Film #111: She’s All That (1999)

film 111 shes all that

Rating: 3.5/5

“I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.”

If any film could hope to challenge Clueless as the ultimate high school movie, surely it’s She’s All That. So filled with clichés that in some ways it’s difficult to figure out whether it was the first of its kind or just another lame copy, it’s stupid but likeable, with an impressive cast including Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, the late Paul Walker (I always forget he’s in it), Anna Paquin, Clea Duvall, Kieran Culkin – even Usher pops up, proving the movie’s pop-culture credentials, and so does Sarah Michelle Gellar, for a split second, in homage to the fact that this was shot in the same school as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review She’s All That without being constantly reminded of Not Another Teen Movie, which quite perfectly parodied the more ridiculous moments – and, the fact that it’s this film that forms the basis of the spoof’s plot indicates how popular and influential it was. Cook is Laney Boggs, an anti-social poor girl filled with inner darkness, as evidenced by her moody abstract art. She’s beautiful, of course, but has the misfortune of wearing glasses, never plucking her eyebrows, and wearing paint-covered dungarees (see, I’m already slipping into Not Another Teen Movie…) Nevertheless, she’s the one popular-but-recently-dumped jock-hunk Zac (Prinze Jr) is tasked with transforming into the prom queen – the result of a bet between him and his jock buddy Dean (Walker). To be fair, she is not considered a challenge because of her looks, really, but because of her personality – but, naturally, a makeover is imminent, thanks to Zac’s sister Mackenzie (Paquin), and it seems to be mostly a result of her newfound contact lenses that, overnight, inexplicably, she becomes the most popular girl in school.

There are actually quite a few interesting possibilities borne out of this new popularity, but the film mostly ignores them. Honestly, if you scratch the surface of this movie, there’s mostly just more surface, and attempting any in depth analysis is a fairly pointless exercise. Laney’s nomination for prom queen doesn’t make her become a brat (a la Cady in Mean Girls, for example) but it does appear to bring all the nerds out of the woodwork – whereas the school initially seemed to be entirely populated by beautiful twenty-somethings (Walker was twenty-six; the only person even close to being actual high school age was Paquin, and she looks like a child in comparison; on a side note, realising this made me feel particularly old), following her nomination the student-extras more fully represent the less fortunate too. Yet this isn’t a “nerd-uprising” sort of film, and the likes of the Hygiene Club remain firmly in the background. There’s never even the slightest pause to consider how Laney actually feels about her makeover – she stops wearing her glasses but continues with her (more figure-hugging) paint-covered clothes, for example. What matters is not the exterior changes, but the internal ones – having avoided her classmates for years, she finally begins to realise that they’re not all as bad as she might have thought. Of course, some of them are precisely as bad as she thought: Dean has ulterior motives, while Zac’s ex Taylor will let nothing stop her from becoming prom queen. While Taylor is the pre-Mean Girls mean girl, her new flame, reality “star” Brock Hudson (Matthew Lilliard) is great fun – egotistical, self-obsessed and utterly deluded, his overly energetic moronics brighten up the film and provide arguably the best dance scene of the piece (sorry Usher, the prom dance is unexpected, but Brock’s fist-pumping worm takes the biscuit).

Seeped in pop-culture of the 90s, perhaps I’m again showing my age when I say that in many ways the film hasn’t dated as badly as it might have. Yes, there are several references to Hanson and yes, kids today might not know what The Real World is, but it’s by no means inaccessible today. Its biggest problem (if you can call it that) is the fact that, like I said earlier, everything seems so clichéd – and even that’s not really its own fault, but that of Not Another Teen Movie. Everything in this film reminds me of that one: the token black guy who features solely to react in exaggerated ways to the white kids; Laney contemplating her latest expression of artistic pain, which is really not particularly good, but we’re supposed to think it is; her father’s strange terms of endearment (“pumpkin nose”?!); Zac’s misunderstood rich-boy problems; Laney refusing to let anyone see her cry at the party… Every moment has been lampooned, highlighting the inanity of it all, and it’s really difficult for me to separate the two movies now. Yet I’ll happily watch She’s All That any time – its lead actors have a nice chemistry, its got a happy ending and, while I remember Clueless with great fondness from my childhood, it’s this film that captures the essence of my teen years. Besides, any film with a Buffy cameo gets my vote.

