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by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2009


It’s safe to say that Miley Cyrus has had her moment. Those elusive fifteen minutes are up and the time clock toward irrelevancy is carefully ticking down. Sure, the House of Mouse can find a few more ways to milk some additional dollars out of her ever-diminishing fad phenom fanbase, but the truth is, she’s like every other teen (or in this case) tween cause celeb - hot as Hades one day, working the drive-through another.

So it makes sense that after the stunning box office figures for her 3D concert experience, Disney would attempt to continue building on such bank. The result - Hannah Montana: The Movie. As much a set-up for the fourth and final season of the TV series as a way of exposing the fleeting star to the 14 and older crowd, this incredibly mediocre effort actually makes you feel sorry for the dissipating celebrity. Somehow, you sense, for all she’s done for the corporate bottom line, she deserves better than this.

When we first meet Miley/Hannah, she is late for her most recent concert appearance. Later, she has a depressing diva tantrum over a pair of shoes. But when she ruins her best friend Lilly’s birthday party, daddy Robby puts his foot down. He thwarts a planned trip to New York, and instead, puts Hannah (for those who don’t know, the commercial cover for his real life daughter Miley) on a private plane back to their hometown in Tennessee. There, they meet up with grandma, hunky teen farm hand Travis, and equally fetching female foreman Lorelai. When Miley learns that an unscrupulous land developer is trying to buy up her past, she promises to get “Hannah” to put on a concert. In the meantime, a persistent tabloid reporter is trying to uncover the secret shared by both Miley and her far more famous “friend.”

Again, it needs to be said - Miley Cyrus has made the Walt Disney Company so much moolah that she really mandated a better starring vehicle than this. Hannah Montana: The Movie is a lifeless amalgamation of plot contrivances, narrative non-sequitors, and pointless pandering. It’s a wannabe musical that doesn’t have the chutzpah to stop the action and let its actress actually sing! Instead, like a Billboard chart backdrop, Hannah is given a few onstage screeds, while Miley makes nice with a single solo moment (with some help from her pappy). For an audience that wouldn’t know a show-stopper from a slog, it really doesn’t matter. Their favorite TV talent is up on the big screen delivering the sonic dross they can’t get enough of. However, the uninitiated, or uninterested, will find it all very, very dull.

The biggest problem with Hannah Montana: The Movie, is length. There is no need for a film version of this character’s adventures to last longer than four of her TV episodes - especially when we are dealing with a basic “fame is soulless and fleeting” formula. Director Peter Chelsom, still paying penance for the cinematic atrocity that was Town and Country (the Hear My Song filmmaker’s path to redemption is littered with the likeable Serendipity and Shall We Dance? ), has a real flare for physical comedy and the sequences of slapstick tend to work. But since Uncle Walt’s current meal ticket needs moments of reflection and romance, the energy built up is all but depleted. Instead, we find the narrative dragging just to get to the so-called “good” parts.

Movies are also not the best avenue for Cyrus’ limited scope. She is “TV cute”, meaning that film brings out the worst in her chiseled chipmunk look. Certainly she can sing - or at least, the studio technicians who put her voice through various electronic permutations can recreate a certain sense of vocal prowess - but Ms. Cyrus is an incomplete performer. She doesn’t know how to sell cinematic emotion. When Miley wants new boy toy Travis to “jump”, we know what the line is supposed to mean. In her less than capable hands, however, it comes across as blank and unconvincing. Billy Ray has the same basic problem - he’s turned the art of passive geniality into an example of onscreen stasis. We never see the turmoil celebrity is causing either ‘character’. Instead, both serve the story and simply move on.

As for the rest of Hannah Montana: The Movie, its light and empty, cotton candy made out of sugar substitute, not the real sweet deal. There is never a question about saving the small town, and the creative cameos tossed about (Tyra Banks as herself, Barry Bostwick as the button-down land developer) do little to elevate the mood. Fans of the TV series will also be a bit disappointed that go-to guys Oliver and Rico are pushed far off into the background, while Emily Osmet’s Lilly is reduced to a plot device. This is Miley Cyrus’ moment to shine and nothing - not even the hardworking child stars that’ve supported her for the last three years - is going to get in her way. Even Daddy’s potential love story is scuttled for more Hannah histrionics.

