Tag Archives: romance

Crimson Peak

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“It is a monstrous love. And it makes monsters of us all.”

Crimson Peak is not a horror. It’s a gothic romance. Creepy, tense, but full of emotion”. So promised Guillermo Del Toro before his latest film was released. Still, I’ve seen the trailers and they suitably creeped the shit out of me and I was more than ready to call bullshit and say that Crimson Peak is in fact a horror flick. After a conversation with my local Cineworld where, for reasons I simply can’t explain, they refused to do a showing of one of the few horror films I was looking forward to with the lights on, I jeered myself up and headed to sit in pitch black with a film from a guy who’s horrors – or whatever he wants to call them – scare the living crap out of me.

Mia Wasikowska is Edith Cushing; a woman who, as a child, discovers she has the ability to see ghosts when her mother’s death leaves her haunted by terrifying spirits. Now a grown woman, she dreams of being a writer and is stifled by the sexism of the late 19th century and is left a little deflated by the situation she’s found herself in. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe, a very cool and suave looking Tom Hiddleston, an English baronet and an inventor who’s desperately chasing finances to build a machine to mine the invaluable red clay that his estate is built on. Falling for Sharpe’s charm and sophistication, the pair are quickly married and heading across the Atlantic from New York to Cumberland where they will live together in the gentleman’s run down estate with his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe; an ever so slightly creepy turn by Jessica Chastain.

Having been ghost free for a decade and a half, Edith’s arrival at the Sharpe’s Allerdale Hall estate brings with it ghosts both new and old that haunt the new bride’s nights warning her of the evils that lie within the house she now calls home. As Edith digs into the pasts of the house and the brother and sister that live there, she begins to uncover a generations old secret that threatens to swallow her up and leave the creepy siblings successful in their diabolical plans that will make their run down estate shine once again.

Guillermo Del Toro’s films have always amazed me, but I’ve always been of the opinion that we, as an audience, get two different Del Toro’s. The first is the man we all got to know years ago, the man who writes, directs and produces creepy Spanish language films whose imagery is as disturbing as the stories he tells. His direction is simple and elegant and horrifyingly beautiful. Then we get the man who found commercial success with his English language movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy; films that are, in their way, just as good as his Spanish language movies but are missing something. They are amazing, and again his direction and imagery are superb but they feel like they are missing the soul that Del Toro puts into his ghost films. This is where Crimson Peak really shines. We are treated to the kind of world that, until now, has been reserved for the man’s sublime back catalogue. Films like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and the Del Toro produced The Orphanage are where I believe we get to see the best in the director’s work and finally we get an English language film that takes us back to his roots.

As is always the case with Guillermo Del Toro’s films, the acting is amazing, but the direction is what shines brightest from the screen. The Sharpe’s Allerdale Hall is the true star of the film; the haunted house looks like a gothic cathedral standing tall in the rolling hills of North England. Inside, every turn takes you in to a perfectly crafted corridor that is as eerie and it is gorgeous; every creaky staircase and every flickering lantern is moulded perfectly into a house who’s walls literally bleed red from the wet clay surrounding it and as the snow falls and the house is surrounded with white, the mansion looks even more beautiful and even more eerie.

I genuinely can’t recommend Crimson Peak enough. I’ve loved Guillermo Del Toro’s films since I first saw Mimic almost two decades ago and to see him going back to what made me fall in love with his flicks is definitely something special. It’s got some horrific moments and some terrifying imagery, but I can’t argue with the director when he promises a creepy gothic romance, that’s exactly what we got. It’s emotional and powerful and everything a fan of Del Toro’s ghost stories could want.

