View Full Version : Dillon, Malkovich, and Noyce

Chris Knipp
05-25-2003, 04:11 AM
This film naturally invites comparison with City of Ghosts, because both are concurrent directorial debuts by actors with semi-political thriller plots that take place in exotic places. Matt Dillon was working with a sketchier plot which, in some ways, is hokey. The ending is a bit fudged. The main plot developments of The Dancer Upstairs are absolutely clear. The problem in its case is that the drive of the action falters time and again because of the complexity of the story Nicholas Shakespeare is trying to convey in adapting his own novel about a writer and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) revolutionary/terrorist organization that created chaos in Peru in the Eighties.

It's a little bothersome that (1) the actors are all Spanish or in one case Italian speakers, but all are made to speak English, though the scene is Latin America. It's artificial, and it weakens the scenes because they're working in another language, not always with complete conviction or dexterity. And (2) you know what's going to happen before it happens, except for one surprise, which is hard to care about, because the romance has been as languid as a lot of the other plot movement.

Malkovich does create a sense of ominous foreboding and fear. But the tension comes and goes. There are longeurs -- slow boring passages when I for one almost started to doze. The romance with Yolanda, the dance teacher, is poorly motivated. Again Shakespeare/Malkovich are trying to tell a very complicated story, and they get bogged down at times.

People may think Dancer Upstairs is more sophisticated than City of Ghosts, but City of Ghosts has wonderful atmosphere. The Cambodian setting is well used, boldly, in your face every minute. I've rarely seen an exotic, poor country so intensely conveyed on screen. Scenes are extremely vivid. There is nothing languid about the action, ever. The payoff may be somewhat disappointing, but you're left with an intense impression. Dancer Upstairs has atmosphere, too, the sense of pervasive disorder in a country ruled by terror.

I'm not convinced either film is quite successful; both are creditable efforts. Bardem is more interesting than Dillon to watch; but then, Dillon has the help of Stellan Skarsgaard, Gerard Depardieu, and best of all, James Caan. All in all the movie in this category that is by far the best recent one is The Quiet American, directed by Philip Noyce, with a wonderful performance by Michael Caine. It succeeds better because the screenplay and the direction are tighter and the raw material, Graham Greene's novel, is better, and the adaptation has made it even more pointed politically, and Christopher Doyle is a superb cinematographer.

Someone has said that Malkovich ought to have gone for schlock--pure thriller-- or for the classy mood piece he is constantly drifting into-- not try to do both in one movie. That may be right.

06-09-2003, 07:41 PM
I loved Malkovich's debut.

The lighting, editing and above all, performances make this one of the best films of the year.

It's a testament to Bardem's acting (or is it John's directing?) when Yolanda says "Most people can fake modesty. You are modest". I couldn't ignore the genius of the context. He is a marvelous actor.
I drew parallels between Bardem's "Tomcat" and Del Toro's "Javier" in Traffic. And I kept thinking Javier looked an awful lot like a cross between Oliver Reed & Raul Julia. But that's minor stuff.

This flick is so damn fascinating I think Malkovich should do more films. The editing in particular was brilliant. It seems Malk knows a thing or two about special effects as well. Every scene had meaning, every line of dialogue had purpose.
Halfway through the film I wondered what the title meant. By the end I knew- and what a great ending it was, btw.

Should all revolutions have a manifesto? Depends on the politics of the time. The spanish revolution in question had a government that would only "get the message" with extreme resistance. But the message was hardly heeded. Hence a platform for Bardem to shine. -Hope you get an oscar nod, J.

Yul's pining version of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" fit right in with JM's street poetry movie.

This movie allowed me to anticipate something exciting and then deliver on it. One thought constantly running through my head was "What is she preparing to sing?"

The greatest lament ever put to celluloid, that's what.

oscar jubis
06-13-2003, 02:13 AM
The Dancer Upstairs succeeds as biographical drama with touches of thriller and police procedural. Mr. Malkovich is clearly indebted to Javier Bardem(Agustin) and veteran cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine (La Belle Epoque, Jamon Jamon, Tasio). The film depends on Bardem's restrained and thoughtful performance. Dancer is primarily "about" a man trying to have a positive impact on a society caught in a whirlwind of political forces and events.
Malkovich and company have managed to achieve a very specific sense of place; a sense of impending doom is sustained from the opening scene. There is no doubt Malkovich should do more films.

Yet I find the film problematic. The Dancer Upstairs is vague to a fault about the political forces at play and the historical context. We know only that the country is beset by poverty and corruption (it's implied that corruption drove Agustin away from a law practice) and that "the military" robbed Agustin of his dream by expropiating his family's coffee farm years ago. We explicitly witness horrific violence perpetrated by suicidal children under the influence of an anarchist-in-Maoist-disguise. We learn about these events first-hand, not as experienced by our protagonist ( media, phone call, etc). The graphic images shown here force one to ponder the motivations of the tiny martyrs. Then the film sticks its pretty head in the sand.

Chris Knipp
06-13-2003, 03:03 AM
Dancer Upstairs is interesting but not altogether successful, I think. The fault may lie in Nicholas Shakespeare's adaptation of his own more complex novel; assuming rather than establishing a knowledge of the whole Shining Path story; a recessive hero with a recessive, undermotivated love affair -- many things. There is atmosphere, foreboding, yes: but does it all hang together? Does it develop momentum? All in all I've come to feel that the movie was directed with the head, not the heart. People think it, and Malkovitch, must be deep; but it hasn't much emotional impact.