Wednesday, 17 December 2014

REVIEW REVISITED: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog in January 2013, with a number of minor revisions. That version of the review can be found here. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (New Zealand/ USA, 2012)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a milestone in fantasy filmmaking that any attempt to re-approach the Tolkien universe was bound to generate anxiety. As more stories about The Hobbit's production came to light, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the end result could ever come close to matching Peter Jackson's original trilogy. An Unexpected Journey is very much a flawed first part, but it is still enjoyable and balances out its flaws with enough nice touches to justify some of its running time.
In returning to Middle Earth, we have to deal with two diametrically opposed feelings. The first is nostalgia for The Lord of the Rings, films which shaped many of our childhoods and which still hold up as a near-perfect trilogy. The danger here is that we could overpraise The Hobbit simply because it feels so good to be back in this beautiful cinematic world; we feel so warmly towards Jackson that almost anything could be offered up and we wouldn't care how good it was in its own right.
The second danger, which flows from the film's production history, is cynicism. We resigned ourselves to Guillermo del Toro's departure on the grounds that Jackson was taking over and we were therefore in safe hands. We raised eyebrows at the 3D and 48 frames per second, doubting their necessity but giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt (neither turned out to be necessary). But extending the fims into a trilogy has been the straw that broke many a camel's back, and it is now very easy to regard Jackson as a mercenary who has completely lost his storytelling marbles. We might even conclude in light of this that we were all wrong about The Lord of the Rings too.
Both of these viewpoints are absurd when taken to their respective extremes. On the one hand, the filmmaking culture which produced An Unexpected Journey is very different to the one which took a chance on a seemingly un-filmable trilogy back in the late-1990s. If New Line Cinema was to go for The Hobbit at all, they would look to milk it as much as possible regardless of what Jackson or del Toro wanted. On the other hand, the source material is very different to Tolkien's later work, and so merely expecting more of the same is to deceive oneself.
Being that as it may, one of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey is its tonal uncertainty. Its attempts to recapture the epic scale and spirit of The Lord of the Rings are frequently at odds with the lighter, simpler story of The Hobbit. While Tolkien conceived of The Lord of the Rings as a mythical pre-history, with meaty subtexts about industry and warfare, The Hobbit is a children's adventure story, a trial run for something bigger and more ambitious.
Jackson's strategy of dealing with this is to consciously integrate the story of The Hobbit into the wider Tolkien continuity. The script adds in elements from The Lord of the Rings Appendices, directly hinting at or passing parallel to scenes that we recognise. We begin with Bilbo as an old man on the day of his birthday party - a scene which ends with Frodo walking down the hill, off to his first meeting with Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. This isn't so much part one of The Hobbit as 'the first volume of the rest of the history of Middle Earth'.
Having familiar characters turning up is a double-edged sword. It gives an impression of the story being part of a seamless whole, something that a del Toro adaptation might not have achieved. And there is something charming about Sir Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett returning as the characters only they could play.
But there are two problems with this. The smaller problem is that we have older actors playing younger characters; while Galadriel looks the same, neither Elrond nor Saruman are entirely convincing, both looking older and/ or heavier than their later incarnations. The bigger problem is that the more these scenes and characters turn up, the more we respond in a manner which takes us out of the main narrative. We are either irritated by them as a distraction from the actual story of The Hobbit, or are left nostalgically longing for the relative meatiness of The Lord of the Rings in the face of something more childlike and playful.
Whichever way you look at it, An Unexpected Journey is too long and very baggy. Even without its status as the first part of a trilogy, there are whole sections in the first hour-and-a-half that could have been sped up, shortened or cut. There are several moments in which the film mirrors Fellowship, with the goblin fight being akin to the orc battle in Moria, the scaling of the mountain similar to the journey over Caradhras, and of course the similar scenes in Rivendell. But while Fellowship took a little while to reach Rivendell, everything that happened up to then felt weighty and significant, and you couldn't say the same for everything that happens in The Hobbit.
That being said, there is still much about An Unexpected Journey which needs to be celebrated. First and foremost, it is every bit as beautiful and spectacular as The Lord of the Rings, with the only real differences in quality lying in marginal improvements in visual effects. Jackson's eye for composition and the superb attention to detail puts paid to any arguments about the film being entirely an exercise in cashing in. Put bluntly, no cash-grab has ever looked this good.
On a performance level, the film also comes up trumps. Whatever the wavering fortunes of his counterparts, Ian McKellen does convince us that the Gandalf we are seeing is somewhat younger. Sylvester McCoy is typically eccentric as Radagast, and is so enjoyable that it almost doesn't matter that his scenes are largely irrelevant.
Most of all, Martin Freeman excels as Bilbo Baggins, even if the film doesn't centre around him as much as it could or should. In his first few scenes, it can feel like we have wandered back into his take on Arthur Dent, complete with stuttering British politeness and a dressing gown. But once the quest begins he starts to fire, taking the best from Ian Holm's performance and making the character his own.
The best scene in The Hobbit by a country mile is the confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum in the cave. This scene encapsulates the tone that Jackson was aiming for, the subtle improvements in effects and the on-going brilliance of Andy Serkis. It also demonstrates the terrifying tragedy of Gollum as a character, showing him to be capable of great violence but also utterly broken. Serkis described Gollum as an addict in interviews, and as the tense scene wears on we understand clearly what he meant. The way that Gollum changes from fearful to angry, and pathetic to vengeful so quickly breaks our hearts even as we are compelled to run away.
After this scene, The Hobbit plays its final trump card, namely its spectacularly entertaining battle sequences. Having gone through a slow and plodding 90-odd minutes we are treated to battles with the same energy and invention that Jackson displayed throughout The Lord of the Rings. The monsters are more overtly cartoonish in their grotesque natures, with the goblin king (Barry Humphries) being both gruesome and ridiculous. But whatever else has changed about him, Jackson still know how to construct a battle sequence, using sets and props wisely to create fights that both thrill you and make you laugh.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film which leaves you wanting more even though all its flaws are in plain sight. While it is too long and tonally unsure of itself, it contains many of the aspects that made The Lord of the Rings so special, particularly in the visuals and performances. However good the subsequent instalments or the trilogy as a whole turn out, this is a good beginning, with much room for improvement and just as much to keep us entertained.