The recent Blu-ray release also underscores the Miley-ccentric approach to the production. Chelsom is on hand to explain himself, and while friendly, he seems forced to tow the cunning corporate line (“she’s such a major talent…”). We are also treated to a mass of music videos, a bunch of bloopers, deleted scenes (yep - they actually filmed MORE stuff for this movie) and some additional cast and crew interviews. Oddly enough, the movie itself doesn’t ‘pop’ on the new digital format. Unlike other examples of high definition totally redefining a film, Hannah Montana: The Movie, looks as made-for-TV on the fledgling format as the regular DVD version does.

All of which leaves one with the following question - where does Miley Cyrus go from here? After this final season of Hannah Montana wraps, when another wannabe pop chanteuse takes her place as part of the Disney dynasty, what does this seemingly single-faceted ‘talent’ wind up doing? Does she try for country or pop legitimacy, hoping to find a Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood/American Idol like transformation from product to performer? Or will making millions for her family be enough? Will she simply slip away, coming back every once in a while to introduce a House of Mouse repackaging of her productions. If Daddy Ray is any indication, there will need to be a break, and some biology, before the Cyrus name equals stardom again. One imagines that some saw Hannah Montana: The Movie as Miley Cyrus’ introduction into the big leagues. As it turns out, this may instead be her swansong.

by Bill Gibron

16 Aug 2009


When Walt Disney died of cancer in 1966, he left his company in a complicated, confusing position. On the one hand, they were smack dab in the middle of his life long dream of a “living community”. They then had to complete the theme park and self-contained township that would later be labeled Walt Disney World. In addition, they had a wealth of projects under consideration, films and TV titles that, without their leader’s guiding hand and artistic spirit, would be difficult if not next to impossible to finish. It was a dilemma reflected in everything the company would do - from animation to attractions.

One of those complex efforts was a follow-up to the studios sensational Oscar winner Mary Poppins. A flawless blend of live action fantasy and fully realized pen and ink participants, Walt had wanted to continue combining the two disciplines in future film projects. The company did find some success with the 1971 WWII fantasy Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but that film only used limited interactions between the actors and animation. Indeed, it’s known more today for its climatic ‘animatronic’ battle scene than for the trip to the island of Naboombu. Sadly, until 1977, the company had to compete with Song of the South and The Three Caballeros as the only other examples of such a continued combined creativity.

Today, Pete’s Dragon walks a bifurcated critical path. Some find it delightful, a throwback to the days when the House of Mouse made family entertainment that everyone - from grandpa to grandkids - could love. Others, however, see through the pre-programmed patina, arguing against everything from the music used to the actors hired. One thing that truly stands out is the F/X process more or less invented by studio science ace (and one time animating giant) Ub Iwerks. Utilizing harsh yellow sodium lights the predated the current greenscreen conceit, Disney could avoid location shooting while recreating a turn of the century Maine fishing village on its California backlot.

The technology also allowed for one of the most flawless integrations of humans and cartoon since Mary and her charges took a “jolly holiday” inside one of Burt the Street Performer’s sidewalk paintings. Indeed, until Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988, Pete’s Dragon was the approach’s bellwether - and its albatross. For Disney, it remains its last connection to its creative past, a film that fulfills much of the promise that Walt saw in his studio while also signaling its eventual rapid decline. For modern audiences, it’s a slightly less clever curiosity.

The story centers on Pete, a young orphan sold into slavery. He currently lives with the conniving abusive Gogan family. Escaping with the help of his (supposedly) imaginary dragon Elliot, our little hero soon finds himself in the sleepy seaside town of Passamaquoddy. There, he is befriended by lighthouse keeper Nora and her drunk of a father, Lampie. While Elliot constantly causes trouble, Pete gets all the blame. When snake oil salesman Dr. Terminus arrives back in the burg, lame brained lackey Hoagie in tow, he hopes to make a quick buck or two before being uncovered as a fraud. When he finds out there’s a real mythical creature around, he immediately plots its capture. With the Gogan’s on hand to reclaim their ‘property’, Nora will have her hands full protecting Pete.

