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Charlie St. Cloud

Posted on November 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

Zac Efron makes an affecting and credible dramatic lead in “Charlie St. Cloud,” the movie Nicholas Sparks wishes he could write, based on the book by Ben Sherwood. Like Sparks’ stories, this has loss, and love, and a setting at the shore. But it has more depth, more bite, more humor, than the popular Sparks stories, and is more touching as well.

Efron has shown himself as an agreeable teen idol in the “High School Musical” series, and he demonstrated comic skills in “17 Again” and an an ability to work well in a dramatic ensemble period piece in the under-seen “Me and Orson Welles.” He has chosen wisely, reportedly walking away from a remake of “Footloose” for this film, which makes the most of his natural charm and gives him an opportunity to show off some acting skill as well.

Efron plays the title character, a good kid, just graduating from high school with a world opening up to him. He has a sailing scholarship at Stanford and a chance to leave behind his responsibilities to his overworked mother (Kim Basinger) and kid brother Sam (likable Charlie Tahan). He is devoted to both of them, but as he swings his sailboat around in the first scene to win a race, we can see that even he is not aware of how impatient he is to get on with his life.

But then he and Sam are in a car accident. Charlie almost dies but is brought back by a devoted EMT (Ray Liotta). Sam is killed. Charlie is devastated, shredded with guilt. Five years later, he still hasn’t left town. He is a full-time care-taker at the cemetery where Sam is buried. He keeps to himself. Except that every day at sunset, for an hour, he goes off into a clearing in the woods, where he throws a baseball with Sam.

Charlie can still see Sam. And he can’t let go of him, and of the promise he made to coach him for an hour every day. He is all but ruined by survivor guilt he cannot begin to acknowledge. He feels alive only when he is with Sam.

And then a girl comes back to town. Her name is Tess (Amanda Crew) and she represents everything that is most threatening to Charlie’s cocoon of grief — adventure, travel, life, and romantic love. She is a sailor preparing to go solo around the world.

Screenwriters Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick have adapted Sherwood’s book with a light touch for visual metaphor, nicely handled by director Burr Steers (“Igby Goes Down”) and the exquisite images from director of photography Enrique Chediak. The vigorous dynamism of the sailing scenes contrast with the quiet, static cemetery (even when invaded by geese). The characters represent a range from the vital engagement of the young woman embarking on a solo voyage to the character preparing for his own death by sharing what he has learned.

Efron is genuinely splendid in the early scenes. Charlie has not had an easy life, but he has a natural ease that makes him seem on top of the world. He is a good kid who wants to do the right thing, but he has the impetuousness and carelessness of someone who thinks his time has come. After Sam’s death, Efron’s perfomance becomes more subtle as he shows us Charlie’s uncertainty and isolation. That natural ease has become a shield to keep everyone away. He is comfortable doing his job and living half in the world of the living, half in the world of the dead. When Tess arrives, we see him struggle with longing and the possibility of hope.

And then, just as on that first sailboat race, he takes a turn we did not expect to cross the finish line, leaving us a little breathless at the way it comes together, moved by both Charlie and by Efron and wanting good things for both of them.

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Based on a book Date movie Drama Fantasy Romance

Observe and Report

Posted on September 22, 2009 at 7:00 am

I have no affection for this movie but I have to admit to a grudging admiration for its willingness to be awkward, intrusive, and disturbing. A stark contrast to the similarly-themed and similarly plotted Paul Blart Mall Cop of just three months ago, this could easily have been a raunchier take on the same easy targets — mall shops, mall music, mall food, and mall shoppers as a proxy for an America that is soft in the middle and narcotized by things that can be bought by credit cards.

But writer/director Jody Hall (of the cult favorite “The Foot Fist Way”) makes comic movies with so much edge they can give you a paper cut. He does not go for the easy laugh that makes you feel good about yourself, you know, the one that lulls audiences into thinking that their families are not dysfunctional, just quirky, and that their pain makes them authentic and charming. This movie is funny but it is upsetting and very dark.

The overall structure of the movie is very much like the mall cop movie of just three months ago, “Paul Blart.” Both are about would-be policemen who take our their frustration with petty enforcements when they are not mooning over a pretty mall employee.

But where “Paul Blart” was cute and gentle, “Observe and Report” is harsh and bleak. There are no cheery pop songs on the soundtrack to let us know they are just kidding. And there is not much in the way of lessons learned or getting in touch with the life force. Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a sad, lonely, and angry man who is borderline delusional. He lives with his alcoholic mother. He yearns for Brandi (a fearless Anna Faris), who works at a department store cosmetics counter. He bitterly resents Detective Henderson (Ray Liotta), who is assigned to investigate reports of a flasher who has been harassing women in the parking lot. In a subversion of the usual movie tropes, he decides to ride to the occasion and resolve the flasher case himself as a way of proving himself. But his instincts are skewed and he makes a series of poor judgments and expensive mistakes that are played for comedy.

Rogen, Faris, Celia Weston as Ronnie’s mother, and Michael Pena as his second in command manage the difficult material well, but Hall is more adept as writer (and selector of esoteric songs for the soundtrack) than as a director. The tone may be even more harsh than intended just due to an uncertain control of narrative and character. Hill says he was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy,” but he needs to do a bit more observing and reporting of his own to make sure he understands what makes those movies work.

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Comedy

Muppets From Space

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 10:52 am

Like all Muppet movies, this latest entry has plenty of jokes to keep the parents happy while the kids are enjoying the story. This time, the story focuses on a question that has intrigued Muppet fans for years: exactly what IS Gonzo? Gonzo feels alone and outcast, even in the midst of the busy Muppet group house. He dreams that Noah refuses to let him on the ark because there is only one of him, and Noah wants only pairs. But then he begins receiving messages and learns that he is an alien, and that his alien family is coming to meet him.

There is a problem, though. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor of television’s “Larry Sanders Show”), who works at a mysterious government office that tracks aliens, captures Gonzo and orders a scientist to remove his brain for study. Gonzo’s pal Rizzo the Rat is put in a cage with lab rats. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal, and the others set out to rescue them.

The movie has sly references to just about every space movie classic, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” (plus “The Shawshank Redemption”), cameos from stars including Andie MacDowell, Ray Liotta, and David Arquette, and a bouncy score of rock classics. While the score draws from performers like James Brown, The Commodores and Sly and the Family Stone, the human performers are overwhelmingly white, a mistake also too often committed by the sci-fi movies so lovingly parodied. With that caveat, and with the further warning that this may not be the Muppets’ all-time best, it is a very pleasant way to spend a quick 90 minutes, and the best movie of the summer for families with younger children.

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Animation Based on a television show Comedy For all ages For the Whole Family Talking animals
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