Break Down


Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo - 1984
See link for writing credits
Directed by Sam Firstenberg
With Adolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones, Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers & Lucinda Dickey

When Golan & Globus managed to beat Beat Street to theaters with Breakin', it became the first break dancing movie and a huge success for Cannon Films.  Never one to leave perfectly good money laying around, Menahem Golan immediately ordered a sequel, and had it to theaters in seven months' time.  That's right, both Breakin' and Breakin' 2 were released in 1984.  Of course, even if you've never seen Breakin' 2, you still remember it for one of the most legendary film titles in cinematic history; Electric Boogaloo.  No one knows what it is (including the stars), but it's all over the sequel.

Now, Breakin' was not a great movie.  It was totally formulaic and had some culturally tone-deaf production elements, but it served its purpose well as an introduction to the world of hip-hop dance.  My abiding impression of Breakin' was that it would have benefitted from a streamlined story and more dancing.

Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo listened to the desires that people surely must have had from the first, and then makes them regret it.

While I declared Breakin' to have the story of "every dance movie ever" it turns out that Breakin' 2 has an even older formula; The Big Show.  A bunch of free-spirited and idealistic young people (including our returning heroes) determine to "put on a show" to save their community center.  There's still some "You don't understand my art! You never supported me!" melodrama with Kelly and her super-WASPy rich parents.

There are also the romantic sub-plots, for both good and ill.  Kelly and Ozone continue their painfully awkward hand-holding "romance."  As if their inherent lack of chemistry weren't complicated enough, there's a tall drink of hairspray that reckons she should be Ozone's lady instead and means to chase Kelly (an outsider anyway) away.  There is no reason to care about any of this, and it's just painful to even be reminded that we're pretending they work as a couple.  Confidentially, if Ozone isn't dancing, he looks like he's upset about something he smelled.  All that really comes out of this is a reason for Ozone to get angry about Kelly taking a job in France, which is another subplot that I didn't care about either.

Meanwhile, Turbo gets a love interest this time around too.  He's gobsmacked by a young Latina dancer named Lucia, and although she evidently speaks no English, their limited amount of chemistry only highlights the agony of Kelly & Ozone's.  We get more Turbo, thanks to this, and that just adds personality to the film.  This is a big plus.

Unfortunately, there are just so many more minuses.

Breakin' succeeded despite itself thanks to the dancing, even if it leaves us wanting much more.  Breakin' 2 gives us more dancing.  Sadly, it doesn't give us all that much more breaking.  There is a LOT of dancing in Breakin' 2, but where the original had only flirted with clueless Hollywood floundering, the sequel fully embraces it.  Dance numbers are filled with a great deal of skipping through the streets.  They're much more designed as stage routines than authentic b-boyism.  Despite having more dance overall, I feel fairly comfortable guessing that Breakin' 2 has less actual breakin' than the original.  I was prepared to forgive all other categories if Electric Booglaoo simply had more of the kind of dancing that Breakin' had, but that's the problem.  It's not the kind of dancing we came to see.  There are nuggets of break dance in the other routines, but they play more like guest solos than a full revue.  Despite being Ozone & Turbo's world, the dance is far more Kelly than it was before.

Which is not to say that there isn't ANY good dance.  There's a good number where Ozone & Turbo fight over a "partner" and, as in the first movie, the show-stopper belongs to Turbo.  This time, he break dances his feelings (with actual breaking moves) for Lucia in a number that calls back Fred Astaire, as he dances up the walls and spins on the ceiling.  While this crowd-pleaser gives us a more generous high-concept dose of "Boogaloo Shrimp," it's counterbalanced by a painful and embarrassing "dance combat" number between rival dance crews.  Electric Boogaloo is a heartbreaking example of old guys telling the kids what they're into rather than letting the kids just do their thing.  What they needed to do: feature more break dancers.  What they did; hired more Hollywood dancers.

The really obvious clue that Breakin' 2 was misdirected comes from the costumes.  Breakin's costumes were highly stylized versions of era-appropriate fashion trends.  Breakin' 2's costumes are an old man's reactions to youth culture.  Almost everything is day-glo bright.  If you've only read about the 80s, you might think that's normal, but the day-glo color trend really didn't happen until the late decade.  This reminded me more of an episode of Batman I recently saw where Milton Berle plays a gangster manipulating a "Flower People" youth culture of comically dressed nitwits.  It augments the screen impact, but it diminishes the cultural cache.

The music in Electric Boogaloo follows much the same pattern as its other component parts.  It's bigger, but it's worse and less appropriate.  More radio poppy, less hip-hoppy.  Ice-T returns for some reason, looking like he scored his wardrobe from a picked-over sale of Mad Max leftovers.

While Breakin' aims low and delivered a passably enjoyable artifact of early hip-hop culture, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo tries to go for "more" in all the wrong ways.  There IS some enjoyable dance, but it's buried under a pile of all the things that the sequel made worse through wrong-headed overreach. 