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Owen Hughes: 2014 Reviews Part 2 – Jul-Dec

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Following part one of my year in review articles where I picked out my favourite first-time watch of each month in 2014 (excluding new releases) from January to June, it’s about time I got my arse in gear and wrote up my second and final piece. So here it is! Starting with July….


the great white silenceJuly – Samaritan Girl (2004); THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924); Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); Forgotten Men (1933); Peeping Tom (1960); Excision (2012); Red Sorghum (1987); Amores Perros (2000); Splinter (2008); Audition (1999)

Originally released in 1924 but recently restored by the magicians who work at the BFI to a gloriously high definition standard, The Great White Silence uses real footage from Captain Scott’s two-year long ill-fated journey to the South Pole aboard the Terra Nova ten years earlier. Nevertheless, it is as provocative and inspirational now as I’m sure it would’ve been to those viewing it 90 years ago. I was completely taken by surprise with it. In fact, I’ve no memory of even adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list! However it got there, I’m glad it did because I have never been taken aback by the breathtaking beauty in a documentary quite like I was with this. I had no idea that this 100 year old footage even existed, let alone that the expedition was immortalised by Herbert G. Ponting. It was absolutely fascinating to see Captain Scott and his crew trampling snow underfoot that had never seen human life before. The optimism in the air is captured tremendously well considering there wasn’t even any sound recorded, just film footage. Unsurprisingly, that does give proceedings a rather ominous tone given the fact we know what ends up happening to Scott and his four friends. It’s just a tremendous documentary and an incredible restoration to boot.


secret sunshineAugust – House (1977); Revenge of the Ninja (1983); The Battery (2013); American Movie (1999); The Battle of Algiers (1966); Doomsday Book (2012); Oasis (2002); SECRET SUNSHINE (2007); A Separation (2011); Pastoral: To Die in the Country (1974)

With a week in the middle of the month where I was away, and with FrightFest leading me to catching up on a few new-release horrors, I saw very few first time watches that weren’t actually released in 2014. However, for my birthday I did receive an imported copy of Lee Chang-dong’s (the guy who made Peppermint Candy, which I talked about in Part 1) Secret Sunshine. Starring one of my favourite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho, in a supporting role and Jeon Do-yeon absolutely batting it out of the park in the lead role, it’s one of the most moving and genuinely heart-touching performances I have ever seen. After moving from the big city to her recently deceased husband’s small home town in order to start over, and then suffering further tragedy as her only son goes missing, you are completely dragged under the waves of emotional outpouring with no strength to fight against the tides. As she’s constantly battered by family and friends, by well wishers and local creeps, in her fragile state she reaches out for something to soothe her pain. When she finds it in the communal church going community, Lee Chang-dong attempts to unearth exactly why religion and faith can protect someone from their grief, whilst all the time analysing and exploring the fragility of such a thing. It was such a traumatic watch for me that I literally had to take a break in the middle of the movie to go and get a cup of tea! But like with Peppermint Candy, like Poetry, Green Fish and like Oasis (which I also watched for the first time in August), it’s the complexity of the narrative interwoven with multiple layers of emotional depth that leave such a mark on the viewer and why even after pausing for a moment, I had to go back and finish the film. Alas, it was the last film of Lee Chang-dong’s I had left to watch, and it has left a hole in my cinematic heart because I know there’s no more feature length films directed by him out there left for me to consume.


ordetSeptember – American Mary (2012); The Importance of Being Earnest (2002); The Breakfast Club (1985); An Education (2009); The Midnight Meat Train (2008); Lord of the Flies (1963); ORDET (1955); Le Jour se lève (aka Daybreak) (1939); Potpourri (2011); Happiness: The Himalayan Boy and the TV Set (2013)

Released in the US as ‘The Word‘, Ordet is Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s only financially and critically (upon initial release) successful film in his entire canon. Whereas something like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) may be one of my favourite ever films, as it is for a lot of other people too, it was a financial flop due to the surrounding controversy and lack of distribution / censorship resulting from that. His films were not always immediately accepted by critics, either. Vampyr was famously booed at festivals and became one of the leading factors in his nervous breakdown. However, back in September, you would not have heard me booing him nor his work as I became utterly engrossed with this extraordinary story. Much like Secret Sunshine come to think of it, the key aspect seems to be one of the human will power and ability of the mind, versus that of faith and religion. It tells the tale of three brothers, their devout father and Inger, married to one of the brothers who is agnostic, in a small 1920’s farming community. The youngest brother plans to marry a girl from another local “rival” community. The final brother is called Johannes, who is the most interesting character in the film by far. He used to study religious texts but has gone slightly insane and now thinks he’s Jesus Christ. As a film, it’s less about a story and more of a naturalistic look at people; how family and religion and faith all come together and what that means to different people. It may have a rather tepid pace, but this only forces you to think for yourself about what’s going on, about seeing beyond what’s there on screen, and look deeper into it. Of the five Dreyer films I’ve seen, it’s certainly the closest to bettering The Passion of Joan of Arc that he came.


