The surprise commercial success of Save the Last Dance ushered in a… MoreThe surprise commercial success of Save the Last Dance ushered in a wave of films focussed around street dance and hip-hop. Where classic-era Hollywood dance films were dominated by ballroom, ballet and tap dancing, the 2000s gave us film after film in which impressive street or hip-hop choreography came face-to-face with decades-old romantic and dramatic conventions, with varying degrees of success.
At the more mainstream end of this wave we have Step Up, the first in a series of five films (to date) which combine predictable plots with often jaw-dropping dancing. But where its sequels increasingly sacrificed narrative for the sake of set-pieces, the film that started it all gets a good balance and is the most focussed of all the series. It's hardly game-changing in its construction, but it is surprisingly heartwarming and comes across as more genuine than you might expect.
It's very easy to view dance films as essentially a series of set-pieces held together by a threadbare story. Even in the so-called golden days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, around ten times the effort seemed to be expended on the dancing than on the events that made them dance in the first place. As I argued in my review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it is possible to enjoy these films as artistic endeavours rather than narrative ones, but for the less freeform among us, even the best leave us with an unsatisying niggle.
The best dance films, in any sub-genre, succeed because they are not really about dancing. The Red Shoes is about the boundary between fantasy and reality, and the tension between creativity and common sense. Black Swan is about the need to embrace one's dark side in striving for artistic perfection, even at the cost of one's sanity. Even Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann's raucous debut, is less about ballroom dancing than the fight against orthodoxy and how the fear of failure cripples people.
Step Up may not boast the richly-layered themes of any of these offerings, nor is it as visually ravishing. But it does belong in the same camp, since its dancing is used to explore ideas and character traits rather than just serve as a distraction. Instead of dazzling you with MTV-style cuts and empty, shallow bombast, the film is an altogether gentler beast, whose moments of posturing are tame and infrequent.
Despite not having the visual splendour of Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky or Powell and Pressburger, Step Up is still a decent-looking film. Michael Seresin has spent much of his career working with Alan Parker, lensing all of his films between Bugsy Malone and Come See The Paradise. You won't find here any of the evocative colour shifts and shadows that he achieved in Angel Heart, but the colour palette is inviting and his use of wide angles is judicious.
Much like Charles Walters, director of High Society, Anne Fletcher comes from a background in choreography. There are occasions when we get the impression that the sets have been deliberately designed to be as big and spacious as possible, to allow more room for the dancing and more scope for the camera movements. But while Walters ultimately failed to tell his story in an interesting way, Fletcher has enough grasp of cinematic narrative to hold our attention.
The set-pieces in Step Up are of a very high quality. While less kinetic or feverish than in some of the sequels, there's still an awful lot of physical effort that goes into the various sequences. As a showcase for how exciting dancing can be, the film is on a par with some of the classic Hollywood offerings I mentioned. Channing Tatum's appearance doesn't suggest that he would be a good dancer, but he both looks and feels the part, and his deadpan nature plays into the hands of the role, unlike his later performance in The Eagle.
The story of Step Up, by contrast, is incredibly conventional. It's the classic story of two people from completely different backgrounds whose only means to get what they want is to team up. Over the course of the film they swap tips and interests, gradually grow to like and respect each other, and after a brief cooling of their relationship, they decide they really need each other and triumph. This plot is among the most well-worn in film, but it is applied in a somewhat engaging way.
Step Up uses its two conflicting styles of music to reflect the flaws of the individual characters. Tyler's laid-back, devil-may-care attitude gives him the freedom to take his dance moves wherever they choose to go, but he lacks the ability to focus which could make him potentially dance for a living. Nora, by contrast, is a prisoner of rigidity, being so tightly bound by the rules and traditions of classical music and dance that she can neither innovate nor stimulate.
The relationship between our two main characters is a breaking down of barriers, with both sides learning to respect traits of the other. Tyler not only understands responsibility, but he actively seeks it, eventually commiting to putting on a killer show and making a living. Nora learns to loosen up and have fun, which makes her dancing more natural and appealing. Tatum and Jenna Dewan have good chemistry together, which eventually led to them getting married in 2009.
