Posts in: July 9th, 2010

Three O’Clock High (1987)

Three O’Clock High seeks to answer a question that has plagued moviegoers for generations: what would happen if John Hughes made a movie out of Franz Kafka’s The Trial? The answer is alternately funny, surreal, surprising, and suspenseful. It could have easily come apart at the seams, but director Phil Joanou and star Casey Siemaszko maintain an air of emotional honesty throughout. No matter how strange the circumstances get, it’s easy to relate to the increasing anxiety of Siemaszko’s character, Jerry Mitchell.

Jerry is pretty much a high school Everyman. He edges toward nerdy (he writes for the student paper and runs the school store), but one of the nice surprises of Three O’Clock High is its willingness to eschew the obvious high school stereotypes. Jerry never faces relentless mockery or bullying. He merely has the misfortune of crossing paths with a genuine psychopath, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).

Buddy has just transferred to Weaver High, after expulsion from various other local schools. Rumors swirl immediately. Buddy is most notorious for hospitalizing a dean who dared to touch him. Buddy, you see, does not like to be touched. At all. By anyone. When Jerry is tasked with interviewing him for the newspaper, he makes the mistake of playfully clapping a hand against Buddy’s shoulder. It doesn’t go over well: the comically menacing Buddy challenges Jerry to a fight after school.
 Terrified, Jerry spends the rest of the day trying to get out of it, but none of his plans work. Buddy makes short work of the hulking jock Jerry hires to fight on his behalf. He also tears the alternator out of Jerry’s car. Even Jerry’s bizarre attempt to get detention—thus preventing the showdown “honestly”—fails, for hilarious reasons I won’t spoil.

As the day drags on, Weaver High School becomes a playground for strange, colorful characters (which include Mitch Pileggi as a security guard who takes his job very seriously and Anne Ryan as Jerry’s off-kilter, psychic-obsessed girlfriend). The quirkiness of the characters contributes to the gradual fever-dream feeling that permeates the second half of the film. Everyone feels a few ticks off-center, including Jerry, and the heightened reality lends a strangely epic quality to the fight itself.

Tonally, Joanou pulls off quite a feat in portraying high school as both horrifically nightmarish and patently absurd. He trots out every trick in the slick, stylish director’s book—long Steadicam takes, perfect match cuts, super-low angles, camera movements that defy description. Flashiness like Joanou’s can get annoying when it feels like it’s overcompensating for a shallow story, but Joanou manages to make his stylistic abuse both match the action and enhance the dreamy feel of the narrative.

The story combines deft satire with an encapsulation of the average high school experience: fear, confusion, and anxiety intermingling with increasingly serious interactions with the foreign world of adults. Jerry is a kid in over his head, and Three O’Clock High ultimately reveals itself as a goofy coming-of-age story, with his decision to fight instead of run away symbolizing his ascent into manhood. Its aversion to stereotypes reveals the strange characters as deceptively complex, which again underscores the coming-of-age themes: Jerry starts to realize the cracks in the façade of the adults around him, and he realizes his classmates—and even Buddy—aren’t as boring and predictable as they may seem.

Like many ’80s high school movies, the hair, fashions, and Tangerine Dream soundtrack may seem a little dated. However, the story and characters hold up remarkably well. This is the sort of movie any teen can enjoy and relate to, but it also manages to capture the alternately fond and frustrating memories most adults feel when looking back on their high school experience. Why Three O’Clock High isn’t held in the same regard as the John Hughes oeuvre, and why the bulk of its teen cast didn’t move on to bigger and better things, mystifies me.

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Shortcut to Happiness (2001/2004/2007?)

When I saw Shortcut to Happiness in this month’s cable listings, I thought, What? A comedy with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and I’ve never even heard of it? I figured, at the bare minimum, I would have seen a couple of reviews when it was released in 2004. How could a movie with such well-known actors, produced and directed by star Alec Baldwin, slip through the cracks?

