Judge Erich Asperschlager isn't hot enough to be murdered.
"It's just high school. It's not the end of the world."
It's hard to tell whether Joseph Kahn's 20-year career directing music videos and ads prepared him for making conventional feature films because two movies in, his work is anything but conventional. His 2004 debut Torque fell flat with critics who dismissed it as just another street racing movie. After plans fell through to direct an adaptation of William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, Kahn teamed up with Mark Palermo to write a screenplay of his own, instead of directing someone else's. Not only that, he financed the project, gambling that people would want to see his take on a teen horror-comedy. The gamble paid off as Detention made waves at film festivals, on its way to being picked up by Sony for theatrical release. Now, the film has the chance to get even more attention on DVD and Blu-ray. I hope it does.
Facts of the Case
As the school year comes to a close, the students of Grizzly Lake High are worried about the usual things: grades, football playoffs, getting a date to the prom, avoiding the hard-nosed principal (Dane Cook, Louie), and not being killed by a knife-wielding maniac dressed like popular movie character "Cinderhella." Life is especially bad for hard-luck Riley (Shanley Caswell, The Middle), who has been betrayed by her cheerleader best friend Ione (Spencer Locke, Resident Evil: Afterlife), in the battle for the affections of school heartthrob Clapton (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games), who has his own problem in the form of Ione's angry jock ex-boyfriend, Billy (Parker Bagley, A Nightmare on Elm Street).
Don't let the fact that Dane Cook is in Detention keep you from watching the movie. Conversely, if you're one of his fans, don't expect a Cook-centric comedy. There are a lot of things this movie is, and a lot of things it isn't. And yes, I know that's not much help. It's tempting to talk about Detention by listing the genres it covers. It's a teen comedy, with the same DNA as John Hughes' movies, Heathers, and the original American Pie. The Grizzly Lake High student body is comprised of the usual suspects: jocks, cheerleaders, smart kids, losers, and a foreign exchange student (in this case, an angry white rapper from Canada). As the movie begins, preparations are underway for the High School Trifecta: the big game, prom, and graduation.
Detention is also a slasher movie, drawing inspiration from the Scream and Saw series, with bloodied prom queen killer Cinderhella. The character not only delivers scares, she gives the filmmakers a way to comment on our relationship to media. While being stalked by a real killer, the Grizzly Lake teens still make time to go to the multiplex to see Cinderhella II. Later, they download a workprint of an unreleased sequel, which itself shows teenagers downloading other slasher films. At various points, Detention has romance, science fiction, aliens, time travel, musical numbers, and fight scenes. It may sound like a mess, but it's a thrilling mash-up. Kahn's sense of rhythm, energy, and camera movement create the best kind of music video movie. Even so. Detention's manic editing and storyline multitasking aren't going to appeal to everyone. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and James Gunn's Super, Kahn isn't interested in casting the widest possible net. He doesn't even wait for the audience to catch up before jumping to the next crazy idea.
Detention's own plot summary describes it as a "hipster" comedy, a tricky label for a movie that doesn't want to be labeled. Kahn and Palermo have fun skewering hipsters. Clapton's plan to create a music review website with no feedback link so no one can disagree with him sounds as oddly plausible as the Sigur Ros fan who boredly mugs Riley on the way to school is just plain odd. The kids in this movie are obsessed with the language and fashion of the early 1990s, a retro chic point of reference that has more to do with Kahn's generation than the teenagers on-screen. Then again, for all I know modern teens really do ironically enjoy C+C Music Factory, My So-Called Life, and Bronson Pinchot. Affectation, fetishization, and inauthenticity are as much part of being a teenager as being a hipster. Kahn understands that the key to finding yourself is pretending to be someone else.
If there's a problem with Detention's hipster undercurrent, it's that Kahn does it too well. Apart from basic ideas about navigating the twists and turns of being a teenager, the movie doesn't have much to say. Not that movies, especially comedies, need a deeper message. Even if there was such a rule, Kahn would probably break it. Detention is more interested in shining a light on modern teen culture than commenting on it. Kahn's film reflects the way we consume media in a connected society. As websites begat blogs begat Facebook begat Twitter, information has become increasingly bite-sized and disposable. Even real-world atrocities have a limited shelf life when the latest hashtag gag is only 140 characters away. Not even a serial killer is enough to hold the film's attention. Detention is episodic, broken up by title cards for each main character. The slasher storyline comes and goes, swapped out in the film's meandering middle for stories about body swapping, bear abduction, and a football player who is part fly. Every plot is a subplot, and that's very much on purpose. Detention discards standard movie structure for something new. Kahn's frenetic filmmaking may not be the future of cinema, but he deserves credit for pushing the medium forward while making a supremely entertaining genre comedy.
Shot on Red One cameras, Detention's 2.40:1/1080p transfer is sharp and saturated, with excellent low-light detail. Kahn packs his palette with everything from subdued natural tones to neon '90s colors, with plenty of blood red accents. Kahn adds to the visual flair with onscreen text and special effects that, while not always seamless, are impressive considering the $10 million budget. When the film looks this good, it's easy to forget that Kahn largely financed Detention himself. The attention to detail is apparent in the '90s-heavy soundtrack, which jumps around as quickly as the visuals. In what Kahn describes as one of the most expensive scenes, he shows the passage of time through a medley of iconic (and pricey) hits. It's money well-spent, and you'll hear every nuance thanks to a powerhouse 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that is a match for Kahn's madness. Although the track is front-heavy, dialogue is clear, and the music is booming.
Although Detention is short on bonus features, the group is headlined by a combination commentary and behind-the-scenes featurette called "Cheat Mode: The Unbelievably Mind Melting Making of Detention." Turning on "Cheat Mode" adds a layer of audio and video to the film, with pop-up interviews—with the filmmakers, the energetic cast, and the musicians who wrote its soundtrack—on-screen text factoids, and picture-in-picture alternate takes and raw footage. Like the movie itself, it's next-level stuff. The extras go downhill quickly from here:
• Fight Rehearsal (2:18): Test footage from the climactic fight scene, shot with stunt men and women, with rudimentary video and audio effects.
• Screen Tests (8:03): All of the included screen tests feature lead actress Shanley Caswell, by herself, and in scenes with Yves Bright (who plays her teacher), and Aaron David Johnson (who plays group hanger-on Sander).
• Riffing with Dane (4:19): Alternate takes and punchlines for several of Cook's scenes. I didn't find it very funny. Your comedic mileage may vary.
In Detention, style trumps substance, but the deftness with which Kahn and Palermo juggle the bizarre plot is impressive, especially once the flabby middle section has tightened up in the thrilling finale that ties everything together. With its frenzied visual style and crude humor, the movie isn't for everyone. I'm not even sure it's for me. But if you're open to new cinematic experiences, have a working knowledge of recent historical pop culture, and aren't offended by implied mascot sex, get your butt to Detention.
MMMBop! Not guilty!
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