Thursday, June 30, 2016

"The Shallows" Review

Director Jaume Collet-Serra is known for churning out solid, if often forgettable, action thrillers. Remember Run All Night and Non-Stop from a couple years ago? How about Unknown or House of Wax? Yep, all made by the same guy. Collet-Serra follows up Run All Night with The Shallows, a shark attack thriller starring Blake Lively (TV's Gossip Girl). While many, including this reviewer, found the trailers to be less than impressive for this movie, it turned out to be pretty good. Just goes to show that if you temper your expectations for something, you may walk away pleasantly surprised as I was leaving my screening for The Shallows.

The story follows Nancy (Lively), a medical school dropout and surfing enthusiast who's in a delicate emotional state following the death of her mother. To honor her memory, Nancy visits a secluded beach in Mexico to surf the same waves that her mom always talked about. At the end of a long day in the water, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark which leaves her injured and stranded on a small rock 200 yards from shore. Trapped for days with nothing but a rash guard and her will, Nancy enters into battle with the meanest, smartest fish since Jaws.

For all of its guilty pleasures and blatant shortcomings, The Shallows has been lauded as the greatest shark movie since Jaws. We could get into an entire debate on where the Sharknado films fall in that ranking, but intended comedies notwithstanding, The Shallows may very well be the best shark attack thriller since Jaws. Unfortunately, that isn't saying too much.

In some respects, The Shallows aspires to be this year's 127 Hours, but the script from Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street) never quite reaches the narrative or emotional highs to be considered Oscar fodder. There just isn't enough below the surface (pun intended). That said, it's loaded with effective white-knuckle sequences and has a great score to boot. I squirmed in my chair at all the right moments even though it was never as suspenseful or as memorable as anything in Jaws.

Another reason why this film falls just short of greatness is that it just isn't as consistently directed as it needed to be. The first half of the film feels like an energy drink commercial while the second half becomes much more bleak as it embraces the horror elements of the story. I'm also not certain that the presentation is as subtle as it should be. Let me explain...

As a red-blooded male, I enjoy looking at Blake Lively as much as the next person, especially when she does such a tremendous job carrying the movie. The Age of Adaline proved to me that she could act and was more than just a beautiful face. The Shallows proves that she can carry a film entirely on her own. There were times, however, where I felt like I was watching a masochist snuff film. SPOILER ALERT: I'm not sure it's necessary to emphasize Lively's Bay Area "assets" as she's mauled by a shark and then again as she graphically tries to "stitch" herself back together. To be honest, I'm surprised they got away with a PG-13 rating based on the violence alone.

As I've said before, summer is the time of year where movies are best enjoyed at face value. The Shallows features a tremendous lead performance and has enough suspense to satisfy those looking for a good thriller that isn't a sequel, remake or part of a franchise. It lacks a deeper sense of purpose, which is why it probably won't be remembered in the years to come.

Bottom line is that I walked away from this movie the same way I did Collet-Serra's Non-Stop - cognizant of its flaws yet still elated that I saw it.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"The Legend of Tarzan" Review

Eric from True Blood stars in this very non-Disney, hard PG-13 version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan."

Seriously, if you were expecting Phil Collins and Rosie O'Donnell, don't bother reading this review. You'll already be let down by this movie. Shame on you.

David Yates, the director of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows invites audiences to experience one of the summer's biggest surprises. The first smart move this film makes is that it doesn't focus on Tarzan's origin. It's smartly dispensed through short flashbacks. We've all seen the Disney version. The past obviously influences the actions and motivations of the characters, but the film spends little time dwelling on what we pretty much already know. The Legend of Tarzan picks up in the late 19th century with John Clayton/"Tarzan" (Alexander Skarsgard) married to Jane (Margot Robbie) and serving as an active member in England's House of Lords. Lord Clayton is called upon when the Crown sets its sights on an advantageous pact with Belgium in the African Congo - Tarzan's original home. Tarzan, Jane, and American emissary George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) are sent to Africa to visit the natives and investigate activity at a nearby diamond mine. The indigenous peoples are thrilled for Tarzan and Jane's return. Meanwhile, Tarzan experiences tough love when he's reunited with his ape brother who sees the white man as a deserter. When Tarzan learns that the head of the Belgian Force Publique, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), plans to oppress and exploit the natives for profit, vine-swinging mayhem ensues.