There is also a nice comment in the film about how snobbery and tradition can actually put off the most talented people in a given field. Tyler's natural talent is plain for all to see (except himself), and yet it's hard to imagine him being given a level playing field with the more privileged members of the school. The film does, however, become a little more cartoony in this respect, with Nora's dance partner Brett being very thinly-written.
Step Up also deserves credit for maintaining control over its tone. Many films which are melodramatic in nature feel the need to inject some kind of darkness partway through their plots in a desperate bid to be taken seriously. While the film isn't as nuanced as Fame in this regard, the dramatic twist involving the younger boy is handled delicately, so that it compliments the drama rather than pulling us out of it.
Step Up is a surprisingly decent dance film, which acquits itself perfectly well as both a physical showcase and a piece of storytelling. Aspects of it are cartoony or melodramatic, and it's hardly the most original or accomplished piece of cinema around. But it is a great deal more agreeable than many would lead us to believe. If only its narrative standards had been maintained for the sequels.
Horror franchises are invariably subject to the law of diminishing… MoreHorror franchises are invariably subject to the law of diminishing returns. The original Nightmare on Elm Street, Hallowe'en or Friday the 13th were so definitive in their own ways that any sequel couldn't hope to improve upon them, aside from addressing certain technical issues. Even with partial returns to form along the way, these sequels inevitably ended up retreading old ground, even in franchises that didn't start from the top.
The Child's Play franchise seemed to have run its course when Child's Play 3 went straight-to-video, only for Ronny Yu's Bride of Chucky to give it a new lease of life. By abandoning outright horror in favour of self-aware, postmodern horror-comedy, the series successfully embraced its goofier elements and turned them into something disturbingly memorable. Seed of Chucky attempts to carry on where Bride left off, but is far less successful, being ill-thought out and poorly directed.
Playing the postmodern game is a gamble in any genre. Deliberately deconstructing a story, or drawing attention to the artificiality of a given situation, can have the effect of undermining the audience's emotional attachment. The horror genre, like fantasy and sci-fi, relies heavily on the suspension of disbelief: without an audience investing in the characters and their situation, a horror film cannot be scary.
On a narrative level, Seed of Chucky is trying very hard to be Wes Craven's New Nightmare, one of the best instalments of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Craven's meta-horror explored the boundaries between the characters and the actors that played them, nodding toward the films' often fanatical fanbase and poking fun at the absurdities of the film industry. While not as scary as the original, it managed to be both a successful postmodern exercise and a compelling horror movie in its own right.
The biggest problem facing Seed of Chucky is that Don Mancini is no Wes Craven. While his writing skills are not in doubt (at least on the first Child's Play film), he does not have the directorial skill to pull off something so self-referential. Where Craven directed with intelligence, giving the audience both gore and clever subtext, Mancini is content to go for something much more basic and yet pass it off as being clever. The film isn't pretentious in this regard per se, but it makes disappointingly little out of both its premise and material.
There's always a certain amount of pleasure to be mined from actors playing themselves and taking the mickey. Jennifer Tilly has a lot of screen presence, and film fans will nod approvingly at all the references to Bound (her break-out role with the pre-Matrix Wachowskis). But once the basic gag is out of the way - Tilly is a fading actress who 'dolls herself up' to get a part - the film keeps repeating itself until the concept is neither funny or interesting anymore.
Likewise, many of the horror nods in Seed of Chucky are underused. John Waters is a widely respected figure in cult film circles, and casting the director of Pink Flamingos as a seedy paparatso is a nice touch. But his character doesn't get to do much that is endearing or appealing beyond the confines of the initial joke. It's very much a one-joke role, with Waters quickly mining it for all its worth and then spending the rest of his screen time looking confused.
Seed of Chucky isn't all that scary either, though that isn't entirely surprising. The Child's Play series was never an out-and-out frightener, with even the first and best instalment having goofy tendencies and a pretty silly set-up. But while Bride of Chucky made its humour dark enough to give the title character some threat, Seed of Chucky is completely ramshackle, with its few scary moments not being properly supported by the surrounding plot.
