★ / ★★★★
Inspired by a true story of strippers who became so desperate to lead financially comfortable lives that they decided eventually it would be an excellent idea to drug their clients unconscious and cash in, it is astounding that “Hustlers,” written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is not a more savagely effective film. The reason is because elements are there to make compelling statements about the current economic state of America; how women are still considered to be the lesser gender—certainly one to be objectified; and how true upward mobility remains to be a dream for most working class Americans. It is like an essay with some good ideas sprinkled about, but these points are not tied together to make a strong thesis.
The work is not approached like a true crime story. On the contrary, the majority of the picture is composed of the strippers-turned-criminals celebrating their disgusting misdeeds: popping yet another bottle of champaign, going on shopping sprees, moving into another NYC apartment that is fancier than the last. It is necessary to show these peaks so that viewers may have an appreciation of how far these characters have fallen later on, but the intention from behind the camera must be clear as day—that the subjects’ actions are wrong and therefore must pay for risking others’ lives. Instead, during these celebratory scenes, we get the impression we are supposed to party right alongside the subjects. I felt sickened by it.
And so I wondered if this was the writer-director’s intention. I was not at all convinced; I think that because our current culture demands that we celebrate women, especially solidarity among women, Scafaria lost focus on the type of story that is begging to be told. Instead of exploring the nature of the crime, perhaps even the complexity of it, the screenplay spends so much time on Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit, wishing to be close friends—sisters, even—with veteran stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Notice how the role of cops and detectives who have discovered the scam is so conveniently brushed under the rug. As a result, there is a lack of tension during the final act. Resolutions are cobbled together in a most awkward fashion. For instance, the scene of a former stripper being held at gunpoint provides no catharsis whatsoever.
Despite watchable performances by Wu and Lopez, the more compelling angle of the drama remains just underneath the topsoil, rarely touched upon. I grew tired of the constant fashion show and slow motion. Clearly, Scafaria knows how to capture her stars’ faces and make them look breathtakingly beautiful. But we are not simply looking at pages of a magazine. This is supposed to be a rough and ugly story of people who are so tired of scraping by, so tired of feeling cheated by the current system, that one day they decide to come together and bet their morals and their freedom to reap big rewards. In a way, an argument can be made that the correct way to approach the story is through the perspective of a compulsive gambler. Perhaps then it would have embodied a certain intoxicating, self-destructive energy.
There is a compelling story in “Hustlers,” perhaps even an insightful one, but it is buried so deep precisely because the writer-director has failed to show her subjects under a critical lens. There is a constant disconnect between the movie and the viewer. We get the impression that she wishes to protect these women, or some vague feminist idea, that she ends up preaching to the choir instead of telling a specific story without all the flowery half-measures. Halfway through, I wished another filmmaker—one who is seasoned at seeing through the fog—helmed the project.
★ / ★★★★
A five-man heist at the Ohio State Fair is a success. While a million dollars sits in the back of the moving vehicle, Parker (Jason Statham) is given an offer he is told he cannot refuse: the next job involves a chance of pocketing at least a few million per person. Parker, a man of rules and principles, says he cannot accept. He signed on for one assignment and since it is finished, he insists that he walk away. The other four (Michael Chiklis, Clifton Collins Jr., Micah Hauptman, Wendell Pierce) do not like his answer so he is attacked in the back seat and left for dead on the side of the road.
If “Parker,” based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake and directed by Taylor Hackford, manages to accomplish one thing, it is casting Statham as a professional thief who believes that he is the “good” kind, determined to adhere to the idea that he will neither steal from people who cannot afford it nor hurt those who do not deserve it. But the picture is terribly long and confused. During its meanderings, I caught myself checking the clock and asking myself if it was going to be over any time soon. That is never a good sign.
Despite the main character visiting many places and seeing different people, they do not amount to much. It is mostly a passive experience: he visits an establishment, threatens a couple of guys, and onto the next hive. The characters we meet are not interesting; they say a few words, they get hurt, and we never hear of them again. The conversations have the usual tough-guy attitude commonly found within the genre, but the script is not written sharp enough so it is difficult to remember if they made any impact in the story. As a result, it feels like the film is simply buying time.
Clocking in at about a hundred and twenty minutes is inexcusable. The heart of the picture is Parker’s relationship with a real state agent named Leslie (Jennifer Lopez)—at least supposedly. Their paths do not converge until about halfway through. When it does, what they share is underwhelming. I liked the idea of Lopez and Statham emitting sexual chemistry without actually getting into it, but their relationship lacks fire and a sense of fun. Is Lopez throwing herself at a man supposed to be funny? In addition, Leslie is written so syrupy, she and her inability-to-pay-the-bills-on-time issues might as well be taken from a soap opera.
Parker’s quest for payback does not work. I wanted to see the four bad men get their comeuppance, but it is difficult to believe that the central character is in any real danger of getting caught or dying. He always seems to be a step ahead of everyone else. Since there is a lack of a defined villain—equally driven and just as smart as the protagonist—that can turn his world upside down, the work fails to become engaging.
Adapted to the screen by John J. McLaughlin, “Parker” is as inconsequential and unentertaining as it gets. For many people, it will likely work as a sleeping pill.
