Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.
Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an angry racist ex-Marine -- recently widowed and living alone with his dog in his old neighborhood now overrun with mostly Asian gangs. When the next door youth A Hmong teen named Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his beloved Gran Torino he strikes up a relationship with the boy that profoundly changes both. As Thao and his sister Sue Lor (Ahney Her) are threatened by gang members Walt springs into action and sets out to clean up the neighborhood using his gun and anything else at his disposal. Meanwhile his son (Brian Haley) and daughter-in-law (Geraldine Hughes) show up trying to convince Dad that it is time to move away from the ever-changing suburb he has lived in for so many decades and try a retirement community a prospect Walt will have nothing to do with. Eastwood gives the performance of a lifetime in Gran Torino. You will be reminded of everything that has made him a major star for five decades and astonished at the remarkable new challenges he sets for himself -- even in the sunset of a stellar screen career. Even though Kowalski’s language and attitudes verge on the Archie Bunker mentality Eastwood’s dry delivery of such offending lines actually elicits more laughter than outrage. It’s almost as if we are looking at what ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan might have been like in retirement. His humanity is eventually allowed to shine through and it’s the journey that the actor takes with this character that makes Torino so worthwhile. Amazingly Eastwood has never won an Oscar for acting but Gran Torino might change things. Of the young newcomers Vang and Her are sweetly convincing and good foils for Walt’s crankiness. As usual Clint Eastwood the director paces the drama in a leisurely manner letting things unfold in its own due time. More than any other recent film he’s directed including his most recent film Changeling Gran Torino seems defiantly old fashioned in its storytelling. Reportedly Clint didn’t change a word of first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk’s script and that does lend itself to some awkward moments particularly in scenes with the neighbors. Clint has always been interested in different aspects of the race issues in America and here uses a disgruntled Marine to express what is simmering below the surface in many pockets of American life. Although younger audiences may find the film’s rhythms rather slow the ultimate payoff is huge and Clint fans are likely to eat it up.
Gee that long-haired multi-jointed dead Asian woman with a rather significant chip on her shoulder and her freaky white-faced meowing son sure do get around. Although hapless American student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tried to burn down the house to stop the ghost lady’s uncontrollable rage in the first Grudge it has apparently only gotten stronger in the second. Now just by mere association one can pick up the two very uninvited guests. Karen’s sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) for example comes to Tokyo to see why her sis is in the hospital--only to see Karen fall from the roof in one big splat—and immediately gets caught up in the whole deal. Then there are some mean prep-school girls who take another girl to the house to play a prank and then they all get cursed. But one girl brings the curse back with her to the U.S. where it then infiltrates an entire apartment building. I mean for all I know I could be cursed for just watching this nonsense. Wait what’s that under my desk? No one really gets a chance to do much in Grudge 2. In fact the auditions probably went something like this: “Can you look wide-eyed haggard scared out of your mind with possibly a few tears streaming down? Perfect!” Gellar’s time is short onscreen leaving most of the heavy lifting to Tamblyn (TV’s Joan of Arcadia) who handles it as best she can. The actress isn’t a stranger to Japanese horror remakes either: If you remember she was the first victim to meet Samara the well girl in The Ring. Then there’s the crop of young stars in Grudge 2 including Arielle Kebbel (John Tucker Must Die) as the poor American teenager who inadvertently brings evil mom and son back with her to the U.S. Even Jennifer Beals (Showtime's The L Word) makes an appearance as one of the people living in the building affected by the curse. But she walks around looking like she has no idea why she made this movie. To be fair Grudge 2 isn’t a complete waste of time. Helmed once again by director Takashi Shimizu and based on the popular Japanese Ju-On series Grudge 2 does have plenty of creepy moments. Let’s just say you might think twice about looking in a closet drinking milk from the container or picking hair out of the drain. Yuck. But Grudge 2 unfortunately suffers the same fate as The Ring Two: The element of surprise is gone and the filmmakers haven’t invented anything more compelling to replace it. What’s left then is just the curse itself--and all the guttural sounds black-rimmed eyes and popping up out of nowhere gets old pretty darn quick especially when there is hardly anyone left to root for. Still it looks like they might be setting up for a Grudge 3--that is if the box office numbers hold this time around.