Monday, October 27, 2008

Rants on High School Musical 3: Senior Year and American Teen

Good God, when did I become one of those critics? You know the kind...those who admit right in the open the many faults with a particular movie, which may include weak acting, a horrid script, bad direction or any other numerous problems, but still proclaim, "Well, golly gee, I can forgive all that shittiness because it was so much fun!" and then give it 3.5 stars out of 4. I made fun of them when they came out in droves to support Mamma Mia! and Meryl Streep's hammy-as-hell performance because it was "so much fun!" After High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Kenny Ortega, 2008), however, I just have to forget my critical duties for a few minutes and wildly announce to the world how much I love this film, flaws and all.

Let me get the problems out of the way: the plot, even by the anorexic standards of the first two, is thin. It's so thin, it's practically a poor, African child with starvation bloat. The only hint of conflict comes from Troy deciding whether or not he wants to do basketball at U of A with Chad or head off to Julliard on a music scholarship, and that's mostly an internal one (HSM3 actually makes Yankee Doodle Dandy, that beloved classic of non-conflict, look like a soap opera). Any musical number involving Troy and Gabriella singing to each other became an instant bore. Some of the lines were so incredibly gooey, so incredibly groan-worthy that I was afraid that my eyes would never return to their regular position after the amount time I spent rolling my eyes toward the end.

These are problems, however, that we've come to expect from the HSM movies and only add to its charm (or, if you're like me, its "so-bad-it's-good" factor). If nothing else, High School Musical 3: Senior Year improves upon many of the problems that plagued HSM2. Gone are the shoddy, tin-can vocals that absolutely ruined most of the songs because it was blatantly obvious that they were all fixed in a studio and the ridiculous, "let's gang up on Troy" plot contrivances that absolutely made no sense (I'll never get over that stupid "I don't care about my future, all I care about is what my friends think" line that fucking drove me crazy).

Most importantly, the music numbers actually seem well thought out and intricate instead of the boring, we-have-five-minutes-to-make-this-work steps that we saw in the first two. In fact, they're the best thing about HSM3 and one reason that I want to see this movie again right now (I think we all know the other two reasons). "Now or Never" seems to be, on first glance, just another retread of those other sports numbers like "Get'cha Head in the Game" and "I Don't Dance," but it's surprisingly well done, exciting even when it shouldn't be. The one part I mercilessly made fun of when I first saw the trailer--Gabriella shouting "TROYYYYYY!" in the middle of the big game--actually works a lot better than I ever thought possible. It is a surprisingly touching moment and, for once, I almost bought the romance between Troy and Gabriella (even if Vanessa Hudgens still can't act or sing worth a damn). "Scream," Troy's obligatory angst solo, starts off just as hilariously stupid as "Bet On It! (Bet On It!)" (I was half expecting him to see his reflection in one of those basketballs) but it grows on you and sucks you in like a black hole until you're entranced with every angsty movement Zac Efron delivers. It's a wild couple of minutes with Efron almost as ferocious and unrelenting as some of Marion Cotillard's most riveting on-stage moments in La Vie en Rose.

The best scene in the film, by a long shot, is the Sharpay and Ryan duet "I Want It All." The song is the best in the film and the accompanying musical number hits all the highs you would expect. The scope is enormous--a far cry from the ladder in "Bop to the Top"--and both Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Gabreel are both game to achieve director and choreographer Kenny Ortega's mad vision. I want to describe for you just how amazing this number is in glorious detail but the only way my jumbled brain can comprehend it is through adjectives like AMAZING, MAJOR, EPIC, FABULOUS, ORGASMIC. You need to see it to even comprehend its amazingness. Besides, what do you say about a musical number that incorporates Troy as a rabid, psychotic fan of Sharpay and Gabriella as Sharpay and Ryan's maid which provides the only time that Vanessa Hudgens has ever been of interest as an actor to me?

The acting was generally decent this time around--even Alyson Reed as Ms. Darbus had a couple of good moments--but the film belonged to two people: Zac Efron and Ashley Tisdale, natch. Efron, who showed early signs of amazingness in Hairspray, now completely owns every musical number (and most scenes) he is in. The aforementioned "Scream" number works so well because of his passion and comittment to the dance. There's a moment during the treehouse scene when, whether inadvertently or not, Zac stares directly into the camera for a few moments and, somehow, it turns out to be one of the most beautiful moments of the film. There's no doubt in my mind that the camera loves him much in the same way it loved Garbo, Dietrich and Monroe and only enhances his raw talent into something more.

