REVIEW: “Hustlers” (2019)

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“Hustlers” is a movie both speaking to and benefiting from the current social and political climate. You see it touching on a number of current hot button issues that too few films are willing to tackle. At the same time just addressing issues doesn’t make a movie great yet it seems to be enough for some. And apparently some have even heralded “Hustlers” as a modern-day “Goodfellas”. Talk about getting carried away.

Exaggerations aside, “Hustlers” is a fairly basic crime drama that plays around with some good ideas but ultimately can’t quite get out of its own way. Wading through the movie’s excesses to get to the meatier story moments can be a chore. And fully embracing its supposed strong view of women as it hypocritically gazes at its stars’ assets makes it a hard sell. In a nutshell, this is weird and frankly shallow view of female empowerment.

“Hustlers” is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria and inspired by a 2015 article in New York magazine. It follows a group of cash-strapped strippers who begin hustling white and wealthy Wall Street brokers. The scam sees the strippers seducing their target, drugging them, and then maxing out their credit cards before they come to. It’s an icky scheme that seems to have the movie’s stamp of approval (at least up to a point).

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Set in 2007, Constance Wu plays Destiny, the central character and the movie’s conscience. She’s a young woman who goes to work at a strip club called Moves in order to make money to take care of her grandmother. The star act at Moves is Ramona (a game Jennifer Lopez) who is a mother hen to the other strippers and who takes Destiny under her wing.

Wu and Lopez drive the story forward and their characters are the only ones who keep the movie afloat. Wu is really good outside of the strip club but feels out of place during the club scenes (partly by design but not entirely). Lopez falls right into her role and gives an intensely convincing performance. Strangely the script shortchanges her character of some much deserved depth. We get small snippets of her personal life but that’s about it.

The rest of the cast feels completely interchangeable and pasted into the script. Cardi B plays a lewd, foul-mouthed professional lap-dancer who up and vanishes after the first act (It’s essentially a glorified cameo). Lili Reinhart shows plenty of zest but is tagged with a lame and endless vomit gag (after about the third upchuck a lady near me in the theater uttered “Okay, enough of that. It’s not funny“). Reinhart deserved better.

It was fun seeing Julia Stiles again. She plays a journalist interviewing Destiny in 2014 about the events seven years earlier. The bulk of the story is told within the framework of the interview where Destiny talks about first meeting Ramona and what led to their crimes. We learn that after the financial crisis of 2008 the strip club loses much of its high dollar clientele. This means less money for the ladies so Ramona, Destiny and their crew put their plan in motion.

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When Scafaria allows for more personal moments with her characters the movie hits its sweet spot. She also has a good sense of sisterhood and there are many times when that bond between the friends is palpable. But it doesn’t help to have such an over-reliance on slow-motion montages many of which resemble shots from a hip-hop video. It all begins to feel repetitive which is big reason the movie loses steam in the second half.

“Hustlers” is a hard movie to figure out. In many ways it champions the crimes of its high-heeled hoods and works hard to justify them. To a lesser effect it attempts to bring some degree of culpability (eventually) mainly through Wu’s character. She’s essential and without her few scenes of internal moral conflict this movie would be nothing more than a seedy fable built on the message ‘two wrongs make a right‘.

The wild acclaim for “Hustlers” got me thinking. Have we become so hungry for strong female-driven movies that we’ve lowered our standards and are willing to embrace certain films just because they check specific boxes? It’s an interesting question that should be rendered moot as more female-led stories are finally allowed to be told. It’s past time for that. But in the meantime “Hustlers” shouldn’t get a pass.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw”

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Who knew back in 2001 that “The Fast and the Furious” would not only spark its own franchise but that it would spawn seven sequels (so far) and collectively make well over $5 billion (again so far). And considering how often they churn out installments did the really need to branch off into spinoff territory?

The current Hollywood model for franchises says “YES”. So that leads to the first Fast and Furious Presents film “Hobbs and Shaw”. For those of you out of the loop, Luke Hobbs (the beefy Dwayne Johnson) is a federal agent who gets the job done and leaves a trail of mass destruction in the process. Deckard Shaw (the more dapper Jason Statham) is special forces-turned-mercenary with a strong dislike for Hobbs.

