An exemplary and entertaining history of a crucial decade in North American social dancing, roughly from the time of Arthur Murray ballroom lessons and the lindy hop in Harlem (both circa 1953) to freestyle dancing and the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964. Ron Mann–the Canadian documentarist whose former features include investigations into free jazz (Imagine the Sound), poetry (Poetry in Motion), and comic books (Comic Book Confidential)–combines a collector’s zeal for exhaustive inventories (all the ephemeral dance steps are duly noted) with a sharp sense of social history, so apart from the pleasure of watching all sorts of 50s and 60s film and TV clips and recent interviews with major participants (dancers as well as singers), one gets a sense of how dance styles developed and were merchanidised. Among the provocative highlights are a white couple explaining how for their appearance on American Bandstand as teenagers they were coached to claim credit for the Strand, a dance developed by blacks, and an interview with Marshall McLuhan, who expounds on the twist being “like conversation without words.” A dry-cleaned version of this film has shown on the Disney Channel, shorn of certain lurid steps and ideological points; you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen without cuts (1992). Music Box, Friday through Thursday, August 27 through September 2.
With the help of screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) turns Frances Hodgson Burnett’s rather gothic children’s book of 1911 into a splendid, evocative, beautifully realized picture. I haven’t seen the 1949 MGM version since my childhood, but it’s hard to believe it could be as effective as this one. The plot concerns three very different lonely and neglected children (Heydon Prowse, Kate Maberly, and Andrew Knott) in a remote part of rural England who discover a locked and equally neglected garden, and in the course of befriending one another slowly bring it back to life. Maggie Smith plays the somewhat Dickensian and unfriendly housekeeper who blocks their way to freedom, and the lovely musical score is by Zbigniew Preisner; Francis Ford Coppola served as executive producer. As a children’s movie with a fine sense of magic (without fantasy) and a great deal of feeling (without sentimentality), this beats the usual Disney junk hands down, and it can also be recommended wholeheartedly to adults as an expert piece of story telling. Ford City, Wilmette, Biograph, Lincoln Village, Golf Glen, Norridge, Esquire.
One of the craftiest and most satisfying pieces about gender politics to come along in ages–all the more crafty because audiences are encouraged to see it simply as a movie about a seven-year-old chess genius, based on Fred Waitzkin’s nonfiction book about his son Josh. Very well played (with Max Pomeranc especially good as Josh), shot (by Conrad Hall), and written and directed (by Steven Zaillian), it gradually evolves into a kind of parable about how a gifted kid learns to choose–and choose what he needs from–his parents, teachers, and other role models. The part played by gender in all this is both subtle and complex, relating not only to chess strategy (i.e., when to bring your queen out) and the personality of Bobby Fischer, but also to the varying attitudes toward competition taken by his parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen) and two teachers (Laurence Fishburne and Ben Kingsley). It makes for a good old-fashioned inspirational story, easily the most absorbing and pointed since Lorenzo’s Oil. Water Tower, Lincoln Village, Old Orchard, Webster Place.