Thursday, April 23, 2009

A spoiler-free review of "Three O'Clock High," an 80's classic

Ah, "Three O'Clock High" - one of the lesser-known 80's films out there. I haven't met many people who know this film, much less seen it. In fact, it flies so far under the radar, I'll do my best to reveal as little as possible. Normally I'd analyze a bit (or a lot), or discuss the specific moments in a movie that made me love or hate it. But this is a quality comedy, to be enjoyed with little foreknowledge...

The premise of "Three O'Clock High" is simple: Nice boy accidentally offends the new kid - the one with the "psychopath" rep - and an after-school fight is declared. The movie shows everything that occurs up to (and a little bit after) the 3PM bell that signals the end of the school day. Barring a miracle, that bell also signals the end for our nice boy.

I wish youtube clips didn't spoil the best scenes. Enjoy the trailer!

Or try a slightly longer version: A new kid, Buddy Revell, shows up at high school, one who - per the school's freakish rumor mill - is two steps shy of prison. Our protogonist, Jerry Mitchell, is told to interview and welcome him; Jerry's a shy kid - an under-sized, hypoglycemic, nice chap on the school paper. Our hero's awkward effort to make a decent introduction results in offense - it only took a pat on the shoulder! Buddy (they chose the perfect name) slams Jerry against a wall and gives this gem of a speech:
"You and me, we're gonna have a fight. Today. After school. Three o'clock. In the parking lot. You try and run, I'm gonna track you down. You go to a teacher, it's only gonna get worse. You sneak home, I'm gonna be under your bed."
And our Jerry - who'd never fight anybody - has to try to avoid certain doom.

This movie is pure 1980's high school cinema. That John Hughes wasn't behind the lens for this in 1987 is a bit of a shock. We have: the unattainably gorgeous and popular high school queen, the quietly-cool weird girl who's dressed out of "Beetlejuice," an unknown crush between friends, a pep rally, the library, nerds, jocks, and a Stasi-esque dean of discipline.

For Pete's sake - Tangerine Dream did the soundtrack! Can it get more 80's than that? In a different world, Christian Slater, John Cusack, or perhaps John Cryer took the lead role in this - my pick would be Cusack.

Thank god I got bad at math in college, not before.

What I like most is the wildly successful and inventive comedy in this film. Slapstick, satire, dark, dry, absurd... The real key is that it tries to stay true to its high school setting (both "film high school" and "real high school"). Second-favorite is the hero's departure from the standard figures above: the jocks, the girls, the nerds - he isn't "out" or "in" with any clique. He has only some friends, yet isn't hated and unpopular.

Don't most 80's high school movies center on a decent, slightly-incompetent, respectably-unconfident high school nobody? Since Cusack played that in his high school comedies, I can't help but see him as the best alternative.

To anyone who loves 80's flix, I strongly recommend this movie. In fact, I'd recommend this to anyone in search of a good, hard laugh - solid, non-gross comedies like this are rare nowadays. The feeling of this movie is a little bit "Heathers" (you'll know it when you see it), some "Better Off Dead," and even a touch of "Zulu." The comedy and tension in this film are used to incredible effect - unlike many failed thrillers, there is palpable suspense here, and it pulls the viewer in (hence "Zulu").

How much do I like this movie? I've watched it as seldom as possible so I can enjoy it in the future - I have few recommendations stronger than that. I actually wrote the bulk of this review after I last saw it (2005) - so I can enjoy it this year.

And the shorter tv trailer, just for the hey.

Who brought us this film? Well, Steven Spielberg was an executive producer - and asked to have his name removed from the credits. Why, I have no idea. Aaron Spelling, however, didn't mind having his name attached. Barry Sonnenfeld was the cinematographer here - also responsible for the camera work on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and many more. Sonnenfeld's work stands out bigtime, because the camera work is not only smooth and pretty - it's rather inventive. Upside-down, spinning around, tracking shots, great angles - all are employed to great effect by a man who was clearly born to use cameras.

Who do you know in this movie? That sort of thing mattered to me more in the past than now, but: Casey Siemaszko is our protagonist, Jerry Mitchell ("Stand By Me" and "Biloxi Blues" - and he was one of the "Young Guns"). Philip Baker Hall plays a hard-ass detective (great character actor with many credits - two are Floyd from "Boogie Nights," and the "maybe I molested my daughter guy" from "Magnolia"). Jeffrey Tambor is a fairly-cool teacher (and probably the most well-recognized actor in this film).

Richard Tyson gives his best performance as Buddy Revell (featured in "Black Hawk Down," "There's Something About Mary," and "Kindergarten Cop"). Smaller roles go to Mitch Pileggi (Scully and Mulder's "X-Files" boss), the hyper security guard, and even Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson) pops up for 15 seconds in total.

Three O'Clock High is wonderful fun. Rent it, watch it, love it.

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