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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"They say if you draw a map of everywhere you've ever been, you draw your own face."
DVD ReviewYou never quite know what sort of material an actor will gravitate toward the first time he or she utters those well-worn words, "What I really want to do is direct." Some directing debuts are markedly more auspicious than others—Ordinary People would likely be my candidate for the best of them—and in the worst scenarios, you sense that a studio or a production entity is financing a name actor's vanity project merely in the hope of banking some good will, and getting the star in front of the camera the next time. Any such fears of this film falling into the latter camp are quickly allayed, though—John Malkovich demonstrates some tremendously assured technique with this, his directorial debut, and he has crafted a film that is not only smart and entertaining, but has a pretty bruising point of view and flatters the intelligence of his audience. You can't say that about many films at all, no matter who's behind the camera.
The story is set in an unnamed Latin American country, in what a title card tells us is "the recent past." Curious and ugly things are happening in and around the capital city, and through the countryside—dogs are found dead, strung up on telephone wires, with sticks of dynamite stuck in their throats and placards bearing Marxist slogans hanging around their necks; various community markets are being blown up; small children with backpacks full of explosives are sent into meeting rooms, where they detonate their cargo, killing themselves and all else present. Most ominously for the corrupt government, the threats and the violence are coming closer and closer to the Presidential palace. They all have one thing in common: they make reference to a mysterious Ezequiel, proclaimed as a prophet, a shaman, the rightful President. Just who is he, and why are these acts of violence being committed in his name?
On the case is Agustin Rejas, a good man in a bad world—a former lawyer, Rejas's father's coffee plantation was confiscated by the government he now serves, and he does his best to keep to the straight and narrow. He and his team of police are asked to get to the bottom of the Ezequiel mystery, though the present administration has more than its share of secrets it doesn't care to have uncovered—Rejas's mission is a long way from being asked to uncover the truth, no matter where it may lead.
As Rejas, Javier Bardem is a charismatic and pensive leading man—you can see his mind racing as he hunts for clues, trying not only to determine the facts, but to divine the hidden agendas of the many who provide obstacles to his path. He's a family man, with a lovely wife and daughter; but there's an obvious unease to Rejas, something in him that's been dormant too long, and whatever that something is gets reignited by Yolanda (Laura Morante), his daughter's ballet instructor. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and plot and subplot are intertwined in smart and surprising ways.
Malkovich of course has great respect for actors, but he doesn't indulge his cast—he's chosen his material wisely, for Nicholas Shakespeare's screenplay (based on his own novel) pushes the action along elegantly and deliberately, and a detective movie seems perfect for his first time captaining the team. It sure worked for John Huston, with The Maltese Falcon—and in many ways Bardem's Rejas is a worthy heir to the tradition of Philip Marlowe and J. J. Gittes. There are obvious affinities between this material and Graham Greene, as well, and especially to the films of Costa-Gavras—Rejas even watches a clip from one (State of Siege) in pursuit of Ezequiel. The film may be just a little bit too long, but when you've made a film that rightfully earns comparisons to things like The Third Man and Z, you should be right proud.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic transfer is strong and saturated; occasionally the composition seems not to have taken DVD and video into mind, and important bits of information can seem very small in the frame. But it's a lush and largely debris-free presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: A disproportionately high percentage of the dialogue seems to have been looped, and some of those audio edits aren't especially smooth. Other interference is at a minimum, though the dynamics are a little hinky from time to time, with some of the dialogue almost impossible to make out—more than once, I replayed scenes with the subtitles on to make sure I caught all the info.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring In America
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John Malkovich and Javier Bardem
Layers Switch: 01h:14m:27s
Extras Review: The commentary track by the director and star is full of stories from location—both in South America and on the Iberian peninsula—and these are both smart, self-deprecating, and obviously talented guys. They may not wow you here with insight, but they are good company. Malkovich does tantalize us with references to violent disagreements re the editing process, and about great material that had to be cut; no more specifics or deleted scenes appear on this disc, though. Especially impressive and rather surprising is Malkovich's interest in casting non-actors in some crucial roles, and in assembling a cast for whom English is not their native language (Bardem is Spanish, for instance; Morante, Italian)—it brings a hesitancy and a concentration to all of the performances, to great effect. Malkovich is also very sensitive to staving off the wrath of the animal lobby, and assures us that none of the animals, including one "chicken [who] showed signs of distress," were injured in the course of making the film.
Revealing The Dancer Upstairs (21m:33s) includes interview footage with Malkovich, Bardem, and Shakespeare, the last of whom fills in some of the historical facts—though this is a work of fiction, it's based loosely on events in Peru, with a dogged policeman on the tail of the head of the Shining Path, the band of Maoist terrorists who lived in the Andes. Journeys with John Malkovich (04m:39s) was produced for the Sundance Channel, and shows Malkovich taking the film to London; he confesses that after a shoot he doesn't remain especially close to his colleagues, though he seems to make an exception for Bardem.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA smart and well-made detective story, The Dancer Upstairs is, aside from a successful bit of entertainment, perhaps the best meditation yet on the meaning and impact of acts of terrorism in a free society. Malkovich acquits himself admirably as a director, and if you needed ratification that Bardem is a charismatic and capable leading man, you'll find it here.
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