Movie Review: Hustlers

The brain-child of writer-director Lorene Scafaria, Hustler is based on the real-life tale about a group of high-end strippers who found creative ways to drain the bank accounts of their Wall Street clientele.

Told from the perspective of newbie stripper Destiny (Constance Wu), the early scenes focus on the budding friendship between Destiny and veteran stripper Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). Both Wu and Lopez delivery Oscar-worthy performances.

Lopez dominates those scenes as she performs a showstopping pole dance routine, demonstrates a repertoire of moves, among them the “Fireman” and “Peter Pan,” and later envelopes an adoring Destiny in the folds of her fur coat.

The 2008 recession brought this campy fun to a halt.

Down but not down for long, Ramona concocts a drug-and-fraud scheme and then persuades Destiny and several other strippers to join her new venture. Ramona’s justification: If stripping simplifies relations between men and women, why not do whatever it takes to get payment at the end of the evening?

From start to finish, the focus is on the diverse group of women who populate “real” strip clubs. Scafaria cast women of all shapes and sizes, steering away from the usual Hollywood versions. As for the scam victims, their looks and personalities could be described as forgettable. White, wealthy, and vain, these men evoke little sympathy.

When caught, Destiny repents, but amoral Ramona stays true to her principles.

While the story dates back over a decade, many of its themes still resonate. In a recent interview, Lorene Scafaria commented, “I’m hoping that the conversation outside of the movie is about gender and the economy—what it is that we provide, and what we get back. It’s not quite the fair trade.”

A thought-provoking film!

Movie Review: Judy

Renee Zellweger dug deep and transformed herself into Judy Garland.

From dieting into emaciation—the bones in her chest and back are visible—to assuming the marionette-like posture to capturing the vulnerability and insecurity of the showbiz legend, Zellweger is unrecognizable as she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance.

The film follows Garland as she arrives in London to perform a series of sold-out concerts at The Talk of the Town. Throughout the five weeks, she struggles with stage fright, alcohol, and drug abuse; tests the patience of her assistant Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley); and battles with her needling ex-husband played by Rufus Sewell.

In spite of these challenges, Garland still manages to charm her fellow musicians and fans. One of the more poignant scenes involves a brief interlude with an older gay couple who are long-time fans. Amid all this drama, she embarks on a whirlwind romance with Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), her soon-to-be fifth husband.

Barely able to function and unable to sleep, Garland is haunted by ghosts from the past. Flashbacks to the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” reveal the shocking and abusive behavior of Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) and the MGM studio staff. Determined to keep a tight rein on the teenage Garland (Darci Shaw), the powers-at-be manipulate her into taking amphetamines so she could stay slim and work 16-hour days.

At age 47, Garland is far from her prime but still able to delight her audiences with several show-stopping performances. Unfortunately, bad behavior surfaces at several points in the film. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes occurs near the end of the five-week run. Garland pleads with the audience, “You won’t forget me, will you? Promise me you won’t.”

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.

Movie Review: Downton Abbey

Simply delightful!

As soon as Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey, appeared on the screen, I could hear sighs of contentment and anticipation throughout the theater. Fans of the television series, many of us have watched all six seasons and looked forward to this motion picture event.

While each major storyline had been neatly wrapped up in the 2016 finale, I knew that series creator Julian Fellowes would find an intriguing way to reunite the upstairs-downstairs cast.

His solution: King George V and Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents) have planned a royal visit to Downton Abbey.

The announcement sends everyone into a tizzy.

Fearing that butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is not up to the task of supervising the preparations, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) calls upon Carson (Jim Carter) to come out of retirement and take charge.

Carson’s formidable skills are put to the test when the royal advance team (butler, cook, footmen, housekeeper) arrives and informs the Downton staffers that their services will not be needed during the visit.

As the rivalry between the two staffs intensifies, lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) takes charge and organizes a “downstairs” rebellion. A series of humorous escapades follow. My favorite involves Molesley (Kevin Doyle), the socially clumsy footman, who shocks the royals and all in attendance with his shenanigans.

Upstairs, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) deals with an assassination attempt and a possible love connection, and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) argues with a distant cousin (Imelda Staunton) over an inheritance.

The Dowager Countess and Isobel Grey (Penelope Wilton) are in rare form as they deliver verbal salvos throughout the film. Julian Fellowes should consider a spin-off with these two characters.

In a recent interview, Fellowes was asked if there would be another Downton Abbey movie. He responded, “Well, there’s always that chance.”

Let’s hope he takes that chance.

Movie Review: Road to the Lemon Grove

Italians and Italians-at-heart will enjoy this humorous–sometimes outrageous–film about a middle-aged Canadian professor, Calogero Contantini, and his recently deceased father Antonio. Performer, writer and lecturer Charly Chiarelli takes on both roles.

The film opens with Antonio awaiting entry to heaven. The voice of God (Loreena McKennitt) informs Antonio that he must make peace with his estranged son before entering the Pearly Gates. Frustrated but determined, Antonio’s ghost haunts (and stalks) Calogero for most of the film.

