Children’s Crusades


Notes on Camp, with apologies to Susan Sontag:

To paraphrase Lady Windemere’s Fan: It’s absurd to divide movies into good and bad. Movies are either charming or tedious.

Camp, in which acting-bugged teens spend a summer putting on musicals, is largely the latter, with bursts of the former. One gets the sinking feeling, while watching, that many will love it, so why not you? You, who sat on your hands during Chicago. The characters are nearly all sympathetic: token straight Vlad (Daniel Letterle), gay Michael (Robin De Jesus), nice Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat), statuesque powerhouse Dee (Sasha Allen). Comic relief comes in the form of sorority-type Jill (Alana Allen) and mousy Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), who finally claws her way into the spotlight for Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

Michael has a framed photo of Sondheim on his nightstand. This is overkill, a self-congratulatory setup for Sondheim’s cameo.

Vlad asks Michael, with impossible Midwest innocence, “You’re a gay, right?” The indefinite article is Camp.

One of their teachers is bitter drunk Bert Hanley (Don Dixon, co-producer of the only R.E.M. albums that still bear listening). His sole hit show, The Children’s Crusade, appeared decades ago; rumor is he’s been working on something ever since, though his disheveled state makes that seem a polite fiction. He vomits on Vlad, who cleans up with . . . the score for Bert’s secret, genre-spanning musical.

Hanley’s opus is the most intriguing plot point: the lost masterpiece, shades of Henrys Darger and Fool, manuscripts stacked at the mouth of madness. (In Sontag’s classification, this would belong to the art partaking of “the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement.”) The Camp potential of this is slim, though, and Camp moves on to a rousing if predictable musical finale, in which Jenna (Tiffany Taylor), whose father has had her mouth wired shut to bring down her weight, belts out some self-affirmations.

The show tunes are as much fun as anything in, well, Chicago. But the best sequences derive from the roots-rock songbook: Vlad’s plangent “Wild Horses” and a rousing take on Victoria Williams’s “Century Plant,” which masquerades as one of Bert’s lost songs.

Waiting for Guffman and Rushmore mounted theater as fond parody. The form itself came wrapped in irony; the self-consciousness staved off Camp. Camp is self-conscious when the teens aren’t singing, but the quote marks fall away as soon as they lift their voices.

Triple-billed with Tron and the upcoming demonlover, the true cyberterror of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over might come into sharper relief than the nuts and bolts the film flings eyeward. The bulk of the movie, rendered in digital 3-D, exists inside a monstrous video game, thunkily named Game Over—perhaps signaling unconscious finis to multitasking director Robert Rodriguez’s heretofore fizzy franchise. Spy Kids began by embracing story, with Carmen (Alexa Vega) asking her mom (Carla Gugino) for a bedtime yarn; Spy Kids 2, for all its Harryhausen-inspired thrills, never stinted on narrative richness. SK3D, alas, banks it all on a dead-end VR aesthetic, albeit one emitting a certain black-hole fascination.

Sylvester Stallone is the Toymaker, a game designer whose new creation doubles as a bid for world domination; though he has a four-way-split personality, the joke here may be that Sly can’t make any of them distinct. Stumped on Level 4 in her attempt to thwart his plan, Carmen is in a virtual coma, and brother Juni (Daryl Sabara) enters the binary nightmare to save her. Soon it’s as if he’s trapped in some endless Matrix melee or perpetual Quidditch match. Vertigoes compound: Juni stands in gladiator gear atop a gargantuan version of his body from the neck down; drag racing, he navigates a set of skyscraping ramps, and the hang time is visceral. If there’s less at stake with each flashy new task, a sense that one can always hit Restart if things get too hairy, one can’t shake the awful, implicit infinity. The movie could go on forever, in all its fear and tedium; the actors might as well be pure pixel (as one of the characters indeed turns out to be). Rodriguez’s DIY monomania (his DVD commentaries dwell on how much he saved puzzling out cheaper effects) is laudable in theory, but in SK3D he may have unwittingly found a twin in the Toymaker, trapped in his own creation.

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