Check out my WhatCulture! articles on Christopher Lee and Andy Serkis here and here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

UNDERRATED: Stick It (2006)


Stick It (USA, 2006)
Directed by Jessica Bendinger
Starring Missy Peregrym, Jeff Bridges, Vanessa Lengies, Maddy Curley

Female characters in sports films are often dealt a very poor hand. At best their narrative journey is frequently depicted as ancillary and largely complimentary to those of the male participants, and at worst they are reduced either to eye candy or to bitchily carping from the sidelines. Sports films which focus primarily on women are rare and often tackle a particular sport or discipline in a much more patronising way than if the same sport were being practiced by men.
All of this makes Stick It such a refreshing piece of filmmaking. Jessica Bendinger, the writer of the cult classic Bring It On, steps behind the camera to deliver a film which rises above its more conventional aspects to give a valuable, impressive insight into a sport often reduced to empty stereotypes. It remains a hugely underrated teen comedy-drama with a young lead who deserves much greater recognition.
In my review of Gregory's Girl, I spoke about how coming-of-age films are "better remembered for the careers they launched rather than their artistic merits." Because the structure of coming-of-age stories is so predictable, we often find ourselves relying on the performers to help us through a story we could tell in our sleep. It's a blessing and a curse for the performers in question, who achieve immortality through a given role but at the cost that they can never escape being associated with it.
Like Phil Davis from Quadrophenia before her, it's fair to say that Missy Peregrym has yet to shake off the mantle associated with Stick It. Part of this could be attributed to her superficial resemblance to other actresses: from a distance you could easily mistake her for Kristen Stewart, and her toothy smile is very similar to that of Hillary Swank. In any case, Peregrym's lack of subsequent success is wholly unfair; she is a highly charismatic performer, with attitude, mischief and believability to spare.
Peregrym is helped in this regard by the writing, which is an improvement on Bendinger's previous work. In Bring It On, all of the female characters had a bitchy quality, and it was sometimes difficult to know whether said bitchiness was a satire of cheerleading or a lazy representation of it. While Stick It has its fair share of cattiness and name-calling, the women are much more varied in their make-up and motivations.
Writing convincing, three-dimensional female characters is one of the hardest things to do in fiction. Because men (or more specifically white, straight, English-speaking men) have long been the standard foundation for any given character, the obvious pitfall is to write women as 'not men', defining them entirely in terms of their relationship to men rather than treating them as people in their own right. This is a trap that male writers often fall into, but women can often be just as guilty.
This trap can partially be avoided by writing women as 'people who just happen to be female' - in other words, to ignore or dilute any aspects of their character which involve their gender or sexuality. But while this is preferable to writing women as 'not men', ultimately it is not enough to make them completely believable. Women, like men, are constantly interacting with the culture around them, and their identity is partially defined by a reaction to gender and social expectations of their culture. In other words, you have to reference their womanhood even if only to challenge the expectations of how a woman should behave or be written.
What is so refeshing about Stick It is that is a film driven primarily by women which deals with their relationships to social standards without preaching or whinging. Even though its main character has a tendency to mope or run from her problems, it treats her like a complex, difficult human being rather than a trope for men to shape at will. Jeff Bridges may be the main big-name star but he's on screen for a relatively short amount of time, and even then he doesn't play as active a role as you might expect.
People often talk about women in film in terms of empowerment - the writers or directors getting women to do things that are either not normally associated with women or which they have been traditionally denied by men. A lot of the time this is presented in a clunky or confused way, such as the Bride in Kill Bill: it may be a woman doing all the fighting, but she's still fulfilling male fantasies about powerful women as much as being a strong, independent lady.
