Swing Time

This past weekend saw the release of John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the latest in Chad Stahelski’s immensely entertaining series about an unflappable (and endlessly pursued) assassin played by Keanu Reeves. These films are generally categorized as action movies, but for me their chief pleasure is their inventive and breathless fight choreography. (Indeed, in my capsule review of the latest John Wick, I compared the series favorably to Gene Kelly’s musicals.) What is the extended sequence of hand-to-hand combat between Reeves and Common in John Wick: Chapter 2 (arguably the highlight of the series) if not a dance between two gifted physical performers? In narrative terms, the sequence stops the movie flat; in aesthetic terms, however, it’s an immersive, celebratory passage about gracefulness and corporeal sensation. Stahelski is clearly aware of this—note how he sometimes juxtaposes the action in Chapter 3 with scenes of a ballet company rehearsing.

Choreography may be an art unto itself, but movies feel distinctly cinematic whenever they document this form. Simply put, bodies in motion make for engaging motion pictures. Filmmakers, of course, have worked with choreographers for as long as movies have existed, but it would be limiting to approach the history of choreography on film as simply the presentation of song-and-dance routines. There’s great choreography to be found in the silent comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, the sound comedies of Jerry Lewis, the Shaw Brothers’ martial arts spectaculars, and the action movies of Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that spotlight some of the best choreographed films ever made.

Swing Time

Swing Time One of the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals (1936), and one that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Astaire is a Depression dandy hopping a freight train, and Rogers gets serenaded with soap suds in her hair. Arlene Croce has called it a movie about the myth of Astaire and Rogers and the world they lived in, and that’s about as good a description as any. With songs by Jerome Kern (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”). —Don Druker

Pajama Game

The Pajama Game Film scholar Jane Feuer has argued that the Hollywood musical is a politically conservative genre, a notion challenged by the Warners musicals of the 30s, Bells Are Ringing (1960), and this exuberant, underrated 1957 movie. Adapted from George Abbott’s Broadway hit, it concerns a strike in a pajama factory, with Doris Day as the shop steward and John Rait as her boss. Though the sexual politics are far from progressive, this is the sort of labor musical that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s admiration. Bob Fosse’s airy choreography is terrific, and so is the score, which includes “Seven and a Half Cents” and a steamy “Steam Heat.” Stanley Donen directed with verve and energy. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Come Drink With Me

Come Drink With Me A landmark of Hong Kong cinema, this blend of folktale, opera, acrobatics, and effects (1966), directed in ‘Scope by King Hu (A Touch of Zen), ignited a contemporary craze for wuxia pian (swordplay pictures), which eventually led to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Heading the cast are two appealing icons of the genre, Pei-pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger‘s vengeful virago), as a woman warrior disguised as a man, and Hua Yue, as a singing drunk who’s really an ace fighter. Though Hu was directing action for the first time, his fight scenes are fluent, nimble, and suspenseful. —Ted Shen


Flamenco An enjoyable and well-crafted 1995 dance film from Spain by Carlos Saura that left me feeling unsatisfied, perhaps because the decision to film the dancers, singers, and musicians (gathered from all over the world) in an abstract space cuts this material off from its social and historical roots. In this respect, Saura’s movie follows an aesthetic that’s precisely the reverse of that found in the Gypsy musical Latcho Drom, a cult masterpiece. However, if you care about flamenco, you probably shouldn’t miss this. The great Vittorio Storaro contributed the lush cinematography. —Jonathan Rosenbaum


Pina German choreographer Pina Bausch died suddenly in 2009, days before she was to codirect this documentary with longtime friend Wim Wenders. The movie he went on to make with her Tanztheater Wuppertal is more than an elegy; his meticulous use of 3-D endows the performances with a corporeality and intimacy hitherto unseen in a dance film. Crane and steadycam allow Wenders to get so close to the action that in the minimalist Cafe Muller, one’s illusion of being on stage is uncanny. Bausch’s expressive humanism, the multinational makeup of her troupe, and, in Kontakthof, the added participation of amateurs who range from teens to seniors uphold the value of dance as a universal language. —Andrea Gronvall  v