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.
While the first two Shrek films scored high praise from both critics and audiences the third installment of the animated saga 2007’s Shrek the Third was widely considered a letdown a signal that Dreamworks’ wildly successful franchise had finally jumped the shark. But that didn’t deter the studio from greenlighting a fourth Shrek film Shrek Forever After with the somewhat dubious assurance that it would be the last to feature the titular green ogre.
The plot of Shrek Forever After in many ways reflects the creative fatigue the filmmakers clearly feel: After fathering triplets with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) Shrek (Mike Myers) has settled into a wearisome domestic routine of morning feedings clogged bathrooms and neighborhood pot lucks. But a domesticated Shrek is a boring Shrek and he soon longs to escape the tedium of family life and return to the carefree days when all the creatures of the forest feared his roar. But how? He's stuck.
Or so it seems until a lispy local charlatan Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn doing a solid Paul Reubens impression) offers Shrek a magical “deal” enabling him to turn back the clock for a day and spend 24 hours without the oppressive dictates of family life which the beleaguered ogre eagerly accepts. But fairytale contracts rarely come without hidden caveats and Shrek soon awakens in a nightmarish bizarro world where his family and friends have vanished and ogres are hunted by vicious gangs of witches. Worst of all Rumpelstiltskin has managed to install himself as Far Far Away’s decadent dictator turning the castle into some sort of crazy lesbian nightclub where his witchy subordinates gyrate to pounding techno music.
Call it It’s a Wonderful Shrek — or even Shrek to the Future if you will. It’s not the most original storytelling scheme but it allows the filmmakers to essentially hit the reset button on the Shrek canon and re-introduce familiar faces like Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) in slightly tweaked form. Fiona is no longer a dainty princess awaiting her savior but the butched-out (this emerges as a trend in the film) leader of an underground ogre resistance plotting to free Far Far Away from its effete Napoleon and his haggish minions. In order to avoid vanishing from history entirely Shrek has to woo her all over again — a task made harder by her newfound independent streak.
Fans of Shrek will be happy to know that Shrek Forever After — its weird butch/femme dynamic notwithstanding — marks a definite improvement over its predecessor. That said it won’t likely inspire any grassroots campaign to convince Dreamworks to reconsider its supposed decision to retire the character for good. The film works partly because it carries more modest aspirations largely shunning the laugh-a-minute pace and copious pop-culture humor that characterized the first three installments. The franchise is clearly running on fumes but this film has just enough laughter in the tank to make it to the finish line intact.
One final note: The 3D aspect of Shrek Forever After is surprisingly mundane adding little to the overall viewing experience. It’s disappointing considering that Dreamworks just recently did such terrific work on the 3D sequences in How to Train Your Dragon. Save your cash and hit a 2D showing instead.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Pixar makes it ten gems in a row with this enchanting animated story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen a recent widower who decides to fulfill his (plus his late wife’s) lifelong dream of tying thousands of balloons to their house and floating off to a mountaintop in South America. But he soon discovers a stowaway in the form of Russell a precocious eight-year-old “Wilderness Explorer” who he reluctantly allows to accompany him on his journey. Together the unlikely pair embark on the adventure of a lifetime encountering Kevin a rare 13-foot tall-flightless bird; Dug an overly-friendly talking pooch; and Charles Muntz a once-famous adventurer who now lives alone in a massive airship surrounded by a pack of attack dogs.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sticking to their general custom of casting actors not big stars in key voice roles Pixar assembled a superb cast for Up led by veteran TV star Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as the aged Carl who takes flight in his house and finds there is a lot to learn about life even as you near death. Asner’s grumpy delivery provides the perfect counterpoint to nine-year-old Jordan Nagai’s Russell a bright and optimistic kid who proves an invaluable assistant to Carl throughout their journey. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) is authoritative and intriguing as the obsessed Muntz and John Ratzenberger (Cheers) extends his streak of Pixar films to 10 as a construction engineer who tries to convince Carl to sell his house. Bob Peterson does delightful double duty as two of the key dog voices lovable Dug and the menacing Alpha head of the pack.
Like Pixar’s previous Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E Up is a ‘toon that is not content to explore the same places we’ve seen in previous animated blockbusters. Centering an action comedy around a 78-year-old man isn’t a strategy you’ll find in the youth-obsessed Hollywood recipe book but it pays great dividends here with a moral that life’s greatest adventure is the one you share with someone you love. The non-humans — particularly Kevin and Dug — are hilarious and unique and a silent sequence detailing the courtship and marriage of the Fredricksens is a sweet touch that could have come straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.
With a string of critically-acclaimed hits that includes Toy Story Finding Nemo The Incredibles Ratatouille Wall-E and now Up Pixar is ruining it for everyone else. There is simply no way they can be topped when it comes to pushing the boundaries of animated movies. Bad for other studios. Good for us.
Could Up which just became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival also become the first to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (before the Animation category was even established)? At this point in the year it’s actually a good bet. Whatever the case expect Up to earn several nominations come Oscar time.
A swashbuckling swordfight across the skies between two near-octogenarians? It’s the best action scene in a summer full of ‘em.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Oh pleeeeeease! Get to a theater fast. Up is also available in 3-D at select locations. Either way it’s a must-see.