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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (HD DVD)

Universal // R // October 10, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Try watching
Wait for it...wait for it...
Porky's again without balling up in the fetal position and weeping openly. The reason Fast Times at Ridgemont High holds up so much better than the glut of teen sex comedies from the late '70s and early '80s is that it's...well, really not a teen sex comedy, no matter how many online movie databases are determined to label it that way. This landmark 1982 coming of age film is about a group of carefree teenagers ready to rush into adulthood (half of 'em having deluded themselves into thinking they're there already) and buckling when the pressures of being an adult are thrust upon them.

First to bat is Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), a devastatingly shy outsider whose one and only friend is an overconfident prick named Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) who boasts about a parade of non-existent sexual conquests and squeezes every last cent out of underclassmen for scalped concert tickets. Mark's smitten with his biology classmate Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fifteen year old whose friendship with the older, more experienced Linda (Phoebe Cates) leads her down the road to some disastrous sexual encounters. Stacey's brother Brad (Judge Reinhold) rakes in enough cash flipping burgers for him to think he's grabbed the world by the balls, rehearsing the best way to ditch his longtime girlfriend and setting himself up for a huge letdown too. Yeah, and then there's Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), a surfer who's been stoned since he was in Pampers and proof-positive to nightmarish U.S. History teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) that an entire generation is zonked out on dope. Together, they learn about life, they learn about love, and they learn to always, always lock the bathroom door.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High doesn't get a lot of laughs, but that's not meant as a jab at how its humor has aged over the past quarter-century. One point that's brought up over and over again in the disc's audio commentary and its accompanying documentary is that the mission statement wasn't to be funny -- it's to be honest. There are parts of Fast Times that still crack me up even my fourth or fifth time through, but it's not a Zapped or Porky's-grade shameless grab for laughs. So much of what these characters endure -- sex, money problems, drugs...hell, even abortion -- is grounded in reality, plucked from Cameron Crowe's observations in his book of the same name. There's something genuine about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, respecting its characters enough to avoid feeling like some sort of contrived, heavy-handed morality tale. Yeah, it's breezy, it's funny, it's smartly written, and it's instantly relatable, but there's a good bit of substance deftly tossed into the mix too.

Maybe even better known as a stepping stone than as a movie, Fast Times marks the first feature film credits for writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling, and a small army of its fledgling actors went onto great success, including Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker, Nicholas Cage, Anthony Edwards, and Eric Stoltz. The real stand-outs, though, are the inhumanly cute Phoebe Cates as a high school senior who's convinced she's far more mature than she really is, a deeply convincing Jennifer Jason Leigh whose character continually stumbles in her awkward first few steps towards love, and Sean Penn, who immerses himself so deeply in this stoned surfer that the actor I'm so familiar with is completely unrecognizable.

It's opined in the documentary on this disc that people who weren't even born when Fast Times at Ridgemont High first came out enjoy it just as much as those who caught it theatrically. As much of the movie is rooted in the early '80s, there's something timeless about what so many of its characters have to endure, and as long as teenagers come to the realization that adulthood isn't all it's cracked up to be, there'll be an audience for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Video: This 1.85:1 high-def presentation is a transfer that Universal's probably been sitting on for a while, but even if it doesn't take advantage of
"Just what in the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Learning about Cuba. Having some food."
the bleeding-edge of telecine tech, Fast Times at Ridgemont High still looks quite a bit better than I thought it would. Its age and low-budget do creep in at times, though: the image is fairly grainy, and a few shots are indistinguishable from a well-mastered DVD. Still, the source material is surprisingly clean, and during the overwhelming majority of the movie, there was never any question that I was watching an HD DVD and not an upconverted DVD I'd picked up a few years earlier. No, it's not some stunningly detailed image that pops off the screen like Corpse Bride or Batman Begins, but just because Fast Times at Ridgemont High isn't demo material doesn't mean it's not a nice presentation.

