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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Step Up

When I first saw the trailer for Step Up at the Essex Cinemas several weeks ago I thought “Oh oh. Didn’t I see this same exact movie last April, only then it was called Take the Lead? Come to think of it, didn’t I see Take the Lead back in 2004 when it was called Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights or was that Save The Last Dance in 2001, which is not to be confused with the original Dirty Dancing back in 1987? Or Flashdance in ’83 or Fame in 1980?”

Whatever. Did the world really need another teenage dance flick for this generation to know that the Clearasil Crowd is always going to be angst-ridden and tortured by adolescence until they find the sweet release brought on by dance and dance alone? Is it possible that kids today have learned nothing from Kevin Bacon (even if Footloose was originally released in 1984)? If he really is just six degrees from everyone in the world then there’s no excuse for kids today not knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Kevin and they must have heard that dancing is the end all and be all of their existence. If so, then they really shouldn’t need to be reminded by this Xeroxed copy of every other dance movie that has ever been made since John Travolta shook his (then svelte) hips in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever.

That’s not to say that Step Up is not enjoyable. If you go into it with the right attitude, looking to it i
n the vein of the Scary Movie or Airplane! spoofs you’ll see Step Up as a well-made, albeit unintentional, parody of the genre. How many dance movie clichés can a viewer find in this film anyway?

Well, first off, the male lead has to be a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He has to hav
e a penchant for wearing white tee shirts and have rippling muscles and definitely keep a chip glued firmly on his shoulder, but it’s always well justified to be there because he was: a) wrongly accused of a crime, but never anything too serious or resulting in death or involving farm animals and spandex; b) he was abandoned by a parent (usually the father), and it is never Woody Allen; c) he is poor or illiterate and yet doesn’t live in Mississippi; or d) it just has to be that way to fit the story. Check. Here, we have Tyler Gage (26-year-old Channing Tatum from She’s The Man once more playing a perennial 17 year old). He is stuck in foster care AND has a rap sheet for minor crimes a page long. This makes him the perfect foil for his love interest-to-be.

The female lead, naturally, has to be the antithesis of her new beau. First, she has to be repulsed by him at first meeting because he is hideously déclassé, but then she is wildly attracted to him because of his muscles and bad boy demeanor. She is inevitably: a) a traditional ballerina who thinks Tupak is the best way to buy her Ultimate Supima® 1250 thread count bed sheets; b) the only sixteen year old in the Western hemisphere who until this moment has always thought that ‘sex’ was the number after five; c) is preternaturally beautiful, especially considering that the rest of her family appear to be Amish by comparison; or d) is capable of picking up whole new dance routines and styles as if telepathically channeling Baryshnikov even if it takes her the entire movie to grasp the simple fact that the male lead wants more than anything to get into her tutu. For this role, Step Up has the gorgeous Jenna Dewan as Nora Clark. Jenna is a perfect choice as she also shook her bon-bon with Antonio Banderas in Take the Lead (shades of déjà vu) just this Spring, so her bon-bon is still warm.

Once these two meet after Gage is sentenced to do 200 hours of community service at the Maryland School of the Arts, it is only a matter of time before Nora’s partner for the BIG DANCE SHOWCASE sprains his ankle. I swear there must be someone who sneaks into these dance schools and butters the stairs at night. This accident always happens to the unfortunate first male lead artiste. Luckily, guess who happens to not only be a car thief and property vandal but also one hell of a dancer? Bingo!

The next hour of the movie is taken up with the usual: a) the couple fight, dance, rub up a
gainst one another, and yet never admit the heat they feel is not caused by spreading jock itch; b) agonize over the rich girl’s parental unit who thinks her daughter shouldn’t be dancing but should be planning on a career as an accountant or veterinary assistant ~ something “worthwhile”; c) distracted by the boy’s teetering between a return to his wicked ways on the streets before he is swayed to redemption by the obligatory death of a minor character that slams a moral lesson at the viewer with the gentleness of an ice water enema; or d) broken up by songs and dances performed by the second tier players, which, in this case, since this is a hip hop dance movie aimed at an urban audience, means ceding time over to the extremely talented African American co-stars (Drew Sidora, Mario, Heavy D, Isaiah Washington) who are otherwise stuck in underused supporting roles. If you answered “e”, All of the Above, you’ve already seen the movie, haven’t you? Or one of the other hundred dance movies in the past two decades.

By the end, all the dance clichés meet in the vortex of the BIG DANCE SHOWCASE whe
n broken-up dance partner and would-be sweetheart Tyler rushes to the school and reconciles with Nora just as she is about to perform ‘their’ dance number solo. Hmmmm. I’ll bet you can guess what happens next: a) he pistol-whips her and steals the gold fillings out of her mouth to buy smack, setting up a sequel, Step Up 2: Gummy’s Revenge; b) swings in with a baseball bat and does a “Tonya Harding” on all the other dancers, assuring that Nora wins the competition by default; c) shocks everyone when he locks Nora in a closet at the last minute and performs the number in her place, winning her scholarship and going on to become a big star, or d) apologizes for abandoning her, and then they dance together, dazzle the audience, and she is immediately asked to join a prestigious ballet company and Tyler is asked to join the School of the Arts as a scholarship student.

Needless to say (but I will), the real stars of the show here are the choreography by Anne Fletcher and Zachary Woodlee and the music by Chris Brown, Ciara, Samantha Jade, Sean Paul featuring Keyshia Cole, and Chamillionaire. Certainly nobody can fault Tatum or Dewan. While neither have exhaustive acting résumés (and it shows), both are trained dancers (and that shows too). They are outstanding to watch in their numbers and Tatum is completely believable in his scenes as he pretends not to be able to dance and then picks up the finer points quickly as the romance flourishes. His talent also seems to blossom the tighter his sweatpants get, which is another curiosity of the movie, perhaps one that should get a special mention of thanks to costumer Alix Hester.

Sure, Step Up is not likely to win any Academy Awards, but it is a good time even if you’ve seen it in a dozen other incarnations. After all, just because you’ve enjoyed an ice cream sundae once doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in swinging by the creemee stand again and again. Step out to see Step Up at the Essex Cinemas and I think you’ll see an engaging blend of ballet and hip hop that is clever and surprising. Who knew that these two such disparate art forms share so many common moves?

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