Movie review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ a bittersweet story of life and loss

66443 KS_New_starsHollywood had trained us to expect stories with happy endings. Of course the characters will go through some challenges and struggles along the way, but by the ending credits, we know all obstacles will be overcome, and the hero and heroine will fall in love and live happily ever after. The trick is, we know real life doesn’t work like that, and there is no such thing as a perfect “happily ever after.” However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still beautiful stories to be told, because mingled with the moments of pain and heartbreak are moments of light and hope and joy.

That’s the kind of story told in “The Fault in Our Stars,” a movie based on a popular young adult novel about falling in love and learning to let go. If you follow my blog, you know I’m more of a sci-fi/fantasy/superhero girl, so a teen romantic drama isn’t the type of film I normally review. But something about the trailer for this one grabbed me, and I’m really glad I went to see it. The film can speak to more than just its teenage target audience, and it’s worth checking out, even if it’s not the type of genre you normally watch either.

In the film, Shailene Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old girl who has been fighting thyroid cancer. She’s growing tired of battling the terminal cancer, of the endless rounds of treatments, and so her mother encourages her to go to a support group with other cancer patients her age. Hazel doesn’t want to go, but at one of the meetings she meets the stubbornly optimistic Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), who is in remission and is determined to draw Hazel out of her shell. He teaches her how to laugh and live again and even plans a surprise trip for her to Amsterdam, so she can meet her favorite author. Still, considering her diagnosis, Hazel knows a “happily ever after” likely isn’t in the cards for her. She has to decide if the joy she’s experiencing now is worth the heartbreak coming at the end of the journey.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is a refreshingly un-glamorized and authentic love story. The screenplay doesn’t gloss over the fact Hazel and Augustus are teenagers dealing with a life-threatening disease — we see them struggle and hurt and reach moments of genuine despair. Hazel has to carry an oxygen tank with her throughout the entirety of the movie so she can breathe, constantly reminding us of the battle she has to fight day by day and even hour by hour. The main characters deal with very heavy, adult issues while still trying to find a way to be “normal” teenagers. However, the film balances those heavier issues with some lighter moments, and Hazel and Augustus manage to find humor even in the midst of their challenges.

Although the film draws from some fine performers (including Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and Willem Dafoe as Hazel’s favorite author), the film belongs to Woodley and Elgort. Both are talented young actors with a lot of promise, and they have great chemistry as Hazel and Augustus. Woodley also starred in the dystopian sci-fi movie “Divergent” earlier this year, but I didn’t think the film made full use of her range as an actress. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with “The Fault in Our Stars”; Woodley gives a down-to-earth, honest performance as Hazel, capturing the hopes, fears, and heartaches of a teenager who knows she’ll probably never get to experience a full life. Elgort is the perfect foil for her as the charming and funny Augustus, with a smile that slowly wins Hazel over.

When a movie has a title like “The Fault in Our Stars,” it really isn’t a spoiler to say you shouldn’t expect the movie to have a happy ending (I guarantee you will cry in the theater). But that doesn’t mean the movie has a bleak ending. Just like in real life, the ending is bittersweet, and the story will linger with you even after the credits stop rolling. The film reminds us of the truth in the phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Movie review: Will ‘Divergent’ be the next ‘Hunger Games’?

984498 KS_New_divergentNot long ago, young adult book-to-movie adaptations were a hot commodity in Hollywood. The supernatural teen romance “Twilight” and its sequels made millions at the box office, and the post-apocalyptic thriller “The Hunger Games” made a star of Jennifer Lawrence and generated huge amounts of buzz.

However, recent film adaptations of young adult books have struggled to reach those same heights. Remember “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Mortal Instruments” or “Vampire Academy”? All three posted disappointing box office returns, and Hollywood’s enthusiasm for the genre seems to have cooled.

That’s why there is so much pressure riding on “Divergent,” a post-apocalyptic drama about an oppressive society in futuristic Chicago. Early tracking indicates the film could pull in $50 million+ its opening weekend, and studio executives hope it will launch a new franchise. However, how does it measure up against the critically praised “Hunger Games,” to which it has been compared?

In the world of “Divergent,” society has been divided into five factions, based on different character traits. There’s Abnegation (selfless); Amity (peaceful); Candor (honest); Dauntless (brave); and Erudite (intelligent). Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) was born into the Abnegation faction but never felt like she truly belonged there. She sees “Choosing Day” — the day when young adults get to pick what faction they want to spend the rest of their lives in — as an opportunity to redefine who she really is. However, a test that’s supposed to tell her what faction she’s most suited for comes back as inconclusive, and she learns she’s “divergent” — she doesn’t fit neatly into just one faction. Faction leaders find this label dangerous because it means Beatrice can’t be as easily controlled, and she’s warned her life will be in danger if anyone finds out she’s divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice — who later goes by just “Tris” — decides to pick the Dauntless faction but later comes to regret it. The training in Dauntless is grueling and sometimes borders on cruel, and she finds it increasingly difficult to keep her divergence a secret. She also fears her trainer, the mysterious “Four” (Theo James), sees through her. Tensions between the factions continue to build, and Tris finds herself at the center of a conflict that could collapse the fragile bonds holding society together and ignite a rebellion.

“Divergent” currently is ranking right at 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a number which is, I think, unfairly low. Some of the problems critics have found aren’t necessarily the film’s fault and actually trace back to the source material. The original young adult novel is a fast-paced read, but it isn’t as strong in terms of plot or character development as the similarly-themed “Hunger Games.” Even though the Capitol-controlled world of “The Hunger Games” is more extreme (teenagers are forced to kill each other in a televised death match), it feels more realistic and fleshed-out than the world the author creates in “Divergent.” “The Hunger Games” delivers more of an emotional punch and the author (and film makers) never let you forget just how high the stakes really are.

However, I think “Divergent” director Neil Burger did improve on the source material, and I enjoyed the film overall. I liked the cinematography, which presented a post-apocalyptic Chicago that was recognizable enough to feel familiar but also eerily foreign. He does a better job than the original book clarifying why people have been divided into factions and why the powers-that-be find “divergents” so dangerous. The soundtrack also fits well with the tone of the film, featuring a collaboration between famous film composer Hans Zimmer and electronica artist Junkie XL. The film does a good job bringing to life some of the best scenes from the book, including a late night “capture the flag” game through the streets of Chicago and an adrenalin-rush zip-line trip above the Chicago skyline. The dream-like sequences designed to serve as psychological tests for Tris are genuinely creepy.

There are places in the film you could be picky. The middle portion of the film features a number of training sequences, and it might have been nice if Burger had tightened these up and left more time for building the background political drama (as Francis Lawrence did in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”). I would have liked to see more screen time and character development for Kate Winslet’s icy Erudite villain, Jeanine Matthews. Still, if you’re a fan of dystopian sci-fi, the film is worth checking out. I hope it does well at the box office, because I’d like to see another film featuring this world.