Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)CREDITS
Director Gregory Jacobs; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

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Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen); Cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring; Length 133 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS at home, Wellington).

ABCD 2: Any Body Can Dance 2 (2015)

The most obvious point here is that Bollywood dance film ABCD 2 is hardly sparklingly original, though bringing together the modern dance film genre with Bollywood’s strong tradition of dance does seem like an obvious step (and indeed this is a sequel to 2013’s ABCD: Any Body Can Dance). So here we have a group of young dancers, led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan) and Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor), who are at first disgraced on national TV, and then must compete at the World Championships in Las Vegas to redeem themselves, tutored by the older and mysterious Vishnu (Prabhu Deva). It steals influences most obviously from the Step Up series (whose entry last year, Step Up: All In, went to Vegas too), but also fairly liberally from most other recent young-people-compete-for-success-against-the-odds films like Pitch Perfect 2 (the bad guys are always Germans), StreetDance and Bring It On, amongst plenty of others. It’s a Disney film, so even the darker plot strands (like Vishnu’s alcoholism) never rise much above the anodyne, and everything inevitably turns out pretty well for everyone, but along the way it’s difficult to fault the infectious cheerfulness of the young cast in their many dance (and some song) sequences.

ABCD 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Remo D’Souza रेमो डीसूजा; Writer Tushar Hiranandani तुषार हीरानंदनी; Cinematographer Vijay Arora विजय अरोड़ा; Starring Varun Dhawan वरुण धवन, Shraddha Kapoor श्रद्धा कपूर, Prabhu Deva பிரபுதேவா; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015.

Sea Without Shore (2015)

Of all the films I’ve seen, this is one of the more difficult ones to either review or to give a meaningful rating. Certainly evaluative dichotomies like good/bad and interesting/boring seem unequal to its strangeness, and it’s quite likely to be either one you find transfixing or infuriating, or more likely both. This is mainly down to its elliptical and elusive narrative structure, that entirely eschews plot in favour of the creation and manipulation of mood and movement. There’s no dialogue, just a voiceover (in Swedish, as it’s filmed in that country) reciting poetic texts about love and loss. The performers use their bodies to enact a fin-de-siècle lesbian relationship drama, in which the key locations are a bright and airy home, a glowering forest by night, and a bitterly cold windswept landscape. That it’s created by a modern dance company seems fitting, given the attention paid to textures, imagery, music and atmosphere — all that stuff that’s usually in service of the story with other films. At times this has the effect of making the exercise somewhat abstrusely academic, but there are still pleasures to be had. The images captured by cinematographer Marcus Waterloo have a soft-edged oneiric quality, the camera seemingly pushed to its limits in being blown up to a cinema screen size, but that’s quite in keeping with the film’s woozy internalised melodrama — though when I say “oneiric” that’s partly because I may have slumbered somewhat during the middle half of the film (it was at night, I was tired!). Sound too has a pointillist quality, little shards and fragments of the performers’ actions layered and expertly manipulated. Certainly, there’s plenty enough to say that’s complimentary towards the film and its intentions, just that in practice it is a difficult film to connect with. Approach it as filmed art piece, and you may be on safer ground.

Sea Without Shore film posterCREDITS
Directors André Semenza and Fernanda Lippi; Writer Semenza; Cinematographer Marcus Waterloo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 March 2015.

Dancing in Jaffa (2013)

I can’t really say very much about this documentary film except that it’s sweet-natured and just a little bit ingenuous, perhaps too much so given its Israeli setting and that it deals with that contested relationship between Jews and Arabs — or maybe it’s exactly right, for that very reason. It takes as its central character the dancer (now dance teacher), Pierre Dulaine, born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and now after many years bringing his teaching method to the local primary schools. His aim is to get Israeli Jews dancing with Israeli Arabs, and that’s the arc the film tracks, flitting from school to school with colour-coded labelling. It starts with some initial tentative encounters (where Dulaine comes off as just a little too single-mindedly wedded to heteronormative pairings), to growing enthusiasm communicated via a series of individual portraits of children learning to enjoy their experience, to the climax of an inter-school dance competition. There are small delights and certainly there are some heart-warming scenes, but it can be mawkish at times. However, that said, it does reveal plenty of ingrained hostility and imparts some sense of the cultural, ethnic and religious divisions in its very indirect way.

Dancing in Jaffa film posterCREDITS
Director Hilla Medalia הילה מדליה; Writers Philip Shane and Medalia; Cinematographer Daniel Kedem דניאל קדם; Starring Pierre Dulaine; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.

