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“It’s not Bohème,” sing the Forbidden Broadway parodists who make fun of Rent’s pretensions to Puccini’s original work. In that opera, bohemia means rejecting the comforts of the establishment/bourgeoisie, choosing poverty and suffering as the only means to truly be alive. In Rent, bohemia appears to want to mean this, but it comes off meaning purposeful self-destruction in the pursuit of creativity. No art gets made, no artistic pursuit seems to happen, despite refusals to sell out, pay rent, dress warmly, or avoid heroin. Yes, by the redemptive end, someone has written a song, made a movie, achieved some goals, but these bursts of creation are secondary to the self-indulgent self-destructive tendencies of this urban family. Team America: World Police made fun of another aspect of Rent, the ubiquitousness of HIV among these youth.

This musical urges us to embrace life and not think about death, a noble message, and to also drop the shackles of societal expectation in order to be free and creative. I couldn’t help wishing for a little compromise, like not sharing needles and maybe taking some kind of job so you don’t have to burn your creations just to stay warm (or pay for your AZT). Creepily, as soon as playwright composer found Broadway success with Rent, he committed suicide. Surely it is not selling out to achieve your dream, to be rewarded for your creativity?

But is that why we go see a film adaptation of a stage musical? Um, no! Our theatre had a giant pride of high school theatre girls (by the humming in the bathroom stalls, I concluded the cast of Godspell) applauding for every song and even the show logo. It makes a difference to see such works with interested parties.

Despite my frustration at the willful stupidity of some of the main characters, despite their childish determination to live life despite the requirements of life (food, shelter, avoiding deadly situations), I had to just sit back and let all that beautiful singing wash over me. The cast is the same as the original Broadway cast of 10 years ago, with the exception of Rosario Dawson as Mimi, and while they all look too well-fed and long in the tooth to be anything but lawyers, TV stars, and the like, they still are having the time of their lives getting to relive these seminal roles. When stage performers or movie actors are having the time of their lives in the performance, you feel it from the audience, and it makes the whole thing work, even when you have misgivings about the source material.

Some of the songs have been elminated or re-imagined, to my delight – some of the Broadway soundtrack has been impassable due to the talk-singing or the flatness of some of the melodies; this soundtrack was one I wanted to take home with me. Everyone looks beautiful and sounds twice as much so. It’s great to have things you know they couldn’t have in the theatre, like fire and snow and surging crowds of extras. While Maureen’s kooky live-recorded performance is the least interesting number (especially vexing since Idina Menzel’s voice is so amazing and the moment is supposed to be so important), overall you get a sense of Rent coming to a new life by being allowed to breathe on the big screen. I know I am not going to get any non-musical theatre types into the multiplex to see this one, but I also know you’re the poorer for it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/23/05
Time in minutes 135
Director Chris Columbus
Studio Sony Pictures Releasing

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Walk The Line

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Comparisons to last year’s “poor boy makes good with raw talent, almost ruins it with drugs and womanizing, and then redeems self” award-winning biopic Ray are inevitable, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Walk the Line does less than Ray in showing us the character that made the man’s music, where the music came from, and it does more than Ray by showing us the delicate dance of Johnny Cash’s lifelong obsession/romance with June Carter. As a romance, Walk the Line is a love story of Johnny with June, and the public with Johnny’s unique sound and stage presence. Joaquin Phoenix grinds the microphone with an eerie and rugged take on Cash’s famous baritone, and Reese Witherspoon lights up her microphone with her Louisiana twang. They carry the burden of portraying both the romantic and sexual chemistry of this legendary pair, and the more difficult to replicate onstage chemistry of their road show. Oh, and they do all their own singing and playing. Phoenix even learned to play guitar with Cash’s weird hand positions for authenticity.

One could be sad for this little movie that could; so many studios passed on it, it eventually got made almost as a charity case by slashing prices and salaries; a risk in a country-music unfriendly Hollywood and with a couple of actors who aren’t quite the A-listers such a project would need. Both are dependable performers, as their many fans will attest, but they don’t have the dollar signs tattooed on them that some other faces might have provided. As oftens seems to happen, the little movie that could gets made with more love equity than dollar strength, and as a result, the final product is all the richer for it. The period details alone would have made a studio flinch at the cost, never mind the music rights and licensing of the other legendary performers in Cash’s late-50’s road shows.

