30 October 2013

All Together Now

Currently pushing: Strength in Numbers project. Chops of Mountain Brothers fame is trying to Kickstart the money for an album he made with a roster of current Asian American musicians. There's less than three days to go and they're short. So if you care about Asian American artists, then consider donating. Also, "21 Asian American Musicians You Need to Get Behind Right Now."

I’m cleaning up the rest of Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat. I went to go see Huang back in February but I’m only now getting around to reading my friend’s copy. Fresh Off the Boat, aside from being entertaining and hilarious, is important because it presents a point of view that is rarely seen. The experiences of our generation of immigrants that grew up in American but solidly had a foot still planted in Asia -- mainly due to how our parents raised us.

If you’re an immigrant, and especially an Asian-American one, you can relate to so much from this book, especially the stuff about dealing with the culture shock of whiteness. I forgot where the link went, but my friend forwarded me a piece where a twentysomething Asian-American shares her experience growing up and being placed in ESL classes even though her English was better than everyone else’s. The writer had a line in there, heavily paraphrased, about how growing up there’s a decision you make to assimilate to the white culture around you, or to resist. (Update here's the article: "The Asian-American Awakening: That Moment When You Realize You're Not White.")

When I was younger, I never felt that, but mainly because I was mostly oblivious. In retrospect however, every person of color has to make that decision at some point. In fact, that decision is always ongoing. That moment though, the “oh shit, I’m not like them” moment is true for everyone.

When the Huang family moves to Orlando, Eddie and his brothers enter a world where he’s continually picked on and made fun of for things like his otherness, the strange lunch food he brings to school (packed with loving care by his mom), and the usual shit that we Asian-Americans know about. Young Eddie eventually decides to stop taking shit and fight back, often literally. He decides he’s not going to assimilate and that’s that.
“Emery [Eddie’s younger brother] wouldn’t go talk to my parents about the things he really cared about or about how he really felt; he’d talk to me. When he talked to them, they just yelled at him. When he came to me, I’d always get stomachaches because I didn’t know what to do most of the time. I just told him what they’d taught me about ohw we should behave: respect your parents, respet your family, speak Chinese at home, take off your shoes at home, be polite at other people’s homes, don’t borrow money from people, but if other people need it from you lend it to them, as long as it’s inconsequential. Don’t fight, but if someone calls you a chink, fight.”
-Fresh Off the Boat-
The book isn’t all about race of course, there’s an equal amount in there about class and feeling inferior because he thought his family was poor. One of my favorite things about Fresh Off the Boat is how it really focuses on the (often crazy) family dynamics that come with moving to another country together. Also, there’s a ton of sports and rap references, which is a huge bonus. Plus some Encyclopedia Brown and Jonathan Swift for good measure too. Obviously, I’m recommending the book big time because even if it doesn’t speak to your experience, it speaks to one Asian-American’s experience that isn’t stereotyped. Regardless of you how you feel about Huang's antics, he represents an attitude and viewpoint that hasn't been shown before, much less in a book.

On a related note: Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked did the exact same thing for me as Fresh Off the Boat. It’s a young adult book with race, not about it. And if you read contemporary YA, that’s incredibly rare. s.e. smith’s review captures that aspect of the book exactly. Did I happen to see Eddie Huang walk by while I was having lunch in Fort Greene a few weekends ago? Yup I did. Did I quickly move to follow him down the street to the Brooklyn Flea? Of course I did. No shame in my stalking game. Did I say hello? Of course not.
The new NBA season officially started yesterday. I’ve been consumed the past week in drafting for my fantasy league. Seriously, I’m checking my phone every few minutes and researching players like all the time. I haven’t even been blogging anywhere because I’ve been cranking out articles for my sixteen team keeper league, SlamNation. This is probably the only writing related thing that I don’t dawdle at. Fake articles about each trade? On it. Full reviews of each team pre and post-draft? Did it already. If I could be this productive with other things, I would be a star.

I’m contemplating joining another league, one set up to mirror Bill Simmons’ suggestions for the ultimate basketball league. Even though I’m swamped by fantasy obligations already, I’m considering joining this thing. Key word there is “fantasy” because it's all fake obligations. "I gotta go do some work/writing, and by 'work' I mean fantasy articles. See ya!" Anyway, the fantasy team I’ve been slowly rebuilding has finally acquired enough parts to make it seem like a contender. I built a team around Rajon Rondo, which meant going big ball and acquiring power guys like Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, and Andre Drummond. Of course, now Rondo is out for a few months and my poor team will just spin its wheels.

