Hustlers

A group of strippers learn to cheat their way into wealth by luring greedy, wealthy Wall street clients and drugging them into spending all their money at their club, in a desperate attempt to take their lives back after the 2008 economic collapse cuts into their profits.

What could’ve easily been a laughable, terrible misfire instead shines at the hands of its two leads and an engaging screenplay boasted by a vibrant style. Jennifer Lopez sticks out as the “mentor” of the gang who I’ve never seen with this much depth on the screen. Lopez’s energy and her chemistry with Constance Wu make the film, with Wu’s turn here being grounded, layered, and far above her work in Crazy Rich Asians. The casting also brings back names that haven’t been prominent on screen before — I was afraid Julia Stiles’ career had died with her Jason Bourne character, and Keke Palmer was last notably seen ten years ago on in her True Jackson role on Nickelodeon, which not many remember either. Lili Reinhart also hasn’t really had a known big-screen role before and was only popular before for her leading role on the teen series Riverdale. One cast member, however, that I was glad we didn’t see a lot of was Cardi B, whose irritating, unbearable presence is only around for one scene, almost as if the studio forced the writers to put her in just to gain more audiences. However the rest of the cast proves you don’t need more than one or two popular names to attract audiences for this kind of concept. The script often hits the same notes as every other scam film, like The Wolf of Wall Street, Catch Me if You Can, War Dogs, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and so on — so it’s not hard to see where the movie will end. But it’s the seemingly ridiculous/over-the-top yet true concept, and the sisterly connection between the two leads, that make Hustlers worthwhile. The flashy, fast-paced style sometimes makes for some strong energy but it also leads to some parts being rushed past or feel undermined, like some scenes that include music in the background that would’ve worked better without the background score. There’s also some inconsistencies in the style, with some distracting handheld cam that thankfully calms down as the film goes. Also, though the film is quite funny, the writers choose to play it safe in the first act with mostly sex jokes or physical humor (“character who throws up often” cliche, characters getting drugged and passing out, etc. I was glad things got especially crazed in the second half where the plot is very engaging and sticks the landing towards the end. Hustlers can be viewed both through the lens of a comedy and a drama, andwhile it soars but occasionally stumbles at both, it’s got a spark of intrigue and excitement at its core that it makes it, while not a must-watch, stand out above other big genre players out right now like Hobbs and Shaw or It Chapter Two.

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It Chapter Two

Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until they must return to Derry and band together once again when their worst fear returns.

The massively hyped duology adapting one of Stephen King’s most beloved and terrifying novels comes to a close with It Chapter Two, following the mighty success of the first It. In the first film, a group of kids banded together and formed the Losers Club, using their camaraderie and their heart to defeat the being that feeds off their fears, but now that same being has returned and summons them back together as adults. The leading cast is great, including James McAvoy who shines as Bill, a fearless kid from the first film who led the group, though his on-and-off stutter make his performance slightly confusing. The standout was certainly Jessica Chastain who blesses the screen with her marvelous presence yet again, with her range, from joy to remorse to terror, all make Bev a standout character once again. But also worth noting is SNL alum Bill Hader in what’s definitely his best film role ever, playing the hilarious Ritchie who also gets more layers as the film progresses. Also impressive is Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, although this time around, he has less moments to strike fear into audiences again.

It Chapter Two‘s main strength definitely lies in its cast, as well as the theme of how being together is what helped these people become their best selves and overcome their fears. However, where Chapter Two stumbles is finding merit outside of what viewers already learned in the first film. There’s a lot of flashbacks to the Losers Club when they were kids, but above that, it seems like Warner Bros. felt like they kept having to remind us what the first movie was about, resulting with the pacing being dragged down with repetitive scenes of Pennywise taking advantage of each individual member through their fears — both through flashbacks and present day scenes. Of course every character needs layer, but extending the runtime so long to the point where they had to bring back nearly every plot point from the predecessor feels unreasonable and tiring. The movie keeps treading this same ground for a while, reminding us for too long about the character relations, arcs and events from the first film, until it ultimately becomes a rehash of that movie. It brings back every character including an irritating side character who we thought was gone for good but wastes screentime here with an awful performance. Above all that, there are less horror scenes that will catch the viewer’s attention, although a very note-worthy scene is a terrifying moment in a mirror maze that I cannot spoil.

