Reel Opinions

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Paul Downs Colaizzo's Brittany Runs a Marathon allows us to see something I've wanted to see for a very long time - Jillian Bell in a leading role.  She's been appearing in supporting roles for years in movies like 22 Jump Street, Goosebumps and Rough Night, and she has always been a stand out.  I've wanted to see a movie give her an opportunity to take on the lead for a very long time, and now that she has, the only question I have is why did it take so long?

As I have expected, Bell is wonderful here, but the movie is kind of wonderful also.  It's also very brave.  I say this because the movie allows Bell to create a complex and fully dimensional character.  Her Brittany Forglar is not always a nice person.  She can be rude, sharply critical of others (especially the one who remind her of herself and her own flaws), and can also be nasty to people who only want to help her.  She's also a slob, an alcoholic, and prone to taking bad advice from her roommate.  And yet, we like her, because this is a complex script by Colaizzo, as well as a complex performance from Bell.  The character of Brittany is based on the director's best friend, and there is a lot of honesty and hard truths on display.  There is also a lot of good in Brittany.  The movie shows us all sides, and by the end, we are cheering for her.  But before we do, the movie has more of an edge toward its main character than we might expect walking in.

Brittany is a 28-year-old woman who came to New York from Philadelphia in order to pursue her dream of writing commercial jingles.  Those dreams have obviously faded a long time ago, and now she lives a fairly low-energy existence where she stays up partying all night with her shallow roommate (Alice Lee), sleeps till past noon everyday, and constantly arrives late for her going nowhere job where she works at a bar in a tiny Off-Broadway theater.  Brittany frequently uses sarcasm and humor to hide what she's feeling about herself and her body image, neither of which she is proud of.  She's the kind of person who hates seeing what she's become, but pretends to just laugh it all off.

One day, she goes to an inexpensive doctor who has a good Yelp rating in the hopes of scoring some Adderall off of him.  However, the doctor turns out to be more concerned about her health, and how she is grossly overweight.  He recommends that she needs to lose 50 pounds and drastically change her lifestyle.  Brittany faces this news as she usually does, with flippant humor, but his words do manage to stick with her.  She decides to take up running, most likely because she sees one of her neighbors in her apartment building doing it all the time.  Brittany is initially very judgemental of the woman, and how her life seems to be all together.  However, as she gets to know this neighbor named Catherine (Michaela Watkins), she learns that she has her own problems as well, and a friendship slowly forms.

Brittany reluctantly joins Catherine's running club, where she meets Seth (Micah Stock), a man who wants to get in shape because his husband and him want to have more children, and Seth is afraid he doesn't have the energy in order to keep up.  Meeting these people allows Brittany to lower her defenses, and actually be honest with these new friends in her life.  She doesn't have to be sarcastic or funny, and she can be honest about what she really feels about herself.  She also eventually starts to see running as something more than something she has to do because of what the doctor said.  She eventually aims to try to run the New York City Marathon in the coming year, and begins training.  Along the way, she faces a lot of hard truths about herself and relationships when she strikes up a friendship and possible love interest with a dog-sitter named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

Brittany Runs a Marathon obviously works as a comedic crowd pleaser.  The script is very funny and sharp, and Bell is not-surprisingly up to the challenge, and gives us one of the funnier performances of the year so far.  But, the movie also has so much more on its mind.  It truly explores all angles of the character, both the good and the bad.  There is a scene late in the film that is brave enough to almost make us hate the character when she goes off on a woman whom she sees so much of herself in, and she says some truly hurtful things.   The movie is also an effective drama that talks honestly about self image, and how other people see those who are overweight or obese.  We don't just learn a lot of hard truths about Brittany herself, but also society, and perhaps a little about ourselves and how we perceive others.