Speaking of the Celtics, it was an off-season of transition for my team. If you don’t follow basketball at all, I’ll put it like this: The Celtics tore the house down this summer and are now rebuilding it brick by brick. Gone are stalwarts Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, in are a bunch of nobodies who won’t be around for very long. While I absolutely are dedicated to the Celtics, this is the season I happily (not-)watch them lose and instead focus my support toward the new old Celtics, aka Brooklyn Nets. I’m just a mile or so away from Barclays so I can pretend they are a semi-local team. While I couldn’t be sadder to see Pierce and Garnett go, I’m glad they have a chance to win a championship. Beat the Heat, beat the Heat!

11 October 2013

Battle of the Year (2013)

This one was a huge moral dilemma. The trailer looked fantastic but the presence of Chris Brown was such a turn off. In the end, I thought it was my duty as see Battle of the Year so you didn't have to. I mean, it's got a 5% rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now. Plus I haven't done one of my epic dance reviews in awhile so I thought I'd better get on it. Fact before I get into the review, Benson Lee, the director of the amazing documentary Planet B-Boy, was behind this effort. This is very relevant, you'll see why.

Tagline: The World Is Watching

1. Plot (5)
A hip hop mogul in the style of Sean Combs has heard kids say that breakdancing wasn't cool anymore. The Koreans have taken over, the French and Germans dominate. America is a joke. "Our kids were the best, but now we gotta do something extreme to get back on top." So, Puffy aka Dante sets off to recruit his old b-boy partner, Jason "Wonder Break" Blake -- played by Josh Holloway -- to coach an American team into Battle of the Year, the Olympics of b-boying. Ultimately Dante is trying to keep hip hop relevant and cool, but really he just wants to America to reclaim something they created.  U-S-A! U-S-A!

Compared to the normal dance movie, this is a step up from the usual plot. Compared to the average sports movie, this is straight cliche. I'll be upfront right now, Battle of the Year is not going to grade out well under my rankings because it's not really a dance movie at all. It's a sports film in the mold of Bad News Bears, Major League, and Mighty Ducks. Not to say that it's a comparable movie to those classics but the story follows the coach trying to bring his ragtag group of nobodies together, so in that alone, it's an outlier for my dance series.

2. Can the lead characters dance? (10)
Since the lead character is the coach, there's really not much dancing Josh Holloway does. There isn't even a scene where he breaks it down for two seconds, despite being a b-boy back in the day. That seems like a shame. Even Step Up 3, which features a male lead who also hardly dances, had Rick Malambri dance a little bit.

So in lieu of that, we have to look at Chris Brown as the star of the show. Yes, I know, Chris Brown... But Battle of the Year looked too good to pass up. And I movie hopped this thing so no proceeds will go to his coffers. And to be fair, Chris Brown is an excellent dancer. And he's by far the biggest name on the cast. It's unfortunate, but Chris Brown really can dance. I was impressed with his moves and how much he was able to do. B-boying is not easy and apparently Mr. Brown is just as talented at that as he is at *insert something awful and negative.*

Almost all of the other dancers are world class b-boys. If you follow America's Best Dance Crew, LXD, any of that stuff, you'll recognize the dancers. D-Trix, Do Knock, Flipz, Anis, etc. The other dancers are all pretty good, even though I can't determine if their movie names -- Sniper, Lil Adonis, Bambino, Mayhem, Abbstar, Gillatine -- are fake or real. Regardless, there's no question these guys can dance. If anything, they were recruited purely for their dancing skills, as just about everyone is horrible at the acting part of their roles. Luckily for the purpose of this review, that's practically a bonus.

3. How're the dance scenes? (7)
There's plenty of dance scenes, and they are all technically very good. However, very few of them stood out. Part of the issue is that too many breaking scenes started to all blend together. There's a few nice competition scenes, a smattering of tryout stuff, a lot of practice bits, but most of the dance scenes featured similar moves and the way Benson Lee chose to present them -- sometimes in triple split screens -- made the dance stuff fall into the background.

The one dance sequence that did give me chills was when the Americans had their final battle. That was expertly presented and it was awesome to see what the dancers were capable of when synchronized. It was also the only scene when they actually had semi-interesting costumes, which helped a lot. So while there is much to appreciate about the dance scenes, none of them were necessarily awe inspiring.
As a nice supplement, here's some behind the scenes showing how hard the dancers trained. And here's some clips from the real Battle of the Year competition, this is from a Japanese preliminary battle.

