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.
Last we heard in last year’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea (Tyler Perry) was solving social cultural and familial problems. What a busy lady! Well she’s done gone and done it again after a whole new crop of problems pop up that need fixing. This time the conflicts revolve primarily around two sisters Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes) both of whom are wary of their financial-minded mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield). Vanessa is deathly afraid to love again after her husband left her and two kids and fears she might’ve met Mr. Right in the form of a bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). Meanwhile Lisa is in a physically abusive relationship with Carlos (Blair Underwood) “Atlanta’s most eligible bachelor ” but is afraid to leave him. Madea the antithesis of gold-digging Victoria solves these and many more problems as the family reunion nears. After Mad Black Woman’s surprise box office take last year bigger names were less reluctant to sign on. Accordingly the new actors in Reunion are very solid—borderline stellar collectively. The lone exception is Perry as Madea (as well as a few other characters) whose over-the-topness although expected reduces the air of professionalism from the rest. Underwood is so damn good at being so damn bad as the abusive fiancée Carlos while Whitfield matches him chill for chill in a very icy performance. The relative unknowns/newcomers are the most pleasant surprises however. Aytes has breathtaking beauty that would normally overshadow acting but not here. Anderson whose last film was ‘95’s Clockers is equally beautiful and evocative as a single mother torn. And for the female eyes there’s Kodjoe whom girls will likely fall for even more when they learn he can actually act. Perry wears many hats in Family Reunion: writer director producer star--and oh yeah he also wrote the popular stage production from which the film is adapted. Perhaps Perry’s workaholic attitude contributes to the film’s thematic overkill. There are a number of kinks in the film’s completely uneven story and the way it is told but perhaps the biggest problem stems from the fact that it still feels like a stage play. Sometimes that’s a plus for a film but it’s hard to think it was intended. This feeling is elicited by the sum of the story’s parts. Perry will be in one scene telling the tale of a beleaguered battered woman amid a linear and conventional storyline and in the next scene become Madea in her cartoonish and campy getup dishing out her tough love techniques. No doubt Reunion is an enjoyable play--only if you agree with Perry’s comedic remedies for serious issues.
October 09, 2003 3:52pm EST
Probably one of the most improbable storylines ever even by kiddie film standards Good Boy! is the story of a 12-year-old boy named Owen (Liam Aiken) who wants his own pet desperately and is thrilled to adopt a scraggly little stray dog he names Hubble. Aptly it seems--what Owen soon discovers is that Hubble whose actual name is canine 3942 isn't from the pound; he's from the Dog Star Sirius. Turns out he's been sent to Earth to make sure dogs have fulfilled their original thousand-year-old mission: To colonize and dominate the planet. But somewhere along the line dogs went from being super-intelligent creatures with interplanetary travel capabilities to being an overpopulated breed of household pet devoted to man. The ruler of Sirius the Greater Dane is so shocked by what has happened that she has sworn to recall all Earth dogs back to their home world. Hubble accidentally bestows upon Owen the ability to understand and communicate with dogs which turns out to be a good thing because the boy joins Hubble in the struggle to keep dogs on Earth and live happily ever after with their human masters.
The human star of Good Boy! is Aiken who has starred in several feature films including Road to Perdition and Sweet November. Aiken has an endearing presence on screen and his character Owen is a pretty good match for the young actor. The script however calls for Owen to be more naïve than he should be; he's a bright kid who buys into the notion that dogs talk and come from outer space too easily. But the most refreshing thing is that he's actually a 12-year-old playing a 12-year-old. Saturday Night Live alums Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon play Owen's doting parents who are too much like comic caricatures to care about. More impressive than them is the roster for the dog voices which include Matthew Broderick as Hubble and Delta Burke Donald Faison Carl Reiner and Brittany Murphy voicing the pack of neighborhood dogs. Following the predictable stereotypes Burke voices the snooty poodle Faison voices the boxer Reiner voices the big Burmese mountain dog and Murphy voices the skinny Italian greyhound.
First-time director John Hoffman's Good Boy! is a cutesy children's movie that has been dumbed down to a five-year-old level which doesn't make sense considering it has been given a PG rating for some mild crude humor. Hoffman along with author Zeke Richardson adapted Richardson's story Dogs From Outer Space and although there are a few poignant moments in the film it's mostly a lot of fluff. If you suspend your disbelief for 88 minutes and accept the yarn about dogs being so far superior to man (after all they did travel to distant planets a thousand years ago) it's difficult to understand why Hubble would want to stay on Earth. Hoffman would like moviegoers to believe it's because of the undying affection they get from humans but at the same time he is reminding us that dogs have subsequently been conscripted into the service of man. Producers Lisa Henson and Kristine Belson however did a wonderful job with the dogs and were wise enough to use real animals instead of animatronic puppets. The dogs seem pretty natural in their actions and you never get the sense that a trainer was lurking behind the cameras holding a biscuit and giving orders to roll over or play dead. And fortunately post-production was used to make the dogs appear to be talking instead of having them eating something to mimic talking lips.