Hustlers (2019)

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Based on a 2015 article within New York magazine; ‘Hustlers’ ably exhibits the delight that women can hustle and flow like the best of them. From scooping up paper bills to taking meaty cuts from intoxicated men, this film documents a rise to power and social commentary amongst an enjoyable glam-show.

Dorothy (Constance Wu) begins a new job at a strip club and becomes Destiny; a fated moniker leading her to a destined path of adoration for pro-dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Together they work out how best to make money without gyrating on stages and, with some friendly help, the women soar with a business model of drugging wealthy suits, taking them to the club and swiping their plastic for thousands of dollars each time.

Director and writer behind ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World’ is a dual hand once again for this sensational account of female smarts. Lorene Scafaria effortlessly tackles the back and forth narrative of Destiny’s dabble in spiking rich males, and speaking with journalist Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). She also paints the stripper world as something less seedy than expected, the power of the women and their personal lives enrich the environment and with bomb-ass slow motion of the ladies doing their heist thang, Scafaria ensures scantily clad performers are not subjected to the male gaze but are controllers of their own bodies and own path.

Of course the shifting timeline is nothing new and this film doesn’t add anything to the model but it’s worked in well and like the interview asides in ‘I, Tonya’, this comedy/drama mixes equal parts emotion and comedic flair to the journalistic segments. A lot of people are commenting that ‘Hustlers’ resembles a Martin Scorsese pic and you can see the similarities to the extravagance of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ or the dominant surge in ‘Goodfellas’, but this movie greatly retains the slick and gritty beats presented in both those films and nicely shifts the boys’ club behaviour to an engaging floor show of girls running the joint.

The first act is predominately set at Moves; the thriving strip bar where new gal Destiny is taken under the wing of experienced stage act Ramona. The low lights, hot shot clientele and booming DJ playlist combine for a pulsating exploration into the world of dancers and whilst they may be incredibly sexy, they aren’t sexualised. All of them know their worth and want to get back at the guzzling fat cats who ruined America in 2008.

Britney Spears sings ‘Gimme More’, which by the by is exquisitely used in a film that certainly gives you more stripping/dancing scenes than perhaps needed. At first the performances and entrance scenes to bars are cool and empowering but there is a point when the first act feels just a stretch long with slow motion grooving and grinding adding little but minutes to the plot.

Gladly the later scenes spend enough time on both the development of the plan to ‘seduce’ and rip off bankers and portray the women’s home lives, this makes 100% sure you’re on their side because even through the dodgy antics, mostly led by the insatiable thirst of Ramona, it’s not a patch on the crash 11 years ago, fuelled by greedy arrogant guys in power ties and Rolex watches.

‘Hustlers’ is a glitzy and bold movie headlined by the shining star-beam of J-Lo. She grabs the attention not solely by her captivating command of the pole but with an instinct buried in her performance of motherhood, friendship and dogged desire to be on top. The skills of Wu, Lili Reinhart and Keke Palmer with Lopez squad up for a fab foursome that hook you in and have you enjoying the dance.

7.5/10

 

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It Chapter Two (2019)

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Every 27 years, a shape-shifting monster dwells in the town of Derry, Maine but we’ve only had to wait 2 years to witness the return of this child-eating creature. After the first chapter; which broke records and stands as the highest grossing horror, it’s clear expectations would be high, so is this second chapter a commendable climax or a flimsy finale?

Age-old beast It was weakened by the Losers’ Club in 1989 but 2016 sees the evil entity refreshed and drawing back the people that sent him scarpering. Novelist Bill (James McAvoy), fashion success story Beverly (Jessica Chastain) and stand-up comic Richie (Bill Hader) are just half of the former childhood friends who must band together again to take down the clowning of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) once and for all.

What worked so well for the first half of this Stephen King adaptation was the coming-of-age angle. Knowing this feature would shift focus to the gang in their 40s could have been a loss to the charm coursing amongst the chills in 2017, but any worry of that is swiftly dispelled as the Losers’ Club reunite whilst dining out on Chinese food. Even with their fun homecoming, it’s fair to say this second helping would have been shakier without the presence of the original kids.

Some of the time the films’ focus on the grown-up side of things adds to the movie feeling somewhat heavy, the run-time can more often than not be felt whilst we stick with them but once it shifts back to their youthful days, the jokes and warming companionship help this become a pleasing yet terrifying watch. It isn’t just the length that is a mild issue, the supernatural element becomes a step much, even if it does preside in the novel, the film makes a ritual and token part of the narrative feel like an iffy side-step from the scares.

Those are the only issues I could find with the film, the elder club of misfits are perfectly cast and the quips and jokey attitude flitting in and out of the more horrific sights of shape-shifting nastiness work well to keep a balance of fun and fear. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is a creepily cool figure of sinister smiles and thankfully he gets more to do in this half, as he floats into all the characters’ pasts and presents providing more to say and do without being heavily morphed by CGI as frequently as before.