Walk of Fire spans only 24 years, with a coda to the Cashes deaths in 2003, but the amount of music that flows over the audience seems only possible in twice that time. We never get a sense of what drove Johnny to his music; we can infer but the man remains a mystery even after such an intimate screen tale. His fandom and later obsession and love for June Carter is evident, so the movie becomes more of a danceless musical romance than a biopic about the rise of a unique musical talent. He was a unique musical talent, but Walk the Line spends less time on him and more on them. It’s satisfying as a story, certainly, but a little frustrating as a biography. True to what we know of their characters, Reese is comfortable onstage and in love with the audience, while Joaquin still seems remote and distant from them. In photos, his hooded eyes are restless and haunted, a quality that does not shut off even when the actor is taking pictures of himself, and perhaps that kept me from connecting to Johnny Cash. (Interestingly, on film, Ray Charles gave me zero eye contact but Foxx’s spirit was so open onscreen I felt as if he had.)

From a technical perspective, Walk the Line was a lovely, moving, and interesting film, but I feel as though Johnny Cash remains an enigma only to be guessed at in his music.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/18/05
Time in minutes 135
Director James Mangold
Studio 20th Century Fox

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As we all trip over ourselves to find just the right hyperbolic adjective that begins with “de-,” we may lose sight of what makes this movie such an artistic triumph. My companion, very wise in the ways of all things, noted that this movie could not have been made without the pioneering film language school of Chicago. And indeed, this film is back to cinema’s roots of filmed theatricality, but with all the advantages of 100 years of moviemaking technology behind it. The razzle-dazzle in this piece serves to hide the technical mastery, rather than to distract from empty promises.

The film begins with a slightly theatre-like feel, and introduces a fascinating framing device (embodied by Jonathan Pryce) and then takes us through the years that are the most intense in the life of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline). He meets and marries Linda (Ashley Judd) and as they say, away we go. The less said about the events of the movie the better. The preview, artfully edited to make the movie look like a pedestrian biopic with celebrity cameos, gives no sense of the beautiful, self-reflexive show we are about to see. Kline, an incredible singer, is trapped inside a character with a famously reedy voice, and so Kline’s incredible animus as a performer must leak out in every way but song. It is ironic, don’t you think, to compare: Porter’s songs were where he was most restrained. Kline is marvelous, so believable and lovable and despicable, when I saw Diana Krall singing “Just One Of Those Things,” I thought, “He must love hearing her voice sing his music.” And then I realized Cole was dead; Kline was making him real like (forgive me) Cary Grant never could.

Ashley Judd is every bit as beautiful as the famous Linda, and her love for Cole, for friends, for children, slams out of her like light out of some science fiction creature. I can think of no better analogy than that – every bit of her lifted and exploded by the love she has to give. It is all for Cole, and the compromises she makes cruelly twist us in the audience. The film is not all advertised Armani glamour and sparkly musical numbers, and it always stays aware of itself as a show within a show. Even the props are meticulously used in scenes where they will create the most impact, a 3-dimensional scrapbook of his life in a New York penthouse. It is completely out of my comprehension how something so delicate and powerful and structurally complex could have come out of the word processor of the man who wrote Gangs of New York.

Dancing through Cole’s life is a subtle camera magic that you might not notice right away but let me point it out for you. There are many dizzying circular pans which turn and turn and time passes and things change and there are no editing opportunities because people are always present, always moving, and one shot in particular I simply cannot work out how they did, another with a magical mirror, another with – oh my word! I can’t even call it editing because the camera never stops, never rests, so much life! Porter’s life was unimaginably full and so much time wasted even so – the camera cannot capture it all but it tries with all its might. Celebrating the post-Victorian decadence and the overlapping (but not equal) qualities of love and passion, Porter’s music is reborn as new, sacred innovention in De-Lovely. Be the first in your Oscar pool – see this film!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/22/04
Time in minutes 125
Director Irwin Winkler
Studio MGM

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The Singing Detective

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This may not sound like a positive statement, but it actually is: This movie is not for everyone. In the spirit of Pennies From Heaven, a Brechtian comment on the mental musical as a way to express the inner thoughts of a character, this film goes a step or two beyond to include the confusing world of self-imposed madness and re-expression of one’s deepest personal issues. As the director Keith Gordon described it at our screening (and I missed some adjectives in this tirade so bear with me) it’s a surrealist absurdist comedy film noir mystery drama lip-synch ’50’s musical fantasy of a psychological thriller.