The movie is also kind of brilliant in how it handles its characters and relationships.  Brittany can often push people away, or be nasty to them, but we understand why they stick with her and like her.  She is afraid of creating relationships.  It's something a lot of people can relate to, including myself, if I must be honest.  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in ourselves and our faults, we become suspicious of the people who want to get close to us.  We think they are judging us, or pity us, or feel sorry for us.  We don't want to be seen as a charity case, so we push them away, no matter how good their intentions might be.  This movie explores that way of thinking, and it made me realize that we don't really see that in movies very often.  We get insecure heroes, sure, but seldom do they explore how that insecurity forms as effectively or as deeply as this.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is as funny and as strong as I hoped a movie featuring a lead performance by Jillian Bell would be, but it surprised me a lot with its hard-edged honesty.  This is a great little movie that opens up about something a lot of people are afraid to talk about.  That's part of what movies are for.  They put things on the screen about ourselves that we're afraid to talk about, and help us understand it better.  This is not just a great comedy, it's a quietly powerful movie too.


Friday, September 27, 2019


Abominable, an animated adventure that is a joint product between Dreamworks and China's Pearl Animation Studio, clearly aims to join the ranks of such films as E.T. and The Iron Giant.  It shares the exact same basic structure as those two, but it lacks the emotion, humor and magic that would truly make it take flight.  It's perfectly watchable, and little kids are sure to enjoy it.  But unlike the movies it tries to imitate, it plays it completely safe and feels like it was designed by a committee.

Rather than a blobby little alien or a towering metal man, this movie focuses on a Yeti (vocal effects provided by Joseph Izzo) who has big soulful eyes, growls like a Wookie, and seems to have a bottomless appetite.  The creature even has magical properties.  When it hums, it can cause plants to thrive, or blueberries and dandelions to grow to enormous size.  As the film opens, the Yeti is being held captive by a man named Burnish (voice by Eddie Izzard), whose life ambition is to prove that Yetis exist, and his henchwoman Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), who seems to want what's best for the creature, but may not be what she appears.  The creature escapes from the lab-like environment where it's being contained, and ends up running wild on the streets of Shanghai.

The Yeti takes shelter on the roof of an apartment building, where a lonely teenage girl named Yi (Chloe Bennett) lives, and dreams of seeing far off places that her late father used to talk about.  She is the one to discover the beast and kicks off the adventure when she determines rather quickly that the creature originally resides on Mount Everest (She even names the Yeti "Everest".), and that she is the only one who can lead him back to its rightful home.  She's joined in the quest by two other kids who live in the same building, the young and excitable Peng (Albert Tsai), and the fashionable and cool Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor).  The kids constantly try to stay one step ahead of Burnish's many heavily-armed goons, and manage to go on a world-spanning adventure that should be thrilling, but feels curiously flat every step of the way.

I think a big part of the problem is that Abominable doesn't take any chances of any kind.  It's the kind of safe, inoffensive kid's entertainment that never offends, but also doesn't try to give them something that they've never seen before.  The adventure that the kids embark on is never exciting, and filled with as little peril as possible.  I'm not exactly expecting the kids to be placed in life-threatening situations, but there should be at least some hard choices or roadblocks along the way.  Here, these kids manage to voyage all the way to Mount Everest with little more than grumbling that their feet hurt sometimes.  Whenever they do run into a problem, Everest the Yeti usually has some kind of magic solution, or there is a boat nearby that the kids can hop on.  It doesn't help that the villains chasing the kids are largely depicted as incompetent, and used more for comic relief than a genuine threat.

I've mentioned that the movie draws obvious inspiration from E.T. and The Iron Giant.  The reason why those movies are still remembered today is that they came from somewhere genuine.  There was emotion to them, there was a fondness for the story that was being told, and both seemed to stem from some kind of childhood memory or fascination.  We didn't just believe in the creature who was at the center of the adventure, but we also believed in little Elliott or Hogarth who became their friends.  I never got any of that here.  This felt like a corporate product that was trying to study a previously successful formula.  Some of it they get right.  There are some beautiful images on display, and even some imaginative scenes, like when the kids ride on magical clouds.  I kept on waiting for the movie to sweep me away with its heart and emotion, but it never did.  I never felt the strong bond between Yi and Everest that I was expecting.  You feel like the little girl is helping the creature because it's right, not because of a genuine friendship that is built over the course of the film.

