Tag Archives: C

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.

THE GOLDFINCH

Producer: Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson
Director: John Crowley
Writer: Peter Straughan
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Boyd Gaines, Luke Kleintank, Ryan Foust, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Carly Connors, Denis O’Hare, Austin Weyant, Collin Shea Schirrmacher, Nicky Torchia, Gordon Winarick, Jack DiFalco, Robert Joy, Peter Jacobson and Hailey Wist
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

Many bad movies have been made from good books—in fact, some argue that bad books actually make better movies that good ones do—but some extraordinary novels prove particularly tough nuts to crack for adapters precisely because they are so structurally intricate and thematically rich; their very literary density pushes up against the simplification the screen seems to demand, and the result is films that seem hopelessly shallow and confused reflections of their sources. One can only imagine, thank heaven, what hash might be made of a masterpiece of invention like “Pale Fire”—no one has had the impertinence to try—but recent misfires such as “Cloud Atlas” and “A Winter’s Tale” are cases in point.

Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Goldfinch,” unfortunately, proves another. In purely surface terms it’s the tale of Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), whose life is shattered when his mother Audrey (Hailey Wist), who has been raising the boy alone after her dissolute husband Larry (Luke Wilson) left the family, is killed in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The boy survives, but while leaving the site, filled with bodies and debris, he encounters a badly injured man named Blackwell (Robert Joy) who encourages him to take a painting lying amid the ruins—Carel Fabricius’ 1654 portrait of a bird chained to a golden bar—and gives him a ring before dying. The ring will take him to the antiques shop the man ran along with his soft-spoken partner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who will become the boy’s mentor in the trade in ancient objects. At the shop Theo will also visit Pippa (Aimee Laurence), who was with Blackwell in the museum, admiring “The Goldfinch,” and suffered injuries that threaten her dream of becoming a concert pianist.

Theo is taken in temporarily by a wealthy family, the Barbours—dotty Chance (Boyd Gaines), his elegantly cool wife Samantha (Nicole Kidman) and their children Platt (Jack DiFalco), Kitsey (Carly Connors), Toddy (Collin Shea Schirrmacher) and Andy (Ryan Foust). Samantha grows very fond of him, and he develops a genial friendship with precocious Andy, but this semi-idyllic interlude, interrupted only by nightmares about the explosion exacerbated by his feelings of guilt, is shattered by the arrival of Larry and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson), who whisk him off to their remote house in a near-deserted desert development outside Las Vegas, where Larry spends his days drinking beer and betting on football games—none too successfully, if the appearance of Mr. Silver (Peter Jacobson) is any indication.

What keeps Theo going during this stay in desolation—apart from the painting, which he keeps wrapped in newspaper—is the wild friendship he develops with a classmate, a Ukrainian named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), who lives with his brutal father in the development. They spend their days and nights carousing, commiserating, drinking and doing drugs—until an altercation with Larry and the latter’s sudden death lead him to run away back to New York, where he’s taken in by kindly Hobie, who grooms him as his young assistant and partner he shortly becomes Ansel Elgort).

The cherished painting, still wrapped up in storage, becomes the older Theo’s go-to solace when he faces emotional distress, in one instance when he’s caught by slimy art dealer Reeve (Denis O’Hare) selling a forgery as a genuine antique; Reeve also accuses him of having stolen Fabricius’ painting and using it to bankroll drug deals (the explanation for that allegation will eventually be revealed).

But even that professional problem pales beside his personal one. A chance meeting with Platt (now Luke Kleintank) leads Theo back to the Barbour family, and he becomes engaged to Kitsey (now Willa Fitzgerald); but her infidelity with his old school nemesis Tom Cable (Gordon Winarick, played in the character’s earlier form by Nicky Torchia) makes him uncertain about going through with the wedding, particularly since he’s still obviously in love with Pippa (now Ashleigh Cummings), who drops into Hobie’s shop occasionally with her British boyfriend and has long conversations with Theo about her own sadness.

Another chance encounter as he’s trying to buy drugs reunites Theo with Boris (now Aneurin Barnard), who reveals a secret that will take them both to Amsterdam for a confrontation with a shadowy collection of thugs who deal in stolen art. It’s here that the fate of Fabricius’ painting is finally decided and Theo achieves some semblance of liberation from his tortured past, though doing so nearly costs him his life.

As this rudimentary précis demonstrates, the narrative combines intimacy—it’s essentially a very fraught coming-of-age tale—and epic themes about the power of art, suffused with suggestions about irresistible fate. But despite the care showered on it by scripter Peter Straughan, director John Crowley, the excellent cast (in which young Fegley, Wolfhard and Foust particularly stand out), and an exceptional crafts team—K.K. Barrett’s production design, Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes, Deborah Jensen’s art direction, Renata DeAngelo’s set decoration, Trevor Guerckis’ score, and especially Roger Deakins’ absolutely gorgeous cinematography, as well as the effects, are all top-drawer—“The Goldfinch” never manages to make emotional or intellectual contact.

Partially that derives from the solemn, stately pacing favored by Crowley and editor Kelley Dixon. One can understand the reason behind it: the complexity of the story and the proliferation of characters, complicated further by the shifts in chronology, mean that the makers must carefully dole out information and try to keep matters clear.

But they do not succeed in maintaining clarity. At times it’s difficult simply to recognize characters who reappear after a long absence: Schirrmacher’s young Toddy Barbour, for example, shows up later in the person of Austin Weyant, but the two actors differ so much in appearance, and the character appears so fleetingly anyway, that nothing about him really registers. And even when it’s obvious who the reintroduced personages are—Boris, for instance—the different actors don’t match up particularly well.

There’s also the matter of sheer coincidence, which one can accept fairly easily when it occurs on the page but strikes you as implausible on the screen. The older Theo’s simply bumping into Platt and Boris in a city of millions might work perfectly well in the context of many hundreds of pages, but when the two events seem to happen within minutes of one another, it comes across as the result of crude plot convenience.

Perhaps inevitable, too, is a necessity to compress and abruptly rush things ahead. The scenes in Amsterdam at the close, for example, reduce what’s happened to a sudden avalanche of expository dialogue, hastily delivered. After the leisurely tempo of the earlier two hours of the film, it makes one feel that the makers simply concluded that they had to wrap things up before they approached the three-hour mark.

One also senses missing or underplayed elements. Yes, the Fabricius painting is so precious to Theo because it represents a last link to the mother he lost. And the symbolism of Theo’s being chained to his self-accusatory grief just as the goldfinch is tied to its perch is fairly obvious. But it might have been emphasized to a greater degree that Fabricius himself died in an explosion—the so-called Delft Thunderclap, the great gunpowder explosion of 1654, which also destroyed many of his paintings, leaving only a dozen or so behind (just as Theo’s mother left behind her son).

One could go on at great length about how “The Goldfinch” fails to capture fully the richness of Tartt’s book. But setting all that aside, the issue is whether it succeeds on its own as an independent work of art, and despite the dedication and craftsmanship which Crowley and his collaborators have brought to the project, the result is a slow, opaque, diffuse if visually arresting film that never manages to move one as it is intended to do. It might, however, prompt some viewers to take up the book, which they will probably find much more satisfying.