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The Fault In Our Stars (2014)

DIRECTOR: Josh Boone

CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff

REVIEW:

An adaptation of John Green’s best-selling young adult novel of the same name, The Fault In Our Stars could be seen as a sort of cousin of 2011’s 50/50 (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the way it takes an irreverent approach to a subject as difficult as cancer without neglecting the underlying seriousness of the situation. The emphasis here is more on romance; calling it a teen romantic comedy-drama with a side of cancer (or is it a cancer movie with a side of teen romantic comedy-drama?) might be an oversimplification, but it sums it up in a nutshell. The story is formulaic, but it’s bumped up by a nice touch with character interaction and the appeal and chemistry of stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The result is not an exceptional film, but a nice little bittersweet story both poignant and life-affirming that like 50/50 manages to tell a “cancer story” without being mawkish and melodramatic about it.

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Disturbia (2007)

DIRECTOR: D. J. Caruso

CAST:

Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aaron Yoo, Viola Davis, Matt Craven

REVIEW:

The sole crediting of Disturbia’s script to Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye) and Christopher Landon seems a little disingenuous, as the movie is as obviously an updated Rear Window as they come.  While Ellsworth, Landon, and director D.J. Caruso (who would later reunite with Shia LaBeouf in Eagle Eye) don’t improve on the standard storyline, they at least keep it for the most part engaging and entertaining, and inject a measure of freshness into an oft-imitated basic plot.

We open with a father-son bonding moment between Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven) as they fly-fish in the picturesque great outdoors, that’s just a little too postcard-perfect/cutesy, like a scene off a Hallmark card, before Dad is brutally wiped off the screen in a startlingly abrupt car crash that goes from bad to worse. A year later, Kale is a juvenile delinquent who pays little attention to his grades, and commits a felony when he punches his Spanish teacher for bringing up his dad during a lecture on his bad behavior. As the last chance before going to jail, Kale is placed under house arrest and fitted with an ankle bracelet that alerts the police if he sets foot outside his yard. After a few days of video games which his Mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) blocks, swimsuit commercials (which Mom thwarts by severing the TV’s power cord), and junk food, visited only by his friend Ronny (Aaron Yoo), Kale starts spying on the neighbors out of boredom, especially new arrival Ashley (Sarah Roemer), who eventually catches him and joins in the neighborhood watch. For a while, things are harmless enough, until Kale starts to suspect his neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse) of being a serial killer.

One thing that might surprise some viewers is the amount of time Disturbia takes to kick in with the thriller aspect. For a while, it seems to try to lull us into thinking it’s a teen romantic comedy, with only background television reports about a missing woman hinting at the danger to come. While Rear Window starts gradually, with Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound voyeur observing bickering couples and lonely spinsters, Kale and his accomplices watch the neighbor fooling around with the maid while the wife’s gone, and plot revenge against the brats who leave flaming poop on his doorstep. Fortunately, D.J. Caruso and Shia LaBeouf manage to keep all this entertaining- for the most part, so we’re not twiddling our thumbs waiting for LaBeouf to get menaced by David Morse. LaBeouf is not a spectacular actor, but he’s an appealing and energetic one, with the same kind of affable boy-next-door presence that made John Cusack so popular in ‘80s teen romantic comedies, and has a few more memorable moments scattered around, including an awkward, strangely sweet confession scene that could almost have come out of a John Hughes/John Cusack movie.

That Disturbia is designed as a Generation X version of Rear Window brings both pros and cons. Given that today’s teens (and younger) are embracing technology their parents find mind-boggling, it makes sense that Kale and company would use cell phones, digital cameras, and live video feed to spy on Mr. Turner. But packaging Disturbia to appeal to the young crowd also means it loses a little intelligence and depth. The level to which LaBeouf and the filmmakers portray Kale’s issues with his father’s death is inconsistent; he starts as a sullen delinquent, but for the rest of the movie he shows little of the edginess hinted at early on, and in fact the entire matter of his father’s death is pretty much forgotten about after a few perfunctory mentions. The movie toys half-heartedly with the possibility that Kale might, out of a combination of paranoia and boredom, be letting his imagination run away with him, but the possibility is never seriously explored, and Mr. Turner is shot as such a hulking, ominous presence that we never really buy that he might just be a shy, misunderstood regular guy.

Shia LaBeouf has an affable presence, and makes Kale a likable everyman protagonist, which is important, especially since we spend significant set-up time following him on his daily (mis)adventures before we get into thriller territory. Sarah Roemer and Aaron Yoo provide adequate support. The movie takes time to give Kale and Ashley’s relationship a little more development than a perfunctory subplot. In teen-oriented movies like this, the adults seldom get much to do, and Disturbia isn’t an exception.  David Morse lurks ominously in windows and shadowy garages and—when he’s finally seen up close and gets anything to say—drops vaguely threatening hints like “I like my privacy”.  Carrie-Anne Moss gets the thankless role of the often-exasperated mother who drifts in and out of scenes as required by the plot, until the climax when she segues into the equally thankless role of a damsel in distress (for someone who was still kicking ass and looking great while doing it in The Matrix sequels a mere four years ago, it’s a little sad to see Moss already being relegated to throwaway “Mom” roles).

In the last half-hour or so, Disturbia pulls out the stops. There’s the mother trapped by serial killer, creaky doors, dark hallways and underground dungeon-like lairs, faces in windows, sinister figures revealed by lightning flashes, and a series of surefire “boo!” moments. Even those who think Disturbia takes too long to get into the thick of the action will mostly be satisfied by the finale.

Disturbia is not a classic thriller like the one it “borrows” from, but Shia LaBeouf is a likable and engaging protagonist, the movie never fails to be entertaining, and it wraps up with a few scenes guaranteed to get jolts out of the audience. In the thriller genre, there are a few better, but more that are much, much worse.

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