Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: The Fault In Our Stars + Live Q&A

From the indisputably talented writers from acclaimed romantic indies such as (500) Days of Summer and last year's provocative The Spectacular Now, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber once again offer audiences a nuanced look at young love, with the witty charm of (500) Days and the grappling realism of The Spectacular Now with their latest, and what's sure to be a critically acclaimed and box-office success, The Fault In Our Stars.

Based on the New York Times best-selling YA novel of the same name by John Green, Fault centers around a 16-year-old girl, Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley), who is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. During a support group meeting, she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who inexorably and unabashedly pursues Hazel with the mellowed-cool of James Dean and the flattery of a modern-day and less articulate Shakespeare. Their friendship quickly blossoms into something more serious, but when Hazel's health matters take a left turn she has to ask herself if happiness is worth pursuing despite her grave reality.

This is certainly no fairy-tale romance; Hollywood cliches are demystified so we're left with what feels like an unadulterated perspective on love, death and growing up, as far as romantic films go. Those familiar with Green's novel recognize the, although witty style in which he writes, unflattering reality that lingers on every page and keeps any sense of romantic escapism in check. This was nicely transitioned into the film. The film's exceptional cast maintains this sense of realism with gritty performances, particularly Woodley, Elgort and Hazel's mother, played Laura Dern who lends her character a resilient maternalism and gives a wonderfully painful performance. Woodley and Elgort, however, are what define the film. If the writing is the structure, they are the glue that comfortably sets into the crevices and tightly binds to create a complete experience. In a recent interview, Woodley admitted to almost quitting the business until she read the script for The Spectacular Now. Thank God for that, otherwise spectators might have been left with an actress not as, seemingly, acutely attuned to her character. What Woodley offers, with her lack of makeup, uninhibited breakdowns, and leading-lady capabilities, is a completely engaging and, thus, believably moving performance. She's complimented by Elgort, who personifies Augustus' amusing and flirtatious nature, while balancing the tenderly vulnerable and unflattering side.

While, ostensibly, the film appears to be another tear-jerker romance in the same vain as a Nicholas Sparks novel, it intellectually prods at philosophical and often bleak theories and ideas, making it a universally appealing film for anyone who has ever wondered about death, experienced pain or loss, or has grappled with existentialist beliefs. In the film, Hazel tells Augustus she doesn't want to pursue anything romantic because she's a "grenade" and wants to reduce casualties. This notion of denying gratification out of fear of dying is evident throughout the film. Green offers Augustus as an antithesis to that, he tells Hazel, when they first meet, he enjoys looking at beautiful things and doesn't want to deny himself all the pleasures in life. It makes sense Hazel doesn't want to engage in something possibly worthwhile, given her diagnosis, but by her own admission, everyone's going to die anyway, eventually. This sense of "oblivion" is flippantly tossed around in the film, both as an interesting possibility and perhaps more as a wry coping mechanism to circumvent thinking about a hereafter. If this seems dark, it's because it is. The film makes no attempt to shy away from the book's heavy subject matter. It's demonstrates the duality of accepting death as inevitable and finding meaning within an individual's limited existence, despite an awareness of expiration and, one day, extinction where the phantoms of our existence will be erased with those who knew us. Despite such heavy and often dark material, the film manages to be, in all its painful spectacle, inspiring. It's full of effervescent life and unexpected, yet exciting adventure. It's about the experience, however short, and those we choose to share it with.

The ending, however you wish to interpret it, has an uplifting tone. It's perhaps Green's offering to the lack of closure in his book-within-a-book "An Imperial Affliction," a novel Hazel and Augustus obsess over throughout the film. This self-referential notion that authors often cut their stories short or end it in the midst of action, parallels the ephemeral lives of cancer patients. As Hazel points out, people often die in the middle of life, in the middle of a sentence. Similarly, "The Diary of Anne Frank" ends in the same fashion (although surely and sadly unintentionally so), so it's only appropriate the characters visit the Anne Frank House on their trip to Amsterdam. Neither the book nor the film end in such a way, but the themes expressed throughout the film reveal that it's not important what happens next, so the ending is suiting.

Director Josh Boone, somehow manages to adapt Green's novel into the film it deserves to be, externalizing all its creative and poignant elements into its pictorial potential. Boone manages to redeem himself after the 2012 lackluster drama Stuck In Love, which he wrote himself. As long as he leaves the writing to more capable individuals, he shows excellent potential behind the camera (he's currently working on adapting a Stephen King novel).

As a John Green fan, an avid reader of YA novels and lover of coming-of-age indie films, Fault raises the bar high both as a book and film. It's hard to pin the film down to a niche genre, when it's portrayed so honestly - it universally offers something relatable, whether it's love or loss, pain or joy, enlightenment or internal conflict. And just like the book, the film leaves a long-lasting imprint that's emotionally unforgettable. Despite inevitable oblivion, don't deny yourself the pleasure of watching a film that's sure to be remembered for years to come.

