27 April 2010

Center Stage (2000)

The long awaited second review in my running series of dance movie reviews, here's Center Stage, which might be termed a sleeper but a lot of people have watched it. And for good reason because it's amazing!

Surprisingly, Center Stage was not available at video stores. This gem of a dance movie wasn't anywhere to be found in Target or Wal-Mart. With time closing in, and an appointment viewing downtown, we finally got a copy of Center Stage at Barnes & Noble, for the discounted price of $9.99 (plus a cheap copy of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," to be watched and reviewed soon). The Special Edition includes a director's commentary, a making of featurette, and extended dance sequences.

Tagline: "Life Doesn't Hold Tryouts."

1. Plot (8)
There are three main storylines through Center Stage: Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) gets into the American Ballet Academy, against her parents' desires and tries to overcome bad feet, a less than ideal body, and poor technique. Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt) is the queen bitch and the best dancer in the school but lacks the heart for a dance lifestyle, especially after meeting a nice young man. Oh right, she's also bulemic. Eva Rodriguez (Zoe Saldana) is the gum snapping, chain smoking, bad attituding but great dancer who just needs a change of heart to embrace her talent. All three are trying to get into the Company. Taken separately, none of these three plotlines stand out but together they are pretty engaging.

2. Can the lead characters dance? (10)
Since I don't know anything about ballet, I had to defer to my experts on this one. I watched the movie with three other people who all had ballet experience. They assured me that these were legit dancers. While the lead actresses weren't professional level dancers, they were more than capable to my untrained eye. Long limbs, skinny necks, no egregious cut-aways when they danced. I'm gonna give the main actors/actresses high marks because they sure looked like they knew what they were doing. Plus, the male lead, Ethan Stiefel, is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and acquits himself nicely as an actor. Unless in real life he actually is kind of douchely annoying but strangely appealing, in which case, "Great job playing yourself man!"

Unrelated to Center Stage but I really wish I had seen this movie when it came out in limited release, "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009)," which probably contains much more authentic ballet dancing. If I could I'd have a double showing of CS and La Danse. You're all invited.

3. How're the dance scenes? (10)
Chock full of teaching footage, individual practice scenes, a ballet performance or two, an absurd city dance class part (where everyone is super old for some reason), and a thrilling final workshop. Center Stage doesn't skimp on the dance scenes, which is good because hello, it's a dance movie! It's amazing how often dance movies forget that they need more than three dance scenes, Center Stage comes through in this regard famously. There's also a lot of detail thrown into the practice bits and by the end of the movie I even wanted to tell Jody that she "wasn't turned out enough."

The best dance scene is probably when Cooper and Charlie, Jody's dueling love interests, engage in a ballerino dance off for her love. Seriously. They take turns twirling around in the air, flipping, skipping, posing, floatating, all in an attempt to win her heart. It's like watching two bucks lock antlers and um, ballet each other for dominance. Sadly I can't find any Youtube footage of this scene, otherwise we could revel in its wonderfulness together.

4. How's the love story? (5)
There's two main love triangles in this story. Jody is torn between her bad ass instructor, Cooper, and her dedicated and supportive classmate, Charlie. Does the viewer care which one wins? Not really. You sort of root for Charlie because he's the nice guy but really neither of them make compelling reasons to be liked. The other triangle involves Cooper and his former flame and dancing partner, Kathleen Donahue, who ditched him by marrying the director of the Academy, played by Peter Gallagher. This triangle serves mostly as backstory but pops up now and again, most prominently when Cooper's final performance is a thinly disguised stab at Gallagher and Donahue's relationship.

The only other love story is the pursuit of ice queen Maureen by a guy named "Jim Gordon." I'd like to think this wasn't a nod to Batman because this Jim Gordon is a Paul Rudd lookalike and a total dud in the personality department. He seems like a good guy, stating that he's attending Columbia, pre-med, and has impeccable hygiene, but he mostly serves as a bland reason for Maureen to ditch her dance career. He shows her that there's more to life than dancing, like eating pizza with his buds, kissing while holding ice cream, and being a well rounded normal person. Eh, boring. As Maureen states upon meeting him, she only has ten years to make it as a ballerina, and that leaves no time for romance. That's how I feel about this movie's romance quotient. It was necessary to move the plot along but hardly memorable in any regard.

5. Rate the sidekicks (8)
Center Stage is the Robert Altman of dance films. While there are three main characters, it really feels more like a true ensemble film because there are lots of mini-plots, a lot of characters, and no true stars. As for sidekicks, there's the Russian emigre, the chubby ballerina, the gay black guy, the gaggle of yes-girls, and the usual flurry of dance stereotypes. Plus there's the overbearing dance director, the demanding but caring instructor, and the sports mom who cares more about dancing than her daughter. Overall you couldn't ask for much more so let's not penalize the ensemble nature of this film, which is harder to pull off than you'd think.