When you get right down to it, this feels like a project that exists solely to emulate something else.  It doesn't feel like lead director and writer Jill Culton really had much stake in the story.  She just wanted to make a cute and inoffensive little adventure about a character that could be easily merchandised.  She did just that.  Too bad she didn't strive for more.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood

Rambo: Last Blood is an action movie that wallows in misery and human suffering.  When you consider what a great action movie can do, it seems all the more cheap.  This is a genre that can provide more than great thrills and stunt work.  Films like these can be fun, cathartic, and offer escapism.  You get the sense that all director Adrian Grunberg and Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the script) want to do is inflect pain upon the audience. 

If anything, the movie proves that a mainstream film pushed out by a major studio can never receive an NC-17 rating for violent content.  If this were a small, independent production, it would be viewed as controversial for its almost non-stop depiction of misery and graphic violence.  But, because Hollywood money is behind it, it got an R with no problem.  At my screening, there was a father sitting in the row behind me with his two young sons, who looked no older than eight.  I wasn't about to ask what he was thinking taking them to a movie like this.  That is his decision.  I did, however, want to ask the boys what they thought of some of the imagery.  I did hear the dad proclaim "Jesus Christ..." out loud to himself during a scene where John Rambo drops some men on a pit of spikes, and then riddles their skewered bodies with bullets.  His accompanying children were silent throughout the movie.

So, it's been 11 years since the last time Stallone took up the role of Rambo.  Since then, he has bought a farmhouse where he lives quietly with an adopted Mexican family, Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her beautiful daughter Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who is about to head off for college soon.  Rambo spends a quiet life tending to the horses, which are interrupted only by the occasional 'Nam flashback.  He's also dug a series of intricate tunnels underneath the house, where he spends his time popping pills to keep his PTSD in check.  The plot kicks off when Gabrielle has a friend help her track down her deadbeat dad who left her years ago.  She wants to go to Mexico to find him, and know why he left.  Rambo advises against this, but that young innocent girl with the bright future ahead of her just won't listen, gosh darn it.

She heads to Mexico, and not ten minutes later, she's been kidnapped and entered into a sex-trafficking ring where she is constantly abused and doped up by our villains, Victor (Oscar Jaenada) and Hugo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta).  Their names may be a reference to the famed 19th Century French author, Victor Hugo, but I can't say for sure.  When Rambo finds out, he drives off to find the men responsible and bring Gabrielle home.  His first attempt to confront the gang ends with him being beaten badly.  After he is healed up by a kindly stranger who also has a beef with the criminal gang, he goes after them again.  All of this leads up to an extended climax where John Rambo rigs up his farm home with a series of Home Alone-style booby traps, only grizzlier and deadlier.  This is kind of what that holiday film would have been like if Macaulay Culkin's character from The Good Son had been in charge of defending the house from the Wet Bandits.

Rambo: Last Blood devotes the first hour or so to the suffering and violence being inflected upon Rambo and his adopted family.  It then spends its last half hour in a non-stop orgy of over the top blood and gore as the hero takes revenge. ("I want them to know that death is coming", Rambo says as he prepares to set up the traps.) Either way, it's not much fun.  I guess we're supposed to cheer as we watch these men who raped and drugged poor Gabrielle get slaughtered like cattle, decapitated, skewered, blown to bits, tortured, and dropped into pits lined with spikes.  Frankly, I found the entire movie heavy-handed, poorly made, and kind of repulsive.  Its sole purpose is to ram the point home that there is only pain and suffering in the world, and that you can never truly be happy.

