teens

High School Musical 2 (2007)

High School Musical 2 doesn’t soar to the heights of the original film, but it features my favorite song in the series (“I Don’t Dance”), so there’s that. The story moves from Albuquerque’s East High to a nearby golf course as summer vacation begins and the students are in need of summer jobs. Most of them are anyway. Twins Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) don’t need to work because their family owns Lava Springs Country Club, and, operating on home turf, they get to exact some revenge after their last high school musical humiliation.

It’s a story whipped up to keep the HSM momentum going. Sharpay wises up to the fact that Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) is a snack, him being a basketball and theater star now, and makes it her goal to steal him away from Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens). She gets the club manager, Mr. Fulton (Mark L. Taylor), to hire him and only him on for the summer, so she’s surprised when half her school shows up, ready to start as Lava Springs’s newest employees.

The movie is a fun-in-the-sun kind of picture, something along the lines of a 60s summer beach musical aimed at the teen set, except we’re in the middle of New Mexico. The East High students are doing hard work as dishwashers, lifeguards, and desk attendants, but trouble’s brewing since Mr. Fulton’s being a jerk about his three strikes policy and Sharpay is undermining everyone in order to win the club’s talent show.

Pitting the diva against everyone else weakens the narrative though. Sharpay demands to be seen and heard at all times, but she isn’t a strong antagonist as much as she is a loud one. In the first film, she’s one of many people keeping Troy and Gabriella apart, her ego and petty obsessions making for a satisfying subplot. In this story, her character has to carry a lot more baggage, but her incessant chatter soon becomes background noise to everyone else’s more interesting problems. Troy, for example, has college on his mind. He took the job to earn some money, but he also hopes to play basketball at university. Gabriella, meanwhile, is not as wrapped up in her post-East High life, probably because she’s a genius and knows she’s getting into college. She is worried, however, about her relationship with dreamboat Troy.

I have said it before and I will say it again – that Efron kid can act, and while he might overdo it a bit here, he gives his character surprising depth. It’s not often I side with the preppy white boy in a movie about teenage angst, but I am swayed by Troy’s earnestness. The kid looks like he’ll break if basketball and true love don’t work out. I wish Hudgens had similar opportunities with Gabriella. Unfortunately, her dilemma is a romantic one, which means we just see her lamenting over Troy’s possibly betrayal.

The best performance and character in my book belong to Lucas Grabeel as Ryan. Despite playing second fiddle to everyone, Ryan makes the most of what he’s got. If the original movie was about defining yourself and showing some moral fiber, then he owns that message here. That’s why I like his showstopper, “I Don’t Dance,” so much. Finally, he stands up and challenges everyone to let go of stereotypes about themselves. Sure, he wants them to sing in the contest as well, but for once he’s not under his sister’s orders.

Also the song sounds like late-90s boy band on Broadway and is choreographed like an extra scene in Damn Yankees. For musical nerds, this one is the only memorable number. Efron’s emo “Bet On It” gets an honorable mention, but that’s because it’s grown into its own thing. I can’t name any other song in this movie, except to say there’s one for when they’re out for summer break, one for when they’re dancing in the kitchen, and one for the end of the movie.

“What Time is It” by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman:

“Fabulous” by Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel:

“Work This Out” by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Chris Warren Jr., Olesya Rulin, Ryne Sanborn, Kaycee Stroh:

“You are the Music in Me” by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Olesya Rulin:

“I Don’t Dance” by Lucas Grabeel and Corbin Bleu:

“You are the Music in Me (Reprise)” by Ashley Tisdale and Zac Efron:

“Gotta Go My Own Way” by Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron:

“Bet on It” by Zac Efron:

“Everyday” by Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens:

“All for One” by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman:

Released: 2007
Dir: Kenny Ortega
Writer: Peter Barsocchini
Cast: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Mark L. Taylor, Bart Johnson, Oleysa Rulin, Chris Warren Jr., Jessica Tuck, Robert Curtis Brown
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2019

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High School Musical (2006)

There are a few cultural milestones that I missed out on by half a generation. Harry Potter is one, another is High School Musical, and while I caught up with the former ten years ago, it wasn’t until today, now, that I finally saw the movie that kicked off Zac Efron’s career. To paraphrase Gabrielle Union in 10 Things I Hate About You – that is, my generation – I’m underwhelmed.