As an example of Disney design, Pete’s Dragon has all the proper pieces. It offers memorable (if rather lightweight) songs, a couple of pleasant performances, a well-practiced patchwork of matte paintings, studio sets, live action locations, and various filmmaking tricks, and a breezy, easy to follow storyline. It also contains some less than memorable direction from UK guide Don Chaffey, a bevy of vaudevillian vamps from old school stars Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters, and one of the worst debut star turns ever in lifeless lead Helen Reddy. It’s really not the “I Am Woman” chanteuse’s fault. She’s being asked to fill some mighty big shoes, considering who Disney usually employed - Julie Andrews, Angela Landsbury - to essay such roles.

But Reddy is really a drag here, limited in what she can do and what she sings. “Candle in the Water” is a classic ballad, belted out with utter authority. The ineffectual “There’s Room for Everyone” sounds like an outtake from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David fiasco Lost Horizon. Elsewhere, “It’s Not Easy” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day” suffer from the same sonic struggles. Indeed, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s treatment is likeable, it lifeless. One can easily see the Sherman Brothers bathing this story in their typical cinematic Broadway bravado (they had left the studio in the early ‘70s). Still, troopers like Rooney and Winters try to breath some energy into the banal lyrics, and for the most part they succeed. Along with Marshall’s memorable turn as Pete and some solid slapstick, Pete’s Dragon endures.

And when compared to the commercialized pap produced today, it definitely regains some of its royalty. One can forgive Reddy and instead experience some goofy joy during her daffy “beer keg dance” for “I Saw a Dragon”, and while dated, the combination of Pete and Elliot really does work visually. Bon Bluth, who would later go on to his own career as an animation guide, does a brilliant job bringing the character to life. At this point, one also needs to mention the contribution of surreal comic Charlie Callas as the “voice” of this particular cartoon creature. Offering nothing more than a series of mumbles and mouth farts, the famed ‘70s stand-up turns the big green lug into something both loveable and loony, memorable without being too odd or unusual for kids to appreciate. Indeed, when viewed through the lens of the standard family film, Pete’s Dragon is delightful. It never talks down to its audience, and appreciates elements that are both wistful and worrisome.

Though already available on DVD for quite some time, the new presentation finds Marshall (in voice over mode only, sadly) discussing Iwerks and the rigors of working under those bright yellow lights. He lets the viewer in on several key sequences in the film, while never once mentioning the lighthouse specially built for the production. Elsewhere, the disc includes a deleted storyboard sequence, an original song concept, demo versions of other tracks, and an interesting array of additional supplements. Unlike typical digital complements, The House of Mouse is in constant ‘sell’ mode. They never want the extras to overwhelm the film itself. Individuals who want more ‘how to’ and moviemaking mechanics will definitely feel left out of the added content conversation.

Still, Pete’s Dragon does deliver, surpassing the current trends in kiddie-oriented fare in both imagination and technical realization. Sure, the F/X look dated, done in a style that shows more than a post-modern viewer tends to tolerate, and there are sequences where the ‘corn factor’ far outweighs the artistic prowess at play. As a testament to its founder’s legacy, this is still somewhat lesser Disney. But when viewed in combination for what passes as House of Mouse merriment today - Beverly Hills Chihuahua, G-Force - it’s utterly brilliant. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Aug 2009


When David Fincher released his post-modern masterpiece Zodiac in 2007, audiences were expecting another Se7en like slide into dark, depraved inhumanity. The story of the fabled Northern California serial killer did seem like perfect subject matter for the auteur Instead, what viewers got was a wickedly insightful illustration of the differences between police procedure circa the late ‘60s, and how we view such investigations within our current CSI driven mentality. It was a stunning twist on the topic, a chance to feel the frustration of the characters while seeing how, sometimes, luck was as necessary as knowledge in solving a crime.