Gorehounds will probably find something to enjoy in the numerous grissly death scenes, which are technically accomplished from a props and make-up perspective. The deaths vary in their level of comedic inventiveness, with the disembowling at the dinner table probably being the most memorable. But as far as suspense or terror is concerned, there's nothing in Seed of Chucky which comes together; the horrific moments are sporadic and don't escalate in any particularly successful fashion.
The comedy of Seed of Chucky is equally hit-and-miss. On top of its botched self-awareness, many of the character jokes are laboured. The whole discussion about Glen's gender quickly becomes tired, with the Ed Wood reference being run into the ground and the pay-off with Glen's cross-dressing being unsatisfying. The running jokes about Glen weeing himself through fear are better than the similar gags in Garbage Pail Kids, but that's about as far from a ringing endorsement as one can get.
Most of the funny moments come from the ridiculous nature of a given situation. The film does go the whole hog when it comes to Chucky and Tiffany's preposterous plan to regain human form, particularly when it comes to getting Tilly pregnant. Brad Dourif has always done black comedy very well, as evidenced through his subsequent work with Werner Herzog. And having never shared a scene together in The Lord of the Rings (save in the extended cut of The Return of the King), it's nice to see him and Billy Boyd interacting here.
For all its funny moments, however, Seed of Chucky never becomes any more than a collection of poorly-assembled bits. It never gets to grips with its storyline beyond what is needed for a given scene to pay off, nor can it really decide whether it wants to satirise the film business or just use it as a plot device. There have been many worse horror films and worse films about the film businesses, but there are few horror-comedies which are this actively episodic.
The film also comes up short from a visual standpoint. Bride of Chucky was shot by Peter Pau, who went on to win an Oscar for his work on the brilliant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He retained many of the signature touches of Child's Play while bringing a more tongue-in-cheek sensibility to the lighting. This film, on the other hand, is lensed by Vernon Layton, who shot the equally disappointing Blackball, featuring Paul Kaye and Johnny Vegas.
Like Blackball, Seed of Chucky has a tacky feel to it which works against Mancini's efforts to make us like the characters. The colour palette is far too plastic and glossy to be a proper black comedy or horror film, with the choice of colours and angles lending themselves more to American Pie or the Wayans brothers. Put simply, it feels cheap, and looks far too mainstream to cut it as a proper Chucky movie.
Seed of Chucky is a disappointing sequel which is neither funny nor scary enough to hold a candle to its predecessor. For all the moments which produce a shudder from the gore or a snigger from the jokes, it ultimately never makes as much of its premise as it really should. It's not an unmitigated disaster, and there are many worse horror sequels, but it will leave both fans and newcomers feeling short-changed.
When I reviewed Basic Instinct three years ago, I talked about the… MoreWhen I reviewed Basic Instinct three years ago, I talked about the reputation of erotic thrillers, commenting that they are "often lumped together with horror movies as the stuff that 'sensible', 'reasonable' citizens wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole." You could add gross-out comedies to this list of untouchable genres, and you might have a case given the quality of Superbad and its recent counterparts. But just as dismissing all erotic thrillers would prevent us from having fun with Paul Verhoeven, so to dismiss gross-outs outright would lead us to overlook the qualities of the film which created that genre.
National Lampoon's Animal House is the first, best and perhaps only good film to carry the National Lampoon brand. Its combination of bad taste humour, top-notch performances and countercultural undercurrents has ensured its place in the history of American comedies. It remains one of the highest-grossing American films of all time, and the standard to which all subsequent gross-out comedies aspire. Not everything about it works after 36 years, but its importance cannot be underestimated.
Together with John Landis' previous film, the TV parody Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House created the majority of the clichés and conventions which we now associate with gross-out comedies. There is the emphasis on physical comedy, which extends into jokes about bodily fluids and human anatomy. There is the utter contempt for authority, civility or maturity, with the protagonists showing no respect or ambition towards people with short hair in suits. There is the raucous, energetic storytelling, with boisterous acting and big emotions from all the cast. And, most of all, there are those difficult moments in which you're either laughing your face off or covering your eyes, feeling really quite ashamed at what just happened on screen.