What if something happened that forced these two meat-headed tough guys to put aside their differences and team up? That’s the stuff of a good spinoff, right? Well that something comes in the form of the Snowflake virus. You know the drill – a deadly virus that if released would quickly spread and wipe out the earth’s population (why do these scientists just keep inventing these things?).

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Enter the movie’s wildcard (and welcomed new ingredient) Vanessa Kirby. She plays Hattie Shaw (that last name ring a bell?). She’s an MI6 agent who retrieves the virus from some meanies before running into their boss Brixton Lore (a really fun Idris Elba). He’s a cybernetic-enhanced terrorist working for the shadowy outfit Eteon. Hattie escapes by the skin of her teeth which prompts Lore to frame her for the killing of her team and theft of the virus.

Hattie goes off the grid while Hobbs and Shaw are brought in to track her down. And all three are being hunted by Lore and his high-tech band of baddies. If you’ve seen any of the more recent Fast & Furious movies you know the blueprint of this one – humongous action set pieces linked together by small segments of story. To the film’s credit, it does offer a nice slice of pathos in the final act built upon the franchise’s long-running theme of family.

One of the biggest reasons these movies have worked is because they know exactly what they are. I think “Hobbs and Shaw” may be the most self-aware F&F movie yet. It’s constantly riffing on itself and especially its two lead characters. Much of this is done through the snappy comedic chemistry between the slab of granite Johnson and the more buttoned-up Statham. Their constant witty banter pokes fun not only at their characters but also the roles these actors often play. And both guys have more than enough charm and charisma to pull it off.

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But again, the testosterone-driven action and humor could have worn out its welcome if not for the movie’s ace in the hole – Vanessa Kirby. In last year’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” she grabbed our attention with her seductive and mysterious presence. We still get some of that, but this role gives her a lot more to do. Her character is always smarter and in many instances tougher than any of the barking alpha males she shares a screen with.

And of course there is the action, the franchise’s true bread and butter. There is no shortage of it in “Hobbs and Shaw” and it’s often as exhilarating as it is preposterous. Director David Leitch showed his action movie chops with his 2014 debut “John Wick”. Some of that style seeps its way into this film particularly in the hand-to-hand fighting. But it’s the crazy over-the-top set pieces (often involving vehicles) that are the most fun. It’s just a shame that so many of the signature action moments were given away in the trailer.

In a nutshell, “Hobbs and Shaw” is exactly what you should expect it to be – funny, violent, predictable and utterly preposterous. But if it were anything else I would have been disappointed. It’s essentially a story of two frenemies who go about things differently but who are cut from the same cloth. Now add a ton of wit, even more eye-popping action, a fun Idris Elba, and a fabulous Vanessa Kirby and you have a summer blockbuster that’s just begging to be your new guilty pleasure.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Head Hunter” (2019)

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I’ve written this before, but I’ve always loved watching a filmmaker work with a shoestring budget yet still tell their story and capture their vision. “The Head Hunter” from director, co-producer, co-writer, and editor Jordan Downey stands as a shining example. Said to be made for $30,000 with the tiniest of cast and crew, his film is a brilliant accomplishment.

Set in medieval times, “The Head Hunter” stars Christopher Rygh who quite literally carries the load on his shoulders. He plays a character known only as Father, a warrior tormented by the death of his daughter by an unseen monster. “I always thought I could protect her” he painfully mutters in a brief memory flashback. It’s literally one of the few lines of dialogue in the entire picture. We never see his tragic loss, only the painful aftereffects.

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He spends his days as a creature of habit, piddling around his remote cabin awaiting the sound of a distant horn that summons him to kill a beast. Afterwards he mounts the heads of the slain on his wall, not as a trophy but as a reminder that the monster who killed his daughter is still out there. It fills the emptiness inside of him with the only thing that can – a deep-seeded hunger for revenge. And neither he or his daughter can rest in peace until the beast is put down.

During the film’s first half we watch this grief-stricken father grimly go about his day. But within his routine are nuggets of information. We learn he gets paid for his work but has no interest in the money, only vengeance. We watch him concoct grotesque healing potions. We see him make poignant visits to his daughter’s grave. It all leads to the second half where his blood-thirst flirts with madness.

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“The Head Hunter” can be best described as pure visual storytelling. Downey and cinematographer Kevin Stewart (who also serves as co-writer and co-producer) put a heavy emphasis on atmosphere. Their fantastic use of lighting, shadows, and camera perspectives feed into the film’s dark and sometimes macabre vibe. Portugal provides most of the location shots, some of which are nothing short of stunning.