As if to ram the point home that nobody cared, the movie is badly staged, and edited in such a way that we can sometimes barely see what is happening during a lot of the action.  Perhaps this was the only way the filmmakers could avoid an NC-17 rating.  They had to show just enough, but make the camera move and shake so much that we can barely focus on what is happening sometimes.  Whatever the reason, the direction by Grunberg is uninspired, and the script by Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick is simplistic to the point that the audience is given nothing to think about.  Everyone is either tortured and miserable, or broad and horrible.  The sole exception is the lovely Gabrielle, who is so sunny, sweet and innocent that you can almost smell the scent of freshly cleaned bed sheets permeating from her character.  Naturally, this means that the only things waiting for her are torture and horror.  That'll teach her for having a positive outlook on life in this movie!

The studio wants us to believe that this is the last time we'll see Rambo up on the screen.  Naturally, the movie ends on a note where there can still be another movie, should this rake in enough cash.  Given that it probably didn't have a big budget to start with, that's almost a guarantee.  As long as there is pain and misery in the world, Rambo will be there to splash it up on the big screen to remind us.  Isn't that lovely?


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Downton Abbey

One of the things about being a film critic is that you don't watch a lot of television.  Sure, I'll catch things on Netflix, but after you've spent the weekend seeing usually between two to four new films at your local cinema, the last thing you want to do is binge watch something.  So, that brings about the obvious question - What does a film critic do when he or she is faced with a movie based on a TV show that they know nothing about, because they've never gotten around to watching it?

In the case of Downton Abbey, you bring along someone who has watched every episode multiple times, and hope they can explain the backstories of these characters to you.  This is at least what I did.  Here is a movie that is not interested in speaking to a large audience.  It exists simply for the already existing fanbase as one last opportunity to spend some time with the characters they have fallen in love with over multiple seasons.  The movie even unfolds kind of like an extended episode of a TV show.  Aside from some impressive aerial shots of the mansion setting and the surrounding countryside, there's very little here that could be considered "grand" or even cinematic.  There are a lot of characters and subplots at play here, some of which work, some others that don't.  But overall, the emphasis is on the dialogue and getting to catch up with fan favorites.

Obviously, this left me feeling like more than an outsider.  I was reminded of watching M. Night Shyamalan's Glass back in January, a movie that felt like it had been designed for a very specific audience, of which I was not a part of.  However, unlike that experience, I was not bored here.  There was enough I could grasp about these characters and their connections.  I won't pretend that I knew everything that was going on.  But, I was intrigued enough, and found the movie beautifully shot.  Obviously, the fans will get much more out of this.  I heard audible gasps from the audience at certain points, while I remained silent, due to my lack of knowledge.  Still, at the very least, the appeal of the show was able to come through for me.

Set some time after the events of the TV show, the film follows the various people and servants who work at luxurious Downton Abbey, and their reaction to a Royal visit when a letter arrives informing them that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be spending the night there.  From there, the movie goes off in multiple directions as they prepare for the momentous occasion.  Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) decides that butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) may not be ready to handle the responsibility, so she temporarily recalls Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) out of retirement to take over.  The staff of Downton are initially excited to be cooking for and serving the King and Queen, only to be met with disappointment that the Royal Staff will be taking over.  There is also an assassination attempt and a thief within the house thrown in.

I will say this, the movie does a good job of juggling its huge cast and multiple plots.  Sure, the movie is somewhat overstuffed, but it manages to stay afloat.  We have a lot of family drama and family secrets being revealed as the entire cast of the show is reunited.  Chief among the secrets concerns family matriarch Violet (a scene-stealing Maggie Smith) being reunited with her estranged cousin,  Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton).  I am pretty comfortable saying that no matter who your favorite character on the show was, you will not be disappointed, as the movie's main concern seems to be giving everyone their equal amount of screen time.  Even if I felt more than a little in over my head early on keeping these characters and their relationships straight, I felt a little more at ease as the film went on, and was comfortable by the end.

This at least proves that Downton Abbey knows what it is doing.  I would not recommend this to anyone who has not watched the series, unless they enlist the aid of a fan such as I did before attending the film.  Even then, it might not seem like much.  Still, this is a movie that was able to gradually grab a light hold on me.  Not so much that I want to know everything that happened leading up to it, but enough that I can say that I found the movie pleasant.  If I had been familiar with the show, I would have found it so much more.


