'Edge of Seventeen' a Skillful, Sharp Take On Social Reclusion

Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: B+

It's tough to depict the cynicism and self-absorption that can overcome teenagers in a fashion that still holds onto the individual's sincere or likable traits. Too often, these portrayals skew in one direction or the other, emphasizing either "normal" teens or those irregular, eccentric attitudes that allow the endearing parts of their personalities to fall by the wayside, especially in coming-of-age teen comedies that amplify certain traits to generate laughs. When the right filmmakers stick to some degree of devotion to evenhandedness and substance, that's when those stories in the coming-of-age, teen-comedy realm start to transcend their intended audience, when they operate in genuine fluctuations in personalities instead of platitudes. The Edge of Seventeen achieves this far better than most dramedies of its kind, boosted by the quick wit and fitting vulgarity that's channeled through an excellent cast of recognizable vets and relative newcomers, especially through Hailee Steinfeld's convincingly erratic shifts in attitude.

The Edge of Seventeen begins in medias res, revealing a fraught Nadine as she arrives in the classroom of her history professor, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), threatening to commit suicide. Precisely why she feels the need to do this isn't made immediately clear, but the voiceover from Nadine starts her explanation, beginning back in her youth to when she met her best friend, Krista. In a time when she was dealing with being bullied and lingering outside the spotlight of her much more popular and successful older brother, Darian, Krista became her one loyal friend through everything. To make matters worse, Nadine's father -- her only other real comfort -- has a heart attack and passes away in her early teens, creating a tough couple of years for her mother (Kyra Sedwick) and her continuously more good-looking and impressive brother (Blake Jenner). Through her eyes, the situation doesn't seem like it could get any worse, until her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts to date her brother, threatening their relationship.

The Edge of Seventeen has a whole lot going for it, largely in how writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig focuses teen angst melodramatics into a bona-fide representation of growing up with social awkwardness, but the relationship between Nadine and Mr. Bruner makes an immediate and lasting impression. Driven by the quick, biting rapport between Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson, it doesn't force this into becoming that predictable student-counselor type of bonding situation; hell, going by the snipes that the two characters take at one another, it's hard to tell at first whether they truly like each other at all. Those who have been involved in that kind of relationship -- the struggling anti-social kid and the laid-back teacher helping them back on track -- know the truth, of course, and observing how Mr. Bruner cautiously, yet unobtrusively, influences Nadine's outlook becomes one of the film's essential strengths. Craig penned some exceptionally clever, uproarious banter between them, which becomes something to really look forward to amid Nadine's escalating screw-ups and meltdowns.

The situation at the heart of The Edge of Seventeen runs the risk of playing out like a teen soap-opera, where the trauma of a girl's best friend and her brother hooking up sends her on an emotional downward spiral toward confronting her own reclusiveness … but that's not the tempo that writer/director Craig establishes here. From how the siblings butt heads to the awkward conversations after Nadine learns about the relationship, her script smooshes together the realness of their interactions with humor that's just the right amount of idiosyncratic and vulgar, mustering laughs while the weight of high-school drama stirs between them all. This transitions into Nadine's introspection and how she resolves her own relationship with the guys in her life, in how she comes to grips with her crush and how she navigates the advances of Erwin, a charmingly tongue-tied student in one of her classes. Craig's grasp on dialogue makes these scenes warm-heartedly humorous and/or painfully awkward, and her filmmaking uses expectations and real-world foibles to steer in fresh, meaningful directions.

Obviously, The Edge of Seventeen wouldn't really work without the right Nadine, as too much or too little strength of personality could swing the authenticity -- and likability -- of her self-absorption and seclusion in odd directions. While she's fallen under the radar with her underwhelming recent body of work, including her stiff turn as a lead in Romeo and Juliet and daughterly roles in the likes of Term Life, Hailee Steinfeld brings some of the befuddled and hostile attributes that worked in those films into her candid, vacillating embodiment of a wounded social recluse.Steinfeld's handling of the character's withdrawn and cynical attitude taps into the right guarded emotionality and antagonism, while her rapport with the fumbling advances of Hayden Szeto's endlessly amusing Erwin offers a glimpse at how two peas in this same pod can have diverse and conflicting traits. Writer/director Craig devises scene after scene that backs her into uncomfortable corners, and Steinfeld's nuanced realization of her impish frustrations and insecurity while fighting out of ‘em ends up being nothing but sincere.

