Review: Paper Towns

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DIR: Jake Schreier • WRI: John Green • PRO: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey • DOP: David Lanzenberg • ED: Jacob Craycroft • DES: Chris L. Spellman • MUS: Son Lux • CAST: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevigne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair

 

Ever since she moved in next door, Quentin (Nat Wolff) has had a crush on Margo (Cara Delevigne). As young kids they were inseparable, but as teenage awkwardness bit they drifted apart. He worked hard and became a bit of a nerd with his best buds Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), while she was the cool rebel, reading poetry and having adventures.

Quentin never shook that crush though, so with just days before the end of High School he can’t believe his luck when she appears at his bedroom window and wants him to join her for an “adventure”: getting revenge on her cheating boyfriend and her so-called friends who knew all about it.

Despite himself Quentin goes along with the late night hi-jinks, and then assures eye-rolling Ben and Radar that now, finally, things have changed – and he can’t wait to see her tomorrow.

But then she disappears. Her parents shrug it off – she’s run away before – but Quentin when Quentin finds what he thinks is a clue from her to him about where she’s gone, he decides he’s going to find her – with his best buds in tow of course, as well as Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend who really didn’t know about the betraying boyfriend stuff.

After finding more clues they end up in a mini-van on a long, long drive to upstate New York to find a “paper town” – a fake town mapmakers put in their work to expose illegal copyright – to see if Margo is there (and to make it back in time for the all-important Prom, naturally).

As you might imagine, we’re firmly in teenage/Young Adult-territory here, and if the poster seems somehow reminiscent of last year’s The Fault in Our Stars, that’s because this is also based on a book by the same writer, John Green. More than that, Wolff played the amusing blind friend Issac in The Fault… (and keep an eye out for an uncredited cameo by Ansel Elgort here: he was the heartthrob lead in that film too).

As such we’re getting lots of soft-shuffle dance music here, very little swearing or nastiness, almost no danger, an astonishing lack of cell phones (these teens were on a 26-hour road trip and did nothing but talk/look at the scenery? Right.) and other logic problems such as how on earth they all managed to reassure their parents – who never called them once to check up – that this folly/road trip was nothing to worry about.

But logic is not what this story is about. It’s about teenagers, their friends, their loves, and learning how people can be more than they seem, and about the decisions you have to make when you’re growing up.

It has its requisite heartwarming and amusing moments (the three lads seem like real mates and have a great rapport), and though it’s rather overlong and the road trip starts late (with Lacey and especially Angela’s presence seeming rather forced), if you’ve just left school and are about to start college/university, it’s bound to touch a chord – and even if that was a long time ago it will probably trigger a memory or two as well.

James Bartlett

12A (See IFCO for details)
108 minutes

Paper Towns is released 21st August 2015

Paper Towns – Official Website

 

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Palo Alto

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DIR/WRI: Gia Coppola   PRO: Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Sebastian Pardo, Adriana Rotaru   DOP: Autumn Durald  ED: Leo Scott   DES: Sarah Beckum Jamieson   MUS:  Robert Schwartzman, Devonté Hynes   CAST:  Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Chris Messina

 

Directed by Gia Coppola, the latest scion of the Coppola filmmaking dynasty, Palo Alto adapts a handful of short stories by James Franco (who also appears and co-produces) into a loosely-structured narrative about disaffected teenagers in the eponymous Californian region.  Jack Kilmer (son of Val) and Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric and niece of Julia) play Teddy and April, two teenagers whose nascent attraction is complicated by Teddy’s friendship with the volatile Fred (Nat Wolff) and by April’s affair with her smarmy soccer coach (Franco).  While Coppola’s focus on troubled teenagers carries some echoes of her grandfather Francis’s Rumble Fish (1983), the film most openly quotes her aunt Sofia, with one character’s wall emblazoned with a poster for her 1997 film The Virgin Suicides.

 

This terrain is well trodden, and not only by Coppolas.  While Palo Alto’s dreamy suburban ambience is at times distinguished from that of The Virgin Suicides only by the present day setting, its sexual frankness invokes two collaborations between Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine, 1995’s notorious Kids and 2002’s little-seen Ken Park.  These are certainly interesting poles between which to be suspended, but Palo Alto struggles to rise above the sum of its influences.  Even the easy-on-the-ear score by Robert Schwartzman and Devonté Hynes (Blood Orange) is most notable for the way in which it juggles reference points, almost all of which originate in the ’80s.

 

Coppola scores highest with her two central performances.  As the confused but essentially decent Teddy, Kilmer has a tender, introverted quality reminiscent of a young River Phoenix, most obviously in a hushed fireside confession of love that echoes a similar scene in My Own Private Idaho (1991).  The film belongs, though, to Roberts, who is a revelation as April.  Coppola’s sympathetic exploration of April’s confusion as she edges toward adult life is reminiscent of her aunt’s work with Scarlett Johansson and Kirsten Dunst, but Palo Alto works despite this familiarity because Roberts, like Johansson and Dunst, has the kind of mysterious quality that can make somebody else’s boredom and frustration compelling to watch.