The transitions throughout this movie are sublime and do wonders in tying up two timelines with effortless grace. The characters see their past selves and the director makes sure to keep the bouncing between past and present interesting. One such moment is a beautiful shot of stars that closes in to reveal empty spaces in a puzzle. The camera work and flowing nature of the film are wonderful and during a dash through a carnival, the camera rotates 360 degrees as we pass a spinning wheel and follows Bill with frenzy around a mirror maze, which is a stylish sequence that never drops intensity and becomes a heart-racing freak-show.

It isn’t just It that serves as the horror of the story, Derry is itself a character; a place stuck in a timewarp of almost-decay with adults grimier than the monster itself. The town is a bubble of hidden secrets and the buried lives that eek out make for a good collection of movements between ’89 and ’16 and display Derry as the ideal hunting ground, where the tragic past can never be shaken and therefore it hasn’t changed.

If ‘It’ did well with coming-of-age and scares, ‘It Chapter Two’ does a grand job in racking up the messed up factor. The movie really rams crazy imagery down your throat, in a so much tone that becomes giddily enjoyable and less frightening, which is just as effective, in the same way that Sam Raimi made his name with the ‘Evil Dead’ franchise. The final act is true madness of pouring blood, earthy mud and Pomeranian psychotic entertainment which hammers down on loud music and flashing lights but retains a sense of doom.

‘It Chapter Two’ is a playground of fear, manifesting in the hearts of people with forgotten memories. The antics and friendships are energetic and the fantastical clown-led horror is bonkers but brilliant.

7.5/10

The Informer (2019)

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This British crime thriller possesses more than an ounce of the chills bleeding through the ‘Sicario’ movies and it’s no surprise, considering a producer for the Emily Blunt led masterpiece is a part of the team behind this 2019 feature, but in the skyscraping landscape of New York does ‘The Informer’ work on its own merit or is it a bad knock-off?

Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) a former soldier then inmate now finds himself aiding the FBI under the watch of Wilcox (Rosamund Pike), as she hopes to take down a Polish drug lord called the General. However, once a cop is killed, Koslow is in the firing line and sent to prison where he hopes to complete one more task, finally be done and live with his family.

The narrative is adapted from a Swedish novel entitled ‘Three Seconds’; about a similar entrapping set of circumstances with an informer being used by officials. Screenwriter Matt Cook and director Andrea Di Stefano create a suitably bleak, fearful environment in this cinematic retelling. There are greys of the corporate FBI scene which meld into the concrete tones of Bale Hill prison. The two worlds are both harsh and unfair in their own right, together they drive forward with differing yet equally compelling motives in a story that bounces between sides.

Koslow isn’t just a mere drug runner, his background means he’s more than equipped to handle unexpected curves but with the dodgy self-interest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation marking him as someone to possibly kick to the curb, he becomes a man on the edge. This movie is a deeply interesting watch because of the collection of trails that peel off from the ongoing drama of Koslow. An NYPD detective, shady FBI folk, Polish gangsters, dangerous prisoners and Pete’s wife and child make for an engaging watch that is both smart and cruel.

What ‘The Informer’ does really well is sustain a murky push and pull of police/government tactics which run alongside the muscled motivation of Koslow pursuing a proof of innocence. This in-it-for-themselves approach of the FBI is just the beginning of a film dripping in tension and it’s no more felt in a thrilling prison sequence decked out with gangs, shivs, hand-offs, threats and backtracking deals.

Kinnaman plays the giant yet sharply capable Pete with ease but he does ensure the marksman side aggression of his character is balanced by a softer side, one of desperation as he claws to a hopeful freedom. If Kinnaman is the strength then Ana de Armas is the heart; she is the perfect emotional side of the plot, providing fear and sadness as she’s swept up in the events of her husband’s life and it’s her innocence that has you rooting for Koslow’s success.

‘The Informer’ might be a touch slow to start but there’s something resolutely gripping in its focus of numerous angles playing on a man subjected to outside influencers.

7.5/10

Crawl (2019)

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Splashing onto cinema screens from producer Sam Raimi is this taut, monster horror flick, which spirals out like a death roll of stress-inducing manic fun and showboats two actors and a pooch as pedigree performers.

In Florida, category 5 Hurricane Wendy is swiftly approaching but athlete Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) rushes back to her family home when she realises her dad Dave (Barry Pepper) could still be in the firing line of the storm. Unluckily for both them and their dog Sugar, the rapidly rising waters means the arrival of snap-happy alligators that trap them in the house.