Another masterful example of this old school detecting vs. new world law enforcement ideal comes in the form of the BBC’s brash, bold, and thoroughly brilliant Life on Mars. Centering on the surreal adventures of millennial cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) suddenly transported back to 1973, it’s time travel taken to sly, sophisticated heights. Arriving around the time of David Bowie’s hit song (thus the title), the Detective Chief Inspector takes up with the Criminal Investigation Department of Manchester under the auspices of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There, he works with the rest of the force to solve crimes while dealing with the differences between his time, and the past.

Over the course of sixteen sensational episodes (eight for each season), the series shows Sam’s difficulty in coping, his by-the-book approach clashing significantly with the ‘70s ‘anything for a confession’ conceit. It also explores the situation itself, suggesting that our hero may be medically incapacitated in the future (he is hit by a car at the beginning of the storyline, hinting that he is now in a coma), or truly insane. There are elements of the supernatural and suspense, as well as halting humor and the kind of fish out of water formulas that never seem to fail. When meshed with amazing acting, smart scripting, and a truly moving finale (you have to wait until Series 2 for that - sorry), we wind up with something very special indeed.

There’s just something about the British when it comes to television drama. They can take a standard storyline - say a police psychologist who uses his cunning and insight to ‘crack’ cases - and turn it into the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy (right, Robbie “Eddie Fitzgerald” Coltraine?). It’s the same with Life on Mars. Each episode uses Sam’s dilemma as a backdrop for what is, otherwise, a sometimes straightforward exploration of crime and punishment. There are individual cases to be solved, the backdrop of messages from the future, and a strange little spectral girl adding elements of intrigue to the whodunit.

It’s easy to see why this material failed when translated over to America (the ABC version ran for one season in 2008). The storylines contained in the eight episodes offered as part of the first series require concentration and a continued investment. You can’t just tune in, pick up a red herring or random clue, and feel vindicated when the bad guy is caught. No, Life on Mars is meant to be culture shock as social commentary, an attempt by creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan, and Ashley Pharoah to expand on the typical police plotlines with elements both human and out of this world. 

The UK has always had a fondness for science fiction, with shows like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval garnering huge ratings within a contemporary reality TV dynamic. Life on Mars is different - a hybrid of sorts between grim reality (England in 1973 was no picnic) and fanciful wish fulfillment. One of the main themes that runs throughout the series is Tyler’s desire to return back to the 21st Century. Of course, there’s a complication, and her name is Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Thrust into the middle of the ‘70s concept of gender inequality, the character instantly earns Sam’s attention. Over the course of the series, she also gains something far more personal.

It’s this kind of investment - emotionally, intellectually - that makes Life on Mars so resonant. The show never excuses the era, illustrating obvious flaws like sexism and racism while celebrating the police’s ability to solve crimes under seemingly backward conditions. We see the usual suspects - armed robbers, gangsters, drug dealers - interwoven with darker, more diabolical crimes. As Sam struggles to make sense of his life, the rest of the Manchester force must confront the kind of calm, controlled detecting he brings to their male machismo methodology. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Simm and Glenister simply great as the differing DCIs.

Of course, the biggest problem with any series like this is how immersive and involving it is. Just as we get to Episode 8, and some questions appear to be answered, we are thrown back into the mix and left wanting more. That’s where DVD can really ease the pain. Acorn Media offers the first part of this amazing production on four discs loaded with added content. There are commentaries, interviews, and production featurettes, each one offering more Life on Mars goodness. Even better, there is clarity in many of these conversations, bits and pieces of plot and characterization that amplify our understanding of the show’s main narrative purpose.

Still, the wait for Series 2 will be interminable, especially for anyone without access to cable stations like BBC America (which frequently reruns these shows are part of their schedule). Unlike American dramas, which can drag out a character arc in a mad attempt to milk all the possible profit out of a project, Life on Mars works within its ever-present end game. Here, the creators determined that Sam would have two eight episode plotlines, and that’s all. So the experience of watching Life on Mars at home is a lot like seeing the first part of a movie in the theaters. There’s the satisfaction of seeing something so wonderful that you can’t wait for it to continue. There’s also the horrifying reality that you’ll have to sit tight for as long as necessary as the sequel is being prepared.

