Movie reviews: Jennifer Lopez pole dances her way to money and revenge in 'Hustlers'
HUSTLERS: 4 STARS
If they gave out Oscars for pole dancing the release of “Hustlers” would place Jennifer Lopez one step closer to completing her EGOT collection.
“Jenny from the Block” plays Ramona Vega, centerfold turned superstar stripper. It’s the 2000s and the dancers at New York’s Sin City Café are lap-dancing all the way to the bank. “2007 was the best,” says Destiny (Constance Wu). “I made more money than a brain surgeon.” Ramona has taught Destiny the craft of separating the Wall Street bros who frequent their club from their money. She teaches the neophyte fancy pole moves like the “fairy sit” and “fireman spin,” and the nuances of customer service. “Get them a single, a double, then a triple and then a single,” she says. “You want them drunk enough to get their credit card but sober enough to sign the check.”
They follow the “green brick road” until Sept. 29, 2008. Wall Street is gutted by a stock market crash, putting a stop to open-ended expense accounts and the dolla bills that showered the women as they danced. “It’s the end of an era in American business,” says Brian Williams on the news, and the end of the way of life for Destiny, Ramona and friends.
Overnight everything changes. The business turns from glamourous to grimy. “The guys don’t want to spend the dollars,” says the dancer’s den mother (Mercedes Ruehl). “The girls don’t want to share tips and management took the cameras out of the champagne rooms.” With lap dances no longer enough to make money, Ramona comes up with a new way of separating the Wall Street guys from their cash. “We can’t dance forever. We have to think like them. Nobody gets hurt.” A mix of sex appeal, flattery and knock-out drugs, it’s not exactly legal but they have no sympathy for the businessmen who they say robbed the country but didn’t get any jail time. “I know it sounds bad that we were drugging people,” Destiny says, “but in our world it was normal.” New recruits to their booming business bring trouble and soon it’s not the stock market crashing but police, crashing through their apartment doors.
Based on a true story and inspired by the New York Magazine article "The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler, the movie’s narrative spine is an interview between a journalist (played by Julia Stiles subbing in for Pressler) and Destiny, giving the movie an as-told-by vibe.
The result is a fleet-footed dramedy that captures the heady, high-heeled days at the club when the money flowed like water and it was all giddy good times for the dancers. An early scene puts you in the mind of a R-rated snow globe as J-Lo swings around a pole, dollar bills filling the air around her. Like the time it evokes, it’s over-the-top but easily upped by the next sequence which finds Ramona finding a quiet moment on a New York City rooftop. As the lights of the city twinkle behind her she is in repose, smoking a cigarette, a fluffy fur coat barely concealing her stage costume. Like some kind of Venus on the Half-Shell by way of 42nd Street she embodies the decadence of the time.
In the first part of the film the camp is amped. By the time Usher shows up, strutting into the club with the cool factor of Sinatra in his prime, a fistful of Benjamins in hand, the picture of the wild ‘n woolly era is complete. Director Lorene Scafaria then gear shifts, adding in the sense of desperation that comes when the money dries up. The movie shifts gears, becoming more of a caper flick as Ramona and pals go fishing for Wall Street sharks.
At the core of the story is the sisterhood between Ramona and Destiny. It’s a mother, mentor pairing that sees the two women bond on a level that transcends simply being business partners. “We are the untouchables,” says Ramona, “like Kobe and Shaq.” They become intricately involved in one another’s lives, which makes the sting of the coming events even more complicated. Lopez and Wu have sparks together onscreen, bringing some heart to a story of people who trolled the dark side for a living.
“Hustlers” is a glitzy caper about money, friendship, and revenge against the bankers who went unpunished after a financial crisis brought the country and the dancers at the Sin City Café to their knees. “Everybody is hustling,” says Ramona. “This city, this whole country is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money and people dancing.”