corman's worldOctober – The Masque of the Red Death (1964); A Bucket of Blood (1959); The Fly (1986); The Fall of the House of Usher (1960); Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966); CORMAN’S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011); Fright Night (1985); The Intruder (1962); Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Seeing as how I’ve already written a lengthy article chronicling my attempts to watch a horror film every single day throughout October in my Horrorble Month piece, I don’t think there’s much point repeating myself! Suffice to say, I discovered during those 31 days leading up to Halloween that I am an enormous fan of Roger Corman. After inducting myself to his work primarily via Vincent Price when researching films for the Decade In Film: 1964 article, I became fascinated by him. At some point during the month I was recommended the documentary Corman’s World, which had as profound an effect on me as I think Life Itself appears to have done for Callum. Quite rightly a hero to many thanks to his plethora of b-movies, both those directed and the hundreds he produced, to fans and colleagues alike (indeed, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Dick Miller etc all pay tribute to him in the documentary). The ambition and drive that Roger Corman has is infectious and an inspiration. If you want to make a movie, then do it. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you that you can, or that you’re good enough. If you’re prepared to work hard and if you are talented, then you can make it. Eventually. Maybe.


nashville_b3.tifNovember – Life is Beautiful (1997); NASHVILLE (1975); Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); My Bloody Valentine (1981); Creepshow 2 (1987); Panic Room (2002); Miller’s Crossing (1990); Monkey Shines (1988); Black Rain (1989); The Mummy (1959)

I did not do it! I did not pick The Room after Carole made us watch in for the podcast! I didn’t! It’s bullshit. I did not! Oh, hi folks. November was not a fantastic month for first time watches for me (excluding 2014 releases, of course). Barely any of those listed above scored any more than 3.5 stars out of 5. Well, excluding the Robert Altman directed, Joan Tewkesbury written musical drama Nashville, that is. As anyone who has read our Meet the Critics page will be aware, I bloody hate musicals. Even more so when it is essentially country music. To give a little bit of context as to why I ended up watching this; for much of November, my internet was down. This meant I finally had to open that envelope from LOVEFiLM (yes, it’s a perennial problem that I leave them on the side unopened for up to 6 weeks at a time before bothering with them) and put on the three hour long DVD. After 20 minutes in, I really wanted to give up on Nashville. It just wasn’t winning me over, I hated the music, it seemed completely devoid of plot and interesting characters, and was so, so slow. Even 20 minutes from the end, despite a vast improvement, I was still checking the digital display on my blu-ray player, trying to work out how long was left. And then…. it ended. And I was gutted. Quite unaware of exactly what had happened, it seems that despite my protestations at terrible country music, an inordinate run time and a lack of uniquely interesting characters, I was actually gutted that Nashville had finished. So I sat there, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that actually, I had enjoyed it. More than enjoyed, I had really, really liked it. I realised that the character is the place, and the people, and the music, and all that it entails. The story is the simple story of life. Of celebrity, of love, of exploitation, of triumph, humiliation, of belonging, of culture, of family… of Nashville. It wasn’t just a well acted and well shot film. It was a key hole and I had been peering through it solidly for 160 minutes, confused, enthralled and unaware.


3-ironDecember – Brother (2000); Bait (2012); Skeletons (2010); Afflicted (2012); Labyrinth (1986); Willow (1988); Scrooge (1951); The Coast Guard (2002); L.A. Confidential (1997); 3-IRON (2004)

