STOMP THE YARD
Before seeing Stomp the Yard, in which a young hip-hop dancer from Los Angeles adjusts to fraternity life at Atlanta's Truth University, I didn't know much about step dancing. But after watching director Sylvain White's inspirational drama, I discovered that there are apparently two distinct types - there's great step dancing and then there's really great step dancing. Though the movie is ostensibly a coming-of-age story wherein our hero, DJ (Columbus Short), finds respect and love during his first year of school, it's really just 8 Mile or Bring It On for the dance world, as warring frats compete to see whose moves out-step whose. (Step dancing - frequently practiced at African-American universities - is a combination of marching and precise choreography, generally accompanied by chants and, in this movie's case, taunts.) Yet it's pretty easy to guess which groups of dancers will be considered the greatest in Stomp the Yard - it's whichever dancers go next.
Beginning with the movie's very first sequence - a hip-hop dance-off set in an L.A. nightclub - the same scene will be repeated over and over throughout Stomp the Yard: An individual or group will dance, the crowd will go crazy, another individual or group will dance, the crowd will go crazier, and the victors will be whomever performed most recently. (The judges of these contests, it seems, suffer from the same condition as Guy Pearce in Memento.) This formula might not have proven so wearying, though, if we were able to ascertain for ourselves which dancers kicked the most ass. But the relentlessly restless editing rhythms and cinematic trickery - especially the use of slow-motion during the more aerobic moves - continually denies us the opportunity.
Not only do we never get to see a routine in full, which isn't all that surprising, but we aren't even treated to a shot of the performers in motion that lasts more than five seconds; it's hard to get excited about the talent on display when you can barely see it. (It also would have been nice to see how the dancers learn their routines, but we get little more than a flash of anyone actually teaching moves - we're left with no sense of the imagination behind the choreography.) And once you get rid of the dancing in Stomp the Yard, what's left? DJ falling for a pretty girl (Meagan Good) whose stern father disapproves; DJ forced to choose between a snooty frat and a sensitive one (if such a thing exists); DJ's past coming back to haunt him just when things were finally looking bright... if there's a cliché missed by screenwriter Robert Adfetuyi, it's certainly not for lack of trying.
I realize that I'm not exactly the intended audience for this work, and there can be no denying the movie means well - how can you argue with a film that, however indirectly, is a proponent for education and inclusiveness among its young, African-American demographic? But I worry that Stomp the Yard's good intentions are being lost on those who might most benefit from them, at least based on the screening I attended. The teens in attendance seemed to enjoy the dance sequences, but when DJ took a sojourn to Truth University's Heritage Hall - where he stared respectfully at photos of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks - the solemnity was disrupted by the sounds of chattering and giggles, and one girl took out her cell phone and began dialing. Maybe she was calling her college recruiter to arrange for a tour of Truth U., but I wouldn't bet on it.
Nick Cassavettes' Alpha Dog isn't really a good movie, but I've seen many better movies that weren't nearly this much fun. Based on the nefarious exploits of 20-year-old Jesse James Hollywood - an L.A.-based pot dealer who ordered the murder of a 15-year-old boy and, until his recent capture, spent years on the F.B.I.'s 10 Most Wanted list - this scuzzy dramatic thriller is overly fond of its True Story pedigree; the biographical minutiae is distractingly tedious (nearly every new scene begins with a title card along the lines of "Stratten House, Day Two, November 3, 4:16 p.m."), and the film's moralizing is rather heavy-handed. (Kids need parents. We get it already.) Yet the actors appear to be having such a great time playing lowlifes that Alpha Dog works almost despite itself. Pros like Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone, and the great Harry Dean Stanton - who has been slowly desiccating onscreen for more than 30 years now - provide punchy, haggard performances, but it's the film's youthful acting ensemble that's especially magnetic. Emile Hirsch, as Hollywood, has a reptilian charm that catches you off-guard, and Justin Timberlake is hugely entertaining as his dim-witted sidekick, his joyful comedic portrayal becoming unexpectedly soulful by the movie's end. And best of all is Ben Foster as Hollywood's psychotic nemesis, Jake. With his every reading and gesture suffused with the threat of unimaginable violence, the actor goes so far into character that he borders on the absurd, yet you don't dare laugh at him - Foster gives Alpha Dog both bark and bite.
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER
Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, in Mandarin with English subtitles, probably won't make you cry, but man oh man, does it ever do a number on its cast! I think more tears are shed in this Chinese melodrama than in a year's worth of daytime-soap episodes; it may be a striking visual spectacle, but the tormented emotions on display in Zhang's latest work are straight out of Days of Our Lives. (It turns out there's a very fine line between operatic and overkill.)
That's not to say, though, that the results aren't often enjoyable, as Golden Flower introduces us to what must be the most dysfunctional family the Tang dynasty (circa A.D. 928) had ever known: A hateful emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) who is systematically poisoning his wife; the empress (Gong Li) who is carrying on an affair with her step-son; three potential heirs to the throne who are - quite understandably - damaged goods themselves; and a vengeful first wife (Chen Jin) whose ferocity suggests Zhang Ziyi's ass-kicking biological mother. As the family members make secret alliances and plot one another's downfall, the lurid emotional dynamics are frequently thrilling in their intensity, or at least they would be if the subtitled dialogue weren't so stultifying - even the throwaway conversations are rife with howlers. (My favorite: "Mom, this is the crown prince.")
Yet the movie's trashy melodrama doesn't mesh very comfortably with the extravagance of its visual design. The onscreen opulence may be ravishing (which, coming from the director of House of Flying Daggers, is no surprise), and a climactic battle sequence is legitimately staggering, but the wizardry of the production design only underscores how weightless the film's drama actually is. Despite the anguish and tears, the characters in Curse of the Golden Flower are dishearteningly hollow - Zhang Yimou has delivered some awesome cinematic wonders over the years, but I never expected him to helm a lavish, big-screen take on Knots Landing.