Thursday, August 16, 2018

Theory Thursday: "Step Up 3D" is One of the Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

Scene from Step Up 3D
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Crazy Rich Asians is released in theaters this Wednesday.
Theory: Step Up 3D is one of the best films of the decade.

There's a lot that's keeping this summer's August releases from being the typical throwaway releases that come with the end of summer blockbuster season. Sure, there's films like Mile 22 that are receiving bad reviews, but to think of avant garde masters like Spike Lee releasing films as prodding as BlacKkKlansman have given the month a little something special. Even in the realm of romantic comedies, the film Crazy Rich Asians is different from the rest for one sole reason: it's the first mainstream American film starring predominantly Asian-Americans since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. Even if the film is merely a feel good endeavor, it's a sign of positive change, and it's exciting in part because director Jon M. Chu has been a bit of an underrated director for most of the 21st century.

It's true that he has a bit more of a pop aesthetic to his work, going for big projects like Now You See Me 2 and Jem and the Holograms, but what he brings to his work is full of liveliness. To think about what makes him such a promising director, especially after Crazy Rich Asians becomes a big hit, is to look at where his career in film making started. In some ways, it explains what he brings to the world of film better than anything he has done since. The one thing that may be hard to believe is that he is arguably the person who helped to save the Step Up film franchise and shaped it into what it is today. Much like The Fast and the Furious, it's a bit strange to think how simple things were before the franchises understood what they wanted. Sure, Step Up was always about dancing, but with Step Up 2: The Streets, the franchise finally understood fully what it would need to do to stand out as the quintessential dance franchise in a series of inferior titles like Stomp the Yard and You Got Served.

While Step Up arguably had the biggest star in the entire series (Channing Tatum), it would be a bit misguided to call him the best actor in the series. The film was fine and captured the struggle between street and stage styles of dancing mixed with a coming-of-age drama that is highly predictable. What was missing was something that would develop in Step Up 2: The Streets, which was a shameless embrace of the art of dance. The plots are almost secondary and at times way too goofy to take seriously. However, it's because of Chu that the films began to feel fun adventures into the world of dance, showcasing elaborate routines that have a power unto themselves set to some of the most infectious Top 40 pop and rap of the era. It's easy to argue that the concluding dance scene in Step Up 2: The Streets in which the crew dances in the rain is among the most memorable and great dance scenes of the decade, if not the young 21st century.

But what separates dance movies from musicals? Considering that many complain that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone couldn't dance in the highly acclaimed La La Land, it's an easy comparison point. Musicals may have dance numbers, but dance movies aren't defined by a lyrical drive, more an energy that resonates from the booming bass and rap, lights blaring as crowds watch dancers contort their bodies into beautiful art. Dance movies don't need an original song to be great, just a camera that can capture something so visually stunning that it transcends the contemporary excess and find the joy in dance. If anything, dance movies are more of an art show, and it's unfortunate that the genre remains mostly underrepresented of classics that the musicals tend to have in spades. But with Step Up 3D, Chu not only outdid himself from the previous film, but maybe created the quintessential dance movie of the 21st century (so far).

On one hand, it's a bit odd to call the film a masterpiece solely because the film is self-aware of the gimmick. It's called Step Up 3D, noting its own reliance on 3D technology. Every third film since 2009's Avatar has been in 3D almost as a marketing gimmick (or so the story goes). But here's the thing: Chu is the only director to take a franchise film of this magnitude and understand that if you're going to make a 3D movie, then make it so gloriously layered that it becomes entrancing. 3D is meant to enhance layered imagery, but so few films have thought to actually do more than "trip out" people that it's shocking when it's done right. Sure, films like Gravity and Hugo maybe turned it into a respected art form, but Step Up 3D is a film both reliant and capable of being more than just a 3D movie.

For the record, I have not seen the 3D theatrical version of the film. However, there's something immediately apparent about what goes into the presentation of dance in 3D. For starters, the dance routines have more of a framed aspect to them, creating symmetry and layers that are striking. Considering that the Step Up series generally has hired great choreographers such as Twitch, it only makes sense then that the cinematography is just as electric. There's a power to how Chu frames the routines that it only adds to what is seen on screen. With the vibrant colors and energetic music, it becomes a sensory treat that overwhelms the viewer. Again, the story may be a bit too predictable (a group of dancers do something in a passionate plea to dance), but again... that's not the point. What's important is just to dance, dance, dance. Chu simply has to point and shoot, and boy does he know how to direct a scene.

Much like the other films, part of the joy of Step Up 3D is that there isn't one dance style on display. While street is the crux of many routines, there's room for so many routines that it becomes a bit overwhelming. It outdoes what was started in the original Step Up by cramming in so many routines that it never feels dull. There's even one extended routine in which two dancers perform a dance down a public street. It's a mix of meet-cute humor and clever ways of navigating around moving men and banging trash cans (it's the clip above). There's an art and enthusiasm to it that has a power unto itself. Most of all, it proves just how dedicated the film is to capturing an energy, and no real film before or since 2000 has been able to capture the power of this three minutes of cinema.

As a whole, the Step Up franchise is maybe not as respected as it should be. In a genre that has produced a lot of mediocrity, it's a bummer that the masterpieces don't get the credit they deserve. Chu made the two best films of the short franchise, which continue in interesting directions with the solid Step Up Revolutions and the decent swan song Step Up All In (note: I have not seen the YouTube series). However, it was these two films by Chu that captured what made these films work so well. While they didn't produce as many careers as I'd like to hope, it at least remains a secret treasure of great routines and characters for people to discover, finding the perfect mix of art and commerce. I even personally like it more than the male soap opera-ness of The Fast and the Furious franchise, which falls under too much redundant machismo. With that said, there is one franchise that could compete with Step Up for best dance movie series, and it ironically also stars Tatum. The Magic Mike films are almost a more streamlined version of the Step Up series, but they're just as enjoyable.

There's a lot top hope for from the success of Crazy Rich Asians. One could hope that it launches a lot more Asian-American actors into leading roles of prominence, possibly even getting them overdue Oscar recognition. However, I also hope that it gets Chu the acclaim and attention he deserves as a director whose work has been pretty interesting since the start. Considering that there's rumors of him directing the film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, here's hoping that he gets newfound respect for how he frames and shoots dance routines, since that show has a lot of great ensemble numbers. Until then, check out the magic that is Step Up 3D. It may not seem like a film that deserves to be in talks for best films of the century, but it honestly is the epitome of what a dance movie can and should be. The fact that few have come close to capturing it as correctly is only a testament to its success. 

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