This film turned out to be precisely the action-packed shot in the arm my summer needed. The Conjuring 2 is still my favorite Hollywood flick of the season, even though summer isn't really for horror movies. Tarzan is arguably the best big-budget Hollywood action blockbuster in theaters right now.

It has everything a great summer movie should - a good-looking cast that can truly act, punchy dialogue, thrilling set pieces, and a ruthless villain. It's all evocatively shot with a green hue by cinematographer Henry Braham (The Golden Compass, Guardians of the Galaxy 2). For every moment the film uses extremely corny "slo-mo" shots, there are at least two others that would make Chivo proud.

As for the players, Skarsgard is perfectly cast as Tarzan. He has the physique and pulls off the brooding-in-a-tree thing with ease. I'm disappointed that an actress as talented as Margot Robbie is pigeonholed into a damsel-in-distress role. The chemistry between these two stars is satisfactory but nothing to write home about. It serves its purpose for a summer movie. Jackson is a welcome addition as the comic relief who huffs and puffs across the jungle as he struggles to keep up with the nimble Tarzan. It's sort of refreshing to see Jackson in a less intense, less serious role. I'm sitting here laughing to myself at the thought of that joke about the ape's anatomy. Rounding out the cast is Waltz at his dastardly best again as the wicked Captain Rom. The film takes many cues from Werner Herzog's classic adventure film Fitzcarraldo, with Waltz essentially elevating Klaus Kinski's shtick to supervillain status.

He'll need it since Tarzan swings onto the screen in 2016 as an anti-colonial superhero of sorts. In a season where movies are best enjoyed at face value, The Legend of Tarzan proves a satisfying yarn.


"Independence Day: Resurgence" Review

"We had twenty years to prepare, and we still weren't ready."

Tagline, or general consensus towards the idea of an Independence Day sequel?

Indeed, it has been precisely twenty years since Independence Day captivated our hearts and minds on its way to becoming one of the definitive summer blockbuster movies of all time. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith affirmed their superstar status in a film loaded with humor, charisma, and balls-out action.

Of course, the idea of a sequel to such a beloved film (especially one without Smith!) didn't sit well with most people, myself included. Independence Day is one of this reviewer's favorite films, but when I discovered that the first wasn't exactly a critical darling, I became a bit more receptive to this sequel idea.

That made all the difference in the world.

As it turns out, Independence Day: Resurgence is a sequel worthy of franchise canon. Granted it's still grossly inferior, but anyone who enjoyed the original for what it was should find more than enough thrills here.

The second chapter of the Independence Day saga shows us what Earth might look like if we had twenty years to adopt advanced extraterrestrial technology. Washington, D.C. looks like a booming metropolis with sleek skyscrapers now flanking the White House. Capitol Hill looks like it's at the 50-yard-line of a state-of-the-art NFL stadium; plenty of capacity for those rah-rah speeches. David (Goldblum) is now the head of intergalactic defense, or something. Regardless, that's pretty f**king badass. Don't we all wish we had that job?

David heads out to the Sahara desert to investigate an event that coincides with an attack on the moon. A large alien craft makes short work of an international base there, effectively crippling Earth's defenses. The last ones fit to make a stand are Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), your typical maverick fighter pilot, Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), son of the deceased Captain Steve Hiller (Smith), Charlie Miller (Travis Tope), Jake's co-pilot and the film's comic relief, and Rain Lao (Angelababy), a beautiful war hero and object of Charlie's affections.