Written by the late Dennis Potter as a rethinking of his own critical darling of a BBC miniseries of the same name, this Singing Detective has been recast into modern times and America and the script was not fudged with one iota by studio monkeys (except for one song, which was only due to rights issues). What you get is the distilled genius that all 20 fans of the television version have come to revere. Potter wanted to explore the notions of how pop culture invades our consciousness and even reinvents itself in our behaviors and coping strategies. Being British, Potter was drawn by the American iconography of the 1950’s pulp novels and the notion of the lone hero and of our sexual repression.

Robert Downey Jr. plays our titular gumshoe (in his own mind, with some seriously hard-boiled dialogue) and Dan Dark, the author of same (in his life), trapped in a diseased body and processing some heavy baggage from his life. Downey is, as always, riveting, and his personal struggles (well documented by the press) inform his performance in a way that makes this role uniquely his own, which no other actor could have done without drawing attention to it. He can seem filled with rage and still evoke deep compassion with those liquid brown eyes, peering out of a psoriasis-ravaged face. The secondary tragedy is that he would have been a good author if he had freed himself, but now he has trapped himself in this crazy world of fantasies (involving the aforementioned lip-synching) and fury.

Among the huge and fun cast of familiars is Mel Gibson as the very un-Mel Gibson-like Dr. Gibbon; his segments were shot in four days and they bring life to the film when we most feel confused.

What works: We don’t always know what is real and what is in Dark’s mind, and occasionally when the twain shall meet, we can ust sit back and let it ride. This is the kind of movie that sneaks in the back door of your consciousness after you watch it. During viewing, it’s a brow-furrowing exercise in keeping up with the Darks, punctuated by random and alarming seediness and mysterious characters. Dark turned his life experiences into pop culture and replaced his own memories with the real pop culture of the day. This is no way to live. And can you believe this was shot for $7.5 million dollars? Amazing.

What almost or doesn’t work: The surrealist aspect and some of the lighting design choices give it a kind of student film feel at times but taken as a whole, it is a well-balanced concept and, considering everything it is trying to do, very neatly executed. I was also a little unclear on the goons. The film is not as accessible as it could be, but most of the time we get the reward of understanding to push us through to the next wave of madness. See what you think.

MPAA Rating R – strong sexual content, language & violence
Release date 11/7/03
Time in minutes 109
Director Keith Gordon
Studio Paramount Classics

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Camp (2003)

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I actually, personally, would pay full price for this movie to see it again; I give it Matinee with Snacks because I know I was probably more entranced by the exhilaration of the movie in the moment than the cooler light of day might reveal. That, and the energy of seeing the Southern California premiere in a theatre full of cast members adds an extra vibe that cannot be replicated in a cramped art house. That disclaimer aside, I loved Camp, I simply adored it. I know when I come out of a movie and jump on the cel phone to tell anyone in my time zone to see it when it comes out that it made a visceral impact on me.

A tiny little film, shot in 28 days on location (but with a changed name) at and based on the Stage Door Manor performance art camp in upstate New York, Camp is a labor of love. Written, directed, and produced by Todd Graff as a fictionalized love letter to that woodland institution, Camp explores a summer’s worth of kids who find themselves through the arts. It should be required viewing for all the people out there who want to cut arts and education funding, who think the NEA is a haven for freaks and sodomites, or who think theatre people deserve derision and/or beatings. And any theatre sympathizer would be foolish to miss it.