When the climax finally arrives, it takes place in the exact same location as the first movie’s final standoff, has the exact same “villain tactics” or obstacles as last time, and ends with the same theme yet an even tackier resolution. There’s also an awful subplot thrown in about a ritual that must be performed, and it goes too deeply into the origins of “It” instead of subtly dropping hints that would leave us guessing. There’s a moment in the film where an old woman tells Bev that her “father joined the circus” — the camera then pans up to a picture of a man in the early 1900s near a sign that says “Pennywise” — this is a perfect example of planting small clues about It’s origin, but it didn’t need to actually reveal the whole deal to us, which slightly undermines the mysteriousness and threat of the entity. What director Andy Muschietti unfortunately did not understand is that less is more, when it comes to storytelling. On the contrary, this film becomes unreasonably long and repetitive without finding as much of a purpose or effect as the first did two years ago. If this one didn’t feel the need to be as long as The Hobbit or Interstellar I could definitely see a slightly more effective story coming out without forcing the audiences through too much of the same thing over and over again.

It Chapter Two feels more like an epilogue to the last movie than a sequel or its own film. There are certainly some touching themes and great cast members — especially the wonderful Jessica Chastain and the hysterical Bill Hader. However, there are definitely less memorable horror moments for the general audiences, but worst of all, Chapter Two fails to justify itself as its own film, rather borrowing all the ideas from the first film and saying, “this is how they deal with this stuff, but this time they’re older!” I was definitely looking forward to this but looking back now, the first It certainly holds up just as well as its own story, and this may just be another case of Hollywood stretching out existing franchises beyond a breaking point. Perhaps this follow-up would have worked better if it was actually released 27 years from now, where relying on nostalgia from the first film to craft another crowd-pleasing success may had actually worked instead of just remaining a myth inside of the Warner Bros executive’s heads that makes a for an often tedious and familiar three hours.

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Blinded by the Light

In England in 1987, a teenager from a Pakistani family named Javed aspires to be a writer but feels learns to live his life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.

Blinded by the Light is an urgently needed breath of fresh air from all the big franchise films studios tend to release, so the fact that Warner Bros. picked this film out from Sundance to distribute in a wide release really means a lot. Without much exaggeration or many large Hollywood names, Blinded by the Light has a slightly familiar formula but remains a grounded, touching human story that’s inspiring in just about every way. If I had to describe it in some way, it feels like Yesterday meets Sing Street meets Bend it Like Beckham. It ‘s not only entertaining, funny, and uplifting, but also takes themes such as racial tensions and applies it to a creative and fascinating premise, elevated by a strong cast all around, that doesn’t include many known actors although I’m sure they all will be one day with the talent they deliver here — the one face some viewers may recognize is Captain America‘s Haley Atwell does have a memorable supporting role. But this movie isn’t about seeing the big stars, or the big visual effects, or Oscar worthy acting. This is a film you go to not just to enjoy but to also learn about the importance of passion, dreams, dedication and hard work, but also about family, love, and the bonds that make us who we are. While most these kinds of movies are about following your dreams even when everyone is doubting you or bringing you down, this movie emphasizes pursuing your passion but above that embracing your family and the ones closest to you even when it seems like they’re bringing you down. The great takeaway is that power of dreams, passion, and talent don’t mean the same without familial bonds and togetherness. The movie is also able to add some strong themes about the hardships especially faced by minorities, when the “American dream” seems even more out of reach for this poor immigrant family facing racism, which also connects to today’s time with Islamophobia being a prominent topic in the news. This adds a whole extra layer to the film and makes the themes about dreams and finding your voice even more meaningful. But don’t worry — there’s also lots of humor, musical numbers, and overall positive themes that allow us to have fun while also reflecting on the impact of pop culture on the individual the way Yesterday did. Although it’s currently not shining at the box office, I feel like this is the kind of film that will grow on people over the years and more people will come to watch and love it later on, even if the blockbuster-filled climate of modern cinema prevents audiences from choosing to see it on the big screen. But it’s universal themes will certainly reach out to audiences of all ages and backgrounds — whether or not you’re a fan of The Boss.

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The Farewell

Billi (Awkwafina) and her parents return to China to visit her dying grandmother, who knows nothing of her terminal illness which her entire family is keeping a secret.

