Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
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.
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.
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!
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).
Still, I feel it would be simplistic to try and criticise it because the outcome is pre-determined and the acting is perfunctory. In fact, the acting is perfectly pitched for this kind of enterprise, which is after all predicated on the quality of the dance sequences. Luckily, these are for the most part excellent and compelling, partly from their sheer ridiculousness (the final dance, shown on the poster, has them stepping out into torrential rain, presumably for its visual impact, as it’s certainly not for any kind of sensible health reasons given the film is set in Maryland). The initial set-up for the rival crew, the “410” (it’s Baltimore’s area code), involves a flash mob dance sequence on a subway train being uploaded to the internet — a trope that would become more integral in the fourth film, Step Up Revolution (2012) — but which here is posited as being the means whereby dance crews gain kudos within their community. It’s a cute touch, and is at least made more believable by the mobile phone quality video we see them watching online.
Dancing aside (to the extent that it can be put aside), the central drama rolls out well-worn class clichés: street vs school (nature vs nurture?), underprivileged vs overprivileged. The film never quite convinces that the lead dancers — Andie (Briana Evigan) and Chase (Robert Hoffman) — are really from ‘other sides of the tracks’, given they all scrub up to fairly bland white middle-class kids, though Andie does start out in the rival “410” crew and has Sonja Sohn from Baltimore’s premier gritty TV show The Wire as a foster parent. There’s also some more subtle detail whereby she feels out of place at an organised (indoor) dance event at the film’s opening, where she is given confidence by Tatum’s character Tyler and also meets Chase for the first time, while he and his crew are initially ridiculed (and later beaten up) by the crew from the streets. In any case, both lead characters end up at a local dance school run by Chase’s supercilious brother, and the rest is formulaic, though not without its pleasures thanks to those dance setpieces.
There may not be anything in the narrative itself which is new, but the film is economical with its themes and never outstays its welcome. Instead, and to its credit, it chooses to focus on the dynamism of the dance sequences, which thankfully are largely allowed to unfold in long shots so as to highlight the undoubted grace and dexterity of the dancers. It’s the dancing, after all, that’s really the point of the film, and it doesn’t disappoint.
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), London, Friday 24 May 2013.