Stick It succeeds because it doesn't try to shove any message about women down our throats. It gets across a message about the absurdity and hypocrisy of professional gymnastics just as effectively as Smile did for the world of beauty pageants. But throughout its running time it is more interested in allowing women to speak for themselves and demonstrate their talents than it is about using them to make a point. In short, it's empowering because it doesn't constantly shout about empowerment.
Purely as a piece of physical spectacle, Stick It is pretty remarkable. Most of the main cast had little or no experience of professional gymastics, and yet they vault, pirouette and twist like they had been rehearsing for the Olympics all their lives. Bendinger's visual style is less conventional than Bring It On's, relying much less on slow-motion or montage than most sports films. Even when it comes close to anything resembling a training montage, the film confounds our expectations by focussing on the painful failures of the characters rather than building up to any one success. 
Stick It has a welcomely rough and funky edge to it, which at least makes it appear less conventional than similar coming-of-age stories. The film is shot by Daryn Okada, whose work is generally more plastic and mainstream: in amongst the very fine Mean Girls, he also lensed Lake Placid and American Reunion. The soundtrack compliments this vibe, ditching classical accompaniments usually associated with floor routines in favour of Missy Elliott, Green Day and Blink-182.
For the most part, Stick It is a film that refuses to play by the rules and more often than not pleasantly surprises us. But it does have some sequences where it comes up short, settling for convention when just a small step further would have made it truly great. While most of the character development is well-played, the film loses its step when one of the gymnasts gets a boyfriend; while it makes sense in terms of her character arc, the relationship isn't written as well as the rest of her character.
Likewise, the relationship between the lead character and her mother is underdeveloped. Many of the parents in this film are pushy stereotypes, reduced to unintentionally belittling their children and providing some rather forced comic relief. Ultimately it is not their story, and including them mainly for comic purposes is rather an underwhelming or cheap trick. This doesn't detail the drama, but it is a distraction.
Stick It is a hugely underrated slice of comedy-drama with some of the best-written female characters that the sports genre has to offer. Missy Peregrym shines in the lead role, with Jessica Bendinger maturing as a writer and proving that she has quite a bit to offer as a director too. While not quite groundbreaking enough to be considered great, it is a great deal more inspiring and surprising than many sports films you'll find, and comes with a very hearty recommendation.


Much of this review owes a debt to Hope 'JesuOtaku' Chapman and her analysis of female characters in Paradise Kiss. Check out her review here.

NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

LETTERS OF NOTE: A Jokey Jack Lemmon


My first Letters of Note-related post in a while concerns one of Hollywood's greatest actors, Jack Lemmon. Famous for his collaborations with Billy Wilder, in the likes of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Lemmon had a wicked sense of humour as well as a ton of ability.
Nowhere is this more evident in this 1982 letter from Lemmon to fellow actor Burt Reynolds. Reynolds had made a generous donation of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Centre in the Children's Hospital of Buffalo, New York. Lemmon responded to this kind donation with a witty and acid letter, which you can read in full here.
For more on Burt Reynolds, check out my review of Deliverance or listen to the Movie Hour podcast about it here. For more Jack Lemmon, I heartily recommend this clip of Kevin Spacey doing a dead-on impression of Lemmon and others during his time on Inside The Actors' Studio:

Sunday, 30 November 2014

REVIEW REVISITED: A Clockwork Orange (1971)


This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog in April 2012, with a number of minor revisions. That version of the review can be found here. Also be sure to check out the Movie Hour podcast on the film from June 2012 here. 

