What story? Does it really matter? Basically the Wildcats have graduated to the big screen for their senior year with the daunting task of -- guess what? -- putting on a big show. In addition to performance anxiety the singing and dancing kids must also figure out what to wear and who to bring to the prom. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) in particular have to figure out what is to become of their romance when Gaby goes to Stanford while Troy stays in Arizona. Adding to the drama is the fact representatives from Julliard will be in attendance at the show and their approval could be just the showbiz break these young talents are looking for. All of this interstitial storytelling is just an excuse to launch into one of the 10 big musical numbers written for this theatrical continuation of the enormously successful Emmy-winning Disney Channel TV films and although the songs seem to have come out of the same cookie cutter mold the production values make this HSM an eye-popping celebration of song and dance that’s pure entertainment from start to finish. This attractive and energetic young cast have used the two previous films to grow into their roles and win instant audience recognition. It’s in the expanded and more demanding musical numbers that everyone really gets their turn in the sun and no one disappoints. Zac Efron channels Justin Timberlake with his athletic and singular “Scream ” a breakdance against the walls of the school’s hallway that’s pretty damn thrilling to watch. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of Fred Astaire’s classic dance on the ceiling in 1950’s Royal Wedding. Equally effective is his intense auto junkyard number with Corbin Bleu (returning as Chad) “The Boys Are Back ” is a lively paean to Michael Jackson’s ‘80s videos like Beat It. Hudgens does nicely with the largely forgettable ballads “Walk Away” and “Right Here Right Now” (with Efron). Lucas Grabeel back as Ryan goes all top hat and tails on us in the Broadway inspired “I Want It All” -- opposite diva-like Sharpay played with conniving authority once again by Ashley Tisdale. Monique Coleman as Taylor is right at home here as well along with the other veteran of the earlier films Olesya Rulin as Kelsi. Assuming the series goes on after graduation a new generation of HSM performers will be required and that is the apparent reason for the generous screen time given to younger newer cast members: Matt Prokop Justin Martin and young British import Jemma McKenzie–Brown. With director/choreographer Kenny Ortega at the helm the HSM concept has been opened up to fill the expanse of the big screen. At its core the musical numbers are much MUCH larger and grandiose than they ever were in the TV films. Ortega and his team have used bright vivid Technicolor images reminiscent of the heyday of ‘50s Hollywood musicals and married it to a contemporary approach. Still he seems to be channeling in some ways the elaborate Busby Berkeley movie musicals of the ‘30s particularly in Grabeel’s set pieces. Clearly Ortega ‘gets it’ and knows what style and verve a musical like this needs -- no matter how young the intended audience. Having the luxury of directing most of his primary cast in the two previous HSM TV outings he takes that small-screen energy and lets it explode in all its widescreen glory.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.