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.
The ultra-violent “Saw 3D” gets an R. The ultra-explicit and disgusting “Jackass 3D” gets an R. But how does “The King’s Speech” get an R? This is an acclaimed historical drama about the King of England (Colin Firth) who has to have speech therapy to help his stutter. As a vocal exercise, he has to say some bad words. And so it gets an R rating. The LA Times’ Patrick Goldstein has an excellent article about the arbitrariness of the MPAA’s rules and the outrageous results.
To call the decision crazy and unhinged would be to let the MPAA off too lightly. Its ratings decisions, which frown on almost any sort of sex, frontal nudity or bad language but have allowed increasing amounts of violence over the years, are horribly out of touch with mainstream America, where families everywhere are disturbed by the amount of violence freely portrayed in movies, video games and hip-hop music.
He quotes Tom Hooper, director of “The King’s Speech.”
“What I take away from that decision,” says Hooper, “is that violence and torture is OK, but bad language isn’t. I can’t think of a single film I’ve ever seen where the swear words had haunted me forever, the way a scene of violence or torture has, yet the ratings board only worries about the bad language.”
And he quotes me:
[T]he ratings board judges violence on a far more amorphous and clearly subjective sense of overall tone. That discrepancy sets up the MPAA for all sorts of criticism, much of which has come from Nell Minow, a corporate governance expert whose must-read Movie Mom blog has frequently taken the MPAA to task for its inconsistencies.
“The ratings decision on ‘The King’s Speech’ is just another example of how completely out of touch and useless the guidance is that we get from the MPAA,” Minow told me Monday. “The one thing we want from them is a general sense of where a movie fits into our family values. But by putting ‘The King’s Speech’ in the same ratings category as ‘Kill Bill’ or ‘Scarface’ or ‘Saw,’ then it really makes a mockery of the whole system.”
Disney/Pixar has released the trailer for next summer’s “Cars 2!”
Acclaimed poet/playwright Ntozake Shange is best known for her 1975 “choreopoem” play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” written when she was just 23. This week, it comes to screen directed by Tyler Perry, starring a stunning collection of extraordinary women of beauty, elegance, and power.
Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey on October 18, 1948, the daughter of an Air Force surgeon and an educator and psychiatric social worker. In 1971 she changed her name to Ntozake Shange which means “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion” in Xhosa, the Zulu language. Ms. Shange has struggled with illness for many years but she and her sister have published a new book, Some Sing, Some Cry: A Novel, a sweeping saga of 200 years of history through the voices of seven generations of women called by Publisher’s Weekly “a complex poetic treatise on race, culture, love, and family, the use of regional vernacular, dialect, and pure song, resulting in a provocative fictional history.”