Latest Reviews

Entries in a walk to remember (2)

Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a film’s central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn’t very good. A good example of such a film is 2002’s Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, “A Walk to Remember.” But whereas that film got nearly everything wrong, “The Fault in Our Stars” gets nearly everything right. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Based on the 2012 book by John Green, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At the behest of her mother (Laura Dern), she attends a support group for young cancer patients where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she’s forced to use, thinks she’s beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more.

The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and she lets us know through some early narration that what we’re about to see isn’t always going to be pleasant. She says she enjoys a fairy tale Hollywood romance just as much as the next person, but life with cancer isn’t that simple, apologizing at the end for the potential sadness we’re about to feel. You see, Hazel isn’t an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She’s suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn’t offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her.

But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. Before meeting Gus, the only relationships she had were with her parents and doctors, but he opens doors she never thought she’d get to pass through. In her mind, she’s an undesirable, a sickly girl forced to breathe through a tube in her nose, but Gus sees her real beauty. Gus, being the selfless person he is, uses his still redeemable “final wish” to make her happy, taking Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author (since she wasted hers on Disneyland at age 13, “a terrible wish,” he says). Gus, as portrayed by relative newcomer Ansel Elgort, is charismatic, funny, optimistic and all around likable. Coupled with the radiant Woodley, they make one of the best onscreen couples in recent memory.

It’s their talent and chemistry that makes the movie as good as it is. It’s not perfect, however, and hits a lull when they finally meet up with that author, played by Willem Dafoe. He’s such a cruel, overly standoffish character that the drama that emerges from their interaction feels forced. Although his character serves a purpose later in the movie, the way his initial introduction is handled is sloppy and over-the-top. Every movie needs a good conflict—that’s storytelling 101—but the presence of cancer and all of its complications is enough here, these scenes merely an unnecessary detour in an otherwise smooth ride.

“Depression isn’t a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying,” Hazel says cynically in the beginning narration. It’s an interesting quote, but after meeting Gus, she comes to realize that she was wrong because even on their worst days, the two felt an unexplainable happiness they had never felt before. All that mattered was that they were together and, with the knowledge that tomorrow, in a very real sense, may not come, they needed to make each moment count. Nearly every scene has something to love and every moment Gus and Hazel spend together is special because you, just like them, don’t know how long it’s going to last. The movie is an excellent reminder that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.

It may not be a big budget action blockbuster, but the tremendously powerful “The Fault in Our Stars” is nevertheless one of the summer’s best.

The Fault in Our Stars receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Feb142013

Safe Haven

There was a great article on Cracked.com a couple years back called “How to Write a Nicholas Sparks Movie.” After a quick critique of the marketing for his movies and his approach to telling his stories, it breaks down the facts:

1) Nicholas Sparks is an author who churns out about one romance novel a year.

2) All of these books are almost immediately made into movies.

3) All of these books are the same book.

Truer words have never been spoken and because of this, Nicholas Sparks stories always come with a large degree of predictability. If a film critic going to his latest book-turned-movie adaptation were to write his or her entire review before seeing the film, roughly 90% of it would be accurate. For years, Sparks has been telling the exact same story, repackaging them with a new disease or tragedy and puking them out to the public. Such monotony means that his movies are largely dependent on the strength of the main characters and the chemistry they create onscreen.

More often than not, the leads aren’t up to the task, but Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough in this week’s Safe Haven are different. Their relationship rings true and actually works, despite the cheese they’re forced to work with. Katie (Hough) is on the run from a police officer that is hot on her trail for unknown reasons. She eventually lands in a small town in North Carolina where she meets widower Alex (Duhamel). She’s initially reluctant to pursue his advances, but his charm eventually wins her over and they begin seeing each other.

For the first time, at least as far as his movie adaptations go, Sparks switches it up. Safe Haven isn’t a straight forward romance, though it of course features all of the Sparks gooeyness we’ve come to expect. It’s actually somewhat of a romantic thriller and is amped up with a mystery. Kudos must be given to him for mixing his all-too-familiar formula up a bit, but unfortunately, the film suffers from terrible timing. In any other circumstance, such a change would be welcome, but because the leads are so good together here, the movie, ironically enough, works best as an aforementioned straight forward romance. It’s in the thriller elements that the film ultimately fails.

Just as Katie is adjusting happily to her new life, that cop tracks her down and the chase is on. What follows is a twist of Lifetime movie proportions, where the man’s role of keeper-of-the-peace turns to something more sinister. At this point, the dialogue gets hammier, the music gets more manipulative and the scenarios become more clichéd. It gets so ludicrous, it begins to feel like the film has somehow transitioned to a daytime soap opera. This feeling is only enhanced once another, final twist rears its ugly head. Although obvious in retrospect due to its none-too-subtle foreshadowing, it’s handled so clumsily and fits the context of the story so poorly that it’s difficult to predict. Frankly, Sparks is such a simplistic writer, even the most discernible viewer will refuse to give him enough credit to pull such a silly, out-of-left-field move.

It’s a conflicting feeling as a film critic who has sat through each and every Sparks movie. I’ve begged for Sparks to do something different for years and now that he finally has, the result is shoddy at best. Josh Duhamel is one of the few leading romance men who is charming and, despite his looks, can come off as vulnerable and Julianne Hough compliments him perfectly with her own beauty and vulnerability (the latter of which is brought out more by her above average performance than the writing that gives her character that trait). Dumping them in an inane thriller was the wrong way to go. What Safe Haven proves beyond a shadow of a doubt is that thrillers aren’t Nicholas Sparks’ strong suit. Then again, neither are romances. With any luck, he’ll stop writing both and we won’t have to sit through any more of these movies.

Safe Haven receives 2/5