 

The same can’t be said for Nat Wolff, saddled with the grating part of Fred, an obnoxious budding sociopath who doesn’t develop much shading, beyond an occasional sulk, as the film unfolds.  Phoned in from the pages of early Bret Easton Ellis, the juvenile Fred exists solely to provide dramatic counterpoint to April and Teddy’s cautious steps towards adulthood.  Nobody even passingly familiar with Franco’s half-baked career as an occasional visual and performance artist will be surprised, either, that Fred’s escalating fury eventually boils over into a stilted monologue about homosexuality.  As heat-seeking gay tourism goes, it’s not quite on the level of Franco’s own Interior. Leather Bar (2013), but if we’re supposed to infer that Fred’s borderline psychosis stems from suppressed desires, there might have been a more nuanced way to get this across than through an artificial speech, delivered apropos of nothing in particular, in a parking lot.

 

Curiously, given its title, Palo Alto does not convey much sense of a particular place or time.  This lack of specificity is both weakness and strength.  While the familiarity of the film’s style and content edges it perilously close to the generic, Coppola’s affinity for the eternal struggles of teenagers gives it a universal quality.  Empathic without being indulgent, and anchored by Roberts’ performance, Palo Alto hints at an intriguing future for Coppola, especially now that her debt of influence is comprehensively paid off.

 

David Turpin

100 minutes

Palo Alto is released 17th October 2014

 

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The Fault in Our Stars

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DIR:  Josh Boone • WRI: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber • PRO: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen • DOP: Ben Richardson • ED: Robb Sullivan • CAST: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe

Based on the best-selling book by John Green, this teenage drama/romance has been as highly anticipated – especially by teenage girls – as, well, any instalment of  The Hunger Games or the recent Insurgent, and it’s probably no coincidence that Woodley stars in that second film as well as this one.

She plays Hazel, a teenager on the cusp of being an adult and suffering from a cancer that affects her lungs, and can make going upstairs an exhausting effort. She constantly carries an oxygen tank behind her, and a tube leads from it across her face and to her nostrils.

Nevertheless she’s a “miracle,” a cancer trial seeming to have done the trick for her (for now at least) and so she attends an awkward Jesus-centred cancer survivors group for other teens, and it’s there that she meets handsome Gus (Ansel Elgort), who lost a leg to his cancer, but is in remission.

He’s there in support of his best bud Isaac (Nat Woolf), who will soon lose both eyes to his disease, and is immediately drawn to the tomboyish Hazel. The pair finds an instant connection in their love of a book about cancer, their thoughts about life – and how they know it’s going to be short – and with two sets of supportive parents looking on happily but warily, a friendship develops.

It’s more than that of course, and the ever-gallant Gus decides to use his “Make A Wish” moment for a trip to Amsterdam for the two of them to meet Peter Van Houten, the man behind the book they love. They had both contacted him by email, and with ever-supportive Grace’s mom (Laura Dern) in tow and looking to be matchmaker, a wonderful trip to Old Europe follows.

There’s a posh meal, champagne, Gus declaring his barely-hidden love for Hazel (despite her worry they should just be “friends”) and everything is “cool” and “awesome,” like it is for teens these days. But then, when they finally meet Van Houten (Willem DeFoe), he’s a nasty, bad-tempered drunk with no answers and little sympathy. Gus had bad news too – his cancer is back, and it aint going away – but now they become lovers in every way, and look to the future regardless.

Back in the USA things go downhill, and as the couple try to enjoy their wholesome romance, eulogies are requested – and performed at a special “friends only” rehearsal funeral for Gus – before the inevitable midnight phone call finally comes…

If you think this sounds like a romance melodrama worthy of a teenage Barbara Cartland, you’d be absolutely right. Teenage girls across the world will cry and swoon over this regardless of what anyone says, and you can see why; this is teenage cancer via The Gap.

It’s a world where everyone is quirky or handsome with smooth skin, all the parents wear cool clothes, are endlessly caring and there’s never any mention of where on earth the many hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of dollars are coming from to pay for all this treatment.

There’s nothing nasty or icky or gut-wrenchingly awful or excruciating to watch – like cancer really is – and for all her apparent gutsiness, Hazel follows behind Gus like a passive lamb; he’s the boyfriend of her dreams. So of course, he has to die.

That said, Elgort does more or less steal the show, working hard with his showroom dummy-esque role – you almost expect him to have no genitals, like a Ken doll – and it’s actually Woolf, in two scenes where he rages about being dumped by his girlfriend because “she can’t handle him going blind,” who provides the only real-seeming rage or hurt. They’re all teenagers, but where are the tantrums and the whining?

Woodley – great in The Descendents but coming rather ubiquitous – plays a teen well (they all do), and though it just about avoids too much cheese and sugar (save for the scene in the Anne Frank house), this is something that’s likely to be a staple of many family’s DVD collection, despite that fact that males will bridle immediately at the title, and few people over 21 are going to be able to stand watching it, especially since at over two hours it’s way too long.

James Bartlett

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
125 mins

The Fault in Our Stars is released on 20th June 2014

The Fault in Our Stars – Official Website

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