It’s impossible to review this movie without acknowledging its troubled production history. After all, its most significant problems—editing and music—are rooted in post-production, and Baldwin had left the project and removed his name from the director credit long before post-production was completed. So here it is in brief: principal photography was completed in 2001, but the investors lied about having enough money to make the film. Consequently, according to Baldwin, the investors were investigated for bank fraud and “the Feds” took the film away from him. Once the Feds released the film, a rough, incomplete cut was screened at film festivals in 2004, in the hopes of securing funds to complete it. When that didn’t work, Baldwin left the project. It languished because, in the midst of the chaos, the film’s production company had gone through all sorts of splitting, merging, and absorbing, so half a dozen companies claimed ownership, each cutting their own versions of the film. Thanks, one assumes, to Baldwin’s high-profile, Emmy-winning role in 30 Rock, producer Bob Yari picked the film up in 2007 and sold one of the many cuts to Starz, sandwiched between more well-known movies like The Illusionist and Find Me Guilty. There it remains, playing regularly on Starz, unavailable on DVD.

Buried within the mediocre end result is a fairly compelling comedy about the meaning of success—should one sell out for money and fame or commit to a more spiritually rewarding but less lucrative path? Baldwin plays Jabez Stone, a struggling New York writer who believes he’s finally writing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, nobody will read his first novel, much less his incomplete second novel. Desperate, he sends the first manuscript directly to high-profile editor Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins). To Stone’s surprise, Webster actually reads it, but he does not like it. One fateful night, muggers steal Stone’s laptop—which contains the only copy of his new novel—and his typewriter breaks. Enraged, Stone hurls his typewriter out the window of his apartment and kills an elderly woman.

This is the film’s crossroads. It could have developed into a much more interesting movie had they continued down this path. However, Jennifer Love Hewitt shows up as a variation on the Devil, and it starts to adhere rigidly to the basic plot of “The Devil and Daniel Webster”: Stone trades his soul for 10 years of fame and fortune but quickly finds the price—loss of friends (both literally and figuratively), loss of time, and loss of dignity—is too high. Stone is forced into the position of hired hack, pumping out beach reads quickly and efficiently. In one of the funniest running gags, the titles of Stone’s novels suggest the vacuous redundancy within its pages: A Loss of Feeling, Remembrance of a Loss of Feeling, and (my personal favorite) A Certain Numbness of the Extremities.

As expected, the third act revolves around a trial for Stone’s soul, with Webster arguing on his behalf in front of a jury populated by famous authors and presided over by Stone’s successful former friend (Dan Aykroyd), who was killed in order for Stone to achieve his success. In a film that contains many sharp jokes aimed at the entertainment industry, and strong performances by everyone (including, surprisingly, Hewitt, who is cute but generally the weak link in every film she’s in), this third act feels like a bit of a cop-out. Since its 1937 publication, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” has had so many spoofs, homages, and adaptations, the trial for Stone’s soul lacks suspense and emotional punch through sheer overuse. The screenwriters have multiple opportunities to stray off the beaten path of their source material, but every time it seems like the story will head in a more interesting direction, it snaps back to a story that has, unfortunately, become a cliché.

Although the third act can be blamed on Baldwin and his screenwriters, it’s not the film’s biggest problem. The film’s stilted editing causes each shot to hang a half-beat too long, which is the death knell for a comedy. The dialogue has a vaguely screwball patter that sort of works when both actors are in the same shot. Whenever the film cuts back and forth between two or more characters, the timing gets thrown off. Compounding the problem are the ill-fitting musical selections, which seem haphazard and almost never fit the tone of the scene. It feels like somebody involved in the production owned the rights to a handful of pop songs and tossed them in because it was cheaper than composing original music.

Better choices may have salvaged this film, but it’s a moot point. What matters is how the film turned out, and the answer is, unfortunately, “Not well.” I can lament the wasted cast or the troubled production destroying the possibilities of a good film, but that doesn’t change what it is: a mediocre curiosity that’s ultimately not worth seeing.

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The Last Airbender (2010)

For most of its runtime, The Last Airbender suffers from the problem that has plagued the last few Harry Potter movies: familiarity with its source material is required to understand the movie itself. As a critic, the fact that I know nothing about the Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired this film (“Book One” in a proposed trilogy that will probably never see completion) is a boon—I don’t have to worry about high expectations souring my opinion or familiarity obscuring the fact that the story doesn’t make any sense. However, as a moviegoer, my ignorance is a constant source of annoyance.