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Films #99-100: Crossroads (2002) & Burlesque (2010)

film 99 crossroads

Ratings: Crossroads, 2/5; Burlesque, 3/5

“All we have is now, and right now we have each other.”
“I will not be upstaged by some slut with mutant lungs!”

One hundred films watched, finally – and what better way to hit the milestone than to celebrate with a 90s-pop-star-to-movie-star-showdown? Yes, it’s Britney Spears in Crossroads versus Christina Aguilera in Burlesque, with a dash of Cher thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying these are cheesy movies but, despite the suggestively low-to-average ratings, they’re both great fun (if you’re that way inclined, I suppose).

First up: Crossroads. Britney is Lucy, virginal do-gooder and all-round nice girl with some abandonment issues thanks to her mother leaving her as a young child. She and her two childhood friends had buried a time capsule many years ago, but as the years passed, these three best friends have grown up, and grown apart. Lucy’s a smokin’ hot dork, Kit (Zoe Saldana, long before carving a name for herself in some of the biggest movie franchises around) is a rich bitch with mummy issues, and Mimi (Taryn Manning) is pregnant by some loser. But it’s finally their high school prom, and the three temporarily put aside their differences to open the box and remember their hopes and dreams. This, naturally, leads to the three embarking on a road trip to LA in a classic convertible with a handsome older man, Ben (Anson Mount) who may or may not have just been released from jail for murder. It’s a coming of age roadtrip movie – they’re all at the crossroads of their lives, you see?

The film is shoddy, to say the least. The plot makes little or no sense, and the characters react in ways that never consider the big picture: the girls find out that Ben may have killed someone while on their road trip, yet continue to antagonise him at every given moment. They may be freaking out in the motel bathroom that they’re going to be murdered and buried in the desert, but two minutes later they’ve apparently forgotten the entire thing. Mimi is planning on going to LA to compete in a recording contest, but develops stage fright the first second she has to sing in public, and almost instantaneously hands over the mike to Lucy and forgets her dream. Kit oddly switches between stereotypical black girl (saying things like “y’all” and getting shouty when drunk) and prim white rich girl. Lucy is a wallflower, but the second she puts on a denim mini-skirt she suddenly becomes a raunchy, pole-dancing showgirl. Ben has no personality whatsoever, but is generally pleasing to the eye so gets away with throwing tantrums in the desert. He also listens exclusively to heavy metal, but writes the music to one of the soppiest pop songs ever (Britney’s mediocre soulful hit, I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman). This does at least, lead to one of the most cringeworthy moments in the whole movie, when he plays the song to Lucy on a white grand piano, as she does that classic 90s, breathy “na na na na” singalong. Yes, there are plenty of moments to groan through and laugh at.

There’s very little actually good about Crossroads – the acting is perfunctory at best (as the biggest name after Britney, Dan Aykroyd sleepwalks through his role as her dad), the narrative incoherent, and one important scene is marred by the constant disappearance and reappearance of a toothbrush in Mimi’s hair. The biggest problem, however, is that the girls are supposed to be eighteen – and therefore adults – yet look and act like they’re about thirteen. Meanwhile Ben is, admittedly, older, but looks a good ten years older than these teens, making the whole thing more than a little uncomfortable. It’s also a surprisingly dark movie – although the overarching themes are ultra-cheesy (friendship, family, finding yourself, growing up) the individual characters’ stories include parental abandonment, cheating, potential murder and rape, with pregnant Mimi in particular suffering a number of harrowing blows. It adds another layer of awkwardness to the movie, which seems to be confused as to who its target audience is: the tweens who love Britney as a pop star, or the young adults who are her actual age. Consequently, it fails to really appeal to either – but as a nostalgic throwback to a time when double denim was the height of fashion, it’s camp, stupid, unintentionally hilarious, and very entertaining. I’m Not a Girl is still a terrible song though.

