Hustlers (2019)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the best films of the year, possible awards contenders for performances, and the like. I don’t quite think Hustlers ranks as the best film of the year, but it’ll probably be somewhere in the mix. However, it did make for a bracing change from a lot of the multiplex fodder, and it’s good to see more women directors getting work. Her earlier films The Meddler (2015) and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) showed plenty of promise, which I think Hustlers has started to deliver.

I don’t think that at a filmmaking level this is quite as great as it could be, at least visually, though it makes great use of period costuming (it’s largely set in the late-2000s), and it’s all very nicely lit. If with its strip club setting and on-stage sequences it seems at times like a music video, then it’s also willing to poke some fun at itself in this regard, as when it has Usher playing himself raining money on all the women while his own hit plays on the soundtrack. Indeed, generally, the film has some really effective (and distinctive) uses of musical cues — I always like to see Scott Walker getting some love (via “Next”, one of his 1960s Jacques Brel covers in this film’s case). But this is a film primarily built in the script and performances, as Jennifer Lopez (who is, in case it has been missed anywhere, 50), playing veteran Ramona, takes Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy under her wing, and together they unlock their potential in making money off the sleazy guys who come to see them. That said, it’s not interested in demonising the profession from either end: it’s made clear that there’s no shame in stripping, it’s a dependable job in an economy like that of the States, and the guys they’re fleecing are the filthy rich (Ramona breaks down the various categories of clientele), who ultimately don’t deserve our pity. If anything, the filmmakers are only too happy to make that clear by having Julia Stiles’ reporter (and audience surrogate) basically exculpate them. No, this is a film that is about — what else — the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the paths it drives people down when they’re desperate, and it makes those points pretty clear and pretty effectively. Also, it has an effortlessly diverse and interesting cast, who each get their moments.

Hustlers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lorene Scafaria (based on the article “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole from (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves” by Jessica Pressler); Cinematographer Todd Banhazl; Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

The Boy Next Door (2015)

I want you to know, dear reader, that I spent a lot of time thinking about what rating to give this film, possibly more than I thought about the film itself. On the one hand, it’s not exactly a great thriller with memorable dialogue or convincing acting, but on the other hand, Jennifer Lopez is one of cinema’s great underrated actors and it’s all hokily enjoyable fun after a fashion. Think a gender-swapped version of Fatal Attraction and you’ll be most of the way there. The setting is blandly suburban, and Ryan Guzman does the best he can with his two-note role (nice guy to homicidal stalker guy), but there’s a believable emotional arc lurking beneath director Rob Cohen’s surface sheen, in which Lopez’s literature teacher Claire is having marital troubles with her philandering husband Garrett (John Corbett) and unwisely hooks up with new neighbour Noah. In a sense, you could see the film’s second act as the externalisation of her own internal quandaries, especially given that Noah is so much younger than her, but it all gets rather ridiculous and violent in the denouement. That said, it’s probably not too early to say this is the best film about a classics teacher we’ll see this year, and Noah’s “first edition of the Iliad” line will surely be remembered as the film’s most notable contribution to the field.

The Boy Next Door film posterCREDITS
Director Rob Cohen; Writer Barbara Curry; Cinematographer Dave McFarland; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 13 March 2015.

Out of Sight (1998)

I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.

The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.

Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.

Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.

It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.

Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 25 August 2013).

Parker (2013)

I might as well just start right off by saying that, at many levels, this is not an objectively good film, but I’m fine with that. Films of this nature — heist/revenge action flicks — have no business straining for higher meaning, or seeking to universalise the human experience, or whatever. There should be some intricately-detailed plotting involving the liberation of precious and high-monetary-value things, there should be some good villains, there should be a solid moral centre, and there should be some tension in the various interactions between these elements.

The character of Parker is the antihero at the moral centre of the film: sure, he’s a thief, but as so many in fiction, he has principles. His accomplices in the film’s opening heist (the best setpiece in the film, to my mind) do him a wrong, and he spends the film putting that right. And like Walker in Point Blank (1967), based on the same character, all he wants is the money he’s owed. Playing Parker, Jason Statham is adequate. His elocution can at times be difficult to pick up, and he’s not great at accents, but he has the gruffness and directness you expect from an action hero.

The strength of the film, and a weakness of the plotting, is Jennifer Lopez. Her character is basically unnecessary to the central thrust of the narrative (Parker’s revenge) and could easily be dispensed with, yet scene after scene is written seemingly to showcase her acting, without really moving things along much. The interactions between her and a local police officer could be spun off into another (quite different) film. There’s also an odd minute or two where the film basically stops, shifting suddenly into quite different emotional terrain, as Lopez’s struggling estate agent delivers a monologue explaining why she is compelled to help Parker, despite not really knowing anything about him (though even this tenuous backstory justification is dispensed with for her mother, who helps Parker, bloody and battered and dripping blood over her dog, on even less pretext). It’s not even as if this is in aid of a romantic sub-plot; Parker has a girlfriend and, however perfunctory her appearance may be, it’s clear he’s not going to pursue Lopez.

And yet she is delightful, and I’m reminded how much I’ve missed her acting in the many years since Out of Sight (1998) — which shares some of the same sun-dappled Floridian settings as Parker (the latter primarily set in Palm Beach). Her role is essentially as a comedic interlude, intended perhaps to soften some of Statham’s gravelly dourness, and though it doesn’t seem to lighten him up, it was good to see her being given some quality screentime. She has a light touch, bringing to her character a similar kind of vulnerable winsomeness that, say, Rashida Jones brings to TV’s Parks and Recreation. It’s only a pity she hasn’t been in more films in the interim: unlike so many of the other actors here (some of whom have excellent acting pedigrees), she makes it seem effortless.

As for the rest of the film, it’s largely by-the-numbers. The villains are suitably villainous (never betraying any hint of ambiguity), and — Lopez’s character aside — the plot mechanics move everything along swiftly, all elements orchestrated nimbly by the director. There’s some ludicrous and baffling dialogue at times, and there’s a real physicality about the beaten, bloody and bruised bodies on display. There’s also a coda that made me realise that I’d already forgotten characters and plots points from earlier in the film — which may say something about my terrible memory, but also about quite how transitory the film’s pleasures are. Yet there are definitely some pleasures to be had, if you accept its retrogressive generic tropes. It’s difficult for me to wholeheartedly recommend it as a film, but I can’t dismiss it either.

Director Taylor Hackford; Writer John J. McLaughlin (based on the novel Flashfire by Donald E. Westlake); Cinematographer J. Michael Muro; Starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 17 March 2013.