[Screen It]

(2006) (Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown) (PG-13)

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Drama: A classical dance instructor tries to inspire a group of students in detention by teaching them his material.
Pierre Dulaine (ANTONIO BANDERAS) is a classical dance instructor who gets an idea one night upon seeing an angry high school student, Rock (ROB BROWN), bashing a car owned by his principal Augustine James (ALFRE WOODARD), for her not allowing him into a dance party. Accordingly, he proposes to her that he teach Rock and the various other delinquents she has in detention through his material.

She's initially reluctant, and both teacher Joe Temple (JOHN ORTIZ) and the various students think it's a bad idea. They include LaRhette (YAYA DaCOSTA) who doesn't get along with Rock due to their brothers' past interaction, and the provocative Sasha (JENNA DEWAN) who's enjoying the attention paid to her by both Ramos (DANTE BASCO) and Danjou (ELIJAH KELLEY). Then there are class clowns Eddie (MARCUS T. PAULK) and Kurd (JONATHAN MALEN), the hulking softie Monster (BRANDON ANDREWS) and others.

The students only give in when Pierre threatens to play "ancient" music so loud that it hurts their ears and contemporary sensibilities, and are then swayed when he and accomplished dance student Morgan (KATYA VIRSHILAS) put on a fiery display of classic dancing for them. Joined by wallflower Caitlin (LAUREN COLLINS) who wants to fit in somewhere as well as gain confidence for her dreaded cotillion dance, the students soon begin learning the various dance steps, all while putting a fresh spin on the material.

As they prepare for a big dance-off tournament toward the end of the semester, they and Pierre must contend with various challenges that threaten to derail their progress and his hopes of inspiring and transforming the students through classical dancing.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
One of the complaints about kids of any generation is that they don't know of or appreciate the classics (meaning anything that occurred before their birth, especially regarding the arts and culture). That's particularly true for music and its direct offshoot, dancing.

While kids doing the Lindy Hop may have been aware of the tango and foxtrot, their krumping contemporaries probably are not. That is, unless they were introduced to the classics via some sort of schooling, such as that provided by Pierre Dulaine who reportedly has taught thousands of New York City school kids about such "old school" dancing.

For those into the documentary scene, that might remind them of "Mad Hot Ballroom," the 2005 film about another ballroom dancing class in the Big Apple. Now, Dulaine's story -- or fictionalized bits and pieces of it -- arrive on the big screen in the form of "Take the Lead." One of those purported inspirational dramas where kids on the wrong life track and righted by a caring mentor/teacher/coach, the picture is pure formula.

Directed by music video and commercial veteran Liz Friedlander (making her feature debut), the story - penned by Dianne Houston -- goes through the standard motions of many an urban school drama. Take a group of troubled and otherwise discarded students, a caring and compassionate instructor, some naysayers and a deadline for a big contest, blend them all together and serve to as many viewers as possible.

The yield is unremarkably bland yet familiar, although there are some tasty bits that spice things up now and then. Most notable among them is the dancing itself, a predictable mix of the classics (waltz, tango, etc.) with more contemporary street and/or club moves that creates an entirely different art form. The best is a three-way tango that occurs near the end of the film where two teenage guys battle over an alluring girl during the big competition.

There are other similar moments, all of them smaller in scope and running time, but when the film exits the dance floor, it becomes far too flat-footed, mechanical and routine. Portraying Dulaine, Antonio Banderas gets to strut his stuff while exuding some of the raw charisma (if subdued) that made him a heartthrob long ago. Yet, we learn little about him beyond the usual trappings of such "coach" characters.

Alfre Woodard plays the harried principal who has little time for Dulaine's offer to teach the kids (the latter being a plot point that isn't fleshed out enough to feel anything more than contrived), while John Ortiz plays the requisite antagonist who's against the idea and tries to derail it. Both are stock characters and neither is fleshed out to any extent.

On the kids' side, Rob Brown gets the meatiest part playing a bitter teen with a troubled family life and past who finds redemption through dance after a slight detour into a subplot of falling in with the wrong crowd. That latter part feels like another contrivance as it's similarly shortchanged in terms of any depth beyond being just another plot element/complication.

Yaya DaCosta gets a slightly less developed character as his antagonist (their brothers' past involvement has led to their mutual disdain). Yet, as is the case with Lauren Collins as a rich, right side of the tracks wallflower who joins the group, she seems positively three-dimensional compared to most of the rest of the characters. They're present either just to fill up space or represent some singular character or story element (the mean rich girl, the class clown, the flirt, etc.).

Feeling like one of those old dance movies where some drama is thrown into the mix on the dance floor in hopes of adding a human element or simply as temporal padding, "Take the Lead" may be entertaining when the kids are learning and then doing their various modified dance moves. The rest of the time it steps on the toes of its two left feet enough that you'll likely grimace more often than tapping your own. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 22, 2006 / Posted April 7, 2006

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