4. How's the love story? (0)
There is no love story. Caity Lotz of Mad Men fame is brought in about halfway through to be the team's choreographer and she makes it clear that she's into men, and not boys. I thought for sure her and Holloway would hook up but aside from a dinner in a semi-romantic setting, they didn't exchange anything more than coaching stuff. We liked that, even if we feel like the Battle of the Year missed out on giving Lotz a bigger role. I mean, look at her resume. Dancer, model, actress, girl band member. Plus she's from my hometown, San Diego.

Apparently Lotz started off her career dancing for Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, has been in numerous music videos, and also danced in Legion of Extraordinary Dancers episodes. I was impressed with the short clips when she danced with the guys, and thought she was really good. It's a shame the director didn't actually let her dance. Here's some footage of Lotz b-girling, she's super legit!

5. Rate the sidekicks (2)
Again, a category that hurts this movie, as practically everyone is a sidekick. There are no main characters, ones who dance anyway. So let's turn our attention to the assistant coach / dance groupie played by Josh Peck. He's "Frankyn with a Y" and he plays his role like he's a creeper. It's strange, maybe it's Peck's voice, but his soft spokenness and odd constant gazing at Holloway made it seem like he was about to turn into a horror film killer or something. Usually the sidekick role in a dance movie is for comic relief but Franklyn was anything but. His main job was to serve as the script's exposition, as seen in this scene. He basically gets to tell Josh Holloway -- and the audience -- about b-boying and the Battle of the Year competition. Plus he gets off this classic exchange.
Holloway: "You a b-boy?"
Peck: "Nah, I wish. My people weren't exactly chosen when it came to breakdancing."
Holloway: "What do you mean 'your people?'"
Peck: "Jews. We're rhythmically challeged, we're stripped of our swag at the circumcision."
Wait, what? Anyway, he's the main sidekick here, and I'm giving him a few points for being so different than other movie sidekicks. Why go for laughs when you can creep the audience out? Apparently Josh Peck has over two million followers on Vine, and was a big star from Nickelodeon's Drake & Josh show. Irrelevant to this review but that partly solves the mystery of why he was cast.

6. Best line (2)
I mean, if "we're stripped of our swag at the circumcision" doesn't qualify, then I guess the best line in the movie goes to a variety of the eyeball rolling nuggets that come rolling out of people's tongues. Coach Holloway is prone to dropping aphorisms like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." My favorite one though, the one that the Dream Team repeats as a mantra is "act like champions, be champions." It's not quite as good as "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" but it's right up there.

Alright, who am I kidding. "Act like champions, be champions" is horrible! In the context of this movie though, it's basically a gem. A distant second is Franklyn saying "I might be Jewish, but my religion is hip hop."

7. Music (6)
Here's a chance for Battle of the Year to pick up some points. I mean, there's no restriction on a sports movie having bad music right? Well, strangely, the soundtrack -- apparently done by DJ Nu-Mark of the Beat Junkies -- was just so-so. There seems like there's a lot of incredible selections but not many of them stood out. Basically I felt like all of the great songs were stuck at the end, during the Dream Team's closing sequence. The one exception was the Root's "Boom!" which was used very effectively during a training montage. I'll give some points for Chubb Rock, Eric B. & Rakim, and some great artists on the track list, but mostly the music wasn't like "OMG, I have to download this right away!"

8. Fashion (2)
Again, flagging. For the real Battle of the Year, the teams have some awesome outfits. While I'm not looking for Street Dance level clothing, where each group had a unique look, it would have been nice to give us some visual highlights and differentiation between the groups. In Planet B-Boy, individual performers gave us diverse costumes such as the one shoulder monk outfit. Or the super popular "I'm b-boying in toilet paper" look. I wish the movie had let the dancers express some of their individuality. Instead it was just Puma track suits and Levi's jean jackets.

In fact, let's talk about the product placement in this movie. So much of it! From electronics, clothing and shoes, to Braun prominently sponsoring the competition, it was obvious that brand placement was a huge part of financing for the movie. I'm all for getting whatever you can to help you make your film but when the characters remark on the awesomeness of the new Sony gadget, that's taking it too far. Boo on overtly obvious product placement.