December became mostly a month of fantasy films. After watching the entire extended edition Lord of the Rings trilogy, and re-watching the two Hobbit films in preparation for The Battle of the Five Armies in November, I ended up ploughing through films like Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Willow, Legend, Krull and so on. Yet, it wasn’t any of these that were my favourite first time watches during December. In fact, towards the very end of the month, in that gap between Christmas and New Year, I watched a boat load of Kim Ki-duk movies. Moebius, his entirely dialogue free story of a boy whose mother cuts his penis off in his sleep and eats it in a revenge attack against her husband/his father for sleeping around, which is as weird as it sounds, ended up making my top 10 films of the year list when submitting my votes in the Failed Critics Awards. I already liked his films like Pieta and probably his most famous work Spring Summer Fall Winter… And Spring. Yet, I had a few movies on my DVD shelf that were unwatched and what ended up becoming my favourite films of his (and of the whole of December), watched on the penultimate day of the year, was 3-Iron. Whilst nowhere near as bizarre as Moebius, or even Pieta, it was even better. The plot begins following a young man who appears to reside in the shadows (metaphorically speaking), breaking into the houses of people who are away from their homes and spends the night there. He does a few domestic chores, takes a few photos of himself around the place, that sort of thing. It’s all a bit creepy, but ultimately harmless. Upon entering one home he assumes is unoccupied, he ends up meeting Lee Seung-yeon, who appears to be in an abusive relationship. I say “appears” because neither Lee Seung-yeon nor Lee Hyun-kyoon have any dialogue. At all. The message seems to be that love can transcend language. What you feel is not restricted to the sounds that you can make with your mouth. It’s the way that what’s unsaid is actually what’s being whispered the loudest that makes 3-Iron his most beautiful, soft and haunting film. The final 5 minutes are probably the best thing he has committed to film in his entire career.


And that’s it! My favourite 120 non-2014-release first-time-watches of each month from last year. With a bit of luck, 2015 will be just as consistent with each new discovery. Thanks for reading!

If I Stay

The only thing that If I Stay has going for it is that Chloë Grace Moretz is in it.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

if i stayIf I Stay gets off to a really bad start by playing like every bad Young Adult adaptation ever made.  Overly portentous narration by the lead character, so much soft focus that it looks like every camera lens has been laced with nine coats of Vaseline, enough lens flares to wonder whether JJ Abrams is involved in production, irritatingly perfect characters swapping “witty” lines that sound like rejects from a wannabe Aaron Sorkin script, soft indie rock/indie folk on the soundtrack because that’s the one part of Garden State that people remember a decade later…  However, whilst first impressions mean a lot, they don’t mean everything.  You can have a bad, off-putting opening and still come through with the goods.  Example: The Fault In Our Stars, which If I Stay will be negatively compared to a lot during this review so be prepared, had a really off-putting opening that gave me the strong impression that the next two hours were going to be pure hell to sit through, only to end up turning it around and sending me home in floods of tears.

However, that film managed to dig through the melodrama and find the reality of the situation, the heart.  Fault In Our Stars managed to make its cast, although they were still rather perfect in all honesty, feel human, feel real and managed to do the same to its proceedings.  It is an exceedingly manipulative film but it manages to disguise that manipulation through strong character work, excellent performances from everyone and enough self-awareness to know just when to pull back (mostly, that Anne Frank house scene in particular will forever be a black mark against the film for me).  If I Stay has none of those things.  Its characters remain irritatingly perfect and fake the whole time, nobody except Chloë Grace Moretz is trying, and there are several points where I was practically drowning in the open and ham-fisted manipulation.  If The Fault In Our Stars is a really smart and clever person sat across from you breaking you down mentally by knowing exactly what to say when in order to send you into floods of tears, If I Stay is like a brick sh*thouse repeatedly punching you in the kidneys and screaming at you to start crying, dammit!

The story that the film would like for you to start crying at, dammit, revolves around Mia Hall (Moretz).  She’s a high school senior who has an irritatingly perfect family, is a prodigy at the cello, and is currently waiting to hear back from Juliard about her application.  Then, on a snow day, tragedy strikes when the family ends up in a car accident and Mia goes into a coma, during which time she has an out-of-body-experience and has to weigh up whether or not she wants to keep on living or cross over into the afterlife (primarily represented by a blinding white light poorly pasted onto a scene because this is the kind of film we’re dealing with).  And wouldn’t you just know it, fate keeps twisting the knife to such an extent that her choice depends on a boy (Jaime Blackley), whose relationship with Mia forms the focus of the flashbacks that make up the film’s structure.

