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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews – 10 Oct, 2019

Jim Schembri

HUSTLERS *** (110 minutes)   MA

After a lucrative ride skimming New York’s exclusively male 1% of their easily-earned money, a group of hardcore-living, hardcore-loving pole dancers hit hard times as the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis sweeps across the strip clubs and lapdance rooms of the world.

Dancer Destiny (Constance Wu) had managed to erase most of her crippling debts through dancing thanks to the tutelage of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), a veteran stripper with a strong head for business and a great taste in furs. But with the pool of white-collar suckers now dried out she and her close circle of stripper friends find themselves strapped for work and the cascades of cash they were accustomed to.

Ever the entrepreneur, Ramona hits upon a clever, if devilish scheme: seduce their male victims, drug them, then siphon their credit cards for all they’re worth while their clients are passed out.

The ruse works like a charm, the great thing about this new business model being that the girls can leave the dingy, deteriorating confines of the strip club and work on their own out of plush hotel rooms, secure in the knowledge that the men they rip off are likely to keep their squalid encounter as a dirty little secret, lest their home lives collapse.

Those with long memories might remember Demi Moore in Striptease (1996) and Elizabeth Berkley in the unfairly maligned Showgirls (1995), with which Hustlers bears some similarity, though only in its flash and dazzle. This film, to its credit, has a lot more grit.

Based on a true story, Hustlers is a flashy, well-made crime comedy-drama, confidently directed by Lorene Scafaria (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist; Seeking a Friend for the End of the World).

Unavoidably, there is a lot for men to look at in this film, yet there’s a lot more to Hustlers than T&A.

The film wisely has moral ballast about what these women do, so anyone looking for a quasi-feminist revenge-against-men lark might be disappointed.

If anything, the film challenges the idea that the strippers are simply beating their victims at their own game by casting them as the guilt-free perpetrators of the financial crisis. Such rationales don’t hold up in the face of harsh reality, such as when men don’t react the way they expect.

Strutting a fine line between comedy and drama, what really sparks the film is Jennifer Lopez, whose solid lead performance here sizzles with a conviction that takes her beyond the rom-com fluff she usually does, no insult intended. (Last year’s cozy low-budget charmer Second Act took a neat $80 million).

As Ramona, she’s a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners business woman whose willingness to fleece clients is matched only by her contempt for them, her conscience having long ago given way to hard practicalities and the need to succeed.

And, to be frank, she absolutely looks the part. J.Lo, who also co-produced the film, apparently trained for months on the pole for the role – and it shows. Her toned, Amazonian physique seems designed to announce to the world that 50 is the new 30 – and it’s an easy sell. She looks incredible.

The film does leave one major plot point unexplained. The women keenly incorporate sexual services as part of their gig.

Yet it’s never made clear why they decide to engage in crime rather than simply designing a business model solely around their sex work. According to the rates given in the film, they could easily have been earning tens of thousands of dollars a week by doing more of what they were already doing, and with almost no risk.

Still, that’s only a minor quibble in an otherwise enjoyable, surprisingly engaging, slightly naughty film that doubles as a cautionary tale about knowing when to take your stripper heels off the pedal.

 

WORKING WOMAN **** (94 minutes; subtitled) MA

The intricacies of the power dynamics behind sexual harassment in the workplace are aired out in all their subtlety and savagery in this excellent Israeli drama.

Far from the hysteria that typically sets the tone for any discussion on the topic, director Michal Aviad (who co-wrote the film with Michal Vinik and Sharon Azulay) deals with office-bound sexual assault by focussing on a single situation.

In need of money to support her children and help her struggling restaurateur husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen), Orna (Liron Ben-Shlush) lands a plum job as assistant to real estate developer Benny (Menashe Noy).

He’s dreaming big about the beachside tower of high-class luxury apartments he has under construction, and Orna quickly proves what an asset she is to his marketing and sales.

Their working relationship grows ever closer on what appears to be a basis of mutual respect. Then a misread signal results in an unwanted romantic gesture.

After copious apologies, their work continues and thrives, and though Orna seems comfortable with her relationship with her boss, Aviad’s deftly understated direction continually hints to an unsettling sense that more is to come, that Benny’s playfulness is a coded warning Orna should heed.

With an unforced hand – and without resorting to the type of dramatic confrontations that an American version of this story would no doubt have engaged – Aviad slowly unpacks the manner in which workplace power can be slyly manipulated to create situations of opportunity while masking predatory behaviour.

Not surprisingly, Liron Ben-Shlush recently took out Israel’s highest acting award for her sterling performance, though it’s the quiet menace of Noy’s portrait of Benny that really builds the tension.

At a time when the #metoo debate has largely descended into shouting matches that renders the participants deaf to each other – how did such an important idea get derailed so quickly? – Working Woman soundly demonstrates how hot-button topics are best dissected with a cool head.

To wit, the film’s final shot really does demonstrate the old adage of how less is more.

 

GEMINI MAN *** (117 minutes) M

The prospect of an action film starring two Will Smiths? Hmm. It might have sounded like a hot idea back when Will Smith was, well, hot and head-lining terrific multiplex mulch such as Hancock, I Am Legend, Hitch and, of course, the Men in Black movies.

Alas, Smith went a tad off-the-boil when his 2013 sci-fi epic After Earth, in which he co-starred with son Jaden, did only half the business his other big action films did. He mulled it over, then consciously turned away from big films in favour of more dramatic turns in some pretty good low-key movies such as Focus, Concussion and Collateral Beauty.

Ahh, but who among Hollywood’s true greats can long resist the siren song of the mega-hit? Certainly not our beloved Fresh Prince, who turned up as the genie in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, which took a cool billion, and Suicide Squad, which rung up about $750 million.

