NOT since Leonardo DiCaprio drifted away into an icy abyss at the end of Titanic has so much surreptitious sniffling likely accompanied a single movie.
Such is the hope, at any rate, of the makers of this adaptation of John Green’s 2012 mega-selling young adult tome about a teenage girl with cancer who falls in love with a fellow sufferer whose disease appears to be in remission. Pitched as a sort of hipper, sassier Love Story for a generation weaned on self-referential pop culture, the heightened melodrama of reality TV, and a precociously positive belief in the power of embracing that which makes one different, the film comes out fighting, ready to square up to anyone cynically determined to challenge the sincerity of its protagonists’ predicaments without first giving them a chance to make you care about them.
This initially makes the film feel like an odd – but not unappealing – amalgam of Juno and Fight Club as its terminally ill 17-year-old heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) fills her narration with lots of spiky asides, bringing us up to speed on the crappy state that her thyroid cancer has left her lungs in while giving us a rundown of the various afflictions of the local church-run cancer support group that her mother (Laura Dern) is making her attend. Despite her reluctance to involve herself with this pity party for cancer kids, it’s here that she meets Augustus Waters, a teen dream with a peg leg (he lost a limb to cancer), a penchant for grandiose pronouncements and a fondness for making unthreatening but cool-looking symbolic gestures, like walking out of his first support group meeting and popping an unlit cigarette in his mouth. “It’s a metaphor,” he tells an outraged Hazel, somewhat overly pleased with himself. “You put the killing thing between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
Augustus is played by Ansel Elgort, who alongside Woodley was singularly unremarkable in the recent Hunger Games knock-off Divergent, but here has a chance to flourish, playing a rather thankless role with the easy charm and striking good looks of a young Mark Ruffalo – a likeness that helps considerably when called upon to deliver lines like: “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you,” without sending the film’s upchuck factor through the roof.
He and Woodley certainly generate plenty of chemistry together, which also makes it easy to buy into their instantaneous head-over-heels attraction for one another – something complicated in the film not just by Hazel’s all-too-sensible attempts to keep Gus at a distance on account of her condition, but also by the secret driving Gus’s caution-to-the-wind approach in matters of the heart. The film is at its best in these moments, not least because it explores a question all teens ask themselves: how do I define myself? Then adds a huge dollop of heaviness by exploring how hard it is for a teenager with cancer to discover who they really are when everyone around them sees only their disease.
The fault in the film, then, lies not in its stars or its premise but in Josh Boone’s rather tepid direction, which betrays the film’s stated aim of delivering the kind of story that can’t be resolved with “an apology and a Peter Gabriel song” by instead giving in to the hoary conventions of the beatific griefsploitation movie – a mini genre that’s become so drawn out in recent years that Love Story, with its relatively snappy death scene, now feels like a paragon of restraint by comparison. Particularly egregious is a subplot that takes Hazel and Gus to Amsterdam on a quest to meet her favourite author. True, this sequence does provide the film with one of its finer and more unexpected moments when said author turns out to be a pitiless drunk with little time for teenage cancer sufferers (even better, he takes the form of Willem Dafoe, who has clearly modelled his look and confrontational attitude on David Mamet). Unfortunately the Amsterdam sojourn also leads to Gus and Hazel sharing their first proper kiss in the middle of the Anne Frank Museum – a misguided attempt at emotional equivalency that in the clunky hands of Boone (whose last film was the dreary comedy drama Stuck in Love) just feels crass.
Still, performance-wise there are enough grace notes to see it through (with Dern especially good as Hazel’s mother and Nat Wolff providing some necessary comic relief when things get too out of hand). And just as Marvel fanboys get plenty of opportunity to revel in the sometimes-excruciating minutia of their chosen cinematic universe, so fans of four-or-more-hankie weepies will likely revel unapologetically in this. Love, after all, means never having to say you’re sorry.
3 Days To Kill (12A)
Directed by: McG
Starring: Kevin Costner, Connie Neilsen, Hailee Steinfield,
Star rating: * * *
When Kevin Costner’s 1990s box office reign came to an end – about the time The Postman saw his all-American earnestness assume dreary, messiah-like overtones – he did a smart thing and began scaling back his hero roles. Whether he did this intentionally is hard to say (there’s nothing like a hubristic folly to torpedo a career that already boasts Waterworld in its midst), but while the films that followed varied in quality, they laid the groundwork for what’s turning out to be an enjoyable late-period career transformation.