The Farewell is big-screen storytelling at is most raw and personal. Every moment of The Farewell feels genuine and nothing about it feels dramatized to feel like a Hollywood movie. Awkwafina completely flips the “annoying side character” perception that I’ve felt from her in past roles, like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, to deliver a stunning performance. Every emotion she delivers lands because feels authentic enough to not be too dramatic but still be a realistic reaction to a situation. She plays an interesting character who doesn’t have lines that feel scripted or forced for the sake of humor, and when she finally arrives at the “Give me an Oscar” monologue, it really delivers because everything she shows throughout the film really leads up to that very moment where it feels like Billi’s arc naturally needs to come here. Zhao Shuzhen also does excellent in the role of Nai Nai, with such great on-screen chemistry with Awkwafina that for the runtime I was able to believe they were actually grandmother and grandaughter. The family relationships are all portrayed very realistically and some of the characters may even remind viewers of their own family members.

I must warn you, however, because I also found The Farewell to be very saddening at times. The dilemma that’s raised throughout the film about whether or not to tell the grandmother that she has mere months to live is always compelling and it’s so sad to imagine this lead character having to say goodbye to her grandma while the grandma doesn’t even know that it’s goodbye. Yes, it is a really sad movie but there’s also the positive side to it, which is to embrace your family and to love every moment with them, and of life in general. This movie was also able to hit me on a personal level like no film has in a long time. As the son of a mother and a father who immigrated from the other side of the world, I too have been felt torn between two cultures and felt conflicted about my identity. The idea of “east vs. west cultures” has always been in my life as the atmosphere in America and my family’s home country aren’t completely the same, though it’s more dramatic in the context of this film. But I too, like Billi, live very far away from my grandparents and the rest of my family and I visit them every summer. It hurts every time I leave because though I was raised American, the people I love the most have always been distant from me, which is why I’m so grateful whenever I’m with them. This movie, despite its tear-jerking premise, is also able to connect with audiences and raise the theme of embracing the relationship with your family and the ones close to you and enjoy every moment you have with them.

The Farewell is beautifully heartfelt, sad, funny, and impactful and will grab onto your heart, not letting go for a moment until the credits roll. It never feels overly Hollywood-ized and all the characters feel real, thanks to fantastic writing and performances that knock it out of the park. Even though it is a PG-rated movie, I do think the emotional weight of the story fits more for a 15+ age range, but I’m sure most teens and definitely all adults will love this film with ideas that speak to all cultures and families.

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Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Frenemies Luke Hobbs and Deckard Shaw must reteam two years after The Fate of the Furious in order to stop a genetically enhanced criminal mastermind from unleashing a deadly virus onto humanity.

I’m normally quite an admirer of this franchise; their storylines aren’t always amazing but they’re ridiculously fun and something that I can’t miss on the big screen. These kinds of huge action movies bring audiences together and normally put a smile on my face. So while I wasn’t expected to be moved by Hobbs & Shaw or see something particularly unique, I was at least expecting more than what I ended up getting. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw lacks the energy and personality that makes this series exciting and memorable. Fast & Furious is about people using cars to pull of unbelievable stunts and going on impossible missions. Meanwhile, Hobbs & Shaw is just another action movie. Is The Fate of the Furious necessarily a great movie with masterclass choreography or some sort of strong message? No. But what makes these movies work so well for what they are is moments like Dwayne Johnson pushing a torpedo with his bare hands or Vin Diesel flying his car through different skyscrapers in Furious 7 that allow the past movies to indulge in the ridiculousness that it is and find merit through crazy popcorn action and likable characters and dialogue. Nothing about the action in this movie has any of that personality that makes the rest of the series’ action, while ridiculous, ultimately entertaining. It’s only in the climactic final battle where the movie allows itself to up the ante, get over-the-top, and actually have somewhat lively fight scenes. The cinematography and editing are also sometimes poor and either too choppy or just not consistent or interesting. The humor, despite some good moments, also falls flat many times and gets tiring. Dwayne Johnson still breathes light and liveliness into his role but after a while him and Jason Statham roasting each other gets old. Also, they made amends at the end of the last film so it’s not even clear why they still hate each other. Another thing that really bugged me is the villain, played by Idris Elba. His character is nonsensical and laughable (I mean you can expect that from this series but can we also ask for a villain that isn’t so absurd you want to laugh at it?). I mean, that’s what this movie is, absurd, and that’s what its supposed to be. But the movie tries to make Elba’s character deep and motivated but it really is hard when his evil organization feels like something out of a bad Ninja Turtles show. His purpose is questionable and his motive is nearly the same as another big villain this year from the film Avengers: Endgame. His antagonist was probably even as bad as Charlize Theron’s character in the last movie. Fortunately, the movie does make up for it with some awesome and unexpected celebrity cameos that are perfectly utilized.

