Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Great Zac Efron Film Festival of 2012

     No, I'm not some nutty super-fan of High School Musical (I've never even seen it, honestly).  I'm just a simple Movie Frog who saw two movies featuring the former teen heart-throb in a row that actually impressed me with how far he has come.  I quickly figured out a third that was also released this year to make a full set of DVD reviews, and voila...The Great Zac Efron Film Festival of 2012.  It's better than it sounds...

  Liberal Arts - I was already a fan of Josh Radnor because of his work on TV's How I Met Your Mother, so I was very interested in what I thought was his cinematic writing/directing debut, Liberal Arts (which he also stars in).  His true debut was an even smaller film called HappyThankYouMorePlease, which was on my "to watch" list at some point back in 2010, but I somehow never connected it to him in that sense.  I'll have to go back and check it out.  As for Liberal Arts, it may not have gotten unanimous critical approval, but I quite liked it.
     It doesn't hurt that Radnor and I are close to the same age (he's a COUPLE of years younger), and it's easy to relate to the things that he goes through in his life.  In this film, he plays Jesse, a man in his mid-30's, who begins a nostalgic season when asked to speak at the retirement party of his favorite college professor.  I think this film does a fine job of portraying the difficulties that modern man faces when making the undeniable transition from young adulthood to adulthood.
     The film is propped up by a tremendous supporting cast.  Richard Jenkins (as said favorite professor) continues to be one of the most under-appreciated character actors in Hollywood.  Allison Janney plays the teacher that Jesse always had a crush on as equal parts shameless vamp and snide intellectual:  the sexy librarian's scary big sister.  Elizabeth Olsen plays the young student who develops a crush on Jesse like she's been training for this her entire life.  Of course, considering her family, she was probably training in utero.
     The great, unforeseen, exciting surprise of this film came in the form of Zac Efron.  I am always highly skeptical of anyone who started out as a teen idol.  For that matter, anyone who started out on Nickelodeon, in a boy band, on a reality show, or on the cover of Teen People is seen as a somewhat circumspect casting choice for anything other than a cameo as themselves presented in an ironic manner.  Every now and then Justin Timberlake appears in The Social Network or Mark Wahlberg shows up in Boogie Nights.  I'm not saying that Zac hit it out of the fence quite like that, but he is swinging for the rafters. (I just met my sports analogy quota for the year.  Check back for more in 2014.)  I KNEW this kid that he plays in school.  I was very impressed.  I'm starting to think that I may have to add a most improved category for this year's Froggy awards.
     All in all, I enjoyed this picture far more than I expected to.  The last third of the film, when Jesse decides to grow up again, lags a bit, but this is thematically consistent.  After all, the workaday adult world does suffer a bit for luster when compared to the brilliant hues of late adolescence.  "Nobody feels like an adult".  Indeed.  Josh Radnor shows room for improvement as a cinematic auteur, but nevertheless demonstrates great insight and promise.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Paperboy - I was such a fan of Precious, director Lee Daniel's difficult but unbelievably powerful breakout film from 2009, that his follow up feature The Paperboy started the year as one of my most anticipated films.  Even after it was mostly skewered on the festival circuit, I held out hope that I would see the brilliance that others had missed.  I regret to say that, while not a terrible film, it is something of a step backwards for this highly talented director.
     Of course, when Mr. Daniels made Precious. he had an excellent Oscar winning screenplay from Jeffrey Fletcher to work with.  This time, he decided to write the adaptation himself in collaboration with Peter Dexter, who wrote the source novel.  Unfortunately, the screenplay was the weakest element of this film, and the main reason that it didn't quite come together.  The story often seemed to be seedy for the sake of seediness, or provocative simply to be so, without really serving the development of plot, character, or thematic interests.  Clumsily overt foreshadowing kept me far from the edge of my seat.  I saw all the twists coming a mile away that could have been thrilling if I had only caught on at the last moment.  Like Precious, it was hard to watch at times, but not so much because of how much I cared for the characters, but because I just didn't care to know some of these things about them.
