Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Pull the Curtain

Center Stage won't have you dancing in the aisles.

By Ashley Fantz

MAY 22, 2000:  It's unbearably trite, with bubblegum acting that makes the kids on the WB look like performers for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The latest film from director Nicholas Hytner, who was responsible for the Jennifer Aniston stinker Object of My Affection, Center Stage is the Fame-like journey of five aspiring ballet dancers surviving the brutality of the American Ballet Academy. Stern instructors turn out to have hearts of gold; a spoiled student goes from bitch en pointe to sensitive dove with feelings; a naive country girl learns the mean ways of the city; and a bad boy finally gets his. Toss in a stereotypical Oprah-worshiping gay dancer constantly scoping out men and an "urban" girl with an attitude problem. Collectively, their dream is to dance for the greatest companies in the world. But first they must nail a respectable role in the Academy's Workshop, a concert that will show recruiters that they're gonna live forever, they're gonna learn how to fly -- high!

Got a paper bag handy?

Hytner tricks viewers into thinking that Center Stage has promise in its opening scenes. Hopefuls are leaping and turning quickly, smiling in the studio's mirrors. Judges are overheard making typically crass comments: "Her turnout is so poor, but she's really cute. ... Who let that trash in here? Where was he trained? The circus? ... Way too fat, way too fat." The frantic cadence of dancers breaking in their toe shoes -- which mean tearing, burning, bending, hammering, taping -- is as amusing as it is realistic. Also in Center Stage's favor is Hytner's choice of filming in the mirror to illustrate broken movement.

However, the choreography is slack and unimaginative. It pales next to the film's ancestors, such as Footloose, White Knights, and Flashdance. Body rolls, jazz hands, limp adagios, and shoddy Bob Fosse heel-grinds are all Center Stage has to offer. It's a shame, too, because a few of the greatest ballet dancers in the country were cast in lead roles.

American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, who's danced the works of Balanchine, Petipa, Tharp, and DeMille, portray Cooper and Charlie, two guys vying for the same girl. Radetsky's soap-opera good looks and acting talent make him enjoyable to watch even as he utters cheeseball lines -- "Hey, just dance what you feel. Use your anger and your sadness and dance from deep inside your heart." Another newcomer, whose acting needs work but who dances like a pro, is Ilia Kulik as Russian dancer Sergei. At 20, Kulik was the first figure skater to win an Olympic medal with a quadruple jump and the first man to complete eight triple jumps. Look forward to Kulik doing a lot of jumping in Center Stage.

But two hours of Center Stage may produce crows' feet from constant wincing. This film is packed with pick-up lines -- a surprise considering the script was partially penned by Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein. But if anyone should be grateful for his day job, it's Stiefel. His portrayal of Cooper, the star of the American Ballet Company, is awful. His weighs about a buck-ten but speeds around Manhattan on a motorcycle, cocking his head low, winking at the ladies, and dispersing lines like, "I could give you everything you want; I could give you a piece of me." It's only when Stiefel shuts up and dances that he is a joy to watch. Well, at least when there's no music playing.

A nauseating pop soundtrack, which includes Britney Spears stand-in Mandy Moore singing "Candy" and Jamiroquai's "Cosmic Girl," plays while the five principals hold hands, heads to the Manhattan sky, laughing and loving life. But ears will not bleed entirely. British composer George Fenton gives the movie its loveliest musical moments.

Keep the cotton for your ears handy, however, when Center Stage's leading lady Amanda Schull, attends a jazz class outside of the academy. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground" hits the speakers for an old-fashioned boy-versus-girls dance-off, during which a teacher is heard yelling, "Don't worry about the steps. Just dance the shit out of it!" Schull, whose career could have easily included a Saved by the Bell stint, is a much better jazz dancer than ballet performer. The 21-year-old blonde, blue-eyed, curvy doll has promise for future acting roles if she can turn her gee-whiz sexuality into Lolita spice. But she'll remain behind the Hollywood curtain if she makes another movie like Center Stage.

Repeat after me: Hubba hubba.

That about sums up Gladiator, a movie that is simple as can be and at the same time positively throbbing with lust -- lust for power, lust for glory, lust for riches, lust for blood, and on and on. It's like a Volkswagen Beetle running on a supercharged turbo engine.

Russell Crowe stars as Maximus, a great Roman general who is asked by the ruler Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) to head the empire after he dies. Marcus' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) does not like being passed over one little bit, so he takes care of the matter with a bear hug that disposes of his father and Maximus with one extra-strong squeeze.

Maximus, however, is not so easily gotten rid of. He makes his way to Rome to face Commodus via the games circuit, where groups of slaves are matched up to reduce one another to a mush of tissue and blood.

The lines that draw the characters of Gladiator are, for the most part, extremely dark. Maximus is all-good, a man whose oath of strength and honor to his army is the only thing that interrupts his daydreams of reuniting with his wife and son. In one scene, a boy approaches the gladiator and tells him that he'd heard that Maximus was a giant. His bearing exudes morality and courage that dwarfs his rather ordinary stature. Commodus is the polar opposite. He very nearly wheezes evil as he strokes his young nephew, a scene that hints he is capable of a horrible double taboo. The only character who is at all fuzzy is Lucilla (Connie Nielson), Commodus' sister and Maximus' ex, whose set-jaw countenance registers everything from cruelty to fear to tenderness.

The guessing game over Lucilla's motives, however, runs a distant second to the gladiator games. There is a lot of killing and then some more. Lots and lots of killing made voluptuous by a screen filled with extras and action and the musical clangs of swords and plinks and whirs of bows and arrows. Not to mention that the game scenes are just smack-down cool.

Holding it all together is Crowe, a true hotty who appeals to both men (who want to be him) and women (who want to be with him). Crowe makes decapitation a noble act. -- Susan Ellis

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