film 100 burlesque

Next up: Britney’s rival, Christina, in Burlesque. Capitalising on the sudden resurgence of burlesque as a female-empowered, ultra-glamorous performance art, the film sees Ali (Aguilera) packing her things and leaving her small town for the lights and sights of LA – whereas Lucy’s journey ends at the City of Angels, Ali’s begins there. We learn nothing whatsoever about Ali’s homelife – she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends, for example. In LA she tries to make it as a singer-dancer, but isn’t having any luck until she happens upon the outwardly understated Burlesque club (that’s what it’s called, apparently) and instantly falls in love with the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing. Luckily she walks in just as the club’s owner Tess (Cher) is singing a conveniently informative song all about burlesque and what it can offer you. Determined to make it, Ali becomes a waitress at the club, learns all the routines, befriends hunky (possibly gay) bartender/songwriter Jack (Cam Gigandet wearing some guyliner) and waits for her chance. Luckily the club’s lead dancer is an unreliable, spiteful alcoholic, and it’s not long before Ali is saving the day by singing live rather than lipsynching to songs.

Burlesque has one massive, glaring problem: it has almost no burlesque in it. The club is not a bump-and-grind venue, but a cabaret show – the girls don’t take their clothes off, because this is a 12A-rated movie; instead they perform vaguely risqué dance routines to famous songs, while wearing glamorous, moderately revealing showgirl outfits. It’s burlesque for the High School Musical generation – clean cut and harmless, inoffensive but slightly titillating. In many ways, Burlesque is most reminiscent of Coyote Ugly – it follows a very similar storyline and also makes the seedy reality of “making it in Hollywood” seem glamorous and empowering.

Where Burlesque works, however, is in its campness. It seems to embrace this wholeheartedly; it’s like Chicago, but cheesier, with Stanley Tucci stealing the show as Tess’s gay best friend/ right hand man, and Alan Cumming channelling Joel Grey’s compere character in Cabaret. Plus, it’s got gay icon Cher at the helm. She swans around in super high heels and high-cut leotards, sings heartfelt songs without moving a muscle in her face, and looks strangely younger than people twenty years her junior – it’s truly bizarre to think that she was sixty-four in real life! The shame of the movie is that she never gets to sing with Christina. Like her or not, Aguilera’s voice is incredible, and the second she opens her mouth to sing the star quality shines through – she puts Britney to shame, by the way. Meanwhile the songs are frequent – this is far more a musical than Crossroads – and energetic, with the whole movie taking on a far more light-hearted, upbeat tone than Britney’s soul-searching tour de force.

That’s not to say Burlesque is necessarily a good film – there’s plenty that doesn’t make sense. Like Crossroads the screenwriters seem to have a really strange grasp of time: events seem to take weeks, yet actually happen in an evening; others seem to take minutes but span months. Also like Crossroads, it involves the man-candy writing a song for the pop princesses, and like Crossroads the song sounds absolutely nothing like any of the other songs that man either listens to or plays. And, whereas Britney’s Lucy is saccharine sweet, Christina’s Ali is frequently a bit of a brat. But Burlesque works because it has more established actors who are clearly enjoying their roles and embracing the cheesiness, and generally the film feels less overwrought than Crossroads – it’s designed to be fun, and fun it is.

So, in the epic battle between these two former superstars, who comes out on top? Christina’s voice is better, Burlesque‘s narrative is marginally more coherent, the acting better simply because of its self-awareness, and the spectacle is definitely better. It also has one of the most outrageous seduction scenes. Yet Crossroads also has a ridiculous seduction scene, and it’s got Britney’s trademark cute-but-sexy thing working for it, and it’s so stupid and so incoherent, and the songs are pretty dreadful, and the characters equally rubbish… To be honest, it’s a tough call, but together they make for a truly epic double bill.

Film #90: Step Up 3 (2010)

film 90 step up 3

Rating: 2.5/5

“Some people learn to dance… Others are born to.”

The third of the Step Up franchise is also the third of the series to be randomly selected, leaving only Step Up 2: The Streets, the second and best, still to come. In my review of Step Up 4: Miami Heat, I claimed that the fourth instalment was the weakest in terms of plot – I’d clearly forgotten just how stupid Step Up 3 was. While Miami Heat offers little originality, it at least does generally make sense; Step Up 3, in contrast, is completely incoherent, despite its simplicity. Scenes follow no real sense of logic, narratively speaking, the story weaves and meanders without any obvious sense of direction, and characters that have barely been afforded any screen time suddenly switch sides and become the enemy in scenes that are evidently intended to be shocking and emotional, yet fail absolutely because you’re too distracted trying to work out who they were beforehand. It’s a strange, jumbled mess of a movie, but luckily, on first viewing at least, it’s easy to be distracted by the dancing that, as expected, dominates and impresses.

