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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
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Interview: Ben Sherwood of ‘Charlie St. Cloud’

Posted on August 1, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Ben Sherwood is the author of the novel Charlie St. Cloud, the basis for the new movie starring Zaz Efron in the title role as a young man devastated by the loss of his brother. Ben, a journalist, and I spoke about switching from non-fiction to fiction and from a novel to a movie.
I want you to start by telling me about the geese! The title character spends a lot of time trying to shoo off a flock of geese who are occupying the cemetery where he is a caretaker. Where did that come from?
While researching the book, I spent a week as a grave-digger working in the Bronx, New York at Woodlawn Cemetery. I volunteered for the job and they were a little surprised but they put me to work. And I very quickly discovered that if you work in a cemetery, geese are your sworn enemy. When they fly through and land on the ponds or lakes and when they come and go, they make the place very dirty, and so they are the bane of the caretaker’s existence.
There’s very little that one can do that is legal to the geese. One just has to deal with it and live with it.
Charlie’s non-violent method for dealing with them says something about him. He bangs trash can lids to frighten them off.
He wouldn’t want to hurt even a goose.
Tell me about moving from non-fiction and writing as a journalist to writing fiction.
I’ve always been interested in story-telling, whether in journalism, television news, over the last 25 years or the last 15 years in fiction, it’s always been about telling a compelling story. So the shift or transition is pretty straightforward. I just have moved back and for and in and out of journalism a couple of times. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able go back and forth. But it’s all about finding different ways to tell different kinds of stories.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
I have never seen a ghost but in working in that cemetery in the Bronx and in some of my travels to cemeteries around the world and thinking about the way the world works, I’ve often wondered about what happens when those cemetery gates close at night about about the unseen world around us. While I have not had any direct or personal experience with that other world I am fascinated by it and I wonder what surrounds us, what is that unseen world and how does it work, how does it interact with the world in front of us.
The movie lets you make up your mind about whether what we see is happening or whether it is just a manifestation of Charlie’s internal journey through grief and loss.
In the book, it’s a very real world, this unseen world, and it’s very detailed. In the film, they film-makers chose to make it more ambiguous and leave open the possibility that it is happening entirely inside Charlie’s head. For me, I was interested in trying to describe it in as much detail as possible, trying to make it as realistic as possible. It’s all imaginary, of course. If I really knew how it worked I’d be in a different business.
I liked the contrast in the movie between the dynamism and vigor of the opening scene at the sailboat race and the more static scenes set in the graveyard.
The screenwriters came up with a lot of those idea. I give credit to them for introducing the idea of a lot of sailing at the beginning as a very dynamic and engaged way to show us the very active world Charlie was living in. The book starts off with one of the later scenes in the movie that takes you into the central tragedy, the death of Sam. But film is a visual medium and they want to make the screen come alive and pull you into an exciting world. They did a wonderful job of taking you into those sailing sequences so you feel like you are on the boat. Even if you’ve never sailed before you feel like you are right there leaning out over the water and getting splashed.
Did you work with the film-makers?
I had a variety of different conversations with the screenwriters over five years. I was not involved directly but I was regularly in touch with the producers. I feel like one of the luckiest writers around because the producer and writers really cared about the story and the source material while making a movie which is not a literal translation but an interpretation. Every step of the way I was in great hands and they took great care to include me.
Do you have a favorite ghost movie?
I have a very vivid memory of “Ghost,” not just for its dramatic impact but also its humor. One of the Universal executives who was a champion of this project from the start likened it to “Truly Madly Deeply,” which is one of her favorite films. I always welcome that comparison.
What are you working on now?
I wrote a non-fiction book called The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, the secrets of the world’s most effective survivors, people who have survived all kinds of calamities and challenges, unemployment, foreclosure, mountain lion attacks, cancer, plane crashes. What have they got the rest of us don’t have and how can we get it? I am writing a new book that builds on some of those themes, and am planning a new novel, too.

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Behind the Scenes Writers

Morning Light

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 5:59 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to accidental death, some peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 17, 2008

This sunny documentary about a sailboat race across the Pacific Ocean is a bit of a throwback to the days when a night at the movies included some cartoons, a newsreel, and a travelogue. It has a lot of postcard-pretty pictures of glorious sunsets and fresh-faced kids. But for a movie about a lot of hard work leading up to an attempt to beat the world champs, it is rather laid back.

Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, is the man behind the documentary and its title ship and at times it feels like a reality-show version of “The Mickey Mouse Club Goes to Sea.” Fifteen young sailors are selected from a range of competitors and they are brought to Hawaii for sailing boot camp. Then eleven are selected for the team and they choose a captain and assign positions for the race from California to Hawaii.

The kids, all in late teens or early twenties, are all high-spirited and wholesome. But despite a few “up close and personal” tidbits, it is hard to keep them all straight, in part because while they have a range of accents, they don’t have much variety of vocabulary. If you eat a handful of popcorn every time one of them says “awesome” or “rad,” you’ll be at the bottom of the bucket long before they reach Hawaii. The training scenes do not tell us enough about what skills they will need onboard and the racing scenes lack momentum because we — like the crew — go for days without knowing where they are in relation to the competition. Like the ship, the movie gets becalmed.

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