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Films I Neglected To Review: Gotta Dance, Gotta Shop!
by Peter Sobczynski

An earnest documentary, a soft social satire and one of the supreme achievements of one of the all-time great filmmakers are on display in this latest round-up of films that I didn’t get a chance to write about at length.

While traveling in Cambodia in 2000, documentary filmmaker Anne Bass discovered a 16-year-old named Sokvannara, better known as Sy, and was immediately stuck by his raw talent as a dancer. Realizing that this particular gift would not exactly be allowed to flower in his native land, she arranged for him to come to the United States and study at the New York School of American Ballet and this would eventually lead to him performing with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. At the same time, Bass captured this personal and professional journey on film and the result is the new documentary “Dancing Across Borders.” The story is as noble and well-meaning as one could possibly hope for--think “Billy Elliot” meets “The Killing Fields”--and if I really sat down and put my mind to it, I could probably write a review that conveyed those aspects. However, to do that would force me to overlook the inescapable fact while it may be enlightening as all get out, it is also an absolute bore as a film. We get no real insight into whatever struggles Sy might have undergone in adjusting to his new surroundings and in developing his craft within a more rigid framework than he had back home--Bass is too busy getting herself into her own shots to ever bother to ask those questions. Even more infuriating is the fact that while we continually hear about what an excellent dancer Sy is, there is surprisingly little footage on display showing that and of the tidbits we get, there is never any real sense that what he is doing is that special. As a short segment on some magazine show dedicated to life-affirming stories, the story told here might have worked but as a full-length film, it is a dull documentary that never finds the right footing.

“The Joneses” begins with the titular family--an impossibly attractive and well-to-do brood consisting of David Duchovny as the laid-back dad, Demi Moore as the fashionista mom and Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth as the well-scrubbed teens--as they move into a McMansion crammed with high-end consumer goods that quickly make them the envy of the neighborhood. What the neighbors don’t realize is that the Joneses are not a real family at all--they are employees of a marketing firm that employs them to deploy their fancy clothes and gadgets in such a way that will encourage everyone else to rush out and buy them for themselves. As a premise for social satire, this isn’t bad (especially since it isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might think, as anyone who saw the epic documentary “The Corporation” can attest) but in order for it to work, it really needs to go in one of two ways--it either has to use a broad, take-no-prisoners approach or it has to be done in such a subtle and delicate manner that it takes a while to realize that it actually is a joke. The trouble here is that instead of picking one of those pathways and sticking with it, debuting writer-director Derrick Borte takes the middle road and the result is a film that takes some prisoners and then quickly releases them before an abysmal final third featuring changes of heart, tragedy and the learning of valuable life lessons. There are some good performances here--Duchovny gets a better vehicle for his laid-back sense of humor than most of his other big-screen efforts and Gary Cole is very good as the neighbor who becomes embroiled in a doomed effort to keep up with the Joneses--and there are some funny ideas here and there (such as the too-quickly-abandoned conceit that Heard’s character finds herself sexually attracted to the guys playing her father) but for the most part, the film feels like a good sketch idea that is eventually stretched far beyond its breaking point.

If you were to ask a dozen film scholars to name the greatest work by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, it is entirely likely that you might come up with a dozen different answers. However, if you were to ask what his last unquestioned masterpiece was, it is equally likely that his 1985 epic “Ran,” now being re-released in theaters to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday, would win that vote in a landside. Taking the basic outline of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and transplanting it to 16th-century Japan, the film tells the story of an aging emperor (Tatsuya Nakadai) whose decision to divide his empire among his three sons inspires nothing but war, pain and bloodshed for all involved, mostly thanks to the cruel and evil machinations of the seductive Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada in a fearsome performance for the ages). Throughout his career, Kurosawa veered between presenting viewers with enormous canvases filled with broad visuals and bold characterizations and offering them smaller and more intimately detailed dramas and with this film, he brilliantly fused the two approaches together into a film that is just as exciting and astonishing in its smaller, character-driven moments (the bit where Kaede slits her lover’s neck as a form of foreplay is a knockout) as it is when it is displaying its amazing visuals. (This may be the most formally beautiful film of Kurosawa’s entire career.) “Ran” is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray in excellent editions but if you consider yourself to be a true connoisseur of the cinema and you have never seen it on the big screen where it most definitely belongs, do whatever you can to catch it if it happens to be playing at a theater near you--this is one that is not to be missed under any circumstance.

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originally posted: 04/16/10 20:49:33
last updated: 04/16/10 22:56:50
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