Friday, October 14, 2011

Footloose: A bit TOO loose

Footloose (2011) • View trailer for Footloose
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sensuality, violence, and teen drug and alcohol use
By Derrick Bang

Those with the chutzpah to re-visit an older film need to remember the essential rule of remakes: They’d better be at least as good as — if not better — than the original. Otherwise, what’s the point?

And since few filmmakers are interested in remaking bad films, that generally sets the bar pretty high.
Ariel (Julianne Hough, center) loves showing off her hot little body, much to
the amusement of Ren (Kenny Wormald, at her right), and a massive country
line dance is a great place to kick up one's heels. Although this dance sequence
and others display plenty of energy, this remake doesn't have nearly as much
heart — or savvy restraint — as the 1984 original.

Director Craig Brewer broke the rule.

At first blush, he seems an odd choice for a remake of 1984’s Footloose. Brewer’s most visible credentials include 2005’s Hustle and Flow and 2006’s Black Snake Moan, both quite gritty, vulgar and sexually charged. The latter, thanks to an eye-popping star-slut turn from Christina Ricci, is almost a masterpiece of hilariously bad behavior.

And, in fact, misguided dollops of vulgarity are the first problem with Brewer’s update of Footloose. Most of the off-color remarks spring from the lips of Willard (Miles Teller), the cornpone best bud whom Boston-bred Ren McCormack (Kenny Wormald) cultivates after a forced moved to Hicksville USA, otherwise known as the sleepy town of Bomont.

Willard’s of the opinion that Bomont would be more tolerable with regularly scheduled wet T-shirt contests, and he’s not above asking a waitress — during a brief visit to a rowdy big-city nightspot — whether the barmaids serve drinks stuffed between their boobies. Actually, he may have said titties, but it scarcely matters; the line fell with the thud of cast iron.

Not that a kid like Willard wouldn’t have said such a thing; it’s probably perfectly in character, in the real world. But not for this character, and not in this story.

Brewer — who also takes a co-scripting credit, for “expanding upon” Dean Pitchford’s original story — thumbs up the volume of the original film’s core elements, apparently assuming that this is the difference between life in 1984 and life in 2011. As a result, the plot elements are meaner, and everybody here is louder, cruder, nastier and — with respect to some of the patronizing adults — more aggressively stupid.

Dennis Quaid needlessly hammers the arrogantly pious mien of the Rev. Shaw Moore, a role handled with much better grace and subtlety by John Lithgow, back in ’84. The villain of this story, a thuggish lout named Chuck, challenged Ren to a tractor duel back in ’84; this time — with Chuck given homicidal inclinations by Patrick John Flueger — it’s a four-way demolition derby with tricked-up school buses, in a scene that rather oddly evokes Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

Also back in ’84, Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormack moved to Bomont with his mother, where both attempted to fit into the small-town environment. This time out, just to further isolate Wormald’s Ren, his mother has died of leukemia, his deadbeat father a long-gone memory. No wonder the rebellious Ren has a chip on his shoulder.

Brewer’s biggest miscalculation, however, concerns the character of Ariel (Julianne Hough), the minister’s daughter, who is Very Bad News but nonetheless catches Ren’s eye. This updated Ariel is way too much of a skank, and her self-destructive behavior, flirty teasing and arrogant dismissal of everybody else — particularly loyal gal pal Rusty (Ziah Colon) — is a total turn-off.

Honestly, the way Ariel attempts to copulate with a dance pole, at one point, suggests that she really might be related to Ricci’s Rae, from Black Snake Moan.

This isn’t Hough’s fault, of course, since she plays the part as written and directed. And, frankly, she’s quite adept at getting us to loathe Ariel.

The Ren presented in this story — a decent, just-say-no kid who worked hard and stayed on his Boston high school’s gymnastics team for three years, while watching his mother slowly die — wouldn’t look twice at a train wreck like Ariel. She’s simply too far beyond redemption.

Ah, but redemption is possible for anybody, when joyously unfettered personal expression is involved; that’s the moral to be derived from Pitchford’s much gentler original story. And, in fairness, that message does survive in this new film ... when Brewer's cruder instincts don't get in the way.