Step Up 3
does at least acknowledge its predecessor: while Briana Evigan (star of The Streets) is absent, Part 3 follows surprise hit Moose, the small, curly haired kid whose secret love of dance helps kickstart the development of the crew in Part 2, and Camille (Alyson Stoner) who also provides a nod to the franchise’s first film – she’s Channing Tatum’s character’s little sister. Here, it’s established that actually Moose and Camille have been super BFFs their whole lives. The two arrive at NYU, where their friendship is quickly tested after Moose accidentally upsets dance “house” (a crew, basically) the Samuri in an impromptu dance-off, where he is spotted by the leader of another “house”, the Pirates. Naturally the two houses have a long feud, stemming from the former friendship of the two leaders, personality-free eye-candy Luke (Rick Malambri) and evil posh boy Julien (Joe Slaughter), and naturally the two are destined to battle each other at the world’s largest dance jam competition in a few months.

So Moose is the character and heart of the movie, and his friendship (and more?) with Camille seems to be the main crux of the story. Yet it’s not – Luke is also a budding filmmaker and an orphan (?) who has used his entire inheritance to buy a ridiculously cool giant loft apartment for all his friends, each also a misfit and outsider, to live. The problem is that he’s run out of money, and is now relying on the competition prize money to keep them afloat (no one appears to have any kind of job, and the club that they seem to run downstairs apparently makes no money whatsoever, perhaps because none of them can be bothered actually working in it). But that’s not all! Because a random girl, Natalie, who looks the EXACT SAME as Evigan but is an entirely new character, suddenly pops into Luke’s life, seemingly homeless and needing a place to stay. Is it her relationship with Luke that’s the film’s focus? Does she have an ulterior motive? Do we even care?!

I’ve previously said discussing plot is pretty irrelevant in a review of the later Step Up movies: it’s the dancing that matters. That being said, it’s reasonable to expect some semblance of coherence. Putting that aside, what of the dancing? It’s definitely frequent, with most scenes featuring at least a hop or a skip, and draws on a number of then-topical styles – capoiera and parkour in particular. While the competition rounds, punctuated with explosive intertitles that burst onto the screen, are exciting and varied (though there are only two dance-offs before the big finale), the most affective routine is one shared between Moose and Camille – an impressively long single take of them dancing to a remixed “I Won’t Dance” by Fred Astaire through the leafy suburbs of New York. It’s a simple break from the angry fight-dances, and harks back to the glory years of Hollywood musicals in a very pleasant, sweet way.

Initially released as Step Up 3D, this is the first of the series to capitalise on that elusive third dimension, and it does so in traditionally gimmicky ways – it’s clearly a motivating factor in a number of scenes (Luke and Natalie’s slushy-drink escapades, for example) as well as encouraging unconventionally direct interaction between the characters and the audience during the dance routines. Here the characters frequently not only dance to camera, but implicitly break the fourth wall by looking straight at the camera, no doubt hoping to encourage the “engrossing” nature of the 3D, but also adding a certain sense of theatrical, live performance to the film.

By the time the final showdown occurs, there have been so many twists and turns in the plot, it’s difficult to really care about it – it’s not that the stakes are too high, it’s that there seem to be too many of them in the first place. Of course, everything works out in the end – friendships are mended, mortgages secured, love declared and dreams fulfilled (should I have warned of a spoiler there? I doubt the information comes as a surprise). If there is a surprise here, it’s that actually, in retrospect I think Miami Heat is actually marginally better – more entertaining, more logical and, vitally, with better dance sequences. Sorry, Step Up 3.

Film #85: Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012)

film 85 step up 4 miami heat

Rating: 3/5

“Enough with performance art. It’s time for protest art.”

