Two 2018 Straight-to-TV Christmas Romcoms: The Princess Switch and Mingle All the Way

This Friday in the UK sees the release of Last Christmas, the latest romcom themed around the annual holiday, which presumably will lean heavily on snow, baubles, lights, eating and love. And of course, at this time every year, all the online streaming services provide unceasing Yuletide content, whether higher-end bigger-budget fare from Netflix (often starring Vanessa Hudgens, who will I gather be in The Knight Before Christmas for Netflix this season) or the Hallmark-style TV pabulum that often is made with the same stars, writers and directors every year, and probably throughout the year in dedicated studios in LA, Canada and Eastern Europe, I’m guessing. I already did a post about made-for-TV Christmas movies a few years ago, so I guess it’s time to update with a few more recent titles. Perhaps there’s a great film in this genre out there (or at least one I can rate as highly as being merely “good”), but I still seem to be searching.

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High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.

High School Musical 3 film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writer Peter Barsocchini; Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó; Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015).

Spring Breakers (2012)

It’s fairly clear right from the start of this film that there’s nothing particularly appealing about the hedonistic Spring Break ritual whereby a certain subsection of US university students head en masse to the Florida coast for partying in the sun, unless you find the booty-shaking excess of most modern rap videos to be particularly appealing or empowering. For that is how Korine kicks Spring Breakers off, with some hyper-saturated slo-mo shots of bikini-clad (and unclad) girls and guys on the beach, mimicking the familiar music video style. And yet the spring break experience is used as a constant voiceover mantra (“spring break forever…”) throughout the film by the four female protagonists, not least because their current existence is a different kind of bleak and unappealing.

This is where the film starts proper, in an equally depressing suburban bleakness of strip malls and franchise restaurants. Three of the girls are students at a local college (which actually has quite a nice looking lecture theatre) and the other is glimpsed at a church prayer group, but they’re bored with their lives and are desperate for something to change. In a sense, spring break is just one of the few unpromising options for escape presented to young women in this kind of environment, and given that one other is armed robbery (which is how they make the money to travel to Spring Break), their ultimate trajectory perhaps isn’t so surprising. It’s also not one that all four are cut out for. Once the story moves beyond drinking in the sun to drugs, police cells and gang violence, two of the four tearfully return home.

Korine constantly reminds the viewer of the underlying bleakness of the Spring Break experience. Some of the neon-satured imagery may have a surface sheen of glamour, but the emptiness at its heart is never far off — reinforced by repeated snippets of both the voiceover blankly hymning the epiphanic potentials of spring break, as well as the music video images of women gyrating out-of-focus on the beach, not to mention the anodyne hollowness of the characters themselves. None of them seems to have much of an inner life to speak of, and there’s an almost monotonous (presumably intentional) procession of scenes of partying and drug-taking and drinking in lieu of characterisation. By the time James Franco’s rapper Alien turns up, the fact that he jumps up and down in his bedroom in an orgy of materialistic acquisitiveness (“Look at all my SHEEEEyit!”) almost seems like three-dimensional portraiture.

If at some level I’m making this out to be some kind of meditation (however profound or otherwise) on the malaise at the heart of contemporary American youth culture (if somewhat filtered through the 1990s), then it’s also worth keeping in mind how difficult it can be to be really confronted with malaise as a viewer. Many will probably experience it as boredom, and some as revulsion, and both responses would be entirely reasonable. It’s not, however, particularly titillating, so those entering on the promise of Disney teen princesses being cinematically debauched will likely be the most disappointed of all. In the end it remains consistent with Korine’s earlier films, as well as fitting into that ever-popular cinematic discourse of imagining the American Dream.

Director/Writer Harmony Korine; Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 14 April 2013.