Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers

HUSTLERS

Judging by reports from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped on September 15, the true shocker of this year's fest wasn't that intimate chamber drama The Two Popes turned out to be a ton of fun (though apparently it was) or that the already-notorious Joker didn't receive nearly the acclaim that greeted its eight-minute-standing-ovation debut in Venice (though apparently it didn't) or that the Audience Award – which, last year, was awarded to eventual Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book – went to the wildly divisive Hitler comedy Jojo Rabbit. (Wha-a-a-a-a?!?) It was that the heftiest Oscar buzz went to Jennifer Lopez, of all people, for playing, of all things, a larcenous stripper in writer/director Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers.

Sensational though the pop-culture icon can be, I couldn't have been alone in finding this news surprising, and having now viewed the movie, I certainly can't be alone in thinking the buzz was justified; J. Lo, here, is absolutely phenomenal. But the performer receiving an Oscar, or even a nomination, for this obvious, derivative, Scorsese-lite outing? I just don't see it. Lopez is eminently deserving, but my guess is that's she's almost too good for recognition as the scheming exotic dancer Ramona, given that the role requires her to play a morally dubious ringleader to a troupe of young hotties who spends portions of her screen time undulating for money while nearly naked – exactly the character recipe that kept Matthew McConaughey from a deserved Oscar nod seven years ago. It's like the answer to an analogy question from an old SAT exam: Lopez is to Hustlers as McConaughey is to Magic Mike. Only J. Lo, despite her fierce portrayal, enormous appeal, and decades-spanning résumé, might have an even tougher time achieving Academy favor, considering Scafaria's film is nowhere near as effective as Steven Soderbergh's.

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu in Hustlers

Based on a true story that became a 2015 New York magazine article, Hustlers opens in 2007 and follows the rags-to-riches-to-more-presentable-rags tale of Dorothy (Constance Wu), who, under her pole-dancing alias “Destiny,” teamed up with Ramona and a group of fellow strippers to bilk unsuspecting Wall Street douchebags out of their riches by plying them with booze and drugs and gaining access to their credit cards. I enjoy a cinematic screwing-the-one-percenters bacchanal as much as anyone, and for a while, the ladies' monetary revenge on all those leering, slavering masters of the universe demanding lap dances is good for some schadenfreude-rific fun. Scafaria's offering, however, becomes awfully repetitive awfully early, as the film really only has two modes: boisterous exuberance when things are going well, and sentimental melancholy when they aren't. Despite no one beyond Lopez having much of a character to play, the downbeat segments are actually the easier ones to sit through given that they unfurl at a believable pace and boast some recognizable emotion. Yet nearly every scene of Destiny, Ramona, and their cohorts (among them Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart) livin' large and taking their clients to the cleaners feels the same: unimaginable wealth signified by designer clothes and overflowing cocktails while the gals and their marks roar with delight, and all of it served with tedious slow motion that makes each new sequence resemble an underwhelming Usher video. And that's even before the musician himself shows up for a de facto Usher video. At 110 minutes, Hustlers doesn't run close to the length of Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, thank the gods. Considering how much slow-mo is employed, though, I'm thinking that without it, Scafaria's movie would only run 45 minutes.

Without a doubt, especially with such traditionally maligned figures as strippers initiating the deeds, there's a built-in pleasure in seeing Wall Street tyros get what's coming to them both before and after the 2008 financial meltdown, even if the movie's only interest in these guys is as types rather than individuals. (Aside from Destiny and Ramona, Scafaria's script doesn't appear terribly interested in its women, either.) And with Wu allowed a few genuinely touching moments and bits of low-voiced, underplayed comedy, there are additional perks, particularly the flashes of insight we're given into the complexities of our anti-heroines' criminal activities and the technical logistics of pole dancing. Yet the only true reason to see Hustlers is Jennifer Lopez, and on quite a few levels, that's more than reason enough. It should go without saying that the 50-year-old (!!!) looks spectacular, and temperament-wise, she's just about perfect casting as a tender, protective Mama Bear who will, at the slightest provocation, haul out her claws. But in what is easily her strongest performance since 1998's Out of Sight, Lopez is also radiantly alert here; even at her most welcoming, you never seen the wheels in Ramona's brain stop spinning, and the star's reliably commanding presence dovetails beautifully with her interpretation of a character who's always two steps ahead of everyone, including her audience. Oscar or no, Jennifer Lopez is thrilling to watch in Hustlers, and so inspiring that I almost left my screening determined to revisit her entire oeuvre, including her 2000 rom-com The Wedding Planner opposite, yes, Matthew McConaughey. No one, though, is that inspiring.