It’s hard to think critically about the Step Up franchise – the hugely successful dance movies are hardly works of art, but as a cinema of spectacle, they deliver exactly what they promise. It’s interesting to consider the series’ progression: while Step Up featured (future) big names and was more obviously focused on character development and narrative, as the franchise moves from sequel to sequel, both of these aspects have become increasingly sidelined, replaced with dancing – bigger, faster, more elaborate, more intricate. Of course, it’s doubtful people will go to see a dance movie expecting a nuanced script or subtlety, though ideally there would be some balance. So while Miami Heat, the most recent in the series (though not the last – a fifth instalment has been announced, bringing back Briana Evigan from Step Up 2: The Streets), is probably the weakest in terms of acting and original screenplay, it is thoroughly entertaining, and entirely designed to showcase the undeniably impressive dancing, which makes up about 90% of the running time. It plays out like a series of set pieces, loosely held together in a generic narrative with some nice-but-forgettable characters. Rather like the recent instalments of the Fast and Furious franchise, it knows what its audience wants, and it provides it in abundance.

Step Up 4: Miami Heat cashes in on the flash mob craze, introducing Miami crew The Mob in a flashy, in-your-face, over-the-top routine that literally stops the traffic on the city’s South Beach promenade. The crew is the brain child of pretty boy Sean (Ryan Guzman) and his childhood friend Eddy (Misha Hamilton), who break the tedium of their low-wage customer service jobs in a swanky hotel through dance. Their mission is, initially at least, not the most noble of causes – they’re attempting to win $100 000 in an online video competition, but when hotel magnate Mr Anderson (Peter Gallagher, who frequently pops up in dance movies, for some reason) reveals plans to demolish their quirky-poor borough into a high-end hotel complex, their focus is quickly turned to sticking it to the man – through dance, of course. To further complicate matters, Sean’s new love interest Emily (Kathryn McCormick, the third of the series’ rather confusing selection of identikit brunette leads) is none other than Anderson’s daughter, but having spent her life in characterless hotels, she is smitten with the romanticised poverty and sense of community spirit and friendship the group represents. Cue scene after scene of dance routines, each one trying to outdo the last in terms of spectacle and originality – and here, the film does not disappoint.

The routines are particularly stunning, and arguably the most innovative of the franchise to date. The flash mob concept is used to great effect, allowing the crew to infiltrate art exhibitions, restaurants and Evil Corporate Offices and play havoc. Naturally, despite the illegality of their exploits, The Mob gets away with their hooliganism because of the sheer talent on display – who could not be impressed (and, crucially, unthreatened) by their interruptions? Each routine is carefully engineered, tailored for its chosen location and purpose, and shot with stylish precision and the glitzy sheen of a music video. Realism be damned – no one cares how these minimum wage kids are able to acquire pimped out hot rods or perfectly tailored pinstripe suits, for example. And how could no one notice a graffiti artist assembling a two-story robot outside a company’s headquarters? Let’s not even begin to question the logistics of hijacking an art gallery. It’s a moot point, and any viewer to bothers to raise the issue are quickly distracted by LED-lit ballerinas, perfectly choreographed group work, and taut, on-point routines. The arrangement of the narrative allows a wonderful variety of styles, all centred around street dance, of course, but blending in contemporary, ballet, and classical to provide consistently new, impressive spectacle supported by an almost constant barrage of tunes. By the time the ambitious final showdown happens it’s hard to not join Miami’s mayor in helpless, resigned fascination.

Step Up 4: Miami Heat is by no means the strongest of the franchise – that honour is reserved for Step Up 2, which most successfully tread the fine line between dance and story and, personally, is one of the best dance movies to date. The acting is sub-par, yet I cannot help but appreciate the fact that everyone involved was chosen for their dance ability rather than their acting talent – I have no desire to see the feet of a stand in doing impressive stunts just so I can see a recognisable face on screen. The narrative is awash with generic developments, each as inevitable as the next; no prizes for guessing how it ends, folks. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to deny the quality of the dancing, and credit to the film’s writers and director for not only recognising what audiences want, but delivering it in such a polished, exhilarating package.

Film #71: Bring It On (2000)

film 71 bring it on

Rating: 3/5

“You are cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded. What you do is a tiny, pathetic subset of dancing. I will attempt to turn your robotic routines into poetry, written with the human body. Follow me or perish, sweater monkeys.”