It's very difficult to review a gross-out comedy without simply listing all the individual gags and commenting on how outré or disgusting they are. Subsequent gross-out efforts like Porky's often resorted to taking similar gags and either seeing just how far they could push them or just cutting to the chase a lot quicker. An example would be the scene where Bluto sneaks over to the Omega House to watch the girls undress from the top of a ladder. While in Animal House he makes the effort to watch them for a while, even shuffling the ladder along to see into the next room, in Porky's the girls are shoved straight into the shower and the boys look on with little effort to withhold themselves.
While you have to keep reminding yourself to see the film as a product of its time, many of the jokes in Animal House are still hilarious today. The accidental killing of Neidermeyer's horse is very well done, with John Belushi's widening eyes and repeated utterance of "Ho-ly shit!". Most of the best jokes are at Neidermeyer's expense, whether it's being dragged along the football field by his horse or being trampled during the food fight. The quick sight gags are also well-assembled, such as Dean Wormer reading Bluto his grades, only to find Bluto has put two pencils up his nose, preceding Rowan Atkinson's famous ploy in Blackadder Goes Forth.
When Animal House was first released, it was accused by large sections of the press of being mean-spirited. In fact, what has made the film last so long, and age so relatively well, is the amount of heart that it has. We have genuine affection for the characters even at their most outrageous, and we have a stake in their actions because we are always rooting for the underdogs. Dorfman and Kroger (a.k.a. Flounder and Pinto) are the heart and soul of the film, being every bit as socially awkward and inept as we were in our first years of university.
The film is constructed in a way which betrays not only the upstart nature of the magazine, but Landis' love for old comedies. The film opens with our two protagonists going to the Omega fraternity welcome party, and promptly being shoved into a quiet corner with the other outcasts, out of the way of the snooty, 'clever' people. The trappings and sense of humour aside, it's not so different from what Charlie Chaplin used to do, putting the Tramp around 'respectable' people in authority and then bursting their egos to either win the day or get the girl (sometimes both).
The other big reason for Animal House's endearing popularity is its countercultural subtext. While the magazine was very much a product of the 1970s, Animal House is set in 1962, dubbed by co-writer Douglas Kenney as "the last innocent year... in America". What appears on the surface to be a bunch of overgrown teenagers fooling around and being idiots becomes something of a harbinger for the youth-led revolution that would sweep America as the decade went on. The film doesn't go into any great detail on this, let alone become political, but it is important not to overlook this setting.
Viewed through this kind of prism, it isn't hard to see why the film became such a big hit with young audiences. While the hippie rebellions of the 1960s were long dead by the time of its release, it epitomised and captured the fantasy of so many young people, to fight against the established order and eschew the values of their parents. Most of the 'adult' characters - Dean Wormer, Greg, the vast majority of Omega house - are characterised as complete squares, who deserve to be run out of town for being so boringly pro-establishment. Only Donald Sutherland's pot-smoking English professor is spared the rod, being down with the kids enough to get Karen Allen to sleep with him.
This brings us on to a further asset of the film, namely the relatively decent way in which it treats its female characters. It's hardly going to win any prizes for equal opportunities, but neither is it as openly leering or sleazy as one might expect. Some of this is down simply to period details - girls' underwear was more complicated in the 1960s and there was a lot more of it. But Landis is careful to give a couple of his actresses room for manoeuvre, with Karen Allen making the very most of her role. She's neither a self-obsessed, pulchritudinous cheerleader like Kim Cattrall in Porky's or a bookish nerd who couldn't buy a boyfriend.
The performances in Animal House are of a very good standard given the inexperience of both the cast and the director. Landis' biggest coup is being able (for the most part) to rein in John Belushi, getting him to focus his energy where Steven Spielberg let him flounder in 1941. He's not entirely in control, particularly during the final set-piece, but there are hints in the performance he gets from Belushi of the great work they would do in The Blues Brothers.