The plot is overly convoluted from the moment its opening crawl explains the movie’s world to the audience. See, it takes place on a pseudo-Earth world divided into four kingdoms, each guided by one of the four natural elements (water, fire, earth, and air). For millennia, a Chosen One became “the Avatar,” someone with the ability to harness all four of these elements. This Avatar, apparently, kept the peace between the four kingdoms by virtue of being a total badass. However, 100 years before the start of the film, the last Avatar (a child) disappeared without a trace, leading to a long war perpetrated by the Fire Kingdom.

Purely by coincidence, the action opens with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother/protector, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), uncovering Aang (Noah Ringer) in a Water Kingdom iceberg. Aang was the Avatar, and now that he’s thawed out and back to normal, the Fire Kingdom wants him…well, not dead, exactly. It’s sort of unclear what they actually want from him. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) repeatedly says that killing him will just cause a new Avatar to be born, but he never takes the time to say why he wants the Avatar. Maybe he just wants to keep Aang prisoner so he can continue his war effort.

The crux of the conflict revolves around Aang’s inability to master other elements. See, he’s an “airbender,” someone with power over air, but he fled from his Avatar calling before he could master the others. Katara offers to teach him to harness water. She starts out as “the last waterbender,” although she’s not terribly good at bending water, and later in the movie other members of the Water Kingdom have an unexplained good grasp of waterbending. See what I mean when I said the plot doesn’t make much sense?

At any rate, the survival of the remaining kingdoms hinges on Aang’s ability to master water, which (as anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game knows) is the only element that can defeat fire. Aang has a hard time learning, in part because he keeps getting kidnapped by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a reluctant agent of Zhao whose father (played by Cliff Curtis) rules the Fire Kingdom. Later, Zuko has a change of heart and releases Aang, but then he’s backed into a corner and must bring Aang back to his father. Like I said, convoluted.

The third act consists of an orgy of violence and special effects on par with a kiddie version of 300 or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those of you brave enough to see this movie, but I’ll describe its most basic problem: writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan refuses to lay out the mythology in advance. This issue causes problems throughout the film (in addition to the confusion about who can and can’t bend the water, Aang has the ability to resurrect the dead and shouts that the oppressed citizens of an Earth Kingdom village should use their powers, even though earlier it’s established that only a select few have these powers), but never more than in the third act. Rather than packing the last half hour with revelations that deepen the audience’s understanding of how this world works, it feels like Shyamalan is making things up as he goes along. It builds to a laughable deus ex machina that’s followed by a smash cut to a scene that sets up the sequel by introducing a never-before-seen character who receives one passing mention earlier in the film.

Audiences who have seen the cartoon may cheer these nonsensical moments, but they exist to alienate the uninitiated portion of the audience simply looking for entertaining, thought-provoking fantasy. The Last Airbender feels incomplete, but not disjointed. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed book version of the cartoon series. The story has an assured flow from one scene to the next—it just lacks any concrete reason for these scenes to follow one another, for these characters to take the actions they do, and for the convoluted mythology to rear its ugly head and save the day.

The older actors—notably Patel, Mandvi, and Shaun Toub—do their best to bring a certain level of vitality and emotion to their characters. Patel has easily the most complex and interesting character, but he’s hindered by the screenplay’s insistence on forcing Zuko to do things that don’t really make any sense. Still, he does a fine job with an unenviable role. The same can’t be said for the younger actors. I feel mean for bashing kids, but Ringer makes Jake Lloyd look like Jackie Coogan (look it up). Peltz is a little better, but not much. Their characters anchor the story, but the actors themselves can’t convey the necessary emotions to make the audience feel any empathy or enthusiasm for their struggles. Coming from Shyamalan, this is a big surprise. In the past, pretty much the only reason to watch his movies was to marvel at his ability to coax great performances out of so-so actors.

The film also lacks Shyamalan’s trademark suspense. Even at his worst, Shyamalan had the rare ability to create an atmosphere of dread and a sense of suspense rivaled only by Hitchcock. Why didn’t he bring any of that to this story? This feels like a by-the-numbers big-budget kids’ movie. Instead of suspense or mystery, the film has an air of, “Hey, kids, you already know the story, so kick back and have fun.” This is par for the course for most recent kids’ movies, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, this movie spends more time trying to create a franchise than trying to develop a single satisfying film. Changing some elements—a stronger screenplay, better casting—could have made it a decent movie, but it’s too late for that now. There’s no kinder way to say it: The Last Airbender is both a failure and a mess.

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