Hustlers

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and scuffles, very risky behavior
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
I’m not excusing any crimes, I promise, but I have to begin with this: four strippers received harsher sentences for slipping mickeys to rich Wall Street guys and taking their money than any rich Wall Street guys got for crashing the economy.

Talented writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) has made an honest but warmly sympathetic look at the real-life story of small-time crooks who decided to design their own form of retributive justice and also steal some money. “Hustlers” is more about their friendship than their crimes, and she tells the story of women who are objectified as a job without letting us objectify them, which is not easy but which is very important.

That begins with a superb cast: producer Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the maternal ringleader, “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu as Destiny, the vulnerable newcomer, “Riverdale’s” Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, the soft-hearted girl with the weak stomach, and Keke Palmer as Mercedes, who is practical except about her boyfriend. The supporting cast includes breakthrough singer Lizzo and stripper-turned-pop-phenomenon Cardi B. Julia Stiles plays the reporter who is interviewing Ramona and Destiny five years later.

At the club, the strippers must pretend to be fascinated by men who want them to be obedient fantasy figures, and they must pretend not to mind when the men who run the club insist on kickbacks. Their job is to get the men to spend as much money as possible, for drinks and for special services in the private rooms.

Destiny, who is caring for the grandmother who took her in when she was abandoned by her mother, asks Ramona for advice on how to be more successful in the club. Ramona takes her in — literally. In a sweet scene on the roof of the club, the kind-hearted veteran invites the shivering newcomer to snuggle inside her fur coat. After a few lessons on pole dancing and lap dancing, Destiny begins to do better, and she is happy with the new sisterhood that feels like a family. It is the go-go hears of the derivatives era on Wall Street, and there is a lot of money to be made from the finance types that the women shrewdly categorize by net worth and vulnerability.

After the financial meltdown, though, things get tough. By then, Destiny has a baby, and with no education or experience, her options are limited. And so, it seems smart, not wrong, to go just one tiny extra step over the line to get money from men who got away with so much more. And so, they start slipping a sprinkle of MDMA and ketamine into their drinks, then running up charges on their credit cards. Pretty soon, they decide, in Marxian terms, to own the means of production and stop giving so much of the take to the club. As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang, the sisters were doin’ it for themselves. A very merry Christmas at Ramona’s apartment features luxury goods under the tree and the makeshift family as grateful and loving as any Hallmark movie finale, if Hallmark movies featured chinchilla coats and red-soled Louboutin stilettos.

Like any successful small business, the women face the challenge of scalability. They want more, so they bring in newcomers who create risk. All good things must come to an end, and usually that applies to bad things as well.

Scafaria gives us some glitz and glitter and thumping music to entice by (Lopez does a remarkable pole dance). But Scafaria wisely adds some classical themes to the score when the ladies are outside of the club, literally underscoring the bigger picture of this story. The focus here is on the characters and their relationships, doing their best to take care of their families, both the ones by birth and the ones by choice, and it is hard not to feel ourselves a part of their family by the joy in that once last dance.

Parents should know that this film includes male and female nudity and sexual situations, strippers, drinking and drug use, strong language, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What surprised you about these characters? How did they create the families they wished they had?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the New York Magazine story about the real-life case that inspired this film

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The Mustang

Posted on March 28, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some violence and drug content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, animal abuse, discussion of domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 29, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 10, 2019
Copyright Focus Features 2019

Prisoner Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) uncomfortable in his orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit, uncomfortable in a room with another person, uncomfortable in his own skin, does not answer when the other person, Connie Britton as a counselor, asks him a hypothetical question about how he would respond to seeing a woman he loved kissing someone else. She tries something less hypothetical, asking for his thoughts about his years in isolation and how he feels about being re-integrated into the general prison population. “I’m not good with people,” he says, and we can see he is right.

And so, Roman is assigned to shovel manure. The prison participates in the federal government’s program to train wild horses so they can be sold. As we see in the film’s opening scenes, it is thrilling to see the wild horses race across gorgeous natural settings, the embodiment of the American spirit of freedom and like a whole verse of their own from “America the Beautiful.” But there are too many of them even for the 29 million acres across ten states, and so some are captured every year. Many of them are put down. But some are given to prisoners so they can learn skills that will help them after they leave. The prisoners tame the horses, which are then sold, many to the government itself for border patrol.