The threat is much bigger this time with the queen of the alien horde returning to mine Earth's core for energy. Instead of several small flying saucers over our major landmarks, the queen brings one massive ship that stretches across half of the entire planet. To stand any chance of survival, the young team of fighter pilots must coordinate with David and the minds at Area 51, including Dr. Oaken (Brent Spiner) and former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman).

There are too many side characters which effectively makes the already risible dialogue even more of a slog. I thought Maika Monroe and Charlotte Gainsbourg were nice additions to the cast; Monroe as Whitmore's daughter Patricia and Gainsbourg as scientist Catherine Marceaux. Gainsbourg's scenes with Goldblum are some of the film's better moments. I just wish she had a bit more to do. She deserved more screen time than, say, Dr. Isaacs (John Story) or Floyd Rosenberg (Nicolas Wright). These guys were given entirely too much to do since they're both superfluous in the grand scheme of things. The script is already inherently silly enough; I don't need a Floyd Rosenberg character trying to wring chuckles out of me.

Other than that, it's still the same mindless Independence Day you remember. Judd Hirsch returns as David's father Jules whose subplot is meant to fill the void left by Randy Quaid. This film doesn't have any moments that are as memorable as "Hello, boys! I'm baaaaaack!" But we do get Data from Star Trek telling us to get ready to "kick some alien ass" in the setup for Independence Day 3. THAT movie promises to be something like "Jeff Goldblum Saves the Universe," which is something we should all be able to get behind.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"The BFG" Review

From Disney and the creative team behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial comes a fun-yet-flawed live-action adaptation of author Roald Dahl's beloved children's novel The BFG. 

Young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a mischievous orphan living in London. One night, she's awakened by strange noises outside her window. Little does she realize that a giant (Mark Rylance) is lurking out in the street. Because he fears that she'll alert the world to his existence, the giant whisks her away to "the land of the giants." There, Sophie discovers that her kidnapper is a warm, cheerful soul who refuses to eat children. For this reason Sophie bestows on him the name "Big Friendly Giant," or "BFG" for short. Meanwhile, the BFG's kindness is mocked by the other, bigger giants living nearby. They oppress and bully him because he is different. To put an end to it, Sophie decides that they must enlist the help of the British Armed Forces; a decision which prompts some the film's most entertaining sequences. All I'll say is that a certain monarch may want to check her shorts...

Few filmmakers have the ability to use the medium to tap into our innate sense of enchantment the way Steven Spielberg does. His version of London feels tangible despite the production design looking like a cross between both the real thing and Harry Potter. The visuals effects are dynamite, from the rendering of the giant's realm itself to Rylance's incredible performance capture. There's also a dazzling sequence at the "tree of dreams" where the BFG and Sophie go to harvest thoughts both good and bad.

While everything looks great and does well to suck us into the fantasy world of the story, The BFG lacks the emotional staying power of, say, E.T. It feels like it all builds to something of a half-climax, one that doesn't necessarily constitute a satisfying conclusion to an entire film. It just ends so matter-of-factly and with such a neat little bow tied around it that you'll probably see it and then forget it even existed by the time it hits Blu-ray this fall. Nothing about it sticks with you. That said, The BFG is excellent summer entertainment for children. It's a beautifully made kid's movie, but as Disney and Pixar have shown us before, the best of the best kid's movies have adult appeal too. Unlike some of Spielberg's previous work, you probably won't see grown men crying over this one at the 30th Anniversary screening one day. All The BFG is is a sweet, harmless little diversion. Maybe that's all it really needed to be. Just take the family, and enjoy the ride while it lasts.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

"Love & Friendship" Review

Acclaimed writer/director Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco) returns to the screen with his fifth feature Love & Friendship, a charming - albeit often stuffy - adaptation of Jane Austen's novella "Lady Susan."

