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America’s sweethearts: (l-r) Efron and Hudgens in High School Musical 3: Senior Year.

Another (Yawn) Callback

By Laura Leon

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Directed by Kenny Ortega

 

I accidentally got hooked on High School Musical a few years ago when Santa deposited both the DVD and CD under our tree. I had heard about it, of course, and seen countless promos for it when my guys watched the Disney Channel, but I snootily assumed it was, well, stupid. I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed the toe tapping, gotta-sing-and-dance nature of it, and even more pleased when my girlfriends admitted their own happy discovery of the same (whispered as one would confide to a gal pal about an affair, or an obsession with the Bedazzler). High School Musical 2, set during summer vacation, was cute but not at as intoxicating as the first, but it was—to use the parlance of its chief characters and target market—waaaay better than what’s now playing at your local cineplex. High School Musical 3: Senior Year has all the same characters, only now they’re all good buddies. It’s devoid of a good story, compelling dancing, and memorable tunes.

The movie opens with the East High Schoolers facing graduation, and the fact that they’re all moving in different directions. Troy (Zac Efron) seems destined to join best bud Chad (Corbin Bleu) playing basketball at the local university, but he’s bristling at the idea that his life, by dint of his athletic prowess, is all mapped out. He really wants to sing and dance, preferably with girlfriend Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), only he’s still uncertain about what voicing that opinion will really mean. For her part, Gabriella is accepted into a freshman honors program at Stanford, meaning she’ll miss Troy, the prom, and singing the lead in the new play. (Feel free to insert an “Aw, geez!” here). Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) tries to steal the show, while her choreographer twin Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) cuts a mean rug while working with composer Kelsi (Olesya Rulin). Just in case we think that East High is, well, too Loudonville, African-Americans Chad and Taylor (Monique Coleman) skirt the edges of the dance sequences.

Compared to its television predecessors, East High has grown enormously, as Troy’s basketball victory party and the kids’ play performance house as many people as populate a small Third World country. No expense is spared in hiring all these extras; unfortunately, they add nothing except mass.

This time around, the songs and most of the dancing are decidedly pedestrian. The rare exception, such as when Troy and Chad reminisce about the old days on a junk-car lot, borrows much from earlier numbers. Only a prom number, featuring the difference in expectations of girls and boys, with girls singing about the fulfillment of a lifetime dream and boys kvetching about having to sport tuxes, has any personality and verve. Disturbingly, Disney expends a lot of film ogling Efron’s cut physique from every angle. Now that I mention it, perhaps that was the only redeeming quality of a number in which Zac channels his inner Billy Squire and tries to sing-scream-fist-pound his frustrations away. Not even an incongruous homage to Fred Astaire’s dancing on the walls in Royal Wedding can salvage that.

One of the best things about the first High School Musical was the sense of romantic yearning between Troy and Gabriella, which, despite one’s own high-school memories, struck a chord. One really sensed the various chasms—socioeconomic or what have you—that existed between them. One also got the impression that while certain cliques are normal in terms of basic survival and cultural sorting, they can be extremely limiting. High School Musical 3 has none of that, albeit limited, tension. The entire school population seems to thrill at merely witnessing the cute thing that is Troy and Gabriella, and we are expected to follow suit through three monotonous duets.

Efron, who was accused earlier of having a vocal double, comes across as surefooted (no pun intended) as a performer, whereas Hudgens annoys with her helium-soaked Minnie Mouse vocal delivery and rickety pas de deux. Tisdale is just really, really loud, with no chance to show the considerable comedic skill she has displayed on Disney’s TV hit The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. The only characters who warrant our interest, in fact, are Kelsi, tricked out in hippie duds, and Ryan. As Ryan, Grabeel demonstrates phenomenal skill as a dancer of the ilk of Gene Kelly; he is also not afraid to look stupid, effete, or just plain odd in pursuit of nailing the heart of a character, and, in the process, knocks our socks off with his talent and skill. One wishes that there had been more of Kelsi and Ryan—and in so wishing, can we perhaps be thinking of a fourth installment?


Thrill Ride

Transsiberian

Directed by Brad Anderson

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer), are looking for adventure when they board the Trans-Siberian Express, the longest train route in the world. Roy is a hardware-store owner from Iowa, Jessie is an amateur photographer, and they’re riding the rails to Moscow from a church-sponsored charity jaunt in Beijing. Because of its popularity with drug dealers, the train is patrolled by fearsome narcotics agents, but Roy’s enthusiasm is only slightly dampened by a warning from another passenger to avoid the Chinese police, who use torture, and even more so, the Russian police. Their first night in the dining car, the couple are regaled with barbarous tales of the Soviet Union by hard-drinking survivors and old-timers.

Transsiberian is a psychologically suspenseful version of the murder-aboard-the-overland-train genre, and as such it offers exotic locales, lurking dangers, and the tension of innocents abroad interacting with much savvier travelers. Roy and Jessie share their tiny compartment with another couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a rakish Spaniard, and his young girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), a drifter from Seattle. Carlos and Abby have been on the road for two years, and are evasive about their source of income (among other things). Despite Carlos’ flirtation with Jessie and the obvious disparities in their backgrounds, friendships develop between Jessie and Abby, and Roy and Carlos. Also aboard, however, is an ex-KGB detective (Ben Kingsley), whose suavity covers a murky agenda.

Director and co-writer Brad Anderson (Next Stop, Wonderland, and The Machinist) is especially talented with nuances of personality, and he deftly conveys the simmering tensions between, and within, the characters, especially in how Carlos gets under Jessie’s skin to bring out the self-destructive girl she used to be. Noriega has a wolfish charisma, Harrelson is convincing in his return to playing an average guy, and Kingsley is exceptional, as usual, and as a pre-perestroika Russian.

The film’s realism adds to its ambience of moody unpredictability: It was shot in Lithuania, and the route’s harsh and haunting landscapes offer more foreboding than relief from the claustrophobic train and its chaotic depots. Though the climax is more suited to an actioner and ties up frayed ends, and psyches, a little too neatly, Transsiberian keeps the audience transfixed to the end of the line.

—Ann Morrow


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