What truly elevates The Edge of Seventeen can be found in the undercurrent of themes about tolerance and the substance of relationships, and how they might survive the whirlwind of destruction surrounding Nadine while she lashes out and stumbles into both positive and negative situations created by her numerous resentments. Through impromptu dates, awkward flirtations, and a lack of verbal filter, writer/director Craig transforms it all into a sympathetic, refined portrait of someone trying to break self-created cycles and gain perspective after having her little world rocked, though it's not so sympathetic that it conceals or mutes her flaws. No, The Edge of Seventeen has a few perceptive surprises in store throughout the resolution to Nadine's emotional bender that highlight her naivete and tunnel-vision, some poignant and inventive character moments that enrich the film to such a degree that it enhances repeat viewings. There's enough winning humor and honest articulation of contemporary teenage conflicts to justify another ride on this Ferris wheel, but those added flourishes in what the characters surrounding Nadine reveal about themselves make it something special.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

'Justice League Dark' Filled With Magic, Attitude, Contrivance

Directed by: Jay Oliva; Runtime:
Grade: C+

The presence of magic tends to be a tricky make-or-break element for comic-book readers. Some dig the extents in which writers are willing to take supernatural capabilities, while others can be left frustrated at the layering of powers and how they fix outlandish problems, which grows even more complicated and debatable when already overpowered heroes get outmaneuvered by even stronger powers. Unlike the relatively limited, defined powers of super-strength, green-energy manipulation, and flight associated with the members of the Justice League, the personalities involved with a lesser-known band of their allies, colloquially labeled the Justice League Dark, operates entirely on broad use of boundless, arcane spells and powers ... many of which surpass the forces of the League proper. DC's latest cartoon brings the existence of this alternate superhero squad into the fold of their animated universe, filling a void left by the stalled live-action adaptation that once had Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, and, for better or worse, it certainly doesn't skimp on the outlandishness of its premise.

Much like their introduction in their first comic a little over five years prior, Justice League Dark centers on a threat that the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the others cannot manage on their own, centered on a mental-illness enchantment that makes people see monsters in place of other humans. Think the hallucinogenic gas in Batman Begins, only without fog everywhere and scattered across the country. Ever the detective and responding to a bizarre series of messages left for it, Batman (Jason O'Mara) reaches out to an old acquaintance, Zatanna (Camilla Luddington), to find the man named Constantine (Matt Ryan) who might be able to assist with his problem. Really, Batman just proves to be an identifiable vehicle toward Constantine and the other associates who congregate around his House of Mystery, a base of operations that transports wherever Constantine needs and which has its own physical vessel to interact with the world: the Black Orchid in this version of the story. Thus begins the Caped Crusader's descent into their darkly mystical realm, to which he's even more of a tagalong than he can seem when surrounded by the Justice League.

From the moment that a ghost named Deadman (Nicholas Tuturro) has a spell cast upon him that makes it possible for the magically disinclined, like Batman, to interact with him, Justice League Dark makes it abundantly clear that incantations, enchantments and curses are the driving force behind this corner of the universe. Have a problem? There's a spell for that, and it's possible that there's a spell that could unravel the previous spell. J.M. DeMatteis, writer of the lackluster animated installments Batman: Bad Blood and Batman vs. Robin, teams up with Green Lantern and Ben 10 vet Ernie Altbacker in the creation of a nonsensical yet exhilarating cascade of this sorcery and supernatural threats, while also flirting with the underpinnings of Lovecraftian horror in its depiction of vaguely sentient beasts. With this boundless mystique also comes a bottomless well of problems and solutions accessible to the screenwriting duo, and they don't shy away from going big and bold with the possibilities, unleashing shapeshifting curses and sentient tornadoes and all sorts of glyphs and energy blasts of varying elemental energies.

Underneath all the bright colors and supernatural chaos, Justice League Dark holds a clear and steady focus on these characters that lurk in the lesser-visited corners of DC's universe, emphasizing their strong personalities and unique chemistry. Fans of the now-defunct TV iteration of Constantine will enjoy hearing Matt Ryan reprise his role as the hellblazer here, taking on more of the curt, distinctively charismatic attitude he typically gives off when surrounded by other powerful people and acquaintances. His rapport with the magician Zatanna, full of in-jokes and references to past events, gives the story a vaguely bittersweet and evocative energy, while the quips from Deadman offer touches of measured comedic relief and the brief appearances of Swamp Thing emphasize the melancholy enormity of his "green" protection agenda. Between the breadth of their capabilities and the richness of their attitudes, they almost make one forget about Batman being there, even wish that maybe he wasn't there at all so the screenwriters wouldn't feel obligated to give him something to do ... and, yeah, between his gadgets and the brooding of his personality, he still manages to be a fairly prominent feature.

