The Dancer Upstairs Review

Mark Boydell has reviewed the DVD release of The Dancer Upstairs – Malkovich’s debut as a director – a thoughtful movie on guerilla warfare in Latin America. The DVD provides some good extras along with good image and sound. Out tomorrow.

A clandestine group has started to make threats of violence against the government of some unnamed Latin American country – their first act was to kill dogs and hang them on lampposts with cryptic messages attached to them. The common thread to these messages is a certain “Presidente Ezequiel” but the government is baffled by who this person is, what his/her objectives are or if it’s just an unpleasant hoax. Detective Rejas (Javier Bardem) is put in charge of finding who is behind this and if things turn nasty, he will be a nice scapegoat to feed to the population.

Based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel which in turn was based on his encounters with Peru’s Shining Path movement in the 80’s, The Dancer Upstairs is a strange animal which has so far divided audiences. Though the material could have made a fast-paced, adrenaline-laced thriller, Malkovich chooses to give it a languorous tempo and focuses more on the characters than on the plotline. This probably helps the film retain a distinctive tone rather than slumbering into tacky cops-and-robbers games and makes it a very good, thoughtful watch though some may feel that it exceeds it’s welcome, clocking in at over two hours. The cinematography however manages to keep the film ticking over with some good use of unusual angles and steadicam, with the image taking on a slightly sun-tinged colour theme.

Though Malkovich has been renowned for making bizarre political comments (such as his desire to shoot Robert Fisk and George Galloway), the film does thankfully keep a relatively even view of the situation – the government obviously partly deserves what is about to be visited upon them and avoids a Manichean take on the politics of the situation. He also manages to get some very good performances from his cast despite most of them not speaking English as a first language. The choice to film in English (with parts in Quechua) however seems at times rather contrived: given that the budget was hardly astronomical, the film may have even found a wider audience as a result of filming in Spanish and seems like a strange concession to have made. The film however manages to survive its own flaws and delivers a good mix of drama and action without seeming too eager to make a statement.

The DVD:
The DVD features an extended, unskippable copyright sequence followed by a series of trailers that can be skipped by pressing “Menu”.

The Image:
The image is globally good though seems to lack slightly in definition with certain scenes appearing quite hazy though that may have been the directors’ intent. The print used is clean and, bar the occasional occurrence of white specks, is problem-free. The occasional bit of artifacting crops up in some backgrounds but is barely noticeable.

The Sound:
We get a 5.1 mix of the English track which makes a good use of surrounds where music occurs or in specific scenes but usually uses them solely for background noise. The subwoofer is put to good effect both in the action sequences and also in the quieter scenes to add to the tension.

The Extras:
The Commentary: Featuring Malkovich and Javier Bardem, it takes about 5 minutes before they decide to start commenting on the film! When they do start, much of the talk focuses on the directing, cast and the use of locations with some interesting anecdotes cropping up here and there. Malkovich is slightly difficult to listen to talk as he tends to ‘hum’ and ‘hah’ a lot and it’s hardly the most lively commentary I’ve listened to, but provides a good background to the film.

Featurette: Running for 22 minutes, the feature talks to the writer, the director and the cast though Malkovich spends very little time on screen whilst Shakespeare takes over a central role explaining how he wrote the book, the historical background and much more. A good addition for those interested in how much of the story is actually true.

John Malkovich’ featurette: a short (5 mins) but interesting Sundance Channel feature which follows Malkovich from France to London for the opening of the film and gets him to talk about the film and his directing techniques.

Malkovich has delivered a very good debut that will hopefully find a larger audience on DVD than it did on the silver screen. The DVD provides a decent amount of good extras and comes with good image and sound.

Mark Boydell

Updated: Oct 19, 2003

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