The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

I suppose it would be really easy to write a review about how this flagrantly tearjerking melodrama of two teenagers falling in love while living with terminal cancer is the worst kind of emotional heartstring tugging, but that would probably be because I somewhat fell victim to it. It’s very hard not to, after all, given the premise, even without the little flourishes that are added to help you along the path. Those flourishes, thankfully, generally steer clear of big string-laden orchestration or gloopily grandstanding sentimental speeches from the parents (at least, as far as I recall).

What’s interesting is that the story is very much told from the point of view of the central character, Hazel (Shailene Woodley), and this — along with just basic business sense on the part of the filmmakers — perhaps accounts for some of the peculiarly airbrushed depictions of the dying kids and their love affair. They are the heroes of their world; their friend Isaac (Nat Wolff) is almost rock-star like in his blindness, looking for all the world like Ferris Bueller in his prime. It’s directed by the maker of the most comfortably middle-class film I saw last year (Stuck in Love.), so everything’s just-so here as well.

In fact, without Hazel’s ever-present breathing apparatus and a few scenes in hospitals, you’d be hard-pressed to spot that they were terminal, and that, presumably, is precisely the point: this is a teen love story, first and foremost, a film about living. When Hazel and the always goofily grinning and cheerfully upbeat Gus (Ansel Elgort) finally share a kiss, the bystanders applaud. They APPLAUD. I might add that this takes place in the most allegorically-loaded of locations, but then the film is at pains to create a world of metaphor and allusion. “It’s a metaphor” is practically the film’s motto, a refrain used to refer specifically to Gus’s habit of keeping an (unlit) cigarette in his mouth. And then there’s Hazel’s quest to find out what happens after the abrupt end of her favourite novel within the film (a novel about cancer, of course), that sends her to Amsterdam to track down its prickly and reclusive author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe).

We might wonder what happens to her and her family when this particular story ends, but as Hazel discovers, that would be a mistake. The only thing that matters is what happens during the story’s telling. The key, then, is just to go with it, and as such it helps that Woodley is such a watchable and radiant presence at the heart of things. Many of us may know what happens when this story ends; it’s not worth thinking about.

CREDITS
Director Josh Boone; Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on the novel by John Green); Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Nat Wolff, Willem Defoe; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 20 June 2014.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has been turning in some excellent acting performances of late, but once again with this film (as with the similarly critically-feted Mud last year), I find myself unable to quite understand what all the fuss is about. The performance, yes, is very good, but the film it’s in service to seems to be made up of well-worn familiars of the genre, and held together by an unflashy style that occasionally shows sparks of editing flair, but is mostly fairly workaday. It’s hardly a disease-of-the-week teleplay, but the style is not a million miles from a TV movie. Or perhaps I am just reacting to grumpily to that very first appearance of the title cards in Times New Roman. It doesn’t take much sometimes.

Certainly the character of rodeo-loving electrician Ron Woodroof, played by a gaunt and desiccated McConaughey, is an interesting one, even if his contradictions are rather forcefully set up. It’s 1985 and it’s immediately clear that he’s a devil-may-care womaniser (having sex in a bull pen while the rodeo goes on) not to mention a homophobic jock hanging out drinking with a bunch of like-minded buddies. It’s at this point that he’s diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live, and the film kicks off. Or rather, one keeps expecting it to. He goes through a desperate phase of taking all the drugs (a corporate-backed AIDS drug as well as plenty of others rather more illicit) before really starting to research the options, in the course of which he travels down to Mexico to find drugs which are ostensibly fairly safe, but yet unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And so he decides to import them into the States and sell them to desperate victims of the disease, through a subscription-based club which gives the film its title.

The FDA, represented by their local agent (and a doctor at Ron’s hospital whom they have in their grasp) come through very clearly as the real villains of the piece, and the way that the system is massively biased towards huge powerful corporations is probably the film’s most effectively-made point. But the movement of Ron towards greater understanding of the disease and its treatments as well as his outspokenness against the corruption of the system is never really particularly clear. His initial doctor at the hospital, the fictionalised character of Dr Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), has an even more telegraphed change of heart, charmed by Ron and eventually siding with him against the hospital’s authorities. And then there’s the character of Rayon, played by an equally ravaged-looking Jared Leto, who seems to exist in order to show up Ron’s increased sensitivity after the virulent homophobia of his first half-hour.

It’s all very self-contained and worthy in the way that you imagine would be well-rewarded by the Academy Awards and seems tailored to their faintly conservative backwards-looking overcoming-disease-and-disability awards-giving mentality. It’s almost a throwback to the 1990s in taking a straight white male character as the viewer surrogate and charting his movement towards empathy and understanding via the help of some carefully chosen and none-too-offensive (and largely fictional) supporting characters. Every victim of AIDS may deserve a film biopic, but in the end, I never really got a sense of what makes this story particularly special.

Dallas Buyers Club film posterCREDITS
Director Jean-Marc Vallée; Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack; Cinematographer Yves Bélanger; Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Thursday 20 February 2014.