The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I hope Kelly Fremon Craig gets to keep making movies, and I hope she takes over from Richard Linklater’s deeply boycentric visions, which I’m only reminded of because Blake Jenner must be going through the ‘sensitive jock’ phase of his career. But no, this is a film about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and it’s wonderful. It has great timing and an ear for dialogue, whether comic or dramatic (and it does certainly run the gamut). The score isn’t too assertive, even if I did spend the first 10 minutes thinking it was a retro 80s film (fashions come around, I guess). I didn’t buy everything that happened, and the ending felt more than a little bit tacked on — the character cycle Nadine is trapped in doesn’t seem like it’ll have a happy resolution, but the film is above all generous to its characters. However, it felt particularly right in its character interactions and in the moves from angst (no Nadine, stay away from Jordan Catalano… or whatever his name is in this film*) to very droll comedy to lacerating drama, like any good coming of age film. And it’s definitely a good one.

[* It’s Nick, and he’s no good.]

The Edge of Seventeen film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kelly Fremon Craig; Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 6 December 2016.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.

Last year’s first film in the series was certainly enjoyable, but it was primarily pursuing a sort of The Running Man-crossed-with-Battle Royale pastiche featuring teenagers let loose in an inhospitable environment tasked with killing each other off to survive and claim the victor’s prize in this deadly game: a life of ease — though the extent to which this is true seems to depend on the relative comfort the contestants grew up in. For in this world of Panem, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, the population is divided into districts according to what resource that area can contribute towards the wealth of the Capitol. Two from each district fight in the eponymous games, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), like her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has grown up in District 12, a dirt poor world of coal miners. Thus, following the duo’s success in the first film (depicting the 74th iteration of these Games), their victor’s life seems just as monochrome and depressing if somewhat less impoverished as the lives they left behind, and the District’s only other Games victor — Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch — just spends his time drinking himself into a stupor in the gloomy shadows of his own mansion.

In starting out the sequel depicting Katniss and Peeta’s fairly underwhelming lives on this forlorn gated victors’ estate in District 12, the series determinedly sets out to move towards a critique of Panem society (a world of panem et circenses, clearly). And while there is a move towards restaging the first film’s Hunger Games — this 75th edition is cunningly engineered to kill off the surviving victors from all the districts — the film, over its somewhat overextended running time, is far more interested in the political dimensions of their fight. A new gamesmaker has been brought in (Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though Stanley Tucci’s brightly coloured and superficial gameshow host is still front and centre in the media of this skewed society. There are some undisguised barbs at media manipulation before things settle down to the apparently familiar conflict.

I won’t say the film is perfect at filling out the world’s politics, and I was personally left desiring more details. All we see of the other Districts is conveyed through the gatherings on Peeta and Katniss’s victory tour. So we get hints at militarisation and oppression but little more than that. Then again, this is a world whose media is so tightly controlled that each District apparently knows very little about the others, so it makes some sense that we as viewers don’t learn very much, but it does make it difficult to know what the stakes are in the rebellion to which Katniss has apparently been co-opted as the figurehead.

No doubt more will become evident in the final (two) films, but for now Catching Fire feels like a mere way station (if a fairly entertaining one) on this ongoing journey. Even given the restaging of the title’s Games, it largely seems to avoid rehashing too much from the first chapter. The film’s palette is more dour and shadowy — a lot of the action seems to take place at night or under lowering skies — and admits of far more shadings of emotional resonance, but it remains a clear-cut fight between the forces of rebellion and repression, and makes me greatly look forward to the inevitably drawn-out conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Francis Lawrence; Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins); Cinematographer Jo Willems; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013.

Now You See Me (2013)

Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.

The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?

The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.

What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.

It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.

CREDITS
Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.