What’s great about this camp is not just the camaraderie of understanding that is clearly missing from these kids’ lives, but also the openness that people in the arts can have with each other. People’s real feelings and inner monologues so often are suppressed by management, artificial senses of propriety or lineality, but not here. It seems odd, even in a filmic context, for these characters to say all they say – but you know it is exactly what they are thinking. They are free here in a way most people can only dream of. And it is the love of performance that gives them that freedom. This sense of community and safety is similar to that shared by Star Trek aficionados and other niche fan bases populated by people considered “misfits,” with one happy by-product: A rilly big shoo.

These kids are all doing their own singing and dancing (which certain big, Oscar-nominated stars with years of experience and training were recently lauded for) and they make American Idol look like the Gong Show. Part of it is the material – you have to be musically and emotionally sophisticated to properly perform Sondheim’s The Ladies Who Lunch at the age of 15. The original songs are great (if obvious) anthems for the movie’s themes, but you still walk out of there happier for it.

Since everyone in the movie is basically chock full of unknowns, get to know these names: Robin de Jesus as shy gay Latino Michael, Anna Kendrick as bizarre low-status Fritzi, Daniel Letterle as crowd-pleasing hunk Vlad, Joanna Chilcoat as wallflower Ellen…the list goes on, but Vlad, Elle, and Michael are the core triad, with Kendrick stealing the show in the third act. I did not get the character name of the quiet girl whose jaw was wired shut to look her real name up, and for that I apologize, but her beauty and dignity stopped the show. Go see it, won’t you?

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/25/03 (LA/NY/SF)
Time in minutes 114
Director Todd Graff
Studio IFC

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A Mighty Wind

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Did you love Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman? If so, then go see A Mighty Wind, there is nothing I need further to tell you. Directed by Christopher Guest and written by Guest and Eugene Levy (as much as a wholly improvised movie is written), Wind is again a character-driven comedy piece/mockmentary that makes you think and feel more than laugh, but it satisfies. This time, the embarrassingly talented cast of the usual Guest crowd are playing grown up 60’s folksingers (or a new band of overjazzed fans of same) who are being brought together to honor the recently departed Irving Steinbloom. Steinbloom, a fictional folk music pioneer, is survived by three bickering children, one of whom (Bob Balaban) is organizing the event, and everyone else in the film is in a band.

I have to say something about the three siblings. They have a scene on a couch together which was simply one of the best pieces of improv I have seen in a while. I believed they were siblings, with history, they were funny and played off each other so effortlessly, and drove the plot along with so much natural but condensed information, I have to applaud them: Balaban, Stuart Luce and Deborah Theaker.

Best of all is the sheer rapture of getting to see Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (you know, Spinal Tap) together on screen again, playing together verbally and musically. Just to bask in the glory of this trio really is worth the price of admission for me. Guest pulls out his folksinger character from his National Lampoon days and they all of course have new music written for the occasion (again also with CJ Vanston).

The other two groups are creepy Disneyfied The New Main Street Singers, and ex true-love poster children Mitch & Mickey. The album art is a hoot. Everyone is simply perfect in their roles, though Levy’s Mitch is possibly the least excusably cartoonish when next to the sublimely sincere Mickey (Catherine O’Hara). We’ve got lots of songs, in very diverse styles between the three groups, which also makes for its own, subtler comedy, and plenty of warm smiley moments as well. By the end, you feel the history of these people as acutely as if it were a true story. Well done, all. It’s the strongest “script” since Spinal Tap, in terms of arc and content.

While A Mighty Wind has fewer out and out jokes or laughs than Best in Show or Guffman, it has equally well drawn characters and a vastly more effective and satisfying story arc. This makes a huge different not to have all that improv talent spun out into nothing. I’m not saying it’s not funny, but it’s more comedy of relations rather than set up and yuk yuk yuk. That dubious honor goes to a totally wacked out Fred Willard, who, as always, is loveable as pie.

