March 6, 2006

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Take the Lead (PG-13)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Antonio Banderas teaches us that ballroom dance can help you overcome poverty's ills in Take the Lead.

Pierre Dulaine (Banderas) is a suave ballroom instructor who spends his days teaching waltz and fox trot and tango to the well-to-do at his Manhattan dance studio. While biking home from a competition, he peddles through a crappy neighborhood and runs into an angry young man named Rock (Rob Brown) beating the chrome off a car owned by his high school principal (Alfre Woodard). Dulaine doesn't turn the man in but he does go visit the principal and, after she snips about the difficulties of public education in the '"hood", he offers to help tame the wayward youth of her school. Desperate for a minder for the school's detention, she gives Dulaine an after-school class full of misfits (of which Rock, naturally, is one). He shows up and, after the expected amount of "who do you think you are"-ing on the part of the students, Dulaine is able to get them paired up and taking their first few slow slow quick quick slow steps.

Of course, dance isn't just dance to these dead-end kids. We see a few peeks at their home life. Rock's parents have slipped into drunkenness since the death of his older brother from gang violence. Another student, Lahrette (Yaya DaCosta), is left to watch her younger siblings while her mom turns tricks. In spite of their shells of street, the kids become enchanted by the dance in spite of themselves. They decide to enter a citywide ballroom competition that could win them respect, self-confidence and $5,000.

Log serious hours in a movie theater and you develop a few genre weaknesses. I have two categories of film I am predisposed to enjoy. The first would be movies that fit in the category I'll call "cheesetacular," which includes such films as this week's Slither and the oeuvre of Uwe Boll. The second - ballroom dance movies. I love this genre because much like the cheesetacular films (in fact, you could even argue that the ballroom dance movie is a subset of the cheesetacular genre) the story is based on absurdities that the movie itself is forced to acknowledge. In every ballroom dance movie, there is a scene where the dance instructor tries to explain that ballroom is about more than just the steps, it is a way of life, and the students make the "p-shaw" noises and say that ballroom can't fix their problems (too shy, too fat, too unpopular or, in Take the Lead, too socioeconomically disadvantaged). And then the instructor says something about believing in yourself or about dignity or about taking chances in life and the music swells and, more often than not, we switch to a practice montage. (If you are especially lucky, at least one of these speeches will be delivered while the dancers are in ballroom costume - there is something about the combination of hokey inspirational speeches and Vegas-style glitter that leaves me absolutely giddy.) Swishy dresses, salsa music and the intense stares of partners mid-tango - these things always triumph over whatever ridiculous obstacles the movie chucks on the dance floor.

Take the Lead does this with, perhaps, a bit more finesse than most such movies (and ballroom movies, despite their potential for cheesy goodness, can fall flat, for example as in the Richard Gere version of Shall We Dance?). Banderas is, even with his advancing age, five feet and nine inches of smoldering hotness. His young costars are likeable and generally appealing characters. The music is fun, the dancing is entertaining, the story is just layered enough to make it interesting and just fluffy enough to allow us to believe that waltz can conquer all. B-


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