Film: Takes Two to Tango

Swing kids documentary Mad Hot Ballroom is funny and inspirational, while dull action squelches the laughs in Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Jun 8, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Students Wilson (left) and Jatnna show off their skills in director Marilyn Agrelo's fine documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom.

One image sums up debut director Marilyn Agrelo's joyous documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. Young Wilson and female classmate Jatnna dance atop a large rock in a Washington Heights Park in their Upper Manhattan neighborhood. They are cute, enthusiastic and inspirational. They are also skilled ballroom dancers, one of many pairs in Agrelo's happy film.

In its 1994 beginning, the New York City Public Schools ballroom dance program involved fifth graders in just two schools. Today 6,000 kids from over 60 schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens are required to take the 10-week course.

Agrelo directs and produces Mad Hot Ballroom and she knows a good story when she finds it. The kids are everything when it comes to Mad Hot Ballroom, a film that celebrates New York City and its diversity with the numerous brown faces and wide eyes.

Agrelo follows four school groups over five weeks to the citywide finals and the performances meet all expectations. They learn to foxtrot, meringue, rumba and tango, all in an effort to compete against each other to win the citywide team ballroom dance contest.

As the competition increases, Mad Hot Ballroom becomes both exciting and heartwarming.

At Public School 115 in Washington Heights, an impoverished section of Upper Manhattan, the dance teacher speaks about the importance of boys keeping their shirts tucked into their pants. They must appear to be gentlemen. The mostly middle class students at Public School 150 in Tribeca have more resources, but that doesn't better their chances at winning. The students at PS 115 in Bensonhurst — especially roly-poly Michael — love to dance. Their enthusiasm brings them a competitive edge.

Agrelo follows the rules of documentary filmmaking with matter-of-fact skill. The up-close camerawork is low budget. While the story of Mad Hot Ballroom is connect-the-dots clear, there are times when the army of pint-sized dancers becomes confusing.

Comparisons to other uplifting, child-focused documentaries are easy: Spellbound, Small Wonders and Born into Brothels. But the talented kids make the easygoing Mad Hot Ballroom stand out. Their joy and enthusiasm is infectious. The students smile ear-to-ear while dancing and you cannot help but smile while watching them.

Its loose feel keeps Mad Hot Ballroom from classic status but Agrelo reminds us of the large differences between reality TV and good documentary filmmaking: It's all about storytelling, and the story of Mad Hot Ballroom — one of artistic expression making a difference for children — is universal and uplifting.

The high-profile but half-baked action comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith — with celebrities Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as its leads, John and Jane Smith — begins and finishes with its best laughs: The handsome pair in couples therapy explaining the trials of their troubled marriage. The key joke in Simon Kinberg's script is that the bored Smiths, a picture postcard example of dull suburban affluence, are actually assassins who are hired to kill each other.

Director Doug Liman continues to boost the scale of his filmmaking with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which has no direct relation to Alfred Hitchcock's 1941 screwball comedy of the same name. It's hard to believe Liman is the man responsible for the small pleasures of Go and Swingers.

More explosive than his last film, the espionage thriller The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith might claim plenty of gunfire and lengthy car chases but the action blurs into one nondescript tangle.

When the guns and knives are put down and the Smiths tangle via wordplay and icy sarcasm, Mr. & Mrs. Smith shows signs of breaking out as the rare summer blockbuster worthy of adult attention. Asked by their therapist to rate the times they've had sex in the past week using a scale from one to 10, Jane asks if zero qualifies as a number. John thinks hard and asks the therapist if he can include the past weekend, but still comes up empty.

During sly, dry moments like these, Pitt and Jolie exceed expectations as they perfectly capture two beautiful people who seemingly have everything but happiness with each other. John would rather cut his fingernails than spend private time with his wife. The droning hum of their electric toothbrushes and their strained conversation about new curtains outshines any of the numerous spy gadgets, all weapons we've seen before.

Angelina Jolie makes good use of her trademark lips, eyebrows and curves, but her performance as a secret spy falls somewhere between her bad and good screen work.

Pitt has a smile and god-like looks worthy of his age-less golden-boy status. He is getting better looking with age, but his film work continues to fade. His dilemma, like Jolie's, is playing characters beyond the superficial.

Pitt is both devilish killer and angelic husband in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but he remains as predictable and dull as one could be — a movie heartthrob with a winning smile. It's his burden, and only crazy disregard for his public image can save him now. Mad Hot Ballroom grade: B+; Mr. & Mrs. Smith grade: C-