★★★ / ★★★★
An argument can be made that there is no movie here, let alone a strong story that is worth the emotional journey. But leave it to shock maestro Gaspar Noé to create an unadulterated sensory experience from a near-nothing. I found “Climax” to be hypnotic, brave, and free. We are not meant to care about any of the characters on screen so long as they move their bodies and create amazing shapes and contortions. It cannot be denied that it is exactly the film that the filmmaker wanted to make. And for that, it is certainly worth seeing.
The work is divided into two halves: a relatively tame party after a successful dance rehearsal followed by the aftermath of drinking sangria spiked with LSD. But before the first half begins, we sit through various interview tapes of the dancers who may or may no live through the night in question. We learn about their attitudes about sex, sexuality, sensuality, drugs, country of origin, and America. We get a strong impression of how much they value being able to express themselves through dance. One of the dancers claims that if she could not dance any longer, she would commit suicide. As we see her dance for the first time, we realize she is dead serious.
It is apparent there is a strong partnership between Noé and choreographer Nina McNeely, proven by the first dance sequence seemingly shot in one take. It is amazing how every performer is ready to shuffle in and out of the shot as they execute eyebrow-raising moves. It is a joy and a surprise to watch because, for example, a dancer who comes across a bit stiff thirty seconds prior can suddenly return to the middle of the frame so soft and pliant. It makes the viewer question whether potentially erroneous moments were actually done on purpose in order to subvert expectations. Furthermore, notice that although the dance is focused on limbs and torsos being thrown about, performers always have strong emotions on their faces. This sequence alone requires repeated viewing; it is that impressive.
There are no characters, but there are personalities. A few standouts include a mother (Claude-Emmanuelle Gajan-Maull) of a little boy (Vince Galliot Cumant) who is suspected of having drugged the drinks simply because she was the one who prepared it, the man who would not stop bragging about his sexual conquests (Romain Guillermic) which earns him the title of being a “ticket to an STD,” the siblings who clash (Giselle Palmer, Taylor Kastle) when the subject of personal freedom is broached, and the woman we see during the opening shot (Souheila Yacoub) as she crawls through the snow while drenched in blood. Every one of these subjects is followed by the camera at some point without compromise. Showing people experiencing a high is one thing—so many filmmakers do this. But to show paralyzing repercussions through the lens of realism is another. At times the movie works as a horror film.
Noé is strongest when constructing a claustrophobic chamber piece. While “Climax” is not his strongest work, it is still a cut above generic filmmaking so often constrained by plot and the need to create characters worth rooting for. Not here. What matters is that we have a reaction to it. If you walk away from this film and finding yourself not having an impression or an opinion, you are dead inside. The movie’s purpose, I think, is to provoke. Get on.
Black Swan (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) was a ballet dancer who was chosen to play the lead role, the White Swan and the Black Swan, by the director (Vincent Cassel) in the upcoming performance of “Swan Lake.” However, although Nina had mastery in terms of technique and grace which were perfect in fully embodying the White Swan, she didn’t know how to let go of control so that, as the Black Swan, she could successfully generate enough anger and edge to leave the audiences breathless. Lily (Mila Kunis) had what Nina did not. Nina began to suspect that she was going to be replaced by the director and slowly she began her descent into madness. Darren Aronofsky fascinates me as a director. I know many disagree with me but I think he has yet to create a masterpiece. But this a good thing because I’ve noticed that he continues to evolve. Aronofsky does a wonderful job establishing a certain look and feel as he did in this film because he had concocted the right amount of realism and fantastic imagery. Blend it with a person on the verge of a psychological breakdown and we’ve got a chilling examination of a character physically pushing herself to her absolute limit. Nina wanted perfection and she had to pay a price. Portman should be commended for her dedication. I knew she was an actress of many talents with a chameleon-like approach in enveloping herself in her roles but I’ve never seen her so sensual and dangerous. Even with the complex dance sequences with booming music and dancers making their way across the screen, I was drawn to her face because the subtlety in her expressions made me wonder what was going on inside Nina’s mind. Sure, pain was involved but I wondered if she enjoyed it, too. The film reached its peak when Nina eventually couldn’t discern what was real and what wasn’t. Since we saw the story through her eyes, we also couldn’t tell reality from fantasy. It was a scary experience especially when she began to see paintings taunting her about her confusion and when she thought she had committed murder and felt the need to hide the body. The last few minutes were a barrage to the senses, completely in a good way, and I was left staring at the screen as the final shot fade to white. I was mesmerized and it left me wanting more. “Black Swan” was an intense experience but I wish it spent more time tying up loose ends between Nina and her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey). There was an undercurrent of sexual repression inside their apartment which reminded me of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” It begged the question what really drove Nina off the edge: the endless hours of practice or the endless nagging from her mother. Most would say it was both but I believe one factor was more influential than the other. If the director had spent more time highlighting trends between the two worlds, “Black Swan” would have been his best work.