I could go on for days about how much I loved La Tisdale here. She proves, without a doubt, that she is infinitely worthy of that Oscar nomination that I keep pushing for her. It's hard for me to root for a film that seems so insistent on pushing its most interesting character out of the limelight, but La Tisdale's effective performance makes me forget about that because she sparkles the entire film--from her divalicious entrance to her final curtain call--even when HSM3 keeps pushing for Troy and Gabriella to be the main focus. Relegated to the background, La Tisdale does her best work, rolling her eyes like she's been taking lessons from Michelle Pfeiffer and turning such minor quips as "Genius" when Ms. Darbus announces the name of the spring musical or her sarcastic "Yipee!" when the Wildcats decide to join the musical into perfect bon mots worthy of Margo Channing. It becomes especially apparent that she is a comedienne to be reckoned with whenever she shares a scene with her lowly assistant Tiara. The film tries to pass these two off as equals in some respects, but La Tisdale lets everyone know where its at; there's no way this newcomer bitch will ever be a match for her. Even when Tiara pulls an Eve Harrington and we think that Sharpay has finally been defeated definitively, she rises from the ashes like a phoenix to take her rightful place back. It's during that moment that we realize that La Tisdale's Sharpay is sort of like Scarlett O'Hara in that nothing will ever keep her down and we want to see her succeed, no matter how wicked her ways are. It's due to La Tisdale's epic performance that Sharpay stands out as more than just an annoying bitch stereotype and always comes out looking like the high priestess of the theatre that we've all seen in real life but that we can still, against all odds, still root for in the end.

Is High School Musical 3: Senior Year perfect? No, but that hardly matters when most of the film is such a glorious treat. Will the film leave me on such a big high when I see it again? Probably not, because then I'll probably notice many more flaws than on this go around. Who the hell cares, anyways? This is one great first impression. B

If High School Musical 3: Senior Year represent some kind of imaginary high school universe in which cliques don't exist and an obviously gay theatre kid who isn't ignored by the basketball team and the other jocks but is actually embraced by them for his talent, then American Teen (Nanette Burstein, 2008) is the anti-HSM, showing what high school is actually like (well, at least in my experience). Burstein shows us the cliques, which are obviously a part of any high school, but doesn't exploit them like in The Breakfast Club or countless other high school films. The jock, Colin, and the rest of the team doesn't beat up on poor marching band loner, Jake; they're under way too much pressure to get a scholarship and win the championship to put kids in lockers.

My favorite part of American Teen was the relationship between quirky Hannah and jock cutie Mitch. Unlike the relationship between Troy and Gabriella, Mitch and Hannah felt real and genuine- a couple I feel like I could know. Their wicked banter and electric chemistry on their first date excited me at all of the possibilities their relationship had. They obviously had fun together but, most importantly, I felt like they could learn so much from each other. There's this great scene where, on the bus to a basketball game, Mitch tells his teammates that Hannah showed him Brokeback Mountain the other day and that he liked it. He seems so proud of himself that he's done something out of his comfort zone but then his teammates take the usual potshots at him for liking that movie and Mitch is not so sure anymore. It's a shame that peer pressure is the reason for their inevitable split and it makes their heartbreaking ending all the more upsetting. But that's high school I guess; it's never easy or turns out the way we want to. Thank God American Teen is there to show us that and not just offer another easy, stereotypical answer. A-


Marcy said...

I want to see HSM3 again too! It's just such a fun movie. I don't care if I see more flaws--those fabulous musical numbers are worth countless viewings.

After seeing Zac Efron in HSM3, I feel like I need to see Hairspray. I didn't care for his performances in the first two, but he really surprised me here. But Ashley Tisdale was barely a surprise. "I Want It All" was in short, amazing.

American Teen seems interesting, though.

Great reviews, James!

Slayton said...

My favorite moment is when Gabriela is singing that song in the car and the mom looks over and does this "<:[" look at her, like "Why don't you ever fucking shut up."

It must be so awful being Gabriela's parents, what with her always expressing her adolescent angst through pop songs.

I give the film an F for 'fabulous'. Regardless, it still gets an F.

J.D. said...

Flaws? Pffft.

Awesome review tho, dude! The Scarlett O'Hara comparison to Sharpay is brilliant.

Dame James Henry said...

Marcy: You haven't seen Hairspray yet?! Drop everything you're doing right now and go watch it. It's incredible! Zac Efron isn't a great actor in it, per se, but he has a lot of presence and his singing/hip shaking is incredibly sexy. And "Without Love" is one of the funniest musical sequences I've ever seen all thanks to him.

Slayton: Haha. That's so true. If I was Gabriella's mother I'd want to punch her in the face. Like I said, I'm sure the flaws will outweigh everything the second time I see it (and I'll probably downgrade it) but I had a fun time and it's a vast improvement over the first two.

J.D.: Thanks!