As consolation, Life on Mars Series 2 will definitely be worth the wait. While some may see the core concept as a bit “out there” and the desire to tie time and place together a little too obvious for our far more sophisticated mindset, there is no denying the whole “the more things change, the more they stay the same” subtext of the series. In Fincher’s film, we got the distinct impression that if forensic science and inter-department communication had been ever so slightly more advanced, the Zodiac killer would right now be rotting in a jail cell somewhere. Instead, the limits of the past flummoxed even the most loyal law enforcement official. Life on Mars is another example of police procedural as filtered through a far less sophisticated time. Everything else about the show, however, is thoroughly modern - and marvelous. 

by Bill Gibron

15 Aug 2009


For some filmmakers, legacy is everything. The movies they made decades before are like children - perfect if flawed, favored while sometimes passed over for others in the filmic ‘family’. As a result, directors are nothing more than daddies, driven to nurture their offspring while working within the commercial community known as show business. Wes Craven is a brilliant example of such a guardian. Ever since he stormed onto the scene with his exploitation epic The Last House on the Left, he has been careful to control almost every aspect of his oeuvre (the rare one that escaped his grasp - the classic Nightmare on Elm Street franchise). Even today, as remakes rule the macabre marketplace, he’s been at the forefront of protecting his motion picture progeny.

While Freddy Krueger and company is being fostered by someone else, Craven has kept up with the rest of his cinematic relations, okaying a decent retelling of his cannibal clan holocaust The Hills Have Eyes, as well as proposed updates of Shocker and, perhaps, Deadly Friend. But it was the announcement more than a year ago that the famous fright filmmaker would be guiding a new version of his “it’s only a movie” masterwork to the big screen. Fans originally scoffed at the notion. After all, what could top Last House‘s sleazoid notoriety? The answer, sure enough, was nothing. However, the 2009 take on the repugnant revenge thriller found a way of making its vision work - tone down the filth, slow down the story, and build up the fury.

In the Dennis Iliadis update, we meet the Collingwood family - John (a doctor), Emma (a teacher), and Mari (swimmer and all around American teenage daughter). They are still in morning over the death of their eldest son Ben, and hope a trip to their lakeside cabin will ease the pain. Instead, Mari’s sidetrack into town finds he face to face with escaped convict Krug, his psycho gal pal Sadie, his craven brother Frances and ineffectual son Justin. Doing what heartless criminals do best, our child of privilege is left for dead. A freak storm and a car accident leads the gang to the doorstep of the nearest shelter - the Collingwood’s isolated abode. And when these parents find out what these villains did to their child, blood will flow…and no one will be left alive.

While the tag line for the 2009 production asked “If someone hurt someone you love, how far would you go to get revenge?” , the real issue with The Last House on the Left is why would someone remake a movie that was considered sick, morally depraved, and unconscionable some 37 years ago. Certainly nothing new - not updated special effects, directorial flare, or cultural subtext - could change the rape and payback narrative into something novel. Yet oddly enough, Greek filmmaker Iliadis finds a way to make the material his own. By bringing the pace down to a simmer, by turning the Collingwoods into characters instead of caricatures, by never once excusing Krug and his compatriots in criminality, he ventures beyond what Craven created to make this journey a true 21st century story.

This is a movie about advantage, about bad things happening to people who perceive they are, and yet perhaps might not be, good. There is a moment, right before Mom and Dad decide to go nutzoid, when they confront the notion of killing for their fallen child. The discussion, calm and collected, argues for a couple who might actually enjoy this kind of vigilante carnage. Sure, Craven’s original storyline (swiped from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) has all the hallmarks of fate frustrated and destiny delivering. Since the action takes place so close to the Collingwood home, it only seems sensible that Krug and his clan would end up at their doorstep. But while the original argued for faux sophisticates turning into martini wielding maniacs, the new version argues for the inherent Voorhees in all of us.