And now here he is, in and as Gemini Man, a pretty sweet, superbly mounted action jam in which Smith plays Henry Brogan, a once-great government assassin who is hunted by a younger, slightly cuter version of himself.

After a gig where he manages to dispatch a scientist on an approaching bullet train with a single shot, Brogan becomes worried that he’s losing his edge and so decides to retire before he starts killing the wrong people.

Trouble is, he’s been tricked by his government into doing exactly that and once he finds out they target him for termination.

But how do you get the better of somebody everyone considers the best? Simple. Use the clone of him you secretly made decades ago whose killer skill set haven’t been subject to the ageing process.

Enter Will the Younger, the product of a super-secret cloning program the military is super-excited about exploiting.

So the hunt is on and, boy, when this film moves it moves with the speed and precision of a master juggler on a unicycle. With the ever-able Mary Elizabeth Winstead along for the ride, the action sequences are grand and eye-popping, intricately choreographed and sharply edited.

Director Ang Lee is clearly tapping into the big-screen instincts he deployed when making the epochal Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and, with the assistance of Australian-born cinematographer Dion Beebe, delivers some great moments, including one of the best motorcycle chases you’re likely to see for a while.

Regrettably , the finer sensibilities Lee employed on the more sedate dramas he is known for (Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Eat Drink Man Woman, etc) are not in evidence here.

This accounts, no doubt, for why the “human” part of the story involving the clone and its parentage drop into the movie like load of cinder bricks. Clive Owen tries hard as a shady government mastermind, but Lee can’t quite sell these moments. Thankfully, they’re brief.

Now, if the plot of this movie sounds vaguely like the kind of high-end pulp Arnold Schwarzenegger would have made decades ago before he went into politics, you’re right.

The reason the concept of Gemini Man has a formula feel to it is because of Arnie. He has spent more time on screen dealing with versions of himself and with multiple identities than anyone – check: The 6th Day; Total Recall; Last Action Hero; Raw Deal; True Lies, Escape Plan  even Terminator – and it’s no surprise that during Gemini Man’s long gestation process he was one of a huge slew of actors who at one point or other had their name attached to Gemini Man.

(The Wikipedia list is formidable, including such biggies as: Brad Pitt; Tom Cruise; Clint Eastwood; Harrison Ford; Mel Gibson; Jon Voight; Nicolas Cage; Sean Connery; and Sylvester Stallone.)

Smith is no Schwarzenegger to be sure, yet he brings his distinctive swagger to his first concerted re-entry into the action genre.

By the way, Gemini Man is being presented in the latest you-beaut, super-dooper format known as 3D+. This not only gives you the movie in 3D, but at a super-sharp 60 frames per second rather than the standard 24.

Alas, the film doesn’t need it. Indeed, nobody needs it.

Peter Jackson tried out HFR (Higher Frame Rates) when he released The Hobbit in 2012, but the shiny video look didn’t grab audiences.

As for 3D, the brief bump in the format’s popularity following the phenomenon of James Cameron’s 3D epic Avatar (2009) simply didn’t last, despite some hard pushing by Hollywood heavy hitters such as Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg.

So now we’re getting both gimmicks crammed into one – and guess what? The only moment that really uses the 3D effect effectively is a standard comin’-at-ya moment where things are thrown directly at the lens and into your face.

It’s yet more proof that while 3D is fine for event films that are designed for the format – such as Ang Lee’s superb Life of Pi – beyond that it’s essentially the gimmick it was when it tried scaring teenagers back in the 1950s.

 

GREEN LIGHT *** (70 minutes) M

Any doubts that the recent decision by the federal government to pump $3 million into medicinal cannabis research was a good idea are pretty much swept away by Green Light, a timely, punchy, highly emotional documentary that takes an uncomfortably close look at the benefits of cannabis oil.

Careful to dodge the police, director Ned Donohoe joins two altruistic gents, Nicholas Morley and “CBD Luke”, as they help people with cancer deal with their conditions, often with startling results.

Much of the evidence presented is anecdotal and very moving as patients explain how problems that were deemed hopeless by mainstream medicine have vastly improved thanks to the aid these men offer.

Made with conviction and a clear agenda, the film highlights the urgency for such treatments to be made widely available, though it stops short of excoriating official bureaucracy for dragging its feet.

A brief but memorable moment early on contrasts the ease of access those in other countries enjoy compared to the labyrinthine procedures Australians in dire need of new treatments presently have to go through.

 

THE RISE OF JORDAN PETERSON *** (89 minutes)

The who, what, why and how behind the phenomenal rise of Canadian clinical psychologist/author/professor Jordan Peterson gets a very thorough, if workman-like detailing by director Patricia Marcoccia in a feature-length look at his life, philosophies and motivations.

Replete with news footage from anti-Peterson demonstrations, the film tracks his controversial popularity from 2016, when he pushed back against legislation demanding all people address trans people by their preferred pronouns, an act that turned Peterson into a free speech advocate and online sensation.

Critics get their say about Peterson’s impact, including some who have done battle with him on YouTube. (Alas, there’s but a snippet of the viral train wreck interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.)

Marcoccia followed Peterson for years and was present with her camera at many of the stoushes he had with angry students who see him as a transphobic bigot. Even an old friend comes out against him, worried that his good intentions have soured into damaging divisiveness.

Side note: The film screens 7pm, 10 October at the Jam Factory. It is presented through Fan Force, which holds screenings of specialty films once enough tickets to the event have been sold. It’s a crowd-sourcing concept that allows one-off and limited screenings of films for people who have directly supported the session through advanced ticket sales. It’s a fresh concept that offers an alternative, accessible exhibition platform, and is rapidly taking hold.

Jim Schembri
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