Grade: A

Special Screening Live Q&A:

As some of you may or may not know, there was a special screening for the film held on Thursday, 5:30 PST, that was shown simultaneously across the country (600+ theaters) so audiences, after the film, could stay and watch a live Q&A session with some of the stars, cast and the author. The screening was $25, and everyone got a poster with printed signatures of Woodley, Elgort, Green and Nat Wolff (who plays Isaac in the film) and a really cheap-looking bracelet that's basically just a non-stretchy coarse string with a star charm with the title of the film etched into it. In attendance at the session was Green, along with the three aforementioned actors, Boone and one of the producers.

This is the information I had going into the film. The Q&A was a combination of odd, funny, technical difficulties, and nihilistic fan answers.

Before I begin, let me preface this by saying the film experience was slightly overshadowed, at times, by audible reactions from fellow patrons in my theater. If you're going to cry or blow your nose, do so quietly, so it does not interrupt those around you or inspire giggles which also interrupts those around you. If you know you are going to cry belligerently during the whole film, for the love of God, stay the fuck home. I swear to you, I heard girls (the majority of the audience in my theater) gasping for air as they were crying. Also, please refrain from making audible comments during the film, like "I can't control my feels," "what is happening to me?" and "how did they film this?" during an intimate scene. If you fall in this category, I personally hate you, and ask that you do not ruin the film for those around you if you haven't seen the film yet or plan on seeing it again.

Okay, so stepping away from a critical, formal tone, I'll relay most of the events for anyone curious as to what went down. The Q&A began with Alton Brown (yes, Iron Chef Alton Brown, which inspired me to tweet #TheFaultInOurAAAAAAAAHHHHHLAAAAYCUISINE! last night) on-screen, outlining the events that were about to transpire: a Q&A (which after the film, we could tweet questions using the hashtag: #ASKTFIOS to possibly get answered and shown on screen), some musical performances and some surprises. After the introduction, singer Birdy sang both her hit song "Skinny Love" and a song she wrote for the soundtrack "Not About Angels," which were both really good and the latter of which I'm listening to as I type this.

After Birdy's performance, the cast and crew and John Green came out and joined Alton in a theater, I think in Georgia, where a special screening of the film had just taken place also. Alton started off saying he watched the film and read the whole book that day to prepare and started off with the first question. I forgot what it was, but was directed at John Green. I was distracted by Shailene crying as soon as she sat down and talking about her snot. She said she was sad that the film's journey reached its conclusion and it felt like a graduation and was overwhelmed by the experience she had making the film and now sharing it with people.

Throughout the Q&A, Alton oscillated between taking questions from Twitter and those in attendance in the theater. The most memorable of which, and perhaps the darkest moment, was when a girl from Peachtree City, or something like that, in the audience asked John Green if he believed in oblivion. I swear to God, he told her she and everyone in Peachtree City and everyone she loved was going to die and shit. To be fair, he said it in a jocular sense, but still we were taken back at his nihilistic response. He didn't really mean it obviously, but it was still fucking hilarious. Someone from Twitter asked a question and I couldn't remember what he or she asked because when they flashed the tweet on screen it showed their profile pic was a picture of Josh Hutcherson with their handle "conwhore" or something like that. Someone asked what John's favorite scene was and he complained about his scene being cut from the film. In the book, there's a part where a little girl asks Hazel about her nasal cannulas and lets her try it on. There's a mother in the background. John apparently played the little girl's father.

There were a few moments of technical difficulties, static and the audio getting really loud, but for the most part it was alright. We could hear everything they said. Shailene said she got stung on her cheek when a bee got caught in her cannulas during a scene. She said she felt bad for the bee. One of the producers was there and I don't remember him talking much. John talked a lot, obviously, which was humorously foretold by Alton. Someone in the audience asked them what question have they not been asked that they would like to be asked and give an answer to that question. Nat said he wanted to know what happened to the hamster in "An Imperial Affliction" asking John what his home life was like. I don't remember what John said, everyone was just being silly. Boone said he took a USB with him during one of the pre-production meetings and showed some producer some of the songs he had in mind for the film. Also, the soundtrack for the film was really nice, felt young and indie like the film and never overpowered it. One of the girls in the audience who asked a question was named Alex Wolffe, like Nat's brother but with an 'e' if I remember.

After the Q&A Nat and his brother Alex performed two songs. The first was called "Last Station" which I really liked and the other I don't remember, but was the song Isaac sings when he's crying in Augustus' basement/room. I didn't care for the second song that much.

After the second musical performance, we were told to stick around for a special surprise, which was John Green's cut scene from the film. It was at the airport before they leave for Amsterdam. It was cute, but ultimately nonessential and understandable cut.

Was it ultimately worth the $25 bucks? I don't know, if you're a fan of John Green or the cast members, perhaps. The bracelet and poster doesn't seem worth it to me, but ultimately I had a great experience, so I'm glad I went. The theater was also, surprisingly, empty. Not even halfway full, I would say. When we finally left, the line of people waiting for the later showings wrapped around the building, so I was happy to evade a big crowd of potentially louder audience members. All in all, it was the film that was most satisfying, everything else I'm sure will make its way online someday, so don't feel like you missed out if you didn't go to the special screening. It was pretty short anyway and didn't reveal anything new or terribly interesting. It just seemed like an excuse to make people cough up more cash.

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