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Hustlers (2019)

Think of it as a feminist companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Inspired by a true story, Hustlers follows a diverse group of strippers who wine and dine Wall Street middlemen and execs, feeding off the spoils of their feeding frenzy, and then eventually upping their game, drugging them and fleecing them for one wild night that they’ll be too embarrassed to report that next morning. The story grabs you early on and is stuffed full of interesting details about the ins and outs of the stripping industry as well as how to service and manipulate the wealthier men who frequent said clubs. Hustlers becomes a combination of a crime caper, a con artist thriller, and a class-conscious drama about the haves and have nots, but it really becomes a showcase for the talents of one Jennifer Lopez, a woman who does not seem at all close to her fifty years on this planet (her introduction is quite the jaw-dropper). Lopez plays Ramona, the alpha leader of the group, a loving single mom with a healthy distaste for the hand she’s been dealt. She is sensational and delivers the best performance of her long career. Even when she’s doing bad things, even when she’s taking bold risks, there is a moral center to that woman, an unbreakable heart for the people she chooses to let into her life, and it does not budge, which was a poignant note. In many ways she is more the main character than Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a figure that serves as more entry point than fully-fleshed out character. I enjoyed learning the various tricks of the trade writer/director Lorene Scarfaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) peppers throughout with her love of montage and stylish transitions, but it really picked up after the 2008 financial crash where the women cross over into direct criminality. At first they figure they’re just skipping ahead, drugging with MDMA rather than waiting for their marks to get drunk (“Drunk enough to order the bill but sober enough to sign the check,” Ramona cautions). Then things get escalated and sloppy and the women are in trouble. It’s a fun ride watching the ladies get theirs, and I was challenged to muster much of any sympathy for their Wall Street marks. Part of me wishes more women would be inspired by this movie and follow suit, fleecing the people who fleeced our economy. The movie rides that wave of the good times you know can’t last, prolonging the fall we’re all anticipating coming. The supporting characters can be a bit weak; several of the other girls involved in the scheme merit one note of description, and some of the humor feels a bit out of place, like a running joke where one of the women nervously vomits often (this is like her single character trait, and it’s weird). It’s also likely the stripper-centric movie with the least nudity I’ve ever seen, thanks to Scarfaria treating a sensational story with candor rather than exploitation. Hustlers is a glitzy drama that will entertain you with its flash and then surprise you with its edge. And all hail, Jennifer Lopez, ageless wonder and underrated actress getting her due.

Nate’s Grade: B

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An Unfinished Life (2005)

Einar (Robert Redford) is a gruff  rancher living with his long-time friend and ranch hand, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who has been recovering from a bear mauling. Jean (Jennifer Lopez) and her young daughter (Becca Gardner) have run away from her abusive boyfriend and seeking temporary refuge with Einar. There’s still a lot of tension and unspoken anger between the two. Einar blames Jean for the death of his son from a car accident. As their stay continues each member imparts wisdom to the other, hard exteriors get warmed, and lessons about forgiveness are learned.

This is melodrama with a capital M. An Unfinished Life is clunky, the movie hasn’t the foggiest idea when it comes to subtlety, the characters all shout out their feelings all the time, and worse yet, it’s also incredibly transparent. A scene where Lopez breaks a dish and Redford goes nuts is just too much. Of course they’re talking about his dead son but the moment is played to the hilt that I half expected every line to end in a wink (“It’s just a dish” wink “Maybe it’s more than a dish to me!” wink “Maybe that was my favorite dish!” wink). Honestly, it was at this point that the film lost me. The metaphors are another symptom of the film’s overly ramped-up obviousness; Redford might as well be pointing at the bear to pantomime that it?s supposed to represent his pain and anger. And Freeman’s eventual forgiveness of his attacker is meant to encroach upon Redford to do likewise to the source of his pain, and many other moviegoers, Jennifer Lopez. I cannot find a movie emotionally involving when it doesn’t even bother to mask its grand statements.

Seriously, this movie is brimming with sprawling earnestness meant to cover the narrative shortcomings. This is a simple tale that could have suckered the audience in with its framework to showcase complex characters and their personal interactions, like a Million Dollar Baby, but even though An Unfinished Life is simplistic it still manages to beat you over the head. Every line of significance is underlined so you get it. It’s like director Lasse Hallstrom was making a seething parody of these overarching, small-town, large cast, homesy feel-good flicks he’s specialized in for a decade.

The acting is all fine. Redford is fun to watch and get his Jeremiah Johnson back on. Lopez makes you forget how much you hate her in other movies. Freeman is settling into a weird groove as a disfigured narrator. The acting of the ensemble really isn’t the issue with An Unfinished Life.