Six years before Step Up brought mainstream success to dance movies, there was this – the cheerleading equivalent of the dance movie. All the elements are there: the two rival teams separated by race and class, the fledgling romance, the competitive spirit (demonstrated through a series of “cheer-offs” rather than dance-offs) and – of course – the epic showdown at the end. Bring It On celebrates the culture and skill of cheerleading, proving it’s not just about bitchy girls in short skirts and gay men (although, naturally, they feature), but that it’s a sport, and one that is not easy to master.

Kirsten Dunst stars as Torrance, newly appointed head cheerleader at the Rancho Carne High School, whose world begins to crumble when she discovered bitchtacular former head Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) had been routinely (ha!) stealing ideas from a less fortunate inner city school who also have a new leader. Confronted with this horrible revelation, as well as a disgruntled team, a moronic college boyfriend, and an unhappy new team mate in the form of former gymnast and cheerleading-cynic Missy (Eliza Dushku), Torrance is faced with the seemingly impossible task of keeping her team together and securing the cheerleading championship trophy once again.

It is, of course, a familiar story. For non-American audiences, however, the world of cheerleading is rather alien and, in all probability the primary source of information on the sport is from the movies. Here, the inclusion of big name stars such as Dunst (this was released at a time when the young actress appeared in practically everything) doesn’t actually compromise the routines as much as, say, early dance movies like Save the Last Dance where it’s blatantly obvious a stand-in is doing all the impressive steps. After all, cheerleading is a group activity, and there are plenty of entertaining small scenes, building up to an excellent final showdown, fully showcasing the talents and athletic abilities of the teens.

The plot is basic and rather generic, but it delivers exactly what it promises and has some engaging and, ultimately, very likeable characters to follow. Dunst’s Torrance is at times manic and overacted, but cheerleading is her life and she reacts accordingly, and it’s hard not to warm to her enthusiasm and sincerity. Dushku’s Missy acts as the perfect foil to Torrance – although she gets caught up in Torrance’s world, her initial disdain for the “sport” allows her to keep more of a distance from the drama. The story is also helped by the snappy language and quick-fire, scathing, silly humour that permeates the film, which actually does twist some of the more conventional aspects of a high school movie to suit its own needs. In particular, the school’s football team turn out to be utterly incompetent, making their insults and jibes towards the cheerleading squad tasked with trying to get the crowd excited at the latest overwhelming defeat seem even more pathetic – they may be jocks, the film suggests, but they’re still idiots.

The actual rivalry between the East Compton Clovers and the Toros is the film’s real weak point – its class/race divide, so prevalent in early dance movies, is clichéd and more than a little cringeworthy. It’s an encounter between Torrance and the Clover’s captain Isis (Gabrielle Union) that results in the now-parodied “You’d better bring it”/ “Oh, I’ll bring it” exchange – accompanied by stern faces and snarky raised eyebrows, of course. Yet the generic elements, while largely unoriginal, do work, and are presented with confidence. This is a film that understands its role and is happy to fulfil it. It also has a trump card up its sleeve – no, not the boyish, puppy charm of love interest Cliff (Jesse Bradford), but the bitchy, dismissive “artistry” of the ridiculously named Sparky Polastri (Ian Roberts). Sparky, filled with disdain for the cheerleaders he’s tasked with helping, responsible for the quote that opens this review, and the sole champion of the lost art of the “spirit fingers”, is a wonderfully scathing, hammed up and utterly indulgent character, whose brief cameo easily steals the show.

Since its cinematic release in 2000, Bring It On has spawned an impressive four sequels, all straight-to-DVD – none of the original cast returned for even the second instalment, arriving rather late (2006) and featuring Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Solange “younger sister of Beyonce” Knowles. I assume I’m not alone when I say that I’ve not bothered to watch any of the later movies, but the original remains a bona fide guilty pleasure, and one of the most entertaining, albeit silly, high school/ dance movies of the 2000s.

Film #51: Orgy of the Dead (1965)

film 51 orgy of the dead

Rating: 1.5/5

“Torture! Torture! It pleasures me!”

