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Step Up 5: All In

Although not quite at the level of Step Up 3, Step Up 5: All In is a tonne of fun and a much needed course-correction for the series.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

step up 5It seems that you can measure the quality of a Step Up movie by two factors.  The first is how seriously it takes itself, the second is how much Adam Sevani’s character Moose is in the thing.  The factors even seem to be linked to one another: the less serious a film is, the more that Moose is going to be in it and the better the film itself will be.  Step Up was an overly serious romance drama, clearly written by white people (clears throat), that was dreadfully dull, abysmally paced and had very little actual dancing and what dancing it did have being uninspired and flatly filmed.  It also had no Moose, but it did have 2006-era Channing Tatum who, even when blank-faced and not particularly good, could still radiate charm and goofy likability from his wonderfully toned abdominals.  Step Up 2 The Streets jettisoned most of the self-seriousness, introduced Moose and brought director Jon M. Chu to the franchise; the result had some pacing issues but was a fair bit of fun.  Step Up 3 vented whatever seriousness the franchise had left out of an airlock, promoted Moose to second lead, added 3D, threw pretty much everything it had at the dance sequences, fixed the pacing issues and was a genuinely great and fun time at the movies.  Step Up Revolution decided it wanted to be “about something” and did so at the cost of fun, Moose and pretty much everything that makes a great Step Up movie.

So you could say that I was sceptical when wandering into Step Up 5: All In (credited as just Step Up: All In in the film itself).  Fact of the matter is that this series had so far had two great instalments and two terrible instalments with the two great instalments being directed by the same guy.  I was worried that this would turn out to be a franchise that only one director truly “got” and with everyone else trying to make it something that it’s not.  This is the thing with movies that are made to be lightweight and fun: the second you start taking the enterprise too seriously and try and turn it into something it’s not, you expose the whole thing as shallow and create a joyless atmosphere that makes proceedings drag.  Both non-Jon M. Chu directors so far seem to have been embarrassed by the fact that they’re making silly dance movies and whereas he embraced that silliness, they moved as far away from it as possible and ended up making bad films as a result.

Very fortunately, All In’s director, Trish Sie (best known for choreographing pretty much every OK Go video that ever went viral), and its scriptwriter, John Swetnam, know for a fact that they are making a silly dance movie and they make no bones about that fact.  They don’t embrace it quite as totally as Jon M. Chu did (let us not forget that this was a real thing that happened in Step Up 3), but they seem more than comfortable about it.  The result is that, after being conspicuously absent from Revolution, the fun has been brought back to Step Up.  This is a silly, lightweight, fun-as-hell film that sticks to its strengths, doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel but manages to bring the series to a very satisfying possible close.  Oh, and it does this by predominately aiming to be a comedy.

No, really.  I mean, Step Up films have always been comedies, just not completely open or self-aware ones.  The bad Step Up films are unintentional comedies, whilst the good ones get their humour from playing the absurdity of their material as straight as they possibly get whilst still having fun with it (or, to put it another way, this happens in Step Up 3 and no-one, not even the film, lampshades its existence).  All In still plays its more absurd moments as straight as fun can get away with, but it also attempts to craft actual jokes and legitimate laughs on a frequent basis.  Surprisingly, this actually works!  It’s not so much down to the material (sample scene: there’s a bit where Moose’s parents cook goat balls for our two leads and the joke is that the concept of goat balls is gross) and more the actors and actresses who, holy hell, are insanely committed to their roles, this time.  David Shreibman plays a new character named Chad who is a pimping, preening, try-too-hard salsa teacher whose every move is excessively flamboyant (he is not gay before anybody starts getting worried) and whose lines of dialogue are wonderfully hammy and well-delivered.  Adam Sevani gets to play both audience surrogate and relative straight man and he says more with a grinning background headshake or a lampshading “Does everything have to end in a dance battle?” than most actors in proper comedy films I’ve seen this year.  And then there is the character of Alexxa Brava.