A Clockwork Orange (UK, 1971)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Malcolm McDowell, James Marcus, Warren Clarke, Michael Tarn

IMDb Top 250: #76 (30/11/14)
BFI Top 100: #81 (1999)

Picking Stanley Kubrick's greatest film is like trying to choose between a series of perfectly formed diamonds. Every time you revisit one of his films, in whatever order or context, you gravitate towards that offering as his masterpiece - only to swiftly change your mind having seen the next one. Such is the master's skill in almost every genre that it is hard to pick one which either epitomises said skill or accurately represents his oeuvre.
But when push comes to shove for this reviewer, it isn't such a tough decision. For all the undeniable brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or Full Metal Jacket, the out-and-out winner is A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' novel is unparalleled in its time and ours, as a literary adaptation and in science fiction. It's been called everything from the first punk movie (Steven Spielberg) to right-wing propaganda (Roger Ebert), and it's still as shocking, disturbing and satirically sharp as it was more than 40 years ago. Above all, it's a masterpiece of storytelling, substance and pure filmmaking, with Kubrick at the very peak of his powers.
If asked to sum up A Clockwork Orange in one word, the only one that would suffice is mesmerising. Watching Kubrick's film is a truly hypnotic experience: from the first haunting chord in the opening titles, we are pulled into the film as if in a trance, forgetting about any world that may exist outside of it. The iconic first shot of Malcolm McDowell, staring at us with his head slightly down, is akin to that of a hypnotist as he sends his patient into a state of complete submission. Once under Kubrick's spell, it is physically impossible to look away.
The first key ingredient to this mesmerism is the soundtrack. Written by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, who worked with Kubrick again on The Shining, it blends classical and electronic music to stunning effect. The dark, haunting synthesisers at the beginning serve as a murky counterpoint to the jolly and uplifting renditions of Beethoven, both in traditional orchestral recordings and the jazzy re-workings on harpsichord. The score riffs ironically on various military themes, which works particularly well during the Ludovico sequences.
Much like Blade Runner more than a decade later, the visual world of A Clockwork Orange is conceived as the future that might result if certain aspects of our present are extrapolated. With Ridley Scott's film, it is the threat of overpopulation, the environmental problems that would result, the intensification of social hierarchies, and the loss of humanity in a world dominated by machines. With Kubrick, it is the alienation of youth, the dehumanisation of mankind, and most chillingly the acceptance of the latter as a form of punishment or control.
Like all great dystopian science fiction, what matters is not the surface resemblance, but the reflection of underlying moral and social problems. It doesn't matter that young thugs now wear tracksuits and Burberry rather than jockstraps and bowler hats, just as Blade Runner isn't suddenly rendered irrelevant by the current absence of flying cars. The moral questions raised in this film are still controversial, and our society is no more enlightened or mature in its conceptions of justice, freedom or possible punishments.
While Kubrick's films have always been open to multiple interpretations, there are three general perspectives on A Clockwork Orange. The first sees it as a conservative work about youth, rebellion and the counter-culture. The film is either a reaction to the empowerment of young people, depicting them in entirely negative ways, or a call to arms of said young people which is darker, edgier and nastier than its hippie predecessors. Both views accuse the film of glorifying violence, with Roger Ebert calling it "a paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading as an Orwellian warning". Whatever the knee-jerk appeal of this view, it is, like Ebert, well wide of the mark.
The second interpretation, which carries more weight, sees the film is a warning against state power, and how the use of reconditioning can undermine individual freedom to such a point that the whole notion becomes irrelevant. The prominence of socialist architecture in the film, such as concrete tunnels and high-rise flats, indicate a society emerging from failed social engineering, with a rise in "the old ultra-violence" being part of the fallout. This theory is consolidated in the use of nadsat, the slang language invented by Burgess which is a mixture of English and Russian, which in turn gives the film an even more unique and timeless feel.
