Film critic Calum Cooper reviews the week’s newest releases, including the fun and dazzaling Hustlers, the ambitious if slightly pretentious Ad Astra, and the dreadful The Kitchen and Rambo: Last Blood.
Hustlers – ★★★★☆
Beneath the glam, glitz, and grit of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is a moving film on the power of solidarity. You would think those who pull a hustling scam would be in it purely for themselves and the financial benefits. While that is a big factor in this case, the film is more concerned with companionship and sisterhood, as demonstrated in this dazzling, layered, and thoroughly entertaining work of cinema.
Based on a New York Magazine article from Jessica Pressler, thus making this a biopic as much as a crime drama, Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians plays Dorothy, aka Destiny. She is talking to an investigative journalist (Julia Styles) about a time in which she and three other women, Ramona, Annabelle, and Mercedes (Jennifer Lopez, Lili Reinhart, and Keke Palmer respectively) pulled off an immense scam on several wealthy men, by getting them drunk, taking them to a strip club and getting them to spend several thousand on both the club and them. As ex-strippers who got let off by the 2008 financial crash, the film explores how these women pulled off such an ambitious hustle, and their reasons for doing it.
Character is the prime factor at work in Hustlers. The film refreshingly takes its time establishing its leading ladies, specifically Dorothy and Ramona, as hard-working people who were dealt bad hands in life. We open in 2007, when business was good for them during their time as strippers. Ramona takes Dorothy under her wing and teaches her about customer types and ways to get their attention and affection.
In other words, the characters spend time getting to know each other, and so the audience does too. We learn about complicated pasts and home lives, and what it is these women ultimately want out of life. Because of this, we find ourselves very invested in their stories, with Scafaria writing each character with empathy and humanity. They feel like fledged human beings committed to each other on a plane of understanding. It means that when times get dark and the characters begin hustling, or when the hustle grows more successful and some characters get greedy where others get remorseful or desperate, we fully understand why, even if we don’t necessarily agree with their actions.
With sharp and observant writing and direction from Scafaria on top of its brilliant cast, Hustlers becomes more than just Scorsese in stilettos, blossoming into a smart, funny, and heart-breaking look into the power of female camaraderie.
Scafaria leans heavily into Scorsese filmography when crafting her film, whether that be the classical soundtrack, voice over narration or usage of tracking shots. Stylistically it’s an appropriate choice given the initial darkness of the subject matter. But the film distinguishes itself with its bright and bubbly tone. Its comedic edge is very strong, leaning into the uniqueness and arguable absurdity of this particular scam. But it also knows how to have a good time, framing the film in the same vein as a night out in the city with your girlfriends, which adds to the film’s celebratory attitude towards sisterhood and solidarity during troubling times. This may lead to one too many scenes of consumerist floundering, but given the struggles the characters must endure, it’s not as if the rampant shopping sprees are unearned.
Anchoring the film’s smart themes and stylish presentation is our leading ensemble, all of whom have incredible chemistry together. Constance Wu’s conflicted but strong-headed Dorothy serves as the emotional core and identifiable narrator, bringing the audience in on the laughs and the tears, especially when it comes to the substantive bond she and Ramona share with one another.
However, Jennifer Lopez steals the show, giving a career-best performance as the Hustlers’ ring leader Ramona. She is both the warm mother figure and the stern brains of the operation, and Lopez wonderfully encapsulates the complexities of these roles, adding many of her own unique touches effortlessly, strengthening the chemistry between herself and Wu, and reinforcing both the light and the darkness of the material. I’ve heard potential Oscar buzz around Lopez’s performance, and I wouldn’t rule it out, for it really is the driving force behind much of this film’s success.
Combine all that and we have a film that delights as much as it shocks. Hustlers is an entertaining romp that offers precisely what its marketing suggests, but it’s far more emotionally satisfying than you may initially suspect. With sharp and observant writing and direction from Scafaria on top of its brilliant cast, Hustlers becomes more than just Scorsese in stilettos, blossoming into a smart, funny, and heart-breaking look into the power of female camaraderie. And I had a blast watching it.
Ad Astra – ★★★☆☆
James Gray’s Ad Astra is not conventional sci-fi. It has the grand scale and visuals you come to expect from the genre, but its ideas are much more rooted in humanity than spectacle. It’s a welcome new approach to a known formula, making for an engaging film, albeit a self-absorbed one.
Set in the near future, Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, a space engineer working on a colossal antenna. He survives a fall when the antenna is damaged in an anti-matter surge. But he is then informed that the surge may have come from a distant space ship at the edge of the solar system. This ship, which was part of a mission called The Lima Project, was captained by Roy’s father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), who Roy believed dead for years. Not only may Clifford be alive, but, as the surges could result in intergalactic devastation, his intentions may be hostile. And so Roy is sent to Mars, and later to distant space to communicate with, and hopefully find, his father.