Step Up 3D (aka Step Up 3, 2010)

Having recently seen Step Up: All In, the latest instalment of this already numerous if relatively short-lived franchise, I thought I’d best fill out my viewing with the one considered (at least by my friends) as the weakest of the five. I’m pleased to report, though, that I find it just as well-made and enjoyable in a pulpy, generic way as the others. If it has a real weakness, it’s in the fairly bland leads — Rick Malambri as Luke, a dancer and prospective filmmaker, and the ‘mysterious’ clubgirl Natalie (played by Sharni Vinson) — though thankfully their story, which involves Luke’s ridiculously large loft apartment and high-end editing suite, is fairly unobtrusive. Taking the charismatic centre stage is series regular “Moose” (Adam Sevani), introduced in the previous film, and his are-they-aren’t-they love interest Camille (Alyson Stoner), returning from the very first film (where she played Channing Tatum’s little sister). Both are now students at NYU and studying for stuff that isn’t dancing, so their character arc is this tug-of-war between ‘respectable’ professions and the illicit thrill of the dance — and along the way there’s a very odd little hint that Camille is preparing to move on romantically from Moose to a girl in her class, something that’s treated without any fanfare whatsoever. In some respects, the plot is quite similar to the fifth and most recent outing, as the film opens with Luke interviewing street dancers about their tough lives and battle for acceptance in this competitive world, and moves on to the now familiar battle for supremacy with a black-clad macho crew etc etc… And yet, while it may all be blending into a single film by this point, it’s a colourful, frenetic and enjoyable one for all that, with a likeable ensemble dance cast.

Step Up 3D film posterCREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer; Cinematographer Ken Seng; Starring Rick Malambri, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Sharni Vinson; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD) [2D], London, Saturday 9 July 2014.

Step Up: All In (2014)

There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and larger role in Step Up 3D (2010), as well as his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).

The previous film’s pretensions of connecting to current trends in media (YouTube and mobile phone filming) and the rise of protest movements are dialled down with this chapter, though with the character of Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), there remains a cogent critique of the media circus and its manipulativeness in search of ratings and success. As this TV-host ringmaster whose Las Vegas dance competition brings the two leads together, Miko is acting on a completely different planet from most of the film, as if she saw Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and considered her performance just too naturalistic and muted. It certainly makes the task of the leads that much more difficult, and though Evigan does (ahem) step it up, I wasn’t convinced by Guzman, who is given a rather overextended emo sequence towards the end where his character is put right by the magic wise words of the generic European parent-figures.

What the film does well — and I admit this is rather the obvious point — is the dance setpieces, starting from the opening credits sequence (who knew films still did those) with its parade of dance-hopefuls trying out to bored producers, through to the epic final battle, which is obviously enhanced through montage and doesn’t convince at all as a filmed live reality show (though perhaps this is just another subliminal tip of the hat to the manipulativeness of modern television). Along the way we get a sense of how pursuing a career in dance can be a draining and difficult experience (something that was also a theme in the third film), from Sean’s voiceover during the opening auditions, to the glimpse at the crappy low-end service industry jobs everyone needs to take in order to make ends meet. His crew from the Miami film, now relocated to Los Angeles, soon disperses at the lack of opportunities and work, leaving Sean alone to recruit a new crew. Yet so expendable are these day jobs that everyone he reaches out to quickly ditch them for the slender prospect of something in Las Vegas. It’s only Moose who seems to acknowledge any commitments beyond dancing, in one of the film’s more affecting sequences.

Sure, it may be no actual bona fide masterpiecce, but this fifth film in the series is one of its strongest yet. There’s a colourful visual palette to go along with the kinetic energy of the dance sequences, and underlying it all is a cheerful optimism in the power of movement to overcome doubt and worry. The plotting and structure may fit into a long line of predictable genre exercises (this series and the contemporaneous High School Musical films as examples), but everyone attacks the script and the setpieces with the energy of people doing it all for the first time, and I find that a winning combination.

Step Up: All In film posterCREDITS
Director Trish Sie; Writer John Swetnam; Cinematographer Brian Pearson; Starring Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Izabella Miko; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.

Gold Diggers of 1933 film posterCREDITS
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood); Cinematographer Sol Polito; Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014.

StreetDance (2010)


FILM REVIEW || Directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini | Writer Jane English | Cinematographer Sam McCurdy | Starring Nichola Burley, Richard Winsor, Charlotte Rampling | Length 98 minutes | Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Monday 1 July 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Vertigo Films

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the dance film genre — which can surely thank the Step Up series for its recent proliferation — is a bit predictable. Genres can be that way, and ones that emphasise physical performance over acting or writing need simple and recognisable structures. Opera, for example, trades on hackneyed plots and tropes, and it’s no different with the dance film. We have our kinetic urban protagonists, who come into conflict with the established authority as they progress towards a final showdown that will gain them credibility and respect amongst their peers. As a British entry into this nascent genre, StreetDance (or StreetDance 3D as it’s more commonly called, though I didn’t watch it in 3D) is a perfectly satisfying film. It does the stuff it needs to do well, and seems to be having fun with it.

Continue reading “StreetDance (2010)”

Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

I’m on holiday until the end of next week, so you won’t be seeing any reviews of new releases. However, I’ve been watching a few films at home, so there’ll still be content going up!


FILM REVIEW || Director Jon M. Chu | Writers Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna (based on characters by Duane Adler) | Cinematographer Max Malkin | Starring Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam Sevani | Length 95 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 24 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Touchstone Pictures

In many ways, the Step Up cycle of films isn’t so different from Fast & Furious, being a multi-part series dedicated to a niche urban subculture. Where those films deal with street racing, here we get street dance, and like the recent British film All Stars (2013), there’s a very clear generic framework involving a final showdown with the rival crew. Unlike Furious, though, this series doesn’t have a strong core of central characters/actors, which is I think its weakness in comparison; Channing Tatum shows up in one early scene to pass the baton on from the first film, as it were, but otherwise it’s heavily reliant on generic expectations (not to mention the dancing).

Continue reading “Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)”