But I’m also not a tween in 2006, and this film is fine for the youths then and now. The movie has a great message about doing what you love and not being defined by others’ expectations. If you’re a basketball player who loves to bake or a skater dude who plays the cello, then own it. Also if you’re into early 2000s fashion or you sport that shaggy haircut that Efron and co popularized, do that too. I’m not even being sarcastic about it and am in earnest when I say that kids should pursue whatever makes them unique and that the adults in the room should encourage them. If that message comes through best in the form of a cheesy Disney Channel musical, then fantastic.

The movie isn’t even a bad one; it’s just not my taste and doesn’t expand its appeal beyond the tween crowd and those who would watch it for nostalgic reasons. Hairspray, for example, also centers the teen experience and features Zac Efron but is as rousing and as knotty for adults as it is for younger audiences. HSM sticks to a clean plot and prefers characters drawn in broad strokes, a fun romp about good kids trying to behave better. There’s an upbeat soundtrack to move to, with a mix of flashy numbers and romantic ballads. Plus there’s basketball and school cafeteria choreography, which I generally approve of because life is short.

With a Grease-adjacent vibe, the film tells a story about Troy Bolton (Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), who meet in the teen lounge at a ski resort over winter break only to discover they are classmates once school starts again. Troy is the star of the basketball team and a living god at East High in Albuquerque. The school depends on his basketball prowess to function, which is why things get thrown out of whack when he decides to audition for the spring musi-cal. His winter crush, Gabriella, has just transferred and they can both sing, so why not?

For her, trying out for the musical is not really an existential crisis. Gabriella is super brainy and though she’s a match for the the scholastic decathlon team, she wouldn’t mind stretching her talents if she could just get over her fear of performing, to which I say good for her. Gabriella is someone I would have identified with as a kid. I admire the fact that she has fears about fitting in and trying new things but is still fearless when it comes to pushing herself.

Troy, on the other hand, is boxed in and feels like he has to choose basketball or music. And it’s no wonder because America is obsessed with school sports. Having been abroad for many years, I’d forgotten how much American schools shape their identity around sports and athletes, and it is weird. Troy feels pressured by his selfish teammates, especially best friend Chad (Corbin Bleu), who will not stop hyping The Big Game. Even worse is his meathead coach and dad, Jack Bolton. (Bart Johnson). He will make sure his team wins but only if they think about nothing but basketball.

The adults really are not to be commended here, and I’m not keen on Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), East High’s drama teacher, either. She earns some good will for declaring that the “most heinous example of cell phone abuse is ringing in the theatre,” which, next to texting while driving, is true. She also knocks the society’s sports fixation and won’t budge in her defense for arts education. But a bad teacher is a bad teacher, and she only cares about students who already like theater, like the insufferable twins Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel). I actually like those characters and think they’re just the drama queens this movie needs. They’re insufferable and arrogant, they bully the sweet student composer, Kelsi (Olesya Rulin), and they try to sabotage Troy and Gabriella’s audition, but their over-the-top sass keeps the film from drowning in sap.

*The fans will remind everyone that Drew Seeley does the singing for Troy Bolton on most tracks. Zac Efron sings in the other films.

“Start of Something New” by Drew Seeley and Vanessa Hudgens:

“Get’cha Head in the Game” by Drew Seeley:

“What I’ve Been Looking For” by Lucas Grabeel and Ashley Tisdale:

“What I’ve Been Looking For (Reprise)” by Drew Seeley and Vanessa Hudgens:

“Stick to the Status Quo” by Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Chris Warren Jr., Kaycee Stroh, and Dutch Whitlock:

“When There was Me and You” by Vanessa Hudgens:

“Bop to the Top” by Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel:

“Breaking Free” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, and Vanessa Hudgens:

“We’re All in This Together” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu, and Monique Coleman:

“I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Zac Efron, Drew Seeley, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, and Lucas Grabeel:

Released: 2006
Dir: Kenny Ortega
Writer: Peter Barsocchini
Cast: Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Lucas Grabeel, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Joey Miyashima, Bart Johnson, Oleysa Rulin, Alyson Reed, Chris Warren Jr.
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2019

b420 (2005)

b420

b420 begins on a hopeful note. Three secondary school classmates in Macau make a video in which they share their dreams for the future, at least the immediate years before they turn twenty. These aren’t lofty aspirations mind you, more along the lines of losing their virginity and the like. But they do point to an adolescent longing, that universal desire to escape into a world that is somehow bigger and better.