Friday, September 20, 2019

Ad Astra

Ad Astra is an outer space adventure film for audiences who like to soak up the atmosphere and the technical details, rather than be gripped by the story that's being told.  Yes, there is the rare action scene, and the special effects used throughout are top notch.  But, I don't think that's what co-writer and director James Grey is going for.  He wants this to be a meticulous, probing film about father issues and exploring the vast reaches of the stars.

For the most part, he has succeeded.  It's the kind of movie where you admire the many details, the effort that went into creating the visuals, and the silent but engaging performance of Brad Pitt. (Who with Once Upon a Hollywood and now this, is shaping up to be one of more reliable and bankable risk-taking actors.) It's likely to have just as many detractors as it does supporters.  I can understand both views.  Yes, this is an expertly made film, and one that can easily capture the imagination.  But, it also has some moments that come across as inert, and the ending is a let-down.  Still, I was engaged, and drawn in by the visuals of the film.  This is not an instant gratification film.  It's one that you kind of have to watch by yourself in a quiet room, and let it wash over you.

Set in the near future, Pitt plays Roy McBride, an astronaut who is famed not only for his number of missions, but also because of how cool he remains under pressure. (During missions, we learn, his heart rate never exceeds beyond 80 beats per minute.) We get to see this first-hand in the opening scene, where Roy is working on an antenna attached to a space station high above Earth when a power surge hits, killing some of the crew, and it sends McBride down to the ground far below, where he lands safely via a parachute.  There have been a large number of power surges coming from somewhere in space, already claiming thousands of lives.

After he recovers, Roy is called into a classified meeting, where he is told it's believed that the surges are coming from Neptune, and that they are possibly being caused by his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been presumed dead for decades now after Earth lost contact with him during a mission to explore the far reaches to space in the hope of reaching out to extraterrestrial life.  Clifford was the Captain of that mission, and the superiors of the space program have reason to believe that he is still alive, and is performing experiments that are causing the surges.  Roy's mission is to make his way to Neptune, and make contact with his father.

There's a reason why Roy feels little to no pressure during risky space missions  He's more or less dead inside.  The news that his father may still be alive after all this time inspires memories of a painful past, both revolving around the relationship that he shared with him, as well as evidence of an unhappy marriage to a wife that he would not let get close to him.  We get the sense that Roy has gone into space in order to escape the pain he has felt on Earth most of his life, only to now be sent on a mission that brings everything flooding back into his head.  There's a reason why most of the character's dialogue is internal.  He is a total introvert, and does not know how to feel much of anything.  He is an expert at his job, but we get feel like human contact has largely driven him to focus solely on it, and not on the people around him.

Ad Astra is largely an internal story, but it provides some unique and unforgettable visuals.  At one point, we get to see a moon that has been colonized, turned into somewhat of a tourist hub, and is even experiencing some border disputes.  There is a thrilling dune buggy chase with some pirates (the closest thing to a full-scale action scene that we get here), and then the story takes us to Mars, where Roy tries to communicate with his father.  However, he feels that he is not being told the truth.  Where the story goes from there, I will not say.  All I will reveal is that despite this being a visually rich film where almost every scene is a special effect shot, this is largely about Roy's internal struggles with his father and himself.  There are vast worlds on display here, but Grey is ultimately making a very intimate movie.

All of this certainly makes it an ambitious film, but it doesn't always stick the landings that it wants.  Many of the characters that Roy encounters on his adventure seem to be underused, or not given enough screen time to make much of an impression. (This especially includes Donald Sutherland as a veteran space explorer who used to work with Roy's father.) There are also some slow patches that don't work as well as they should.  Regardless, the pace of the film never feels like it stems from a lack of energy.  It is an artistic choice on the part of the filmmakers, and to me at least, it felt like they still knew how to tell a compelling story while keeping things low key.  Unlike last weekend's The Goldfinch, this is a movie that was able to hold my attention, while never actually being in any sort of hurry.