Antonio has one last mission for his son: Spread his ashes in the lemon groves of Sicily and reunite the two warring branches of the family.

To further complicate the situation, Calogero has only fourteen days to accomplish these tasks. If he is unsuccessful, the lemon grove and all of Antonio’s assets will go to the scheming relatives, led by Vincenzo (Burt Young) and his sidekick Guido (Nick Mancuso).

A series of comical (and sometimes contrived) scenes follow as Calogero argues with his father’s ghost, has a meltdown during a lecture, travels to Sicily, meets the relatives, connects with a beautiful Italian actress (Rosella Brescia), and participates in a final “pasta” showdown.

Flashbacks to Calogero’s youth provide glimpses into the challenges faced by new immigrants during the 1950s and 1960s. I would have liked more scenes depicting these frustrating (often comical) brushes with bureaucrats.

Light and entertaining fare set against a beautiful Sicilian backdrop.

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Set in the suburban town of Luton (England), this film is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir about growing up Pakistani in the late 1980s.

Javed (brilliantly played by Viveik Kalra) longs to escape the restraints imposed by his domineering father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) and the bigotry of the town. A creative soul, Javed finds solace in his journals as he focuses on getting good grades. Manchester University—200 miles away—is his best (and only) hope.

Everything changes when a fellow classmate (Aaron Phagura) gives Javed cassettes of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Transfixed by the music, Javed experiences an immediate connection with Bruce Springsteen. Typewritten lyrics start to swirl in what can only be described as a literal windstorm.

With the Boss as his guide, Javed starts to make changes in his own life. He drops Economics and signs up for Creative Writing, writes essays and poems about Bruce’s lyrics, stands up to local skinheads, and approaches his high school crush Eliza (Nell Williams).

On the homefront, Malik loses his factory job, and Javed’s mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) works twelve- to fourteen-hour days to keep the family afloat. Father-son relations intensify as Malik becomes more over-bearing, dismissing Javed’s writing dream and forbidding him to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert.

As the economy stalls and more people lose their jobs, white supremacy rears its ugly head. A violent skinhead march interrupts a Pakistani wedding, reminding us of the racial tensions that still exist in 2019. The indignities suffered by the Pakistani families are appalling. And what is even more heart-wrenching is the powerlessness of the community.

With the help of a dedicated English teacher (Hayley Atwell), Javed becomes more confident in his writing and goes on to achieve local and international acclaim.

A must-see film that will evoke many emotions. Bring tissues.

Movie Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Having enjoyed reading Garth Stein’s best-selling novel, I wondered if the screen version could capture the philosophical dog’s witty (and sometimes) grouchy inner monologue.

I needn’t have worried.

Director Simon Curtis’s decision to use Kevin Costner as Enzo’s “voice” was a stroke of genius.

On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life and recalls all the experiences of his family: struggling race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Venitmiglia), wife Eve (Amanda Seyfried), and their daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Intelligent and introspective, the adorable Golden Retriever believes that good dogs will be reincarnated as people in their next lives. With that goal in mind, Enzo spends his days trying to absorb as much as possible about the human condition. He watches over his family through happiness, tragedy, and a troublesome court case that dominates the film’s second half.

An avid television fan, Enzo follows the latest news in the racing car industry and takes to heart the findings of a Mongolian documentary. In spite of his enlightened views, he is intimidated and frustrated by a toy zebra in Zoe’s bedroom. A bizarre encounter follows.

Enzo often laments his limitations, among them a flat tongue that prevents him from speaking English and the lack of thumbs that hinder his ability to open doors.

This family-friendly film will appeal to dog lovers and wannabe dog lovers. Remember to bring tissues.

Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Time appears to have stopped as Quentin Tarantino focuses his camera on every detail of that memorable era from posters to knickknacks to songs to television programs to the Playboy mansion. Immersed in the Hollywood experience, I could have sat in the theater for even longer than two hours and forty minutes.

The film unfolds over three separate days in 1969, an eventful year that included Woodstock, the first lunar landing, the Beatles last public performance, the Chappaquiddick affair, and the Charles Manson murder spree.

Initially known as “Tarantino’s Manson Movie,” the actual film veers in a different direction. In one review, it is described as a “Manson-adjacent story” … something to keep in mind as you watch.

While Charles Manson has a bit part and Sharon Tate is played by Margot Robbie, the primary characters are TV Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

The film revolves around Rick Dalton’s entitlement issues. The star of B-movies and guest roles on television, Rick desperately wants to get cast in quality films. Always loyal and ready to help with any task, Cliff boosts Rick’s spirits while accepting his own hand-to-mouth existence. I would have liked more details about Cliff’s intriguing and somewhat shocking back story.

Other A-list actors include Al Pacino as Rick’s agent Marvin Schwarz, Kurt Russell as the stunt coordinator, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, and Austin Butler play Manson followers.

As I watched, I experienced the full gamut of emotions. I laughed at the many character quips and the antics of Brandy (a well-trained dog), I felt uneasy when Cliff ventured onto the Manson compound, and I held my breath several times during the last horrific scenes.

