Review: ‘High School Musical 3’

There are many pros and cons to working at a cinema, as I am slowly finding. One benefit is that I am able to watch as many films as time and logic permits, which I have relished vigorously. The flip side of this, of course, is that not all films we show are ones I would necessarily watch out of choice. It is company policy at the particular cinema which employs me that the usher working on the first day of a newly-released film must watch the first screening in order to check the print for any damages or scratches. It was through this particular set of circumstances and not, I must stress, out of choice, that I found myself watching High School Musical 3.

Having not seen the previous two films, it has been rather bewildering to watch this film ride in on its enormous, Disney-funded juggernaut of hype and publicity. The third film in the series has made an unusual leap from its origins as a made-for-TV movie on the Disney Channel to a full-blown theatrical release, and it’s easy to see why. The franchise has spawned live tours (including one on ice), books, video games, even a reality TV series. And it appears to have paid off -HSM3 now holds the record for the fastest- and biggest-selling advance sales in movie history.

Social protocol necesitates that since I am not a 12-year-old schoolgirl, I am to hate hate hate hate this film, and maybe, after learning that I would have to sit through this film, and subsequently went through the seven stages of grief, my expectations were sufficiently lowered that I would enjoy anything. Well, perhaps this is what has happened, as I did not truly hate HSM3. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but it surprised me in how much it had going for it.

For a start, the lavish production values work entirely in its favour. The Telegraph’s film critic noted that the bigger budget meant that the ante could very much be upped, and the film is certainly a treat for the eyes, if debatably not for the ears. Some of the the big numbers are undeniably impressive: the duet between Ryan and Sharpay effortlessly converts a school lunch hall into a Broadway stage, via a dazzling array of mocked-up locations and stage props (a taxi, a dressing room, a Hollywood premiere) before finishing appropriately with a chorus line can-can.

It’s a visual three-course feast, and that’s before you even get to the implausibly attractive young cast, each of them boasting unnaturally dove-white teeth, perfectly coiffured hair and the kind of boy- or girl-next-door good looks that only a Disney casting process could produce. But say what you want about them – these young performers, most of them still under legal drinking age in the US, are genuinely talented. The acting is often camp and the singing poppy and rather unaccomplished, but the six leads hold considerable screen presence, and they throw themselves measurably into the big set pieces with zeal. The dancing seen is as good as any you will see on a big screen in recent years.

And dance they do, sing and dance their little perpetual grins off, at an often rather exhausting rate. (One aspect of musicals I’ve always had is the sheer illogicality of spontaneously breaking into harmonious song, mid-conversation, but then I suppose that’s just me.) Not much is left between songs, presumably in order to keep the little ones attention, but those looking for some sort of plot or story will quickly find their search is in vain.

At first you almost forgive the overwhelming bland taste this film leaves: it is, after all, a product of Disney, and surely nothing tangy or risky could come from them? But then you remember the extraordinary stuff Pixar has made over the years, and you realise there’s no excuse for the flimsy narrative and characterisation at play here. Yes, it is for kids, but Pixar have demonstrated how quality films can be made to entertain all ages. There’s not a great deal for adults to enjoy, and no prizes will be won for inventiveness or originality.

So it’s all smiles and sing-songs; the biggest crisis faced by the gang is whether Gabriella will make it to the prom, or which college Troy will go to. With no plot to worry about, the songs are mostly about nothing – ‘I Just Want To Be With You’ is self explanatory, really. This, admittedly, is what sometimes happens in musicals – Singin’ In the Rain has plenty of music for music’s sake, but here it seems to be music to-fill-some-time’s sake.

And the music is hardly top-grade standard. With neither the Broadway calibre of last year’s Hairspray, nor the sing-along appeal of this year’s Mamma Mia!, the filmmakers have understandably geared the soundtrack towards the target audience. So we are treated to forgettable tweeny-pop, the sort of thing that might annoy you on a commercial radio station. Put it this way – you won’t be humming the songs on your way out of the cinema.

And the vague messages being pedalled through, as far as I could ascertain, was that you should, er, be true to yourself, or know that the gang are ‘all in this together’. Clearly some vain attempt at throwing in a life lesson along the way has resulted in a collection of cheesy indeterminate Disney clichés. The cheese factor made the final hour of this film fairly excruciating viewing.