We soon see that things haven’t quite worked out. Far from moving up or even on, life is at an uneasy standstill for the girls. It’s not immediately clear what’s become of the three friends, but we learn that Koey (Miki Yeung), the main character, is a dropout who lives her great-grandmother while awaiting the chance to emigrate. She and another friend, who may be involved with Macau’s criminal elements, are no longer on speaking terms and the third is housebound and confined to a wheelchair.

It’s the perfect set-up for a story about teenagers waylaid by reality, possibly left behind by failing institutions and social change that cares little about youth who aren’t the best and the brightest. The film doesn’t push that narrative too much though and instead goes for a teen drama that avoids brooding as much as it does false whimsy. In the uncertainty of youth, the characters find disappointment, friendship, and hope all in equal measure.

While peddling TV subscriptions, Koey befriends Willy (Sam Lee), who is both older and wearier. Having lost or caused the death of important people in his life, he struggles to find a purpose. He’s not so introspective as to realize that though. As Willy and Koey grow closer, their dependable platonic friendship is tested by suggestions that they share romantic feelings. Their mutual friend Simon (Ben Hung) certainly sees it that way. Koey’s long-forgotten childhood acquaintance from ballet school, he still harbors a secret love for her, going so far as to pose as her internet friend. I hope one day we’ll see this for what it is – stalking. In the meantime, Simon comes off as a hapless, lovelorn third wheel, sustained by the hope that Koey will recognize his gentler qualities and turn away from Willy.

The cramped, colorful backstreets of Macau provide some contrasting visuals that mirror the characters’ lives. Buildings and alleyways are at once vibrant and rundown. Koey works at a trinket shop stained with reds and oranges but retreats each night to her great-grandmother’s weather-beaten concrete block of a house.

Writer-director Mathew Tang does a fine job of maintaining tension between all the characters. Lee is a wonderfully restrained, as he often is in independent films, and yet there is an electric charge that runs through his performance. You want things to work out for Willy even if, or perhaps because, he doesn’t deserve it. Hung doesn’t have that same dynamic presence, but Simon’s desperation makes an impression. I would have preferred a better actress to Yeung, who seems to have graduated from the Twins school of acting, which is probably the same as the Cookies school. She overcomes her pouting and whining though as she grows into her role. The ending quickly crescendos into something incredulous and I’m not sure it was altogether necessary. Nevertheless, the various threads come together in an unexpected way that will leave you wanting more of the same from Hong Kong filmmakers.

Released: 2005
Prod: Peter Yung 翁維銓, Kenneth Yee 奚仲文, Philip Lee 李少偉
Dir: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Writer: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Cast: Miki Yeung 楊愛瑾, Sam Lee 李燦森, Ben Hung 洪展明, Winston Yeh 葉景文, Lee Fung 李楓, Chan Chin-Luk 陳春綠
Time: 88 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2017

EuroTrip

eurotrip

There must be a few high school sophomores who would enjoy a movie like EuroTrip but not enough, I would think, to merit the actual production of such movie. But I guess I’m wrong; Rotten Tomatoes tells me the film has a 75% audience approval rating, and it always makes its way to my Netflix “recommended” queue. Despite acclaim from the masses, however, this raunchy road trip number aims for the lower ranks of the teen movie genre and just cannonballs into a pit of tasteless sludge.

Like similar movies, it begins on graduation day, that adolescent sweet spot when life seems ripe with possibility and but without any of the responsibility. Scott (Scott Mechlowicz) has big plans for himself and his girlfriend, like going to college together, but it turns out she’s been cheating on him with Matt Damon disguised as a punk rocker. He turns to his email German pen pal, Mieke, who suggests a meeting between the two. Scott mistakes Mieke for a sexual predator and a dude and immediately cuts contact.

Keeping in mind that Scott is a fresh graduate and thus presumably intelligent, you have to wonder why he never worked it out that Mieke is in fact a girl. But this is the kind of people who inhabit the movie, and you just have to roll with the idea that the next logical thing for him to do is fly to Europe to apologize, make amends, and hopefully make out with his unseen friend. Luckily he doesn’t have to go solo. Since this is a white upper middle class sort of world, his friend Cooper (Jacob Pitts) and twins Jenny and Jamie (Michelle Trachtenberg and Travis Wester) possess limitless time and funds to accompany Scott.