The moment Emma discovers who destroyed their daughter, the girl’s nearly lifeless body washing up along the family’s property line, we see normalcy tossed aside for a pure need for blood. Granted, you could read the recent death of their son as a motivating factor, the family not ready to lose two children this quickly. But The Last House on the Left seems to argue that, once given the excuse, any parent would pull out a claw hammer and give a sadistic stranger a backdoor lobotomy. The situation does keep the Collingwoods from calling the police (storm = no land lines and limited cell access) and the horrors we’ve seen heaped on Mari makes the need for revenge that much more urgent, but the sudden shift over to violence, especially at the very end, illustrates something a tad more troubling.

So does the uncontrolled nature of our criminals. Why does Krug decide to dig himself in deeper and kidnap Mari and her friend Paige? Why does his anger later turn into sexual assault? He already has a couple of murdered cops on his latest rap sheet, why add even more demands for an eventual death penalty. We never sense the character’s desperation, never know why he was incarcerated and how Sadie and Frances managed to allude authorities, considering their batshit desire to destroy.

One of the weird bits of illogic in Last House is the rationale for Krug, needing to escape, to simply sit back and place nice. He could simply kill the Collingwoods, search out their property for a means of escape (enter the family boat), and take off for parts unknown. Unlike the original film, which had its criminals callously wallow in what they did and who they did it to (and who they are now hobnobbing with), there’s an odd, innocent bystander vibe to the last act melee. Sure, Krug more or less murdered Mari, robbing her of everything she valued. But who knew her parents would become knife wielding maniacs in the process?

Apparently, the main message of the new Last House on the Left is that human nature is hard to decipher. The Collingwoods get joy out of their blatant bloodlust because it serves a sense of justice. Even as they extend the torture way beyond the limits of human endurance, they calmly go about their judge, jury, and executioner roles. Similarly, the gang just can’t stem their bubbling criminal urges. Frances only needed to turn down his libido for a few hours and they’d be back on the lam - or even better, living in the lap of luxury while they decided their next move. Instead, the need to be nasty takes over, giving the crew away and leading to their eventual downfall. Iliadis seems to be saying that, no matter what seems rational and normal, fear and the need for retribution will always trump said sensibility.

On Blu-ray, the film has been expanded to incorporate material cut from the original theatrical release, and it really helps the overall context. The rape, disgusting to begin with, is taken to far more sickening extremes, while the murders all offer their own moments of extended gore. Iliadis also gives the characters more of a chance to interact, to build the kind of connections that will come apart later in the picture. With his determined, desaturated look, deliberate sense of dread, and completely gratuitous finale, The Last House on the Left doesn’t so much mirror the original as it expands on its ideas.

All of which argues for Craven’s creative ingenuity. It would have been easy to find some fresh faced newbie, hand them a script which basically mimics the first film’s mindless depravity, and ratchet up the special effects. Instead, as he did with Alexandre Aja and the nuke mutant magnificence of The Hills Have Eyes, Craven found a filmmaker with vision and let him run with the redux. There will be a few fanatics who will never forgive the scary movie maestro for exploiting his output like this. Others will never know he had a career prior to a certain slasher spoof. Whatever the case, The Last House on the Left stands as an interesting twist on the original grindhouse great. While it may not pass the test of time, it definitely delivers the gratuitous goods. It just takes its own sweet time doing so.

by Bill Gibron

9 Aug 2009


He remains one of the few House of Mouse minions who has managed to more or less escape the company’s callous, careerist claws. He appears to be creating a life outside of Uncle Walt’s omniscience, with roles taking risks beyond the uber-successful High School Musical franchise. And with 17 Again, tweenager poster boy Zac Efron proves that he really can act. He’s not Edward Norton, or Ryan Gosling, but he has presence here, and a power that’s usually reserved for someone who hasn’t made their name catering to underage girls and disgruntled spinsters. As Mike O’Donnell, big man on his high school campus, Efron relies on many of the talents that have taken him to the top. But beyond the Tiger Beat pout and underfed frame is a star that, if managed carefully, can become something super.

