If there were any lingering doubts as to whether the body-switching comedy 17 Again was tailored specifically for heartthrob Zac Efron, you should know that in the movie's very first scene, Efron's character, Mike O'Donnell, not only appears as the star player of a high school basketball team, but quickly breaks into a spontaneous, energetic dance routine with the cheerleaders. That's right, folks! It's High School Musical: Big-ger and Better!
Happily, though, director Burr Steers' movie - which finds Mike's depressed, 37-year-old self (played by Matthew Perry) reliving his glory days after being magically reincarnated as a high school junior - isn't an embarrassment. (It's the movie's über-perky score and lame visual effects that are the embarrassments.) Although 17 Again borrows liberally from Back to the Future, Freaky Friday, and all those late-'80s bastard children of Freaky Friday, there's still enough oomph in this fantastical plotline to produce a few laughs and good-natured "e-w-w-w"s - returning to the school that his children attend, Efron's Dad-in-teen-form gets hit on by his own daughter - and while he doesn't yet possess much comic range, the film's star proves to be a comfortable and confident screen presence even when not staring dewey-eyed at Vanessa Hudgens. Efron still appears slightly miscast here, as he doesn't often suggest an adult sensibility within Mike's strutting showboat, but he's perfectly pleasant, and comes up with surprisingly sharp bits of business; I particularly enjoyed his habit of asking questions with fatherly earnestness and then pressing a concerned finger to his lips, as though preparing to respond to the answers with a paternal "Well, here's what I think... ."
I've got a question, though: Was Efron (or Efron's handlers) aware that 17 Again's supporting cast was lifting his star vehicle right out from under him? Thomas Lennon is hilarious as Mike's unspeakably wealthy, unspeakably nerdy best pal - in the best of many inspired touches, he sleeps in a Star Wars landspeeder - and that spectacular comedienne Leslie Mann is a constant joy as the elder Mike's soon-to-be-ex-wife, understandably troubled by the arrival of this young man who's a dead ringer for her high school sweetheart. (The supremely subtle Mann performs double takes with her eyes.) The Office's scene-swiper Melora Hardin scores as a prim and proper principal, and even the actors cast as Efron's kids (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight) are given funnier routines, and display more natural comedic instinct, than 17 Again's lead. You may roll your eyes at 17 Again's silliness and schmaltz, but these performers manage to keep you pleasantly invested in the goings-on, and while a tired-looking Perry is a bit of a drag on the film, at least Efron's supernatural mentor is played by a reliably jovial character actor... even if your first sight of him is a bit of a shocker. I'm on board with a middle-aged man morphing into Zac Efron, but when, exactly, did Brian Doyle-Murray morph into Santa Claus?
STATE OF PLAY
For most of its length, director Kevin Mcdonald's State of Play is a professionally assembled but rather uninteresting thriller - solid, clever, and more than a little dull. In it, the young, beautiful aide to a Washington D.C. congressman (a nicely inscrutable Ben Affleck) is found to have killed herself by leaping in front of a train, but as her death appears connected to a series of recent, seemingly unrelated killings, schlubby newspaper reporter Russell Crowe and blogging upstart Rachel McAdams team up to tackle the story, asking themselves: Could the woman's suicide actually have been a murder, and could there be a conspiratorial effort to hide the truth from the press? (Answers: Yes, and yes, or there'd be no movie.)
As these types of paranoid thrillers go - with well-dressed scoundrels making cryptic threats and at least one tense sequence set in a poorly illuminated parking garage - State of Play isn't bad. It just isn't much of anything. Though the script is credited to a trio of gifted writers (Matthew Michael Callahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray), the movie's only claim to inventiveness lies in the testy, and happily unromantic, pairing of Crowe and McAdams, yet even this isn't handled with much finesse. The actors are fun to watch, but Crowe's die-hard newspaperman spends so much time railing against the infiltration of bloggers - who, it's frequently suggested, don't do anything like the work of real journalists - that the movie begins to seem as stodgy and behind-the-times as Crowe's character does. State of Play is partly designed as an elegy for the fading newspaper trade, but it barely gives you reason to regret the advent of online journalism. (And whenever Helen Mirren's snippy editor-in-chief shows up, reminding Crowe of the paper's responsibilities to its shareholders and demanding that he turn in his story before completion, you begin to think that print media can't die off quickly enough.)
But just past the film's halfway point, Jason Bateman shows up, and delivers everything that State of Play had previously been lacking: wit, electricity, and loads of personality. Playing an amoral, bisexual press agent whose blasé affectlessness suggests a life spent cleaning up sleaze and being well paid to do so, Bateman provides the movie with a jolt of grubby humanism, and it's indicative of State of Play's blandness that the movie doesn't seem to know what to do with him. (He's dispensed with after 10 too-short minutes.) The actor more than makes his mark, though. Sequestered in a seedy motel room, Bateman is spied on by two of Crowe's next-door accomplices; one listens to his nattering and concludes, "He's a douche," while the other responds, "I love this guy." I'm with him.
CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE
Jason Statham's 2006 action-thriller Crank was reprehensible, trashy fun. The new Crank: High Voltage is merely reprehensible trash. I'm not sure I'll be able to adequately describe just how low writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor sink with this putrid franchise-extender, but at one point here, a naked pole dancer gets shot in the chest, and we watch as her breast implants leak mucus-y fluids and deflate... and that's one of the movie's least offensive images. (The boorish, Neanderthal laughter I heard from certain audience members during this and equally risible scenes chilled me to the bone; they were the sounds you'd image high school bullies making while holding a freshman upside-down and giving him a swirly.)
As Statham hunts down the Asian thugs who've stolen his well-worn heart and replaced it with an untrustworthy mechanical ticker, other sequences find a heavily tattooed gangster removing his nipples with a scalpel (in gory close-up), a man having his elbow sliced off, a disembodied head drop-kicked into a pool, and Ling Bai's hooker repeatedly bashing her pimp in the nuts with a bike. (Poor Ms. Bai's career may never recover from this cinematic nadir, but the same might be said for Dwight Yoakam, Amy Smart, David Carradine, and Clifton Collins, Jr.) The film seems nearly diseased in its juvenile aim to shock and appall, but what's infuriating is that it can't even do that in any sort of entertaining way; scene after scene, the timing is so atrocious, and the editing so incoherent, that you're left with little choice but to stare at the screen in slack-jawed disbelief.
Crank: High Voltage is like a viscera-happy Tarantino flick played at the wrong speed, and somehow, it gets even worse when completely divorcing itself from reality through outré fantasy scenes, which suggest Saturday Night Live skits as written by Mike Myers - not the former cast member, but the sick little psychopath from Rob Zombie's Halloween remake. In the very last shot before the closing credits, a demonically grinning Statham slowly lifts his middle finger at the camera - at us - and in almost 40 years of movie-going, I don't think I've ever witnessed a more redundant gesture.