Dance Flick (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Damien Dante Wayans directed this parody about a girl (Shoshana Bush) who moves to the city with her father after her mother dies on the way to her dance audition. With the help of a friend (Essence Atkins), she’s able to meet others, open up a little more and fall for a guy (Damon Wayans Jr.). If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s pretty much what “Save the Last Dance” was about. But this movie takes it a bit further by adding in “Step Up,” “Step Up 2 the Streets,” “High School Musical,” and “Hairspray” into the mix with occassional popular references to icons such as Britney Spears, Halle Berry, and the like. As accessible as those references were, I liked that Wayans added some less popular jokes such as from movies like “Black Snake Moan.” As idiotic as this movie was, I somewhat enjoyed it because I saw it when I was in the mood for watching something where I don’t have to think. I also liked the fact that it showed some vignettes where it revealed the stupidity of the plot or meaningful of certain dance movies. For instance, in “Step Up 2 the Streets,” people constantly had to fight for “respect” (whatever that means) instead of focusing on issues that would most likely impact their futures like education and working toward achieving something most people would assume to be impossible. This movie’s ability to bluntly present issues like that made me like it because I hardly think fighting for so-called respect should be the main drive of young people today. Still, the movie consistently lost focus such as whenever it would refer to something ridiculous like “Twilight.” In my opinion, if such in-your-face spoof pictures should stay in their own universe. That glaring decision to show something so out of the blue was not only unfunny, it also reflects desperation. “Dance Flick” could have been so much more fun if it had its act together. After all, there are a lot of dance movies out there to make fun of because they take themselves too far. The difference between those and this movie is that “Dance Flick” knows it’s being ridiculous.
Step Up 2 the Streets (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Jon Chu directs the sequel for “Step Up” and I must say that although the dancing was much more incredible than the first, the story did not quite hold up. Briana Evigan decides to audition to attend Maryland School of the Arts with the help of Channing Tatum (a more than welcome return). In the school, she meets a geeky kid (Adam G. Sevani) who has a passion for dancing but decides not to pursue it because he doesn’t think he’s good enough and an all-star charming guy (Robert Hoffman) who’s sick of the school’s way of structuring/limiting certain styles of dancing. Evigan and Hoffman team up and gather outcasts who have a talent for dancing in order to compete in The Streets, an underground hip-hop battle of dance. Aside from the first scene when Tatum reprises his role to pass the torch (and for the audiences to find out what happened to him after the first film) and the final dance scene in the rain, the rest of it was pretty weak. The dialogue was laughable because even though it makes fun of pop culture such as “The Hills” and the “High School Musical” franchise, they resort to the same type of drama that defined such references. So, in a way, the sequel’s jokes worked against itself. Other than the two leads, we didn’t really get to know who the outcasts were outside of their stereotypes. Although they might have said one funny line or two, they were still one-dimensional. I almost wished that the picture could have focused more on the relationship between Evigan and the strict dance professor who wanted to mold her talents (Will Kemp). I felt like there could have been a two-way street connection between the two to highlight the fact that there are teachers out there who truly care for their students. That would have been a much better film because such an issue is concrete and universally relevant. The bit about the rivalry between groups felt too forced at times. Still, if one is in the mood to see impressive dancing, then by all means, see it. If one cares more about the story, I suggest to watch its predecessor instead.
Step Up (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something about dance movies that initially repel me from watching them, but when I actually give them a chance I can’t help but get engaged. “Step Up,” directed by Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses,” “The Proposal”), tells the story of Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) who gets community service for vandalizing the props of a school for the arts (along with two of his friends–Damaine Radcliff and De’Shawn Washington). Initially assigned to mop the floors, take out the garbage and fix knickknacks, he decides to help out a girl (Jenna Dewan) named Nora for her Senior project after her partner gets a sprained ankle. What initially starts out to be a typical dance movie becomes a story about lower class people striving to be something so much more. I noticed it change gears somewhere in the middle and I liked it that much more. I like the fact that instead of the students from the school making fun of others outside of their bubble, it’s the people from the outside who have prejudice toward the students. Typically, it’s shown as the other way around so I found that to be refreshing. I thought it was also a good move by the movie to recognize that most of the students in the art school are not rich, like most college students, in fact, they’re on financial aid or scholarships and they have to work their butt off to earn their place. I couldn’t be any more wrong when I thought that this was just going to be another one of those movies that glorify dancing and being “gangster” and nothing else. It’s actually pretty thoughtful and it presented characters going through pivotal moments in their lives. I also enjoyed watching the supporting characters such as Mario as an aspiring musician/DJ, Drew Sidora as Dewan’s energetic friend and Rachel Griffiths as the art school’s director. Overall, I liked “Step Up” because it surpassed my expectations and it made me want to, strangely enough, dance.
West Side Story (1961)
★★★ / ★★★★
“West Side Story” is pretty much an updated version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Instead of Montagues vs. Capulets, it’s the Sharks vs. the Jets, Puerto Rican immigrants and second generation Americans, respectively. I’m not very interested in musicals but I had to see this one because it’s considered a classic. Although I was pleasantly surprised with how well-made it was, I was also disappointed because it’s not very consistent in its quality. After it delivers one great scene, a pointless and aimless scene comes right after it, which balances out into mediocrity. Although the songs are memorable and some even made it to the modern media consciousness, there were some musicals numbers that tried to do too much. For instance, in one shot the characters are singing in a dimly-lit backdrop; the next frame introduces a glaring use of color in order to symbolize certain emotions when it really didn’t need to do it. Certain techniques like that became distracting and they took me out of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. Natalie Wood as Maria (a Shark) and Richard Beymer as Tony (a Jet) had strong chemistry so I was interested in what was about to happen to their relationship. I wish the film had focused more on them instead of the rival gangs. I think Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the directors, spent too much time on the gangs just hanging about, bickering, and acting stupid. Not to mention those scenes were a bit lame (in this day and age) so I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. I got what the directors were trying to do: To paint a picture that youth is the time to make mistakes and how teenagers are forced to grow up once they learn to take responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that they should spend about half the movie trying to get that message across. I felt like this movie could’ve been condensed from two hours and thirty minutes to an hour and forty minutes. Still, I’m giving this a recommendation because some parts were very strong such as when the film tried to tackle the issues of immigration, racism, groupthink, and us vs. them. Those social themes made this a musical with a brain even though it may not seem like it at first glance.
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