Through it all, it is Brad Pitt that carries the film, which is crucial, since he is in about 98% of the film.  He is silent, powerful, and constantly absorbing.  We can sense his conflicted feelings about his mission and his past in about every expression and movement he makes here.  His performance is what sells Ad Astra, and it's one that is complex because he says so little, and basically lets us experience what he is thinking and feeling.  Even if the movie falters a little from time to time, Pitt is constantly steady, and demanding our attention.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Goldfinch

John Crowley's The Goldfinch has an air of self-importance to it that it does not earn or deserve.  It's a pompous and ponderous slog through a plot that should be emotional, yet never is.  That's because all vitality and life seems to have been drained from every aspect of the production.  The performances, the confused out of sequence narrative, and especially the interminable two and a half hour running time all add up into an experience that is dead in the water from the word "go".

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, and while the narrative is more or less the same, nothing else from Tartt's original work has survived in the translation.  All nuance, character, and naturally the wording of the novel is missing.  What we have left is a lifeless and dreary reenactment of events from the book that hold almost no distinction or dramatic weight.  The disastrous and deadly dull screenplay is credited to Peter Straughan, who was responsible for another misguided adaptation just two years ago, 2017's The Snowman.  Either Straughan just simply stinks at adapting novels for the screen, or he has lousy luck with the filmmakers chosen to bring his vision to life.  Whatever the case, if I were a studio executive, I would start rejecting his scripts based on novels based on recent evidence.

The title of the film refers to a famous painting that plays a major part in its hero's life.  Young Theo (Oakes Fegley) was visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, when a terrorist bombing occurred that took his mother's life, as well as many others around him.  Theo survives and takes the painting, and the film follows the journey that both take over the course of 20 years or so.  Among the ruins of the museum, Theo also happens to meet an old dying man who gives the boy a ring, and tells him to give it to his partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a kindly man who runs an antique shop.  With no family to speak for him (his dad is an alcoholic who is currently missing), Theo finds himself adopted by a wealthy family headed by Samantha Barbour (Nicole Kidman), while also learning about antiquing and the difference between a genuine work of art and a replica by Mr. Hobie.

Just as Theo starts to adapt to his new life, his drunken lout of a dad (played by a miscast Luke Wilson) suddenly shows up back in his life, and drags him out to a mostly abandoned desert neighborhood in Las Vegas.  While all this is happening, the movie is constantly making time jumps to when Theo is an adult (now played by Ansel Elgort), having a hard time keeping his life and impending marriage together due to his drug and alcohol use.  Again, none of this connects in the slightest, and anyone who has not read the original novel is likely to be confused, and also wonder why this story is so acclaimed in its original form.  All the complexities and nuances have been stripped away.  In the original novel, Theo narrated in the first-person and shared his inner thoughts.  Here, he comes across as an empty void of a character that we never get to know, and simply reacts to everything and everyone around him.

Because of this, The Goldfinch not only lacks any kind of emotion that an audience can connect with, it also doesn't make a damn bit of sense at times.  The time-jumping, out of sequence narrative has little rhyme or reason, and plays more like an act of confusion rather than a stylistic choice.  There is also something just a little off about the performances here.  Despite talented performers like Kidman and Wright in the cast, nobody seems to be able to rise above this material.  We also get a strange disconnect between the two actors who play Theo at different ages.  While the young Oakes Fegley is fine, Ansel Elgort as the adult is completely one-note and shows no sign of personality.  It's hard enough to relate to these people given their stilted dialogue.  It makes it even harder when you see actors who you know are much better than this giving portrayals that are frequently stiff.

What we have here is a case of something that worked beautifully on the written page, because the author had the time, space and talent to truly explore the depths of these characters.  Take all of that away, and just leave nothing but the basic narrative, and you have what is easily one of the worst films of the year.  This is a failed prestige project that certainly looks beautiful and has attracted some strong talent, but to what end when you're not even going to bother to tell the story properly?