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch

THE GOLDFINCH

If Jennifer Lopez was the breakout champ of this year's Toronto Film Festival, the undisputed flop was The Goldfinch, director John Crowley's and screenwriter Peter Straughan's widely detested take on Donna Tartt's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. (Now magazine called it “the sort of film that gives prestige dramas a bad name,” and that's one of the kinder critical sentiments I've run across.) In certain regards, I get the hate. With Tartt's 784 pages adapted into roughly two-and-a-half hours of screen time, the movie feels exactly like an epic novel translated to film with fidelity but not much independent imagination; there's a lot of incident yet almost nothing that connects you emotionally from one event to another. (It's like the movie-going equivalent of Cliff's Notes.) Themes of abandonment and guilt that may have felt trenchant on the page instead feel alternately ham-fisted and precious, and fundamentally fraudulent when presented as “naturalistic” dialogue. Coincidences that might have seemed magically predestined in print come off as contrived and silly in visual practice. And the whole thing reeks of privileged good taste in a way that quashes its potential humanity; when a character here said “I'm engaged to be married” as opposed to the simpler, far more common “I'm engaged,” it took all my will not to want to punch the guy who said it. (That the line was delivered by the frequently punchable Ansel Elgort didn't help.) Yet despite all this and its significant critical knocks, Crowley's and Straughan's Goldfinch isn't completely unengaging.

I'll spare you the plot synopsis, as even a broad summary might require more words than the Internet can safely contain. Besides, what makes this literary bummer bearable isn't the story; it's the cast. As young Theo Decker, a pre-teen who loses his mother in a terrorist bombing and spends his life feeling responsible for her death, Oakes Feigley has a wonderful look – he definitely deserves the “Harry Potter” nickname he's eventually given – and an even more impressive presence, his grave, inquisitive seriousness offset by bursts of winning rude humor. (The less said about the affected Elgort, who plays Theo in his 20s, the better.) Nicole Kidman, suggesting a slowly thawing iceberg, is subtly moving as the Manhattanite who welcomes Theo into her family, while the never-less-than-superb Jeffrey Wright is quietly heart-wrenching as the antiques dealer who serves as the boy's surrogate father. Theo's actual father is played with hateful, oily bravado by Luke Wilson, his best movie work in years, with Sarah Paulson on hand – and delivering the film's most electrifying portrayal – as the blowzy step-monster Theo understandably runs from. Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things and the Its, is a pubescent hoot as a bad-influence Ukrainian pal; Willa Fitzgerald is hauntingly conflicted as one of Theo's lifelong touchstones; Boyd Gaines, a four-time Tony Award winner rarely seen in movies, is enjoyably loathsome as Kidman's out-of-touch hubby. Again and again, and with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins making their environs visually breathtaking, the actors in The Goldfinch routinely compensate for everything that's missing, under-thought, or over-dramatized elsewhere. Despite their material playing like Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums foolishly re-designed as a tragedy, they also bring just enough life to this mostly lifeless affair to make me want to seek out the book, which I'm a little ashamed to admit I never read. Even with the most disappointing movies, there are worse reactions you can have than to be left with a healthy desire to read.

Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs a Marathon

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON, OFFICIAL SECRETS, and LUCE

While the weekend brought us two new releases that made their debuts at this month's Toronto Film Festival, our Davenport cineplex also presented the area premieres of three indies that first screened at January's Sundance Film Festival and made it to larger markets this summer: the motivational comedy Brittany Runs a Marathon, the dramatic thriller Official Secrets, and the nature-v.-nurture provocation Luce. If you got to this article a week after its publication, none of them may still be playing at a theater near you. But I'm grateful as hell that we got them at all, and hope, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that you eventually get around to them, too.

Inspired by the true experiences of one of his best friends, writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo's Brittany Runs a Marathon has an unmistakably on-the-nose title: It's about an overweight young woman named Brittany (Jillian Bell) who wants to run a marathon, and then does run a marathon. (Specifically, the New York City Marathon, which end-credits photos show the real-life “Brittany” completing earlier this decade.) This clearly isn't among the woman's plans at the movie's start, seeing as the fun-loving, eat-drink-and-be-merry gal embodied by Bell visits a doctor not for health reasons, but to score Adderall for another night of binge-partying. But when that physician, in denying her the prescription, instead advises the woman to lose 50 pounds, she grudgingly makes the attempt, and soon discovers she loves the attempt, even if loving herself proves a far trickier prospect. A feel-good flick about feeling bad, Colaizzo's feature-film debut is nothing if not formulaic. With one notable narrative exception, you can safely predict the storyline arc beat for beat, and I may have occasionally, audibly groaned when Colaizzo indulged in clichés I thought his smart, funny script was too hip for, as when Brittany abruptly dissed her ideal blind-date match because self-esteem issues were getting in the way. Yet hugely winning performers such as Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar (a real find), Lil Rey Howery, and others give their classic stereotypes human pulses, and the sharp dialogue allows traditional scenes to play with something close to wit. Best of all, Jillian Bell is finally given the opportunity to stretch her considerable talents in a leading role wholly deserving of her. I consider Bell's 22 Jump Street whack-job one of the decade's most inventive yet sadly unsung comic performances, yet here, she's both hilarious and at times devastatingly touching, and completely earns the tears you shed at the heart-in-your-throat finale. Though, in all honesty, I probably would've left her film happy even if it concluded after its opening five minutes and Bell's impersonation of Babe the pig courtesy of the performer's natural genius and a strip of Scotch tape. I've purchased movies for less, yet Brittany Runs a Marathon and its über-wonderful star also give us so much more.