Despite all its earnest intentions and lush scenery, An Unfinished Life is too much melodrama squeezed into such a small space. It’s an old fashioned tale that feels too convenient, too simplistic, too perfunctory, and too unhappy with being any of those things. This feels like a Hallmark card turned into a movie by someone who has no grasp for human emotion. Everything is shouted when it needs to be a whisper and explained when it needs to just be experienced. And yet there will be an audience for this slow burn small-town tale of forgiveness and accountability. It may please people immensely, but I prefer a little subtlety to my drama. I won’t say the film is bad but I’ll never say An Unfinished Life is particularly good, even as melodrama.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jersey Girl (2004)

Writer/director Kevin Smith (Dogma) takes a stab at family friendly territory with the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a music publicist who must give up the glamour of the big city to realize the realities of single fatherhood. Despite brief J. Lo involvement, Jersey Girl is by no means Gigli 2: Electric Boogaloo. Alternating between edgy humor and sweet family melodrama, Smith shows a growing sense of maturity. Liv Tyler stars as Maya, a liberated video store clerk and Ollie’’s real love interest. Tyler and Affleck have terrific chemistry and their scenes together are a playful highlight. The real star of Jersey Girl is nine-year-old Raquel Castro, who plays Ollie’’s daughter. Castro is delightful and her cherubic smile can light up the screen. Smith deals heavily with familiar clichés (how many films recently end with some parent rushing to their child’’s theatrical production?), but at least they seem to be clichés and elements that Smith feels are worth something. Much cute kiddie stuff can be expected, but the strength of Jersey Girl is the earnest appeal of the characters. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny (like Affleck discovering his daughter and a neighbor boy engaging in “the time-honored game of “doctor””), but there are just as many small character beats that could have you feeling some emotion. A late exchange between Ollie and his father (George Carlin) is heartwarming, as is the final image of the movie, a father and daughter embracing and swaying to music. Jersey Girl proves to be a sweetly enjoyable date movie from one of the most unlikely sources.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gigli (2003)

It’s the feel-good movie of the year revolving around a lunkhead mobster (Ben Affleck) and his mentally challenged kipnapee and their attempts to covert a lesbian hitman (Jennifer Lopez) in between her yoga/horrific monologues concerning the superiority of female genitalia. Believe the hype people; Gigli is indeed as bad as they have told you. It’s not even entertainingly bad, like Bulletproof Monk, no folks; Gigli is just mundane and awful. During the entire two hour stretch, which feels much much longer, I kept saying one thing aloud: “How could anyone making this think they were making a goodmovie?” Did they think audiences would find it funny that Affleck’s mother (the mother from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) shows us her big fat Greek behind? Did they really think that a mentally retarded kid (who has an affinity for gangster rap and wishes to travel to the mythical “Baywatch”) would come off as endearing? Well instead it comes across as insulting. And what else is insulting is the laugh-out-loud dialogue Lopez is forced to spit out concerning her attraction for women. I can’t think of any actress that could say the line, “I love my pussy” convincingly. And I’m sure a lot of actresses out there have true affection for it. The writing is just atrocious. And so much else fails as well. The score is a perplexing mix of upbeat jazz and inappropriate string orchestra. I don’t understand what emotions they were going for during scenes in Gigli but a full string orchestra playing music better suited for a real drama does not fit. Maybe it was for a tragedy. In that case, then it’s right on the money. You won’t see a more sloppily executed, horribly acted, painfully written, lazily directed, inept film this year. And what the hell did Christopher Walken walking in have anything to do with anything?

Nate’s Grade: F

The Cell (2000)

Welcome to the not too distant future where the miracle of science (i.e. red bodysuits and washcloths over people’s faces) allow you to transport your mind into that of another individual. So what happens when a serial killer snags a catch only to be dropped into a coma with no way of discovering where his victim is before time runs out? Well we send Jennifer Lopez into his head — duh! The Latina songstress (and as my girlfriend would say, “Thankfully song-less.”) transports herself to learn the secrets of Mr. Madman before his next victim becomes just a number on a sheet. Sound contrived, like the movie was in production before they had a workable script? You’re not alone. One-named director Tarsem is from the land of music videos but for the life of me I can’t think of one he’s done.

Perhaps the excruciatingly long Nine Inch Nails promo would be less frustrating if the outpourings of creepy imagery meant something. Despite the desire to explain the inside cerebrum of a crazy, 90% of the imagery is there for the simple sake that it looks cool. Lopez plays Alice to a lumbering wonderland of dark images and a mind-numbingly clattering musical score. Would someone please explain to me why a CGI vine grew on screen for five minutes then went away?

Lopez speaks in whispers, Vaughn speaks like he’s on Ritalin, and the movie speaks that if you had abuse as a kid it’s okay to trap women in self-filling aquarium cubes and bleach them into albino Barbies. Won’t see that in your typical after school special.

The Cell may present some things you’ve never seen before, like a jack-in-the-box theme to twirling intestines, but too often it presents things you have seen much too often in film — boredom.

Nate’s Grade: D

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