Elsewhere John Vernon is brilliantly intimidating as Dean Wormer, using his distinctive voice and uptight physique to be both threatening and spineless. Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert are a perfect team as Otter and Boon respectively, with the golf scene summing up their endearing kinship. Donald Sutherland makes the most of his brief appearance (which includes a shot of his backside) and Karen Allen holds her own against the male cast, just as she would do in Starman or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The problems with Animal House can be divided into two camps. The first, and more forgivable, are the technical shortcomings, which can be largely put down to Landis' lack of experience. The ramming of the parade stand is poorly edited, with the Deltas' car taking an awfully long time to cover two yards, and the payoff of the Dean and other dignitaries leaping into shot isn't really worth the effort. We could put much of the final sequence into this camp, with underwhelming crowd choreography and poor timing on a couple of gags.
The second camp concerns the moments when the film oversteps the mark. There's not much point getting offended by Animal House, since it exists to provoke an emotional response that will separate those who get it from those who are too old or dull to understand. Nevertheless, the subplot about Pinto supposedly molesting a young girl really shouldn't be there: it's not narratively integral, as well as not being pretty.
National Lampoon's Animal House remains the benchmark for the gross-out comedy genre it helped to create. Landis' later comedies like Trading Places would be more technically proficient, and not all of its material holds up to present-day scrutiny. But the anarchic spirit and enjoyably bad taste remains intact, making it essential viewing for comedy fans - even those who are on double secret probation.
Last November, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! in which I cited my… MoreLast November, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! in which I cited my ten favourite film adaptations of William Shakespeare plays. Reducing over 100 years of cinema down to a top ten is no easy task, so to make it easier I restricted my list to adaptations which retained Shakespeare's dialogue. While there are many so-called vernacular adaptations that I admire in some way, I felt that disposing of the language somehow made these versions less faithful: losing the unique speech pattern of Shakespeare robs many of his greatest lines of their power and meaning.
If we remove this distinction, however, we broaden the landscape of films which attempt to bring Shakespeare to a more modern, often younger audience. Alongside more famous teen offerings like Romeo Must Die and 10 Things I Hate About You, we find Get Over It, a loose reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream with a bright, shiny colour palette and a pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst. While being far from perfect as either a Shakespeare adaptation or a teen comedy, it's not without its charms.
There are two angles from which we can approach Get Over It. One is to judge it in terms of its fidelity to Shakespeare's play, and the other is to judge it according to our expectations of teen comedies. To put it another way, we have a choice between attempting to justify it in the company of many more consciously high-brow efforts, or to defend it as a surprisingly good offering in a genre sadly associated with all that is low-brow, clichéd and disappointing.
Taking the first approach, the film retains some key elements of the 'Dream which are played up to varying extents. Most obviously, it retains the structural device of the play-within-a-play, or in this case play-within-a-film. While this is pretty common in teen dramas, the relationships between the actors in the film are reflected in their characters on stage in a way which is believable and amusing. Tommy O'Haver isn't a brilliant director, but he does replicate the deliberate artificiality of the play-within-the-play; it's not as easy as it sounds to get a good actor to play someone who can't act.
The central theme in Get Over It is that the person that you love now isn't necessarily the person that you're meant to be with. This is a theme that crops up time and again in romantic comedies, often being used as the excuse to get our two overly glamourous leads to end up together when the plot can't do it on its own. The film makes no attempt to challenge this incredibly trite sentiment, but it does at least try to tie it to something more meaningful.
Shakespeare's comedies like the 'Dream and Much Ado About Nothing regularly involve people falling in love unexpectedly with people whom they previously held in no regard. Benedict and Beatrice in the latter begin hating each other, but through the plotting of their friends end up genuinely falling in love. Twelfth Night even turns this device on its head, with Malvolio's cross-gartered downfall serving as a warning against trying to impress others based on idle gossip.
