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HUSTLERS

Producer: Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Elbaum, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Benny Medina, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Lorene Scafaria
Director: Lorene Scafaria
Writer: Lorene Scafaria
Stars: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl, Cardi B, Lizzo, Madeline Brewer, Frank Whaley, Wai Ching Ho, Trace Lysette, Steven Bayer and Jon Glaser
Studio: STXfilms

C

The strippers take off their clothes in “Hustlers,” but they also take some of their clients for hefty sums. Like the recent “The Kitchen,” Lorene Scafaria’s movie, based on a real episode, is a rather curious addition to the female-empowerment genre in that it celebrates women taking charge of things even if it means going to a very dark—indeed, criminal—side. But to add to their supposed justification, it posits the notion that their victims—all Wall Street types—deserved what they got after the role they’d played in ruining the lives of so many in the economic collapse of 2008, and then getting away with it scot-free. Apparently one bad turn deserves another.

Scafaria’s screenplay is based on Jessica Pressler’s article “The Hustlers at Scores,” which appeared in New York Magazine in 2015. (Pressler here becomes a writer named Elizabeth, played by Jessica Stiles, who is shown interviewing the ringleaders of the operation for her article.)

In her somewhat altered narrative, the two women are called Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Dorothy, aka Destiny (Constance Wu). It’s around 2007, and Ramona is the effective headliner at a NYC strip joint called Moves, where her pole-dancing routine sends the well-to-do crowd of boozing Wall Street executives wild; they shower her with cash. She and the other established performers add to their loot by meeting in the back rooms with the clientele, who pay handsomely for some alone time with them, though much of the money actually goes to the place’s sleazy owners.

Newcomer Dorothy, who supports her aged grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), is awed by Ramona, who proves to be remarkably supportive, offering to train the younger woman in her act. Before long, the two are practically partners, and they—and the other girls at Moves—are making out pretty well, though they’re still being victimized by the club owners, and of course by the clients who treat them like mere merchandise.

Then comes the economic crash of 2008, which sends Wall Street reeling, and in the wake of the financial district’s implosion Moves goes into a complete tailspin.

In desperation Ramona argues that they can no longer rely on the clients coming to them; they have to go fishing, meeting guys in bars and bringing them back to the club. In the end, however, that’s not enough: the women—Ramona and Destiny, along with their “sisters” Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart, work out a routine in which they gang up on a likely prospect, doping him up and bringing him back to the club, where the women can extract the credit cards from his wallet and max them out. The presumption is that the victims will be too befuddled—or embarrassed—to call the cops.

The operation works splendidly for awhile, and the women prosper. But inevitably they’re done in by their very success; as they add new “talent” to the pack, including girls like druggie Dawn (Madeline Brewer), caution goes out the window and disaster eventually strikes. A sad-sack mark, here named Doug (Steven Bayer), goes to the police, and that begins the process that leads to the women’s arrest—and their turning against one another. The actual indictments in the real case were issued in 2014.

This is actually a pretty sad, indeed rather squalid tale, but Scafaria plays it mostly for laughs, though there are certainly moments of drama. Much of the humor is of a fairly dark sort, though during the Moves sisterhood’s glory day there are some gleeful celebratory sequences, most notably a Christmas party at which the women exchange expensive gifts and have a splendid meal in a posh apartment. Scenes like this are often presented by Scafaria and her editor Kayla Emter in a montage of hyper-cut clips, and elsewhere too (as in the women’s raucous dressing-room interludes) the style is highly energetic, with Todd Banhazi’s cinematography in frequent jerky, hand-held mode.

That approach, of course, is especially appropriate in the dance numbers, especially Lopez’s initial—and quite spectacular—pole routine; set as it is among colorful strobe lights, loud music and screaming drunks, it gets things off to a rousing start.

But her onstage moves alone don’t distinguish Lopez’s performance. She makes Ramona a vibrant, defiant but flawed person whom you can appreciate for her determination even as you question many of her choices. Wu is more subdued, and as such a good counterpart to her, especially as their relationship goes south; and the other members of their sisterhood—especially Palmer and Reinhart, but also Cardi B and Lizzo—pull off both the outrageous and poignant sides of the characters. Mercedes Ruehl has a few good moments as the group’s quasi den mother, and Ho some as Destiny’s not-so-straitlaced grandma. Stiles, unfortunately, is merely impassive and dull. The men don’t fare even that well, mostly being portrayed as either crude, rude, blissfully blotto or, in the case of the cops toward the close, goofy.

