★ / ★★★★
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.
Out of the Dark (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although the number of scares is on the low side, “Out of the Dark,” directed by Lluís Quílez, is a horror film that works because there is consistent tension-building, it actually uses its Colombian setting rather than keeping it in the background, and there is intrigue within its core mystery involving a family from London moving into a spacious but haunted home. This is a work for audiences who enjoy storytelling that just so happens to have horror elements in it. It has more in common with movies released fifty to forty years ago than it does with today’s run-of-the-mill parade of empty jump scares.
The house is another character in that over time we become familiar with its layout. So when a character, expectedly, goes off to investigate a strange noise coming from inside the walls, when an object comes rolling down the stairs, when the power goes out due to the storm, these scenes are almost always effective. Because we know each turn, what each room offers, and other seemingly unimportant details like the color of the staircase, the relative size of the backyard, the texture of curtains dancing as violent winds enter the house, we feel we have become a part of this home. The place is lived in, it doesn’t look like a studio. We recognize when something is out of place.
Julia Stiles and Scott Speedman play parents of a Hannah (Pixie Davies), a little girl who begins to exhibit symptoms of a disease. While Sarah and Paul are not entirely believable as parents who have gone through a lot together prior to the events within the scope of the film, Styles and Speedman share believable chemistry as parents who would do anything to find answers. For me, the best scenes involve Sarah and Paul going their separate ways to investigate and finding different aspects of the same answer. A number of American movies, mainstream and independent, attempt to do this sometimes but they are often less successful. I think the Colombian setting contributes to the intrigue of the mystery.
Significantly less effective is its CGI-ridden finale. The quality of these computer graphic imageries is not exactly first-rate and points should not be given for being proud of it regardless. But more importantly, such an exhibition of visual effects does not fit the smallness and intimate nature of the story. Sometimes restraint is the wiser choice.
“Out of the Dark” is beautifully shot by cinematographer Isaac Villa. As someone who grew up in a country with a number of similarities with Colombia, its climate, and its people, I appreciated how it shows outdoor markets, how people make a living in the streets, where people live, the obvious divide between the privileged and the less privileged. There is more to appreciate here than what goes on during the hauntings.
Jason Bourne (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
“Jason Bourne,” written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, is like a mediocre greatest hits collection in that it plucks a few of the best elements from the excellent first three films and repackages them in a less inspiring way. While a smile was drawn on my face upon seeing Matt Damon playing the enigmatic title character after ten years, the writing does not offer enough good reasons to get viewers to invest once again in the bone-crunching journey of the amnesiac assassin.
The plot is propelled by an ally, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), hacking into U.S. government files and discovering that Bourne’s father was involved in establishing Operation Treadstone, CIA’s black ops program where recruits are trained to become highly effective assassins. Although Bourne has learned that he signed up for the program voluntarily, there is new evidence that perhaps Bourne, previously named David Webb, was in fact manipulated to join. Meanwhile, the CIA director, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), is preparing to launch a similar hitman program named Iron Hand and requires the help of a young entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) in order to spy on the users who use his technology.
There is only one standout action sequence and it is shown early in the picture. It takes place during a night riot in Athens, Greece where Parsons and Bourne decide to meet so the former can inform the latter what she has found. Great tension is eventually established because director Greengrass’ handheld technique is married with the increasingly violent protest while Bourne and company weave themselves in and out of tricky situations. We get the impression we are participants in, not merely viewers of, the action. The sequence reaches its peak when Parsons and Bourne, on a motorcycle, are chased by an assassin (Vincent Cassel) in a car. Extremely sharp turns, teeth-chattering stairs, and pedestrians appear to be everywhere.
I enjoyed that the hitman this time around is relevant from the beginning till the end of the picture. In previous films, they are disposed of during the second or right before the third act—and so we expect the same to happen here. Cassel has always had a knack for playing cold, lethal men—and he is rock solid here—but an argument can be made that the asset could have been a more effective and memorable villain given his role in the new information Parson has come upon. The duel between Bourne and the asset is appropriately brutal but expected.
The final action sequence in Las Vegas becomes more disappointing the longer one thinks about it because such lack of realism has no place in the Bourne movies where less is often more. The vehicular chase down the Strip is similar to that of the later “Fast and the Furious” films in terms of its excessiveness to the point of disbelief. While such an approach works for that franchise, it does not work here. Compare the Vegas chase to the Moscow chase in Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy.” It is clear that latter is much better in framing the action and translating the balance between suspense and thrills.
While still classier than many action-thrillers to come out of Hollywood, being passably entertaining is not good enough for this franchise because the bar is set so high. The acting and technical elements like camerawork, use of score, and editing are in a good place, but the writing is a big disappointment, failing to inspire itself and despite itself.
Between Us (2012)
★ / ★★★★
“Between Us,” based on a play by Joe Hortua,” is likely to be compared to Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” because it involves two couples, one pair being alcoholic, and the fights that transpire over a period of time. However, the film is more appropriate to be compared to Norman Jewison’s “Dinner with Friends,” also based on a play, because the audience observe the couples during two time points: one when Grace (Julia Stiles) and Carlo (Taye Diggs) are happy but Sharyl (Melissa George) and Joel (David Harbour) are miserable and the other when the tables are turned.
For the most part, it is an exhausting experience to sit through director Dan Mirvish’ ineffective but well-meaning picture. Although the right performers are hired for the job, the script simply lacks cinematic appeal. This is not an uncommon misstep when it comes play-turned-movie pieces of work but when it is made, the result is more uncomfortable than listening to nails being scraped on a chalkboard. We never forget that we are watching actors rather than being invested in deeply flawed people with serious personality or psychological issues.
The structure holds back the material’s power severely. Instead of focusing on one time point and then moving onto another, it opts to move back and forth. Although understandable because it hopes to draw certain parallels between the couples, it is the less subtle approach. The decision to move forward and back in time eliminates the tension that builds during a drawn-out scene. It does not help that characters are allowed to go outside and create distance from one another. There is a reason why the best movies of its type force characters to stay in one house. It allows the claustrophobia to build until the inevitable implosion.
There are moments when I felt the performers themselves are aware that the script is not quite right. They hide this by overacting using their body language or exaggerating certain lines when being still and not blinking or talking in a soft but commanding tone can communicate much more. Woody Allen’s near masterpiece “Interiors” is an excellent example of actors seemingly not doing much—often staring into space or through another person—but just about every emotion is hit with precision.
I had a difficult time believing that Carlo, Sharyl, and Joel went to elite private schools. Despite having the right type of clothes and unfulfilled ambitions, I did not pick up a whiff of sophistication from them. For instance, when they get into arguments, there is no tactic designed to ensnare the other to support one’s claims in a roundabout fashion. It is almost always about trying to make someone feel bad or guilty. It would have been more fun if the conversations played out like an intense chess match.
What makes these two couples special? Surely it is not just because all four of them are friends. We have seen that kind of story too many times before. Even if it were, the material should have strived to separate itself from the pack. More importantly, what do the filmmakers want us to extract from this story? That even the best of friends can turn against each other given enough time for jealousy to take root? That marriage, especially when a lack of money is involved, is a lot of hard work? If so, these are lessons we already know. How is the picture worthy of our time?