No longer the clean-cut movie star square once mocked by Madonna for describing one of her shows as “neat”, he’s become the kind of wizened character actor whose grizzled gravitas makes movies better. He was perfectly cast, for instance, as Clark Kent’s dad in last year’s Man of Steel, and he helped save Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit from the arboreal acting style of the appropriately named Chris Pine. In his latest effort, he moves centre stage once more, performing essential triage on what would otherwise have been just another flatlining Euro-action film from Luc Besson’s production factory had Besson not lucked out by matching the right leftfield casting choice to the right preposterous premise and letting them do all the heavy lifting necessary to take us along for the ride.
Costner is a blast to watch in 3 Days to Kill, the premise for which coincidentally makes it the second movie this week to have terminal illness at its centre. Unlike The Fault in Our Stars, though, when Costner’s ageing CIA ‘cleaner’ Ethan Renner is unceremoniously kicked out of the agency after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, it’s not a cause for tears. He may have resolved to use his remaining time to reconnect with his ex-wife (Connie Neilsen) and estranged teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), he may also have taken pity on the immigrant family squatting in his hitherto unoccupied apartment, but it’s not long before he’s pulled back into his old life by a sexed-up CIA assassin (Amber Heard) who offers him access to an experimental hallucinogenic cancer treatment in return for helping her catch an international terrorist.
Directed by McG – with more restraint than normal, but no more coherence – what follows is entertaining trash, with Costner hard to resist as he pinballs around Paris juggling paternal responsibilities with his inescapable talent for beating bad guys to a pulp in ruthlessly inventive and pleasingly non-ironic ways. Now that really is neat.
Bright Days Ahead (15)
Directed by: Marion Vernoux
Starring: Fanny Ardant, Laurent Lafitte, Patrick Chesnais
Star rating: * * *
Nearly 50 years on from The Graduate and relationships between older women and younger men are still enough of a cinematic taboo to warrant a degree of hand-wringing by the characters of any film in which they feature. That’s true of Bright Days Ahead, which finds Fanny Ardant embarking on an affair with a man half her age after she retires prematurely and realises that looking after her grandkids and fixing dinner for her workaholic husband isn’t going to fulfil her in her golden years. The film can’t quite bring itself to let her have her cake and eat it, but it comes up with interesting ways to explore and comment on the age difference. Watching Ardant lying in bed, glass of red wine in hand, seductively smoking a cigarette while her younger beau (Laurent Lafitte) checks his emails and whines about needing eight hours of sleep is a perfect example of why movies shouldn’t idolise youth as a matter of course.
The Art of the Steal (15)
Directed by: Jonathan Sobol
Starring: Kurt Russell, Jay Baruchel, Matt Dillon
Star rating: * * *
Kurt Russell’s trademark wiliness is exploited to the max in this Guy Ritchie-flavoured heist movie. He plays Crunch Calhoun, a washed-up career criminal, eking out a living as a cut-rate Evel Knievel after a stint in a Polish prison puts him off stealing works of art for a living. However, when the half-brother (Matt Dillon) who betrayed him seeks to make amends with a foolproof job worth millions, he reluctantly agrees to get his old gang back together to pinch a priceless bible. Writer/director Jonathon Sobol has enough understanding of the genre – and enough control over it – to play around with the conventions of the con movie while embracing the simple pleasures it offers.
Miss Violence (18)
Directed by: Alexandros Avranas
Starring: Themis Panou, Reni Pittaki, Eleni Roussinou, Sissy Toumasi
Star rating: * * *
Pitched between the unforgiving austerity of Michael Haneke’s more prescriptive work and the oddball grimness of Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, the festival-feted Miss Violence begins with the matter-of-fact suicide of a young girl and gradually picks at the scab of her normal middle class family until all of its vile secrets are revealed. A contemporary of the aforementioned Lanthimos, fellow Greek filmmaker Alexandros Avranas shoots in a similarly dispassionate style and relies on his ability to drip-feed information about the bizarre family dynamic at work here to create intrigue and tension. That it does – but the dark places to which the film travels are so unrelentingly horrible they risk falling into the realm of arthouse exploitation or unintentional parody.
Chinese Puzzle (15)
Directed by: Cedéric Klapisch
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Romain Duris, Cécille de France, Kelly Reilly
Star rating: * *
Cedéric Klapisch’s trilogy of films following the romantic travails of a group of university friends who first met in 2002’s L’Auberge Espagnole draws to a close here. Having last come together for 2005’s goofy sequel Russian Dolls, though, anyone not up to speed on the various characters Audrey Tautou (above), Romain Duris, Cécille de France and Kelly Reilly have played in each outing may find themselves wondering what’s going on, even with Duris’s cash-strapped novelist providing a handy précis up front. With Duris’s character now living in New York, the film is mostly built around his efforts to become a US citizen by fabricating a relationship with another woman while trying to reignite his love for Tautou’s character. It is mostly insufferable tosh – like Richard Linklater’s Before… films re-imagined for Richard Curtis fans.