In fact, I'm going to do you a favor.  Here's Turbo's dance on the ceiling on YouTube.  Please enjoy it at your leisure.  Now you have no reason to mess around with Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.  Even when Golan & Globus had a good thing on their hands, they couldn't resist giving it the Anti-Midas Touch.

Break Out


Breakin' - 1984
See link for "writing" team
Directed by Joel Silberg
With Adolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quinones, Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers & Lucinda Dickey

In 1984, break dancing was a budding cultural sensation.  Orion Films had a break dancing/hip-hop culture movie in production called "Beat Street," but Menahem Golan, ever the arts patron, was determined to get a break dancing film to the screen first, and he did.  Breakin' beat Beat Street to theaters by a month, and it's alleged to be Cannon Films' most financially profitable film ever.

And you know what?  It's not bad.

I mean, sure, it's cheaply made and poorly acted with a totally generic "dance movie" story, but relative to what I have learned to expect from Cannon Films films, it's actually pretty comprehensible, it's got some personality, and the dancing is mighty entertaining.

In short, Breakin' is every dance movie ever made.  Someone told someone that they can't dance, and so they're gonna show THEM, with the power of dance!

On one side of the story, we have Kelly, a struggling dancer of the more traditional variety.  She seems to be getting close to her big break, or is her instructor just trying to break into that shiny, shiny, oh so shiny 1980s leotard?

On the other side of the story, there's Ozone and Turbo, a couple of street dancers who do what they do out of the pure love of dance.  Ozone seems to suffer from some type of stage fright or conflict avoidance.  Every time they're challenged by a dickish rival dance team, Ozone shuts down and leaves himself open to the harshest of "servings."

Kelly meets Ozone & Turbo through a mutual friend (who frankly, really gets left out of things), and rediscovers her passion for dance.  They work together to create a unique mix of old and new styles that win over the doubters from the street to the stage -- once the street dancers learn to accept the white girl who doesn't understand their ways.  There's also a totally awkward romantic sub-plot about Ozone like-liking Kelly, which plays uncomfortably against the way that men keep hitting on her in really inappropriate ways.  It's used to stir intra-dance-squad tension, and is ultimately dropped when it comes time to wrap things up neatly.  The story is very hokey.  Like I said, it's every dance movie ever. 

The acting does little to help the story.  Ozone and Turbo reveal a lot of personality when they're working together, but they noticeably stiffen in scenes with Kelly.  The actors have made little secret of their resentment about working with Lucinda Dickey (Kelly) who didn't come from a hip-hop background, which was also part of the story that Dickey has said "rang true."  I'm prepared to accept the acting because I understand that most of the cast was selected for their dancing more than their acting.

In fact, the biggest way in which Breakin' falls short is the time it wastes on poorly delivered story when it could have had another dance number.  The dancing has more variety to it than you'd guess.  There's plenty of breakin', of course, but Kelly brings some variety to the mix and one of the stand out numbers is a quiet little bit of Buster Keaton-esque schtick that Turbo does with a broom.  Some numbers are more authentically "street" and some are clearly cheesy Hollywood reinterpretations of "street" in a staged "dance number" context.

The music shows its age more than the dancing does.  It's the kind of very synth-heavy hip-hop that tended to go with breaking, so in that respect its appropriate, but there's a reason hip-hop grew into sampling throughout the 80s and left the Casio beats behind until DJs started writing ringtones.  During the big hip-hop showdown, musical guest and "OG" rapper Ice-T shows up to remind us why we like him better on Law & Order.

Breakin' does ONE thing new (and well), and that's to give the world one of its first long looks at break dancing.  The rest of it isn't new at all, although it was newer in 1984 than it is after 5 Step Up movies, 3 StreetDances, 3 You Got Served movies, 2 Save the Last Dances, 2 Honeys, 2 ABCDs and a surprising lot more.  I'm ready for Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo next.  The rest will have to wait.

Big Trouble

Trained to freeze the enemy with their icy stares


Attack on Titan - 2015
Written by Yusuke Watanabe & Tomohiro Machiyama
From the Comic by Hajime Isayama
Directed by Shinji Higuchi
With Haruma Miura, Kiko Mizuhara & Kanata Hongo

This iteration of Attack on Titan is the live action adaptation of the Japanese animated series which was adapted from a Japanese comic series.  What that means is that there's a huge, built-in audience of geeks who are just waiting to bitch about it on the internet.  What THAT means is that the feedback is going to be tainted with the stink of nerd sweat, potentially driving away the rest of us who don't actually care whether Attack on Titan matches the expectations of Best Buy employees and other hardcore fans.  I came to Attack on Titan looking for an evening's worth of entertainment, and that was what I got.  If and when I decide I'm interested in a story told over weeks, then perhaps I will check out the animated series, but that will be another story.

Attack on Titan actually reminds me somewhat of the popular teen apocalypse fiction we've seen recently in American films.  The tale concerns three young people living in the outer ring of a thrice-walled city 100 years after the "titans" devastated civilization.  Their story is pretty heavily rooted in standard Japanese youth tropes with frequent gravitas-revealing posing and overwrought melodrama in shades from silent suffering to violent rage.  Now me, I don't have a problem with this because I accept certain likelihoods when I watch Japanese action cinema, but it's my understanding that this is one area when one can expect more developed content in the animated series, and that's fine too, but there's only room for so much of it when you've got 2 hours and a lot of that has damned well better be monsters.

