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Eric German | Sunday, 09 November 2008

What a show! *****

The musical is dead. They’ve been saying that for decades and it’s a much endangered genre, but it isn’t dead. For every once in a while, a musical comes along that overcomes the audiences’ prejudices to become a hit, films like Flashdance, Footloose, Chicago and High School Musical 3.
As graduation approaches, sweethearts Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) become more aware that they’ll be separated by going to different colleges and Gabriella is quietly putting some distance between them.
Drama teacher, Ms. Darbus (Alyson Reed), names four students who will be evaluated for scholarships to the prestigious Julliard College to study Theatre. Troy is one of them and he becomes conflicted over having to choose between Julliard and drama or Albuquerque to pursue his budding basketball career as his father wants him to.
Composer student Kelsi Nielsen (Olesya Rulin) suggests their staging a musical based on their own pre-graduation experiences. Student Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale) threatens to turn it into a one woman show but Troy is determined that it will be a team effort as it will probably be the last thing they’ll do together.
The plot is slight but it easily sustains the film’s 102 minutes since it’s only the launching pad for the relationships and situations that the students are involved in. Mostly it’s the motivation for the cast to go through their excellent paces during the musical’s production numbers.
Not having seen the Disney Channel series that became a pop culture phenomenon, everything was new to me and I didn’t feel obliged to make comparisons between the small and big screen versions.
Despite the variety of characters, the cast works pretty well as an ensemble, a sort of extended family in which every member makes it look as if he/she is playing himself/herself.
Limiting myself to the essentials, Zac Efron takes charge but does it subtly. Vanessa Hudgens is very appealing, charismatic and the warmth of her smile is like a ray of sunshine on a cold and cloudy day. Ashley Tisdale would have stolen the limelight had the screenwriters allowed her to.
The film is derivative but it’s a cleverly selected collection of the key elements from several different sources. And there’s a remarkable ingenuity in the way co-choreographer-executive producer-director Kenny Ortega has combined everything so harmoniously.
The music has an exciting pulsating beat and the production numbers are so versatile as to mix post break-dance athletic dancing on the top of junkyard cars, a glittering Broadway-homage and a romantic waltz.
The closing ‘human rollercoaster’ number is sensational, the feel good factor is a knockout and, so far, this is the best escapist entertainment of the year.

Pacino: De Niro; Disappoinment **

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have co-starred three times but, apart from the very brief opening dinner sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat, they’ve never shared screen time.
Righteous Kill has 12 producers (!), including the film’s director, Jon Avnet, and they’ve overcome the logistics and financial problems to have them on screen for most of the time. But they’ve haven’t found anything for them to do.
NYPD detective and partners, Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino), are approaching retirement when they’re assigned to nail the killer who’s murdering some of the worst criminals after these are tried but set free.
It’s not a breaking news premise and it’s far from original but what actually prevents the film from having a story to tell is that the opening sequence shows us a video recording in which Turk confesses to having planted incriminating evidence on a man who had killed his girlfriend’s young daughter but who gotten away with it.
He also confesses to having killed the other criminals whose deaths are attributed to a vigilante and later, a serial killer.
We know that no cop movie comes this clean from the very start, so we suspect this a gimmick to set up a climactic twist. But what takes place is so dull that after some 20 minutes, my curiosity dropped dead and I lost all interest in the tiresome proceedings.
For most of its one hour and 40 minutes, the film marks time by following what looks like Turk and Rooster going through the notions of dealing with the case. And while it’s going nowhere, we keep getting De Niro’s voiceovers and/or clips from that video in which he explains how he killed each target.
It could have been a rousing vigilante movie but Russell Gewirtz’s screenplay is too heavily compromised by political correctness for the film to be anything other than a damp squid.
It’s also an extremely weak and shallow screenplay so that while it goes overboard to denounce vigilantes, it has no depth or moral complexity. De Niro has loads of dialogue but nothing of substance.
With nothing to work on, the De Niro-Pacino teaming dwindles to a good cop-bad cop monotonous routine with the foul-mouthed and volatile Turk always about to explode and Rooster always being on hand to calm him down.
Carla Gugino is cast as a crime scene investigator and Turk’s squeeze but she’s so underused that I found no reason to include her in my comments. The final twist isn’t just predictable; with such a skeleton plot, it’s the only way this major disappointment could, at long last, grind to a halt.


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