Mourning the death of her husband, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) moves to the country estate of her in-laws in order to clear her head and to wait out some nasty rumors swirling about London high society. Whilst there, Lady Susan uses her charm, beauty and quick wits to hopefully secure a suitor not only for her young daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) but for herself as well.

Love & Friendship is no tactless spoof like the works of the Wayans brothers. Rather, Stillman recognizes the comedy inherent in both the story and in British melodrama itself. The writing is great, but it doesn't revel in its humor as often as it probably should. Not long after introducing the characters through a series of amusing vignettes, the film got so slow and stuffy to the point where it lulled me to sleep for about 20 minutes. I awoke and rejoined the narrative to find that stuffy and deliberate were kind of the point. That way, when Lady Susan does or says something brash, it comes as a bit of a welcome shock that you can't help but chuckle at. I still might have enjoyed it even more if Stillman had properly deconstructed the whole thing, like Adaptation. or Blazing Saddles.

Stealing the show is potential suitor Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), an awkward simpleton who wrings the best laughs from an occasionally dry yarn.

Performances are tremendous across the board, especially Beckinsale as Lady Susan who fits the role like a glove.

If one were to compare this film to other popular Austen adaptations, it falls closer to Joe Wright's 2005 Pride & Prejudice than to the one with the zombies from earlier this year. Love & Friendship stands out for at least having a sense of humor about itself that works more often than not. If you like Downton Abbey or other films and television shows about European nobility, you'll enjoy Love & Friendship. If those aren't your cup of tea, fret not. You aren't missing much.


Friday, June 17, 2016

"Warcraft" Review

The spawn of the late David Bowie just made a live-action movie out of arguably the most popular MMORPG video game ever created. Filmmaker Duncan Jones has a proven track record of marvelous independent work, such as MOON with Sam Rockwell and Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal. His first foray into studio filmmaking is something of a beautiful disaster. Warcraft isn't nearly as awful as the mainstream critics would have you believe; there are some visual cues here that signify the hand of a director who knows what he's doing. The problem is that Jones (but moreso perhaps Universal and Legendary) can't make the human characters work, which is frankly shocking for a storyteller whose previous work suggests he's a master at crafting compelling human drama. For better and for worse, Warcraft often feels like an indie movie trapped in a blockbuster's body. This is a fantasy that feels at once both intimate and epic, but poor editing and uninspired performances largely keep Warcraft from confidently bursting the bad video-game-to-movie bubble.

The story that Jones and his co-writers Charles Leavitt and Chris Metzen takes its cues naturally from the lore of the game itself, which fans are sure to love. Humans and orcs have been at odds for centuries. Now, the leader of the Horde is Gol'dan (voiced by Daniel Wu), a mage of sorts who wields a deadly power called "the fell." Everywhere Gol'dan and the Horde go, everything around them dies, even the orcs' own home world. Faced with extinction, the orcs open a portal to the human realm with the expectation that they'll kill all the humans and make a new home. The humans operate under the banner of the Alliance in a nearby kingdom. Their bravest warrior, Lothar (Vikings' Travis Fimmel), leads an army under the command of King Llane (Dominic Cooper). When Lothar discovers that the orc threat will not be defeated by humans alone, he enlists the help of a powerful young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), the guardian of the human realm Medivh (Ben Foster), and a beautiful half human-half orc named Garona (Paula Patton).

Now the kicker is that there are orcs who see the error of Gol'dan's ways and decide that the best way to defeat him and save their kind is to team up with the humans. Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell) and his band of orcs befriend Lothar knowing that Gol'dan won't stand a chance against their unified strength.

If that all sounds a bit nerdy, trust me... it is. But as I sit here typing, I recall that the film has a modest share of twists and turns that buck traditional franchise formula, at least in Marvel's sense of the word these days. Granted, to speak on them would be to court massive spoilers, and we don't want that.