In fact, brief stop here for the requisite premise dump.  We’re six months on from Revolution and The Mob are failing to make it in LA after their big Nike ad.  At a club one night, Sean (a much, much improved Ryan Guzman) gets into an altercation with new kid on the block Jasper (Steven Jones) and their respective crews have a dance-off… which results in The Mob getting thoroughly served.  Fed up with LA and Sean’s leadership, the rest of The Mob split back to Miami whilst Sean stays behind to try one last time to make it.  Opportunity arises when he stumbles across an ad for a new televised dance show called The Vortex, whose prize is a guaranteed three year booking at Las Vegas.  Sean is determined to win, so he ropes in Moose (Adam Sevani who is still effortlessly charming and likeable and WHY HAS HE NOT BEEN GIVEN THE LEAD LEAD ROLE IN ONE OF THESE FILMS YET?!) to help establish a crew to take the top prize, comprising pretty much every single good guy character from Step Ups 2 and 3 including Andie (a much, much, much, much improved Briana Evigan).  Will they end up running into The Mob whilst going through the tournament?  You bet!  Will Jasper and his crew seem to effortlessly breeze through the tournament despite never giving a performance as good as that one at the club?  Uh-huh!  Does the tournament end up less savoury and fair than it first appears?  Don’t ya just know it!

Original plotting is not, never has been, and never will be Step Up’s strong suit.  And that is always fine as long as it delivers that formulaic plotting in fun and visually splendid ways, and All In pretty much strikes gold with the dual benefits of Vegas and overblown reality TV talent shows.  The first round involves the crew having to make a demo tape proving their worthiness to the judges and it’s self-consciously overblown and silly in a way that Revolution’s concept dances never quite reached.  As for when they get to Vegas, the dance battles are held on clearly expensive stages designed to fuel the ridiculous TV narrative (one takes place in a boxing ring and has song changes punctuated by a ring girl strutting across the ring with a round number card, for the love of God) and are drenched in showmanship.  It is into this that we are presented with Alexxa Brava, played pitch perfectly by Izabella Miko.  She is the show’s host and, I swear this is true, every single thing she said sent me into giggle fits.  She’s permanently dressed like she just wandered out of Lady Gaga’s rejected wardrobe, speaks with the kind of über phony breathy voice used in pretentious perfume ads the world over, over-eggs every single line she is given to read, and dramatically pauses over the slightest thing like a constantly distracted Davina McCall.  It is an incredibly broad caricature of talent show hosts, and especially overly serious talent shows, a one-joke pony and goddammit I could not stop laughing whenever she opened her mouth.  It’s like if Mad Moxxi from Borderlands didn’t speak exclusively in double entendres and left pretty much every sentence hanging for a good five seconds before finishing it.

Alexxa is the perfect example of when the film’s more overly comical side works.  I mean, it does sometimes falls flat (once again, goat balls), but when it works, which is often when it does the stuff that it would usually do deadpan but with a bit more of a self-aware tinge to help things along, it works gangbusters.  I laughed more at this than I have done for most actual comedies so far this year.  Also surprisingly working gangbusters?  The romance stuff.  Sean and Andie are the main couple the film attempts to ship together and whilst it’s still a little forced and a little token, I mostly don’t have a problem with it because Guzman and Evigan are both much better and much more committed to their roles this time, and have very good chemistry together.  Moose and Camille’s relationship is limited to a few scenes, ends up roughly how you’d expect but still works because Moose & Camille OTP forever!  And there’s even a briefly glimpsed romance for the team’s “human robot” and the scant few moments that he and she (who is basically a gender-flipped version of him) have, wordless and solely communicated by them playing up their robot dance moves, I found sweeter and more romantic than the token romances in most action films.  Not kidding.

But how about those dance sequences, otherwise known as the main reason most of you are paying to see this thing?  Well, though they still don’t pop quite like Jon M. Chu could make ‘em, they’re all very well done.  The opening dance battle at the club pulls out a very impressive dance sequence for The Mob set to some Method Man and then immediately and noticeably tops it with Jasper’s crew (I usually find that these sequences involve the two teams being just as good as one another with the victory being arbitrary, so it’s nice to see the series can pull it off without having to make the losing side just plain suck).  All of the dances do great work with perspectives that would clearly do wonders if seen in 3D (which I did not) and often without resorting to throwing things at the screen.  Most notably, the dances have been tightened up, this time.  Revolution’s dances were often too wide-reaching, too many things going on in too many places with too many people, and that made it hard to know what I was supposed to be focussing on, leading to a constant feeling that I was missing something.  All In reigns in that scale and, whilst some may see that as a step back, I am all for that as the film always makes it clear as to who you should be focussing on when and keeping everyone in focus meant I never felt like I was missing anything due to a misplaced camera or the like.