So, as you may have already gathered, it’s a teen weepie, one that even comes with a built-in fan base due to being an adaptation of a YA book.  None of this is inherently a problem, I must stress; my cynicism my rise significantly upon hearing these things but I am always more than willing to get invested in proceedings and have a good cry – I cry at least three times throughout every viewing I’ve had of ParaNorman, for example.  It becomes a problem when I spend nearly two hours in the company of a group of characters and not once do I see them as actual people, which is the case here.  If I Stay’s cast of characters are sickeningly perfect and practically flawless.  Maybe it’s supposed to make the tragedy sting that much more, but all it did for me was make me pray for that car accident to travel back through time and knock off everybody sooner.  It’s the usual stuff: scenes of stilted actors trading lines that would look low-quality even in a play written by high school drama students, characters blowing up (metaphorically, pretty much everybody is way too bored to bother to display emotion) over petty little misunderstandings, a world where everything is going amazingly for everyone until it suddenly isn’t…

Proceedings don’t feel real, is what I am getting at.  Nobody involved feels real, nothing that occurs does anything to mask the fact that this is all being cynically designed to wring tears from you.  I kept being held at arm’s length, never able to get invested, despite the fact that the concept of death is one that never fails to immediately kill my mood and bring me to the verge of tears.  Not helping matters is the incredibly generic way that proceedings are presented.  As previously stated, there’s the extreme amount of soft focus, the lens flares and the licensed soundtrack that played everything but some Bon Iver (there was one point where I was sat thinking that the only act the film hadn’t utilised yet was Mazzy Star… and then, ten seconds later, Mazzy Star came on).  But there’s also the over-egged score, the dreary narration that aspires to say something profound and insightful but is more the equivalent of an 11 year-old who read one book of poetry once and decided that they could do that, piece of piss, the lethargic pacing and awkward structure (I feel the film actually loses something by flitting back and forth between pre and post-accident), the uninspired cinematography…  I’ve seen all of this stuff before and executed far better, the result here just comes off as completely lifeless (make your own jokes).

Oh, and then there are the times when the film goes so overboard that it’s like being stuck on the Titanic as it splits in half whilst sinking.  There’s a bit at the halfway point (that’s been spoilt in the trailers, natch) that should be the film’s big emotional shanking, except that the scene instead turns into self-parody by performing all of the following: soft focus, lens flares, that bit where the diegetic sound cuts out, old memories shot in grainy Super 8 and which jump around the screen like the film has been worn to the bone, practically ordering the otherwise great Chloë Grace Moretz to overact as much as she possibly can, frequent cuts to that stupid white light effect, and the score turns into the kind of overegged melodramatic ridiculous theatricality that you can accurately (and I am not exaggerating here, this is what it sounded like) recreate by flinging a symphony orchestra and a withered old grand piano down five flights of stairs, recording the result and then syncing up the resultant mess so that the resultant cacophony is all playing at the same time as one another.  If you think that that description of the score was overblown, you haven’t experienced this scene.  The film tries way too hard and the result just had me on the verge of laughter, especially when they do it all again two-thirds in!

The one thing that If I Stay really has going for it is the fact that Chloë Grace Moretz has turned up as the lead role and, as I’m sure we’re all know by now, Chloë Grace Moretz does not half-ass a performance.  She spends the film’s entire runtime trying desperately to find the humanity in Mia, trying to break through the script’s “perfect girl in every single way” characterisation, and she does frequently succeed.  Some of the film’s clunkier “people do not talk that way” lines flow convincingly when delivered by her (there’s a bit in a coffee shop that really threw into sharp relief just how much better she is at this than the rest of her cast-mates), and she’s on a never-ending mission to sell the romance with Adam, the boy I mentioned earlier.  Unfortunately, on-screen romances and relationships are a two-way street and her efforts at propping up the film end up mostly for naught as nobody else is trying to root out the character depth and humanity the script lacks, or just not trying period.  Least of all Jaime Blackley as Adam, who always comes off as less “cool, mysterious dreamboat” and more “bored, flat paycheque-seeker” and his complete lack of interest stifles any potential chemistry between him and Moretz.  If there’s anyone to place the primary blame on for the wasting of Moretz’s efforts, it’s him; he is dreadful here.

