Tuesday, August 21, 2007

High School Musical 2: We're All in This Together

When I first reviewed the original Disney movie High School Musical, I had no idea what I was getting into. Before I watched it, I believed (rather naively I might add) that this was going to be just another TV movie concocted for kids, some pabulum-like entertainment that wouldn’t hold my interest.

Boy, was I wrong, and then some. The first film was intelligent and fast-paced, with bright young actors and actresses who brought out the best in the music and dance numbers. Repeated viewings didn’t lessen how much I enjoyed the film, and since my daughter (now six) has watched it at least twenty times since its premiere, I’ve had plenty of time to absorb the overall message of the film and understand its lasting impact.

Of course, along the way, it became a cultural powerhouse that has affected people of all ages. Students everywhere are putting on their own versions of the film in school productions, and the concept of “musical theater” is now more popular than it has been since John Travolta strutted his stuff in Grease (1978). My daughter understood right from the start that this was something bigger than “big,” just the way I did when I sat on the living room floor and stared in excited wonder at the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show while my parents felt they were nothing more than a flash in the pan. Yeah, right!

After my first review received over 2,500 comments (and still counting), I realized that High School Musical was a Disney juggernaut comparable in some ways to the success of the Fab Four with tweens and pre-tweens like my daughter. Anything somehow related to the movie (posters, lunchboxes, backpacks, pajamas, T-shirts, toys, etc.) was selling out fast and, as the young stars made the rounds on talk shows and other appearances, the squealing girls certainly reminded me of that Beatles phenomenon from my youth.

With my skepticism thrown to the wind, this time I was enthusiastically on board for the exciting ride and my daughter and I watched the movie together as I sat with pen and pad in hand. I can happily announce that director Kenny Ortega and his singing and dancing minions (all the original cast returns, even Zac Efron with slightly darker hair from his tour of duty in Hairspray) deliver a slam-dunk sequel that in some ways is even better than the original (and I don’t think I’ve said that since... gulp... Godfather II).

In an obviously more lavish (and thus expensive) production, all the stops are pulled out as the East High kids prepare for summer vacation. The old stomping grounds at their Albequerque high school (the film was actually shot in Utah) are revisited during the opening number “What Time Is It?” We briefly see Troy (Efron) and Gabriela’s (Vanessa Hudgens) tormentor Mrs. Darbus (Alyson Reed) from the first film, but she is merely part of a fast-paced exposition that sets the East Siders free for what should be a carefree summer. The kids go through the now familiar hallways, cafeteria, and eventually finish on a high note on the outside campus with the school building in the background. The message is clear: school is out for summer; let the party begin.

Unfortunately, reality wriggles its way into the story. Troy and his teammates play basketball with his father (Bart Johnson), who happens to also be the team’s coach. Dad/coach establishes the idea that summer is also a good time to make some money to either buy a car, get things they want to buy, or perhaps save for college. This is the pivotal point in the rising action, for Troy’s concern about the cost of college leads him and his friends to take jobs at local resort. Unbeknownst to them, this has all been set-up by the snooty Sharpay (played with a touch of evil glee by Ashley Tisdale) in order for her to get closer, much closer, to Troy.

As the old gang descends on an upper-crusty New Mexico country club, we discover that Sharpay’s parents own the place, and she has not learned her lesson from the first movie and still foolishly has her eyes focused on Troy Bolton. Troy has wisely found a way for all his buds from East High, along with his favorite gal Gabriela, to get hired with him, making the situation ripe for sparks to fly as the annual talent show literally sets the stage for conflict.

There are solid dance numbers performed throughout, with some of the ancillary stars from the first film getting a little more to say, do, and sing this time around. The best one is “I Don’t Dance” set on a baseball field under a crystal clear blue desert sky. Here, Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) face-off in a battle of wits and physical prowess. It is what was once called a “showstopper” and manages to lift the spirits while propelling the plot forward nicely, slipping Ryan into the “in” crowd he never thought he could ever join.

Sharpay somehow manages to suck Troy into singing with her in the talent competition, based on the notion that it will help him land a college scholarship (and she mistakenly believes this will gain Troy’s affection). This temporarily alienates his friends and his lady love, thus giving Efron even more opportunities in the spotlight to flex his acting muscles. He earnestly proves his worth here, singing stronger and better than in the original and showcasing the maturity that will inevitably make him a really big star like the previously mentioned Travolta.

As in the first film, major conflicts seem to be quickly dissolved or resolved at the end. I won’t ruin the denouement for those who have not seen the film, but let it suffice to say that the overriding theme of the first movie (we’re all in this together) resonates in this sequel, and by the time we see everyone singing and dancing in a rousing finale, we can rest assured that all will be well with the East Side gang until the next sequel (if Disney can somehow find a way to lasso Efron’s rising star).

Credit must be given to all involved in this production, especially director Ortega. Obviously Disney gave him the time, money, and talent to mount a superior production, and (just as he did in the first film and Cheetah Girls 2) Mr. Ortega knows his audience and shows deference to their cultural touchstones, such as previous Disney films they have all grown up with.

