Step Up 3DSTEP UP 3D

From its opening, outdoor melee, in which we're assaulted by soap bubbles and multi-colored balloons, to its jaw-dropping dance-off finale, which suggests a mass seizure titled Attack of the TRON Clones, Step Up 3D is proudly, even profoundly, ridiculous.

Director Jon M. Chu's second sequel is also like a hip-hop Rent without alternative lifestyles and AIDS; it focuses on an ethnically-diverse (and fiercely hetero) group of New York slackers mourning the impending loss of their bohemian warehouse dwelling, and ends with a home-movie montage of said slackers beaming and laughing and proving to the world that they don't need money so long as they have each other. (Rent's "no day but today" refrain wasn't playing over the images, but was definitely playing in my head.) The plotting - involving a $100,000 dance competition at something called "the World Jam" - is anemic, the dialogue is laughable, the choreography is wildly over-edited, and after Kathy Najimy departs in the first five minutes, she takes nearly all of the film's acting talent with her.

And yet, less than a half hour before Step Up 3D's closing credits, there's a sequence that just might stand as the movie year's most unexpectedly thrilling one. It's a simple scene, really - nothing but a two-minute, uninterrupted shot of two almost-lovers (Adam G. Sevani and Alyson Stoner) dancing through a Manhattan borough, accompanied by a jaunty remix of Frank Sinatra's "I Won't Dance." But the astonishing ease with which the magically gifted Sevani and Stoner perform - with Chu's camera gliding alongside them as if to not miss a millisecond of their happiness - washes over you in waves. The duo may not be Mickey and Judy, but they most assuredly trump Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and their charm and enthusiasm are so infectious that you never want the number to end; it's inconceivable that a movie this relentlessly manic could deliver a routine this peerlessly sweet. Step Up 3D is mostly a mess, yet I wouldn't have traded Sevani's and Stoner's pas de deux for the world, and I'd be worried about the movie's young demographic finding the scene more corny than exhilarating if it wasn't actually, gleefully, both.


Charlie Tahan and Zac Efron in Charlie St. CloudCHARLIE ST. CLOUD

And speaking of Zac Efron... .

I must say, I applaud the High School Musical star's recent attempts to extend his repertoire in the slapstick comedy 17 Again, the backstage period piece Me & Orson Welles, and the current drama Charlie St. Cloud. Is Mr. Efron, at any point soon, going to think about also extending his range as an actor? Granted, this romantic, vaguely supernatural offering doesn't really allow him much of a chance; playing a wannabe professional sailor tortured into somnambulism - and the ability to see and converse with dead people - after his little brother's accidental death, Efron's title character is a mopey wet blanket for a large majority of the film's 100-minute running length. Still, while Efron has a nice, rough-housing rapport with young Charlie Tahan, he's a vacant drain on the film, expressing misery with a disengaged blank stare and romantic longing with a slightly more focused blank stare. The performance isn't embarrassing, just thunderously uninteresting, and it gives director Bur Steers' movie the retrograde, instantly disposable sheen of a movie-of-the-week on a sub-premium cable channel.

What keeps the film moderately gripping, beyond wondering just what the hell is going on with this semi-catatonic ghost whisperer, is the rest of the cast; as with 17 Again and Orson Welles, Efron is at least smart enough to headline a film boasting superior supporting turns. (Even if, as happens in Charlie St. Cloud, Efron again winds up getting out-acted by every single person onscreen.) Amanda Crew, playing Charlie's potential love interest, is an offbeat beauty whose eccentric line readings are never anticipated - she even manages to pull off weepie howlers such as "You didn't die in that car crash, Charlie" in ways that scrape off the corn - and Ray Liotta has a couple of feverishly intense moments as a cancer-stricken paramedic. Best of all, though, is Tahan, who's as naturalistic and believable as Efron is synthetic; you watch this effortlessly funny, even moving pre-teen and think, "This is what prodigious talent looks like." A month from now, Charlie St. Cloud will barely be remembered, but I'm hoping casting agents at least remember this tyke for many, many years to come.


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