THE GOLDFINCH: 3 ½ STARS
“The Goldfinch” is a sprawling movie based on a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winning novel by Donna Tartt. Like the book, the film, starring Ansel Elgort, spans years and is stuffed with colourful characters. Also, like the book, it could be described as Dickensian, given its study of social status, unrequited love and the topper, abused orphans. But the film, despite the ample plotting, is really about something simple, how the beauty of great art can give life meaning.
The action begins when Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) is 13 years old. He and his mother are spending an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before an appointment with his school principal. They look at some of mom’s favorite paintings, Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” before becoming separated. From the next room Theo hears a panic, then an explosion. He survived the blast but his mother was killed and he has always felt responsible for her death.
Throughout his eventful life, from being almost-adopted by a wealthy Upper West Side family, and re-connecting with his errant father (Luke Wilson) to becoming fast friends with a sketchy neighbour (Finn Wolfhard as a teen, Aneurin Barnard as an adult) and carrying a torch for Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) another explosion survivor, his constant companion is “The Goldfinch,” a valuable painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius he took from the blast site. Moving from place to place, state to state, it was a carefully wrapped reminder of the worst day of his life.
“The Goldfinch” is respectful of its source material. The book is an epic exercise in storytelling, twisting and turning its way through Theo’s life, exploring all the dark nooks and crannies. Flashing forward and back the film also takes time in allowing us to form a connection with Theo and the guilt he wears like a badge. As an adult, played by Elgort, a veneer of charm hides his inner turmoil and heavy drug use. While it is interesting to see Theo navigate these choppy waters, the heart of the film lies in young Theo.
Fegley, best known for his touching work in “Pete's Dragon,” inspires pure empathy, playing the youngster as someone trying to take control of a life he has no control over. He’s a victim of circumstance as much as his mother is, but his curse is that he must go on, burdened by the past. Fegley reveals layers. In a standout performance, he’s simultaneously a kid and an old soul.
“The Goldfinch” swings for the fences but doesn’t quite hit a home run. The expansive story takes one or two strange turns too many and feels stretched in its final half-hour but is bolstered by tremendous performances courtesy of the ensemble, with Fegley, Kidman, Jeffrey Wright and Luke Wilson leading the pack.
FREAKS: 3 STARS
“Freaks,” a new sci-fi horror film starring seven-year-old Lexy Kolker and 83-year-old Bruce Dern, is a multi-layered head-scratcher that wonders what it might be like to be a helicopter parent to one of the X-Men.
Seven-year-old Chloe (Kolker) is kept a prisoner in the rundown suburban home she shares with her father Henry Lewis (Emile Hirsch). But this is not “Room” or any other confinement drama. This is the story of a father whose daughter is gifted in a way that will make her a target if she is discovered. Henry has tried to shield her from all this. “I never wanted the world to turn her into a freak,” he says. “She’s just a girl.” The father and daughter are blessed (or cursed depending on your point of view) with the ability to read minds, make themselves invisible and generate protective, clear bubbles.
Chloe doesn’t know or understand the extent of her powers and as long as she is kept separate from the world, may never know. Her only connections to the outside world are ghostly visions (or are they real?) of her late mother Mary (Amanda Crew) and the ice cream man, Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) who seems to know a lot about her.
She has been trained to lie about her identity but soon she begins to wonder what lies beyond the walls of their home. What follows is an extreme case of stranger danger.
“Freaks” takes its time. It allows the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and then, more often than not, shatters them. The only thing that is for sure is that Chloe longs for her mother, a feeling expertly demonstrated by Kolker in a performance that gives the movie the heart it needs to make us care for the characters and the situations. The low-fi effects don’t distract in the way a larger budget might have afforded but the humanity on display makes up for the lack of eye candy.
Good science fiction is rarely exactly about what we see on screen. In that sense “Freaks” isn’t about Chloe’s powers, it’s about being different from those around you, about persecution, about feeling unwanted. There are feelings that many can relate to and making them universal, accessible and by times even exciting, is the film’s greatest strength.