Alexandra Aja on paper looks like the dream director for this disaster/horror combo, after work on a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and silly but entertaining gnashing delights of ‘Piranha 3D’. This time the watery foes have increased in mass and move through the murky waters like prehistoric mermaids and their constant hunger to attack are constructed very well by the director; in that you feel almost constantly on edge waiting for a possible splurge of teeth and blood.

The premise of ‘Crawl’ focuses in on flesh-mad gators and this could set itself up for a repetitive tale and whilst there is a modicum of the same old bloody frenzy throughout, this film mostly stays tight and becomes a neat compact zone of watery fright. Aja does a great job of mixing in jump scares with eye-averting gore but better than these qualities, the director and writers have constructed a brilliant level of apprehension, one which sustains its tension as the flood levels grow higher and higher.

Unlike ‘Jaws’; the monster movie to always be referred back to, which slowly reveals the visuals of its great white threat, this 2019 film whams in straight away with a beastly alligator submerged in a crawl space. At first it dampens the impact of any tension to the ongoing terror of the Keller’s but eventually constantly seeing their immense size and killer instinct works to throw us right into the heart of the agitating atmosphere, and we all know what they look like so why hide their face.

It’s a movie that can be viewed like a video game, levelling up in tension and monster-induced fear. The narrative goes from house basement and crawl space, to stairs, to outside to living room, bathroom and above which is wonderfully written because it keeps the setting in a mostly singular and therefore claustrophobic space and ups the stakes at each point the film threatens to become samey.

Kaya Scodelario is a swimstar who plays the plucky lead with believable skill in both her comfort of water, traversing the depths and handling herself in sticky situations. The sight of her dealing with injury, elevated disaster and numerous scaly scares are awesomely handled by the actor.

‘Crawl’ chomps at the bit to throw in waves of fun gator greatness but it’s within the character building of Haley and the quieter, tense breaks that this film is a stimulating watch.

7.5/10

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

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Adapted from a children’s book and helped along by a screen story from Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro, is this horror that says “some stories hurt, some stories heal”, but does this one scare or bore you?

In the late 60’s on Halloween night, a trio of friends prank a local jock as payback, which has them bumping into a new town dweller. As a foursome they check out a haunted house supposedly stalked by the presence of Sarah Bellows; a spirit that told stories to children who eventually wound up dead. After Stella (Zoe Colletti) takes her book from the house, a new set of stories appear in blood and spell literal death for them all.

Andre Ovredal, director of ‘Trollhunter’ grapples with more larger than life beasties and does so in a way that keeps the level of misty-filled, Thriller-esque paranormal chills at a steady pace. The main issue is that the film with a UK 15 rating feels neither approachable enough to link it back to the 12-13 year old-focused audience of the source material nor terrifying enough to be a great horror.

Perhaps with a toned down treatment this movie could have been a more fun and friendly Gothic ghost story, akin to the wonder of a cartoon show I grew up watching called ‘Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids’, but it veers off into ‘The Conjuring’ territory with names like the Pale Lady and the Jangly Man, who are nowhere near as scary as the film possibly thinks they are.

There are good moments where the tension reaches a fever pitch and a general old school haunted house vibe works nicely as if this creepy collection of tales bound in a dusty book could be narrated to you at bedtime but the reliance on the dull jump-scare motif and a dependence on off putting CGI severely yanks you out of any possible immersion that is built up just before the monster rears its ugly head. None more so than a really nicely set up sequence in ‘The Red Spot’ which sees a gross pimple on someone swell and redden with a nasty surprise inside, the visceral yuck nature of it is nightmarish and unsettling but is ruined by a tumble of computer graphics that makes the shivers seem like a distant memory.

‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ is a fine film with bonafide moments of horror and it does indeed hold your interest for the duration but like an author bursting with a golden idea to start, yet lacking a solid middle or end, this story begins sagging with characters devoid of major likeability and it cannot quite lift itself out of the slump.

5.5/10

 

Good Boys (2019)

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From the minds that gave us ‘Superbad’ and ‘Sausage Party’ comes this equally expletive-laden misadventure. Only this time around, the supposed selling point is, that we’re not watching teens or animated food curse and cause calamity, but 12 year olds do it. Does having youngsters tread the staple route of trying to be cool and party pay off or is this plain bad?

Max (Jacob Tremblay) is invited to a kissing party where he hopes to finally make a move with the girl he crushes on. After getting his best pals AKA the Bean Bag Brothers along for the ride they realise they need to learn how to be more grown-up and understand how to kiss; this kicks off a series of events where they desperately hope to be cool, remain friends and not be grounded.

