REVIEW: ‘Battle of the Year’

Josh Peck;Laz AlonsoLet’s face: No one goes into a movie like Battle of the Year because of the complex plotting, unique character development or sparkling dialogue. It’s a movie about hip-hop dancing, and that’s what you want to see.

But ohhhh … how hard it is to get to the point where that’s enough.

It’s sad to realize that screenplays for dance-off movies haven’t progressed one scintilla since Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The plot — about an alcoholic former b-boy and sports coach (Josh Holloway) recruited to assemble a rag-tag band of breakdancing punks to form a world-class team — is rife with cliches. The coach lost his wife and kid and has no purpose in life; the dancers are unruly and talk smack all the time; the major contest — the “battle of the year” in France — is fraught with problems. But the screenplay makes no effort to freshen them up. It even has an extended monologue early in the film to explain why the coach is how he is … as if we couldn’t guess from the 3,000 other movies we’ve seen like this. (It’s all complicated further because the credits note Battle of the Year is “based on” a documentary called Planet B-Boy, even though the coach keeps watching Planet B-Boy during the film. Weird.)

There is one nod to modern life: The inclusion of an openly gay b-boy, who is of course rejected by a fellow homophobic crew member. Any guess as to whether the homophobe finally embraces his gay teammate and becomes openminded and loving? If you don’t know the answer, it will be your only surprise in the movie.

So, with plot and dialogue a lost cause, the question is: How is the dancing? The answer is: disappointing.

The 3D effects don’t add much, nor does the high-speed photography the director uses to simultaneously slow down and over-edit the dances. The predictability of the plot makes waiting for the numbers more of a chore than you’d like; watching Chris Brown “act” doesn’t make it any better.

Still, I went in eyes wide open: I didn’t expect much other than to see young men school and get schooled with flamboyant dance moves. It more or less delivers that. Low expectations (and an adorable Josh Peck) are the only salvation of Battle of the Year.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Movie review: ‘Blue Valentine’

Although Blue Valentine is about the disintegration of a straight couple’s marriage, the themes, scenes and emotions it deals with could be out of any relationship: The awkward silences, the cold touches, the largely unspoken anger, the rebuffed affection, the meaningless disagreements. There are moments of tenderness, but they are made all the sadder because we see them in flashback. It’s over for these two.

I’ve been in this kind of relationship. I’m sure most people have. And it’s not pretty.

Sound like a happy film? Yeah, it’s not. But it is very real.

It’s also the kind of film that invites “process” reviews — that is, stories about the making of the film itself and its style: the hand-held camera and improvised dialogue resulting from weeks of off-set rehearsal with stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (Heath Ledger’s widow), who lived together as a married couple for weeks to get into the skins of the characters. That accounts for the realism — authenticity trumps contrivance, character supersedes plot.

You can’t call that a bad thing, but it can be difficult to watch. Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are a young couple with a sweet 5-year-old daughter, but their marriage is failing. In fact, by the time the movie begins, it’s basically over. Both from working-class backgrounds — Dean is a housepainter and mover, Cindy is a nurse — but Cindy seems to feel trapped by Dean’s lack of ambition. She likes his goofy charm, his grand acts of romanticism, but she doesn’t seem challenged by him. “I thought the whole point of coming here was to have a night without kids,” she snipes when he takes her to a fantasy motel and begins making animal noises. Ouch.

Director Derek Cianfrance approximates John Cassavetes’ patented way of creating pained realism not from meaningful dialogue or fancy camerawork, but by intense observation of small moments between people. He hops between the beginnings of their courtship and the dissolve with only subtle visual cues. He also allows Gosling and Williams to sparkle in their roles. Both are likely Oscar contenders, so intense and measured are their performances.

Blue Valentine isn’t the best date movie, but it is, in some ways, an ideal break-up movie, one that makes you feel you’re not alone in that pain.

Now playing at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre in the West Village. Rated R (after an original NC-17 rating for explicit sex). 118 mins.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones