Hustlers

Before I tell you what Hustlers is, let me tell you what it isn’t.  It is not a light-hearted caper movie like Oceans 8.  These are smart women but they are not entirely in control of the situation at all times.  They make guesses and take risks; ones that often don’t work out.  And sometimes their emotions betray them.  This is more like the kind of crime story where things get out of control and desperate as the con grows and gets more complicated.

Hustlers is based on the true story about a gang of former strippers who devise a plan to con wealthy Wall Street brokers—the kind of men who were their clientele at the high-class gentlemen’s club where they used to work, and also caused the 2008 Great Recession.  So, most of them don’t qualify as victims.  These women are extracting revenge—these guys don’t behave very gentlemanly in strip clubs—and supporting their families.

The scheme they hit upon is simple.  One of them approaches a mark in a bar, flirts a little, and then the others show up and are introduced as sisters.  They drug the guy’s drink, take him to a hotel and extract his credit cards and then max them out.  Most don’t go to the police because they are ashamed of having been taken by a bunch of women.

The main viewpoint character is Destiny, played by Constance Wu.  She is a young woman, raised by her grandmother, after her mother abandoned her.  Stripping is the only job she can get but she is inexperienced and doesn’t know how to get the big bucks.  So, she turns to Ramona, played by Jennifer Lopez, for mentoring and emotional support.  Gradually, this relationship turns into a partnership and eventually a criminal enterprise.

Jennifer Lopez is best thing in the film, although all the performances are good.  But Lopez’s character is both larger than life and humanly flawed.  She’s smart and angry, but at the same time, nurturing and loving, wanting to help every waif with a hard-luck story that crosses her path.  That, of course, isn’t always possible, or wise.  Looking at her credits on IMDB, I see that she has been acting for over twenty years.  But her resume is short for someone who has been active for that long.  It’s not a mystery, of course, she’s also a big pop star and most of her efforts have gone into that aspect of her career.  She doesn’t do the type of music, I like so, I’m not very familiar with it.  But Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight is one of my favorite movies and Jennifer Lopez is absolutely great in it.  So, I know her to be a talented actress.  Unfortunately, most of her acting credits over the years have been in mediocre rom-coms.  I’m glad to see her return to roles that are more challenging.

I wish it could have been in a better movie.

The main problem is pacing.  I’m all for sisterhood and female bonding and nurturing but there is far too much of it here and it really bogs down the story.  Once the point is made there is no reason to belabor it.  Similarly, all the material about what life is like for strippers may be interesting but most of it doesn’t advance the plot.  The film is lit with mostly natural light, giving it a grainy naturalistic look and the soundtrack is cluttered so you have to pay attention to understand what people say.  None of that leaves me with much patience for thematic or expositional detours and distractions.

Therefore, Hustlers falls squarely into the category of a great performance in the middle of a mediocre film.  Jennifer Lopez makes it worth seeing but you can wait for the DVD.

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Blinded by the Light

If you are not an obsessive fan of Bruce Springsteen, you probably won’t connect with Blinded by the Light in the best way, in fact you may not even like it—it is pretty self-indulgent.  But there is a chance you will walk out of the theater wishing you were a member of the Boss’s rabid fanbase.  And if you are a fan, I urge you to see this movie with the same amount of passion that Roops, played by Aaron Phagura, urges Javed, played by Viveik Kalra, to listen to Bruce’s albums.

Every Boss fan has his or her story about finding the music.  Mine is not dramatic in any way.  You’d never want to make a movie of it.  In 1975, a friend of mine mentioned that he thought Born to Run was a pretty good song, and I thought, “Yeah, it is,” bought the album and descended into fanaticism.  But I wasn’t reacting to Bruce’s themes of escape and living life to the fullest; I was responding to the operatic passion of the music, the stories and the characters.  My family had its problems but poverty and class stratification were not among them.  I had plenty of opportunity in front of me and I took advantage of it and have had a pretty comfortable life.

If the truth be known, I was probably not born to run.

For those who were, however, Bruce’s message is powerful and extends across cultures.  Blinded by the Light is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ‘n Roll.  It is Manzoor’s story, with the names changed, of growing up in working-class Luton under the austerity policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.  He is Pakistani, and nativist feelings in Britain are running high.  His traditional parents tell him to keep his head down and not draw attention to himself or the family, but this strategy is increasingly not working for him.

He is also chafing at the strict restrictions placed on him by his father, Malik, played by Kulvinder Ghir, who wants him to major in business at the local college.  Javed, who has been keeping a diary and writing poems since he was ten, goes to that college but majors in English.  He wants to be a writer.  He also falls in love with an English girl, Eliza, played by Nell Williams, who has a passion for politics.  All of this would drive his father to distraction if he knew the half of it.

Then, of course, Roops introduces him to the Boss and Javed begins to see a way out.

At first, Javed wonders what an American singer/songwriter has to say to a British Pakistani.  When he listens to it, however, Bruce speaks to him and he speaks loudly.  The lyrics appear in the air around Javed’s head and the music animates his body.  And so, with the fervor of a new recruit, he proselytizes the gospel and sings the songs in the streets of town, forces essays on the school newspaper and breaks into the school radio station to play Born to Run over the loud speaker.

Blinded by the Light is a film about passion and therefore is a passionate film.  The script by Manzoor, director Gurinder Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges—they also give Bruce a writing credit for inspiration—captures that feeling of discovering something that at last speaks to you very well.  Viveik Kalra’s Javed is expertly acted.  And the rest of the cast does a good job as well.

I suppose in the end, since I am a huge Springsteen fan, I cannot guess how a non-fan will react to this.  The music has gained a reputation of being dad rock over the years, something parents would approve of.  I found Bruce when I was 15 years old; I’m almost 60 now and I still love it, so it’s hard to deny that charge of him being accessible to old people.  Bruce’s message, I guess, spreads not only across cultures but also generations.  That’s because there is something in it; something that moved a Brit of Pakistani descent to write a memoir about it, and see the Boss over 150 times in concert.

My number, while well into double digits, isn’t anywhere near that, but I loved Blinded by the Light and if you are a fan of the Boss, you will too.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

The film industry in 1969 was very much in a period of transition.  It had been twenty years since the studio system had ended and the prevailing business model for movie production was star-driven.  Major stars would form their own production companies, purchase screenplays and have them produced and starring in them, taking a percentage of the gross box office receipts instead of a salary.  Only a few stars were in a position to do this, however.  Furthermore, Jaws and the birth of the current summer blockbuster model was still four years away.

Televisions were ubiquitous in American living rooms, with color TVs just starting to take over the market, and scripted dramas and comedies were being produced cheaply on extensive backlots and soundstages, the corpses of the old studio behemoths.  Half of these series were forgettable westerns.

That’s the setting for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, most of which takes place over the course of one day in the titular town.

The former star of one of these TV oaters, Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is clinging to his fading career.  By day he conducts business, meeting agents, and playing heavies in guest roles on current TV shows.  At night, he drowns his insecurities and regrets—he quit his successful series to embark on a lackluster film career—in alcohol.   But he’s having increasing trouble remembering his lines and he’s constantly being told that playing bad guys is one step away from not having any work.

Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, is Rick’s stunt man, best friend, driver, handyman and chief emotional support.  He’s easygoing on the outside but you don’t want to cross him.  A tough war veteran, trouble has a way of finding him.  There are rumors that he killed his wife and got away with it.  Tarantino has a flashback with him and his wife arguing on a boat while Cliff fingers a speargun.  But he cuts away before anything happens.

The film also follows the activities of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, who lives next door to Rick.  Today, Sharon Tate is mostly known as the most famous victim of the Manson Family.  But in ’69 she was an up-and-coming actress, married to Roman Polanski, with roles in a Matt Helm movie with Dean Martin and The Valley of the Dolls.  Obviously, she was beautiful but she also had an engaging innocence about her.  In the film she stops by a movie theater, playing the Matt Helm movie and watches the show.  Her joy at the audience laughing and applauding is touching.  Hollywood had not yet worn her down.