I’m a fan of David Leitch’s directing for Deadpool 2, as well as some spectacular action for an otherwise mediocre debut film Atomic Blonde, and while sometimes the lighting and settings are well selected, the action feels either too quickly edited so it’s hard to take in what’s happening, or just too dull and boringly choreographed. Like I said, Hobbs & Shaw‘s action lacks personality so it feels like this could’ve been out of any standard spy action film worth passing over. The plot has a somewhat cool device involving a virus, but really nothing interesting is done with the story until Hobbs is forced to confront his past and his family in Samoa. The scenes where we see Hobbs’ family and culture being embraced are some of the best parts of the film story-wise, and every other attempt to craft a compelling story fails and there are some lines that don’t really belong. Like I said, I’m not looking for an incredible script with these movies, but at least the past movies were able to make their themes of family and friendship work. Hobbs & Shaw aims for this but it only really lands towards the end, like I said. It feels like writer Chris Morgan, who has worked on this franchise for seven films, has started to lose grip on how to make effective humor and conflict to craft a truly worthwhile blockbuster like he has several times before. When the final act utilizes a unique setting and culture, it becomes amusing, but Hobbs & Shaw unfortunately takes many of the wrong things too seriously and when it does go for comedy, it sometimes doesn’t hit the mark. There’s also a very forced hinting at a romance that thankfully never happens but the writers felt they had to push it into there just to check off a studio box. There’s also an ending that’s pretty abrupt and for some reason the movie decides to tell its entire epilogue through the credits. Believe me, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is quite ridiculous, but it doesn’t succeed in having that personality that makes everyone enjoy the hell out of this franchise, and lacks that energy that got me pumped while watching Fast 5, 6, 7, and 8. Instead this movie feels tiring and doesn’t allow the audience to indulge in the lack of believability, instead it takes the plot too seriously and the humorous banter doesn’t always succeed either. Perhaps this movie would’ve worked better if it was marketed as some sort of parody rather than a real spin-off to a franchise I’ve had better times with. I’m glad next time we’re getting a different director and writer, and some more of Dom, Roman, and Tej. If you want to watch an action comedy where Dwayne Johnson fights people, well, this movie has that. But what I was also hoping for was that spark of energy and exhilaration that has always made the absolute insanity of the Fast & Furious franchise worth it.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

In the golden age of Hollywood in the late 1960s, actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth seek to breathe new light into their careers in an ever-changing industry, while a dangerous cult led by the infamous Charles Manson plans to strike at the heart of Hollywood.

By simply putting the name “Quentin Tarantino” on a film poster, your film is guaranteed to generate excitement and audiences. As a huge fan, I’ve seen all his filmography and wouldn’t say he’s made a bad film yet. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is both the least like Tarantino’s other films, but also the most Tarantino-y of them all. It has less violence than his past movies but it’s also identifiable as a film of his because nobody has more of an attachment to old cinema than Tarantino. Firstly, Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in his welcomed first role in over three years as an actor trying to revitalize his career and pushing himself to become the best. Brad Pitt is a standout as one of his best characters in years, a hilarious and skilled stuntsman who does questionable things but also takes on challenges head-on and just loves to drive. And did I mention the dialogue for his character is incredible? There’s also plenty of Tarantino frequents like Kurt Russell and Michael Madsen as well as other famous actors such as Al Pacino, Damian Lewis, and the late Luke Perry. Margot Robbie’s presence as Sharon Tate has lots of energy and is fun to watch although her character plays a rather minor part in the story.

Tarantino writes many entertaining scenes with funny dialogue as well as a great soundtrack, with outstanding production design and strong cinematography to support the film. However, there are some scenes that unfortunately drag, like an extended scene involving the filming of a fictional movie that’s only there to build up one great moment at the end, and a long scene in the desert that has some tension — until it leads nowhere. The movie is 161 minutes but it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a storyline — I don’t expect a linear narrative or formidable character development when it comes to Tarantino, but it ultimately does feel like too little stretched too thin, unlike Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction where the all-over-the-place stories and long sequences actually led to more going on with something rewarding and unpredictable happening. The real reward here comes at the very end — the climax of the film is pure Tarantino. Violence, laughs, and pure insanity and entertainment make one of the best film sequences of the year — I just wish there was a little more of an interesting buildup to make the rest more rewatchable as well. Tarantino does an excellent job with world-building, and a phenomenal job directing and adding eye-catching production. However, I was surprised when the movie ended because sometimes it felt like he relied on witty dialogue and awesome world-building than plot. There are some very entertaining sequences but some of the long runtime is wasted on scenes that go on too long or weird conversations like an underage girl trying to make it work with a much older man.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to the golden age of cinema. It has fascinating direction like always, with so much passion from Tarantino who takes an unorthodox approach to writing a screenplay like no other modern film, and delivers with extremely memorable characters and dialogue. However, some scenes feel a bit stretched or don’t serve much of a point to the overall idea of the film and there could’ve been a bit more to make the film feel worthy of its long runtime, though there’s an awesome and fulfilling climactic final scene that’s Tarantino at his best. It may be one of his lesser films to me but it’s still worth going to see because there’s enough originality and style to make it interesting, even though some scenes don’t have strong pacing or merit like the genius filmmakers’ other masterpieces which felt more worthy of their extended lengths.

