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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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Star Trek: Voyager – Workforce, Part I (Review)

Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II form an interesting two-parter.

To a certain extent, Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II are overshadowed by the other “event” stories of the seventh season of Star Trek: Voyager. Notably, with the exception of the season premiere Unimatrix Zero, Part II, the late-season two-parter was the only multi-part seventh season story to air as a conventional two-part story, with the two halves broadcast one week apart. Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II had aired on the same night as a television movie, similar to how The Killing Game, Part I and The Killing Game, Part II had been broadcast during the fourth season. Endgame would air as a two-hour special episode, in the manner of other Star Trek series finales like All Good Things… or What You Leave Behind.

Labouring under false pretenses.

As such, there is something very traditional about Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, a two-parter that feels more like old-fashioned two-part Star Trek stories than many of the episodes around it. It recalls some of the mid-season two-parters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, like Birthright, Part I and Birthright, Part II or Gambit, Part I and Gambit, Part II. Unlike episodes like Dark Frontier, Part I and Dark Frontier, Part II, it never feels like Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II were conceived as an “event” story. Instead, it feels like the story developed organically and that the production team realised that the story justified two separate episodes rather than being designed to provide a sense of scale or spectacle.

The seventh season of Voyager invests a lot of time and energy in chasing the sensibility of “classic” Star Trek storytelling with clumsy issue-driven narratives like Critical Care or Lineage or Repentance. Often this feels cynical and crass, particularly given how hard those episodes strain to avoid saying anything potentially controversial or divisive. As such, there is something refreshing in Workforce, Part I and Workforce, Part II, which feel very much like “old-fashioned” Star Trek storytelling in format as well as content.

Not all there.

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New Podcast! The Time is Now – Season 1, Episode 2 (“Gehenna”)

Thrilled to be asked back to join The Time is Now podcast to follow up on last week’s discussion of The Pilot.

This week, I’m joining Kurt North to discuss the second episode of Gehenna. It’s often tough to nail the early episodes of a new show, especially as the creative team slip into the demanding cycle of television production. It has been observed that many television series spend their first six (or even thirteen) episodes just remaking the pilot in order to get a feel for the texture of the show. As such, Gehenna has quite a lot to accomplish, mostly demonstrating that Millennium can work as a weekly television series.

It was a delight to be asked back, and I’m really looking forward to popping up once or twice more before the end of the first season. You can listen to the episode here, subscribe to the podcast here, or click the link below.

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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

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My 12 for ’18: “Sorry to Bother You” & Getting Used to the Problem

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number six.

“If you get shown a problem, but don’t see a way you can have control over it, you just decide to get used to the problem.”

2018 and 2017 were chaotic years.

It is almost impossible to fully process everything that has happened. Even just the headlines seem insane. The President of the United States is under investigation. There may be a tape that exists of that man being urinated upon by Russian prostitutes. Children are being locked in cages. Meanwhile, Britain is leaving the United Kingdom. Part of that is down to a campaign organised in consultation with a celebrity hypnotist. Prominent British politicians have threatened to recreate the Great Famine in order to create negotiating leverage.

All of this is just the headlines. It is possible to miss the smaller-scale insanity that is taking place around the fringes of the news. A Republican congressional candidate who is a “devotee” of “Bigfoot erotica.” The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development suggesting that slaves were really “immigrants.” The high volume of democratically elected doctors with frankly insane ideas about medicine. Elon Musk labelled a heroic cave-diver a “paedophile” for rejected his crazy plan involving a submarine. The world is a topsy-turvy place, and nothing makes any real sense.

With that in mind, Sorry to Bother You is one of the movies that perfectly encapsulates the texture and feel of the current moment.

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109. Star Wars (#22)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week joined by special guests Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, George Lucas’ Star Wars.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, the Empire and the Rebellion struggle for control of the cosmos. Against this backdrop, three unlikely heroes ascend, embarking upon a mythic journey that will reveal dark secrets and promise new hope.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 22nd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Boy Erased

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boy Erased is the amount of faith that writer and director (and supporting actor) Joel Edgerton puts in the material at hand.

Boy Erased is based on a memoir written by Garrard Conley, offering a fictionalised account of the writer’s time in gay conversion therapy in rural conservative America. The film is fiction to the extent that the names have been changed; Garrard Conley becomes Jared Eamons. However, Boy Erased never tries to disguise its influences or to assert ownership of the story. The end of the film includes pictures of the real-life inspirations for various characters, often illustrating how uncanny the film’s casting had been.

Bedfellows.

More than that, perhaps as a nod to the increased self-awareness within these sorts of stories, the film hints at its own fictionalisation. The article and book that Jared decides to write towards the end of Boy Erased is very plainly the basis of the film that audience is watching. There is something intriguing in that, in the way that Boy Erased folds itself into its own narrative. The ending of Boy Erased is rooted in the characters responding to the story that Jared has written of his experiences, a clever and reflexive narrative choice that is consciously (and shrewdly) underplayed.

However, the fact that this is the closest that Boy Erased comes to a subversive or deconstructive moment only underscores the matter-of-factness with which Edgerton’s handled the material. Outside of using the origins of the film to provide the basis for a third-act catharsis within the film, Edgerton takes a very straightforward approach to this story. He never seems particularly interested in bending the narrative out of shape or of heightening particular elements for dramatic tension.

Syke out.

In its own weird way, Boy Erased feels decidedly conservative for a contemporary awards film. It is much less energised or dynamic than other similar works, such as the addiction drama Beautiful Boy starring Lucas Hedges’ Lady Bird co-star Timothée Chalamet. This creative restraint is not a criticism in any way; quite the opposite. Edgerton trusts the story that he has been given, and trusts his cast to deliver. Boy Erased is not a showy or ostentatious piece of work, instead a film constructed to specification with care and craft.

Boy Erased is a film that exists primarily as a vehicle for its subject and for its cast, and that is a credit to Edgerton’s approach to the material.

They said that he needed this, but it couldn’t be father from the truth.

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