A Mighty Wind is simply sweet and believable, completely engaging, and well worth seeing.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 4/16/03 ltd
Time in minutes 87
Director Christopher Guest
Studio Warner Brothers

Comments Off on Chicago


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Oh my god. Luscious, sexy, intense, gorgeous, energetic, exciting! These were my only thoughts upon exiting the theatre after seeing Chicago. I felt literally intoxicated. This film defies the traditional trend of stage musicals not quite working on screen after being successful on stage. My companion had seen the show live on stage, and said that it actually worked better as a film. As I was watching it, I tried to imagine it being performed live; it was as if the show were invented for the movies. Instead of a surreal mix of stylized costumes and dancing with the relatively serious story, Chicago the film offers a straightforward period drama of Roxie’s ambition and failures, and cuts to the musical numbers as a sort of supertext of what is happening in the story. Brilliant!

When the two worlds meet (which is used sparingly for great effect) it shows the fantasy exerting its power over the true story. The musical numbers stand alone with beautiful sexy glamour; and we also see the real people whose tales are being told. It is the ubermusical. The musical portions has the energy of a live show – I almost felt they were there on stage, breathing. If you like musical theatre, you should not miss this for any reason. If you don’t like musical theatre, you should probably see Chicago. This is the perfect culmination of the dramatic goal of mixing music with drama, with more sexiness and glamour and beauty I ever thought possible – and I own Moulin Rouge!

The signature opening number, “All That Jazz” is the single sexiest thing I have ever seen. It makes the fencing scene in Mask of Zorro look like The Crucible. The rest of the numbers live up to that example (except for the sexiness, though many numbers are very very sexy). I know you are wondering, “How are Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and (gulp) Richard Gere?” Catherine was of course a professional hoofer at one point, and it shows – and she can belt like a mama! Renee, whom I have long resisted, got me. She was sassy and vulnerable and sexy and she sang and danced and kicked butt! Richard looked so much at home tapping and singing and rolling around on chorus girls, I can’t imagine him doing anything else. I have to completely revise my anti-Gere stance after this. The filmmakers also made extra sure to credit these three for their hard work in the credits, i.e. “Richard Gere’s singing and dancing performance by RICHARD GERE.”

Also kicking serious musical booty are Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. The additional score is by dark Danny Elfman, the perfect companion to this dark and dangerous musical. Rob Marshall directed and choreographed this beautiful movie. Don’t worry, Chicago purists – his dancework is impressive, you won’t miss Fosse’s stylings at all. The choreography is more classic and also more modern, less theatrical, if that makes sense.

Let’s look at two musicals (not the only ones, either) who were nominated for Best Picture, and why this one should be too. West Side Story combined a timely commentary on prejudice in a modern context with cutting edge modern music and choreography. It won Best Picture. Moulin Rouge was not so political, but it also broke new walls of filmed musicals using the technology of film to further the genre. Chicago has a timely commentary of the power of the press and the fickleness of fame in a fantastical context with cutting edge modern choreography and staging. I love love love it. I hope you will too. But you can never say they don’t give you every penny’s worth.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/27/02
Time in minutes 113
Director Rob Marshall
Studio Miramax

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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

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Motown was built on the backs of many great and undervalued performers, and this film concerns itself with the truly unsung musicians who were The Funk Brothers, the studio band in the 1960’s, truly the Motown sound. Their story deserves to be known and they are finally getting some of the recognition they were denied for so long (six receive it posthumously). However, while SITSOM is a great tribute, it is a poor documentary.

Many musicians played in the Funk Brothers; I had trouble keeping count, but at least 13 total. They began playing together in 1959 and ended with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in 1971, when their careers with Motown abruptly ended. Beyond that (and I had to look up 1971), it was difficult to learn much about these men and how it came to be that they got together, how they were given such creative license, why they did not demand credit for their playing, who wrote the songs; we get a long story of how the hits just magically poured out of their instruments and no one took notice. They deserve to be angry, and instead are remarkably businesslike about it – some fury might have enlightened us as to how it came to be this way. We learn a little about what defined their sound. Basically, it was being different, having great ensemble together, and being highly skilled musicians. But we knew that already.