Get Over It attempts to tie the dynamic of its four main characters to the four Athenian lovers in the 'Dream. The most straightforward and faithful thing would be for the characters to exactly mirror their theatrical counterparts, and for the casting of the play-within-a-film to fit that. But instead, our central character Berke (played well by a young Ben Foster) goes from resembling Lysander in nature to being much closer to Hermes: he stops seeing Kelly as a distraction from his pursuit of Allison and discovers that he truly loves her.
Get Over It makes no bones about playing fast and loose with Shakespeare, right down to Berke breaking character during the stage show and ad-libbing to convey his love for Kelly. This does make it a frustrating experience for purists, who know the play backwards and want to see it accurately replicated in a modern setting. Certainly the film isn't in the same league as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which updated the setting while retaining the period language.
Rather than viewing it as an accurate adaptation, it's perhaps better to see the film as a gateway drug for people coming to Shakespeare for the first time. Many who've have to deal with Shakespeare in high school will recognise the reluctance of the characters in having to perform it, and find some mirth in the more ostentatious or pretentious characters who yearn for a life in the theatre. While it's far too loose as far as the actual plot is concerned, it does convey the awkwardness of approaching Shakespeare and poke fun at the equally awkward way in which it is often staged.
The film is at its best when it attempts to show the characters being affected by the subject matter of the play. There are a number of visually pleasing set-pieces, in which Berke finds himself in the woods with Allison and Striker, growing in jealousy and frustration as events unfold and he finds himself helpless and unable to act. These are the best-lit and most appealingly-shot scenes in the film, giving us a break from the shiny, late-1990s visuals. Maryse Alberti is a good cinematographer, having shot Velvet Goldmine, and it's nice to see her trying to move the film into more poetic and ambitious territory.
Looking at Get Over It from the second perspective (i.e. as a teen comedy), it's also a pleasant surprise in a couple of ways. Like many teen comedies, the plot is as predictable as they come: we know that Berke and Allison won't get back together even without Shakespeare poking his nose in. But there is a certain pleasure to be derived from seeing all the pieces fit together, and if the film makes us laugh than it's ultimately doing its job.
The film benefits greatly in this regard from Martin Short. Short's played many an outrageous and annoying character in his time, often turning up in supporting roles where he is given a free rein and quickly gets on our nerves. But in this instance, he manages to focus his energies into a confident performance which is goofy and silly but ultimately rings true. His character is more believable than his work in Father of the Bride and its sequel, with all the exaggerated features having logic behind them rather than just the next punchline.
Kirsten Dunst is also a pleasant surprise. Dunst took the role because it gave her the opportunity to sing on screen, and she nails both the vocal numbers with a surprise amount of presence. But like Short, she also has a knowingness to her: she knows how the rules of this kind of film work, and therefore how to take something silly and make it pass off. She raises the standard of the other performers for every second that she's on screen, something that she has done with increasing regularity as her career has developed.
The rest of the cast, by contrast, are more of a mixed bag. Neither Colin Hanks nor Sisqó get a great deal to work with, with the former lacking the overt charisma of his father. The latter seems to have been cast as a gimmick, given his chart popularity at the time, which makes it all the more peculiar that he gets so little to do. Melissa Sagemiller is passable as Allison, though she doesn't play the later scenes all that convincingly, and Shane West isn't as memorable as he could have been.
Ultimately Get Over It has just about enough going for it to pass muster. Its opening musical number, with Berke being followed by dancers, is like a more upbeat, cheeky version of U2's video for 'Sweetest Thing'. Berke's parents are a welcome source of deadpan laughs, while his scenes with Kelly are pitched just right, being tender without getting cloying. At a time when most teen comedies were being pitched in the vein of American Pie, it's refreshing to find one that's willing to be sweet and relatively innocent.
Get Over It is a fun and light-hearted teen comedy which serves as a reasonable introduction to one of Shakespeare's best-loved play. Anyone searching for either a perfect adaptation or a mould-breaking teen comedy will wind up disappointed, but it does enough to satisfy the casual viewer who wants the best of both worlds. Whether as a frothy romantic excursion or an opportunity to see Dunst before her big break, it remains a surprisingly charming comedy.