And monsters there are.  The three young friends, Eren, Armin and Mikasa are debating the merits of going over the wall to see what's really out there, when the answer comes knocking.  Titans are out there, and they've finally decided to let themselves in.  The titans are part giant, part zombie and part oni -- traditional Japanese demons.  The realistic portrayal of humanoid demons is curiously disconcerting, owing to their deformities and vacant grins.  The misshapen bodies and absent genitalia augmented their visual discomfort.

It bears mentioning that the special effects are a little lower tech than one would get in a similar American studio film (like, say, Jack the Giant Slayer), and that, for the most part, is to Attack on Titan's benefit.  The titans are filmed humans, inserted into shots and altered through makeup and/or CGI post-effects, rather than being full CGI creations.  This lends them a certain credibility, which deepens the creepiness in a way that full-CGI does not.  Jack the Giant Slayer is uncanny valley.  Attack on Titan is just uncanny.  AoT doesn't shy away from the straight gore either, and we get numerous shots of titans devouring humans with gusto.

It's clear that there's a lot of story we're shortcutting given the film's tendency to vacillate between exposition, and not explaining anything at all (human motivations in particular), but that's not what I signed on for.  The film understands this and pares the story back just enough to connect the big scenes, which are exactly what I signed on for.

There may or may not be some story tension between Eren and Armin over the love of Mikasa.  Then again there may not be.  No one ever does anything about it, but they frequently communicate through the language of pouty looks and hair flips.  Soon after the first major titan invasion, Mikasa is presumed dead, although at no point will the viewer actually believe that.  The story jumps to two years later and throws more characters at us (who blur together, save for the charming "Potato Girl.") but as soon as a mysterious bad-ass warrior appears, it's evident that it will be Mikasa.

In the past two years, life within the two remaining walls has declined, given that the farms were in the outer ring.  Let's take a quick look at that.  The outer ring was agriculture.  The second ring is commerce, and the center is royalty.  You may have already noticed the problem with this design.  The most useful ring is treated as fodder.  The farms feed everyone, but they're treated as the most disposable.  In the center, they have the most useless human beings ever conceived; royalty.  So the people who do nothing and still take the most are the best defended, never mind that they'll starve just like everyone else when the poor farmers fall.  In between them stands commerce to take the labor of the poor and channel the benefits to the rich, even though they'll be out of business without the most disposable humans in the outer ring.  Now, I don't THINK that Attack on Titan is meant to be a metaphor for modern Kansas, but the patterns are there.

The remnants of humanity are preparing for their last-ditch assault, to seal the breach in the outer wall and get on with the business of exterminating the titans.  Because the titan's only vulnerable spot would appear to be the nape of the neck, humanity's best weapon against them are hip-mounted grapnel-shooters that allow them to quickly maneuver up and behind into striking position.  The weird thing is that you see humans running around with these big metal tablets strapped to their hips far more than you see them using them.  Eventually, the action ratchets up to Spider-Man rivaling levels, but for a long time they look at a select few awe-inspiring ultra-ninjas before anyone else demonstrates that they even know how to use them.  An American version of this story would want some kind of extra-splodey rocket launcher instead of wire-based mobility.

In the end, there's a big heart-rending sacrifice that creates a story-altering catharsis via a massive and unexplained metamorphose, and rather suddenly wraps up the most present conflict, but it's pretty clear that there's more to be explained and conquered in the inevitable sequel.

The story isn't deep, in this version, and that's fine.  The character development is largely trope-based, and that's fine too, particularly knowing that I have options should I wish to see these elements explored more deeply.  Recent re-watches of Spielberg films have reminded me how much more less can be.  It keeps the action moving and that's the part that works.  The titans are much creepier and more disturbing than one has come to expect from the creatures in giant anything movies.  I don't know if they'd play as creepy in Japan as they do here, given the cultural familiarity with their design source.  The foreignness may indeed account for a portion of the unsettling "otherness" of the monsters.

There's a certain amount of corn that I'm accepting here, and part of that is because it IS the product of another culture, and part of THAT is because I do still enjoy those particularly Japanese flavors of crazy.  As films go, Attack on Titan showed me some new things and some not-quite-new things remixed in new ways.  It was never obviously stupid, and that's not something I can say about most of the box-office blockbusters of the current age.

Now, I don't rate, rank or score films, and I'm more glad of that than ever when looking back at Attack on Titan.  If you are a devoted fan of the anime, you're going to have to go into the live action film with a firm grasp on realistic expectations, and that means that no, you're not going to get ten hours of character development.  If you can accept that and understand that the film is, by necessity, a big old actiongasm, then you may have fun.  If you're NOT hung up on preexisting expectations, you're much further ahead.  Yeah, it's going to be weird in those Japanese ways, but if knowing that it's Japanese hasn't already scared you off, odds are as good as not that you're fine with that.

They'll be back.