But these words are meaningless. As Emanuel Levy put it, this franchise is critic-proof. If you are a parent with children of a certain age, chances are the decision has already been made, the tickets have already been pre-booked, arrangements may even be made for a repeat viewing, and no amount of column inches decrying the tediousness of it all will make any impact. It is less of a phenomenon and more of an epidemic which cannot be stopped. When, working as an usher, I checked tickets for a screening of HSM3, a little girl asked me not to tear her ticket too much, as she wanted to “treasure it forever”. She said so without a shred of irony, and I duly complied.

For context: at the time of writing this review, I was working in a cinema.  I no longer work for the cinema.

Review: ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’

If you don’t already, you need Simon Pegg in your life. The British comic actor has slowly wormed his way into the public consciousness over the past few years, first with the excellent and surreal TV comedy Spaced (an extras-packed R1 DVD was recently released), followed up with decent spoof-y Britcoms Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

With a growing cult following in the US, Pegg is clearly aiming for stardom, and thus has to do what every British actor must do to make it in the States: star in a slew of mediocre rom-coms or predictable thrillers. He has had a bit part with Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3, and lead roles in the watchable Big Nothing and somewhat less watchable Run, Fatboy, Run.

Of those three films, Pegg is easily the best thing in it, and he does it again here. In this adaptation of Toby Young’s memoir of the same name, Pegg shines in a sea of relative mediocrity, his subtle comedic sensibilities lending the film an enjoyable, naturalistic level of humour. He makes an otherwise average movie watchable by playing an entertaining loser, an perennial idiot with the social skills of a gorilla. In less capable hands it could fall flat, but Pegg makes Sidney a largely likeable buffoon.

And perhaps that’s the problem – in the source text, our hero is an intensely unlikeable, if absurdly amusing, idiot. But, as the real life Young has acknowledged in an interview with the actor, Simon Pegg has an extremely likeable screen presence. And so there’s sort conflict-of-likeabilty created in the book’s journey to the big screen. Director Robert Weide, who made his name in the improvisational genius of Curb Your Enthusiasm, gives us an opening hour of faintly enjoyable slapstick, but ultimately opts for paint-by-numbers romantic comedy in the closing act. There are some surprisingly predictable cliches at play here: the asshole romantic rival, Pegg’s ‘crossroads’ moment in the pouring rain at the end of the second act, and of course the final, inescapable dash to the airport – a romcom staple.

The film’s strongest moments are when it stays faithful to the book. It touches lightly on the archaic hierarchy at play in the media elite, and there are plenty of opportunities for laughs from the source. One memorable scene, based on one of Young’s real life stunts, involves Bring Your Daughter to Work Day and a transsexual stripper – complete with a close-up shot of the penis, which Pegg helpfully conceals.

But arguably the strongest aspects of the books have been stripped away. Gone are the book’s sharp observations on the superficiality of the New York social scene, gone are the notes on NYC dating, which brilliantly read like Sex and the City for cynical, sexist British men. And most notably, gone are the excess of Young’s failures. The book is a chronicle of an almost consecutive run of personal disasters, culminating in Young leaving New York, unemployed. Admittedly, if it was a truly faithful adaptation, as the Onion’s AV Club observed, “it’d be called A Catalogue Of Fuck-Ups, and be banned from every theater”. But in its ‘heavily fictionalized’ form, How To Lose Friends feels trite and diluted, opting for broad, unsophisticated and rather unsatisfying comedy.

It’s a bit of a shame, because there’s a wealth of talent on offer here. Weide can and has done better with his superb, understated work on Curb, and he has assembled a solid supporting cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Megan Fox (playing almost a parody of herself), Gillian Anderson and the quality guaranteed Jeff Bridges. And Pegg ties them together well, proving again he is of leading man substance, in acting skills if not movie-star looks.

Ultimately, How to Lose Friends is a disappointment. It’s by no means terrible but with a strong source and an abundance of ability on board it could have easily have been better. It will do no harm to Simon Pegg’s career though, and by the time the new Star Trek movie comes out next year, where he will be playing Scotty, there’s no reason why he won’t be a fully fledged superstar, and films such as this will only be remembered as ‘Simon Pegg career furtherance vehicle’.

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