A masterpiece of a movie!

Movie Review: The Lion King

Director Jon Favreau believed he could use computer animation to breathe more reality into the classic tale of a lion cub who’s born into royalty but loses his kingdom. Favreau took that risk and succeeded in inspiring both new and previous generations of viewers.

The African animals look as if they have been photographed on-location. And, unlike the original 1994 film, all the lions are voiced by actors of African descent. Rafiki, the no-nonsense monkey who is the King’s trusted aide, is embodied by John Kani, a South African actor.

A host of award-winning actors, among them Danny Glover (Simba), Beyoncé (Nala), Seth Rogan (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon) and Chiwetel Ejio (Scar) join veteran James Earl Jones (Mufasa).

The original musical score and songs from Hanz Zimmer, Tim Rice, and Elton John are sung by a celebrity cast that includes Beyoncé’s beautiful voice. The jokes and puns, along with the inspirational messages, also remain intact. I especially enjoyed listening to the lively banter between Pumbaa and Timon in what I like to call the Hakuna Matata (No Worries) segments of the film.

While Favreau followed the original plot very closely, he did add more violence. Or so it appeared. Some of those scenes were difficult to watch.

An extraordinary film that has been described as “a perfect marriage of art and technology.”

Movie Review: Rocketman

Offering the part of Elton John to 29-year-old Welsh actor Taron Egerton was an inspired move. In addition to resembling a younger Elton, Egerton possesses the musical chops to belt out those memorable tunes. I was surprised to learn that Egerton was the third choice. Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy were originally cast in the role.

The film begins on a dramatic note. Dressed in a glittery devil costume—complete with horns and wings—Elton pushes through two doors and enters a room filled with people participating in what looks like a group therapy session. Spellbound, everyone listens as Elton confesses to having consumed every drug imaginable along with being a sex addict, a shopaholic, bulimic, and having anger-management issues.

Elton has entered the word of rehab.

And so, begins a personal narrative, punctuated by a series of ballads and musical numbers taken from Elton’s extensive catalogue.

The most heartbreaking scenes involve the child prodigy, first known as Reginald Dwight, struggling to capture the attention of his self-absorbed, often cruel mother—brilliantly played by Bryce Dallas Howard—and his dismissive father (Steven Macintosh). Thankfully, his loving grandmother (Gemma Jones) showed some affection toward Reginald.

In young adulthood, Elton meets up with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell). While their working relationship survived the turbulence of Elton’s life, their personal lives often diverged. Elton’s latent homosexuality and flamboyance clashed with Taupin’s heterosexuality and more reserved nature.

Devilishly handsome Richard Madden delivers an excellent performance as Elton’s personal manager and abusive lover. The Scottish actor has been pegged as a possible replacement for Daniel Craig as James Bond.

The film ends on a positive note as pictures of all the actors are shown next to their real-life counterparts. We also learn that Elton John has been addiction-free for 28 years.

Twelve years in the making, Rocketman has succeeded in celebrating Elton John’s music and capturing the drama that surrounded his rise to stardom.

A must-see film!

Movie Review: The Grizzlies

Set in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, an isolated town with the highest suicide rate in Canada, this sports drama is based on actual events circa 2004.

High school English teacher Russ Sheppard (Ben Schnetzer) is unprepared for the challenges that await him in the classroom. A naïve, well-intended southerner—referred to as qallunaat by the locals—Russ plans to stay for only one year while he waits for a teaching contract at a private school in Halifax.

After learning (the hard way) that the authoritarian approach doesn’t work with these neglected students, Russ tries to inspire them through sports. At first wary, the students eventually do come around and join the lacrosse team. Slowly—and not without obstacles—Russ succeeds in creating a spirit of camaraderie among the players.

Opposition to this fledgling group can be found almost everywhere in Kugluktuk.

The school principal, Janace (Tantoo Cardinal), tries to discourage Russ from starting this venture. When Russ decides to take the team to Toronto for the high school nationals, Janace advises him not to add to the long list of promises that have been made to the Inuit and never kept.

Several sets of parents and grandparents believe their young charges should be hunting and not spending so much time with the qallunaat.

Alcoholism and abuse exist in many of the homes. From the opening scene where crates of liquor outnumber the passengers in a small plane to a colleague’s advice on surviving life in the North— “I do the same thing everyone else does, I drink” to the depressing night culture…Russ faces many obstacles during that first year.

The specter of suicide can be felt throughout the film. Each time, I was unprepared for the events and ensuing consequences. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to live in a community where everyone has lost a family member or friend to suicide.

While the cast is predominantly male, two young female actresses deliver outstanding performances. I enjoyed watching Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) gain confidence and acquire leadership skills as the team’s manager. Spring (Anna Lambe) experiences the tragic loss of her boyfriend but manages to bounce back and become part of the lacrosse team.

First-time director Miranda de Pencier has crafted a powerful film that humanizes the grim statistics about youth suicide in Canada’s North.

A must-see film!