And, of course, the Manson family figures into it as well.  Cliff gives a ride to Manson girl, Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley, to the Spahn ranch, one of those backlots where Cliff used to shoot westerns, and he meets the whole murderous crew in a tense standoff.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is long, meandering, talky and filled with attitude and violence.  It’s the type of Tarantino film that you either like or you don’t.  I happen to like it.  Tarantino is one of the few directors who can make me ignore the elements that I usually think of as making a good film.

This is not his best, however, and I can’t really tell you why without spoiling the ending.  The presence of Tate and the Manson family, seems to give the film an air of inevitable tragedy.  That’s not how it plays out and the ending of the film doesn’t mesh with what came before.  I may have said too much there.

In any case there are plenty of moments to appreciate if you like this sort of thing.  If you don’t like most or any Tarantino films, stay away.

Spider-Man: Far From Home

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, is burnt out and grieving the death of mentor Tony Stark.  Peter, who as we all know is Spider-Man, is also somewhat disoriented, having been a victim of Thanos.  Five years passed while he had been snapped into oblivion.  That’s bad enough for an adult, catastrophic for a teenager in school.  Half the people in his class are now in college or the work force and their younger siblings are now the same age as him or older.  Aunt May, played by Marisa Tomei, runs a charity to help re-locate the fifty percent of the population that was returned to existence during Endgame.  She herself was one of them, having popped into her apartment much to the surprise of the people currently living there.

So, when Peter Parker and his friends get an opportunity to tour Europe on a school trip, he takes it.  He also wants to get closer to MJ, played by Zendaya who he has developed feelings for.  Unfortunately, there’s another guy, Brad Davis, played by Remy Hii, who is also on the trip and he has his eye on her too and seems to be making progress.  Being Spider-Man is the last thing Peter wants right now.  He needs a break.

Unfortunately, he’s not going to get one.  Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is calling him and that’s a call you don’t forward to voice mail, at least not without consequences.  It turns out that monsters from another of the newly discovered universes have invaded ours and are intent on destroying the Earth.  Following them is a man named Quentin Beck, or as he eventually calls himself Mysterio, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  These elementals, as he calls them, killed his family and he is determined to stop them.  Beck willingly teams up with the somewhat naïve Peter and becomes a mentor to replace Tony Stark.

I suppose I have to be mindful of spoilers here, but really, anyone who is familiar with the comic books can figure out what happens next.  I did.

Far from Home is probably not as good as Homecoming but it’s close.  I admired how Jon Watts, the director, and the screenwriters Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers balanced the teenage drama and the superhero action plot to get a coherent whole.  That’s something that Marc Webb, the director of the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies could never accomplish fully.

It’s an MCU project so the technical aspects are perfect and it is exquisitely cast.  Gyllenhaal shines in ways I can’t mention here.  And Holland just owns the role of Peter/Spider-Man.  Zendaya’s MJ is not the one we know from the comic books but she’s fun and well executed.  Peter’s best friend, Ned, played by Jacob Batalon, is by turns, hilarious and touching.

I believe the agreement with Sony is to do one more film with Holland as the title character.  After that, the future is uncertain.  I hope Sony and Marvel can work out another deal and keep the character in the MCU for as long as Holland wants to do it.  Spidey is Marvel’s biggest property and the MCU is where he belongs.

Toy Story 4

Pixar produces good films, often great films.  They have done this for twenty-five years.  And while I no longer view them as infallible, that is pretty impressive.  What’s most incredible is that after all this time they are not conservative.  Sure, they make lots of sequels but Cars 2 aside they are usually good sequels.  They also are not afraid to mentor young talent from within their ranks, giving them, first shorts to direct, and then when it is deemed they are ready, features.  It is a bold strategy intended to insure the creative vitality of the company into the future.  Mostly it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

The Toy Story franchise is sacred to Pixar.  It was their first feature, and first hit.  Right off the bat that film put them into the firmament of animation legends with Disney.  So, when they make a sequel, they do NOT screw it up.

It is somewhat surprising therefore that the fourth installment was entrusted to Josh Cooley, a storyboard artist and writer who’s been working his way up on several Pixar projects in recent years.  Toy Story 4 is his first feature.