I will say, however, that I was surprised at how much more compelling the orcs were than the humans. Kebbell does a stellar job with motion capture and voice acting for Durotan. The trailers made this movie look like a montage of bad CGI in a movie that would play out like one long video-game cutscene. Turns out, the CGI is really solid, inasmuch as  the orcs themselves actually look like living, breathing characters. This makes the violence feel much more brutal. There are some gnarly stabbings, slashings and decapitations that spray green blood on the camera lens here and there. Pretty intense for PG-13 but so was Lord of the Rings.

The film also never feels like a cutscene from a video game. It always feels like a "movie," or if the humans are talking to each other, a medieval soap opera.

Seriously, as good as the orcs and the CGI are, the humans are really a drag to watch. I think Fimmel and Foster are horribly miscast. Fimmel proves incapable of carrying a potential franchise at this stage in his career. He mumbles nearly every word and has about as much leading-man charisma as a sack of rocks. Foster gives his all but manages to be impossible to take seriously as "the guardian of the human realm." Maybe it's the Gandalf hairpiece? Patton and Cooper are tolerable; any scenes with them are made better by their presence, but the material they've got to work with is just not very engaging.

The other big problem I had with Warcraft probably isn't Jones' fault. When you make a big tentpole film like this for major studios like Universal and Legendary, who specialize in this sort of cinematic spectacle, your art becomes a regulated commodity. It has to fit into a certain hole in order to appease investors. When that happens, "final cut" is usually taken away from the filmmakers and given to the businessmen who don't really know what good art is supposed to look like. That said, this movie is cut to shit with poorly placed edits everywhere. Some scenes feel cut short while others feel out of place entirely. It's a shame to think how much better this movie might have been if Jones had full creative control. As it stands, the film doesn't quite have enough good to entirely offset the bad. Warcraft surprised me in ways that you'll probably have to see for yourself in order to completely understand. It's not a complete disaster, but it won't be Jones' first film in The Criterion Collection either.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"Finding Dory" Review

Disney and Pixar Animation Studios invite millennials to revisit their childhoods with a sequel that will most assuredly pack theaters with the awkward dichotomy of viewers aged 5 and 25.

Finding Dory lends backstory to everyone's favorite memory-challenged blue tang (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) from Finding Nemo. As a young fish, Dory was separated from her parents and has spent her entire life looking for them. Her search is interrupted when she (literally) bumps into Marlin, (voiced by Albert Brooks) a clownfish searching frantically for his missing son. One year later, Dory starts recalling fragments of her childhood; clues that she's convinced will lead her to her family. Her search leads her to "the Jewel of Morro Bay, California," which turns out to be a marine life institute/eco-park. Meanwhile, Marlin and Nemo follow Dory to ensure that she doesn't get too lost. At the institute, Dory meets several new characters including Hank the octopus (voiced by Ed O'Neill), Destiny the whale shark (voiced by Kaitlin Olson), and Bailey the beluga whale (voiced by Ty Burrell). Each has their own set of endearing dysfunctions; Destiny is nearsighted, Bailey's echolocation doesn't work properly, and Hank may be the only sea animal who WANTS to go to the Cleveland aquarium. Despite their flaws, Dory needs all the help she can get if she's going to find her parents and live happily ever after.

Let's be clear. Finding Nemo is still a superior film in every way. Dory suffers from "sequelitis," which means it forfeits some of its charm by repeating too many story beats from Nemo. Many of the newly-imagined plot points hinge on mindless cartoon mayhem rather than a nuanced approach to grown-up themes and a subtle sense of humor - hallmarks of Pixar's best and brightest.

Perhaps controversially, the film still glosses over the thing with the lesbian couple and also seems to poke fun at characters who are different, like Gerald the sea lion, who comes off as a caricature of mental retardation and the brunt of several jokes from new characters Fluke (voiced by Idris Elba) and Rudder (voiced by Dominic West). Depending on how they typically respond to portrayals in movies and television, parents of children with developmental disabilities will walk away either appalled or overjoyed by the way Dory involves a character who overcomes all obstacles either by using her disability to her advantage or with the assistance of a friend.

