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Non-Review Review: Hustlers

Hustlers wears its influences on its sleeve, which no small accomplishment for a movie about a bunch of criminal strippers.

Hustlers is adapted from Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article, covering a post-recession swindle orchestrated by a group of enterprising strippers. The film is a tale of greed and commercialism, of opulence and corruption. The premise practically writes itself. Hustler is a story that is just lurid enough and just timely enough and just charged enough that it all comes together perfectly. The film’s narrative exists at an intersection of money and sex and drugs, but is anchored in a broader cultural and social context that uses this seemingly trashy set-up to say something seemingly profound about the American condition.

Given the premise and themes, it is no surprise that Hustlers should take so many of its cues from the films of Martin Scorsese. Joker has dominated a lot of the autumnal discussion about Scorsese’s influence on contemporary cinema with its obvious debts to films like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy, but Hustlers is just as transparent in the debts that it owes to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s influence is felt on every inch of the film, from the film-making to the narrative structure to the awkward articulation of the central theme in the closing scene. It is both a strength and a weakness for Hustlers.

While Hustlers occasionally feels a little too indebted to the work of Scorsese to stand on its own two feet, the film largely works. Part of this is down to the skill and playfulness with which director Lorene Scafaria acknowledges her influence. Part of this is down to the film’s engaging charm and sense of humour, belying a compelling moral sophistication befitting the films that it is so obviously evoking. A lot of it comes down to the strong casting, including a compelling central dynamic and a powerhouse performance from Jennifer Lopez.

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Not So Super, Hero: What Modern Superhero Blockbusters Could Learn From “Akira”…

This Saturday, as part of the annual “Anime April”, I’ll be discussing Akira on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to last week’s episode on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here. You can listen to our episode on Akira here.

Akira is a startlingly influential film.

Even if a person hasn’t seen Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated masterpiece, they have undoubtedly felt its influence rippling through popular culture in various media. In music, Kanye West cites it as his “biggest creative inspiration”, to the point that his video for Stronger is almost a shot-for-shot remake. Rian Johnson has cited Akira as a major influence on his own Looper. Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle has a number of obvious similarities to Akira. Even outside of these direct references, individual elements of the film continue to have an outsized influence on American popular culture. The iconic red bike pops up in Ready Player One. Even individual shots have been mimicked and imitated, such as the fantastic “Akira bike slide” from early in the film.

Inevitably, there has been much talk of a potential Americanised remake of Akira. After all, there have been other big-budget live action adaptations of cult Japanese projects like Ghost in the Shell or Alita: Battle Angel, and so it is surprising it has taken so long. There were rumours of an adaptation by Albert Hughes that might star Morgan Freeman. (James Franco might have headlined.) More recently, Jordan Peele declined the invitation to direct the adaptation, despite his affection for the source material. The most recent rumours suggested that Leonardo DiCaprio might be producing a version directed by Taika Waititi, which would shift the action from Neo-Tokyo to Neo-Manhattan. There were other significant changes made to the source story.

There are a variety of reasons why Akira has been so difficult to adapt. Most optimistically, it may simply be a case that so much of what made the original film iconic has already been filtered through to audiences in the movies indebted to it, like Looper or Chronicle; this is the challenge adapting John Carter of Mars following the success of films like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. More pragmatically, Akira is a story rooted in a very specific cultural context. It is not an American story, it is a story anchored very specifically in eighties Japan. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem; samurai films like Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo could be reworked for American audiences as cowboy films, their cultural context shifted in the journey across the Pacific. Still, it is a challenge.

However, this challenge of cultural translation suggests one of the fundamental issues with adapting Akira for American audiences. It is hard to define Akira in terms of a single genre; it is a coming of age science-fiction deconstruction of masculinity infused with a psychedelic sensibility. However, in terms of visual style and narrative flow, the movie’s closest relatives in contemporary American cinema are superhero films. Superheroes are, after all, the dominant American cinematic mode of the twenty-first-century to date. Indeed, a modern audience approaching Akira might be tempted to read it in the context of that genre. If Chronicle is to be considered “the American Akira”, it is notable that it uses the language of the superhero genre to translate the story.