The story starts with Woody, voice by Tom Hanks, having trouble accepting the fact that his kid, Bonnie, voiced by Madeleine McGraw, has lost interest in playing with him.  She gives his sheriff’s star to Jessie, voiced by Joan Cusack and leaves Woody in the closet to collect dust bunnies.  A rag doll named Dolly, voiced by Bonnie Hunt, runs the room, but Woody can’t help butting in now and then.

He is nonetheless, completely devoted to Bonnie and when he senses that she’s scared to go to kindergarten orientation, he stows away in her backpack and during craft time, he sneaks her some supplies and she makes a new toy out of a spork, pipe cleaners and some googly eyes.  She names him Forky, voiced by Tony Hale.  Forky comes to life, since he is a toy, but he still thinks of himself as disposable plastics silverware and tries to throw himself away.  Since he becomes Bonnie’s current favorite, Woody can’t let that happen.  When Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip in a rented camper before she starts kindergarten proper, he has to go to great lengths to stop Forky from disposing of himself.  When Forky throws himself out the window, Woody follows and they eventually wind up in an antique shop in a small town.  There’s a traveling carnival and an RV park in town, so Bonnie’s family stops there too.

Woody runs across Gabby Gabby, a baby doll who runs the shop with the help of four ventriloquist dummy thugs.  She tries to kidnap Woody and Forky but Woody gets away and runs into Bo Peep, the porcelain figurine who was part of a lamp, and who used to belong to Andy’s sister.  Woody was always kind of sweet on Bo Peep.  She wasn’t in the third installment and now we find out why.  She was given to another family when her child no longer needed a night light.  She was eventually sold to the antique shop but escaped and has been surviving on her own ever since.

Toy Story 4 is good, not great.  Which is something of a let down since the first three were great.  The animation and the voice acting are all terrific as you would expect.  The story has humor and sentiment and the audience I saw it with really enjoyed it.

But somehow, it simply doesn’t come up to the standard set by the other installments.  It’s hard to say why and I’m not going to attempt to.  The freshness of the concept is fading and no longer seems bold.  I think all the implications of toys that come alive when no one is watching have been thoroughly explored.

In other words, it’s probably time to stop making them and from what I’ve read that appears to be the plan.  The ending, which I won’t spoil, would certainly be fitting.

Of course, the future’s uncertain, and the siren call of money is loud, so who knows if they’ll be able to ignore it, especially as new people step up to positions of leadership in the company.  But I do hope they put the integrity and creative vitality of the studio first and resist.

Dark Phoenix

With Disney’s acquisition of Fox, it is commonly recognized that Dark Phoenix will be the last X-Men film in this series.  The consensus in critical circles seems to be “about time!”  There is an aura of fatigue if not resignation around the franchise.  The end is near.

But before we bury it and clap the dirt off our hands let’s remember that the X-Men is the second best long-running superhero series.  That’s if you consider Nolan’s Batman trilogy to be a trilogy and not a series.  Its high points, X-Men 2 and Logan, are as good as anything in the Marvel Comic Universe.  However, the low points, X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, sink far lower than the worst of the MCU.  It’s a real mixed bag.  But as I’ve said before, it also kicked off the current superhero movie craze that has been running strong for more than twenty years.

So, where does the finale to the series fall on that scale?  Somewhere in the middle.  Simon Kinberg directed and adapted the script from the classic comic book saga by John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum.  Incidentally, Kinberg wrote the script for X-Men 3, which was partially inspired by the same source material.  This one’s set in the altered timeline, which began in X-Men First Class, so James McAvoy is playing Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender is Magneto.

And Sophie Turner is Jean Grey who is the central character in the movie.  While rescuing the crew of a shuttle launch—the story takes place in 1993–Jean is invaded by a cosmic being who enhances and amplifies her already formidable powers.  It amps her up to almost godlike powers.  But it also overrides her inhibitions and unlocks her memories, namely of how her mother died in a car crash because Jean did not understand her powers and could not control them.  It also turns out that Jean wasn’t always a good girl and that Charles walled off some of those memories when she was a child, so that she could move on.