Frustratingly, as was also a setback to Jay Oliva's past directing efforts and J.D. DeMatteis' previous scripts, Justice League Dark becomes too concerned with cramming overzealous style and rushed, full-bodied characterization into a 75-minute runtime, and the overall storytelling suffers because of it. The investigation into the demonic illusions sends the crew on a needlessly convoluted, on-the-rails chase between interested parties and suspects that's full of meaningless red herrings, purely designed to channel these magic-users and their powerless human-dressed-as-a-bat colleague between cosmic battles and interrogations. Vivid animation bolsters the consistent rush of cosmic action, but the ludicrous comic-book logic and hokey dialogue shines brighter as the stakes grow higher, hampering the final act's bold conflagration of impenetrable shields, Arthurian-era curses, and how the situation makes the Justice League look ... well, weak next to their darker colleagues. Justice League Dark conjures an electrifying glimpse at the supernatural side of the DC universe, but the spell isn't powerful enough to win over skeptics.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Gans' Colorful 'Beauty and the Beast' a Dull, Passionless Affair

Directed by: Christophe Gans; Runtime: 112 minutes
Grade: C

Fantasy films have a way of casting a spell over their audience by drawing them into the imaginative environment or period in which they happen, a cinematic effect to which French writer/director Christophe Gans is no stranger. While his experience possesses more of a gritty, horror-driven slant, from his depiction of the historical Beast of Gevaudan as a werewolf to the eerie metaphysical realm of Silent Hill, his daring orchestration of production design and cinematography similarly deepen the immersion within both outlandish settings. Beating Disney to the punch, Gans latest film takes aim at a new live-action version of the classic French fairytale Beauty and the Beast, fusing together his experience with sprawling atmosphere and tenacious humanoid creatures with a more colorful, fanciful storybook setting. Without the grittier, morbid inclinations of his previous works, however, he's created a visually alluring yet sleepily-paced fable, with stilted iterations of its iconic characters that stick out like sore thumbs.

First written in the mid-1700s, Beauty and the Beast has a storied history of undergoing several iterations, edits, and streamlines following its creation, but the core of its plot and motifs remained intact, telling the story of a well-to-do family forced to live in the countryside after losing their wealth. While the rest of the patriarch merchant's children pine for the days of their riches and fine garments, the youngest of the siblings, Belle (Lea Seydoux), relishes the rustic lifestyle and separation from the excess. In hopes of an unexpected windfall, the merchant goes to town to claim this fortune and pick up some presents requested for his children, only to find himself stranded in the wilderness and unable to return. He's helped by a stranger (Vincent Cassel) -- an elusive man nestled in a nearby castle -- who promises to send him home with all the items the children desired, on the condition that the debt be repaid with his life. Upon hearing about the conditions, Belle goes in his stead, becoming the beast's subservient guest.

In his previous creations, Christophe Gans hadn't been able to play with the wide gamut of colors and softer, delicate textures afforded to him by Beauty and the Beast, and he fully embraces the opportunity. Pairing the editorial lavishness of costume designer Pierre-Yves Gayraud (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) with the mixed focus on character intimacy and sprawling settings from cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (Mr. Nobody), he's crafted a fantasy realm here that's sporadically grounded yet imaginative and ornate at the same time, centered on Belle's extravagant garments and the enigmatic enchantments swirling in the beast's home. While lovely to look at, the drawn-out tempo of the merchant family's hardships and Belle's acclimation to her new living conditions lacks the zest and momentum that Gans has previously built around horror-driven suspense. Not unlike what happened with Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland -- complete with unusual big-headed hounds scurrying around the castle, a substitute for a lack of singing candlesticks and teacups -- the broad fanciful rendering of the atmosphere surrounding Belle becomes hypnotizing in the wrong lulling and subduing ways.

A lot of the success of a production of Beauty and the Beast -- pretty much all of it -- relies on the rapport that evolves between Belle and her furry, intimidating host, in how the barriers put up by both are broken down by their transcendent connection. Despite the acting chops of Blue is the Warmest Color starlet Lea Seydoux and a heavily disguised Vincent Cassel, this intimacy never materializes into a convincing dramatic heart at the center of the film, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the two actors … or, perhaps more accurately, between Seydoux and the movie-making magic that went into shaping Cassel into her feline imprisoner. Gans' adapted script, alongside big-screen writing newcomer Sandra Vo-Anh, does understand the original intents of the fairytale (more so than other modern takes) and of the duo's shifting relationship, but they neglect to make these attitude shifts seem believable. Combined with the constrained, standoffish performances from Seydoux and Cassel, the passionate changes in their relationship come across as erratic and unjustified in how they relate to the characters.

Christophe Gans' Beauty and the Beast is a strange ... uh, beast, in that it both sticks more closely to the source material's framework than other versions, notably Disney's spin on it, while also wildly branching out with distinctive motivations and repercussions behind Belle's custody at the castle. From magical healing waters and the will of forest gods to stories-high stone statues that crackle to life, there's no shortage of dazzling high-fantasy in the many deviations in his alternate take, which also reflects upon the director's fondness for Hollywood-caliber theatrics. Alas, there's little restraint or cohesiveness in the broadness of the enchantments and curses that impact the story's moving parts, and when coupled with hit-and-miss digital effects and familiar visual cues -- the cataclysmic ending shares a few parallels with Silent Hill -- Gans cannot cast a spell persuasive enough to stay invested in the mythical grandeur. These are shortcoming that could've been overlooked, possibly even improved, had the French writer/director fully realized the essentials of this tale as old as time.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]