Archive | June, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

11 Jun

A Fault In Our Stars

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s this? A film based on a young-adult novel about a teen romance that doesn’t feature any supernatural elements, a dystopian future, or even a contrived love-triangle? I must say that’s a huge relief, and we can just see these characters grow together through a harsh reality. And what’s the harsh reality? Dealing with cancer…

Yeah, it’s kind of hard to believe, isn’t it? It almost welcomes the inappropriate phrase, “the young-adult cancer romance.” But I did read the book, written by John Green. It is a good read—melancholy but with realistic issues, strong characterization, and good comedic relief thrown in at just the right times.

When I heard that a film adaptation was going to be made, I thought to myself that it could work if the right actors are cast and the writers are smart enough to know what to leave and what to keep. But I was also nervous about certain scenes I knew were meant to be brought to the screen (in that they were inevitable)—I’ll acknowledge there’s a later part in particular that was sort of uncomfortable to read, and so if it was going to be adapted to film, it had to be very moving or even more uncomfortable. Without giving it away, it involves a “pre-funeral” so that one of the doomed characters will be alive to see it. And I was glad to find that it was handled very delicately and with just the right tone to fit. That statement itself could describe the whole movie.

“The Fault in Our Stars,” the film adaptation directed by Josh Boone and written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, is an effectively moving film. It’s just as successful as the novel and features good actors that bring strong characters to life.

The main character is Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a 16-year-old girl who, because of her cancer, uses a portable oxygen tank to breathe. She attends a cancer patients’ support group (mainly to satisfy her mother, played well by Laura Dern), and finds nothing to raise her spirits until she meets a charming teenage boy named Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who attends the group meetings to support his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) who is about to be blind due to a tumor in one of his eyes (the other eye has already been extracted). Augustus, a former athlete, had his leg amputated and is now seemingly cancer-free. Hazel and Augustus start to hang out together, and they text and flirt with each other as time goes on. Though, at first, it’s hardly a romance; it’s more of a friendship that grows into a romance in due time. A refreshing thing about this story is how much time goes by in this story before their first kiss.

Hazel forces Augustus (or Gus, as he’s sometimes called) to read her favorite novel which she’s obsessed with, mainly because of its ambiguous ending. Midway through the film, Hazel and Augustus make an excursion to Amsterdam to visit the novel’s reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). It’s here that the story grows more interesting, especially to those who haven’t read the book beforehand, because it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, what truths are going to be revealed, and where it will go from here. When something upsetting is revealed, it happens naturally and it’s well-handled.

That brings us to the dramatic final half of the film which I’ll admit is manipulative and sometimes overly so; it definitely worked for teenage girls in the large audience I saw it with (they were bawling their eyes out and hardly stopped throughout the film’s last 30 minutes or so), but it was hard for me not to feel emotions because I grew to like Hazel and Augustus and I understood just how doomed their romance really was. And they actually talk about this. They keep most of the dialogue from the original book, and it sounds and acts as real people would talk if they were in this situation. Even with something as heavy as someone saying they will die probably long before the other, it’s handled in a gentle way that works well.

But that’s not to say the film as a whole is a downer because there are some good funny moments and light comedy in the screenplay. The lighthearted conversations between Hazel and Augustus are cute; some of their texting conversations (which are shown to us through animated bubbles) are funny; and Nat Wolff, as Isaac, is very good comic relief and thankfully makes some appearances in the dramatic final half after being away for so long until then. I would have liked to see more of this kid.

I love that the characters of Hazel and Augustus are just as fully realized here as they are in the book. They weren’t lost in translation. You see them as real young people with quirks, problems, their own times to be serious, their own times to have fun, and they’re always believable. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort do terrific jobs at bringing their roles to life, and they exhibit convincing chemistry together.

Now I’ll admit I wasn’t so sure about the film in its first ten minutes. I thought the introduction was a little awkward in explaining Hazel’s illness; I felt the meet-cute between Hazel and Augustus was too awkwardly handled; and there’s a brief backstory shown and told to us about the therapy-group leader, and we never see him again. It’s as if the filmmakers were forced to show diehard fans of the novel that this character was included in the movie. And since we’re talking about problems, I think the editing could used a little more work. I feel a few scenes drag a little longer than they should, and awkwardly at that.

