REVIEW: “The Fault in Our Stars”


It’s a shame that the modern movie culture in Hollywood automatically causes me to be leery of films like “The Fault in Our Stars”. Sure it’s based on a novel loved by millions, but countless times Hollywood has shown its ineptitude in realizing these kinds of stories on screen. Well this film turned out to be a huge success raking in over $300 million at the box office. But we all know that a hefty box office take doesn’t always signify a quality movie. Thankfully “The Fault in Our Stars” tells a better story and features a compelling lead performance.

Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart and witty teenager who happens to have stage four lung cancer. Her illness started in her thyroid at an early age and she has fought it since. There is no build up towards the severity of her illness. All of the cards are put on the table at the very beginning. We quickly know that she is dying. We quickly sense her day-to-day struggles. She can’t walk long without shortness of breath and we never see her without her oxygen. This is her life and we are given just enough exposition to ground us and prepare us for this story.


Her parents are played by Laura Dern and Sam Trammell and they are a breath of fresh air. There is no family dysfunction. There is no abuse. There is no absentee dad. They are stable and loving parents, something rarely depicted in Hollywood these days. Overprotective and obvious? Perhaps. In fact in an early scene Hazel’s mother is convinced her daughter is depressed. She encourages Hazel to join a support group. As fate would have it, she meets a hunky fellow named Gus Waters (Ansel Elgort). At first he reminded me of a stalker, but he soon wins Hazel over with his charming personality and his pearly white smile which the camera captures over and over and over….

Despite being a bit corny, Gus is a good, earnest guy. He lost part of his leg to bone cancer, but it doesn’t seem to dampen his spirits. That’s exactly what Hazel needs. She needs his honesty, his positivity, and of course his love. It’s not that she doesn’t resist. She does show hesitation, but thankfully the film doesn’t wander down that overused and familiar path. Instead it actually presents us with situations and a relationship that feels genuine yet uncertain because of the dark cloud hanging over it.

There is something else I found refreshing about “The Fault in Our Stars”. It was nice to see two teenaged characters without the same hackneyed problems and attitudes that we often get in teen movies. Aside from cancer, Hazel and Gus are smart, well adjusted teens without a host of personal or emotional problems. It was a nice change from the routine damaged bad boy or smart, sharp-witted loner girl. The characters of Hazel and Gus are quite different than that.


Overall the film tells a good story, but it doesn’t mind flipping a few conventional switches. There are a handful of scenes that are so clearly intended to bring on the tears. Some were incredibly cheesy and felt out of place and false. One particular contrivance appears at the end and is too much of a stretch. Then there is Elgort’s performance which is uneven and sporadic. For the most part he has an undeniable charm, but there are also moments where he looks stagy and uncertain. It also doesn’t help that he shares scenes with Woodley. She’s a fabulous young actress who manages this material with conviction and wit. She makes Hazel feel true and authentic even during those few times when the movie doesn’t.

“The Fault in Our Stars” will definitely have many people reaching for their tissue. In fact even I got a bit misty during the moments that played out naturally. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t always feel natural. But I still give it a lot of credit. It has some refreshing components that distance it from the normal teen tripe. It also handles a very difficult subject tenderly and responsibly. And it is yet another showcase for Shailene Woodley, a young actress who seems to get better with every role she takes.


REVIEW: “The Spectacular Now”

Spectacular poster

It’s rare to find a teen movie that actually treats teens like real people with real problems and real emotions. So often these films peddle juvenile humor and exaggerated stereotypes in place of stronger and meatier stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a movie like “The Spectacular Now”. This intelligent and nuanced coming-of-age story steers clear of cliches and gimmickry by respecting its characters and portraying their circumstances in a thoughtful and naturalistic way.

Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular and hard-partying high school senior. He has a hot girlfriend, a great personality, and no real ambition for the future. Sutter tells several people he lives in the now, not worrying about anything other than the moment. But that attitude proves to be destructive – something he can’t see through his fog of hedonism. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally has enough and breaks up with him. He is warned by a concerned teacher that he may not have the grades to graduate. And his constant drinking becomes a growing concern. Sutter’s life “in the now” isn’t the happy, sunshiny place he projects. It’s just a facade to hide the truth of a troubled and conflicted life.


Sutter’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a shy and studious ‘good girl’ whose reserved lifestyle is in stark contrast to Sutter’s. The two opposites hit it off but it takes some time for their relationship to blossom. But several of Sutter’s issues get in the way – his ego, his ‘cool guy’ reputation, his fixation on old flame Cassidy, and his self-destructive behavior. We never really know how Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will turn out. The film doesn’t lay out a standard formulaic plot line and a big part of its success is the experience we have watching this authentic relationship play out.