Most difficult to absorb in watching the film were the men’s stories – a lot of names are thrown around, and the stories sort of leap into being in such a way that it’s difficult even to know what is being discussed, much less who. Midway through, it’s clear this is a great little anecdote, if only you knew the beginning. I watched this film with 3 other people and all of us missed a lot of it. The Funk Brothers as a mass are fun, genial, enthusiastic, and truly reveling in the chance to tell and relive their stories and to be and play together again. You are sucked in by their personalities, but left out of the conversation. Sometimes a truly interesting character cannot tell a story from the inside with enough skill to include a total outsider; here is where the interviewer could have helped. I feel that the interviewer (never seen or heard behind the camera) failed in directing his or her subjects and failed by not assisting the audience with any helpful extra information to compensate for the subjects’ natural conversational narrative missteps.

The filmmakers make it abundantly clear from the outset that the reason this film was made was because no one knows who the Funk Brothers are, and that is an injustice. However, they forgot to tell us.

Interjected between the still photos, new interviews, older interviews, and get this – re-enactments, are long takes of concert footage. Modern artists like Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, and another lad whose name I missed sing the old hits to the Funk Brothers’ live accompaniment. It’s an odd thing, because the songs themselves are so iconic, so embedded in pop music culture, that having them performed live on stage, even knowing it is the real musicians, feels underwhelming, even anti-climactic. Snips of the Brothers jamming in little jazz clubs, or chatting up Joan Osborne, better displays the players’ passion and technical skill.

It was interesting to have some basic musical elements that they invented deconstructed – “this is the thing that makes this song groove just so” – but we still wonder how it happened, why it happened, why they had to watch the dream pass them by despite being part of the biggest hits in music history. And the re-enactments were just plain weird.

Afterward, I felt frustrated – the Funk Brothers have outed themselves, and as the new concert footage shows, they are finally getting the credit they so rightly have earned, but in a way they are just as elusive and unknown as before.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 11/15/02 LA/NY
Time in minutes 108
Director Paul Justman
Studio Artisan

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Moulin Rouge

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This is a difficult film to rate. Whenever I give a rating purely based on my personal feelings and experience watching the movie, I get guff from the folks whose tastes differ from mine – not simple disagreement, I get plain old guff – but if they had asked me, I could have told them, no, this movie is not for your type. I went to two screeners in a row, one for Moulin and one for Evolution, and the demographics in the theatres were like night and day. The demo they invited to Evolution will not like Moulin Rouge. Me, I loved it. LOVED IT. My companion – LOVED IT. But we already knew we would. You should read this review and decide for yourself – I just don’t want any guff. Folks who prefer David Spade comedies will snicker but it is their loss.

When asked what I thought of the film, I say it was beautiful crazy sexy magical dangerous insane and cool. Rich adjectives all, but not very descriptive. It’s a sort of modern musical, not unlike the sort-of musical of Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labor’s Lost (but with much better singing) or Pennies from Heaven in that the songs are pre-existing songs, but here not period-appropriate, which are lyrically meaningful in the story and period (1899) in which they are being used, but also accessible and deliciously, marvelously reconceived to match the tone of the film. (OK, that row of guys in Budweiser T-shirts just walked out – I am narrowing my demographic with every word.)

In other words, yes, Jacek Koman growls a Tom Waits-like “Roxanne” with a tango twist (my very very favorite scene in the whole film, so far), but it works! Pick up the soundtrack album – the songs on there are actually more simplified versions of the dense, luscious orchestrations and mixes that actually take place – it’s like being on some kind of drug to watch this movie, but the drug is music! But there are far more songs, individually and mixed in, in the actual film, and I will be very vexed indeed if I have to be content with the relatively mix-content-free “Because We Can” after seeing what Craig Armstrong did to it in the film. Oh my!

If you are familiar with the flavor of low-end English music hall (greasy, syphilitic chorus girls with wild eyes and flailing limbs), with Cirque du Soleil (imaginative costumes, physical perfection twirling in French surrealism) and Mardi Gras (vital, dangerous, lurid, celebratory, colorful madness in the name of fun), then you have a sense of the scary beauty of the Moulin Rouge as realized in this film. The voice talent is more than adequate, especially Ewan McGregor, wow! Nicole Kidman is no Annie Lennox, but she is certainly not as bad as all I’d read set her up to be. And, as a nice change, she as an actress is nowhere near as chilly as she usually is in films, indeed she’s warm and yet still ethereally beautiful and supernaturally glamorous. Her costumes alone made me wet my pants and cry “mommy!” Jim Broadbent – I knew he was a great actor, but he’s got hidden pipes!

