American Hustle

American Hustle is one of those films. You know them, the ones where you’re never sure who is lying to whom and who really is being taken for a ride until the final showdown. Well, almost. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a conman who has a flourishing (fake) business with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) until they get busted by the FBI. In exchange for their freedom, they must help agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) bait and take down a few other frauds. But DiMaso is too eager to prove himself and the con escalates from loan frauds to politicians and soon they are all in way over their heads.

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The characters are well written; there are no good guys and bad guys, just guys who are trying to do what they deem right and each of them is funny, scary and a little pathetic in their own right. Cooper’s cop starts out as the eager fed who thinks out of the box to mount an ambitious operation but as the con progresses he is more like a gambler unable to stop upping the stakes, while Irving is only trying to get the job done to return safely to his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their little boy. Can we talk about how 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is already trusted with wife, widow and mother roles when most of her peers only get to play teenagers? The trust is deserved a hundred times over though. She’s been given an intense (if unstable) character with a temper and no restraints and she makes the most of it. Her performance has already landed her a Golden Globe award and BAFTA and Oscar nominations, so Hollywood isn’t letting go of her anytime soon.

The whole film has awards written all over it. Bale certainly uglied-up enough to get one. But it’s a common thing in American Hustle: the men look ridiculous and the women fabulous. Bale makes himself disappear behind Irving, partly thanks to the costume and hair and make-up but also by his skill – the familiar face is forgotten as are his previous parts as big and caped they may be. The same is true for Jeremy Renner as a bribe-happy corrupt politician that you still can’t manage to hate.

It’s good to watch a film where you don’t have to be rooting for anyone but just coming along for the ride. And people do. When I saw it, the audience was laughing – not chuckling, laughing for real, and there was even a collective “Oooow” of which all I will say is that Robert de Niro is involved. You’ll “ow” it when you see it.

American Hustle was released in UK cinemas on 7 January.

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Tick tock, it’s Catching Fire o’clock

The wait is over, as audiences finally find out what becomes of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) after they forced the Capitol to crown them both victors of the Hunger Games. There can only be one survivor in this televised fight to the death between a group of teenagers, designed to oppress and divide the twelve districts of Panem. Only, the last two standing threatened to kill themselves and leave the Games without a winner. The Hunger Games ended with the anger of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) at their act of defiance, and the promise of retaliation. Catching Fire gives a broader view of the impact of the Games: the crowds in the districts are rallying around these children who would rather have died than played by the rules, and uprisings are multiplying across the country. Katniss and Peeta must pretend that they were incapable of killing each other because they were madly in love – the only publicly acceptable excuse to keep the peace. But as they tour the country, their practised speeches do nothing to extinguish the spark of rebellion, and they become a symbol to be eliminated at all costs.

Catching Fire VictorsPeeta and Katniss tour the country as victor of the Hunger Games

I’d like to toast the writers and director Francis Lawrence, because adapting a book is hard, and adapting a book told from a single character’s point of view is harder – especially one as weary as Katniss. Yet they have found a way to expand the story outside of her mind and to fit it naturally to a film-type storytelling without resorting to voiceovers or long explanations. The best example of this is the character of President Snow, who is developed through a series of scenes with his granddaughter and head gamemaker that shed more light on his cruel and calculating ways than his outward interaction with Katniss might. The familiar settings of District 12 and the Capitol are back with some new sets as well, of which I won’t tell much to keep the surprise, but they are just like readers will have imagined them. James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is effective if a little too similar to that of the Hunger Games; we could do with some new themes, but I expect this will be the case in Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 what with the dramatic change of setting.

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Jennifer Lawrence at the Catching Fire premiere.

Despite a great script and direction the film rests, of course, on the shoulders of its young stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Jennifer Lawrence once again proves her ability to effortlessly switch genres after her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook. Her Katniss is intense and focused and conveys just enough of what is really going on inside her head – which the reader knows but the film-only audience needs to learn despite her constant attempts at not letting it show. The supporting cast play off her beautifully, especially Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, possibly the biggest character development and evolution since the first film. Effie, of all characters, shows that the glossy polish is starting to crack even in the Capitol. The love triangle arc between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) may be a little too much for a dystopian revolution story; I generally take issue with love triangles becoming the essential selling point of YA to the point of detracting from the actual plot, but this is a rant for another day.

I think it’s fair to say the Hunger Games is the best screen adaptation of YA series so far and yes, I have read and seen them all. Catching Fire is so very, very good. Watch it, bring your friends & don’t forget the sugar cubes.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was released in UK cinemas on 29 November.