Once the force removes those walls and she learns the truth, Jean becomes one of the most powerful enemies the X-Men have ever faced.

The acting and technical aspects of Dark Phoenix are all fine as you would expect.  Sophie Turner deserves special mention for her performance.  You feel Jean’s confusion and pain.

And yet, I never really believed that she had gone permanently to the dark side.  The script made it clear at all times that she was being manipulated, if not controlled.  Part of this was the presence of Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain, a great actress who is given almost nothing interesting to do in this.  Vuk is the leader of a race of aliens who have been living among us.  If they mentioned for how long, I missed it.  They have been waiting for this force to come to Earth so they could use it to terraform the planet and use it as a new home.  This would naturally include getting rid of the current inhabitants.  Vuk’s job is to tempt Jean into doing their will.

It’s a plot that is almost as tired as this franchise.

Still, it’s pretty well executed and Dark Phoenix is, if not a fitting end to the series, a decent one.  It will be interesting to see what happens now.  When Marvel took over Spider-man, they recast it, re-booted the origin, and generally re-invented the whole concept.  In that case, it was needed.

I’m sure that Marvel will do the same thing with the X-Men, but I’m not so sure of the necessity for doing so.  The X-Men are not broken and with a little storytelling gymnastics the two series could be melded.  I realize that this is probably a minority opinion but there are some things I would hate to lose with this current group of X-Men.  Chief among them is the casting.  I know Hugh Jackman is done playing Wolverine, but I really love Michael Fassbender as Magneto.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have faith that Marvel will do a fantastic job in re-casting but it’s hard to imagine them doing better.

They will make consistently better X-Men movies, however.

Rocketman

When the surviving members of Queen made the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, they were anxious that Mercury’s excesses and sharp edges be, not excluded, but glossed over.  It’s a good film but rather tame.  Elton John, on the other hand, wants you to know how and to what extent he has misbehaved and what a jerk he’s been at various points in his career.  He’s proud he’s survived and he apparently insisted that the whole story be told in sometimes graphic detail so we can appreciate what he’s been through.

There is a frame story here, which is Elton, played by Taron Egerton, sitting in a group therapy session, after walking away from a concert and entering rehab.  As is the case in these things, we revisit key moments of his life in flashbacks.  His father, played by Steven Mackintosh, is distant and emotionally closed off; his mother, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is angry and not very interested in him.  The only person who supports him is his grandmother who drives him to the Royal Academy of Music, where he’d won a scholarship at age 11.

He starts playing in pubs and forming bands at an early age.  His first band Bluesology backs up touring American R&B artists and it is from one of them that he gets the advice to kill the person he was and become who he wants to be.  So, he changes his name from Reginald Dwight to Elton John.

Shortly thereafter, he meets Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell, and they become best friends and songwriting partners.  It’s a relationship he maintains all his life.  His career takes off from there.

But Elton is never really happy in these years.  For one thing he is gay and feels he has to hide it.  It’s the sixties and people aren’t that open minded yet.  And his parents’ attitude towards him has left him with almost no self-esteem.

This leads to the drug abuse, casual sex, and driving away anybody who wants to help.

Most biopics cover large portions of their subject’s lives and Rocketman is no exception.  But in this case, instead of montages or scenes of key moments, the filmmakers, Dexter Fletcher, the director and Lee Hall, the screenwriter, have chosen to sum up whole sections of Elton’s life through song.  At times, the cast will break into a song and dance numbers.  Since this is not technically a musical, I will let pass the fact that most of the cast cannot carry a tune.  Egerton, by the way, actually can sing, although not as well as Elton John, but then few people can.  This technique actually works very well.  Especially since we all know the songs.

This happens more and more as Elton gets into the debauched phase of his fame, so that may well be the way he remembers it.

Also, when they cut back to the frame story, Elton gradually loses his defensive attitude and gets closer to the frame of mind he needs to ask for help.  Egerton handles this brilliantly.  He is one of the most talented actors working today.

Rocketman is a harrowing experience at times but it is ultimately uplifting.  I think everybody has a favorite Elton John song and he means something to us.  We want to see him survive and most of all be happy.

It sounds like that’s all happened.


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