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We occasionally hear of actors deciding a career in front of the camera just isn’t enough. Working as an ambitious actor is likely frustrating; rarely having control of a project, or earning anything close to that of famous directors and producers. Not everyone that attempts this transition comes out on top; maybe a few produce memorable classics, though the vast majority are less than mediocre or just plain awful. It goes without saying, the latter category is filled with vanity projects from big name personalities, whose employers are contracted to fund these loss making exercises to keep the talent sweet.

John Malkovich makes his transition from highly respected screen and stage actor, to first time director with The Dancer Upstairs. This is a particularly risky adaptation for a newcomer when you consider it is unlikely to attract a mainstream audience. The big questions however is, did he succeed in transition, or fall short and end up in the dreaded mediocre pile of shame?

Dancer Upstairs, The
Shot in several countries and based in an unnamed Latin American country, The Dancer Upstairs is one man’s experience of a convoluted world. Agustín (Javier Bardem) has had a privileged life working as a lawyer under a corrupt Government that’s slowly creeping towards despotism. Unlike those that have stepped before, he hasn’t used this opportunity to take advantage of the system and eventually leaving the country. Instead he quit the job through frustration of peers exploiting their power.

Working his way up the ranks as a police officer, we see Agustin as a detective being offered an assignment to investigate some unusual activity. Dead dogs with dynamite inserted through their throats, hanging on poles displaying Marxist terms have been spotted throughout the countryside. These occurrences had previously gone unnoticed but now they are reaching the outskirts of the capital and the authorities are worried. It is suspected that a growing movement of revolutionary terrorists led by a mysterious individual - Ezequiel - are responsible. Little is known about this leader and the organisation he represents other than the headquarters is thought to have already been established within the city. To make matters worse for Agustin, his efforts are being hampered yet again by an apprehensive dictatorship on the verge of announcing Martial law. Assassinations of key political figures aren’t helping.

Whilst the world around him is falling apart, Agustin is actually a married man with a wife and an intelligent young daughter. His daughter attends one-on-one dance lessons with a beautiful young teacher - Yolanda (Laura Morante). There is obvious attraction between Agustin and Yolanda. His wife’s shallow attitude tires him and he finds himself being drawn closer to Yolanda every day.

The Dancer Upstairs features strong performances from the entire cast with Javier Bardem in particular putting forward a believable performance of a family man stuck in the middle of a messed up situation. This is made all the more spectacular when you consider that much of the cast – including Javier – don’t speak English as their first language. In fact Javier was pretty much using this movie to learn how to act in English (knowing a language and acting in it are very different). If it weren’t for Malkovich’s expert guidance and the cast’s determination, this wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it is.

Dancer Upstairs, The
Malkovich’s style of directing is straightforward and pleasing to the eye. From the commentary that’s covered later, he mentions one shot in particular which wasn’t planned but thanks to the skill of the cast and Malkovich’s open mind they continued the shot; this resulted in a an exciting dramatic scene that likely couldn’t have been recreated.

Overall, Malkovich should be proud of this offering. I’ll be following his future projects with interest. Javier and the rest of the cast have definitely helped to push this movie up a few notches above the rest. The Dancer Within is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in traditional thrillers such as The Tailor of Panama or The Quiet American - to provide recent examples.

We get a transfer that is formatted in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although somewhat grainy, it does hold up well. In particular this movie becomes darker as it progresses with many scenes lit at night from natural sources, fortunately we don’t see any of the usual side effects - blacks are solid. Colours are vibrant, especially the reds and blues – watch out for scenes involving fireworks to see what I mean.

By the very nature of the film it does not feature a soundtrack that is hugely dynamic. The Dancer Upstairs is mostly a dialogue driven movie, and although I have seen others mention having trouble understanding certain characters at times, I consider this to be more the fault of the viewer (having not heard Portuguese/Spanish accents prior) rather than the soundtrack itself. I’m sure there’s a lot of looping used in this movie but in the most part it is not noticeable. Malkovich specifically resisted Fox Searchlight’s attempts to have lines redone for the American audiences. Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround as English only.

Dancer Upstairs, The
I ought to mention that I’m not keen on the way Fox present this disc (I assume they do this with other movies too). Essentially you would buy this product (that is, not rent), yet you are presented with a forced message lasting fairly long and stating the copy should not be rented. I understand why they would do this, but it reminds me of the bad old days when I would borrow a video from a rental store and have to fast-forward through a load of cack and then lots trailers. At least they could have allowed customers to skip the message. And talking of trailers, after watching the forced not-for-rent message there’s several trailers automatically played. At least this time you can switch to the menu, but why couldn’t they have added a trailers menu? Something like a related movies menu, would have been fine. It’s not that I don’t like watching trailers, as I occasionally find myself looking on Apple’s site to see the latest QuickTime trailers. Just it feels like I’m being made to watch adverts for something I could have paid for (this is a review disc). Oh well.

With the feature commentary we hear from principle actor Javier Bardem and director John Malkovich. Don’t be put off by the weird silence for the first 4 minutes of the movie; no idea why this happened, but from there on in it is an informative and interesting track that covers both technical and superficial aspects. Such interesting titbits include the background of the story and its Kantian influences, comments on a controversial scene involving a stick of dynamite and a chicken that got the movie into trouble in the UK and they actually got the electricity for an entire city – including streetlights - shut down to film certain night shots. Another interesting point covered was their controversial use of salvaged road kill for the dogs – many thought there were puppets!

Dancer Upstairs, The
One aspect that they covered well was the language barriers. Since much of the cast didn’t speak English as their primary language, they had to concentrate far greater on acting in English. Not being able to understand how to alter the tone and rate based on the feel of the scene for example. Malkovich comments that this resulted in a different form of acting since no one was thinking about the usual worries of actors such as appearance. He also comments on the decision to film the movie in English rather than Spanish which he is still undecided if it were a good or bad decision. It did help to sell the movie but may have lost a bit creatively. Overall this is defiantly worth a listen. One slightly unusual point was an additional subtitle option for the commentary track – I’m not sure why they would do this, unless some find it difficult to understand Bardem’s English, which I for one thought was exceptional.

“Journeys with John Malkovich” is the first of two featurettes provided on this disc. It is a product of the Sundance Channel and lasts only five minutes. We get to see Malkovich talk about himself for a while and then he takes a trip to London to show the movie. He appears to be a quiet person who’s a bit of an eccentric. Some might goes as far to say he’s weird, but I sort of see where he’s coming from. This programme in no way gives away anything about the movie, so don’t worry about watching it before the main feature.

The other featurette “Revealing The Dancer Upstairs” allows both Malkovich and more significantly writer Nicholas Shakespeare to take you on a journey through the movie. Be aware that this will totally spoil the movie, so stay clear until after watching it. Nicholas goes through the main elements of the movie describing why they appeared and his thoughts about them. He offers some background and reveals how he came up with the whole idea. Basically this is a nice bit of promotional material that will help to fill in the blanks.

I found The Dance Upstairs to be an unexpectedly impressive movie. It is a good old fashioned thriller and an unpredictable detective story with a bit of romance thrown in. I hope to see Malkovich take up the director role again sooner rather than later. He has definitely made a good job of Shakespeare’s script.

Dancer Upstairs, The
Audio and video quality was above my expectation considering the low budget of the movie; though extras were unfortunately a disappointment. We do get an interesting commentary and two perfectly good featurettes, but these days you expect to see more. Maybe a few trailers, some deleted scenes and some other promotional material could have helped to make it feel more worthy.

If you’ve seen The Tailor of Panama or The Quiet American, and enjoyed them both then I’m certain you’ll enjoy this movie.