Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Your Face: STEP UP 3D

Step Up 3D is hardly innovative on the plot level. How many other modern dance movies feature dancers who need to win the big competition to meet their goals? How many other dance movies feature fresh-faced kids conquering all problems through their smooth moves? Over the last decade we’ve seen the same basic patterns of against-all-odds, wrong-side-of-the-tracks dance-battle uplift repeated in such unmemorable would-be spectacles as You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, Step Up, and Step Up 2 the Streets. Those movies saddled their dancing with too much dumb plot and then chopped up the dancing into bits of visual stimulation that flew by without a chance to appreciate the talent and physicality in the performers’ movements. Step Up 3D works better by downplaying the plotting, and toning down the dumbness, while foregrounding the glorious dance, holding shots (sometimes) long enough for us to truly appreciate the choreography.

I saw and immediately forgot the earlier Step Ups, so I entered this movie with only vague memories about what happened in earlier installments. It turned out, that works just fine. This movie seems to have almost no narrative connection to its predecessors. It follows a kid nicknamed “Moose” (Adam G. Sevani) and his best friend, but not girlfriend, Camille (Alyson Stoner) as they arrive at NYU’s freshmen orientation. They’re the breakout stars of the picture. For me, they were the two members of the cast most adept at navigating the often clumsy dialogue. They had as much of an ease with the acting as with the dancing, something that could not be said for almost anyone else in the cast.

Early in the movie, Moose’s dad gets to solemnly look at his son and express happiness that a future engineer won’t also be a dancer. That’s good for a laugh. Moose almost immediately gets into a dance battle while wandering away from the campus tour. He’s subsequently drawn into the plight of a cool dance crew that desperately needs to win a dance competition in order to pay the back rent on their warehouse that has been converted into a combination house and practice space.

Led by an aspiring filmmaker and dancer (Rick Malambri), the dance crew contains a bunch of young, talented, barely differentiated dancers that also happen to be a good cross-section of various demographics. They’re mostly background for two romance plots. Malambri falls in infatuation with a new member of the dance crew (Sharni Vinson) while the friendship between Sevani and Stoner might become something more. Those plot threads are in turn just a device to draw us in to the competition, in which there’s substantial financial stakes and a rival dance crew that wants to win at all cost. That too, is ultimately just a backdrop for the dancing, just as it should be.

Under the direction of Jon Chu, the movie looks good, with the 3D actually enhancing the content in surprising and engaging ways. Sure, those dancers are dancing right at you, but the camera’s more locked down than usual. As a result of planning and shooting in 3D, and using it well, the shots and editing are mostly planned for clarity and impact. I loved the choreography and the chance to appreciate the skill on display. Of course, I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a kick out of the 3D effects, which had me smiling while leaning back to avoid all those dancers getting up in my face.

This is a movie that’s plenty entertaining, driven by nothing more than a desire to delight. The direction is stylish; for once I felt the 3D really enhanced a live-action experience rather than distracting. The performers are engaging and their dancing is excellent. It doesn’t even matter that the plot is all second-hand clich├ęs and 3D gimmicks taped together in an earnestly silly way. Underneath all the popping and locking, behind the thumping, toe-tapping bass of the soundtrack, Step Up 3D feels like a throwback. It’s best sequence is actually set to the welcome sounds of Fred Astaire and features a long, unbroken shot of two characters dancing down a New York City sidewalk, paying homage to the steps and spirit of the old-school studio-era musicals. There’s a charm and innocence to a movie that simply wants to dazzle with dance and actually achieves it.

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