Everyone seems deeply committed to this project, one that is more of a feat of insanity even than Baz Luhrmann’s last film, Romeo + Juliet, which was a marvel of wedding modern sensibilities to the Bard’s language. Here he takes the decadence and innocence of the Belle Epoque and makes it splashy and ambrosial. Have I said enough about the totally kick ass orchestrations? It’s intense, clubby, accessible to young people, yet also big 1980’s Broadway (think of the vast lushness of the Broadway epics like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera without thinking of the actual shows themselves) – where a small band would do, make it a philharmonic, and mix in Bowie and Nirvana and Elton John and Beck and Nat King Cole and….yowza. It’s visually arresting and musically revitalizing. I’m going to see it again in a couple of days and I have cleared a spot for the DVD and second soundtrack album, yessiree!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 6/1/01
Time in minutes 126
Director Baz Luhrmann
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Center Stage

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Full Price for Dancing; Rental + snacks for Story

I have to split my rating for this movie. We all know that most dance movies tend to have less than original plots, relatively simple characters, and a little show boating. Center Stage, however, has TONS and TONS of dancing, plenty of dancing, great dancing, amazing dancing, and for people who see dance movies to see dancing, this is a Full Price Feature all the way. For people who enjoy dance movies but still want the plot of a “regular” movie, Center Stage can be a wee bit disappointing. The actors are dancers who act, which in my book is great for them – with no prior experience they all carried a movie and didn’t embarrass themselves in any way – oh and did I mention that they are fantastic dancers? The acting is good enough that we care about the characters, we believe what they are saying, and then we enjoy the progression of the story. The real crime is the written dialogue – it’s not these kids’ fault that the screenplay is hackneyed and terrible, but they will be blamed for it, just because they are not all John Gielgud.

Forgive the script, for it serves the movie’s real purpose which is to show a girl’s struggle through the prestigious American Ballet Academy and lots and lots of amazing dancing. Willowy women and leanly powerful men fly and pas-de-bourret across the screen. Handsome people smolder furiously at each other with their bodies instead of their words, and my god does it all look great. The camera work is great – alternating between close-up and wide shot without losing the general feel of the performance – something I have noticed happens too much in dance movies. You have 100 people all doing the same huge move at once, but center on the lead’s triumphant expression, you have just wasted 99 people’s choreography – why have them there? Center Stage clearly had a lot of dancers involved behind the camera, making everything look good. The physical endurance it must have taken for simple shots (late night solo rehearsals, classroom exercises, a big flaming dance-off pissing contest between two men) is astounding.

Director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible, Object of My Affection) made some scary musical choices at times, but he cast some great people as the teachers of the school. I can’t say that he knows how to improve upon weak material, but at least he doesn’t damage what does work. Casting “real” actors in the non dancing roles such as Donna Murphy and Peter Gallagher lent weight to what could have been painfully weak scenes of conflict and plot. Peter Gallagher as the Academy’s dean(thankfully tweezed) was notable – his calmness, his solidity, confidence, strength really shone in this role. Maybe it was the 98 lb. waifs fluttering all around him that made him seem so strong, but he was marvelous and totally believable, even with those awful words coming out of his mouth.

Amanda Schull is our lead and she is really everything we would want in a dance movie lead – she’s beautiful, unselfconscious, and a great dancer – but not too great. You know she was on her toes 12 hours a day for months, but she always seems fresh and ready to go – very impressive. Eithan Steifel has the Leonardo DiCaprio role – cocky sexy guy who may or may not be a jerk but we all have to admit that he sure can twinkle those toes. It’s amusing to go through the IMDB and see that none of these people have been in a movie before – and here they are, carrying one on their toned and sweaty backs. It’s totally worth seeing just for the dancing, and I am certain that those who dream of ballet as their vocation can find more than that to enjoy, but don’t fault the actors for their dialogue. They give us more than we bargain for on stage.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/12/00
Time in minutes 113
Director Nicholas Hytner
Studio Columbia Tristar