Friday, September 9, 2011

The Biggest Surprise For Me Of Late: Footloose Isn't Terrible!

The Good: Dennis Quaid's acting, Most of the acting, Moments of social relevance
The Bad: Terrible direction, Julianne Hough's acting, Obvious character arcs
The Basics: Footloose forced me to go back to how I evaluate movies to make me realize that the film wasn't all that bad . . . by the numbers.

I have never seen the original Footloose. I know very little about it, except that it launched the career of Kevin Bacon and the audition process made for an amusing story in Rob Lowe's Stories I Only Tell My Friends (reviewed here!). I know enough to recognize when there is a parody of it on The Simpsons or Family Guy, but it is one that I never had the interest in seeing before now. That is the full explanation of how my review tonight of the new, 2011 Footloose is entirely unbiased by any preconceived notion of what the film "ought" to be based on how the original was. No, I went into the screening of Footloose comparatively blind and not terribly excited.

I left the theater surprised. I was surprised because I did not hate the movie and that when I viewed it objectively, I had to consider it on the upper side of average. In fact, for the first time in a long, long time, I went back to my formula. For those unfamiliar with it, I rate movies on a ten point scale with 3 points each for plot, character, acting and one point for effect. An average movie is 1.5,1.5,1.5,.5. Footloose has some pretty great acting from Dennis Quaid going for it, but is robbed of the full three points by Julianne Hough's performance and the fact that Andie MacDowell is uncharacteristically stiff with Quaid. That said, the acting gets the 2.5, but the film is robbed of all spectacle points by director Craig Brewer, who I was shocked me for the second time tonight. When I looked him up on the IMDB, before suggesting he go back to directing school, I was shocked to learn that this was not his first film. But for those who want to skip to the end, 5.5/10, the movie is not at all a bust.

After a night of drinking, dancing and making out, five high school seniors in Bomont, Georgia are killed in a drunk driving accident. The reaction in Bomont is quick and severe: a curfew is enacted, loud music is banned and dancing at events not chaperoned by the church or the school is forbidden. Three years later, Ren MacCormack is dropped off by bus where he is greeted by his uncle and is told that if he can fix up the VW Beetle in the garage, it is his. He quickly gets it up and running and is driving around town when he is pulled over for having his music up too loud. This first engagement with the law is brought up when his uncle introduces him to the local pastor, Shaw Moore, who lost his son in the accident. Shaw still has a daughter, Ariel, who frequently sneaks off to visit her boyfriend, racecar driver Chuck Cranston.

Ren begins to try to fit in with people at his school, getting off to a rough start with Willard before joining him on the football team. After racing busses and almost getting caught with someone else's joint, Ren has pretty much had it with Bomont and he goes to an abandoned factory to break loose, which causes Ariel to become more than flirtatiously interested in him. When Ren and his friends have a good time outside Bomont dancing, Ren decides to take up the cause of getting the law in Bomont changed.

So, what did I like about Footloose? First and foremost is Dennis Quaid's performance. Footloose has Quaid in the best role I have seen him in since American Dreamz (reviewed here!). Quaid plays Shaw and he gives the primary antagonist of the film more depth and character, more subtlety than I would have imagined coming in. Sure, there are inorganic moments, like one that comes near the very end of the film, but I chalk that one up to writers Dean Pitchford and Craig Brewer erring toward soap operatic melodrama as opposed to realism. I'm not saying a Southern Reverend wouldn't strike someone, but when it happens in Footloose, it feels cheap. That aside, Quaid is a master and in Footloose he embodies a character who is strong, strong-willed and surprisingly subtle. Quaid is quiet and he emotes Shaw's pain through his eyes amazingly well.

Also shockingly good is Kenny Wormald. No doubt when Footloose is released, there will be plenty of comparisons between Wormald and Kevin Bacon (who does not make a cameo in the film). Wormald actually reminded me of a young Tim Roth with his intensity and roguish quality. Wormald does a decent job carrying most of the film and he is a pleasure to watch.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his costar Julianne Hough. Hough plays Ariel and the moment she first appeared on screen, she is actually behind Ariel's best friend, Rusty. When I saw Ziah Colon (Rusty), I thought, "Wow! Brewer is really going to give us something unexpected!" But the moment Colon nods to Hough, it is clear she is being relegated to sidekick and Hough is going to be given the burden of the heavy lifting for the love interest end. Sadly, it seems Hough was cast more for her sparkling blue eyes and complete absence of anything resembling body fat than any actual acting talent. To be fair, Hough nails one emotional scene - in the church where Ariel has a breakdown. When she begins to cry during her "so lost" speech, I had a moment where I empathized and she pulled me into the character. Sadly, that is one moment out of almost two hours and the rest of the time, her performance is stiflingly bland.