However, there is something fundamentally different about the way in which Akira approaches the idea of the superhero figure as compared to mainstream superhero films, and this difference might demonstrate why an adaptation of Akira for American cinema might pose such a challenge.

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Non-Review Review: Little Woods

Little Woods is a slow and somber film that never rushes, perhaps because it understands that its characters have no place to go.

There’s a strong central irony built into Little Woods, a story that unfolds against the north-western frontier of Washington State. Ollie lives on what is effectively the edge of the frontier, that great American wilderness. However, manifest destiny has not delivered. The frontier is not as vast as it might seem. Instead, Ollie finds herself trapped on the edges, pressed against the limits of the United States. Little Woods is a story about the boundaries on the extremes of the American Dream. It is no coincidence that Nia DaCosta’s theatrical debut opens and closes at the Canadian border; it is a story of character who are pressed and squeezed against the margins, at the end of everything that they know.

The circumstances Tessa-t her.

There is a compelling stillness to Little Woods, anchored in a fantastic central performance from Tessa Thompson. Little Woods works well in several different modes: as a character study, as a crime drama, as a frontier story. The film is suspenseful when it needs to be, capable of making the audience squirm when it wants them to. However, it is most effective in its relative stillness. Little Woods never feels sensationalist or absurd. It never feels exploitative or stylised. Instead, there is something very effectively grounded and mundane in the portrait that the film traces of those people trapped on the margins. There is something very matter-of-fact about the way in which Little Woods portrays the choices (or, more importantly, the lack of choices) afforded its characters.

Little Woods is an evocative, effective and atmospheric about characters living in a liminal space.

Sister act.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Non-Review Review: Us

Us is fascinating, if undercut by comparisons to Get Out.

Get Out was a phenomenal feature debut from writer and director Jordan Peele, an unexpected left-turn from a comedian who was (at that time) best know for his work on one of the decade’s best sketch comedy shows, Key & Peele. It was an unexpectedly sharp piece of social satire, an incredibly pointed commentary on race and identity in contemporary America, one held together by an incredibly strong central metaphor. Get Out was driven by an almost single-minded commitment to its core ideas, which were skillfully wed to a genre vehicle. It was always clear exactly what Get Out was saying, and why it was saying that in the way that it was.

Taking a second swing.

Us is a fundamentally messier film, at once more conventional in terms of its structure and rhythms while being more abstract and confused in its central metaphors. One of the central throughlines of Us is the concept of “the untethering”, and it often feels like a metaphor for the film’s own internal creative process. Us is a lot less focused than Get Out, a lot less together. It often seems like the film is caught in a tug-of-war between its two core elements: on one hand, the desire to present an old-fashioned home-invasion-turned-national-crisis narrative in the style of everything from The Strangers to Dawn of the Dead; on the other, a central metaphor touching on everything from Jungian anxiety to class warfare to the modern division of the United States.

So, to answer the important questions about Us: no, the film is not as good as Get Out; and yes, the film is really good.

Face yourself.

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116. Green Book – This Just In (#170)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book.

At time of recording, it was ranked 170th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is an affecting and thoughtful exploration of a key figure in American popular consciousness.

Documentary maker Morgan Neville has established himself as a masterful navigator of the history of popular culture, of the depth and shadow often obscured by memory. Neville is perhaps most famous for his fascinating exploration of the back-up singers who provided a foundation for more recognisable stars in 20 Feet from Stardom, and he was also responsible for the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which probably made a more coherent narrative of The Other Side of the Wind than the film itself.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour? tells the story of children’s entertainer Fred Rogers, a staple of American television since the late sixties. Although the performer passed away more than a decade and a half ago, he casts a long shadow. There has been a renewed interest in his persona. Jim Carrey is playing a fictionalised version of the present in Kidding, while Tom Hanks will play a more official version of the man in a biography directed by Marielle Heller. (The film was originally titled Are You My Friend?, but is reportedly in the process of being retitled.

It is interesting to wonder why Fred Rogers is of such great interest at this precise moment, something that Won’t You Be My Neighbour? skirts around without tackling directly. Instead, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? is a sweet and affecting documentary that maybe brushes a little too lightly against its subject in places, but speaks most convincingly to what he represented and why he is so beloved.

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