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The Lorax

Posted on March 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Adapting Dr. Seuss for a feature film is a challenge. The movies can capture his whimsical drawings and mischievous humor but they fail when they pad his storylines and jettison his rhymes.  Dr. Seuss had a genius for saying a lot with a little, which is one reason the half-hour animated television versions of his stories hold up so well.  But more is less when it comes to adapting Dr. Seuss, and in this latest, as in too many before, most of what is added is unnecessary, distracting, and nowhere near the quality of the original.

The Lorax applies all of the latest tools of technology with great skill and imagination and never match the standard of Dr. Seuess’ paintbrush on paper.  It is beautifully designed and makes great use of 3D. Unfortunately, it weighs down the story of the book, becoming something Dr. Seuss never was — heavyhanded.

The legendary Dr. Seuss wrote the story of The Lorax as a cautionary tale about environmental pollution and corporate greed in an era when the country was newly awakened to the dangers confronting our fragile ecological system. In the age of hippies and “flower power” and yearning for a return to nature, The Lorax fit right in.

In this expanded version of the story, twelve year old Ted (Zac Efron) has grown up in the town of Thneeville, where everything is “plastic and fake.” There is not one living tree, or even any place to plant a tree because the dirt has been covered up with plastic. The richest man in town, Mr. O’Hare, (Bob Riggle) makes his money selling bottled clean air (aided by large ruthless bodyguards and a corporate propaganda campaign). Mr. O’Hare believes that trees are a threat to his corporate profits because “trees make air for free.”

Ted daydreams of the beautiful young Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when Audrey wishes on her birthday that she could see “a real tree” rather than the plastic replicas in Thneeville, Ted sets out on a quest which gets him into all kinds of trouble and leads him on all kinds of adventures. (“If a boy does the same stupid thing twice, it’s usually for a girl.”) His exploits in the sewer system of Thneeville and outside the city limits are beautifully done. Ted’s quest takes him to an ancient hermit, the Once-ler, (Ed Helms) who tells the story of his long ago encounter with a strange woodland creature, the Lorax (Danny DeVito) who “spoke for the trees.” In a series of flashbacks the Once-ler explains how the trees were all killed off. The rest of the movie involves Ted, Audrey and Ted’s grandma battling corporate spies, security cameras and a brainwashed mob to see if trees can be restored. In a scene reminiscent of the recent animated classic “Wall-E,” there are wild chase scenes for the one last remaining seedling.

The Lorax is at its best when the animators are able to escape from the more heavy-handed aspects of the plot. Three singing, break-dancing goldfish provide a delightful background chorus to the action. The underground sewer system of Thneeville is a marvel of cartoon engineering. And there are some nice moments with Ted’s family, which seem to be inspired by the family in Carol Burnett’s old “Mama” skits from her variety TV show.

There is plenty of room for more animated parables sensitizing today’s young audiences to the importance of ecological concerns. However, Dr. Seus’ The Lorax would have been a better, more artful movie if its makers had exercised some artistic control and moderation over Dr. Seus’ manifesto from the opening salvos of the environmental wars.  The book itself emphasizes sustainability so that natural resources will be around for production of goods.  The film over-complicates the plot but over-simplifies the message.

Parents should know that this movie includes mild peril and themes of environmental destruction. Small children may find some of the exciting chases or the scenes of pollution a little intense.

Family discussion: Why did the Once-ler break his promise to the Lorax? Why did the citizens of Thneeville dislike trees? Would you be brave enough to do what Ted did?

If you like this, try: “Wall-E” and “Robots,” the Dr. Seuss book and the earlier and superior animated version with Eddie Albert as the narrator.

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3D Animation Based on a book Comedy Environment/Green For the Whole Family

New Year’s Eve

Posted on December 8, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Something seemed familiar to me as I watched Garry Marshall’s New York-based follow-up to his multi-star, multi-story LA-set romantic comedy, Valentine’s Day.  It was something that went beyond the predictability of its sitcom-ish formulas and check-list of romantic comedy conventions, and it finally hit me when the wonderful Sofía Vergara appeared on screen.  Part of what makes “Modern Family” so delightful is the way its characters address, tweak, and transcend the usual comedic stereotypes.  But it became sadly clear that all Marshall and screenwriter Katherine Fugate can think of to do with this beautiful and talented actress is make her into a caricatured Latina hot mama.  And that was when I figured it out.  She was Charo and we were on a big budget version of The Love Boat.  Like the television series that ran from the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, “New Year’s Eve” is an assortment of stories about love featuring a lot of big stars and with depth and imagination and sincerity that can only be measured with micrometers.