In the 1950s and 60s, there were a string of “nudie cuties” – films in which the primary aim was to show a bevy of topless females, purely for titillation. Unlike hardcore, it’s difficult to imagine anyone finding these offensive – they’re often very innocent in their style and content (hence the “cutie” description). Orgy of the Dead isn’t quite a nudie cutie, primarily because it’s not really that cute; directed by A C Stephens (a pseudonym for Stephen C Apostolof, who went on to produce and direct a number of erotic movies), this has gained some notoriety due to its screenwriter, none other than Ed Wood. It’s not surprising, then, that Orgy of the Dead adopts a horror-inspired plot, and one that, despite the ridiculous premise, appears to include vaguely biographical details. This plot, however, is merely filler; the majority of the movie consists of a series of topless dances – dances that, despite those performing them being professional strippers, lack any sense of rhythm or eroticism. It’s a desperately dull, obviously low-budget, tacky film, but the filler-plot just about manages to make it entertaining.

Echoing other Wood-directed movies, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls, Orgy of the Dead opens with Criswell rising from his coffin, spouting gibberish (and even repeating lines of narration from Night of the Ghouls) to introduce the film. He was fifty-eight at the time of filming, and he cuts a rather lecherous figure. It’s worth noting that this is the only film I can think of in which we see Criswell in colour, but it does him no favours. He plays The Emperor – a kind of master of the dead who, along with his sidekick The Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver, clearly ripping off Vampira’s image), forces dead females to dance for his enjoyment. Their dances relate somehow to how they died – so, during the course of the movie, among others we get to see: a girl dance with the skeleton of her murdered husband; a girl who dances like a Native American because she through herself into fire after the death of her lover; a girl who loves gold having coins thrown over her; a streetwalker dancing to a smooth jazz accompaniment; a zombie; and a girl wearing a baggy onsie-style catsuit (complete with ears and tail), with breasts and buttocks exposed. Yes, I must concede that the themes of the dances are somewhat vague and abstract, but the cat girl in particular is a sight to behold.

While Criswell and Fawn Silver leer over these uncoordinated females, our heroes are introduced. Bob (William Bates) is an aspiring author (of course), who would prefer not to write about daisies, dogs and trees (?!) but about horror (naturally). Thus, he drags along his petulant girlfriend Shirley (there are many Shirleys in Wood’s writing, and his transvestite alter-ego also took that name; here Shirley is played by an utterly personality-free Pat Barrington, who also plays the Gold Girl, resulting in a strange situation where Shirley at one point ogles herself) to a graveyard for inspiration, where they stumble upon Criswell’s debauchery. Captured by a Wolfman and a Mummy (the former screams rather than howls; the latter discusses Cleopatra and his hatred of snakes), the comedy sidekicks of the movie, they are tied up and forced to watch, so that they may gain some kind of education, apparently.

Orgy of the Dead is a mess, and the discontinuity is even more obvious because of the colour. As Shirley and Bob drive to the graveyard, the shots alternate between broad daylight and pitch black night. The graveyard is obviously a set, made even more artificial and tacky by the constant overuse of a smoke machine. The dancers are the most ungainly group, and there is nothing about their routines that offer any hint of professionalism; if you’re looking for spectacle, you won’t find it here – although, that being said, one girl displays the most bizarre breast-waggling style I have ever witnessed. It’s less showgirl, more flapping lunatic. Meanwhile, Criswell remains slumped in a corner. Part creepy old man, part deluded ignoramus, it frequently appears that he has lost all sense of what is happening around him. As a result, it’s not only an uncomfortable performance because of his obvious age in contrast to the topless girls he’s ogling, but because he seems to be lacking some of his faculties.

Badfilm fans will, however, be rewarded for their patience. While the routines themselves are a true test of endurance (even cutaways to the girls’ audience show them looking bored and, at times, disgusted), the dialogue in between is wonderfully Woodian (and Wooden) – Shirley and Bob have a “massive” fight that consists of her flatly telling him, “I hate you”. Bob’s attempt at escape is the most incompetent and pointless display of masculinity (he manages about one step before being knocked unconscious). Fawn Silver spends the majority of the movie warning Criswell about the approaching sun, but when he grants her time for her own “pleasures”, she spends an inordinate amount of time writhing around and licking a knife. By the time the night eventually comes to an end, everyone emerges an idiot; perhaps even the viewer, for actually sitting through the whole thing.

Film #24: Step Up (2006)

film 24 step up

Rating: 2.5/5

“I’m sorry. It’s just… ya’ll are talking about dancing like it’s rocket science or something.”