Potential flaws aside, Dory maintains a fascinating sense of pathos with the main character's backstory, and it's impossible not to fall for some of the new side characters like Destiny and Bailey. It's far from a masterpiece, but this is Pixar's best sequel since Toy Story 3, and it is absolutely a journey worth taking in 3-D.


Friday, June 3, 2016

"The Conjuring 2" Review

If you happen to follow director James Wan (@creepypuppet) or any of The Conjuring's official social media accounts, you'll find a short promotional featurette about Wan's desire to shatter every misconception about studio-made horror films. There seems to be an egregious preconceived notion that horror movies produced outside the indie scene these days have no merit or nothing new to offer a genre whose fans have seemingly become impervious to shock value. Most horror fans could probably agree, however, that if there's one mainstream filmmaker who we can always count on to make us shake in our boots, it's James Wan. Therefore, I am thrilled to report that The Conjuring 2 not only continues Wan's run of solid horror outings but also represents one of the best sequels (horror or otherwise) that the studio system has produced in the 21st century.

The Conjuring 2 is inspired by the true story of the highly-publicized "Enfield Poltergeist" case which unfolded in the late 1970s on the north side of London, England. In the film, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) plays conduit to the ghost of a disgruntled old man who once lived in the Hodgson's home. She speaks in his voice and often sees him around the house. Janet's mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor), their neighbors, and even the police don't believe her until they witness firsthand some of the paranormal activity occurring in the house. The spirit becomes so hostile that the church calls upon American ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively, with endearing chemistry) to investigate. What happens next pushes the Warrens to the brink by challenging not only their specialized skills but their faith in God and each other as well.

It would be easy to criticize the film for deviating too far from the actual events and for effectively "Hollywood-izing" the true story for the purposes of making a more exciting horror movie out of it. But strictly as a mainstream horror picture, The Conjuring 2 couldn't be better constructed. It's a technical marvel with impeccable cinematography and evocative camera movement, particularly in the film's first reel. Wan manipulates the camera to make the opening scene at a famous Long Island Dutch Colonial feel like the waking nightmare that it is for Lorraine. In turn, the audience empathizes with her almost immediately, and thus that empathy is effortlessly carried into the rest of the film. Wan also likes to use long takes to establish the spaces that his main characters occupy. In the first Conjuring, we followed Carolyn around almost the entire house to get the feeling that the Perron home is a warm, lived-in space dominated by the laughter of the girls and the closeness of family. This made it that much scarier when the ghouls and ghosties turned up to wreck it all. It also lends stakes to the screams once they begin so that even the lamest jump scare doesn't feel completely superfluous. All of this rings true for The Conjuring 2 as well. The Hodgson residence feels a bit colder than that of the Perrons', but the audience still understands that this is a home populated by characters we care about. Home is our domain. Home is where we are always meant to feel safe, and nothing can be more terrifying than when someone, or something, jeopardizes the sanctity of home and family with unwaveringly evil intentions.

That's the root of the horror in these Conjuring movies, and it's why they're so scary. The Conjuring 2 definitely feels bigger and badder than its predecessor in that department. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on how you like your horror - slow-burning or big and in-your-face with occasional slow-burning scenes. I typically enjoy the slow-burners myself, but it's hard not to admire the big stuff too when it's this well-executed. Even when things get absolutely ridiculous (that is, too "Hollywood" to be totally acceptable), the film relishes the silliness too, like when the cops bolt out of the Hodgson house after watching the kitchen chair move on its own. It's also hard not to snicker and shake your head at the slam-bang climax, but that's all part of the fun!