Not that 17 Again‘s by-the-book plotting will help all that much. After seeing O’Donnell give up on the big game (and the basketball scout securing his scholarship) for his pregnant girlfriend, we fast forward almost two decades to see a bitter, disgruntled Matthew Perry falling apart. About to get divorced from his now wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann, likable) and distant from his semi-slutty daughter Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and uncool son Alex (Sterling Knight), he lives with best friend - and super sci-fi geek - Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon). After he gets passed up for a promotion, Mike returns to his alma mater, hoping to find out where things went wrong. Instead, he runs into a mysterious janitor who questions the aging man’s motives. A bizarre rainstorm later, and pushing 40 Mike is…you guessed it, 17 again.

Try as it might for something insightful or different, this latest in a long line of hit or (mostly) miss body switching movies can’t help but fall into formula. Mike is not given back his youth in order to see how life would be had he lived up to his expectations or figured out a way to fulfill his dreams. Instead, the focus is family - winning back a saddened Scarlett, teaching a needy Maggie to believe in herself, helping a lost Alex discover his inner chick magnet. It’s all rote, rerouted by Bringing Down the House scribe Jason Filardi and Igby Goes Down director Burr Steers into a combination of cliché and clarity. For most of its running time, you know exactly where 17 Again is going. Even when threatened by Maggie’s bully boyfriend, we just know that Mike is going to have the last laugh.

That doesn’t mean the movie is a flop, however. Efron, whose biggest onscreen drawback is his ever-changing ‘60s mod hairdo, owns almost every moment, milking the minimal laughs available while playing up the material’s maudlin strengths. While we never quite believe he is a middle-aged man “trapped” in a kid’s slight form, there is still an old soul quality to his performance that propels the plot points forward. You can see Filardi and Steers swinging wide and missing - Lennon’s 40 Year Old Virgin-lite persona is just pathetic - yet whenever they keep the camera on Efron and his co-stars, the film more or less works. This is definitely a project driven by the power of one character’s personality. Take Mike out of the mix and the story is stacked with obvious jokes and uninteresting relationships. With Efron as our guide, we actually care about what’s going to happen.

Still, 17 Again does tend to lap itself. The movie starts with Mike missing out on a big game. Guess where the narrative decides the denouement needs to be? You guessed it. Similarly, Maggie and Alex are presented as teens with a one track mind - and it’s not Algebra they’re panting over. While newly minted mini-dad is trying to help them through the sometimes funny little muddle called life, all they want is a little opposite sex companionship. And then there is the whole creepy cougar subplot which might have made sense when Robert Downey Jr. wooed Cybill Shepherd in 1989’s Chances Are. But with today’s unseemly focus on MILF matron exploitation, no amount of Leslie Mann lightness can undermine the sleazy implications. Luckily, the movie recognizes such risky business, and backs off.

In the end, this is Efron’s battle to win or lose. Either his intended demographic will look at his androgynous charms and Clearasil-covered potency and buy into his move into maturity, or they will leave him lagging like the various members of a ‘90s boy band. In an era where a song and dance man was money, he’d be a million dollar dynamo. Yet there are limits to where this version of Efron can go. By constantly having to cater to the prepubescent crowd, by figuring that all he can do is shill to the one’s who have his Troy Bolton talents memorized, he’ll be pigeon-holed without getting the benefit of a chance to grow. With Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles coming out this Fall, and another effort with Steers (The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud) in production, Efron may finally make his getaway stick.

If he does managed the switch from idol to iconoclast, if he can prove that his onscreen power is more than just proper marketing, Zac Efron could be huge. 17 Again proves that - in bits and pieces. Clearly New Line Cinema and new parent company Warner Brothers are a little lukewarm on his chances. The recent DVD version of the film has absolutely no bonus features to speak of (apparently, all the Efron-ccentric extras were left for the Blu-ray release - boo!) and that’s too bad. This is a decent enough entertainment, a movie that succeeds because of its star’s ability to project flash in the face of formula, to produce heart where others would find a hack. Sure, Matthew Perry is just a casting ploy 10 years too late. Yes, Ms. Mann has delivered finer turns in her husband’s (Judd Apatow) films. But this movie belongs to the former prisoner of a certain Magic Kingdom. Not only has Zac Efron triumphed, he’s paved a path guaranteeing he’ll never have to go back again…probably.

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