9. Cultural Impact (0)
This movie is going to come and go real fast -- that's why I rushed into theaters to watch it. Hoping to ride the wave of (relatively) high grossing dance movies, we can safely say that the negative reviews will tank Battle of the Year. So far it's made barely over eight million dollars -- against a twenty million budget -- and will come in far behind the various Step Ups. Let me show you the grosses for the Step Ups:
  • Step Up (2006): Made $65m, cost $12m
  • Step Up 2 (2008): Made $58m, cost unknown
  • Step Up 3D (2010): Made $42m, cost $30m
  • Step Up Revolution (2012): Made $35m, cost $33m
See that trend? The craptastic dance movie could be in jeopardy! They are costing more and paying out less, and studios will soon shut them down. Heck, the whole reason Hollywood is willing to churn these things out is because of the revenue to cost ratio. This is a call to arms my friends. Everyone needs to go watch the next big dance movie, to get one over fifty million again, otherwise it's all over. We'll be relegated to cable movies and whatever MTV can give us. (Turn the Beat Around is still on my DVR actually, I'll have to get back to it.) Then again, MTV could be off on dance stuff too. I mean, MTV cancelled ABDC after seven seasons. And there's not another Dancelife on the horizon that I know of.

Just for fun, let's look at some of the other numbers from dance movies from the past:
  • Center Stage (2000): Made $17m, cost $29m
  • Save the Last Dance (2001): Made $91m, cost unknown
  • Honey (2003): Made $30m, cost $18m
  • You Got Served (2004): Made $40m, cost $8m
  • Stomp the Yard (2007): Made $61m, cost $13m
  • Fame (2009): Made $22m, cost $18m
  • Dance Flick (2009): Made $25.5m, cost $25m
  • Footloose (2011): Made $52m, cost $24m
  • Battlefield America (2012): Made $0.17m, cost unknown
It's all positive except for Center Stage, which happens to be the best dance movie I've rated so far. It's probably because it's not quite a craptastic dance movie but more of an actual decent movie about ballet. Also, note that Battlefield America, the second effort from You Got Served director Christopher Stokes, totally tanked. For reference, director Lee's Planet B-Boy grossed $273k on a budget of who knows what, but we're guessing it at least made even money. Too bad he may never make a movie again.

10. Miscellaneous (5)
Here's where this movie won some bonus points with me. First, the constant references to basketball was kind of funny. Holloway's character was an ex-basketball coach so it's only right that he brings up Magic Johnson, Kobe, Shaq, and even named his team The Dream Team because that's what USA Basketball did in 1992 after getting their butts kicked by international teams. They stopped sending amateurs to the Olympics and instead sent in NBA All-Stars to reclaim the throne. That would make Chris Brown Michael Jordan? Ugh, puke. Anyway, the basketball stuff was fun for me, as Holloway was cast as a Phil Jackson-esque coaching guru, capable of making a team out of individuals. For example, the strategy behind his b-boy team construction was to look for individuals who could push each other to greatness, not necessarily just the most talented dancers. Preach on Holloway/Zen Master!

I also really enjoyed the idea that this was almost a reality style elimination for the dancers. Twenty two dancers were brought to the dance camp and then only thirteen made it. An active NBA roster is twelve people, coincidence? Actually, I was frankly shocked there wasn't a basketball scene, much like in You Got Served. We all know Chris Brown loves to hoop, so what was going on? Maybe it was because almost everyone else on the cast was super short so it would have been unbelievable to see them having a game of basketball.

Also, I was tickled that Sway was brought in as one of the announcers. We haven't seen Sway in how long? For awhile the former radio host was ubiquitous on MTV but he's been gone for a minute. Now he's back in the movies! Bonus points for giving Sway a paycheck.

I have to admire Benson Lee's gumption in using his previous film all over this one. Not only does Franklyn say out loud that Planet B-Boy is the Bible for modern day b-boys, he also uses extensive footage from the film. If you look at Battle of the Year as an after the fact commercial for Planet B-Boy, it's very effective. It's not often I pass judgement on the dance movies I review, because the genre clearly offers something for everyone, but in this special case I say that you should rent Planet B-Boy and get the documentary experience. It's full of actual drama, great dancing, and you really find yourself cheering for the competitors.

There's also no jingoistic rhetoric against other nations. The trailer had me a bit worried about all the "down with Koreans" talk but that was thankfully dialed back in the actual movie. I was a little afraid Lee had sold out his peoples. Why he felt the need to dramatize this story and make an inferior fictionalized version of his classic is beyond me though. I hope he got paid big bucks to become a Hollywood director. Here's a few Planet B-Boy clips to whet your appetite.

In the end, Battle of the Year suffered from an ill fit into my scoring matrix. Still, it got a strong showing from using plenty of actual dancers, and it gets some respect for attempting to meld sports and dance movie cliches. Even though it's the lowest rated movie on our list so far, it's still within shouting distance of Step Up Revolution's forty-four points, so that's something. If you're seriously into breaking, this might be a must-see, but otherwise I'd suggest a pass. Plus, don't support Chris Brown, ever!

Crap, am I a hypocrite?