Paying to see W in the cinema, less than a week after Barack Obama’s historic ascent to be the first black President-Elect of the United States, and coming at the wind-down of a politically riveting two year campaign in which I (and most of the Western World) became saturated up to our eyelids with policies, candidates and CNN, feels like a bit of a ripoff. You wonder why on earth Oliver Stone felt the need to make this particular film, a biopic of the sitting US leader, at this point in time. JFK and Nixon, Stone’s two other Presidential targets, were made years after each men had left office, surely its far too early to make the kind of incisive, thoughtful feature the topic deserves. Without the benefit of hindsight to shade in all the consequences, the film feels frustratingly unfinished. Even worse, after two years of exciting new political figures and rhetoric, the subject translates as boring and tired.
So, Stone is left floundering between these two poles - on the one hand, too early and on the other, too late. Post-Obama, post-Palin, post-Joe the Plumber, does he really expect an audience to still chortle at Bush’s mangled syntax? This film seems stuck in 2004, when everyone passed on those Bushism emails and made jokes about cowboys. The political landscape has changed drastically since then, and one-liners which might have seemed amusing a few years ago now appear vaguely embarrassing. A number of familiar remarks are shoehorned into the screenplay - “"Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?", “Misunderestimated” - sounding more like the product of laziness on screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s part, than cutting satire.
A reliance on cheap laughs (which, incidentally, didn’t seem to inspire much mirth in the, albeit mostly empty, screening I attended) wouldn’t be such a problem if W dared to probe deep into its protagonist’s inner world. Josh Brolin’s Dubya comes across as bit of a dunderhead, someone fundamentally confused about his place in the world and constantly struggling to escape his father’s shadow. So far, so common. But, frustratingly, that’s as far as it goes. We learn nothing new about any of the main shakers ‘n players of the Bush administration, nor do we gain any radical understanding of the events that transpired throughout their rule. Many epochs are, in fact, left out altogether. Nothing big is made of 2004’s election scandal and Katrina isn’t mentioned at all. To the film’s credit, this version Bush isn’t crudely drawn as the cartoonish villain, but I’d argue it swings too far back in the opposite direction; by leaving out some of the most reprehensible acts of his administration, it basically hands him a Get Out Of Jail Free card.
Thankfully, many of the performances are worth a look, in particular Brolin’s leading role. It’s not a particularly subtle portrayal - but Bush is not a subtle kind of guy - and Brolin shades in just the right amount of differing emotional facets (and neatly side-steps the traditional Gurning Monkey impression) to create a vivid character. The always-welcome James Cromwell is probably the standout in the cast; he is frankly terrifying as Bush Snr, and his performance exists as the most celluloid-ready in the picture, as he doesn’t rely on a physical similarity. At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Thandie Newton, who thankfully has little to say as Condoleeza Rice. Her performance is frankly bizarre; she looks like Condi, but speaks as if she’s only just learned how to form vowels with her mouth. She appears to be in acute physical pain during her scenes; whether this was a conscious actor’s choice or an actual ailment was hard to say. Seriously, I’m baffled to what she was doing in this part. Newton’s Condi would have looked out-of-place on SNL, where Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin at least sounded like a human. The cast as a whole are shockingly un-united. It’s as if they picked up on the unfocused direction and sloppy script and misinterpreted them as a thematic choice rather than faults; some of them seem to think they’re in a proper adult drama while others simply chew the scenery and play for laughs.
It’s not a complete disaster - aside from everything previously mentioned, plus the disorientating cinematography and editing AND its overly long- and there are some choice moments. Toby Jones pops as Karl Rove and the final shot, employing an old but visually arresting baseball metaphor, is well done. Yet the film, on the whole, fails to deliver. It speaks volumes that, during my screening, I was itching for it to end so I could go home and visit the various punditry blogs I’ve been reading. When a film, which should be bolder, more exciting and inventive than real life only leaves me yearning to get back into reality, you know you’ve got a failure on your hands.