You could easily craft a sci-fi adventure or space opera from an idea like that. But Ad Astra’s focus is on Roy, who is not your typical protagonist. He isn’t burly or menacing. He’s reserved and introverted, to the point where narration covers a big chunk of his dialogue, and his pulse never goes above a certain amount. Brad Pitt gives a remarkably restrained performance in a role in which nothing is surface level. His demeanour suggests calm and organised, but it is really a cover for a storm of emotions that Pitt captures magnificently with so few words.
READ MORE FROM FILMSPACE: The Farewell
This allows the film to explore concepts that transcend the stars – specifically loneliness and fatherhood. Roy and his father’s relationship is front and centre throughout the film, although they share very few scenes together. This is because the film is more about how fatherhood impacts on the son, and how the child constantly lives in the shadow of the parent. Clifford is a hailed astronaut, but his career caused him to be absent for chunks of Roy’s life. When he was home, he instilled old-fashioned values onto Roy, who didn’t agree with them, but tried to follow them so there would be even a semblance of a connection between father and son. This is what makes Roy such an interesting character, as he is an individual who has tried so hard to craft himself from his father’s ideals that he doesn’t really know who he is, going as far to travel to the stars to find himself as much as his father.
Visually the film adds to these ideas. Space is vast and beautiful, but it is also deadly and mostly empty. The planets and stars look gorgeous, but there’s so much void to fly through just to get to one of them. It’s a lonely existence when you don’t know yourself, making space the perfect backdrop for both the film’s visual splendour, and for Roy’s deep character journey.
With all that said, the film feels strangely cluttered. Its ideas are ambitious and admirable, and the film knows it, yet they ultimately form the bulk of my enjoyment. But the story takes a lot of detours around them, as if it’s afraid the audience won’t accept them on their own. At times it loses the philosophical edge in favour of outright action, such as a fist fight during a take-off or an especially ridiculous scene involving moon pirates, which, as far as I can recall, didn’t play into the film whatsoever. Furthermore, some of its other ideas, such as the religious allegories, I don’t think are as developed as they could have been, simply as it relies on images and connections; making references and imagery because it can rather than how use them to invigorate the story. It changes the tone quite suddenly, and sometimes even affects the pacing, when it would’ve been much smoother sailing if it had honed in on its strengths rather than try to have its cake and eat it.
Then again, the film has done very well among some circles, so this could just be me. I am one of those guys who loved Interstellar after all, so maybe take my opinion with an extra grain of salt here. Some have called Ad Astra First Reformed in space, a branding I’m not convinced by, but I did find it enjoyable overall. A little full of itself at times, and at others unsure how to fully commit to its ideas, but its fascinating lead character and the themes that do work are what ultimately make the film worth a watch.
The Kitchen – ★☆☆☆☆
A tedious wee film called The Kitchen is also out in cinemas. Here’s a prime example of a movie with a solid setup, yet has no clue what it wants to do with it, or even what kind of film it wants to be. Between its stars, its writer, and its director, it’s a squandering if ever I’ve seen one.
Based on a series of DC comics, Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss are Kathy, Ruby, and Claire. They are wives to three mob members in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, each of whom is abusive whether physically or mentally. When their husbands are jailed for three years, the mob promises to take care of the trio. But when the mob aren’t making good on their promise, the three decide to band together and form their own empire. But naturally, as with any organisation, complications arise between them, their husbands, their past mob, and even among themselves.
The setup I’ve described above is decent enough to carry a story in its entirety. Except the story is tonally and narratively all over the place. Consider the way the trio form their empire. It is completely rushed through. They go from domestic victims to criminal masterminds within minutes, as if the script fast-forwarded to the sequel. I get that the point of the film is to showcase the circular nature of violence, but why not just have the film open on their empire then? Why waste paper writing a 30 minute prologue just to glance over narrative pillars when convenient?
Grit and seriousness comes to mind when you hear a premise like this, and the film does adopt this canvas at times. But at other times, the film tries to tickle your funny bone. Domnhall Gleeson eventually joins the crew (and very suddenly I might add) as an enforcer, and some of his highlights include awkwardly teaching Claire how to dissect a human. How charming.
Because they are defined purely by their situations and not their personalities, we find ourselves losing empathy with the characters the further into the story we get. We don’t find their actions justified, no matter how many times the film insists that they are.
