after punching Frank, the movie goes on a little long. And this is to wrap up Steve’s plot. Because Steve was the impetus for all of this. Frank does indeed find Lisa, but then after he finds her we go back to a different point in time. We go back to just prior to the accident, where we learn what Steve was up to and why he was in such a hurry. And well, I get the point of it. It was an interesting direction to take the character. But I don’t know that it was entirely necessary. Or rather, if it was necessary at that point. It slows things down and hurts the impact of the scene with Lisa, which made me cry, I admit. Which is too bad, really, because the rest of the movie is paced beautifully and has some really wonderful parallels between the short and the new material. The last bit with Steve just sticks out.

The acting is also beautiful. Robert Carlyle as Frank, in particular, is amazing. There are many scenes for him where he says almost nothing. He’s a quiet man. Reserved. Definitely pent up. And he is grieving. And oh, the grief is a cold and palpable thing from him. Carlyle does a wonderful job with Frank and I loved every moment he was on screen. John Goodman has a difficult role as the dying Steve, gasping out his story, but he does a nice job with it. Marisa Tomei is lovely as Meredith, who is just as awkward as Frank and who has a sad story herself, but who is also charming and shy and interesting. They open up to each other, and it’s the sort of romantic story I appreciate. The rest of the cast is peppered with familiar faces. Ernie Hudson, Camryn Manheim, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Astin and Donnie Wahlburg, to name a few. It’s amazing, really, seeing these actors show up in large and small parts, and they all just slip right in, making the movie what it is. Full of humor and tragedy and romance and dance and charm.

When I was in middle school some well-meaning parent of one of my classmates told my mother about “junior cotillion”, which was a dance and manners class that ran every other week or so up at one of the other local private schools. She asked if I wanted to do it and I said sure, why not. I had no idea what it was. But there I learned to do a variety of basic formal dance steps (the box step is all I’ve retained). I wore frilly dresses and white gloves and tried to maneuver myself into the right spot so I could dance with a cute boy, though I later learned that cute wasn’t what mattered. Dancing with a boy who wouldn’t snap my bra strap was more important (I smacked the first one who tried it). Ah, cotillion. Watching this movie tonight, with its flashbacks to a childhood charm school class, I found myself right back there, hands clammy in those stupid gloves, awkward and shy and wondering what the hell I was doing. And yet, regardless of the awkwardness and oddity of it all, I still have fond memories of it. It’s hard to explain the sort of mood that such a class has, but this movie captures it, both in the flashbacks and the modern day. I wasn’t expecting this movie. I wasn’t expecting it at all and I’m really rather glad of that.

February 8, 2011 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