Monthly Archives: July 2009

17 AGAIN

For some reason this three-month-old review was never posted here, so here it is:

Since none of my readers will have seen 17 Again, nor likely any movie in which the trailer for this movie might have been shown, I will break my personal review guidelines and actually allude to the premise and plot.

Beforehand I assumed Matt Perry/Zac Efron would go back in time twenty years to relive his Senior Year (rehashing Peggy Sue Got Married), but it was thankfully more interesting than that. His body gets younger but he does not go back in time!

The obvious synopsis of this premise is that this is Tom Hanks’s Big in reverse, but the actual mission of Matt Perry/Zac Efron is that of Back to the Future in reverse.

Instead of saving his dad from getting beat up by the school bully and keep his mom from dating same bully, Efron’s mission is to save his son from getting beat up by the school bully and keep his daughter from dating same bully!  It even has the intergenerational crush and aggressive come-on scene, however the filmmakers have taken into account that a daughter coming on to her father (however young) is slightly more creepy and have accordingly omitted an actual kiss. (Theoretically, I suppose, 17 Again‘s variation makes more sense since it is said that girls marry guys who remind them of their father).

Therefore most of the romantic capital can be spent by Zac Efron’s attempts to fan the smouldering embers of love in Judd Apatow’s Wife back into a roaring flame. Since the characters are married (and both literate) their fliratations can be enjoyed guilt-free (and without any danger of the movie suddenly turning into a Nuremberg trial).

The comic capital, on the other hand, is spent prodigally by Thomas Lennon in his pursuit of the school principal Melora Hardin (apparently of the US Office fame). Along with his smaller role as a spurned man-date in I Love You Man, Lennon is surely 2009’s break-out performer (read: scene-stealer). The common interest that Melora Hardin discovers she shares with Thomas Lennon was unexpected enough, but so perfectly revealed, that it made me howl.

But the revelation in this film is the script’s and Efron’s portrayal of someone in high school who has totally transcended peer pressure. It is like watching an alien or a messiah to see someone in a high school setting whose actions are completely uninfluenced by what teenagers will think of him. The potential cringe-fest in Sex Ed class turned into one of the film’s comic highlights: during condom distribution, Efron offers an earnest plea for not making love until you’re married and want to have a baby, which the girls find so romantic and moving that they throw away the condoms in disgust!

But therein lies the schizophrenic nature of the movie: the proceedings often feel like a kids movie, such as an impromptu swordfight with toy lightsabers that really glow, but the humor often seems a little bit too old for the perceived demographic, like an oblique reference to MILFs without the last word which was funny to me but nonetheless sat awkwardly in what other times felt like a “Disney movie.”

But in any case it recaptures a lot of the charm of Back to the Future’s inherently situational comedy.

RED ROCK WEST (1993)

I just caught Red Rock West on TV and was very pleasantly surprised. The presence of Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper sometimes gives one flashbacks to their earlier David Lynch films, but there is  more in common with his daughter’s recent film, Surveillance. While not quite as daring as Jennifer Lynch in his storytelling, John Dahl’s talent is his ability to deftly blend influences from seemingly incongruous sources into a new recipe that is perfectly balanced in its ingredients.

It begins like an update of A Fistful of Dollars and ends a lot like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but despite the anonymous Southwestern locale and William Olvis’s guitar score, the final concoction less Western than Noir.

Suspense is effectively sustained by Cage’s continued inability, despite his best efforts, to escape the small town of Red Rock. Like Griffin Dunne trying to get out of Soho in After Hours, Cage’s every attempt to get out of Dodge—at least four opportunities—is somehow thwarted. Unlike Scorsese’s dark comedy, however, there is little to laugh at in this nightmarish predicament. Imagine entering Chinatown at the beginning of the movie (or dream), instead of the end, and not being able to find your way out of it for the duration. Cage is not just a victim, however. In every instance it is his nagging sense of duty that drives him back to Red Rock.

It is a rare subdued performance from Cage, whose lack of eccentricities here serves him well as the everyman protagonist you identify with at every step of the way. His character and circumstances are so well defined that his every decision, even those of dubious judgement, cannot be faulted. At every crossroads you find yourself thinking, ‘I might have done the same in that situation.’

It never occurred to me until now, but the protagonists of film noir are endlessly fun to watch (and listen to) but almost impossible to invest in emotionally because they are too cool, too unphased by every incident, too stoic even while getting beat up. Those providing voice-over narration further distance themselves from both their experiences and the audience by appearing to be in control even when they’re not. In other words, their attitude and formal conventions are anathema to suspense.

Red Rock West is the first time I’ve ever seen a Noir plot infused with genuine suspense, thanks to Hitchcockian identification with a wrong-man-at-the-wrong-time protagonist. The result is 90 minutes of tension. That the whole shebang is held together by just four actors—Cage, Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle, and the late J.T. Walsh—with only a few nameless extras is all the more impressive.