Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shut Up and Dance: Step Up 3D and The LXD

To state get the obvious and expected out of the way, Step Up 3D has an utterly disposable story that fills up the time between some brain-melting dancing. So first, the griping: both of the male leads, if the plot occurred in the real world, are selfish pricks. Luke, the main character, is the supposedly steadfast leader of the Pirates, his ragtag-yet-appealing (whodathunkit) crew, but he actually is an insecure and flighty narcissist who seeks validation to avoid wallowing in pity. Case in point: he keeps calling on Moose (the other male lead and an incoming college freshman) with little regard for the latter's engagements and responsibilities (e.g. exams and the like) because dammit the Pirates need the new kid, which all comes to a head when Luke goes to a swank soiree to track down a love interest who suddenly and without explanation left the crew. He all but forces Moose to tag along for no obvious reason other than the fact that Luke needs someone to go with him, which obviously causes Moose to stand up his BFF-but-you-know-she's-really-his-true-love Camille.

And that's not to cast Moose as an innocent, here, because his involvement with Luke's crew comes at the expense of his relationship with Camille for no good reason; the movie starts off with Moose's parents telling him that he should focus on being an engineering student and forget about that dance stuff, but when he falls back into dance, whom does he keep his dancing from? His parents? No... well, I mean, yes, because his parents have fallen out of the movie by that point, but he doesn't even tell his supposed BFF Camille about it even as he keeps blowing off their appointments and nearly irreparably alienates her. But even when he lets her in on his double life, he still treats her as an afterthought -- when the Pirates need some extra dancers to fill out their ranks right before the big dance, Moose recruits his old crew (presumably from his high school days) which includes Camille, and as he introduces them (Harry Shum is the man with no bones, Christopher Scott is the popping tapper, etc.), he completely ignores Camille. Jerk.

But none of that matters, because the dancing in the film is, like I said, insanity-inducing. The finale is epic, an orgiastic spectacle of B-A-N-A-N-A-S proportions. The other routines, aside from a couple relative duds (one-and-a-half of the battles leading up to the big showdown, and a tango performance which is wtf and executed with mediocrity, if the indiscreet editing is anything to judge by) have standout moments as well (I puked with envy when the little kids started b-boying and b-girling), but the one other number that sticks out in my mind is a delightful routine with Moose and Camille invoking Fred and Ginger with a hip-hop flavor.

This little segment is so charming that, along with the smattering of parkour and capoeira -- I found myself wishing very hard that the film could've dispensed with narrative niceties and instead have everything occur in a slightly surreal world where people breaking out into dance doesn't need to be motivated by real-world concerns, which is the topic that's really on my mind. Obviously, the film's draw is its dancing, and everything else only needs to be barely functional to make seeing Step Up 3D worthwhile. However, every time the main stars had to deliver hackneyed dialogue as they dealt with another plot contrivance passing itself off as conflict, I kept wishing that this film and musicals in general could shake off the constraints of story to a far greater degree, to take a cue from the silent era or avant garde/non-narrative film or even ballet and prune back plot to its barest essentials in favor of the spectacle of dance. Of course, I'm being idealistic (pretentious might be a better word) since a wide release like Step Up 3D is financially obliged to conventional storytelling and characterization and clearly isn't the right venue to satisfy my middle-brow aestheticism.

That venue happens to be occupied by The LXD, though. Or at least it could be. Sure, the web series is a lot more stylized in its narrative than Step Up -- when a couple of b-boys, one good, the other evil, battle, the loser actually dies -- but more often, it plays by the typical conventions of movie musicals, where people suddenly break out into song or dance but eventually get back to regular life. This attachment to conventionality, which is an unfortunate but understandable aspect of musicals, tethers The LXD to okayness and the feeling of a missed opportunity, because the one episode where it shakes off the persistence of the quotidian is when it's close to brilliant.

The third and best episode -- "Robot Lovestory" -- dispenses with spoken dialogue for the most part (it does have brief subtitles that are superimposed onscreen obtrusively to mimic comic-book dialogue balloons, which I think is unnecessary but whatevs) and concentrates on stylized storytelling. It's not wall-to-wall dancing, but it avoids the usual weaknesses of recent musicals and, as something that future installments should aim for, uses visual storytelling to paint a lovely and heartfelt and at times awesome episode, which culminates with the female lead's solo at the end.

Seriously, she is awesome, because, as it turns out, she is PANDORA, who has become a cult heroine for SYTYCD fans who remember her awesome audition during season 2 but whom we've not seen or heard on the show since, leaving us wondering what's happened to her, and the answer is SHE GOT EVEN BETTER. I suppose I didn't recognize her because she got her braces off (considering her audition would've happened around 2005, it's about time too).

And oh hey, in the first battle between crews in Step Up 3D, which is kind of forgettable at first (even though Dave Scott's in the middle of it), this popper comes in like a secret weapon and saves the day:

...which, if you've been keeping track, is what got me to watch the film in the first place. Although the 3D-ness has really lost its novelty by this point in the film (I stopped being impressed the fifth time a scene is set up with dancers coming directly at the camera), her hand tutting is so murderous that it had me calling her Queen Tut and alone raised the quality of the battle. And oh, hey, THAT'S PANDORA TOO WTF SHE'S GOTTEN EVEN BETTER. Also, I suppose I didn't recognize her because of the angry makeup and the fact that she didn't have braces.

And I might as well recap the SYTYCD alums, of which Twitch is the only one who gets a meaty role with more than a couple throwaway lines. Joshua has a few lines as does Legacy, but neither of them get that much camera time (or, I think, dancing in Josh's case), while Ashley Nino says a few words and disappears off and on. I've read that Tony Bellisimo is in it but I didn't notice him. Ivan's in it, too, but I don't remember him at all, and Musa's in it though I'm not at all sure if he got to dance.

Finally, blink and you'll miss Bendy Girl from the Step Up performance on SYTYCD -- she figures into the final showdown but doesn't get a featured role in the routine.

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