White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

I think it’s sometimes easy to dismiss the films of Gregg Araki, and I can understand critics who do. His films quite often have the look and feel of media which (for whatever reason) is often overlooked, whether it’s the dayglo teen-pop-cultural artifice of Nowhere (1997, a film I consider among his finest) or this one, which has a sort of Nicholas Sparks personal-journey soft-focus melodrama feel to it. I have no idea about the literary qualities of the source novel, but the way it comes across in this film suggests it’s an airport novel, one of those hokey thrillers that are easily digested in such an environment. However, there’s something almost Douglas Sirk-like in the way that the film’s surfaces and its dark undertow inflect one another, or perhaps Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life in its evocation of suburban domesticity breeding madness. For while it’s on the one hand a mystery about a disappearance (the lead character’s mother, played vampily by Eva Green), it’s also a subtly-inflected coming-of-age of sorts, as teenager Kat (Shailene Woodley), growing up in small-town USA of the late-80s, negotiates a world of patriarchal pitfalls occasioned by her mother’s disappearance. There’s her uptight dad (Christopher Meloni) and deadbeat neighbour boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), both of whom try to control her in different ways, and a local cop she hooks up with after her mother’s disappearance. All the men in her life try to guide and mould her, but it’s to the film’s credit that Kat remains self-possessed and in control of her sexuality, unlike her mother for whom suburban domesticity has had a rather more warping effect. In the end, it’s a mystery-with-a-twist so familiar to moviegoers recently (see Gone Girl for the latest iteration), but it’s also about finding an escape from the ‘normal’ life that society pulls us into (something you’d expect Araki to know about, and something that permeates most of his films), and in negotiating these levels of meaning, the luminous Woodley gives a fantastic performance.

White Bird in a Blizzard film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregg Araki (based on the novel by Laura Kasischke); Cinematographer Sandra Valde-Hansen; Starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 16 October 2014.

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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.