To recap, the voting citizens of Bomont (read: parents) have passed draconian curfew laws in the wake of a ghastly road accident that claimed the lives of five high school students. Their “crime”: driving after dancing and drinking at an after-hours party. Devastating, to be sure, and just what the conservative adults of Bomont needed as an excuse to ban loud music and any group dancing .. particularly the lustful kind that inevitably accompanies demon rock.

One of the five victims was Ariel’s older brother; losing him — and then being submerged beneath her father’s overly protective grip — has made her spin out of control. Now, three years later, Ren has blown into town, in order to live with his only remaining relatives: his uncle and aunt (Ray McKinnon and Kim Dickens, as Wes and Lulu) and their adorable little girls (real-life sisters Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Mary-Charles Jones).

Ren immediately draws attention for all the wrong reasons; he nonetheless lands a staunch friend (Willard) and secures a job at a cotton mill run by a good-hearted boss. Better yet, it’s obvious that Uncle Ray is a cool dude. Inevitably, though, Ren’s numerous minor infractions prompt him to tackle the underlying problem head-on, by mounting a petition to overturn Bomont’s teen-unfriendly ordinances in time for the high school senior class to have a real graduation dance.

Although lacking Kevin Bacon’s acting chops, Wormald makes a decent, likable and credible protagonist. Frankly, he and co-star Teller hold this film together. They have the easy camaraderie of real-life friends, and they respect each other’s differences. That’s a nice message; so is the fact that this 21st century Bomont has been integrated, when nobody was looking. Also a welcome touch.

The original Footloose had four iconic songs (all of which Pitchford wrote or co-wrote, by the way): Kenny Loggins’ toe-tapping take on the title tune; Deniece Williams’ whimsical handling of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”; Mike Reno and Ann Wilson’s duet on the love anthem, “Almost Paradise”; and Bonnie Tyler’s bring-the-house-down assault on the power anthem, “Holding Out for a Hero.”

Brewer and choreographer Jamal Sims make excellent use of the title theme —crooned here by country star Blake Shelton — which accompanies high-octane dance sequences at the film’s beginning and end. They also deserve high-fives for re-inventing the montage wherein two-left-feet Willard learns to dance, with assistance from Ren’s two nieces: a simply marvelous scene choreographed to Jana Kramer’s spirited cover of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.”

(This sequence does, however, remind us of Chris Penn’s wonderful performance as Willard in the first film: an actor taken from us far too early.)

But “Almost Paradise” is ill-used, and Ella Mae Bowen’s lackluster cover of “Holding Out for a Hero” is buried within the bad reception of radio source music. That’s just sad. More to the point, you’ll notice a country spin to this new version of Footloose, which includes an energetic line-dancing sequence. No real harm there, except that this subtly dilutes the original’s reliance on the rebellious power of good ol’ rock ’n’ roll.

Another understated shift: This film’s Ren is a gymnast first, dancer second. So despite Wormald’s history as a former backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, there’s an aggressively non-inclusive aura to Ren’s dancing here. This is particularly apparent during Ren’s full-throttle “primal rage” interlude, when he wreaks havoc on a deserted warehouse — and on his own body — while venting his frustrations.

A bit more grace and choreographed flow would have helped this scene; Wormald looks too much like a deranged head case whose limbs are being controlled by four different handlers.

Finally — my longstanding gripe about modern dance movies — Brewer and editor Billy Fox don’t hold the camera still. All the dance scenes are pieced together with fast cuts and scores of tight close-ups, preventing any sense of choreographed continuity or — hey, here’s a thought! — actual terpsichorean skill.

Its occasional sweet side and gentle moments aside, this updated Footloose is just too frequently overblown. Yes, the story retains its cathartic ability to make us want to kick off our shoes — or, in Ariel’s case, don red boots — and move. But I’d argue that fans back in 1984 exited the theater feeling much more pumped than folks walking away from this one. The original Footloose was lightning in a bottle and very much a product of its time; this one simply doesn’t speak to us in the same way.

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