All this being said, I don’t hate If I Stay.  It doesn’t work, it’s way too clichéd and blatantly manipulative to get me fully invested in proceedings, and it’s too cynically calculated in its manipulations, but I don’t hate it.  I might find it generic, but it is at least competently made and Chloë Grace Moretz shows up to act (which she pretty much always does anyway, but that’s beside the point).  The only major issue I have with it, as in it’s the only thing that prompted a full-on change of thought in my brain beyond boredom, is its ending or, rather, the lack of one.  It may have worked in the book (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it), where such a sudden cut to black can be better conveyed and carry great emotional weight due to well-written prose, but here it just feels like the last fifth of the last reel had been eaten by somebody at some point.  I felt tempted to ask out loud, “Err, don’t you still have another 10 minutes of story to tell, Movie?” but then I realised that that would have meant being indifferently bored for another 10 minutes if it were there, so I kept schtum.

I should probably also mention that in my screening, of which there were about 20 people, I was the only one who wasn’t openly and loudly sobbing at some point during If I Stay.  So, I dunno, maybe I’m just the heartless monster.

Callum Petch push in, push in, 1, 2, 3, pull out!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Fault In Our Stars

fault-in-our-stars-posterIt may follow a few too many of the tragedy-softening conventions it promises to subvert, but The Fault In Our Stars still packs one hell of an emotional gut-punch.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I was dreading this one, folks.  Not in the ways that most of its target audience were likely dreading it (the marketing certainly wanted me to be dreading it in that way, in any case), but because it set off way too many alarm bells.  I am extremely resistant to films that blatantly try to push my emotions in certain directions because I detest such things; if a film wants me to spring a leak in the tear department, it should actually work for it instead of just throwing on a whole bunch of elements that will become tragic later on, sugercoat it by playing a Peter Gabriel song, in the words of the film itself, and shouting “YOU WILL CRY OR YOU ARE A HEARTLESS MONSTER” at me.  The Fault In Our Stars looked like that kind of movie.  “It’s a romance between a teenage girl who is dying of cancer and a young man whose cancer is in remission!  START THE COUNTDOWN CLOCK TO THE TEARS!”  And really not helping the film’s case was the trailer, the one that played before every gorram film for the past two months and made it look exactly like the sickeningly sweet and manipulative trash piece I’d pegged it for from that abysmal tagline (“One Sick Love Story”).

So I was disarmed by the film I ended up sitting through.  I mean, yeah, it’s still syrupy and calculated to break your heart in two in the messiest and most painful fashion imaginable, but The Fault In Our Stars wasn’t content to call it a day there.  Real effort has been put in making the romance something to genuinely invest in and it sometimes has a genuine edge that breaks through the schmaltz to inject a string of black comedy or subversiveness that makes all of the characters involved feel like people rather than ciphers or vessels for future tragedy.  Its sharpest edges have clearly been sanded down for Hollywood (something I can tell even though I have not read the book), but the personality and depth are prevalent enough to make the result more than just a tear factory.  Although it is utterly heart-breaking.  Utterly.

The story powering the factory centres around Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a sixteen-year-old living with terminal thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs.  Her life is a simple yet sad one: she watches reality TV, she constantly reads and re-reads her favourite novel “An Imperial Affliction” and she attends cancer support groups because her mother (supposedly mistakenly, if we believe Hazel) thinks she’s depressed.  It is at one of these meetings that she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Egort), an eighteen year-old whose cancer is currently in remission, although not before costing him his right leg, and is a charming individual who almost immediately falls in love with Hazel.  His devil-may-care and laidback attitude prove to be what Hazel needs and the two begin bonding, although Hazel tries to keep her distance as she’s worried that she’ll destroy him emotionally when the cancer finally catches up to her.  You can probably tell where this is all heading.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that this time.  The opening 40 or so minutes, especially, the film establishes its leads as actual people rather than walking pity parades/ticking time-bombs.  An early visit to the cancer support group, for example, ends up very blackly funny by reframing the experience as wholly patronising to those it purports to help.  Both of our leads, as well as secondary character Isaac (played by Nat Wolff from The Naked Brothers Band in case you ever wanted a walking case study on how starring in a Nickelodeon sitcom at a young age needn’t always lead to premature career suicide) whose cancer is about to claim the second of his two eyes, are just as comfortable in cracking wise about their illnesses as they are making melodramatic speeches about its effects.  And things in their relationship move slowly enough to give time for their bond to feel meaningful; these are two characters who fall in mutual love because they’re people who feel connected with one another, whose lives are enhanced by knowing one another, rather than it being predicated on one another’s ability to speak like their every line is a rejected piece of Shakespeare prose.  I mean, that last part is still sometimes the case in the film’s dialogue, but it rarely feels clunky.  Hell, at points it seems natural, the result of two teenagers forced to grow up too fast as they deal with their mortality; of course they may end up wise beyond their years.