If this review seems a little simplistic, a little childish and casual in its usage of language and descriptors and the like, it’s because All In kind of deserves that kind of analysis.  It’s not deep and it’s not revelatory but it knows that, it owns that.  This is a film with low stakes that are artificially heightened at certain points for quick, easy, predictable drama.  Character arcs are black and white simple and accomplished in precisely the amount of time you’re thinking they take (Sean is the only one in it to win, so much so that he may have lost sight of the true joy of dancing).  The final dance of the film is preluded by having a character stand on stage with a microphone and monologue the film’s moral almost directly to camera.  And all of this is OK because the film is in on it!  It knows what it is, it’s not ashamed of what it is, and it’s decided that it’s going to have some goddamn fun whilst it does what it does best!  Who cares that you’ve seen this film before, multiple times, done best the third time, when the film itself is a lot of highly entertaining fun?

I am friends with the kind of people that like to class this series as “The Fast & Furious of dance movies”.  That kind of sentiment sounds weird when first said, but going through this series, and especially during All In, I’ve discovered that they are actually bang on.  Both series had inauspicious starts that took their concepts a bit too seriously, loosened up as they went along and got better as a result, built up an armoury of strong diverse characters who, on first impression, seem rather disposable but whose every appearance as time goes on becomes a grin-inducing and (for lack of a better phrase) heart-warming occurrence, and have slowly become the major player in their respective genres.  Step Up even has its own version of Han, in the form of Moose!  I honestly can’t think of higher praise for a silly popcorn movie about dancing than that.

So, no, it’s not going to change any lives and, yes, Step Up 3 is still the pinnacle of the series, but Step Up 5: All In is a huge surprise in a Summer lacking in both surprises and genuinely great films.  It’s a film that takes proceedings in this super naively optimistic dance movie as seriously as they deserve and embraces fun with both arms wide outstretched.  Its cast is assured, comfortable and convincing in their roles and having the time of their lives, its script is the definition of formulaic but is extremely well-paced and surprisingly legitimately funny, and, though it lacks anything on the level of the “I Won’t Dance” bit from the third film (what can I say, I’m a sucker for one-take sequences and homages to classic Hollywood), the dance sequences are of the usual high standard you’ve come to expect from the series.  Step Up honestly looked unstable after the total failure of Revolution, which risked torpedoing the series by falling back on bad habits of the overly serious nature, but Trish Sie, John Swetnam and pretty much everybody involved in this series have pulled off a major course correct and created a film that I’m genuinely enjoying more the more I think about it.  I’m not sure where the series is going to go from here, the last dance actually carries a sense of finality to proceedings even though the series could keep running if it wanted to, but I know that I want in if they’re going to remain near the level of, and maybe even one day surpassing, Step Up 3!

But, hey, don’t just take my word for it.  I’m pretty sure that, during my teenager filled screening, I heard more excitable members of the audience audibly clapping at certain points.  That’s a first in my cinema-going experiences, let me tell you.

Callum Petch is just straight ill riding his motorcycle down the street.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!


KhumbaIt tries really hard, which is more than I can say for most kids’ films I’ve seen, but Khumba is still not a good film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

My continuing quest to absorb all of the animation as it happens is one often fraught with feelings of despair and sadness.  Usually because the medium, which is one filled with possibilities in both the story-telling and artistic senses, is mostly used by film companies to pump out mediocre, by-the-numbers and, saddest of all, soulless products designed to strip money from kids who, presumably, don’t know any better.  And that bums me out.  Just because animated kids’ films almost always seem to make money, doesn’t mean that accountants should be in charge of their production in order to boost the bottom line at the end of the year.

Khumba, the second effort from South African production company Triggerfish Animation (previous of Zambesia), does not have that problem.  Whatever other failings it does have, they’re not caused by a lack of effort or interest in the project.  This wants to be a good film, it is trying to be a good film and that earnestness infects most every facet of the film, which is more than I can say for some other low-budget animated films I’ve had the displeasure of seeing.  Unfortunately, earnestness and enthusiasm can only carry a film so far and Khumba falls down on the whole “being a good film” side quite majorly.

Our story follows Khumba (Jake T. Austin), a zebra born with only half of his stripes much to the mockery of the rest of his herd.  He is raised by his father (Laurence Fishburne) in a gated community in the Great Caroo that hasn’t had any rain since he was born which the very superstitious herd blames on his birth, not helping his outcast nature.  One day, he meets a mantis who draws him a map that leads to a supposedly mystical water hole that may give him the rest of his stripes.  Tired of being different and spurred into action by the passing of his sick mother, Khumba ventures out into the wild, gaining two travel companions, a wildebeest named Mama V (Loretta Devine) and an ostrich named Bradley (Richard E. Grant), being pursued by an opportunistic leopard named Phango (Liam Neeson) and leaving the herd to decide on their future when the water runs dry.