Friday, September 13, 2019


If seeing Jennifer Lopez giving her best performance since her acting peak in Selena and Out of Sight was the only reason to see Hustlers, that would be reason enough.  Her performance is transformative here, reminding us of what she can truly do when she's paired with a great script and a director who knows how to bring out the best of her.

Fortunately, writer-director Lorene Scafaria has given us so much more than Lopez's best on screen work in almost two decades.  Hustlers is just a ton of fun to watch, full of energy, and is the rare film that left me wanting more in a good way.  I wanted the film to run longer than it did, so I could spend more time with these characters, and exploring their relationships.  In telling the true story of a group of strippers who lured in wealthy Wall Street moguls, drugged them, and then took them for millions, Scafaria confidently strides the line between telling a compelling crime drama narrative, and a genuinely entertaining female-bonding comedy.  She is obviously drawing from Scorsese's Goodfellas here, using some of the same camera and visual techniques, as well as a fun but a bit on the nose soundtrack scoring the scenes.  However, she still finds a way to make this story her own, make it engaging, and most of all, make it tremendously entertaining.

Inspired by an article run in New York magazine, we are introduced to the movie's world through a young woman who goes by the stage name of Destiny (Constance Wu), who seems to be in over her head when she first starts working at a strip club, entertaining wealthy Wall Street clients who are flush with cash.  She's in the line of work to support the grandmother who raised her since she was a child (Wai Ching Ho), and when she first starts out, she doesn't seem to have the slightest clue about what to do.  Men are attracted to her, but she hasn't yet learned the ropes.  That's when she meets Ramona (Lopez), the most popular lady at the joint, who sees something in Destiny, and wonders why she isn't making the big bucks like she does.  Ramona was once a cover girl for magazines, but now she's here, supporting a young daughter, and making huge amounts of money as one of the club's leading attractions.

With Ramona's help, Destiny learns the tricks of the trade, as well as starts both a personal and professional relationship, with both women creating a seductive routine together for men's pleasure.  Destiny starts making some real money, buys some nice things for herself, and helps her grandmother.  She's even able to leave stripping behind for a short while.  But then, Destiny goes through a bad marriage, has a baby, and the 2008 recession hits.  She goes back to the club she once worked at, only to find it in a slump.  The Wall Street people who once occupied the joint just don't have the money to spend anymore, and most of her friends from her past days are now gone.

Needing to make some real money again, Ramona concocts a scheme.  Destiny helps her develop a drug made of MDMA and ketamine, and then they go out looking for wealthy and powerful married men.  They flirt with the men, drug their drink with the mix they develop, and then drag the men back to the club in order to drain his credit card while he's in a stupor.  If the men complain about the massive amount of money suddenly missing from their account, the ladies will just tell them they had a great time, spent too much, and that they probably shouldn't tell their wives about what happened.  They recruit two other women from the club into their scheme - Merecedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), and this creates the strong bond between the four women that carries most of the film.

Hustlers follows the four through their highs and lows, and expertly juggles the multiple angles that the film requires.  We see Ramona and Destiny developing a truly strong bond with each other, and as the other ladies enter the scheme, we see that bond grow larger and stronger.  It is important that the film stay laser-focused on their lives and relationships, otherwise the lead characters would probably come across as shallow or horrible.  There is definitely a fun, party vibe to a lot of the film, but there are also hard doses of reality throughout, such as when Destiny is brought down by financial difficulties, which leads to the hatching of the scheme in the first place.  The screenplay could have definitely focused a bit more on the moral questions about what these women are doing, but the emphasis that it places on the women at the center of it helps us at least see their desperation, and allows us to follow them to the end, when the plan inevitably starts to fall apart at some point.

Of the performances, it will obviously be Lopez who gets all the attention, with the effortless way she plays all the sides of Ramona.  She's a mentor, a warm mothering type, and a scheming ringleader who is willing to do whatever it takes to stay on top.  She is more commanding than she's been in a film in a long time.  However, this should not take away anything from Constance Wu's performance, which is just as strong, and as the most definitive arc.  She starts as a wide-eyed innocent, becomes a pro, willingly helps develop the scheme to fleece the money, and creates such a powerful, dramatic portrayal in certain scenes that she shows even more star potential than she did in last year's Crazy Rich Asians.  We feel for her, and we feel for the sister-like relationship that she builds with Lopez.  It makes the film's final moments between the two women all the more cutting and emotional.