Without question “The Head Hunter” is a bleak and at times gruesome movie. Yet within this rich slice of fantasy horror is a subtle meditation on grief. The story is a tragedy of sorts placed within a relentlessly harsh and despairing world. And the filmmakers stick with this vision. Clocking in at a lean 72 minutes, they avoid the temptation to pad the run time with pointless and frivolous filler. This keeps the film tight, focused, and utterly enthralling.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Hurricane Heist”

 

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Let’s be honest, with some movies you kind of know what you’re going to get just by the title alone. Okay, some more than others, but you get my point, right? Take the action-disaster mash-up “The Hurricane Heist”. Its hysterically literal title assures us of what we are in for – 100 minutes of category five absurdity. The question is how far can you go with it?

Toby Kebbell and his hilariously over-stressed Southern drawl plays Will Rutledge, a government meteorologist in Alabama keeping tabs on the mother of all hurricanes approaching the Gulf Coast. His relationship with his brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) has been strained since 1992 when they lost their father to Hurricane Andrew (see the prologue).

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Breeze is a mechanic who has stayed in their hometown of Gulfport to run the family’s towing business. He has a repair contract with a U.S. Treasury facility – the same facility a group of hoodlums are planning to knock off. And boy is their scheme an elaborate one full of carefully planned double-crosses, infiltration, computer hacking, and of course one made-to-order hurricane. What they didn’t factor in was dedicated Treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace) who quickly becomes a thorn in the bad guys’ side.

As the hurricane bears down, Breeze ends up in the treasury facility while Will and Casey are on the outside working together to thwart the heist. But to be honest none of that really matters. By this point the story is so silly and inconsequential, functioning mostly to move from one weather-action scene to the next. Admittedly I did get a kick out of some of the set piece antics. Whether I took them the way intended by the filmmakers, I don’t know. But they are just goofy enough to keep things mildly entertaining.

The film is directed by “Fast and Furious” creator Rob Cohen but don’t expect “The Hurricane Heist” to follow in that franchise’s footsteps. It bombed at the box office, unable to make back its semi-meager $35 million budget. Despite that there is some ridiculous fun to be found if your head is in the right place. This isn’t an offensively bad movie (it’s no “Geostorm”). Then again, that’s not much of a bar.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Highwaymen”

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For me the allure of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson playing Texas Rangers sent to hunt down the notorious Bonnie and Clyde is undeniable. I’m a long-time fan of Costner who vanished from the screen for a while but seems to have nicely settled into a new stage of his career. And then you have Harrelson – always interesting, always entertaining.

The two pair up in “The Highwaymen”, a period crime thriller that was first pitched as early as 2005. Screenwriter John Fusco’s original vision was to have Paul Newman and Robert Redford play the veteran lawmen. After sitting in development for years with Universal Studios, Netflix acquired the rights in 2017 with two new leads and John Lee Hancock set to direct.

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“The Highwaymen” quickly sets itself up as slow-burning crime investigation thriller. The story starts in 1934, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow having been on the run for over two years. The notorious couple carry out a violent jailbreak at Eastham Prison Farm in Texas. Lee Simmons (the always good John Carroll Lynch), head of the Texas Department of Corrections, urges an image-conscious Governor “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates) to take drastic measures to finally end the murderous crime spree.

Simmons convinces a reluctant Ferguson to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Costner) to track down Bonnie and Clyde and “put ’em on the spot” (you can probably guess what that means). An interesting bit of history – Hamer and forty other Rangers resigned after “Ma” Ferguson won a second term. She had been proven corrupt and quickly fired all remaining Rangers replacing them with her own more ‘modern’ law enforcement. Simmons and Fusco use that internal tension several times during the film.

Costner shows us an abrasive, hard-edged Frank Hamer (love the performance). He’s a principled man clearly bitter over the dismissal of the Rangers but driven by the death of other lawmen to put an end to the Barrow gang. Hamer hesitantly brings along his old partner Maney Gault (Harrelson) and the pair begin studying the gangs patterns and following their blood trail through the lower Midwest. Harrelson is a nice complement to Costner, working at a different temperature and offering a needed balance to their mission.

