Sunday, August 10, 2014

They're So Dancy, You Already Know: STEP UP ALL IN

I hadn’t realized how essential the Step Up movies’ simple plotting was until now. Step Up All In, the fifth in the series of loosely connected stories about exceptionally skilled dancers trying to find a way to do what they love, gets rid of even a simple plot, preferring instead a jumble of thin motivations and bad dialogue to get us from dance sequence to dance sequence. Its predecessors had sturdy structures, following competitions, protests, self-actualization, and/or romances to create throughlines on which to hang dancing. Here, screenwriter John Swetnam simply gathers up some characters from Step Up 2 the Streets, Step Up 3D, and Step Up Revolution, leaning heavily on the charm that comes with seeing familiar faces. I was happy to see them, especially since their unspoken histories bring the only actual characterization to All In.

The excuses for dancing involves the leader of the dance crew from Revolution (Ryan Guzman) left behind after his pals go back to Miami, leaving him in L.A. chasing an increasingly distant dream of making his passion his career. I liked how quickly the movie undoes the previous happy ending. "We won $50,000!" "Yeah, split 12 ways." He sees an ad for a Las Vegas dance contest and asks his friend and series regular Moose (Adam G. Sevani) to help him put together a new team. The winning crew gets a three-year residency at a fancy hotel’s theater. Victory could bring, at long last, a stable paycheck for staging the elaborately choreographed numbers that are these movies’ bread and butter. It’s the Fast Five franchise all-star team-up approach, although the Step Ups won’t go full Fast & Furious without wooing the Tatums back for another spin. Like that car-racing series, Step Up has won much affection for knowing the simple pleasures it must deliver. There must be an attractive, talented ensemble of dancers stuck in a situation that can only be danced its way out of.

The Vegas competition is a half-clever reality show parody (the screen fills with Twitter handles, producers do a smidge of meddling, and the game’s not as straightforward as it appears) hosted by a flamboyant pop star named Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko). She dresses like a knockoff Lady Gaga and acts like a wilier Effie Trinket. The part is small, but Miko’s performance is big. She’s full of crazy energy, hilarious chewing away at the scenery as she plays ringmaster to the contest. Meanwhile, the real focus is on dancers pursuing love and self-validation between practice sessions and dance battles, but none of their speaking performances stand out.

They’re just there to fill in the connective tissue the script needs to get us to another production number. And what production numbers! They have fun props and interesting sets: a stage, a boxing ring, a laboratory, and some kind of futurist gladiator pit. So what if you spend the time characters stand around talking exposition working through lame strained melodramatics and obvious plot turns wishing they’d just shut up and dance? When they finally do, it’s glorious. The plot fades into the background and the movie is simply amazing. Their rivalries and romances are only interesting when communicated through body language and dance moves alone.

Like the other 3D efforts in the series (especially my beloved Step Up 3D, which is a perfect movie, the best possible version of what it wants to be) All In films the high-energy moves in shots that capture the dancers’ bodies head to toe, the better to admire their wide expressive range of movement within the space. They’re athletic, blasting through thrilling, effervescent hip-hop choreography set to booming club beats. Staged with wit and flare, the precision with which the actor-dancers (like Briana Evigan, Twitch, Mari Koda, Alyson Stoner, and twins Facundo and Martín Lombard) pop off the screen in low angle shots, takes full advantage of the crystal-clear depth of vision the shooting technology provides.

The director this time around is Trish Sie, a music video veteran making her feature debut. Most famous for the OK Go video “Here It Goes Again,” which featured the band dancing on a chain of treadmills in a one-take shot, Sie gets dutifully through the pained and strained story then brings creativity and energy to the only scenes that really matter. There’s no imaginative equivalent to the treadmill concept in the choreography, but there is a sweet dance to “Every Little Step” set on a carnival tilt-a-whirl after hours. Nice of the security guard to turn on the music instead of turning them in, a sign that even the extras want the characters to dance as often as possible. At best, the way those bodies move is jaw-dropping.

In the fantastic finale staged in a circular set with an ecstatic audience in the far background and dancers up, down, and all around the set, the energy in the performances is contagious. That’s where the characters are at their most appealing and impressive. None of the actors may be as effortlessly charming a screen presence as Fred and Ginger or Gene, but the material’s certainly not doing them any favors this time around, either. It’s a nothing plot filled with just enough dance and style to keep the good times rolling. Even with a lesser entry in the series, I still had to resist dancing my way out of the theater.

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