Nothing could be more natural than prisoners relating to angry, terrified wild horses in cages. Because he is so uncooperative, insisting that he does not get along with people, he is assigned the job of shoveling manure.  But that brings him to where the horses are, horses that once were wild and are now confined to cages.  Roman is drawn, naturally, to the angriest and most terrified of all.

Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton”) is one of the inmates who works with the horses, his superior status indicated in the privilege of wearing denim instead of prison orange. He and the civilian head of the horse training program, Myles (Bruce Dern in full grizzle mode) decide to give Roman a chance. But that means Roman will have to learn patience and gentleness. A man whose body and soul have been clenched for as long as he can remember has to learn to relax his shoulders to encourage the horse to calm down.

And that means he has to actually be relaxed, because the horse will know.  You can’t pretend. Just as Roman gentles the horse, the horse gentles him. And he goes from being a man who almost sat down at the wrong table when his daughter came to visit because he had no idea what she looked like to someone who for the first time is able to tell her how he feels.

Actress turned first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a real eye for lyrical images and a gift for casting actors of exceptional skill.  Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who has shown a rare gift for supporting performances of quiet power in films like “A Bigger Splash” and “Far from the Madding Crowd”  shows a great deal by seemingly doing very little. He is extraordinary in the emotional scene with Roman’s daughter (an excellent Gideon Adlon), but he is just as extraordinary in the scenes with the horse and when he is at last permitted the honor of wearing denim. Mitchell, in a small role, continues to be one of the most appealing performers of his generation with enormous charm.

The script wavers at times, and audiences should know that despite the involvement of Robert Redford, who played the horse whisperer, this is not the Hallmark movie version of the story. But Clermont-Tonnerre is a gifted filmmaker and the performances she whispered from her cast make Mustang an impressive debut.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drug dealing and drug use, description of violence, including domestic violence, animal abuse, peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why was Roman drawn to Marquis?  How did working with Marquis make Roman want to talk to his daughter?

If you like this try: “Greenfingers,” starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirren, also based on the true story of prisoners who find purpose in a special program, this one gardening and the documentary “Dogs on the Inside” about a prisoners training guide dogs.

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Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 29, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

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The Upside

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Severe medical issues, some peril, reference to serious accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2019

Copyright 2019 The Weinstein Company
First, it really happened. A wealthy French aristocrat named Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was paralyzed in a paragliding accident and hired an ex-con to be his aide. Their friendship and their adventures together inspired a French box office record-breaker called “The Intouchables.” And now there is an American remake called “The Upside,” set in New York City, starring Bryan Cranston as the man in the wheelchair and Kevin Hart as Del, the “life auxiliary.”

Del did not want the job. He did not even know what job he was applying for. But his parole officer warned him that he would have to go back to prison if he could not show that he had been turned down by three potential employers. So, he takes the elevator to the penthouse thinking he is applying for a custodial position and barged into another candidate’s interview because he just wants to be turned down and get out of there and pick up his son from school. Instead, he ends up getting hired. Philip (Cranston) likes Del because he is so inappropriate. While the other applicants for the position spoke in low, soothing, deferential tones, Del was at home with saying whatever he was thinking.

Being at home with whatever the job required was another thing, however. Del is fine with lifting Philip into the chair and driving him around in his fancy cars. He is more than fine with his room in the penthouse, though the shower is very complicated and probably bigger than his prison cell. He is fine with Philip’s DNR orders. He is not fine with some of the more intimate aspects of the job.

It is about 15 minutes too long, and very much a studio product, burnished and focus-grouped. Philip teaches Del to appreciate opera and Del teaches Philip to appreciate Aretha Franklin. They each push the other out of their comfort zones. Del forces Philip to call his “epistolary” friend, a woman he has been corresponding with through old-school letters. Philip makes it possible for Del to resolve some of the issues of his past, including beginning to develop a relationship with his estranged son.

The three performers bring a lot of luster to a formulaic screenplay (opera/Aretha, TWO scenes high on weed, a breaking-everything-will-be-cathartic moment), especially Cranston, who brings warmth and depth to a character who is extremely patient and understanding (until he isn’t). Kidman is marvelous as Philip’s quiet and very proper executive assistant. And Hart has his best moments when he is slightly toned down, unsure, and disheveled from his usual high-energy, peppery persona, making us look forward to seeing him explore a wider variety of roles, maybe even something dramatic. If he listens to the advice Del gets from Philip, maybe that will happen.