This time period after the Summer blockbusters have gone, and the big Fall films are on the horizon, is usually quite slow, so to have a total blast of energy like Hustlers hit theaters right about now is very welcome indeed.  It's not just a great time, it's also a truly engaging experience from top to bottom.


Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

With a title like The Peanut Butter Falcon, a movie has a lot to rise above.  Fortunately, it manages to do just that, and is even sort of engaging, which is good when you consider how corny and almost hokey the movie can get.  This is a big hearted modern day take on The Adventures of Huck Finn that manages to rise above its somewhat cliched narrative.

The big attraction here is its lead star, Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down Syndrome who manages to deliver a sweet, funny and compelling performance as Zak, a young man who has been shunned by everyone because of his disability.  His family has abandoned him at an old folks home, because he has no one else to look after him.  Zak spends his days watching an old VHS tape of a popular 1980s Pro Wrestler called the Salt-Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and plotting ways to escape the home so that he can make the journey to meet his Wrestling idol.  With the help of his elderly roommate (a funny Bruce Dern), Zak does manage to escape, although he has to discard most of his clothes to do so.  Dressed only in his underwear, and with no money or means of transport, Zak's journey at first seems impossible.

But then he runs into another young man who is on the run for his own reasons.  Tyler (Shia LaBeouf, more sincere and honest than he's ever been on the screen) is a self-destructive fisherman with a tragic past who encounters Zak when he stows away on Tyler's boat.  They form a reluctant bond and before you know it, the two become reliable friends.  For Zak, Tyler knows the way to get him to his goal, and also is the first person in his life who doesn't treat him as being different from everyone else.  All his life, Zak has been told he can't do certain things, but because of Tyler, he feels confidence for the first time.  As for Tyler, he has been in a constant downward-spiral since he caused an accident that took the life of his brother (Jon Bernthal in flashbacks), and young Zak is the first friend he's had since then.

The two begin a journey down the river by any means necessary, whether it be Tyler's boat, or a make shift raft at one point.  All the while, both are being pursued by different people for different reasons.  Tyler is in trouble with some dangerous goons who want to hurt or possibly kill him for stealing their fishing profits, while Zak's caretaker from the home (Dakota Johnson) is trying to find him before he gets in trouble.  There are encounters with a blind Bible-thumping old man, run-ins with colorful characters along the way, and quite a lot of implausibility here.  But, The Peanut Butter Falcon rises above it all, thanks to the performances of both Gottsagen and LaBeouf, who share a warm chemistry.  And yes, we do eventually figure out what the title means, as it becomes Zak's Pro Wrestling name.

The film ultimately works not as a journey picture, but because of the emotional journey both men take in order to improve themselves.  Zak learns that he is capable of much more than he ever dreamed of, while Tyler finally decides to forgive himself for his past mistakes.  There were moments where I was kind of wondering where the movie was going, as it seemed to be dragging its feet, but I was constantly engaged by the winning performances.  Even the somewhat out of the blue romantic relationship that LaBeouf and Johnson start to develop kind of won me over by the end.  The movie is laid back, but not deadly dull.  This is the kind of movie where we admire the scenery, the pleasant soundtrack, and the performances on display, rather than a gripping narrative.

The Peanut Butter Falcon could have easily gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have been sappy, or made its Down Syndrome lead into a "cute" little comedian.  But, you can tell that first-time feature writers and directors, Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, cared about this project and their young star too much for that.  The story goes that the filmmakers met Gottsagen while volunteering at a theater camp, struck up a friendship, and promised that they would make a movie starring him.  Not only have they done that, but he has returned the favor by giving one of the more truly inspiring performances of the year.


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