Throughout his career Kubrick was fascinated by the social and political mechanisms which conspired to dehumanise and imprison individuals. Dr. Strangelove explored the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which nuclear deterrents put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. In Full Metal Jacket he explored the techniques by which humans are turned into killing machines, and how said machines can so often turn on their masters. A Clockwork Orange is the most subversive of these examinations, using a guilty, twisted and depraved protagonist to reinforce the importance of choice and free will.
Having undergone the Ludovico Technique, Alex becomes the clockwork orange of Burgess' title: fleshy on the outside, but fatally mechanical on the inside. He is incapable of crime, but also incapable of other human actions such as self-defence and the appreciation of music. In order to prevent him from threatening society, the state have destroyed Alex's very self. He contemplates suicide for the simple reason that he cannot choose whether to be good or bad.
This brings us on the third and most radical interpretation. Where both the previous views argue over which party is the moral one, this school holds that morality has nothing to do with it. In this relativistic, almost Foucauldian interpretation, all of the relationships within the film are expressions of power, in which notions of right and wrong are invoked only to show who holds power over whom. The prison service, the Catholic priests, the doctors and Alex's droogs are all sources of discourse, wrestling endlessly for the right to set the rules.
The force which Alex exerts (beating up gangs and beggars) is counterpointed by the mental and psychological forces exerted on him, from being spat on in custody to near-drowning by his former droogs. Kubrick went on record as saying that the Minister and the radical writer differ "only in their dogma", with both wanting to exert power over Alex and through him control the opinions and actions of the public. The film explores how certain human acts, such as sex, have incurred double standards in favour of the rich and intellectual. Where Alex's conception of sex as "a bit of the old in-out" is criminalised, the powers-that-be have no problem with doctors having it off in hospital, or the cat-lady's phallic sculptures.
Whichever interpretation one leans towards, there is no denying A Clockwork Orange's power as a black comedy. The 'Singing In The Rain' sequence is perfectly executed, so that it shocks the first time round but then draws you in on the joke. Whether it's Alex's deranged social worker, the fraught dinner table talk with Patrick Magee, or Alex's ramblings in the hospital, it is damned impossible not to erupt into laughter. But like Dr. Strangelove, it is laughter laced with fear and deep discomfort, lest any part of what we see become reality.
It is equally impossible to talk about A Clockwork Orange without mentioning Malcolm McDowell. Having excelled in Lindsay Anderson's If...., he was the natural choice for the part, and even without his immense reputation he is simply perfect for every second he is on screen. His snarling, boyish looks, precocious posture and fabulous voice are all immaculate, and once you have seen him in that iconic costume, no-one else can ever carry it off.
Kubrick's direction in A Clockwork Orange is superb, both in its technical invention and its brilliant storytelling. He was often accused of being cold and clinical, being more interested in ideas than the human beings who embodied them. But so many of the film's high points are moments where the technical skill combines with deep connections to humanity. A good example comes in the lakeside scene, where Alex beats up his droogs in slow motion. This, coupled with dolly shots and close-ups, exaggerates the expressions of the characters and pulls you right into their pain, anguish and triumph.
A Clockwork Orange is the greatest film of the 1970s and the high point of Kubrick's illustrious career. It mesmerises from start to finish, flooding us with style and substance, and reinventing science fiction as it goes along. Malcolm McDowell is nothing short of stunning in the lead role, and the film is a good example of star and director working in harmony at the top of their respective games. In the end it is impossible to summarise all its glories in such a short space. Suffice to say, it ranks behind only Blade Runner as the greatest film of all time.