But Hough is not the fundamental problem with the movie. The coming-of-age story is pretty predictable on the plot front and the character arcs are wholly unremarkable. In fact, the only temptation to nudge up the character rating is the fact that there is a wonderful scene between Shaw and Ren where they begin to bond over their losses and I thought that was pretty clever. Sadly, much of the character that Ren shows disappears in favor of ridiculous fight sequences or entirely unnecessary races.

For that, we are forced to turn to director Craig Brewer, who almost entirely sinks the film. Yes, Brewer has two huge problems when directing Footloose and they both seem to suggest that he has no idea how to direct to effectively tell a story using the medium. I'm not talking about minutia, like the way he has Ren go through a frantic breakdown scene where he is running around an empty warehouse in Georgia to the strains of The White Stripes and ends without appearing very sweaty at all. No, Brewer seems to have serious issues with how to frame a shot and who to put in the shot.

First, the framing problem. Brewer creates a movie where dance moves and dance abilities are a big part of the story and the characterization and then cheats most every shot in the first half to three-quarters of the film. By this, I mean that Brewer rather unsubtly has many of his primary characters dancing on screen, but then frames them so their upper body or lower body exclusively are in frame. Brewer is hoping that you might not notice that until the final few sequences, almost every time the main characters dance, you can't see their whole bodies in the shot. Why is this important? Well, it fails to capture any real talent most of the time. Virtually anyone can dance from the waist up or the knees down, it is coordinating the whole body that actually makes impressive dance moves. In an era where Dancing With The Stars, the Step-Up movies and every other form of reality television/dance competition brings impressive dance moves into our homes week after week after week, failing to capture this for a big screen presentation is unforgivable. It might be that limiting the focus makes it easier to edit the film or hides the talents (or failures) of the stars, but it is exceptionally noticeable that the leads are seldom seen dancing in full until Miles Teller's Willard is taught to dance by Ren that we see the whole package - and Teller nails it.

As for who to put in the shots, Brewer does not seem to have a clear grasp of crowd theory. Crowd theory when it pertains to movies is the study of keeping the focus on your protagonists, on your stars. One of the best examples I know of comes from Star Trek: Insurrection (reviewed here!) where the boy Artim was given a red costume so in the big scenes where the villagers are running for their lives, he would always be easy to pick out (the rest of the characters are clothed in light brown and yellow colors). The contrast draws the eye and helps the audience keep focused on the characters we are supposed to care about. Brewer apparently missed this lesson for the two key dance sequences in the film. When Ren, Ariel, Willard and Rusty go two hours away to go dancing, the scene is supposed to be about Ren and Ariel dancing while Willard gets it up to stand by Rusty and finally declare his intentions. What the scene is actually about is a very pale redhead who knows how to dance like nobody's business in the back right of the shot. See, in this scene, there are two redheads: one is on a different floor trying to teach Willard to line dance and she is quickly glossed over. The other is a background dancer with no lines. But she is there, bright red hair and very pale white skin in a room full of blondes and brunettes with fairly tanned skin. She's working it and she draws the eye because she is the only person who looks different from everyone else. Sure, Ren is front and center with Ariel, dancing close (I suppose, I honestly have no clue; my eyes were constantly drawn to the only redhead on the dance floor). My point here is that Brewer did not assemble the shot in mind with how this one person would completely contrast with everyone else and she is the focus. She (or someone who looks astonishingly like her) is in the climactic dance scene at virtually the same spot looking gorgeous again and overshadowing the other characters from the background simply by being different.

Finally, this version of Footloose is decent for its seeming progressive attitudes. Ren puts Chuck in his place for using the word "fag," which is nice. Rusty and Willard represent an interethnic couple. But I did notice in the final dance scene when characters paired up, Willard and Rusty were the only - easily apparent - interethnic couple. I think Footloose would have worked better in the long haul if Ren and Rusty had been paired up as the main couple.

That said, the film is not a bad one, though because it does not at all capitalize on the medium with its direction, I tend to recommend against seeing it in the theaters. Sure, it's above average, but it lacks the "wow" factor it ought to for a dance movie.

For other works with Dennis Quaid, please check out my reviews of:
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
American Dreamz


For other film reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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