Keira Knightley in Official Secrets

A low-key, veddy veddy British take on All the President's Men complete with a Deep Throat reference in a barely illuminated parking garage, director Gavin Hood's docudrama Official Secrets tells of whistle-blower Katherine Gun (Keira Knightley), the Government Communications Headquarters eavesdropper who, in 2003, leaked to the press a memo concerning potential blackmail attempts on United Nations diplomats on the eve of the Iraq War. That's a weighty subject, and Hood and his fellow screenwriters tackle it with perhaps too much weight; the dramatic import frequently feels indistinguishable from mere heavy-handedness, and Knightley, looking about as anti-radiant as it's possible for her to look, is forced to sell too much of the drama through morose, bleary-eyed stares. (Knightley feels like an actor in desperate need of an Erin Brockovich-style breakout, but it won't come from this role.) Yet the film's real-life storyline is juicy and engaging, the largely staid pacing allows certain sequences – especially the potential deportation of Katherine's Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) – to really pop, and it's filled with fine actors, although Doctor Who and The Crown veteran Matt Smith is strangely irritating here, his sardonic Observer journalist Martin Bright seemingly unable to lift his chin from his torso. (I could barely tell you what Smith looks like in the film, but feel like I have his hairline committed to memory.) Among a topnotch crew that includes Conleth Hill, Matthew Goode, Jeremy Northam, and a particularly entertaining Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes does the most heroic work in Official Secrets, his soft-spoken yet justifiably outraged lawyer yet another feather in the cap of an actor whose cap, by now, has got to be resembling a freaking peacock.

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce

As for Julius Onah's Luce, which the director and co-writer JC Lee adapted from Lee's 2013 play, I left my screening with two regrets. One was that we so rarely get film versions of stage dramas anymore, given that even when the movies themselves aren't good (August: Osage County being a prime example), they at least tend to give us meaty material delivered by top-tier casts whose schedules and/or aversions to theatre likely wouldn't allow for their gathering in a live production. The other regret was that I didn't see the film when it debuted at Iowa City's FilmScene venue several weeks ago, as that would have given me a jump on raving about it. A feature-length debate in which the most impassioned arguments could easily take place on the car ride home, Luce concerns its titular high-school senior (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a former child soldier in North Africa who was adopted by a well-to-do Virginia couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) at age seven and now, at 17, is a straight-A student, gifted athlete, and model citizen. Luce's school standing, however, doesn't quite gel for his suspicious history teacher (Octavia Spencer), who sees signs in Luce's writing – and illegal fireworks in his locker – suggesting that this child raised on warfare may be hiding violent revolutionary tendencies.

Like many stage-to-screen transfers, and despite Onah's fluid filmmaking, you can't miss the material's stage-bound nature, with characters tending to orate rather than speak and its themes spelled out in big block letters. (The play that Luce most closely resembles seems to be John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which, like August: Osage County, was turned into a not-great Meryl Streep movie made unmissable, in part, because of Meryl Streep.) Yet thanks to its rich premise, solid writing, and galvanic quartet of central performances, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Watts and Roth, last paired under even more harrowing circumstances in Michael Haneke's Funny Games remake, are flinty and raw, with Watts delivering some of her most expressive, demanding work this decade. Spencer may never before have enjoyed a role this good; as in this past spring's Ma, she sheds all traces of her typically good-natured, salt-of-the-earth presence for a blistering anger and resentment buoyed by traces of warmth and humor. (It's a weird paradox that Oscar winner and three-time nominee Spencer is so routinely acclaimed, but seemingly never for the roles for which she deserves to be.) And Harrison, so excellent and empathetic in the 2017 horror film It Comes at Night, is astonishing here, Luce's gee-whiz smile and friendly demeanor transforming to frightening inscrutability in the time it takes to flick a light switch. Flaws and all, I encourage you to check out all three of our newly arrived Sundance debuts. But as Luce, from its Friday opening, was only allotted three screenings a day in Davenport, I urge you to check that one out first. It might not, however, be the last time you'll want to see it.

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