Review: Hustlers (2019)

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I don’t think many of you are expecting greatness from Hustlers. It’s been relatively under-marketed and it’s suddenly in theaters this weekend. But maybe low expectations will make this movie really enjoyable for a lot of you.

The gist.

We follow Destiny (Constance Wu) as she struggles to make ends meet, ending up with a dancing job to pay the bills. She’s not very successful, at least until the queen of the club Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes her in and shows her the ropes. For awhile, everything is great in the club. We have supporting actresses Lili Reinhart (Riverdale), Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo, and more. Cardi B and Lizzo have been marketed as major stars of this film, but that is absolutely not the case, FYI.

Things go downhill with the crash of the stock market, so Ramona and her girlfriends start to take advantage of the Wall Street creeps and take their money. It’s not quite legal, so we get foreshadowing that something major goes down.

The story is told in flashbacks, as Destiny recounts this story to a journalist (Julia Stiles).

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What works?

Without a doubt, this is Jennifer Lopez’s best performance. You might say ‘…but what about Selena?’ and I’d still agree that this is top notch. This movie goes beyond what you’d expect and really allows a lot of these women moments to shine and some real emotional depth. The blossoming friendship between Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny is incredibly authentic, full of great moments and tragic moments and lots of complicated emotions. The setting of a strip club may make you think this is not a serious film, but there’s actually a lot going on here.

In addition to being surprisingly deep, it’s also surprisingly funny. One of my favorites was Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart. I’ve never seen Riverdale but she was hilarious here and I won’t spoil why. The genuine joy in a lot of these scenes is intense, which counters perfectly with the dark and tragic.

So if you’re looking for a character piece with complicated characters and a topic asking what someone would do (or wouldn’t do) for money, this might be right up your alley.

What doesn’t work?

Now, this film isn’t perfect. There’s a lot wrong that keeps it from getting the highest marks from me.

The format of the story isn’t ideal, framed by Julia Stiles interviewing Constance Wu. It rids the story of suspense, as you know from the outset kind of how it turns out. It’s also jarring to jump back and forth. Ultimately, a straightforward narrative excluding Stiles’ character would’ve likely been an improvement. In the end, she didn’t add anything and only helped to muddy the waters a bit.

This movie also makes a few choices that undercut its potential, possibly because it’s based on a true story. There are consequences to them stealing this money, as they rob all sorts of folks, some who may not necessarily deserve it. These are just bumps in the journey, where there could have been some real exploration of the consequences and potentially some hard-hitting emotional moments, which we don’t get here.

Similarly, we have characters that get discarded and never returned to. Lizzo and Cardi B, while touted as headliners, only appear in the first act. There is a significant boyfriend that disappears, there’s a storyline about parents disappearing, and there’s plenty of victims who likely have much more story than we got to see here. The pacing moves quick, so some characters get no resolution or closure.



Hustlers is better than you probably imagined it would be, including a career-defining performance from Jennifer Lopez. Constance Wu also delivers, giving us a pairing of women that truly steal every scene they’re in. It’s a fun movie, with some great levity, but also delivers some emotion and heavy moments. Unfortunately, its framing structure undercuts its message and some great sideplots were left unexplored, ultimately keeping it from truly rising to the top. For most of you, this will be a fun and interesting journey.


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Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

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The Peanut Butter Falcon.

You know, I’ve been rooting for Shia LaBeouf. He went through a bit of a tailspin but he seems to have come out the other side with a new drive. Luckily, The Peanut Butter Falcon might just be the movie to redeem him.

The gist.

We follow Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who has been placed in an elderly care facility in North Carolina because there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s taken care of by a woman named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who tries to watch out for him, until Zak escapes in the night with nothing but his underwear. Zak then crosses paths with Tyler (LaBeouf), a man who dreams of being a crabber in Florida someday but has gotten into trouble with local hoodlums who are out to beat him. So Zak and Tyler start out on a journey south, by land, by truck, and by boat. Their story is sweet and inspirational, where both men teach each other what they need to survive.

What works?

This is an incredibly refreshing film and one of my favorites so far this year. It’s a simple premise but it is the endearing characters who make this story come to life. A lot of the story is based on Gottsagen’s own experiences having Down syndrome, so it’s got a feeling of authenticity that elevates this film to another level. And this is undoubtedly one of Shia’s best films, allowing him to give a potentially Oscar-caliber performance. There’s a lot of 2019 left, we’ll see how it shakes out.

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This is an incredibly funny movie, too, with an innocence from Gottsagen that makes even life-threatening moments a little lighter. He has a natural charisma with both LaBeouf and Johnson and you can tell there’s a lot of improvised moments between these characters, but it totally works.

I also appreciated Dakota Johnson here, as she’s trying to maybe redeem her career after the Fifty Shades franchise. This is a nuanced and simple performance from her but it works and it contrasts with Shia’s Tyler in interesting ways.