     I DID grow to care about the characters to some extent, however, because there was some great acting in this film.  Yes, in a film starring Zac Efron, that I rented when it and Liberal Arts were the only things in the kiosk on my viewing list that I hadn't seen.  Thus was born the theme of this post.  Zac actually carries himself quite well in this movie too, dammit.  The scariest part, and the hardest to admit is that after watching him run around in his underwear for half of the film I began to see real sex appeal that could go far beyond little girl teen idol fan rags.
     Matthew McConaughey CONTINUES to have a FANTASTIC year. As Efron's older brother, he is a man of many secrets.  He actually manages a lot of subtlety in an overblown world.  I had whispers at the back of my head, but I didn't really KNOW what was going on with him until he was ready to tell me.  David Oyelowo, who plays his writing partner, has one of the most complicated roles in the film, and played all the layers quite distinctly and brilliantly.  I am mostly interested in a repeat viewing of The Paperboy to pay closer attention to these two men's performances armed with the knowledge of the things that they hide.
     Two other actors had no choice but to fully embrace the cartoonish nature of the caricatures they were being asked to play.  Both made the wise choice to go all out and just make it work for them.  This is the best thing that I have seen from John Cusack in some time and I take back several of the things that I said when I reviewed The Raven.  I have never been so pleased to eat crow.  Nicole Kidman gives one of the bravest performances of the year.  It is equal parts infinite power and audacious improbability, yet somehow I believe her.  She even makes me sympathize with her and feel a little slimy for doing so.  Yeah, it's that bad.  And yes, she's that good.
     Macy Gray is an inspired choice for narration, especially in a pulpy thing like this.  She has such an endlessly interesting voice, smooth and gravelly at the same time.  Scott Glenn as Efron's father, and Nealla Gordon as his power-mongering girlfriend, create thoroughly despicable personas that play ignorance so earnestly that they remain pitiable.
     I'm going to say that if you have delicate sensibilities, you should skip this one.  Otherwise, it's worth watching for the ensemble cast, which ALMOST overcomes the problems inherent in the script.  The production values are otherwise still quite high.  I have great hope that Lee Daniels will redeem himself as a writer on his next project:  The Butler (2013?).  This time out he will be working in tandem with actor turned writer Danny Strong (fresh off a prime time Emmy win for the hit HBO original picture Game Change) in a production with more quality talent than any ensemble this side of an Altman film (if you don't know who that is, go rent Short Cuts and The Player right now!!!).  As for The Paperboy...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Lorax - I had not really planned on watching The Lorax at this point, knowing that its Animated Feature hopes were dashed, but I needed a third film to fill this post and this was the least of all possible evils.  I quite liked Despicable Me, so I was hoping that director Chris Renaud's follow-up might yield similar fruit.
     Unfortunately, The Lorax suffers from the same problem that most Dr. Seuss adaptations suffer from.  It requires a lot of padding to make a feature length production out of one of these stories and the additional writing never lives up to the source material.  What's worse, in this case, they have taken a clever little allegory about environmental concerns and turned it into such a preachy diatribe that it would make Al Gore want to start a land fill in protest.
     The voice over work is a very mixed bag.  Suffice it to say that as a leading lady Taylor Swift inspires far less growth as an actor for Mr. Efron than did Nicole Kidman.  Danny DeVito's work as the Lorax may have actually been phoned in, although it was perfectly sufficient.
     The film's greatest redeeming grace is Betty White playing a delightful animated version of herself.  She is adorable, sprightly, mischievous, and incredibly vital. "Your grandma is so cool!"  Indeed.
      The Lorax does end on a somewhat touching, if slightly saccharine note, and has a good message.  I just feel it would have benefited from a little more subtlety.  3 of 5 stars.

Related articles:  Seeking the Queen Raven (The Raven review)

1 comment:

  1. I liked the Paperboy funnily enough. Especially Nicole Kidman and Macy Gray's performances. In fact, every performance was pretty incredible. It was raunchy and rude, but I could see the heart in this little film set in the swamps.

    Great reviews, I am a fan of Zac Efron after seeing a few of his films.