6. Best line (10)
Lots of good lines in this movie. A few of my favorites (all taken out of context):

Maureen: I am the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy. Who the hell are you? Nobody.

Eric: My stage name is Eric O, the "O" is for Oprah

Eva: Being nice when you say something pricky is even prickier.

Eva: What, did you go to a special bitch academy or something?
But of course, the best line from this movie, probably the greatest dance movie line of all time is this: "You didn't have the feet. I don't have the heart." Here's the dialogue from the scene (and video) so you can feel the full impact.
Maureen: If this is what I wanted, I wouldn't be as unhappy as I've been. I'd have friends, I'd sleep well, I wouldn't throw up half the things that I eat.
Nancy (her mom): You watch your weight, there's nothing wrong with that!
Maureen: Mom, I'm telling you I'm unhappy and sick. I can't do this any more!
Nancy: But it's your dream. You just don't give up on your dream.
Maureen: It's your dream, and it matters more to you than anything ever did to me. So I did it, but I can't any more.
Nancy: I know what regret feels like, and I don't want that for you.
Maureen: That's what ballet would be... a life of wishing that I found something I loved, instead of something I just happened to do well. I'm not you, Mom. You didn't have the feet. I don't have the heart.
7. Music (7)
Powered by Jamiroquai, the music here immediately dates itself by using so many of their tracks. The final dance is performed to "Canned Heat" and you've probably got a lot of other associations with the song that's not Center Stage related. Still, Jamiroquai is underrated and his music is a good fit here. MJ's "The Way You Make You Feel" makes a cameo appearance too, so a bonus point for that. The other star on the soundtrack is Mandy Moore, who had a music video for "I Wanna Be With You," based on the movie. The song is okay but not one of Moore's better efforts. Which brings to mind the question: What is Mandy Moore's best song?

8. Fashion (5)
Pretty ho hum. Since they spend so much time in the ballet studio, most of the outfits are typical ballet gear. Then you have the wide variety of plaids and vests without t-shirts by some of the guys. In fact, Center Stage was pretty bland as a fashion movie. Nothing stood out and in retrospect, they probably set the dance scene back a few years with their lack of vision.

9. Cultural Impact (6)
For a movie widely acclaimed to be "awesome," I feel like few mainstream folk have seen it. Made on a budget of eighteen million dollars, the movie barely made that back upon its theatrical release. DVD sales and foreign gross probably made it profitable but Center Stage definitely wasn't a big money maker. Still, there was a sequel made in 2008, "Center Stage: Turn It Up." If Center Stage had been released this year, in the post-SYTYCD environment, I guarantee a much bigger splash. As it is, Center Stage was a cult hit and barely registered on the radar for most people. Still, it has lived on in the hearts of its fans and is the perfect blend of soap opera and dance movie.

10. Miscellaneous (8)
Center Stage's biggest star at the time was Peter Gallagher, who was "that guy in While You Were Sleeping," until he landed the plumb role of Sandy Cohen in The O.C. Now you look back at the cast and the standout is Zoe Saldana, who looks exactly the same now as she did ten years ago (except for a possible nose job). Three months older than me, Saldana has seen her star rise to Avatar and Star Trek heights since Center Stage in 2000. Meanwhile, I've been um, doing other things.

The other strange thing about the movie is how many B-level lookalikes there are. For one, keep your eyes out for the similarities to other stars that half the cast possess. Tatyana Ali (Saldana), Evan Rachel Wood (Amanda Schull), Eric Stoltz (Ethan Stiefel), Paul Rudd (Eion Bailey), Celine Dion plus Jennifer Aniston (Donna Murphy, the dance instructor), Anthony Bourdain (Stephen Stout, Jody's dad). It's eerie, like they went about casting for actors and actresses that might pass as more famous people at a glance. Also, if you're wondering where Susan May Pratt is from, she was Julia Stiles' best friend from 10 Things I Hate About You. I had that sudden revelation three days after watching Center Stage. Joyous.

And of course, bonus points for the worst dance movie poster of all time. I mean, is putting the dirty soles of ballet flats on your poster is supposed to attract me to your movie? Fail.

Overall, this is one of the best dance movies ever. I'd say it's a sleeper classic since everybody yet nobody has seen it. If that makes any sense. How come one of the best dance movies couldn't even hit eighty points on the scale? Well, one reason might be that the love story was weak. But really, that's not a bad thing. Who cares about the love story in a dance movie? Also, due to the strict adherence to all things ballet, the fashion involved wasn't that awe inspiring. Again, minor quibbles. Having scored perfect tens for dancing and memorable lines, I think Center Stage sets the benchmark for eminently rewatchable dance movies. In fact, I'm gonna go cue it up again right now.