The Lorax (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), the richest businessman in town who sold fresh oxygen in bottles, believed that Thneedville was perfect just the was it was: no trees, no animals, no mess to clean up. In their giant dome, to everyone’s convenience, everything was made out of plastic. When Audrey (Taylor Swift) confessed to Ted (Zac Efron), who happened to have a crush on her, that what she wanted for her birthday was a real tree, Ted courageously explored outside of Thneedville to look for one. Among the barren and ominous land was a house inhabited by a reclusive man called The Once-ler (Ed Helms), the person responsible as to why trees became extremely rare. Based on the book by Dr. Seuss and directed by Chris Renaud, “The Lorax,” despite its sometimes dazzling use of visuals, was at best a mixed bag of humor, adventure, and lessons about why we should care for the environment. The story was somewhat divided into two. The first involved Ted’s quest to acquire a tree and the second involved The Once-ler’s past as an ambitious and inventive young man. In the latter, we got to meet The Lorax, the guardian of the forest who spoke for the trees, which was the more interesting section of the film. While the screenplay spent more time with the youthful Once-ler, many of the scenes were plagued with distracting song and dance–only one or two of which were catchy and creative. The rest were not only jarring to the eardrums but they disrupted the story’s chance of gathering real momentum and drama, a sense of immediacy required to deliver a truly meaningful message about our active as well as inactive roles, such as feelings of apathy, in destroying our natural resources. I thought the bears were adorable, particularly the one that carried more weight than the others and so he was forced to lag behind whenever a physical activity was demanded, and The Lorax was a cuddly creature despite his occasional grumpiness. However, mostly relying on cuteness to propel the story forward with fluidity wasn’t enough to sustain the film especially considering its level of ambition. Furthermore, I did not appreciate that The Once-ler’s family was portrayed in such a one-dimensional way. I was able to accept that they were not very supportive of The Once-ler’s dreams of becoming a successful businessman. But there was something about them being portrayed as, pardon my language, rednecks that didn’t feel right. They were shown as greedy, users, and uncaring people. Not one exception who happened to fit all the stereotypes was presented. Since the work was aimed toward young children, I felt that the filmmakers, especially Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul who were in charge of the screenplay, had a responsibility to avoid cultural stereotypes. If the family had been Chinese, Indian or Filipino and their characterizations simply relied on ugly stereotypes, one could argue that the material was being racist. I may come off as a Grinch but despite the best intentions and morals that “The Lorax” wanted to impart about our vital connection to nature, its hits were inconsistent, its pacing too uneven, and its clichés potentially damaging to warrant a recommendation. Its theme in terms of empathy needed to be ironed out.
New Year’s Eve (2011)
★ / ★★★★
In Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” written by Katherine Fugate, not everyone was ready to greet the new year in New York City. Juggling about eight different but some intertwining stories, the film was not only insipid, it also lacked the necessary dramatic pull for us to be touched, in a genuine way, in terms of what it meant to end a year and start anew. I don’t often bring up the issue of race but this film really could have used some flavor. After all, isn’t the act of welcoming a new year celebrated by all people regardless of race, sexuality, shape, and size? The problem wasn’t that the majority of the characters were white: they were white and boring. The minority, represented by the African-Americans, were pushed to the side with nothing much to say until it was too late in the screenplay. And when they did, like their white counterparts, the sentimentality didn’t feel earned. The most bearable of the bunch included Claire (Hilary Swank) who was in charge of making sure that the famous televised ball drop at midnight went smoothly, but technical difficulties with its lights threatened to disappoint millions of people all over the world. There was a scene in which Swank delivered a supposedly insightful speech but it didn’t quite work. If anything, it was a reminder of Swank’s talent, that she could shine despite an egregious material that threatened to dilute what she had to offer. The storyline that tested my patience most involved a couple, Tess (Jessica Biel) and Griff (Seth Meyers), racing to have their baby boy to be the first newborn of 2012. If successful, they would win twenty thousand dollars. Their desperation to win this contest was supposed to be funny. I thought it was pathetic and unfunny because the characters were reduced to glaring matches with another pregnant couple (Sarah Paulson, Til Schweiger). The lessons the couples learned were just so mawkish and obvious, even a third grader could probably tell that what they were doing was wrong in the first five minutes. On some level, I enjoyed the friendship between Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a very stressed out record label employee, and Paul (Zac Efron), a friendly and charming courier. If Paul helped Ingrid to complete her list of resolutions, she’d give him V.I.P passes to a chic event. Although their scenes were unrealistic and at times Efron sounded like he was reading off cue cards, I liked that the material went all the way with this particular subplot. It was certainly better than watching Randy (Ashton Kutcher) and Elise (Lea Michele) get stuck in a lift and look miserable. While the two eventually found redeeming qualities with one another, I didn’t: I found the entire contrivance as false. “New Year’s Eve” suffered from a very basic dialogue, devoid of wit or any semblance of rhythm felt in actual conversations, coupled with one-dimensional characters. I wouldn’t even get started with the so-called romance between Laura (Katherine Heigl) and Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi). It was like pulling teeth without novocaine. The only time I lit up and showed my pearly whites was when Sofía Vergara, as Laura’s sous chef, appeared on screen with her hilariously infectious jovial personality. But what I found most distasteful was the film’s unabashed emotional manipulation. The characters engaged in trifles for the majority of the time and then Bam! a twist designed to pull at our heartstrings occurred toward the end. If it had been more ambitious and more diverse, perhaps most of us could relate and been more entertained by it.
Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) was magnetized toward the arts so when the opportunity of working with Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) production of “Julius Caesar” had presented itself, Richard just had to be in the play despite lacking theater experience. Through a week of rigorous rehearsals, Richard fell for a secretary named Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) who everyone admired but earned the nickname of being an Ice Queen. Little did Richard know that he had to compete with Welles for Sonja’s affections. I understand that this movie must have been a big deal for Efron because it gave him the chance to finally be considered as a serious actor. In a way, the actor had parallels with his character because Richard wanted to be taken seriously despite his age and lack of connection in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, the movie barely kept my attention. I could not connect at all with Richard because there did not come a point where he had a clear vision between wanting to have the girl or wanting to achieve his dreams. Obviously, he could not have both. To an extent, his lack of understanding about what was more important was understandable because he was young, but I think the writing should have presented a key moment when the audiences would realize that Richard was worth rooting for even though he did not know exactly what he wanted. There were two characters who overshadowed the protagonist. One was Danes as an elegant woman who knew what she wanted and would do anything to go where she wanted to go. Unlike the main character, she had experience and was wise despite the fact that I did not always agree with her actions. The other character that fascinated me was Gretta Adler (Zoe Kazan), an aspiring young writer who liked to visit museums for inspiration and when she felt down. Kazan was absolutely charming and, more importantly, the zeal she embedded in her character did not feel forced. Generally, Efron was satisfactory as Richard, albeit too safe, but his lack of intensity was magnified when he had to interact with Danes and Kazan. Furthermore, I do have to say that his optimistic one-liners made me cringe. “Me and Orson Welles” was surprisingly weak especially since Richard Linklater was the director. In most of his films, he has such a great ear for dialogue and sharp vision in terms of capturing actors in their most natural state to the point where it almost looks effortless without sacrificing the characters’ multi-dimensional personalities. “Me and Orson Welles” was very uneven, especially in its first half, and ultimately disappointing.
17 Again (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Even though I’m no fan of Zac Efron (he hasn’t yet proven to me that he can be a versatile actor), I have to admit that I somewhat enjoyed this movie. Granted, that enjoyment didn’t come from either lead actors, Efron or Matthew Perry; in fact, the supporting actors were the ones that stepped up to the plate and delivered the big laughs. Having been down on his luck, Perry gets a second chance to look like his seventeen-year-old high school self (played by Efron) after talking to a magical janitor/spirit guide. In that younger body, he’s able to find a relationship with his two kids (Michelle Trachtenberg, Sterling Knight) and fix his marriage problems with his wife (Leslie Mann). The only person that knows about the whole magical transformation was Perry’s best friend played by the hilarious Thomas Lennon. Lennon stole every scene he was in and I seriously couldn’t stop laughing because of the way he embraced his characters’ nerdy persona. (“Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” you name it, the geeky reference is there.) He was matched by Melora Hardin (“The Office”), the high school principal with a little secret that she expertly masks. What dragged this film down was its inability to stay away from syrupy scenes and lines, including the so-called dramatic slow motions during the basketball games. Its message was also very vague. I felt like the message it tried to convey was in order to stop feeling like outcast, one should join the basketball team because that’s where the opportunities are found. That would’ve been easily solved if Trachtenberg and Knight had friends who are astute, well-adjusted, and happy with where they are in life. Instead, the two of them are simply outcasts: Trachtenberg is dependent on her boyfriend (played by the lovely, though not-so-lovely in this film, Hunter Parrish) and Knight as a socially awkward loverboy. What this movie is trying to show is not real life and it’s a shame because I know for a fact that teenagers (especially teenage girls) will be drawn to this. “17 Again” has some funny material but I found it confusing in its core and very unrealistic in its portrayal of high school. Or maybe I just need to see Efron play a character who doesn’t know how to play basketball. Perhaps then the cheesiness will decrease exponentially.