The story is also helped by some nice performances by the two leads. Teller and Woodley have noticeably different acting styles yet they seem to gel nicely with these two characters. For Teller this film is wedged in between two run-of-the-mill raunchy comedies so I was pleasantly surprised at his work here. Woodley’s nice performance is no surprise. Her film debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” received rave reviews and here she delivers another eye-catching performance. The supporting work is also uniformly good. Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and especially Kyle Chandler each have some strong screen time.

One of the interesting things about “The Spectacular Now” is how it employs several familiar plot points, but it treats each of them with a fresh and prudent sincerity. There are moments where you can guess how certain things will play out, but the film also steadily surprised me by not going the conventional route. More importantly it is all grounded in a realistic portrayal of these two teenaged characters which separates this film from the bulk of teen pictures we get. That alone is something I welcomed with opened arms.


REVIEW : “The Descendants”


“The Descendants” is a film from director Alexander Payne that first came out Oscar ripe. It’s a heavy story that deals with several conflicting emotions that flow from situations that are all too real for many people. It can be a difficult film to watch at times but it can also be quite moving. I can certainly understand the reason for the Oscar buzz it received mainly due to some incredible performances. But the movie both underplays and overplays some parts of the story which for me held it back a tad.

The story follows Matt King (Clooney), a husband and father of two who lives in Hawaii. He’s a rich man who gained his wealth by being a descendant of Hawaiian royalty. He is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine virgin land on the island of Kauai. But Matt tries to stay grounded. He works as a lawyer and uses that salary to support his family while employing his father’s perspective that you should always work for your money. Matt and his cousins have entertained offers for the land. Some want to sell it to a huge group from Chicago while others want to sell to a local Kauai developer. Matt has the final say and must weigh the wishes of his family with what’s best for the community. We learn most of this in the first few minutes of the movie through expository voice-overs. In many films this could be seen as a crutch but here it works surprisingly well and gives us key elements to the story which sets up what’s to come.

But within the first few minutes of the film it’s revealed that Matt’s wife has had a serious boating accident which leaves her comatose in an intensive care unit. Things look bleak and Matt struggles to bring together his two daughters. One is the impressionable 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the other is the bitter, irreverent 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). To make matters worse, Matt finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with a younger real estate agent. The story takes Matt on an emotional roller coaster as he tries to balance feelings of anger and betrayal with the reality of his wife’s current state. There is a unique complexity to the story and while there is a lot going on emotionally, Payne makes everything feel genuine and authentic.


While “The Descendants” does keep everything feeling reel, it does overplay a vital element to one of the film’s key relationships. Matt struggles and at times looks inept when it comes to parenting. This was never more clear than in his relationship with his older daughter Alex. Payne certainly portrays her as angry and rebellious but I felt he terribly overdid it. I was particularly turned off by her constant vulgarity and irreverence. Even as their relationship supposedly grows stronger, we see her or her airhead boyfriend speak to Matt as if they were drinking buddies. Woodley gives a brilliant performance but I never completely appreciated her character mainly due to some shoddy writing which kills the otherwise wonderful moments between the two. Her character never truly evolves as I had hoped.

And while it overplays that particular relationship I felt it underplayed the relationship between Matt and his wife. To be fair, we do get all the information we need and I had no trouble understanding the relationship between the two. But I couldn’t help but wish for more. We never see them together before the accident. All of the details of their marriage is brought out through conversations with neighbors and family. It’s a smart method of storytelling and I guess it worked well enough. But the nitpicker in me really would have liked to have seen more.


One of the most important lines in the movie occurs during a conversion Matt has with another character. Matt is told “Everything just happens”. This seems to be a main point that Payne tries to make with this film and we see it throughout the picture. But I couldn’t buy into that premise. I go back to Matt’s relationship with his daughter. Alex’s attitude and disrespect didn’t just happen. She is a product of her parents poor parenting. His wife’s affair didn’t just happen. Her poor decisions and lack of self-control led to the adultery. If “Everything just happens” is a main point as many have said, Payne never sold me on it.

As I mentioned, their are some fantastic performances here. Clooney is controlled and reserved and delivers one of his best performances. I’ve already mentioned the great work from Woodley but young Miller is also quite good. With the exception of the peculiarly cast Matthew Lillard, there are several brief but strong performances from actors like Robert Forster and Beau Bridges. I also loved the use of Hawaii as a location. We do get small glimpses at its island beauty but for the most part Payne treats it as a real place where people live – a community with all the same trials and troubles as any other state. The mix of uniqueness and commonality was very effective.

There is a lot to like with “The Descendants”. It deals with some weighty subject matter in a real and thoughtful way. It shows glimpses of greatness even though it’s brought back down by some poor creative direction that strips one of the more intriguing characters of much of her likability. But I found myself caring about what happened to these people. It’s strong stuff and “The Descendants” handles it all well. It’s a film with a great concept and some great moments. Unfortunately a few speed bumps in the script keep it from being a truly great film.