There’s also some surprise talent that show up here, including Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher). He had another surprise cameo in Wind River that kind of reminded me of this. He only shows up in flashbacks that inform us about the kind of tragic past that Shia’s Tyler is trying to escape from.

What doesn’t work?

For me, this hit all the right notes. It was tense at times but ultimately you had a feeling that everything would end up alright, which means it didn’t throw you for too many loops. It’s a simple movie but we need that sometimes.

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I don’t think there’s a person out there that couldn’t benefit from this film. It’s entertaining and educational, even inspiring at times. The performances from all three of our leads are phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shia LaBeouf get a Best Actor nod. It’s a funny and light-hearted movie, a perfect reprieve from intense summer blockbusters. I wholeheartedly endorse this movie, no questions asked.


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Review: Angel Has Fallen

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Angel Has Fallen.

By now, you likely know if you’re a fan of Gerard Butler’s Secret Service series that began with Olympus Has Fallen and then London Has Fallen. If you are a fan of those films, will this third film hit the mark for you?

The gist.

Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is protecting the President (Morgan Freeman) when a drone attack nearly kills them both. When Banning wakes up, he discovers an elaborate trap has been laid, framing him for the assassination attempt. He must try to clear his name, avoid the authorities, and find out who is after the President before they can finish what they’ve started. Other talent includes Nick Nolte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Piper Perabo, Danny Huston, Lance Riddick, and Tim Blake Nelson.

What works?

If you’re a fan of the first two films, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll enjoy this one too. It’s a relatively safe action film, meaning it’s simple to follow, has plenty of big explosions, and offers a safe and satisfying conclusion. Gerard Butler isn’t a great actor but here, he’s able to deliver everything we need to sympathize with Banning.

The action is fun, including some great chases and an intense climax. If you just want popcorn fun and some edge of your seat action, you’ll find it here.

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What doesn’t work?

While the action is intense, it’s not shot incredibly well. The movie’s director Ric Roman Waugh is relatively untested, his only major theatrical release being Dwayne Johnson’s Snitch. Otherwise, Waugh is a stuntman and writer, so his behind the camera experience is limited. The action scenes suffer from this, with shaky shots and lots of camera tricks to make us think the action is intense. I do applaud Waugh for writing this film, though, as it’s surprisingly simple to follow. Movies in this genre tend to overcomplicate things and can end up making a mess of the plot, which wasn’t the case here.

I also need to point out the visual effects here are… iffy. There are quite a few blatant green-screen moments or low budget visuals that really stand out, such as a helicopter that looks obviously added in post-production or smoke effects that really stand out. It can just take you out of the action.

We also have a problem with some repetition, as there are key moments that happen in every film in this series and it’s starting to feel a little redundant. This movie doesn’t do anything original or unique, which is why it’s getting a straight-down-the-middle score. It’s fine but ultimately contributes very little to the genre as a whole.


Have you seen the first two films? Do you want to see a one-man army taking on a lot of bad guys? This movie isn’t anything special but it delivers some fun action, so if you just want some explosions and a fine time, you’ll be good here. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be.


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Review: Good Boys

good boys headeradam reviewGood Boys.

This movie had me worried when it was touted as “From the makers of Sausage Party.” I wasn’t even really planning on seeing this, until I started to hear rumblings that it might actually be good (unlike Sausage Party). So, I took a risk and went to check it out.

The gist.

We follow three 6th graders, as they prepare for their first ‘kissing party.’ The first of the three boys is Max (Jacob Tremblay), who has a crush on this girl named Brixlee (Millie Davis) and he must attend this party so that she doesn’t kiss somebody else. He uses his dad’s drone to spy on the neighbors, hoping to catch a glimpse of kissing, to see how it’s done. Well, things go sideways and the boys are now set on an adventure that will either end with kissing or with all of them being grounded. The second boy is Lucas (Keith L. Williams), who discovers his parents (Retta and Lil Ren) are getting divorced, though he can’t work up the courage to tell his friends that. Lastly, we have Thor (Brady Noon), who has the voice of an angel but gives up his passion when he’s made fun of by the cool kids in school, so he’s on a journey to prove himself to them.

We also have two high schoolers (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) who are planning a crazy weekend when the boys accidentally steal their drugs, so these girls are trying to track down our leads for the movie’s length.


What works?

I have to say, this movie surprised me in a lot of ways.

First off, while it’s rated R and touted as a perverse and obscene raunchy comedy, it’s actually fairly tame yet still managed to get some big belly laughs from me. It didn’t need to resort to truly gross content, which feels like a lowest common denominator approach. This was jam packed with comedy that worked, yet did push the limits for what we’re used to seeing with child actors.