There’s a great deal of visual flamboyance to the way Scafaria has chosen to tell the “Hustlers” story, and you can appreciate the vitality of its coarsely freewheeling approach; at the same time, the tonal shifts are jarring and unconvincing. Comparison with Andrew Brujalski’s “Support the Girls” from last year, a much smaller and more sensitive film about women exploited for men’s pleasure—this time at a “Hooters”-style roadhouse—suggests that for all its pizzazz and energy, “Hustlers” skims over the surface of what’s actually a pretty disturbing story. Of course, for many the picture’s wild-eyed combination of glitz and gleeful revenge will be enough.

OFFICIAL SECRETS

Producer: Ged Doherty, Elizabeth Fowler and Melissa Shiyu Zuo
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein and Gavin Hood
Stars: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Rhys Ifans, Adam Bakri, Ralph Fiennes, Indira Varma, Conleth Hill, Tamsin Greig, MyAnna Buring, Hattie Morahan, Jeremy Northam, John Hefferman, Monica Dolan, Jack Farthing, Peter Guinness, Kenneth Cranham and Angus Wright
Studio: IFC Films

B

An actual case of a British whistleblower prosecuted under the UK’s draconian Official Secrets Act is dramatized in Gavin Hood’s docu-drama, which offers an interesting narrative even if the treatment sometimes seems a bit too restrained and discreet for its own good.

Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) is introduced as a translator working in 2003 at a British intelligence post, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), where her specialty is dealing with Chinese material. But one day a top secret memo lands in her computer in-box that was penned by a fellow named Frank Koza at the United States National Security Agency. At the time the Americans were angling to persuade the government of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair to join in the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and preparing a campaign at the United Nations to secure a resolution giving the operation international legitimacy.

But some of the current member states on the U.N. Security Council—Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Pakistan and Guinea—were balking at voting for the resolution, and the memo suggested using wiretaps on their diplomats as a means of gathering embarrassing information to pressure on them to do so; the resolution was especially important for Britain, since it would provide Blair—some of whose officials were dubious about the invasion—with the political cover he needed to join in the operation as part of the UK’s “special relationship” with the U.S.

Aghast at the means being employed to justify what she considered an unnecessary and unjust war, Gun decided to copy the memo and, through activist Yvonne Ridley (Hattie Morahan), transmit it to the staff of a newspaper, The Observer, in hopes of its being published in time to prevent the invasion—or at least a UK role in it. And despite the fact that she admittedly failed in that purpose, she ultimately confessed being the leaker, leading to her prosecution.

The first half of the film is devoted to Gun’s dilemma about what to do and her decision to try to make the document public, much to the dismay of her husband Yassar (Adam Bakri), a Kurdish refugee who fled Turkey for asylum in Britain. Hood, who got the adrenaline running in his earlier thriller “Eye in the Sky,” offers a few suspenseful sequences here—one in which nervous Katharine runs off a hard copy of the memo, another of her trembling as she mails it—but he mostly presents things in a relatively low-key style.

Much of this portion of the picture, moreover, is devoted to work on the part of The Observer’s staff—editor Roger Alton (Conleth Hill), reporter Martin Bright (Matt Smith), war correspondent Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode) and pugnacious Washington reporter Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans)—to verify the story and the memo’s legitimacy. Finally, despite misgivings—based partially on the fact that the paper had previously editorialized in favor of the invasion—they published, though a mistake in the use of something as ordinary as spellcheck (which turns American spelling into English usage) threatens to undermine acceptance of the scoop.

Gun’s decision to accept responsibility for the leak impelled the government’s decision to bring charges against her—and led to Yassar’s deportation. But while her role in the narrative never disappears, the focus really shifts to the efforts of her lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) to mount a defense to the charges. He eventually decides to turn the tables on the government, unearthing evidence that members in the UK administration opined that the country’s participation in the invasion would be illegal in the absence of a proper U.N. resolution. The threatened release of evidence to that effect persuaded the government to drop the charges, and Gun went free.

Here, too, Hood treats the action with a mood of mournful resignation over the Blair administration’s casual cruelty and political duplicity, rather than seething anger (although casting the menacing-looking Peter Guinness as Gun’s chief government tormentor is rather a blunt instrument). It culminates in a scene of quiet sadness on a beach between Emmerson and the government’s chief prosecutor, a friend who effectively admits that he was just following orders.

“Official Secrets” frankly lacks the tension of other thrillers of its type, largely because of Hood’s understated style and the mostly similar performances (apart, most notably, from Ifans, who feasts on his Vulliamy’s volatility). But it is well-crafted, with expert production design (Simon Rogers), cinematography (Florian Hoffmeister) and editing (Megan Gill), wittily incorporating archival clips of figures like Blair, George W. Bush and Colin Powell and other political figures into the footage to add historical context.

The result will never challenge a classic like “All the Presidents Men,” but it is a solid, thoughtful treatment of one aspect of U.S. government chicanery, in collaboration with the U.K., to pave the way to the misguided Iraq war, and of one woman’s courageous if unsuccessful effort to derail it.