Combustible Celluloid
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With: Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, James Franco, The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago
Written by: Barbara Turner, based on a story by Neve Campbell and Barbara Turner
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language, some nudity and sexual content
Running Time: 112
Date: 09/08/2003

The Company (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dance the Night Away

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great director Robert Altman has always been known for his excellent treatment of ensembles. Even when working with heavyweight actors like Warren Beatty (McCabe and Mrs. Miller) or scene-stealers like Robin Williams (Popeye), he tends to blend them in with their backgrounds and fellow actors.

And so it makes perfect sense that he should helm a project called The Company, featuring members of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, and capturing a few weeks (during Christmas and New Year's) in the life of the company with little or no plot to speak of.

Yet The Company differs from every other Altman film in that it was envisioned by, co-written by and co-produced by the 30 year-old actress Neve Campbell, who proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she has talent way beyond her hit TV series "Party of Five." The Company is as much her film as it is Altman's.

Campbell -- who studied ballet as a child -- has the good grace to blend in among the rest of the company rather than trying to cast herself as the prima ballerina. She plays Ry, a dancer who has just broken up with another member of the company, works nights in a club and lives in a small apartment near the "El."

Early in the film, she gets to shine in an awesomely beautiful interpretation of "My Funny Valentine," performed outdoors just as an autumn storm begins to whip colorful dead leaves and droplets of rain around the stage. It's one of the greatest set pieces in all of Altman's oeuvre, ranking right next to the shootout in the snow in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Ry also enjoys a lovely, laid-back holiday romance with a cook, Josh (James Franco), but the majority of the film focuses on the other dancers, their triumphs and tragedies, and the maddening exploits of the company's eccentric manager Alberto Antonelli (Malcolm McDowell).

Altman delicately and masterfully records every moment, comical or tragic, performance or practice, with the same consummate skill. The dances are filmed head-on but with a kind of backstage view, as if he wanted us to appreciate the mechanics of the performances as well as their beauty.

At the same time, Antonelli -- even with his position of power -- represents those of us who know nothing about dance. He never really seems to be aware of what's going on other than his own presence and flamboyance. He'll walk into a rehearsal and begin changing things around, simply because he has the wherewithal to do so.

Most viewers will probably complain about the lack of plot, but Altman tells dozens of little stories without really telling them at all. Early in the film an older woman practices at the bar, sweating through her leotards. The first moment another person enters the room, she quietly slips off to change. She re-emerges minutes later, after the room has filled up with young dancers. Wearing her business clothes, she sneaks out of the room and back to her administrative work. As she leaves, Altman's camera casually draws away from her, pushing her out of the frame and focusing on the new young talent at the same time.

It's a tragic story, one of many gracefully told tales within the patchwork of this magnificent film.

DVD Details: I saw this great film twice in the theater and a third time on DVD, and I still insist it's one of Altman's best films, despite the its lackluster reception both critically and financially. Columbia/TriStar has preserved its beautiful images on their new DVD, which comes with a commentary track by Altman and Campbell. It also features a couple of short making-of featurettes and a feature that lets dance fans play nothing but the dance performances from the film. It also comes with a huge gallery of trailers for new and upcoming Sony releases like The Fog of War and The Triplets of Belleville.

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