It sounds messy and overstuffed (needless to say, Khumba and co. run into a whole bunch of other eccentric characters through the film’s svelte 85 minute run time) but the script does a good job at balancing proceedings.  It only asks the audience to invest in a few characters, the rest basically wander in and out of proceedings as a way to provide action or humour or one of the film’s overall messages of “doesn’t matter what species(race) you are, everyone is still a living thing at heart and we should come together in celebration of that fact”.  Honestly, I’m OK with that.  The film is very clear as to who we need to invest emotionally with and I prefer this approach to the kind of mess Escape From Planet Earth had where it tried to put stories and character arcs and the like to all of its characters in its 80 minutes and came off rushing things as a result.

A mostly interested voice cast also help truck along proceedings, even if some of them aren’t very good.  Chief among those not very good is Jake T. Austin as Khumba, he does seem to be interested in proceedings but his line readings are the definition of stilted.  Sometimes his line deliveries have passion and suit proceedings, other times they’re flat or the wrong direction for the scene.  Fairing much better is Richard E. Grant as the film’s main source of comic relief, he may not get anything funny to say but he nails the pompous theatricality inherent in the lines.  Loretta Devine exudes motherly warmth whilst Laurence Fishburne just about stays on the right side of the line between “gentle paternal authority” and “phoning it in”, ditto Liam Neeson but replace “gentle paternal authority” with “menacing villainy”.  Plus, littering about the film are professional voice actors in several of those supporting roles, like Charlie Adler as the leader of some Rock Rabbits and Dee Bradley Baker as a doting Meerkat father, which pleases me, a staunch supporter of giving professional VAs large-ish roles in animated movies, to no end.

The score backing this thing, by the way, is actually really rather interesting.  It does operate predominately in the same way that American-made animated films soundtrack proceedings, lots of orchestral bombast during action sequences and light bouncy music for most everything else, but it also infuses it with elements of traditional South African and country road-trip music.  It’s definitely unique and helps give Khumba its own feel.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always work, the addition of vocal wailing on the score over the fake-out death at the end of the movie only serves to push the scene into overwrought parody territory, but it is different and it fits the travelling scenes very nicely.

Unfortunately, that’s about it on the list of things that Khumba is good at.  See, enthusiasm and heart can only take you so far and Khumba has three key issues that keep it from being worth your time.  The first of which is the quality of its animation.  At best, it’s sub-par.  Character designs for the different species are nice and distinct, even rather good in some cases (a recurring wild dog voiced by Steve Buscemi in particular has a tiny stature, specific wide eyes, mangy quality to his overall being and yet is still rather cute in his own way), but individual character designs are neither of those things.  Despite how much time we spend with the zebra herd, I could not confidently tell you which one is supposed to be Khumba’s father if you put the lot of them in a line-up.  This is used as the basis for a joke with a gang of Springbok, but that only serves to call attention to the problem, not explain it away.

As for when things start moving, it’s all over the place.  Lighting and shading lack detail as does pretty much everything else in the film (a brief section set on a dusty plain during high winds just looks like an Instagram filter has been overlaid on the action).  Movement switches between unnaturally fluid and noticeably jerky between shots, the one constant being that all actions take a few frames less to perform than they should do which creates a disconcertingly fake and cheap feel.  There’s a frequent tendency, too, to underplay certain gestures.  Bradley gets a sudden musical number (the only instance of one throughout the whole film so it does awkwardly stick out) but his accompanying dancing is too restrained, too hemmed in and so the whole thing feels awkward.  Meanwhile, chroma-keying (the act of animating characters separate from the backgrounds and then digitally adding them in later) is very noticeable and disappointingly frequent.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a budget problem, more an issue of inexperience.  After all, you can do a lot on a little over this film’s $20 million budget (just look at most any feature-length Anime), and the issues mostly stem from problems that could have been avoided.  Don’t have the budget to animate all of the frames necessary to move Character A to Expression B in Position C?  Then work around that, find an exploitative loophole.  It’s animation!  You can use that bending of reality to your advantage if you do it well enough.  I got the constant feeling that a few more years of experience and practice under the animation team’s belt would have managed to make a pretty great looking film considering the budget.  But there are just a surplus of rookie mistakes littering the animation and it exposes the whole enterprise as cheap.

