HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR
Sure, its storyline is simplistic and its romantic ballads are pretty dull (and compose half of the film's soundtrack), but in nearly every other way High School Musical 3: Senior Year is fantastic - a supremely spirited, candy-colored pop extravaganza that sends you out of the cineplex on an exultant high.
It's almost too easy to make fun of this wildly popular series, with its squeaky-clean, singing and dancing Albuquerque teenagers that don't resemble any teens you'll ever meet. Yet the charm of Senior Year lies in its make-believe, fairy-tale appeal and its wonderfully uncomplicated inclusiveness, and best of all, it's clear that director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and his cast adore musicals - you sense it in the leads' beaming happiness, the boundless exuberance of the background figures, and the effervescent thrill of the musical numbers. (Zac Efron, here, performs an indirect homage to Fred Astaire's famed ceiling dance in Royal Wedding; in true teen-flick fashion, Efron's world spins around him.) Senior Year may be silly, but like all the great works in its genre, it's spectacularly sincere.
The plot concerns ... oh, who cares? There's a prom on the horizon, and a spring musicale, and graduation, and Ortega's scenes bubble with infectious good humor and no small supply of visual (and verbal) wit. All during the film, the camera seems to be dancing right along with the actors, and from the opening explosion of red and white in the school gymnasium to the inspired play-within-a-play sequences and music-video fantasias - particularly the blissful "I Want It All" and "The Boys Are Back" - the individual set pieces are fluidly staged and gloriously imaginative. Better still, they're terrifically well assembled. Ortega understands that the percussive rhythms of screen musicals such as Chicago (which can turn choreography into context-free flashes of arms and legs) are far less exhilarating to watch than the simple sight of performers dancing without frequent cutting; the impressive moves on display in Senior Year were obviously not crafted in the editing room.
In their jump from small screen to big, the stars, in these roles at least, exude marvelous charisma, and whether you like the movie's bubble-gum pop tunes or loathe them is immaterial. The movies right now need more Zac Efrons and Vanessa Hudgens(e)s and Corbin Bleus and Ashley Tisdales and Lucas Grabeels - young song-and-dance talents with the grace, instinct, and passion to revitalize the movie musical. (Tisdale, as the priceless princess-in-hot-pink Sharpay, is especially good, and Grabeel is a real trouper - Macaulay Culkin crossed with Peter Allen.) In what might be Senior Year's loveliest touch, the leads are given a well-deserved curtain call, and their proud smiles (and tear-filled eyes) feel completely genuine; for a moment, this unashamedly featherweight entertainment turns legitimately moving. High School Musical 3 is rapturous fun. It's been 30 years since Grease, and Hollywood has finally done Grease correctly.
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES
In her early film roles (by which I mean the ones she played before she was 10), Dakota Fanning displayed such acute intelligence and preternatural acting instinct that it kinda freaked me out; she was, of course, "cute" in that child-star way, but also so polished and confident that there was nothing remotely cute about her. Now that Fanning's an adolescent, she's losing some of her elfin adorableness (as she should), but the actress' stunning performance gifts appear to be stronger than ever. And for The Secret Life of Bees, they need to be.
Based on Sue Monk Kidd's novel about a young South Carolinan who begins to understand life, love, and loss on a beekeeping farm circa 1964, writer/director Gina Prince-Blythewood ladles on the feel-goodery (and feel-badery) with an obviousness that borders on shamelessness; the musical score keeps doing the work the script should be doing, and Queen Latifah - fittingly cast as the farm's queen bee(keeper) - is forced to utter one awkwardly sentimental, life-is-for-the-living bromide after another. Her role would be unendurable if this endlessly enjoyable actress didn't insist on playing it with such disarming warmth and subtlety, and she's not alone among the Bees performers in her ability to redeem fraudulent conceits through wholly honest interpretations. Alicia Keys, with folded arms, is slightly bested by her petulant character, but Sophie Okonedo and Jennifer Hudson are wonderful in rather dimensionless roles, and Fanning - her guardedness giving way to a joyous directness - is a frequent thrill to watch. Its cast isn't quite able to overcome its schmaltz, but I've seen at least 50 movies this year that were much worse than The Secret Life of Bees. I've also seen at least 50 that were better, but to be fair, they didn't star Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah.
The tagline for the Saw V advertising reads, "You won't believe how it ends," and I guess that's kind of true, because the promotion led me to expect a surprise of some sort, and the movie actually ends the same way every Saw movie ends. After 80-ish minutes of torture, shrieking, and gloom - routinely interrupted by meaningless backstory and cop-drama clichés - the franchise's new offering climaxes, yet again, by replaying previous scenes so the "plot" can be "explained," followed by a "shocking" twist in which the tables are turned on the story's lone heroic figure. Am I missing something here? Maybe the ads should've stated, "You won't believe how it begins," because the first seven words heard in the film are "fuck," and the last time I recall that happening was in 1994's Four Weddings & a Funeral.
Having said that, Saw V is probably my favorite entry thus far among these annual endurance tests ... not that director David Hackl's endeavor had to work very hard to earn that title. This fourth sequel still substitutes viscera for scares and displays the frenzied editing techniques that, ironically, underscore just how little is happening, and the movie even makes a few blunders that are all its own; for some odd reason, Saw V's most obnoxious character receives perhaps the least satisfying execution in the series' history, and Tobin Bell - whose Jigsaw is seen, now and forever more, in flashback - appears too logy and disinterested to even pick up his paycheck, though I'm betting he wasn't. Yet for a Saw movie, Hack'l latest is rather ambitiously constructed, moderately clever, features a few memorable gross-outs (the prelude's torture device, involving an ax blade and a pendulum, is enjoyably disturbing), and even pulls off a really funny bit when one of the victims-to-be asks two of his fellow captives what they do for a living, and upon learning that they're a real-estate developer and a city planner, says, "So you're both boring." The Saw flicks are, too, but at least Saw V is slightly less boring than the others.