The fact that the film was able to make me think this way about Gus is especially noteworthy, seeing as his character doesn’t exactly have the best of starts.  He initially pressed far too many of my “this character is walking wish-fulfilment bait rather than an actual character worthy of my sympathy” buttons.  He was hunky, had a smirk/smile that made his face the most punch-able thing I had come across in a good long while, is relentless in his pursuit of Hazel (which, given recent tragic real-life events, is something we need to stop portraying as a good thing in works of fiction, I believe) and has an idiosyncratic tick that he justifies as “a metaphor” (he likes to put cigarettes in his mouth, a thing that could kill him, but not light them, therefore not giving the thing that could kill him the power to kill him, and yes I know that that’s not what a metaphor means).  Hell, even later on, after the film dials back and grounds him a bit more, he still gets dangerously close to the line between “actual human being” and “The World’s Most Perfect Man”.

It’s predominately a testament to Ansel Egort that Gus never ends up straying over that line, instead turning into somebody I begrudgingly liked, then really cared for and then shed buckets of tears over.  No matter how ridiculously nice and amazing and pretentious Gus gets, Egort is there to root out the humanity at the centre of the character and keep him rooted back down on planet Earth.  He also strikes up lightening chemistry with Shailene Woodley, who is also excellent.  Unlike her co-star, Woodley doesn’t have to keep her character from veering off the cliff of likability and can instead focus on being the emotional centre of the film, something she excels at due being totally engaged with the script at all times, even in the voiceover (which wasn’t exactly her strong suit beforehand, as anyone who saw Divergent will likely quite gladly tell you).  No matter how wordy the script may get, no matter how melodramatic a scene may end up, they play it all very naturally.  Nothing they do seems particularly forced, barring the odd exception (an egging sequence involves a line said by Gus that I am amazed everybody let slip through without calling out due to its pretentious stupidity), and that very grounded and realist performance work, regardless of the material, is what made connecting with these characters so easy.

Of course, that naturalist acting is at times at odds with the melodramatic yet squeaky-clean nature of the film itself.  Yes, despite stating its intent at the very top of the film to subvert all of the softening and sugar-coating that typically goes on in Hollywood tellings of tragedies, The Fault In Our Stars doesn’t do so nearly as much as it would like to/thinks it’s doing.  This isn’t too much of a problem, as it doesn’t sand down the stuff that matters too much, but it’s most noticeable when the film doesn’t quite know that enough is enough.  By that I mean there are times when the film indulges in romance and melodrama tropes which would be perfectly fine if it learnt to pull back every now and again, cos when it goes all in, it goes all in.  At one point, Hazel has an episode and the entire sequence is presented in slow-motion with all diegetic sound removed and replaced with a mournful violin and piano.  There’s a section during the finale that utilises flashbacks and then practically drowns the screen in soft focus, slow-panning and lens flares.  Most egregiously, there’s a bit where Hazel and Gus are visiting Anne Frank’s House and Hazel, whose lungs are very weak, has to climb some stairs.  The scene is backed by slightly worried music and shot in such a way that the point is adequately conveyed, but then the scene keeps working in “relevant” Anne Frank quotes and builds up to a big romantic gesture in a way that would be offensive if it weren’t so unintentionally silly.