The inexperience similarly shows in a screenplay that liberally borrows from other, often resoundingly better animated films.  There are cribs and shout-outs from and to Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Fantasia, The Black Cauldron, Rio, Madagascar and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (hey, I said “often better” not “always better”) and those are the ones I actively noticed.  It’s not done in the way that more cynical animated kids’ films do it, there is a genuine love for the source material it cribs from and its aim is to use these references to further its own story.  The issue is that the non-cribbed material is not particularly engaging and the execution of the borrowed material never quite works, it hits those points without getting why they work.

It’s all stuff that I’ve seen before and better executed in those other places.  Khumba wants to use its borrowed material to help boost its own story but it only serves to highlight how… middling its own story is.  None of the characters are particularly unlikable but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of them, either.  The story beats are rote and uninspired, failing to put any new twists on them to justify their being trotted out for the hundred-millionth time.  There are some occasional mysticism and superstition elements thrown in to try and make things seem more epic but inadvertently only serve to needlessly clutter the finale and the villain’s motivation.  Again, none of this is to a lack of trying, but it means the film never rises above its pastiche of references to stand up with its own identity besides the enthusiasm.

One last issue is down to pacing.  Now, normally when I talk about pacing, I mean it in the sense of “this film is way too long/short” because that’s the most noticeable kind of bad pacing.  Khumba is the perfect length, it never drags and it never charges through things at 200MPH.  The issue is that the action on screen never seems to get out of first gear.  Action scenes are too gentle, too slovenly, there are no stakes and no danger because nothing feels deadly or intimidating because nothing particularly seems to happen in them.  There’s an early section where Khumba, Mama V and Bradley are surrounded and pounced on by a group of wild dogs but the whole sequence plays out with all the urgency of being harassed by a couple of rogue fleas.  The animation too stiff, the camerawork too static, the music remains sedentary.  Almost every action scene is like this and it kills a lot of investment because these characters are clearly not in any danger so why should I worry about what happens to them?

It bums me out to have to type this review, it truly does.  See, ripping apart a soulless bad movie is easy: it’s clear that nobody involved cared about the product other than the bottom line it generates so there’s precisely no reason to feel bad about treating it like a leopard treats its prey.  Having to dismantle a bad film that is trying really, desperately hard to be a good film is akin to kicking out Tiny Tim’s crutches as you walk past him, or deliberately performing an elaborate tap dance routine in front of people paralysed from the waist down, or going around to the houses of those who made the film and taking a dump on their front lawns whilst they watch.  You’re going to feel bad, unless you’re a monster, because the victim is so earnest and desperately trying to avoid being deserving of the sentence you’re flinging down on them.

And that’s Khumba.  It’s earnest, it’s got heart and it thinks that is all it needs to win because heart and good intentions can overcome poor execution, right?  It’s the scrappy underdog in the sports movie that’s not the best at the game but still triumphs in the end because believing in yourself despite your sub-par abilities conquers all, right?  Sadly, though, reality ensues in this metaphor and Khumba’s noble intentions and excitement to be here is negated by poor animation, stake-less action and an inability to rise above the influences it has a good deal of respect for.  Hopefully, Triggerfish Animation use this as a learning experience and come back with something better next time because there is clearly potential and love coming from that studio and it saddens me to see inexperience sink that.

Callum Petch wants you to know he’s a rainbow too.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Review: The Hobbit

The HobbitIn honour of this week’s main review we thought about splitting this podcast into three full-length episodes, or recording it at twice the speed, or even inviting old guests back for needless cameos (except we’ve never had a guest on the podcast).

Instead we felt the story of a short, hairy old man and his companions resonated enough with us hear to avoid such frippery.

This week sees the Failed Critics dissect Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We’ll give you the low-down on the new 48fps technology, discuss the wisdom of turning a short ‘children’s book’ into a dark and epic trilogy, and two of the team confess to falling asleep at some point.

It’s one of our more argumentative podcasts so far, and there are some very passionate criticisms and defences of the years last blockbuster.

We’ll be back on Christmas Eve with our Christmas Films Triple Bill, and then on New Years Eve we’ll be looking back on 2012 and revealing the first ever Failed Critics Award winners.