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May 2, 2003 2:00 AM
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Malkovich Brings a Quality Touch To His Directorial Debut, "The Dancer Upstairs"

Malkovich Brings a Quality Touch To His Directorial Debut, "The Dancer Upstairs"

by Brandon Judell










Javier Bardem in "The Dancer Upstairs," directed by John Malkovich.

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Skin an actor, get a director wannabe. Some prime examples of this ilk include Buster Keaton, Charles Laughton, Lionel Barrymore, Raoul Walsh, Ida Lupino, Lee Grant, Dennis Hopper, and the Godfather of most modern thespian-helmers, John Cassavetes.

Surprisingly, the results are often fairly good or at least respectable. The reason being, no doubt, that if someone is giving up a lucrative career to spend a few years on a project that might garner him or her nothing but embarrassment, it better be a worthwhile and heartfelt one.

In the last few weeks, two such releases have hit the screens. The bigger surprise of the pair is Matt Dillon's Cambodia-based "City of Ghosts." The star displays a visual flair, emotional depth, and a tangible intelligence in his first effort. Who knew? Beauty can be more than skin deep.

Then there's John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs," Nicholas Shakespeare's screen adaptation of his own novel. Now no one would ever have dared call Malky a dummy. "Brilliant," some have even deemed him -- a label that his stage work (e.g. "Burn This") and several of his films merit. Though looking at his list of credits, it's shocking to see how much crap and near-crap he's made: "Making Mr. Right," "Mary Reilly," "Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc," and "Knockaround Guys" for example. But for the most part, Malky means quality.

Now in his 50th year on this planet, he, too, has turned director, and quite successfully. But why in the new millennium and why with this project? According to press notes, after 17 years of turning down helming offers, Malkovich explained, "One of the main reasons I directed this was that sometimes it's just too hard to explain to someone else what you want. It's always more fun to sit back afterwards and say, 'Well, I would have done it this way,' but in the end, sometimes it's just easier to do it yourself."

To be more coherent and concise, Malkovich read the novel "The Dancer Upstairs," liked it, and immediately bought the rights.

The book was inspired by the capture of the Peruvian terrorist Abimael Guzman in 1992. Leader of the Shining Path guerrillas, once the most formidable rebel movement in Latin America, Guzman waged an armed struggle against the Peruvian state that left more than 30,000 dead. This philosophical anarchist, who looked like a university professor, was finally captured in a room above a dance studio.

So is the "villain" in "The Dancer Upstairs." The novel and the film, though, take place in an unnamed Latin America country. In the book, a reporter runs into the reticent lawyer-turned-police-officer Augustin Rejas in a small, isolated town. Rejas is the man responsible for capturing Ezequiel, the Guzman-based character, and the journalist wants his story.

In the film, the reporter is completely excised out of the tale. Instead, "Dancer" begins with Rejas (Javier Bardem) working at a small outpost in the countryside. A truck drives up with several occupants, including a dead dog. Rejas asks to sees one-man-with-a-skin-problem's papers. The gent notes: "This country gives me a rash every once in a while."

The man's photo is missing. Rejas gladly shoots it, and the man and truck disappear. The eczema-plagued guy turns out to be Ezequiel, and for the next decade Rejas is trying to capture him.

What's fascinating here is that even though Ezequiel's actions include children blowing themselves up, young girls machine-gunning generals, animals running about with dynamite attached to their legs, machete beheadings, and far worse, Rejas' sympathies are with the politics of this rebel cause. His father's own plantation had been pilfered by the ruling military government awhile back. Now he is protecting the very government he knows is morally corrupt to the core.

No wonder Rejas is so stoic. When asked if he has any feelings on a matter or "are you the Gary Cooper type?" he replies he is indeed the Gary Cooper type. Interspersed with the search for Ezequiel are often comic scenes of Rejas' bourgeois household (his wife wants a nose job) and the beginnings of an affair between Rejas and his daughter's dance teacher.

With a clever Graham-Greene-esque script, choice acting by the whole ensemble (especially Bardem), fine music by Alberto Iglesias, and the strong directorial control of Malkovich, the film zips along, creating a tension that had me on the edge of my seat on my first viewing and still involved on my second. This is one "Dance" that bears repeating.

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