These are the most notable instances of the film going overboard and, thankfully, they’re in the minority.  Most of the rest of the softening instead comes from the film’s score and soundtrack which are, you guessed it, dreamy reverb-drenched guitar and piano instrumentals, and soft indie-folk respectively.  They’re fine, most are really quite nice in isolation (I do have a soft spot for well executed versions of both of those), but they do betray the edge the film wants to have.  It’s why the appearance of the cantankerous author of Hazel and Gus’ favourite novel (Willem Dafoe who… well, Willem Dafoes the entire time he’s on screen) feels very weird, his love of Swedish hip-hop, and tonally mean-spirited and out-of-place instead of natural and intentional.  I feel like you could cut his appearance out of the film (keep the trip to Amsterdam but just cut him out) and not really lose a whole lot besides 10 minutes, which would actually help the film in all honesty (it’s a little bit too long).  Failing that, it could work but it just requires more commitment to that end of the cynicism-optimism spectrum than the film is willing to try, seeing as it believes that such a tone would necessitate the removal of a romantic candlelit dinner in a fancy restaurant.  The film nearly strays back in that direction by hinting repeatedly at Hazel’s dissatisfaction with how her parents handle looking after her (her mother is relentlessly positive and her father keeps his distance), but it doesn’t fully commit which gives off the impression that later drafts of this script severely cut down on that element.  Again, none of this is bad, because Egort and Woodley are excellent and the film manages to get a good balance between their natural performances and its commercial melodrama leanings, but the hints of an even better film are too tantalising and… and…

…ah, sod it.  I honestly can’t sit here and pick straws at what the film could have been or how it seems a bit too sanitised and safe and sugar-coated than initially planned.  Well, I mean, I can, but to do so is pointless in the face of this one fact: about 80 minutes in, The Fault In Our Stars finally pulls out its knife and emotionally shivs you in the gut, at which point the tears started and really didn’t let up in any considerable way for a good half hour afterwards.  It didn’t matter that I had called the turn from the first time that I saw the trailer, it didn’t matter that the film had not-in-the-least-bit subtly arranged the pieces from frame one to get this outcome, none of the other issues and hang-ups mattered a damn bit.  I was gone.  The dam protecting the waterworks had burst and nothing short of a friggin’ miracle or a re-appearance of Willem Dafoe Willem Dafoe-ing was going to stop them.  This is where Woodley and Egort really get to come into their own, as they transfer all of that hard work spent building up their relationship and funnel it into their new reality with its impending countdown clock of oblivion.  It never once feels fake, they never once strain for emotion, they never once give off the aura of “see me acting, I am all the acting”.  Hell, one or the other spends pretty much every scene afterwards shedding tears and it still works.  There’s even a bit at a gas station where the film once again indulges in its melodrama impulses and Egort lets loose, yet it still works and doesn’t break the mood or spell the film is under.

I spent a fair bit of the drive back from the cinema questioning how much of that emotional release was due to the film itself and how much was due to personal events in my life that I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever get over (my granddad passed away due to cancer late last year), and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it is down to the work the film puts in in those first 80 or so minutes.  A real attachment had been forged between myself and Gus & Hazel, despite the fact that the entire film had been very obviously constructed around the moment the tragedy button is pushed and the fact that they rarely talk like one would expect normal teenagers to.  To see their genuinely romantic relationship be slowly and devastatingly torn asunder during those last 40 minutes was genuinely upsetting and every time I thought I had cried all that I could cry, the film would once again throw up another poignant scene between the pair that would set me off all over again.  I may have been played like a goddamn fiddle and I do not care.

And, in the end, is that really a bad thing?  Movies are genetically engineered to force certain reactions out of us, after all.  Can one really get mad at a film for doing what it was supposed to do?  Can I really pick a film apart for hitting me with only about 80% of the power it teases potentially having because it doesn’t quite nail the pre-tragedy tone?  Can I really call a film out on its extremely manipulative romance and tragedy when I was eating both up hook line and sinker?  I may have had some personal investment in one of the film’s main themes, but that doesn’t explain away the exceptional work that leads Ansel Egort and Shailene Woodley put in and how I was wrapped up in them long before the countdown clock made its presence known.  I could put a hundred asterisks to my recommendation of this film, I could nit-pick or just plain pick until the sun went down and I could try to pithily offer a backhanded compliment with my recommendation.

But all of them distract from these two facts.  1] The Fault In Our Stars somehow just plain works.  2] I cried profusely for 30 of its final 40 minutes (which includes the end credits).  End of story, go see it.  Okay?

Callum Petch will stay here and never push things to the side.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!