Let me start with the exceptionally low amount of positives. I’ll even list them for as there’s only four:

  1. The sight of the mates walking home slightly apart from one another after a bawl and break up is somewhat amusing.
  2. Tremblay reloading a fake gun and his weak-ass bedroom work out.
  3. A school initiative to prevent bullying called the SCAB squad.
  4. Will Forte

Aside from that bare rundown, this film is doggedly keen to force smut and adult humour onto the lips of tween stars. That is literally the idea of this movie. Any story is non-existent and barely serves to string moments of porn inspired stupidity or s and f-bombs together, which constantly plague the run-time.

There’s nothing you haven’t seen before within this insanely juvenile flick. Drones, crossing heavy traffic, parties, frat boys, drugs, developing strain on friendship before inevitably being all alright again. The only difference is that all these attributes are dispatched into the hands of prepubescent actors, who aren’t old enough to watch the film themselves, lucky devils.

‘Good Boys’ is ‘The Happytime Murders’ of 2019, even released very close to the same time of year. Where the latter coasted on the idea of having puppets swear, screw and swig booze, the former does the same swapping out fuzzy characters for youngsters. It’s a painful film to sit through, not even the try-hard antics of their comradery can save the ruthless desire to point and laugh at tweens say or do naughty things and the numerous usage of that age old American belief that slapstick is funny, only goes to further the fact that this is a terrible movie.

‘Good Boys’ thuds down like a badly piloted drone and scrapes its lame and tired premise through nearly 90 minutes of crud, that had me praying for a projection failure and an early exit.

3/10

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

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Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is back with his self-claimed 9th feature; a rejigging of a closing curtain to the golden age of cinema. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ fuses together a host of proficient profiles over a selection of stories set in 1969, but does the director strike gold?

Told from February to August ’69, we follow the lives of TV and struggling movie actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who happen to cross paths with the rising talent of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). As they all traverse the swinging summer of Los Angeles, they may wind up in the cross-hairs of Charles Manson and his family.

The name of this movie speaks volumes for the fairy-tale aspect of Tarantino’s story. In fact the title appears at the very end over a final shot as if posing a what if scenario in the history rewriting manner you come to expect from QT. You can clearly see the time and honour poured into the directors’ love letter to the cinematic and televisual era. It’s a bold movie with the sight and sounds of L.A show business and the hippy scene grooving with a doubtless richness.

The TV and movie landscape are framed like a commentary, with narration sweeping over the very beginning and then returning in the last third to have us grasp the changing career path of Rick Dalton; a man whose ups and downs are perfectly portrayed by DiCaprio. You can see the actor having a solidly good time playing the chain-smoking, semi-stuttering star; someone almost left behind by Hollywood as he hoped to break onto the silver screen.

As to be predicted with any Quentin billing, the dialogue is ever-constant and rife with zings and sensational cool. One moment in particular is when Dalton appears on a show called ”Lancer” opposite Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy. This scene goes both in front and behind the camera with beautifully laden writing, yet it’s not only the speaking qualities of Tarantino’s screenplay that are glittering, the visual elements that make up the late 60s are glourious. The American pilot season is detailed with excellence, the adoration for classic film theatres and the happening parties jostling with famous faces are all wonderfully encapsulated throughout this picture.

It’s obvious that Tarantino is revelling in the idea of splicing Rick Dalton into real life shows and movies whilst coming up with his own concepts and because of this you cannot help but take pleasure in his accomplishment. Creativity isn’t just his Red Apple brand and new addition Wolf’s Tooth as sometimes he can go a smidge too far, so knowing the life of Sharon Tate and her cruel fate at the hands of drug-addled cult members were possible basis for part of the story was of course a worry, especially when Tarantino and his no-holds barred approach to making movies is concerned, but gladly he knows not to tread over the line and in regards to Tate and her friends the film is respectable and showcases her as a glowing ray of goodness, far removed from the sick ideals of the Manson group.

Speaking of, a scene right in the midst of the talkies magnificence provides sheer chills. Spahn Ranch is a dusty backdrop once utilised for movies now taken over by bare foot gals and from time to time, Charles Manson. The vibe that Cliff Booth and we walk into is immediately loaded with suspense, a truly unsettling sequence. The cult collective get their dues in typical QT fashion though, just when you think the auteur has forgotten about his violent overload, you’re bowled over by a final act that will divide some but had me gripped and grinning.

Even with all the glitzy L.A establishments, neon signs and movie sets, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is not Quentin’s best. Margot Robbie even with her infectious smile has little to do, the cinema making nature can often feel like it’s his most Academy baited outing and it doesn’t enrapture you at every single point. Weirdly, considering the extremity of the last moments, it comes across like a safe bet, one that I loved but still wasn’t swept away by.

A sprawling cast of actors, warmth in its recapturing of a heyday time and a class soundtrack curated by the extensive knowledge of Tarantino do combine to create a captivating film; one with more foot imagery than a chiropodist can match, but it just felt like it was missing that special something.

8/10