It would be easy, when asked what my film guilty pleasures are, to say B-movies. After all, they’re kitsch, stupid, badly made, and often hilarious. The problem is, they’re really not a guilty pleasure. They’re interesting, quirky, entertaining and imaginative. They’re also rather trendy to like, and the fact that the focus of my PhD is badfilm makes it clear that, even among academia, they’re increasingly viewed as relevant and worthy of further examination. Today, there’s nothing embarrassing about saying you’ve seen Plan 9 From Outer Space more than you’ve seen Citizen Kane. So here it is, the real truth. My guilty pleasures are dance movies.

This admission, however, comes with one important footnote. My appreciation for the genre does not mean I’m blind to problems. Nor does it mean I’m incapable of distinguishing between the good and bad examples. Step Up is a film somewhere in the middle – neither especially good, nor terrible, it is entirely unremarkable in all respects except one: its legacy.

Made in 2006, Step Up is not the first dance movie to combine street style with ballet. To my knowledge, the first was Center Stage (2000), which is part of my collection and, coincidentally, the first film of its kind that I’d ever seen. One year after Center Stage limped into cinemas before being largely forgotten, Save the Last Dance (2001) more overtly addressed the cultural differences associated with “high” art and street dance. The problem was, however, that Julia Stiles was cast as the lead and asked to convincingly portray a ballerina. The result was mundane in terms of dancing, with routines filled with crafty edits that attempted to disguise the fact that viewers were watching Stiles’ head and someone else’s far more talented feet.

Step Up rectified this error, casting two leads who could both dance. Channing Tatum, in his breakout film role, is Tyler, a poor foster kid who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd. During a bout of vandalism in the Maryland School of the Arts, he nobly lets himself get caught so that his friends can escape. Sentenced to two hundred hours of community service in the school, he encounters Nora (Jenna Dewan, now Tatum’s real-life wife), a privileged rich girl determined to impress everyone at the school’s showcase so that she can continue to pursue her dancing career and win her mother’s respect. Nora’s a conservative dancer, Tyler a loose-limbed freestyler, and together they can inspire each other to greatness.

It’s the plot of what now seems like a million movies. The dance film has become so generic, so formulaic, that it’s barely necessary to reveal the story. Naturally, there’s a subplot about Tyler abandoning his impoverished, ghetto roots, and turning his back on his friends and their criminal activities so that he can become a person of substance. Of course, there’s some feeble reason why the final dance is jeopardised, but it is safe to assume it will all work out in the end. It’s a narrative convention that has been repeatedly exploited, from Save the Last Dance, to Step Up, to Take the Lead (also 2006). But people don’t watch dance movies because they’re expecting a nuanced, complex story; they watch them for the dancing.

In this respect, Step Up is a mere shadow of the films that precede it. Now a hugely successful franchise that has spawned a number of its own imitators, notably the surprise British hit Streetdance 3D, it isn’t until the second movie that the Step Up series truly realised what would get audiences excited. The first film is more conventional, more focused on developing characters and providing a rounded narrative arc. Its dance sequences – presented in now obligatory montage sequences – are often short and non-descript, as they are almost all just rehearsals for the last showpiece. In contrast to the rest of the series, this saves most of its dancing for the finale and, while it may have been innovative at the time, it fails to leave much of an impression when viewed today.

Despite his fame today, Tatum is little more than an adequate leading man; his character is bland and predictable, with a chip on his shoulder and a fear of failure that makes him likeable but rather immature. He is also entirely unconvincing as a teenager – towering over everyone, he looks not a day under twenty-six, which, coincidentally, is how old he was when this was made. His dance moves are messy but it is clear he can move; it goes without saying that they are a distinctly PG version of those displayed in last year’s male stripper fantasy, Magic Mike. As Nora, Dewan can indeed move gracefully and professionally, but neither her routines nor her performance are anything more than decent.

For me, the really great (modern) dance movies are those with truly mind-blowing dancing. Step Up is probably the best of the franchise in terms of acting and narrative, but its soundtrack rarely excites, its dancing is uninspiring, and the carjacking subplot is irritating and stereotyped. While it can be credited with kick-starting one of the most prolific and successful franchises of recent years (the Fast and Furious and Marvel series notwithstanding), it is really the second instalment, Step Up 2: The Streets, that provided audiences with what they really wanted to see: non-stop, constant, innovative dancing.