The Back-Up Plan (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Jennifer Lopez had been absent from being a female lead actress for quite some time so I was really looking forward to Alan Poul’s “The Back-Up Plan.” Zoe (Lopez) made a proactive decision about having a kid via artificial insemination because she thought she would never find the guy for her. But the moment she stepped outside the clinic, she met Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), a nice, down-to-earth guy who wasn’t bad on the eyes with dreams of leading his own humble business. They didn’t get along initially but after a series of coincidences, the two eventually fell for one another. While I did like the two characters because they were charming and had undeniable chemistry, the material was just not funny. Some aspects of the film that were supposed to be funny but actually dead on arrival include the Single Mothers and Proud support group, Zoe’s incredibly transparent friends, and its lack of commitment in dealing with the serious questions about being a single parent. There were moments when Zoe had a chance to think about her future and whether she really wanted to stay on the path she had chosen but as soon as mood turned a little too serious, the movie would cut to a different scene and deliver slapstick infantile comedy. Not only did it take me out of the moment but I also felt emotionally cheated. The picture also lacked focus. I got the impression that the material was supposed to be from a mother’s perspective but it eventually lost track of its vision by establishing a series of scenes when Stan would meet a stranger at a park and discuss the struggles of fatherhood. While it was nice on the surface, I thought it was completely unnecessary. I already liked Stan and hammering the point that he was a good guy left me impatient. For me, I just saw it as another excuse to not deal with Zoe’s increasingly difficult preganancy, physically and emotionally, as she struggled with trusting Stan to stick around because the father and her child were not biologically connected. I think the movie would have been so much better if it had decided to take either the comedic or dramatic route. In an attempt to balance both, it managed to excel at neither path because every single step was formulaic and uninspiring. In the end, the elements of true exploration about how it was like to be a middle-class single mother were there but it tried too hard to be everything at once. The message of the film was vague–assuming that it wanted to communicate something in the first place. But then again maybe it just wanted to be a typical and too safe a romantic comedy.
The Cell (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
A psychiatrist (Jennifer Lopez) decided to go into the mind of a deeply catatonic schizophrenic serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) who turned his victims into dolls after torturing them. The reason she did it was because she felt as though she failed trying to help a former child patient who also had schizophrenia. She was able to try to help people despite their catatonic states because of an advanced technology which allowed connection between two or more psyches. I enjoyed this film even though the happenings outside of the mind were kind of weak. It reminded me of a very light hybrid of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Saw” franchise. I just did not believe the chemistry between Lopez and Vince Vaughn, an FBI agent assigned to the case. And I wished that the events that were happening in reality were approached as a gritty procedural drama-thriller to serve as a contrast against the hyperfantasy in the mind. However, the fantasy scenes were fascinating to me because anything could happen. There were some really chilling images in the killer’s mind such as the scene with the horse and when Lopez stumbled upon a room where the killer kept his victims and they looked like really scary dolls. As great as the images were, I admired the concept even more because it was able to hypothesize what could be inside a murderer’s mind–something that a lot of people (including myself) are curious about. However, I can admit that perhaps not a lot of people would enjoy this movie because it asked the audience to take a huge leap of faith. First, we had to accept the idea that a machine that was able to dive into someone’s mind could work despite the ethical reasons why we shouldn’t. Second, it was almost as though the movie asked the audience to sympathize with the killer–not his actions per se, but the person who was abused time and again as a child (Jake Thomas) who happened to have a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia. Written by Mark Protosevich and directed by Tarsem Singh, I’m giving “The Cell” a recommendation based on the fact that it was wildly imaginative at times and it was able to keep my interest despite the heavy material. However, I don’t recommend it to people who are looking for a more typical thriller involving the good guys looking for a bad guy who kidnapped an innocent and now the good guys had to find that innocent person before time ran out.
Out of Sight (1998)
★★ / ★★★★
I just had to see this movie because pretty much all the film critics I respect gave it a really enthusiastic recommendation. I don’t know if it’s because I was anticipating something more serious instead of a caper film with comedy that brings the “Ocean” franchise to mind, or if it’s just one of those movies that critics adored but I never got into. George Clooney stars as Jack Foley, a bank robber who one day escapes from prison. Right off the bat, he’s put into a room (well, more like the trunk of a getaway car) with the splendid Jennifer Lopez as a federal marshall. Eventually, the two realize the chemistry that they have and I thought it went downhill from there. Steven Soderbergh is an undeniably talented director but the way the story unfolded made me not care. While there was complexity in its non-linear storytelling, I felt like a lot of the characters were just running around without some sort of ultimate purpose. They were so blase to the point where I thought the only ingredient that was missing was for them to wink directly at the camera. Actors like Catherine Keener, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and others seem to go in and out of the story and I was left confused because I thought that it would all come together at some point. Unfortunately, it never did and by the time the credits started rolling, the picture left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, I do admit that there were some pretty clever and funny lines from the script. Still, those bits and pieces weren’t enough to save the overall product. I wish that “Out of Sight” would’ve been a straight-up thriller. Perhaps then I would’ve liked it a lot more since it would have found a better footing when it comes to its tone. And while people remain to praise this film’s technical achievements, such as its freeze frame techniques for emotional purposes, I’m going to side with the minority and say that “Out of Sight” is not worth the two hours.