Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Project (Not Entirely) Terrible: Dance or Die

Another month, another round of Project Terrible. Today's movie comes to me from Maynard Morrisey, and, well...


Tonight's film is Dance or Die, which sadly has nothing to do with the only video game I can recall that features a skateboarding jousting competition, EA's 1998 Skate or Die (followed up by the even stranger Skate or Die 2: The Search for Double Trouble, featuring a skateboarder using a paintball gun in an action-adventure quest...and then Ski or Die, which is weird just for existing. And for completion's sake, let's mention Skate or Die: Tour de Thrash, which sounds to have really been more of a normal skateboarding game).

Early tangent done, back to the movie.

Dance or Die is the story of Jason, a dance instructor who shares a house with a buddy who happens to be a cocaine dealer. Things are pretty much guaranteed to go badly in that situation, so of course they do. When Jason's buddy is killed for ripping off his drug dealing partners, Jason's life spirals out of control. Threatened by the dealers--still looking for something that they claim he has--and receiving no particular help from the cops, he tries to find his way through the situation and get his life back.

Honestly...Dance or Die is not a bad film. It definitely has its problems, but look at the above description. Doesn't that sound at least a little interesting? Well...it is. Take a fairly sympathetic character, put him in a situation pretty much completely out of his control, and have him struggle to get a handle on things, and you can get an okay movie without needing to bring in much more. Dance or Die has some flaws that keep it from actually being good and that can jar you out of the movie from time to time, but overall, the film works fairly well.

Okay, no...I know what this looks like, but I just had to, um...weigh the fruit I bought at the grocery store. You know, to make sure they didn't overcharge me...you're not buying this, are you. So, uh, how's that girl you were stalking?
The central idea of the film is good, and the acting is actually pretty strong overall. Relationships mostly feel natural, conversations seem to flow without it feeling like anyone's reciting memorized lines, emotions are displayed appropriately...no one's giving an Oscar performance here, but just about everyone is acceptable at worst and pretty good at best. The plot and dialogue kept me interested just enough, and though there were times I started to pull back from the film, I never actually felt the need to step away from it for a while. I genuinely wanted to know what would happen. If you make a film that makes people want to know what happens next, you are succeeding at filmmaking.

One major point in the movie's favor is that the main characters are pretty sympathetic. There are flaws to this, and I'll get to some in a bit, but overall, Jason is a good main character. He's an average guy who had some problems with addiction, is trying to overcome them by going to AA meetings, and has supportive friends who are trying to help him stay clean. He's honestly trying to be a good person, and he wants to stay out of trouble. He tries to work with the police, and reaches out to his friends. His friends, as well, are generally portrayed as caring, helpful, and supportive, and I couldn't help but like them, too. I cared about what happened to them. If you make a film that makes people care about what happens to your characters, you are succeeding at filmmaking.

So, overall...Dance or Die was a film of moderate quality. It has some good strengths in its basic qualities, but it does have some notable stumbles.

First shot of the movie. No, really.
Before I get to those, though I would be remiss in not mentioning this film's very, very odd introduction. We get the opening credits as pretty bare-bones white text on black background, but they're interspersed with periodic clips of dancers in gloriously strange outfits doing...well, they basically do one dancing move each and then pose for a few seconds before we cut to credits again. And occasionally one of them has "blood" sprayed on them. All this is explained later on...okay, some of it is explained later on...but it's a wonderfully weird way to open the film. And in the middle of that we just kind of focus on a dancing school class at one point, which is more than a little strange mixed in with all the oddities.

Our hero.
Our introduction to the hero, Jason, is no less strange, as we first see a wonderfully undignified shot of him sleeping with his head pressed into the pillow face-first, and then his alarm clock goes off, but it's evidently set up to play a tape of piano music...so he starts dreaming about a group of dancers performing. We cut away from that for a second and Jason is suddenly outside performing handstand push-ups, is given a birthday gift, and then we see the rest of the dance dream...even though he's not dreaming anymore. Or something. I was very confused.

Now...those provide a nice lead in to a discussion about what this film primarily does wrong. This film really, really lacks the ability to clearly establish things in anything resembling a satisfactory manner. Everything from events to relationships even to characters' names at times can have an unpleasantly lengthy pause before proper revelation. Some examples:

  • I spent half the movie thinking that one of Jason's friends from his AA meetings was his mother or perhaps step-mother.
  • We see one bit early in the film where Jason (rather creepily) courts a woman in a grocery store, with a nice piano track backing the (stalking) scene. They introduce themselves, and the scene just kind of ends. Many, many scenes later, they're in the middle of a relationship. No bridge.
  • Jason's drug-dealing buddy is killed, and Jason is grieving. So his AA friends (who I still thought were his parents at this point) come over. The man asks if Jason wants to stay with him, and the woman interrupts and says, "No, he's staying with me." Scene ends. Next scene is Jason at the dance studio. Scene after that...he's back at his own house. So apparently he turned both of them down, but the movie decided not to show us that. Just to be confusing.
  • Some really awkward cuts...like a bit where Jason gets attacked in his dance studio and threatened at gunpoint (by a gangster who seriously sounds like he hasn't quite finished puberty...sorry, guy from the 80s who I'll probably never meet, but your voice was surprisingly high!)...and then just kind of shrugs the whole thing off and goes to dinner with his girlfriend, barely seeming bothered.
  • The girlfriend makes a mold of Jason's key at one point. That goes nowhere. Given later revelations about her character it makes sense why she does it, but she never uses it, so...
There are lots of moments or flaws like those in the film, some big, some little. It makes the film harder to follow than it should be, considering the plot really isn't that complicated. At times (especially the bit with the gangster threatening Jason), it can feel like you're watching different movies that happen to star the same guy!