What should follow is an impressive road/train/boat trip that doubles as a last high school hurrah, but EuroTrip dispenses with nostalgia in favor of getting on with the naughty bits. It almost made me long for the cheesiness of post-graduation house parties (à la Can’t Hardly Wait) where everyone gets drunk, past transgressions are forgiven, and the hot people hook up with the nerds, all in the service of bringing one life chapter to a close so that young people can learn to accept who they are.

What we get instead is a Venn diagram of European stereotypes and sex scenes dreamt up by high school boys. As the four friends make their way across the continent, they find themselves in disturbing situations that no education could have prepared them for. There’s a kinky dominatrix in Amsterdam, a sex friendly confessional at the Vatican, potential absinthe-induced incest in Slovakia, and a French mime. The lewdness is purely thrown about for shock value, and as startling as it might be for some people to see a screen full of willies (nude beach, naturally), none of this is daring. Rather than align sexual discovery with the characters, every international stop is just meant to hurl you onto the next bizarre destination.

Released: 2004
Prod: Alec Berg, David Mandel, Daniel Goldberg, Jackie Marcus, Joe Medjuck
Dir: Jeff Schaffer
Writer: Jeff Schaffer, Alec Berg, David Mandel
Cast: Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Michelle Trachtenberg, Travis Wester, Jessica Boehrs, Kristin Kreuk, Vinnie Jones, J. P. Manoux, Fred Armisen, Joanna Lumley, Lucy Lawless, Diedrich Bader, Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Damon
Time: 92 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

What a Girl Wants (2003)

what a girl wants

You have to give credit to the makers of What a Girl Wants, a middling teen film that knows exactly how to hit its audience’s sweet spot. American girls with a touch of Anglophilia will appreciate this effort even if others do not, and while it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its peers, the movie provides a good dose of escapism for those stuck Stateside.

Amanda Bynes stars as Daphne, a teenager on the cusp of young adulthood who longs for something more in life, to which I say, get in line. She lives in New York’s Chinatown with her hippie musician single mom (Kelly Preston) – because of course, and the two work the wedding circuit. Daughter does catering while mom provides the entertainment, a detail that matters insomuch as it gives Daphne an excuse to drone on about how her greatest dream is to have a father-daughter dance. This is her impetus to jet off to merry England to find the father she never knew, Henry Colin Firth Dashwood, Earl of Some Place or Other.

She arrives with nary a plan but, through sheer American determination, finds her way to Henry’s estate, apparently accessible by bus. He’s shocked, his mother’s (Eileen Atkins) stunned, and Henry’s fiancée (Anna Chancellor) is positively horrified, not the least because he is running a much publicized campaign for the House of Commons with an eye on the prime ministership. The good earl throws political caution to the wind, deciding to spend time with his daughter even if it means potential clashes with the crusty elites.

Bynes makes a good ambassador for young American girls abroad, even if she isn’t the best actress. She has a twinkly-eyed appeal, and you know that Daphne, despite a few hard knocks, will always brush herself off and get back up. This girl is going to end up on her feet no matter how many times she’s mocked by the Henley Regatta crowd for her (lack of) style and her freewheeling ways. She’s also sensible enough to pick the soft-spoken middle-class guy (Oliver James) over a toff named Armistead. What refreshing resilience in a young female character, no matter how low the stakes.

That American brand of egalitarianism works because of pitched performances by the English actors. Chancellor and Christina Cole, who plays Chancellor’s spoiled daughter, are so insufferably snobbish that they must be poking fun at American stereotypes of the English ruling class. Together with a sniveling Jonathan Pryce as Henry’s political advisor and potential father-in-law, the evil triumvirate is hell bent on keeping the grubby Yank out. Firth is decidedly less pompous but reserved as ever. When Daphne gives her father a picture album with her childhood photos, he doesn’t know how to respond. It’s as if he’s never received a sentimental token before. As Atkins’s character puts it, “No hugs, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses.” Ah yes. Then let’s just give this film a polite nod.

Released: 2003
Prod: Denise Di Novi, Bill Gerber, Hunt Lowry
Dir: Dennie Gordon
Writer: Jenny Bicks, Elizabeth Chandler
Cast: Amanda Bynes, Colin Firth, Kelly Preston, Oliver James, Eileen Atkins, Anna Chancellor, Jonathan Pryce, Christina Cole, Sylvia Sims
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016