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It’s not a stretch to call this an inadvertent companion piece to Arthur Penn’s beloved 1967 picture “Bonnie and Clyde”. Penn painted a somewhat romanticized portrait of the Barrow gang while “The Highwaymen” distinctly looks from the lawmen’s perspective. It allows for a critical view of the rogue couple’s cult-like following and of how cultural fame is often rooted in absurdity. Glamorizing news stories, skewed comparisons to Robin Hood, young women dressing like Bonnie Parker. “They’re more adored than movie stars” one character mutters.

Admittedly there is an old-fashioned flavor to “The Highwaymen” that is sure to push some people away. You see it in how it tells its story and even in how it’s made. I get the inevitable complaints of “too slow” and “not enough action”. Yet I found myself loving it – the slow burn, the prickly Costner, the subtle moral questions it tosses out there. It all works, like a cool flashback to a classic film style I’ve never grown tired of. But how will that play today? It will be interesting to see.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Hotel Mumbai”

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In November of 2008 ten Pakistani terrorists unleashed a series of attacks across Mumbai, the most populous city in India. Among their targets was a historical train station, a popular cafe, a Jewish community center, and two of the city’s signature hotels. 166 people were killed in the attacks and over 300 were injured.

“Hotel Mumbai” is the feature film debut for its director Anthony Maras. It’s a fictionalized account based on a 2009 documentary short “Surviving Mumbai” and specifically the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The timing of the film’s release is unfortunate considering the still raw and painful emotions following the recent mosque mass shootings in New Zealand. This is certain to effect some perspectives.

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Dev Patel serves as our entry point into a story filled with a wide assortment of characters. He plays Arjun, a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel with a wife at home expecting their second child. So instantly we have our first of several rooting interests.

Arjun arrives to work late for his shift which annoys his hard-nosed but respectable boss, the hotel’s head chef Hermant Oberoi (Anupam Kher). Meanwhile newlyweds David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) check in with their newborn baby and young nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). We also meet Jason Isaacs playing a jerky Russian businessman and a hard nut to crack.

Most surprising is the depth Maras gives to the young Pakistani terrorists. We first see them as they arrive by small boat and quickly disperse across the city to their assigned targets. The movie hints at things such as socioeconomic conditions that could have pushed them to such violence but it never goes as far as to make them overtly sympathetic. Just the opposite. They kill without the slightest tinge of conscience. Their demeanors are cold and calloused, their faces blank and emotionless. No theatrics, just a businesslike approach to slaughter. It’s unsettling and chilling to watch.

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Maras does challenge the audience to look into the face of radicalization. He shows us twenty-somethings from impoverished backgrounds driven by extremism to hate non-Muslim cultures and any semblance of wealth. They are instructed by the disturbing voice in their earbuds coming from a puppet-master known only as “The Bull”. He fuels their hate and wants “the screams of the victims to be heard by the world”. These young men are fanatics who have been weaponized by their handlers to coldly carry out their well-planned atrocities. And they follow with little to no resistance.

Of course most of this is brought to light within the enormous Taj Hotel where terrified staff and guests scramble for safety among the chaos and carnage. Hope is hard to come by especially when we learn how ill-equipped the city was to respond (Mumbai had no tactical units to counter such an attack). But Maras shows amazing acts of kindness and bravery born from the human spirit in the face of such disturbing inhumanity. There is no single hero and thankfully no puffy-chested machismo. Just true-to-life characters with personal stakes trying to survive. We occasionally lose track of some of them, but ultimately Maras does a good job putting us in their shoes.

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There are many instances where “Hotel Mumbai” subverts your expectations whether it’s the disciplined use of the score or its ability to stay true to the horrific violence without always showing the bloodiest results. But there are a couple of times where you can almost see the Hollywood influence creep its way in. The worst is a cringe-inducing scene meant to speak to racial profiling but that comes across as ridiculously scripted and completely false. It literally yanked me out of the otherwise relentless white-knuckle tension.

Predictably some have been quick to dismiss “Hotel Mumbai” as ill-advised and exploitative. I didn’t see it that way. Unflinching and uncomfortably relevant, perhaps. Ill-advised and exploitative, no. Maras and co-writer John Collee did hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses. Much of that is what shaped their story and characters. This is no sanitized account. It’s gritty and admittedly tough to watch. But it could also be one of the more authentic portrayals of its kind. It certainly left me rattled.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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