Monday, February 10, 2020


HUSTLERS is THE BIG SHORT for working class women - a film about what happens when people dependent on the trickle-down effect of boom-era money turn desperate in the post-Lehman Brothers economy. It stars CRAZY RICH ASIANS' Constance Wu as naive Destiny, who is schooled in the art of making phat cash through stripping by smart, cynical Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).  The game is to target uber-wealthy Wall Street bankers and flatter and twerk them into spending big.  Then the crash happens.  Destiny tries marriage and motherhood but comes crawling back to New York and Ramona. Only this time they have to pro-actively fish for their prey - luring in men from bars with the promise of the night of their life. And when that proves irksomely slow-going, drugging them, stealing their credit cards, and threatening them with blackmail if they go to the police.  This being a morality tale, it isn't that easy, especially when Ramona starts taking chances of her accomplices and clientele.  But the provocative question this films asks is how far the women really deserve to be punished when the people they are ripping off already ripped off the entire economy?

The result is a film that is smart and thoughtful alongside it's dazzling dance numbers featuring an absurdly athletic J-Lo. In a performance to match her best, she and her colleagues show us the truth about stripping. Indeed, the first ten minutes of this film is one of the most depressing I've ever seen. And then we get a star-studded cameo of girls in a dressing room discussing the absurd expectations men who date strippers have - made all the more real by the fact that Cardi B used to be a stripper.  It's rare to see such an unflinching female-centric movie at all. And even more rare to have that truthfulness play out amidst enough glitz and glamour to leaven its political agenda. Nicely done, all involved. 

HUSTLERS is rated R and has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Toronto 2019 and was released last year. It is now available to rent and own. 

Sunday, February 09, 2020


UNCUT GEMS is perhaps the most unique and certainly one of the best films of 2019 - a surreal, 80s-vibe, darkly comic thriller, in which against all probability I became insanely invested in the largely self-inflicted travails of its hero Howard.  As played by Adam Sandler in a role reminiscent of his angry-loveable PUNCH DRUNK LOVE intensity, Howard has a life of unremitting stress. He's broken up from his wife (Idina Menzel) but still enmeshed in Jewish family dinners.  He's set up his mistress in a city apartment.  His diamond business is doing well thanks to the big music and sports buyers his middle-man (Lakeith Stanfield) brings in, and he's just been smuggled a super-valuable rock containing uncut gems. The problem is that Howard also has a massive gambling problem, and spends the entirety of the film's running time trying to fence the gems to pay the debt.  Oh yeah, and did I mention he finances his ever more gargantuan bets with mob loans?  

I was initially reluctant to watch this film because I'd heard such extreme reactions at the London Film Festival. People said it was nerve-wracking and intense - like having Adam Sandler just shout at you for two hours.  But I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the film was, and how the directors really did give the audience a chance to pause and recalibrate every once in a while - usually in a quieter family scene.  But the final act really is super-tense, and just phenomenally well crafted and I was literally on the edge of my seat. I was hugely invested in whether Howard would come through, despite his stupidity, because at the end of the day, the poor idiot is an addict, and actually he's not an idiot - there's something really impressive about his ability to keep spinning stories to keep his debtors at bay.  This is Sandler's best performance since PUNCH DRUNK and I was with him every step of the way. It's hard to think of anyone else carrying off this performance.

Phenomenal performance apart, everything about the production and costume design, the cinematography and the use of music is superb. Darius Khondji gives us  images that are at times gritty and urban-realist and at times claustrophobic and surreal and at times neon-lit 80s music video.  It's like being in a film that's at once recognisably the diamond district and at once something almost fairy-tale like.  Most of all, the Safdie Brothers have a confidence with tonal shifts that take us from casinos to auction houses and back again. This film is a tour de force and deserves to be seen. It also deserves far more awards love than it has been given.  

UNCUT GEMS is rated R and has a running time of 135 minutes.  The film played Telluride, Toronto and London 2019 and is now available to stream on Netflix. 

Friday, February 07, 2020


AMERICAN FACTORY is a chilling and provocative documentary, perfectly timed for our times.  It comes against a backdrop of a US-China trade war; suspicion of anyone who looks remotely Asian sneezing in earshot; and Andrew Yang running for President solely on the issue of the coming replacement of blue-collar workers with Advanced Robotics and white collar workers with AI and machine learning. More generally, we are living in a time where blue collar workers around the world are expressing their anger that they gained nothing from decades of globalisation other than lost jobs, stagnant real wages, and the contempt of the political parties that were supposed to be representing them. All of these issues and more are explored in this fascinating documentary - brought to us by husband and wife directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, and the Obama's production company. The ironies abound in that. After all, Obama was a so-to-say left-wing president but he took globalisation for granted and did nothing to reverse the damage it inflicted on blue-collar workers.  And it becomes rapidly clear that this "American" factory is nothing of the sort - it's Chinese through and through.

As the movie opens, a Chinese global glass company called Fuyao re-opens a former General Motors assembly plant in Ohio.  The workers are happy. When GM closed during the Global Financial Crisis they lost their jobs, homes and dignity.  But the venture is a disappointment all around.  The Chinese are frustrated with the US workers apparent lack of work ethic and their constant need for praise. They seem to either be ignorant of, or have contempt for, local health and safety regulations.  And they take every action necessary to prevent the workers from unionising - from sacking the agitators, to hiring a lobbying company to persuade them to vote against unionising. Indeed the workers are dispensable: the most chilling final scene is one of advanced robotics replacing actual people. 

On the other side of the coin, the American workers are similarly disappointed.  They refuse to work the long hours and compromise their safety, or indeed environmental standards.  They want to understand the reasons for being asked to do something, rather than just following an order blindly. And they want to be in a culture where good work is rewarded - not just with a living wage, but also with simple thanks. 

This culture clash speaks to a deeper colonial racism, and the fact is that this is the first time in a long time when white people are being dominated by non-whites*.  All the racism that the European and North Americans expressed toward other races - all the economic exploitation - is now working in reverse.  So we are shocked to hear a Chinese manager say that American workers are like donkeys, and need to be placated to avoid them kicking - or that the Chinese managers have to benevolently steer the American workers because the Chinese are clearly wiser.  But this is no different to how American or European managers would've viewed Mexican or Indian workers in colonial times (and maybe not that different to how they view them today.)

I guess the real shock of this film for many viewers is that it's a really tangible example of how America is no longer the world's foremost economic power. And adjusting to being condescended to is a rather painful process for all involved.  But frankly, I found our new robot overlords far more chilling than the Chinese.

AMERICAN FACTORY has a running time of 110 minutes. The movie played Sundance where it won the Documentary Director award, Tribeca and Sheffield DocFest 2019. It is available to watch on Netflix.  *I'm thinking the Muslim conquest of Spain was the last time?