Parents should know that this film features some strong and crude language, sexual references and graphic sexual humor and a mild situation, drug use and drug humor, and a severe medical condition.

Family discussion: What need can you find a way to fill? Who can you encourage? Why did Philip like Del?

If you like this, try: the original French version, “The Intouchables” and “Me Without You”

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Robin Hood

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and action-style peril and violence, arrows, fire, knives, beheading, references to torture, horrific child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
There have been so so so so so many Robin Hoods over the years and a couple of them are as good as movies get, starting with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Eugene Pallette as Robin, Marian, Gisbourne, Prince John, and Friar Tuck. Then there’s the Disney animated version with music by Roger Miller, and the parody version from Mel Brooks with Robin played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes. We’ve also had genuinely terrible Robin Hoods, perhaps most regrettably Kevin Costner with a California accent. And now we have the international co-production version, clearly geared to the non-US market, with clunky, exposition-weighted dialogue, a drumbeat-heavy score and action sequences juiced with bullet-time and slo-mo. Can’t we talk about the Errol Flynn version instead? Directed by the guy who did “Casablanaca?” With one of the all-time best movie scores, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold? No? Sigh. Well, all right.

This time, Robin is played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsmen” movies and “Eddie the Eagle.” This is not his fault. He is a fine actor and can handle action scenes and love scenes capably. It is also not the fault of Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and F. Murray Abraham, who do their best. Possibly, it is not the fault of Leonardo diCaprio, who shows up in the credits as producer. It is most likely this big, dumb movie is the fault of the big, dumb ways that movies get made these days. The more they cost, the more dumbed-down they have to be to make money overseas, and this one apparently cost a lot.

We’re there because the story of the dashing nobleman who stole from the rich to give to the poor and was the world’s greatest archer and hundreds of years later is still a symbol of gallantry and heroism. But this movie begins by telling us to forget everything we think we know about the story and many of its most familiar and beloved elements are missing. No archery contest, no ransom for the king, no plotting Prince John. Which would be fine if what it has instead was of equal interest, but it really isn’t. It’s just a first-person shooter game with live action.

In this version, as in most others, Robin of Loxley is a nobleman. As he tells us in the opening narration, his story begins with a thief but it is not him. He discovers a veiled young woman (Eve Hewson as Marian) stealing one of his horses. Moved by her pluck, her generosity (it is for a poor member of the community) and her lovely blue eyes, he allows her to take the horse and soon, well, let Robin tell you himself: “They were young and in love until the cold hand of fate reached out.” See what I mean? Robin is drafted to fight in the Crusades, where the British have arrows and the “infidels” have a sort of gatling gun for arrows. Robin is wounded trying to save the son of the captured “infidel” who tried to kill him. Robin objects to murdering prisoners. He is sent back to England, where he finds that both his home and Marian are gone. His home has been taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and Marian, who was told that he had been killed, is now with Will (Jamie Dornan). Furthermore, the man whose son he tried to save stowed away on the boat to devote his life to vengeance. The English version of his name is John, and he wants to help Robin fight the people responsible for his son’s death. Cue the training montage. And the beating drums.

It’s not that it’s dumb. It’s that it is so much dumber than it needed to be. I do not expect the characters to speak the way people did in the 12th century, but Robin should not be asking someone “You okay?” of “I want to go big.” It isn’t just the drumbeats that are headache-inducing. It is the clunkiness of the expository dialogue, hammering contemporary parallels like the Sheriff’s “They hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” I expected him to talk about sending troops to stop the caravans. “This thief is making you look like a damned fool!” That’s the kind of writing Mel Brooks wrote a whole movie to make fun of. I don’t know what’s worse, the dumb slang or the dumb pretentious/portentous pronouncements:”Fear is the greatest weapon in the church’s arsenal. It is why the church created Hell.”

It’s too loud, too long, and too dumb. What they’re stealing here is our money, our time, and our goodwill.

Parents should know that this film has pervasive near-R peril and violence with battle scenes, arrows, fire, explosions, chases, knives, beheading (offscreen) and many characters injured and killed, and brief strong language, and references to horrific child abuse and torture.

Family discussion: Why was Robin different from the other lords? What issues in this movie are still important today?

If you like this, try: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”

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