High School Musical
Despite the groaning shelf loads of East High Wildcats cheerleading uniforms and embossed lunchboxes, the Disney moguls have neglected one key merchandising option for the High School Musical 3 franchise: a limited edition can of Ronseal paint. That said, it is debatable whether it would sell, but Ronseal’s famous tagline - “Does exactly what it says on the tin” - serves as a handy summation of exactly why High School Musical 3 is, in fact, a Good Film. In this respect I share in the sentiments of Mark Kermode, the reviewer-in-residence over at Simon Mayo’s BBC 5 Live Friday slot, who recently named the third instalment of the franchise as his movie of the week, much to the disgust of a number of regular listeners to texted and emailed in to complain. Where I differ from the Good Doctor in one respect is that the film didn’t make me tear up, but apart from this, I share his enthusiasms wholeheartedly. HSM3 delivers exactly what you’d expect: a heart-warming, inspirational story peopled with good looking young stars and a song-and-dance routine every few minutes. This is all to be expected, but what I didn’t anticipate was the tricksy choreography, the homages to Fosse, a number of good belly laughs and a general accumulation of good feeling that lasted long after I stepped out of the cinema. After a rake of disappointing features in the cinema this past month, I’m surprised and a little perversely happy to say this is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen in theatres for months.
There’s no question of who the star is. Zac Efron bookends the film, his blandly anodyne features engulfing the screen, sweaty and focused during the opening basketball game, and beaming in what can only be relief at the end. I don’t know where I’d gotten the memo that Efron was leaden-footed, but it was obviously mistaken: the boy can dance surprisingly well, and some of the most enjoyable moments in the film come when he gets his Saturday Night Fever on. Yet Troy’s main storyline, his romance with the irritatingly perfect Vanessa Anne Hudgens, who plays Gabriella, provides us with some of the film’s least interesting moments. A rendezvous in a tree house, a wardrobe-consultation meeting on the roof of their school that develops into a Waltz 101, yet another romantic tree-based conversation; the filmmakers seem determined to lift these two lovebirds high in the air, but it’ll take more vertical height to elevate this rather pedestrian storyline. As usual in films such as this, the supporting characters steal the show and in this case it falls to scheming drama queen Sharpay Evans and her campy choreographer brother Ryan. Their main number, the so-catchy-it-hurts “I Want It All”, is the film’s undoubtable highlight, with snazzy production design that almost seems cribbed from the dream sequences in classics like Singin’ in the Rain. Ryan, all perma-grin and Jazz Hands, and Sharpay, who’s own blend of Britney/Paris/Nicole-lite obliviousness and Academy of the Dramatic Arts deviousness, have a great rapport and the film immediately perks up whenever they’re on screen, This doesn’t leave Troy completely flailing around in their dust, however. An energetic dance routine in a scrap yard with Troy and Chad (Corbin Bleu) isn’t likely to leave the ghosts of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor nervously looking over their shoulders, but packs just the right amount of playful muscular bravado and fancy footwork to make the scene pop.
Coming from an Irish, Catholic second level school, I can’t claim to relate to the world of High School Musical, but then again, I doubt very much if American teenagers could relate to it either. It’s not so much the impromptu musical numbers which destroy any semblance of realism, but the fact that nobody ever seems to go to class or study for exams. The characters’ fears for the future are broached tentatively, but not in any way that would allow a regular teenager - worried over grades and colleges and jobs - to identify with. In its narrative and characterisation, the film treads on many toes. For example, is Sharpay, supposedly a seasoned and talented amateur actress, really so disgusted by the onstage appearance of Troy’s understudy that she gives up on her lines and blocking completely? Would a basketball star really hand over the reigns to an inexperienced doofus freshman at the critical juncture in his last ever game? Are we supposed to find a puerile exercise in bullying and public humiliation endearing? This questions, and more, float around the peripherary of the whole HSM 3 experience, but don’t expect to hold on to them for very long. No sooner had a quibble formulated in my head than the next glitzy set piece had shoved it right out again. You could strike up a black mark for this shameless seducing of the audience, but then you’d be missing the point. Placed back to back with a supposedly more serious film such as W, there's no question of which work comes across as fuller, more even-handed and, best of all, most inviting.