But that doesn’t mean that it is not entertaining, first for the fun of seeing so many stars cross the screen and second because so much is going on that the weakest parts are over before you realize how weak they are.  It would be quicker to list the stars who are not in this movie than those who are.  Oscar-winners Robert De Niro (as a terminally ill patient in the hospital), Halle Berry (as his nurse), and Hillary Swank (as the person in charge of the ball-dropping, Ryan Seacrest-led festivities in Times Square) are joined by Tony-winner Cherry Jones as owner of a music company, plus television luminaries Seth Meyers of “SNL” as an expectant father, Sarah Jessica Parker (as a wardrober who works with the Rockettes), and “Glee’s” Lea Michelle.  Then there’s “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin in way too much mascara as a young teen who rebels when her mother says she cannot go to Times Square, rom-com princess Katherine Heigel as a caterer at a fancy party, rocker-turned-actor John Bon Jovi as a rock star, rapper-turned actor Common, and “High School Musical’s” Zac Efron as a delivery guy who delivers more than the mousy secretary played by Michelle Pfeiffer expects.  Returning “Valentine’s Day” stars (playing new characters) Ashton Kutcher is a guy who hates New Year’s Eve and gets stuck in an elevator and Jessica Biel is a woman who wants to have the first baby born in 2012 so she can win some money.  And Josh Duhamel is the guy who is trying to get back to Manhattan to find the mystery woman he kissed at midnight a year ago.  And we also get Hector Elizondo, of course, who is for Marshall what John Ratzenberger is to Pixar, a lucky charm who appears in every film and is always welcome.

It benefits from dropping some of the cruder elements that marred “Valentine’s Day” but even as a fairy tale it goes over the top with not one but two characters called on for impromptu televised appearances that has a tired, crowded, over-excited and tipsy New York audience aww-ing and applauding like parents at a kindergarten Christmas pageant.  All these people and situations leave no room for stories or characters, just snippets that barely have time to make an impression and the casting itself becomes a distraction with meaningless “wait, wasn’t that…?” appearances in the briefest of roles.  That’s just as well, as the stalled elevator and race to give birth at 12:01 do not have much to offer and the dialog has some syrupy lines about forgiveness and second chances that got unintended laughs from the audience.  Even at just a few moments, Duhamel’s efforts to get back into the city drag on too long with a pointless segment about an RV ride with a preacher’s family.  But by the time he makes it to his mystery date, though, we are on his side.  (Am I the only one who thought it was not a great match, though?)  As in the last film, there is poignant scene involving military fighting overseas.  Pfeiffer, Berry, and De Niro manage to create some genuinely touching moments out of sheer star power.  The outtakes over the credit sequence at the end are the best part, though they remind us how much more these stars are capable of.  A better title might be “Groundhog Day” because it sure feels like we’ve seen it all before.

(more…)

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Comedy Date movie Romance Series/Sequel
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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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Me and Orson Welles

Posted on August 16, 2010 at 8:19 am

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual references and smoking
Profanity: Some crude sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Some reflection of the era's attitudes
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2009
Date Released to DVD: August 17, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: 1419897543

“This is the story of one week in my life. I was seventeen. It was the week I slept in Orson Welles’s pajamas. It was the week I fell in love. And it was the week I changed my middle name – twice.” That is the opening line of a charming novel by Robert Kaplow about Welles’ famous Mercury Theater production of “Julius Ceasar,” which has now become a charming film from Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Before Sunrise”), starring “High School Musical” heartthrob Zac Efron.

Welles is played by British theater actor Christian McKay, who starred as Welles in a play called “Rosebud” and perfectly captures the legend’s cadences and presence without making it an imitation. It is a true performance, and one that astutely conveys Welles’ galvanizing talent — and the infuriating single-mindedness that may be necessary to achieve his brilliant productions but never looks back at its shattering effect.

Efron plays Richard, a high school senior Welles impulsively brings on to play Lucius in the production that is about to open. Claire Danes is Sonja, Welles’ ambitious assistant. And the Mercury repertory company, many of whom would go on to become established theater and movie stars, are there for fans of “Citizen Kane” and the 1930’s to appreciate: Joseph Cotten (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and John Houseman (Eddie Marsan). The tumult and brinksmanship that goes into any theatrical production are deftly presented, and as we see everything through the eyes of Richard, a bright, confident, dedicated, but inexperienced newcomer, we appreciate the brutal demands but also the passionate commitment, and the thrill, of presenting something that everyone knows will be an unforgettable experience for the performers and the audience.

Efron turns out to be a real star, with enormous screen charisma that works well for the character, making us understand why Welles and Sonja are drawn to him. But he turns out to be a real actor, too, very much part of an ensemble, with one of his most impressive achievements how effectively he blends in so seamlessly. Utterly effortless, whether talking to another teenager with artistic ambition (Zoe Kazan as aspiring writer Gretta) or asking an older woman for a date, Efron is always engaging.

We know from the beginning that Richard will be disappointed; that is inevitable in any coming of age story. But we are confident that he will also develop the perspective to make the most from what he has learned. The glimpses of the actual modern-dress production, gorgeously staged, resonate and inspire. We leave looking forward to seeing more from Welles, and from Efron, McKay, and Linklater as well.

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Based on a book Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week 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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