The sub-textual references to all the princess movies are obvious here, with Sharpay literally in her ivory tower staring down at Gabriella and Troy, her dashing Prince Charming to be sure. No matter how much Sharpay stares into the mirror, Gabriela will still end up being the fairest of them all and manage to snag her Prince in the process. All the sprinklers in the world can’t be turned on to douse that kind of love, and Ortega not only knows that his audience understands that but he also respects it, too.

Thus, I tip my cap to all involved in making this wonderful film. It actually does more than entertain; it motivates kids (and their parents) to get up and dance and sing. Besides the aerobic benefits from all this, it’s just good, sweet fun and, in an ever more troubling world, we can all use that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bonds, Rodriguez, and Glavine: Are Their Records Really Historic?

This week we have been witnesses to three players making history: Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hit home run number 755; Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez of the New York Yankees hit home run number 500, and pitcher Tom Glavine of the (my beloved) New York Mets notched his career win number 300. All impressive Hall of Fame achievements, right? Shouldn't we be honored to have seen baseball history in the making?

I'm not so sure about that.

First of all, as a Met fan I am not so giddy about Tom Glavine getting his 300th win. Mostly this is due to the fact that the majority of those wins came when he was wearing another uniform, and it wasn't just any uniform, folks: he was an Atlanta Brave. Now, many of you non-Met fans are probably saying this is crazy, but I have trouble with the Mets celebrating the achievement of a guy who used to beat them while pitching for an opposing team in the same division (by the way, the only more despised opponent is the Yankees).

I know that many of his current teammates celebrated with him, but whom do the guys on ESPN call when they want some perspective on this accomplishment? Glavine's former Braves teammate and bud John Smoltz, that's who. Gets me thinking that Glavine is still in his heart of hearts a Brave and wishes he won this game down in Atlanta and not on some sultry night in Chicago wearing a Mets uniform. Still, by all accounts Glavine is one of baseball's "good guys" so I can tip my (Mets) cap to him if ever so slightly.

Not even considering the steroid factor in any way, baseball fans (besides those McCovey Cove zealots in San Fran) have not embraced Bonds in his quest for the Everest of baseball records. Think how McGwire and Sosa were seen as baseball's darlings as they raced for the single season home run record. That good feeling was akin to watching Cal Ripken ride around on a horse in Baltimore when he had his farewell ceremony. But Bonds seems to have always been not the straw that stirs the drink but more the one that blows bubbles into it. Even if steroids were not an issue (and believe me, they are no matter how you want to look at the matter), I'd say Bonds is not liked and that has all to do with him reaping what he has sown.

A-Rod is another sour pill to be sure. He talks a good talk but struggles with his walk. He came over to the Yankees expecting a ring and all the associated bling, but things haven't turned out the way he planned. Yankees fans will always like Derek Jeter better (hey, they even like a guy like Robinson Cano better) and feel like A-Rod has waltzed in as a golden boy, anointed by George Steinbrenner to be the next B-Ruth. Unfortunately, A-Rod is right-handed and even though he hits all these homers and knocks in all these runs, all Steingrubber's men really can't put him back together again after stories about cheating on his wife and ego clashes with Derek.

Despite all the things noted above, the main problem I have with these achievements is that they have not occurred in the consistency of service to one team. Bonds and A-Rod have bounced around a bit, while Glavine only took the Mets' offer because he couldn't get the same from Atlanta. This is a bit of pure mathematics that has nothing to do with baseball statistics and everything to do with dollars and cents.

Yes, I know this is the world of free agency and that Catfish Hunter paved the way for the poor baseball players, freeing them from the oppression of working for the baseball owners who made Simon Legree look like Little Orphan Annie. Still, no matter how we slice it, the piece of the American Pie is a lot bigger for these ballplayers, even the ones who make less like David Wright and Jose Reyes. I mean, wouldn't you rather work seven months a year (hopefully eight if you make the playoffs) playing a game you love rather than doing something else?

In the end, when I think about these records the feeling I get is nothing close to warm and fuzzy but more like moist and fetid. These guys followed the bucks and they didn't care about the fans, the most important people in the baseball kingdoms run by these baseball kings and queens. If anyone has "serf" status it is the fans, since we have to work the land and still pay for it (whatever happened to the $1.50 general admission seats of my youth?). The players are less than knights in shining armor to be sure, but they have been touched by the sword and certainly live a charmed life at home and on the road.

It doesn't help that Bonds plays for the Giants (who left New York for sunny California and put a hole in so many hearts), A-Rod saunters around for the Yankees (a team that believes it's royalty as much as its owner thinks he's King George), and Glavine pitches for the Mets (working class scrubs to be sure but still hated because the team is in New York).

There is also the truth that loyalty is a forgotten notion and that really hurts. While I hope Wright and Reyes play their whole careers in Queens, I am not certain of it. Jeter (no matter how much I hate his team) is probably the last stand-up baseball guy; the last future Hall of Famer who played his whole career with one team. There's a reason Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on earth (even when he was dying), and the fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium that day intimately knew why because they were fortunate too since Gehrig played every inning of his career as a Yankee.

We will never see the likes of those kinds of days again. Free agency, steroids, and greed have seen to that. So these records mean nothing more than numbers in the book when they should mean a whole lot more. For that, every baseball fan should be more than angry because as we are witnesses to baseball history we can also testify to the fact that it has been compromised probably beyond repair, and that's more than a damned shame, it's a disgrace.