Friday, October 21, 2011

Get Your Dance On

I remember a long time ago reading the review of some dance movie (Center Stage, maybe?) and coming across an axiom that made perfect sense. The idea was that when casting for any film in which dance was a central component, you could either cast normal actors and hope they can learn to follow a beat, or cast dancers and hope they can act. While there are those few performers who can actually do both well, the act of corralling enough photogenic dancers into one room often proves far too difficult for studios to pull off. These days are a far cry from the 1980's, when you had legitimate movie stars in Kevin Bacon and Patrick Swayze who could act as well as they could move. Ask anyone who's seen The Eagle or GI Joe if Channing Tatum can really act. The answers won't surprise you. While they might do a decent job portraying pretty people with problems, most actors who appear in films like Step Up or Center Stage are barely passable when it comes to headlining major releases. It's lucky then that most people going to see these titles aren't interested in acting, at least not as much as they usually would be. When fans of the genre see a dance film, they're looking to see something new, a great stunt or move that will make them straighten up in their seats and ask "How did they do that?" Apparently that's now being sought in the past, with a remake of Footloose on the docket for today's review and Dirty Dancing announced for sometime in the foreseeable future. When the original movies are so beloved, is there anything more than bank to be gained by resetting the story in a new, modern era?

He's the annoyingly new kid on the block
When Boston native Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) moves in with his uncle Wes (Ray McKinnon) and his family in the small town of Bomont, he knew there would be some serious changes in his life. What he never expected was to find himself in the middle of a small town's battle between overprotective parents and their rebellious progeny. Three years ago, five high school seniors were killed in a car accident while coming home from an unsupervised public dance party. As a result of the tragedy, the town council led by Reverend Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) pushed into law a ban on public dancing, citing it as lewd and provocative and plain unhealthy for their children. Ren, a former gymnast and fan of dancing, leads his new friends - including best friend Willard (Miles Teller) and the Reverend's defiant daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough) - in an effort to repeal the ban, which threatens to permanently drive two generations apart.

Who knew Line Dancing could actually be fun?
The first thing to know is that while this is indeed a scene-by-scene remake of the original 1984 classic, care has been made to make this release more approachable to those who have no idea of the kinds of religious extremism that people still encounter first hand in some parts of the country. The concept to banning dancing and loud music is not solely based on religious belief, but also on the aforementioned tragedy acting to make the adults overly protective of their children to the point where they are smothering their expressive sides. The film and director Craig Brewer make a concerted effort to portray Bomont as a modern town that happens to be small, not an isolated community governed by conservative law. This often comes from characters protesting that they are not backwards hicks, that they have cell phones and computers same as any other town or city. There is even an early scene in which Reverend Moore questions what qualifies as progress, when that technology seems to be driving people apart rather than bringing them together. It's obvious that Brewer and his team wanted this idea to be a major driving force in the retelling, though sometimes it seems as if they try too hard (in one scene Ren finds a record of Quiet Riot, only to pull out his iPod and Voila!), especially since that focus in the story dies out about halfway through.

You don't mess with Quaid's "Don't Mess with Me" look
One element where the film definitely shows some progress is in the soundtrack, which remakes four of the original's songs (including a Blake Shelton adaptation of title track "Footloose") and includes eight new tracks all its own, eclectic in selection and even featuring some hip-hop, a by-product of the glut of street dancing films that have become oh so popular in the past decade. Every song is well chosen and produced, not surprising as Brewer was the director of the upstart hip-hop film Hustle & Flow which took Hollywood by storm and made a legitimate star out of Terrence Howard. Brewer knows music, and its clear that his influence is a good chunk of the reason that the soundtrack is as amazing as it is. That Footloose doesn't limit itself to country music is a nice change of tune, and makes each scene feel fresh and exciting.

Redneck vs. Ruffian...FIGHT 
It's a shame that the attention on the dancing couldn't be as focused. It isn't that the dancing portions of the film are BAD; on the contrary, it's quite obvious that Wormald, Hough and company are highly talented performers who put their all into every nuanced movement. The problem is with the film's camera work, which seems fearful of focusing on the person in action for more than a few seconds before changing to a different angle or close-up, throwing off the rhythmic balance of the dance itself. One scene featuring Wormald angrily dancing solo in an empty warehouse is so sabotaged by the camera not allowing him to finish a particular step as to be somewhat frustrating, as a little more cooperation between the two would have worked wonders. Still, there's no denying the talent on display, no matter how much they seem intent on making you forget it.

Say it with me now... "Dawwww"
Of course I began this whole conversation by talking about the usual lack of decent acting in dance films. Footloose doesn't do a ton to dissuade that notion, though the level of acting talent is actually much higher among its stars than you would initially expect. Wormald obviously couldn't escape his very real Boston accent (the original film's Ren was from Chicago) and unfortunately his acting chops aren't so great that he can carry the film on his shoulders as the filmmakers would like. Still, he stands out every time he's asked to bust a move, and is probably the film's most talented dancer. He's well paired with Hough (she the owner of Hollywood's most beautiful blue eyes), who as a two-time winner of Dancing with the Stars is a far better dancer than she shows here. She is a surprisingly strong actress however, and eloquently portrays the struggles of a self-destructive small-town girl who can't find any middle ground in her turbulent life. While they're not the best pair of romantic leads, where the acting Footloose really shines is in its supporting players. Quaid is a silently strong force, his stoic look perfect for the film's conservative and hard-nosed but burdened and worried parent. Ray McKinnon is also a treat, underused as Ren's uncle Wes, who seems to be one of the few adults willing to give Ren a shot and take him seriously. But the real scene-stealer is Miles Teller as Ren's new best friend Willard. Teller, who stole his share of acclaim in last year's Nicole Kidman vehicle Rabbit Hole, might be the film's comic relief, but his journey from two left feet to impresario is as funny as it is heart-warming.

The newest batch of "Late Night" host tryouts is a packed field...
In all, I really enjoyed this remake of Footloose, warts and all. A feel-good movie for teens, anyone going in expecting a perfect remake is in for a rude awakening. Poignantly cast, immensely enjoyable and acutely charming, the film manages to overcome its own issues and make us focus on the spectacle of the dancing, while giving us a new, completely fresh look at the small southern towns we might have thought cliche in the past. It's not nearly good enough to place as Top 10 material, but a spot in the year's Top 20 sounds about right. A little tweaking would have made it perfect, but fans of the original and neophytes alike can be pleased with the product in front of them, flawed though it may be.

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