Quick Movie Reviews (And Then We Danced & Amulet)

And Then We Danced

“There is no sex in Georgian dance,” declares a gruff dance instructor, Aliko (Kakha Gogidze), at the beginning of Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced. The line’s obvious irony inspires giggles from his students, who are uniformly young and fit, and as we will learn, sex is just about the only thing they talk about when they get to the locker room. But that line could also just as easily by interpreted as a self-reflexive wink to the audience. Because just as there is no sex in traditional Georgian dance, there are also apparently no gay men — which explains why Akin’s innocuous drama about the sexual awakening of a male dancer had to be produced with a degree of secrecy. (The choreographer of the film, for instance, has remained anonymous.) Akin, a Swedish writer-director who comes from a family of Georgian roots, is not exactly an insider to this milieu. But he’s stumbled onto something in setting a gay love story at an elite traditional dance studio in Georgia. At heart, Georgian dance is a dance of gender roles in which a lot of the attention goes to the male dancers’ displays of athletically stylized machismo, acting out ideals of camaraderie, competition, and manly pursuits in dance.

Yet we never see any examples of this national art form’s awe-inspiring stage shows in And Then We Danced. The dancing is mostly depicted in practice and rehearsal in a featureless room, captured in raggedly cut handheld sequences that betray the movie’s modest means. If Akin knows how to stage any better than this, he rarely shows it. But if he never displays a knack for visualizing the physicality of dance (more impressive footage can be found on YouTube in about five seconds), he does a decent job of conveying the frustration and passion it inspires in the fresh-faced and bendy Merab (Levan Gelbakhiana). Merab has spent his entire life working hard to become a traditional Georgian dancer — just like his father, a disillusioned former star who once toured the world with a dance troupe, but now sells car parts at a flea market. Perhaps we are meant to read Merab’s impossible ambitions as a parallel to his attraction to Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), who makes his entrance in Aliko’s class in the opening scene, drawing increasingly conspicuous glances. The handsome new arrival is raw talent, which makes him something like Merab’s opposite.

and then we danced
Image via Music Box Films

But its over time when the two become practice partners, then close friends, and then a whole lot more. Working in unwaveringly broad strokes of characterization and cultural background, Akin still finds time for those basic narrative dichotomies that are so literally embodied in most movies about dancers — the liberating power of dance versus tradition, ambition versus the limits of physical strain. The dance academy is both competitive and homophobic, all of its pressures neatly summed up by the fact that Merab is looking to take a slot in the main company that has been vacated after one member was outed during a recent tour. But it’s not like the movie is all that interested in anguish or dark ironies. Its tone is woozy and filled with trips to the countryside and to clubs. And though Akin has stated that And Then We Danced was inspired by encounters with activists in Georgia, it’s hard to imagine this film without thinking of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. Except that Akin lacks the discipline, creativity, and richness for mood that comes with Guadagnino’s direction — that combination of maximalist tendencies and rigorously self-imposed rules. Instead, Akin directs almost every scene in the same ornamented, handheld, wide-open-aperture style, with a shallow depth of field and incessantly jumpy editing that ensures that there’s only one thing to see in each shot. The film only breaks with this style in its emotional climax. Set at a wedding party, it’s directed in two long, complicated Steadicam shots that follow and reframe Merab through crowed rooms and doorways to a quiet conversation with Irakli then to a courtyard. It’s the only time that the film matches it protagonist’s romantic ambition. Yet the unintended side effect is that it makes everything before it look even more thin and frail. As fraught dramatically as And Then We Danced seems on the surface, the film’s tepid, broad, and clumsy delivery ultimately sees the film stumble.

Grade: C+

And Then We Danced is available on VOD

Amulet

Characters living in spaces that are infected with dark spirits or creatures that then become inescapable prisons, in many ways, is a mainstay throughout the horror genre. And it peaks its head again in Amulet, a strikingly confident directorial debut from period-piece mainstay actress Romola Garai. A creepy freakout with some dosage of influence from Italian horror master Dario Argento, Amulet is a rather less well-behaved affair. The film stars Alec Secareanu as Tomaz, a man from an unspecified European country who’s now living in London. He suffers from PTSD, and he spends his days doing construction jobs and his nights sleeping in a refugee shelter. It’s one day when a kind nun, Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), offers to help Tomaz and leads him to the nearby home of a woman named Magda (Carla Juri). The house is practically a ruin: The walls are decrepit, the rooms are filthy, and Tomaz can hear loud wailings from Magda’s mother coming from upstairs. Magda’s mother lives on the top floor of the house and isn’t long for this world. And it’s Magda who is tasked with the sole responsibility of her care, but it’s a tremendous strain — especially as her mother doesn’t like Magda to socialize.

amulet
Image via Magnet Releasing

The first sight of Sister Claire is an immediate sign that all is not as it seems. But that’s true of Tomaz, too. Throughout the film, Garai keeps cutting back to troubling scenes from Tomaz’s past, specifically his time as a solider in some distant conflict. She undermines our instinct to sympathize with him and assume that he’s the hero of this story. Tomaz agrees to stay and help Magda with odd jobs around the house, in exchange for room and board. But some jobs turn out to be odder than others. It’s not long before Tomaz makes a ghastly discovery while cleaning out the bathroom, in perhaps the creepiest backed-up-toilet scene since Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. But Amulet does rise above pure aesthetics. Garai sets you up to expect one kind of movie, but she’s made something else entirely: a nightmarish story of male violence that becomes an immensely satisfying story of female retribution. Amulet is far from the first revenge film to come along in recent years, yet its this one that might leave you admiring its fantastical moral logic: Given the reality of the world we live in, it might take an act of supernatural will to bring about justice. Delivering on visual frights and phantasmagoric body horror, Amulet may have its shaky chunks but its lurid excess carries it a long way.

Grade: B-

Amulet is available on VOD

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