The terror of The Conjuring 2 starts right from the very beginning and rarely lets up, save for conversations and character moments that push the story forward. The best thing about this is that plenty of those conversations and character moments are actually pretty freaky too. For example, when Lorraine meets Janet for the first time on the swings in the backyard, Janet offers a deadly omen. The film also features its share of jump scares. No James Wan movie is complete without them. Curiously, however, they work more often than not. Even if you think you can see or feel it coming from a mile away, each jump feels like a natural evolution of the scene it's in. Variety's Owen Gleiberman wrote something in his review that I agree with 110 percent after seeing this film: perhaps moreso than any director working in horror today, Wan has "a real sense of the audience - of their rhythm and pulse, of how to manipulate a moment so that he's practically controlling your breathing." This is why so many of these horror movie elements that have become tired "tropes" no thanks to inferior hands feel exciting again when a skilled filmmaker like James Wan puts them to use.

If the goal with this film was to make audiences rethink their misconceptions about studio horror, it's been met. The Conjuring 2 is as satisfying a sequel as the system has produced in years. Thanks for making us believe again, James.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"Me Before You" Review

The recent New York Times bestselling romance Me Before You is now a major motion picture! Author Jojo Moyes pens a script for first-time feature director Thea Sharrock. This is one of those rare movies that really reaches out and surprises you. What many may write off as another sappy romance akin to the banal works of Nicholas Sparks will be pleased to find a thoughtful, engaging love story that isn't afraid to dig into serious themes. Me Before You knows its place and offers a very competently crafted romantic "dramedy" for the masses, complete with corny Ed Sheeran tunes.

The story follows a young woman named Louisa (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke), or Lou for short, as she tries to make a life for herself in a small English town. Seemingly trapped by her duties to her family and fitness-junkie boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis, a.k.a. Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter movies), Lou takes a new job as caretaker to a young paraplegic man named Will (The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin). Their relationship is rocky at first, but Lou's goofy demeanor soon melts Will's icy faรงade. The pair begin falling for each other as their lives careen towards a refreshingly atypical conclusion. Just when I thought I knew exactly where this was heading, Moyes pulls the rug out in a way that really makes it a near-perfect resolution. You'll cry happy and sad tears at the same time.

Moyes takes precious care to explore the physical and emotional effects of paraplegia on both the victim and the people around him. These themes are handled with grace; something that distinguishes Me Before You from its counterparts. Nothing about the scenes discussing Will's condition, his feelings about it, or his health care treatment feels outside the realm of reason. Obviously some creative liberties are taken, but it all looks and sounds like something that could've easily happened in real life. There's no doubt it likely has before.

Because of the way Moyes explores how love itself might look when one of the partners is paralyzed, she keeps the story from ever feeling blatantly saccharine. However, the film could've avoided undue sappiness altogether by nixing the Ed Sheeran and OneRepublic music. Sharrock places a couple of melancholy Top 40 hits in places where the emotional beats already work fine. There's no need to beat a dead horse with Ed Sheeran.

Performances are terrific. It's great to see Clarke successfully carry a project that isn't Game of Thrones. Everyone loves her because of that show anyway, and to see her inhabit a hot mess like Lou makes her all the more endearing. If I didn't already have a crush on Emilia Clarke, I definitely have one on her as Lou now. Lewis provides valuable minutes as Pat, too. You love him cuz he's Neville Longbottom, but you hate him at the same time for being a massive douchebag. His comedic timing is on point in a production where nearly all the humor lands anyway. We also see veteran British thesps Janet McTeer and GoT's Charles Dance as Will's parents, whose chemistry is about as strong and interesting to watch as Clarke and Claflin's.

Surely your enjoyment of Me Before You will hinge entirely on how receptive you are to romantic comedies/dramas. I don't mind a good one myself, but I remember thinking the marketing for this movie looked atrocious. I'm glad to be proven wrong. It occasionally wreaks of mainstream pandering, but this is about as well-constructed as these movies come. Grab a date, see Me Before You, and let the last nail be put in Nicholas Sparks' coffin, if it hasn't already.