The Lion King (2019)

Disney has been dominating the decade with Marvel, Star Wars, animation (both Pixar and their titular studio), but their series that has divided people the most is their live-action remakes of animated classics. So people were most excited but also nervous when it came to the photoreal-but-actually-still-animated remake of their defining animated feature from the 20th century, The Lion King. First off, on a visual standpoint, this movie is an achievement. It follows the same reign of The Jungle Book in recreating iconic characters and setting to look as real as possible, and it really delivers. All the animals and sets look like an actual picture, even though not a single frame was actually there. It’s amazing to see how far visuals have gone these days, and Disney has been headliner these last few years in consistently breaking the boundaries of what can be done with a computer, whether it’s the amazing action in Avengers and Star Wars films or breathtaking animation in films like Toy Story and Incredibles — but the feats of the CGI completely pay off here in making the illusion unnoticable and making it feel like a more immersive journey. The film is perfectly casted with Donald Glover shining and making something of his own out of Simba’s role here, and it helps that he’s experienced in both acting and singing. Also huge standouts are Timon and Pumbaa, who are scene-stealing and Seth Rogen’s voice espeically fit for Pumbaa. Also worth pointing out is John Oliver who is hysterical as Zazu. However, for some characters, like Scar for example, it’s sometimes hard not to make comparisons to superior versions, like Jeremy Irons who was perfect in the 1994 version. Perhaps neither he nor James Earl Jones needed recasting (the latter of which was thankfully able to return as Mufasa). Speaking of roles from the original, Rafiki’s role was unfortuantely reduced this time around so he feels like less of a mentor to Simba and barely even has dialogue.

The musical numbers are still very fun, espeically the classic “Hakuna Matata”, and the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” gag is extended and made even funnier. The shame is that they shortened the Scar’s menacing anthem “Be Prepared” to be much slower but as a result feels more like a whispered spoken word poem than a song. The Lion King is stuck in a loophole in terms of delivering for fans because people want a remake to somehow reinvent the story but at the same time poeple get angry as soon as something major is changed. Unfortuantely, some of the changes made in this remake are for the worse, and other than that, a lot of sequences in the film or a shot-for-shot copy-paste of what we’ve already seen. A lot of the dialogue is the same as well, and I just wish they had added some more story to what we already know because the fact that we recognize every scene and line so well will eventually make things boring. On the bright side, it manages to retain some of the soul that reminds us why we love the original so much (themes like confronting your past or lines from Mufasa about the truth of being a wise king). The problem is that once these characters are animated to look photorealistic, they can no longer exaggerate emotions like the original iterations do — Scar is no longer a charismatic Shakespearean character, and every character just looks like an animal talking. This movie has incredible visual technology that deserves plenty of praise for Jon Favreau, maybe next time he could have used it to make original content rather than remaking known stories, or just added a little more that we haven’t seen before to do something new with the story.

The Lion King is a visual marvel and filled with nostaliga, but it’s greatest strength and weakness is that it’s almost exactly the same as the original. If the original Lion King was so perfect, why change anything? But why do we want to see the same movie over again? That’s the problem that this new remake finds itself in which is why despite being nice to look at, the script is beat for beat the same, which is why the only way this movie can really be appreciated is in 3D and on the biggest movie screen you can find. Does it offer much new? Not really, or even at all to be honest. But in terms of recommendation for the theaters I have to say go for the visuals and for the story which still stays strong, but the emotional expressions that came through the original versions of the characters (which didn’t need to feel photoreal and therefore could be exaggerated for animals) is exactly what will make the original Lion King forever superior.

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