A 1.85:1 standard definition, anamorphic widescreen version of the movie is provided on the flipside of this combo disc.

Audio: Like the 2003 special edition DVD ported over on its flipside, this HD DVD of Fast Times at Ridgemont High ditches the film's original monaural audio in favor of a six-channel remix. Its dialogue unwaveringly remains rooted in the center speaker, and separation across the other channels teeters on non-existent. After the opening sequence, only a few moments make any remotely noteworthy use of the surrounds: Spicoli and his buds tumbling out of their van, applause during the big dance, and...yup, that scene with Phoebe Cates. The front mains and the anemic LFE are reserved almost entirely for the film's near-legendary soundtrack, including contributions by the Go-Go's, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Sammy Hagar, Billy Squier, The Cars, and Oingo Boingo, to name...well, most of 'em. The songs come through alright, but like pretty much everything else associated with the mix, there's really never any question that this was a low-budget comedy from 1982. Not "Awesome! Totally awesome!" so much as "Dated but totally listenable!"

Supplements: The extras are the same as they were when Universal churned out their first Fast Times at Ridgemont High DVD almost seven years ago, so the alternate scenes that pop up in TV broadcasts of the movie remain M.I.A. Only one extra appears on both sides of this combo disc: the audio commentary with writer Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling. It's such a chatty commentary that at least on the DVD side, it runs eight minutes longer than the movie. The track on the HD DVD has been edited so that Heckerling's last comment fades out with the rating card after the credits. Considering how many of its actors rose up to conquer Tinseltown, it comes as little surprise that casting notes make up quite a bit of the discussion, including comments about who else was considered for certain roles, who passed (including David Lynch, of all people, who was bafflingly asked to direct), and some of the not-so-obvious cameos such as a quick turn by future Gigli director Martin Brest. Crowe and Heckerling barely pause long enough to catch their breath, and this great commentary covers Crowe's fascination with the line reading of "You dick!", a detailed explanation why "Kashmir" was used on the soundtrack despite not appearing on the referenced "Led Zeppelin IV", trimming the pool house scene to avoid an X rating, adapting and condensing the book for the screen, and having to justify the movie's existence to a disinterested studio.

Heckerling appears again in the forty-minute documentary "Reliving Our Fast Times at Ridgemont High", a retrospective that also collects interviews with producer Art Linson, casting director Don Phillips, and actors Scott Thomson, Sean Penn, Eric Stoltz, Judge Reinhold, Robert Romanus, Ray Walston, and Brian Backer. Although that's quite a lot of people and forty minutes is longer than average for a DVD extra, it still seems fairly limited in scope. Most of the runtime is dedicated to assembling the film's cast, and I would've preferred to hear more about production, how the studio tackled the film's release, and its remarkable box office success. Those almost seem like afterthoughts in this documentary, and there are too many key people (Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Cameron Crowe, particularly) missing. What is covered is handled well, and the documentary follows Fast Times from the writing of the book through the casting process (including Sean Penn's method acting) all the way to Universal's tepid reaction.

"Hangouts of Ridgemont High" is an interactive map of the area that links to various snippets of footage, and "Music Highlights" lists the movie's hit-peppered soundtrack with direct access to those scenes in the movie. A not-especially-well-hidden Easter Egg also plows through many of Fast Times' most quotable lines. The extras are rounded out by a set of production notes, brief cast/crew bios, and a full-frame theatrical trailer.

Conclusion: This high-def presentation of Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a noticeable step up from previous DVDs, but the $64,000 question -- or, well, the $16 question -- is whether or not it's worth the premium when the regular DVD only costs eight or nine bucks. Fast Times... is one of those essential movies everyone's obligated to see at least once, and this HD DVD is worth picking up, especially if you've never caught the movie before. Because of the sticker price and the fact that it's not dramatically different than the older DVD, I wouldn't put it at the top of your list, though.
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