For even more on A Clockwork Orange, check out these Letters of Note posts here and here. Also be sure to check out my tribute to Warren Clarke, who died earlier this month.

NEXT REVIEW: Stick It (2006)

Friday, 28 November 2014

DANCE FILM: Step Up 4: Miami Heat (2012)


Step Up 4: Miami Heat (USA, 2012)
Directed by Scott Speer
Starring Ryan Guzman, Kathryn McCormick, Misha Gabriel, Cleopatra Coleman

Most film franchises don't make it past their third instalment. The fourth film in a given series - a "four-quel", to quote Mark Kermode - is often the point where all remaining principles and good intentions go out of the window. The franchise has innovated itself as far as it possibly can, the quality has already started to decline (good three-quels are very rare) and everyone has decided to just give up and enjoy what's left of the box office.
Considering the declining fortunes of the Step Up series, you could be forgiven for not holding out much hope for Miami Heat (also known as Step Up Revolution). It comes from a first-time director, features little or no continuity with the previous offering, and is in some respects just as thin and episodic as we've come to expect. But whether through sheer good will or a somewhat tighter second half, it does eventually improve upon its predecessor and ends up as something perfectly passable.
It would be quite a stretch to describe any of the Step Up series as auteurist works. The later instalments in particular are so homogenously mainstream and narratively generic that it's hard to see any positive directorial stamp. But it is worth noting that the series has been at its best when Jon M. Chu has not been behind the camera, vacating on this occasion for Scott Speer.
Like many modern film directors, Speer comes out of music videos, having cut his teeth shooting promos for Ashley Tisdale, Jordin Sparks and Jason Derulo among others. This will produce a groan among many who despise anyone who comes out of either Disney or reality TV shows like American Idol - and I would often count myself in the latter camp at least. But however mainstream and often sanitised his work may be, Speer knows how to shoot good dancing and how to keep his performers focussed on the task at hand.
The first half of Step Up 4: Miami Heat (Miami Heat hereafter) is as boringly predictable as ever. It begins with a pretty decent set-piece and the setting-up of our main characters, who like seemingly every dancer in the history of cinema are waiting for their first big break. From there the plot incorporates incredibly familiar elements such as forbidden love, corporations not having a heart and the underdogs coming together to take a stand. If you've seen any of the first three films, you could watch this with your eyes closed and know exactly where it's going.
Each of the Step Up films have been populated by characters who are painted in very broad strokes. In Step Up itself this was acceptable, because director Anne Fletcher used their melodramatic nature as a springboard into something that was appealing and interesting. But since that point the series has become less and less about character and plot, to the point where if you took out all the talking, it would just be a series of music videos.
Miami Heat doesn't continue this decline, as if things could get any more inane after Step Up 3. But it is still an immensely episodic venture whose moments of dialogue are often just book-ends to the set-pieces. The characters are so clearly defined in their narrative roles that some of them don't need to open their mouth before we know exactly what they will do by the end. If you were immensely generous, you could point to the tradition of silent cinema and deriving character from gesture, but such traditions seem far from the creators' minds.
In terms of the performers, we are again confronted by a number of fine dancers whose acting talents are far outstripped by their ability to bust a move. Like Rick Malambri in the third film, Ryan Guzman is essentially a pretty boy: he doesn't have a great deal of presence, and smiles like he's modelling Levi's jeans. Kathryn McCormick as a dancer is every bit as good as Jenna Dewan in the first film, but she's a little one-dimensional in delivering her lines.
Misha Gabriel gets very little to work with as Eddie, having to play the 'attitude' or suspicious role in almost every scene with little variety. And Peter Gallagher mainly lets his greasy hair and suit do the acting for him; there's no evidence of the charisma that he had in, say, sex, lies and videotape. What's arguably worse, however, are the blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by returning cast members who can act. Adam Sevani returns as Moose for all of two minutes, lifting the final set-piece and then swiftly disappearing.
So far, Miami Heat is on a par with Step Up 2 The Streets, being far too loose and lazy with its characters but not as offensively aimless as Step Up 3. And then, around halfway through, the film shifts very slightly and starts to actually carry a little more weight around. The series returns to its roots, trying to use dancing to communicate an idea or contrast with another section of society, rather than just try to impress us with heavily-edited physical exertion.
Once the mob turns its focus to Emily's father and his plans for the development, the film stops being just another story about young people being cool and misunderstood, and becomes a story about how gentrification threatens culture. This is a theme that has been explored in musical cinema and theatre before, most notably in Rent.
The difference is that Rent is annoying and massively pretentious, claiming to say a lot more than it actually is (and exploiting the AIDS pandemic along the way). Miami Heat is completely no-nonsense: it's proud of what it is, but it doesn't feel the need to shout about it or claim that it's saying anything new or ground-breaking. Its point is simple - that building swanky, modern buildings in places of richly-rooted culture ultimately harms people without big disposable incomes. Once it's made the point, it leaves it where it lies and moves on.
From a visual point of view, the film is a little more rough around the edges than Step Up 3 - which is a good thing. At times its colour scheme is oversaturated, so that some of the set-pieces look like either music videos or adverts for skateboarding. But Karsten Gopinath does bring a more kinetic feel in his choice of angles, and the film is edited slickly without drawing too much attention to itself.
Ultimately, what redeems Miami Heat is a sheer acknowledgement of the talent of these people. The set-pieces are among the most inventive and spectacular in the series, with exciting uses of lighting and set design which genuinely surprise us. The art gallery sequence and the grand finale are particularly impressive, but each of the set-pieces progress to a well-paced, well-planned conclusion. The choreography is irresistable, so that you find yourself going with it even against your better judgement.
Step Up 4: Miami Heat is the best instalment in the franchise since the original, marking a partial return to form after the disappointment of Step Up 3. While the series remains insultingly predictable, and the characters are as broad as ever, it has enough to say and enough evidence of the actors' talent to ultimately make you go along with it. It's hardly the best place to start in exploring the series, but of all the sequels it is the most appealing.


NEXT REVIEW: A Clockwork Orange (1971)