But when I got past all that, I got into “The Fault in Our Stars” and found it to be a well-acted, sweet film with enough humor to keep me entertained and enough melancholy effectiveness to keep me invested. And thankfully, it didn’t need anything else we usually find in young-adult novels to bring more teenagers in.

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Blow Out (1981)

4 Jun

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The premise for the Brian De Palma’s tense thriller “Blow Out” goes like this: A sound man for a b-movie factory goes out one night to capture sounds of nature, only to record a supposed car accident that he believes may not have been an accident the more he listens to his recording. Is there a gunshot before a tire blow-out? Did someone cause the car to lose control and crash? He uses his knowhow to investigate.

That’s a premise Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to try out, so it makes sense that it was given to director Brian De Palma, who has shown with his filmmaking techniques in thrillers like “Sisters” and “Carrie” that he’s kind of like Hitchcock’s protégé. However, I think his filmmaking style is a little over the top, so instead of calling it Hitchcock-like, let’s just call it De Palma-like. Anyway, the point is that De Palma clearly likes to stylize his films, as he obviously loves film and filmmaking. So even if you don’t like some of his films, it’s hard to argue it’s well-made.

I digress. De Palma’s “Blow Out” is a very well-shot, original thriller that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. It begins with a scene straight out of the sleazy slasher movies in which an unseen stalker lurks about the halls of a college dormitory and follows a young woman to the shower. The twist—the girl’s scream is unconvincing, straight out of a bad horror movie. And…it is a bad horror movie, as our main character, a sound operator named Jack (played by John Travolta), looks over the work-in-progress of the latest product of the b-movie studio he works for. That’s a great opening, and it gives our first glimpse into the fascinating job Jack has. It’s interesting seeing how he works with the equipment in his office, especially for those who enjoy learning about post-production for films.

Anyway, that night, Jack stands on a bridge and records the audio of random sounds of the night. Before long, he becomes witness to an accident that involves a car having a tire blown out and plunging into the river under him. He jumps in to rescue the girl inside the car, named Sandy (Nancy Allen), but is too late to rescue the car’s driver, who turns out to be a potential presidential candidate. He takes her to the hospital and they have a meet-cute that can turn into something semi-romantic for them, but strangely, he is asked by the authorities to forget about what happened. But he can’t, so he tracks Sandy down and sees her every now and then. He also listens to the recording of the accident. He becomes convinced that before the tire blow-out sound is the sound of a gunshot, and that this was no mere accident.

And that’s just the beginning of where this wild ride of conspiracy and secrets takes you, as Jack tries to make it public while he’s being followed and he and Sandy make a run-in with violent characters, including a dirty-tricks specialist (played by John Lithgow) who ties up all loose ends of the ominous plot. There’s also the question of whether or not Sandy can truly be trusted, as it seems she may have something to do with it. Either way, it seems the more they dig deeper into the mystery, the more their lives are in jeopardy.

The plot for “Blow Out” gets more inventive and intense as it connects piece upon piece of this unique, well-crafted puzzle of events. But more importantly, it gives us chances to fully understand what’s going on here and gives us one great sequence after another that shows how these characters work and how they believe that their next move could work. One sequence in particular I’m thinking of is when Jack crafts a movie of the event, using his recording and some photographs.

Of course, being a De Palma film, “Blow Out” is great to look at and gives us unique, striking visual images that are sure to be embedded in the viewer’s head for a long while.

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John Travolta is effective as the main character who’s determined but somewhat bitter too. You may notice how downtrodden he is in this performance most of the time; that’s because Travolta went through insomnia at the time of filming. Given the character’s past (his attempt to use his sound & wire skills to assist cops went horribly wrong), I think it works fine. Nancy Allen plays her role of Sandy as a miserable, needy woman who isn’t sure what she wants and will do anything for acceptance, hence her role as an escort. While Allen’s wispy voice takes a little getting used to, she does manage to earn our sympathies by the time it’s clear her life is in jeopardy. John Lithgow is suitably menacing as the sinister figure who pursues everyone involved, and Dennis Franz is good as a private detective who had something if not everything to do with the incident in the first place.

There’s one thing I don’t like about “Blow Out,” and it’s the ending. Without giving anything away, it settles a running joke about dubbing the perfect scream for one of the b-movies. The payoff is so cruel that I wondered if the whole film was supposed to be a joke. But aside from that, this is a solid, gripping thriller with enough to keep us involved and even more to respect our intelligence.