Monday, June 01, 2009

Movie Review Monday

I've seen a bunch of movies in the last couple of weeks, so I thought I'd review a couple of the best. If you don't get to them in the theater, you'll have some ideas for your Netflix queue.

Up, from Pixar in Disney Digital 3-D

I had already seen the trailer for the latest animated feature from Pixar about a dozen times, and was totally unimpressed. I mean, sure it looks cool that this old guy's house lifts into the sky, powered by thousands of balloons, but what was the point? And then there was this little scout, an accidental stowaway, and clearly there was going to be some sort of antagonistic relationship between them, yet another tedious incarnation of the classic buddy motif.

Well, the trailer doesn't give you the backstory, and that's where the heart is. See, this old guy was once a kid who fell in love with a little girl, and they both dreamed of big adventures, particularly a trip to Paradise Falls in South America, just like their idol, professional explorer Charles Muntz. They grow up, they get married, and the whole trajectory of their marriage is lovingly and subtly depicted without a word. They are also childless, and not by choice. I had no idea this was going to be an infertility story, and the missing piece in the pie of their love made me weep. I don't want to spoil it for you, but by the time that house is wrenched from its moorings, it's the only option left for a life-long adventurer (and lover) making good on his word.

And the little stowaway, Russell, has his own backstory. See, he's a wildnerness explorer, and he needs the "Assisting the Elderly" badge in order to get senior status. Too bad no one in his family is interested in helping out. So you see, these two are made for each other.

For once, the 3-D glasses didn't give me a headache; in fact, I forgot about them completely, so riveted was I by the gorgeous aerial panoramas, lush vegetation, and surprising wildlife, including a giant bird named Kevin who turns out to be a girl. There is also a delicious subplot involving a bunch of dogs, some of them fierce, but represented by the sloppy-sweetest member of the pack, Dug, who runs away with the best line in the movie (and many others besides.)

Let's just say that our growing band of explorers tests their limits in one adventure after another, and that a lifestory comes full-circle, and that Russell not only earns his badge, he re-earns all the others ten times over. And though there's some crazy action in sequences, there's also a lovely quiet, infused with the magnitude of life's choices, in many others.

Up left me buoyant. And if you're wondering how the youngest critic in our gang received it, she was riveted, especially when Kevin sustains a leg injury and young Russell applies a bandage from his wilderness kit. She heartily approves of the motto "Be Prepared."

Every Little Step

I first saw A Chorus Line at age 12, on Broadway, fifth row center, courtesy of my generous Uncle Gerry. I hadn't seen many (if any) musicals before, and this one struck me as the coolest idea ever--a musical about casting a musical. I loved every dance, every song, especially the one modestly titled "Dance 10, Looks 3" which contained the most shocking refrain I had ever heard, and had me averting my eyes from the adults for the rest of the evening:

Tits and ass
Bought myself a fancy pair
Tightened up the derriere
Did the nose with it
All that goes with it

As I grew, it was no surprise to me that the show became the longest running ever on Broadway--some 15 years--and I would see it again and again on the West coast, in every community and school production I could snag a ticket for. It wasn't long before I knew every song by heart, and most of the book, too. For a long time, I couldn't have explained what made every other musical pale in comparison (and I came of age in the Andrew Lloyd Weber era) but I think I can now. Some of the primal urgency at the show's heart emerges in the opening number "I Hope I Get It." A Chorus Line is about wanting something passionately, something that might be out of your control: to be hired, to be noticed, to be LOVED. I can relate.

I hope I get it
I hope I get it
How many people does he need?

In the wonderful documentary Every Little Step, the filmmakers choose from 500 hours of footage from the eight month (!) audition process for the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Along the way, we get to know several of the actor/dancers in the running for particular characters, who are winnowed from 3,000 to a couple dozen hopefuls at the "final-final" callbacks. We learn a bit about the history of the show, and get to hear some of the original tapes that Michael Bennet and 22 dancer friends made in a single night of confessions over wine. We get to know the producers and casting crew, including Baayork Lee, one of the choreographers and the original Broadway Connie. In the film's opening moments, there is a wonderfully visceral scene in which she asks the sweating hopefuls, a mixture of unknowns and Actors Equity players: "Have you ever heard the expression 'Eat Nails?'" Then she screams as if her heart is breaking and the most important thing is for the audience to notice it. "So...EAT NAILS!" she commands. Yes. Point taken.

Throughout the film, it's the actors who eat nails--not contemplate eating them, but truly open themselves to the searing, superabundant vitality it takes to make someone notice you in a crowd. Like Jessica, an unknown from New Jersey who tells us "I don't have a fallback plan. When you have a fallback fall back." And like Yuka, who is fighting for Connie against her best friend, and lets us know that she is going to lose her apartment if she doesn't get this job. Like Rachelle, who impresses the hell out of the committee on her first read, and somehow loses it eight months later. "What the f*$@% did I do eight months ago?" she anguishes behind the scenes when they ask her to try again. "I have no idea!" And most memorably, like Jason Tam, who strolls into a stark, fluorescent room, stands in front of six strangers, and practically summons the apocalypse with his take on Paul's wrenching monologue--the heart of the show. The producers watch him, stony-faced, thank him for coming, and the door shuts behind him. But then there is the camera to capture every last one of them whipping off their glasses to wipe tears from their eyes. This is good stuff, people. (And it doesn't hurt that Jason Tam is yummy enough to eat with a spoon.)

What makes the film so mesmerizing is the weird combination of objectives: these people need a job, sometimes badly, but they are seeking that job in the most raw, vulnerable fashion imaginable. They are asking to be found beautiful, graceful, charismatic, likeable. That's a lot to ask of strangers. But if they didn't put themselves out there, there would be no magic. In the name of magic--for themselves, for an audience--these individuals eat nails. It's a noble calling.

Late in the film, one of the dancers comments that she's just noticed Jessica for the first time, because she is "killing it" in the final dance audition. This expression caught my notice because it's so violent, and it's used to describe something so impossibly beautiful--the moment when a dancer is in the zone. Perhaps it's a little like those gorgeous butterflies that only live a few hours--that kind of beauty can't last, and that's what makes it so precious.


Amanda said...

Wow those are great reviews. I think this needs to be a regular post. You made me HAVE to take Breanna (my almost 4 year old) to see UP. I think we might both really enjoy it.
As for Every Little Step I don't remember seeing that, but I did go and look at the trailer, and it looks facinating!

LunaMoonbeam said...

Love your reviews! I really want to see Up. Someone told me it's a sad movie though..???!

Jen said...

Sam, you are just so smart and amazing.

I miss you!

Miss J

Mary said...

Great reviews!

I LOVED "Up!" Dug did have the best line.

Now, I just need see "Every Little Step!"



Myrnie said...

Can't wait to see Up! I heard about the second movie, but I haven't seen anything more about it...sounds interesting!

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

I'm glad you reminded me to go back and read this. I'd skipped it because I wanted to see Up first. I really loved it, too. Any movie that can make me cry and laugh is a good movie. Laura loved it, too.