The film also introduces some unnecessary twists, which are also poorly established. It turns out his girlfriend is actually from the DEA, and engineered Jason's creepy stalking of herself at the grocery store despite...not really doing anything to encourage it. And his friend from AA is actually the Turtle, the drug dealer threatening Jason! Oops, no, she isn't...that twist lasts all of one scene. Things get seriously rapid-fire near the end, with Jason getting emotionally ping-ponged around by perceived betrayals or revelations that often aren't really what they seemed anyway. It gets a little goofy and introduces complexities that didn't need to be in the film.

The ending...I'm not going to spoil it as this was pretty okay, but the ending goes way too action movie and gets too cute and stylish for its own good as well. Gunfight during a dance performance that itself involves dancers acting out getting shot and having fake blood spray on them. Yeah. Who comes up with a show like that anyway? Jason goes all action hero, as does his girlfriend, and it just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the movie very well. They do nicely flirt with a really heavy downer of an ending before pretty nicely wrapping things up for Jason, though (though the drug plot itself has a seriously unsatisfying conclusion).

Finally, the film's other major problem is just going too stylish for its own good in general. Every so often, the film is interrupted to show Jason's daydreams or nightmares or some such...which are all weird dance numbers. A bunch of glam-rocker dancers torturing him while he's hung upside down...a strange dance with a bunch of guys in suits and wide-brimmed hats and scantily clad women...a sex scene transitioning to a dream about a couple dancing on a motorcycle...and of course the final action scene interspersed with bits from the dance performance. Sometimes the movie just pauses to show a dance number for a while, and while the dancing is actually pretty good overall, it feels weird to just pause the movie and show that for 3-5 minutes. I get that they wanted to involve dancing in the film, but if they did, couldn't they have made the preparations for the performance a bigger part of the plot instead of kind of pushing that off to the side where it barely matters and featuring dream-dances instead? Heck, involve one of his students in the drug plot too and you tie it all together!

So, basically, this is a decent film concept that is marred by some jarring transitions, lack of proper establishment of facts and persons, and some over-stylish ideas. There are some plot-holes and other issues, but honestly they're rather minor. The film just makes itself harder to watch than it needs to, and that took me right out of the movie several times.

Some minor bits to close:

  • Wonderful line: "I wanna be able to go home, see a pile of cocaine, and say, 'ah, no big deal!'" You know, I would rather just come home and not see a pile of cocaine, thank you very much. 
  • One of Jason's AA buddies pretty much says the same thing--that he should really move out of the place if his roommate is actively dealing drugs from his home--and he just kind of shrugs it off. Our hero. 
  • I like Jason, but the whole "I'm happily living in a home with a drug dealer who I consider my best friend" thing is a major hole in his character. Drug dealers are not sympathetic and friendly relationships with them make you less so. It also doesn't make a lot of sense...Jason was an addict. He should know better than anybody how bad drugs are and how much they can screw up your life...but he's basically fine with this guy sharing his place.
  • Jason is still sympathetic, and does try to work with the cops, but at the same time he doesn't work with them that well. The most major note: He fails to inform them that he's getting threatening phone calls until after he finally finds the drugs he thinks the calls are about. In fact, he still doesn't inform them about the threats, not until he's told that the guy who helped him find the drugs stashed in his house is dead. Then it's, "Oh, by the way, I was being threatened." Seriously?
  • I stated this above, but it bears restating: Jason dreams in seriously strange dance numbers. And from dialogue in the film, these end up being part of his show design. O_O Honestly, buddy, I have difficulty believing you're actually off the cocaine if you keep dreaming about glam rocker dancers torturing you.
  • And his friend hid the stolen cocaine in a Coke bottle. I...I can't decide if that's funny or not. I do kind of wonder how Jason didn't find it without help, though, considering he's continued living in the house and had to open the fridge at some point. I guess he really really aggressively only drinks Pepsi. (...which could actually be a plot point, as Jason has a Pepsi machine in his dance studio.)
  • There's a kind of awesome bit when the thug first jumps Jason in the studio, where Jason's just gotten a drink out of said Pepsi machine. So Jason clocks him with the full soda can and then hurls it at him. Kicks his butt quite convincingly, actually, until the guy pulls a gun, so that was kind of cool.

Look...this wasn't a good film, but it was acceptable. The biggest problem Dance or Die has is that it gets somewhat disjointed and kind of jumps around. It needs some more effective transitions, a little more of a plan to its story, and some more establishment of...well...a lot of things. What it has going for it is some good characters and a good main plot idea. It just needs some work tying everything together into a cohesive whole. It isn't terrible, but it doesn't live up to its potential by a long shot.

All in all, this is one Troma release that didn't beat me over the head with raw stupidity and/or offensiveness, so I'm thankful for that at least.

At least the film makes a strong argument for manners. Don't flip people the bird...
...or you die. Heck of a PSA.

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