The film is written and directed by Andrea Berloff, who has proven how great she can be in the past. She was Oscar-nominated for co-writing Straight Outta Compton after all. But her script is monstrously underwritten. It’s as if she was trying to fit in as much source material as possible, but left no room for story or character in between the adaptions. As such, we’re left with no clear image on what she was trying to do. Only vague possibilities.
Even the way the film is made is jumbled. Coating the screen is an ugly beige colour palette that I’m guessing is supposed to be atmospheric, but instead makes it look like someone was sick on the lens. The editing adds to the narrative discourse. Scenes don’t flow together at all, and seemingly important players and pieces are discarded as quickly as they are introduced.
This wouldn’t matter as much if the characters in question were clearly defined, but they aren’t. The film places a lot of focus on our leading ladies, constantly attempting to showcase how they are as much victims as they are instigators of violence. This is initially true when you consider their home lives – should it be racism, domestic abuse or stereotyped house roles. But because they are defined purely by their situations and not their personalities, we find ourselves losing empathy with the characters the further into the story we get. We don’t find their actions justified, no matter how many times the film insists that they are. Stories like this should be about how people become better than their abusers, not replace them. Then again, character motivations is this film are a dime a dozen, changing so often and so suddenly that your brain just crashes from the messiness.
With scattershot writing and ideas, and less than convincing commitment from the cast and crew, The Kitchen offers little to no nutritional value for audience entertainment. It’s not so much the dog’s bollocks as it is just plain bollocks.
Rambo: Last Blood – ★☆☆☆☆
Sylvester Stallone has often spoken about finding the right conclusion for one of his most iconic roles, John Rambo. He needs to keep searching. Being a bad sequel is irritating enough, but Last Blood’s biggest crime is its complete inability to recognise where the strength of Rambo came from. Even where shut-your-brain-off action films are concerned, this simply isn’t good enough.
The fifth film in the franchise, Rambo: Last Blood sees John Rambo living the quiet life on his farm, with his friend Maria (Adrianna Barraza) and her granddaughter Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), who Rambo has unofficially adopted. Gabriela runs away to Mexico to track down her biological father. While there she is abducted by the cartel, run by brothers Hugo and Victor Martinez. So Rambo suits up and heads to Mexico to save her.
At least that’s the prologue. But seeing as it takes about 60 of the film’s 89 minutes, it’s more meaty than the actual meat of the film, which eventually sees Rambo taking what appears to be the entire cartel back to his place so he can slaughter them via Home Alone style booby traps. Take it for what you will.
What makes Last Blood an especially terrible film is not just its borderline racist attitude towards Mexicans (who are all portrayed as either drug-lords, rapists, counterfeiters or victims – and that’s not limited to the cartel), but the fact that it trades in what made Rambo such a great film in favour of lowest common denominator action. Rambo is an entertaining action film, but it’s fundamentally a poignant tale of someone struggling to live a normal life after the horrors of war. It’s about a broken man trying to mend his life, but not knowing how to do it. His ability to kill is a symptom of his trauma, not a coping mechanism.
Rambo is now a poisonous pipe dream rather than a humanistic portrayal of a traumatised man who happened to be good with guns. Sylvester Stallone delivering his most phoned in performance in years doesn’t make this butchering any easier.
Last Blood, on the other hand, seems to think that broken bones, scars and ripping out hearts is what the franchise is all about. I would be much more forgiving of this if the action was at least watchable. Not only is the craftsmanship shoddy via erratic shaky cam and jumpy editing, but its excessive and graphic usage of violence feels fetishized in execution. Open wounds are honed in on and revelled in, while moments of oversaturated cruelty, whether in the form of torture or psychological degrading, are drawn out for as long as possible, creating a real unpleasant aroma to its presentation.
The film is well within its rights to disgust if wishes to. But all it cost them was the semblance of character. Rambo is no longer a tormented man who only killed when he felt he had to. He’s no longer a torn apart soul struggling to cope with the past. Instead he’s your medieval toxic male whose muscles are mostly for compensation. An all-knowing family man who doesn’t put a foot wrong to save the helpless female from foreign “savages”. Rambo is now a poisonous pipe dream rather than a humanistic portrayal of a traumatised man who happened to be good with guns. Sylvester Stallone delivering his most phoned in performance in years doesn’t make this butchering any easier.
What it leaves us with is a remarkably foul experience that feels so much longer than its 90 minute runtime. It’s repulsive, dim-witted, poorly made, and primeval in its convictions, while simultaneously betraying what made Rambo so iconic in favour of sloppy action and regressive male fantasies. This makes Last Blood not only a weak sequel but one of 2019’s weakest films. Towards the final act, Maria tells Rambo, “I will be sad until the day I die.” I can relate.