I think this movie ultimately works so well because it has a heart and innocence to it. These kids aren’t raunchy intentionally, they’re stumbling through scenarios that they know nothing about. They don’t know the verbiage or the lingo, they don’t understand how things work, so it’s cute and innocent, even when approaching the vulgar. This heart really comes from our three leads, who all absolutely work. It’s no doubt that Jacob Tremblay (Room, Wonder) would deliver, but these other two relative unknowns do a fantastic job as well. They’re all likable and interesting and downright hilarious.

While this movie has plenty of f-bombs and shocking moments, it also has some great emotional moments. I teared up in the finale, as this movie really is about kids and growing up, either growing together or growing apart. The way that these kids learn this is actually poignant and relatable, as I know I had many grade school friends that eventually you grow apart from, as you take on your own hobbies and interests. I was surprised that this movie had any sort of higher message at all, nonetheless one that I’d connect with so much.

What doesn’t work?

While it isn’t as crude as I expected, it may still be a bit much for you if you can’t handle (or don’t want to see) sixth-graders saying every profane word or phrase in existence. This is still an R-rated comedy at its core.

And I’ve also read criticism of this film for trying to hit the same beats as movies like Superbad but that movie was almost 15 years ago, so I think it’s fair game to pay some homages to that film. I didn’t have an issue with this movie’s originality.

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This is shocking, but I really loved this movie. It had me laughing harder than most comedies in recent years have, and it really struck an emotional nerve with me as well. I teared up, I laughed, this movie really delivered on everything I wanted. It’s not a fantastic film, as it really doesn’t subvert any expectations you might have had, but it will make you laugh and maybe even remind you of your own youth and innocence. The only warning is that, yes, it’s still an R-rated movie that pushes the limits, but if that’s not a concern, this movie should leave you thoroughly entertained.


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Review: The Farewell (2019)

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The Farewell.

I had heard a lot about The Farewell, praising Awkwafina for her performance here. So, my wife and I went out of the way a bit to find a theater that was showing this. Did it live up to the hype?

The gist.

Billi (Awkwafina) has been living in New York, disconnected from her family in China. She returns back to China when it’s discovered that her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) has cancer and is dying. Here’s the kicker: she doesn’t know. In China, a family can choose to not disclose this, so the family chooses to lie to the grandmother and let her live in ignorance. They also stage a fake wedding as a ruse to get the entire extended family together to say goodbye to her, though she has no idea. Will Billi go along with the lie? Or tell the truth to her dying grandmother?

Almost the entire movie is in Mandarin, with subtitled English. Other stars include Tzi Ma and Diana Lin as Billi’s parents.


What works?

The biggest strength of this movie is its heart. It’s a family with very relateable problems and convincing relationships. Some of our characters aren’t actors, including Nai Nai, the grandmother who is the crux of this entire film. It feels authentic and realistic, like we’re just peeking into this world. Awkwafina does a decent job here, especially considering her past performances have all been comedic roles. I don’t think she’s the revelation that others have hyped her up to be, but she does a fine job.

I also think they’ve made China a character unto itself. The locations are all intriguing, at once feeling both foreign and familiar. It’s a very different China than is usually showcased in major films that hit the United States, so it was refreshing.

What doesn’t work?

There’s a few things that really dropped this a few pegs for me, potentially because it was so overhyped and my expectations were maybe too high.

First off, this movie can really slow to a standstill at times. The director Lulu Wang has only one other full-length movie on her resume, so I chalk some of this up to inexperience. There are plenty of slow motion moments with people walking, or zooms into people’s faces. Things that don’t really add anything and instead slow the film to a crawl. There’s not a lot of plot here, so it feels like they padded the runtime a bit.

My other major gripe is how the film ended, so I can’t really get into it without spoilers. You don’t really get the sort of release or climax that you expect and it ultimately undercuts the whole experience. As the credits rolled, I didn’t get the experience that I wanted or expected from this film.

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This is a fine film. It showcases a Chinese family in a way that isn’t often shown in mainstream Hollywood and it characterizes the country itself in a unique way as well. It’s got heart, but ultimately undercuts the emotion and doesn’t deliver the sort of climax you might be hoping for. Awkwafina does a fine job, though I wouldn’t put too much stock in her winning any awards for this.


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Review: The Kitchen

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The Kitchen.

In this 1970s era crime drama, we see three wives in the wake of their husbands’ arrests. Their husbands were powerful men in the Irish mob scene of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, so the wives step in to fill this vacuum, quickly discovering they have a knack for it. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) steps up to make connections with nearby families, while Claire (Elizabeth Moss) struggles to learn how to defend herself and take care of loose ends. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) fears for her life following her husband’s arrest, so she makes aggressive moves to secure her place. To help them make moves, they recruit Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson) to teach them how to kill, how to get rid of bodies, and ultimately to provide protection. This story follows their rise to wealth and what happens when their husbands eventually get released from prison and the implications of their wives now running the territory.

What works?

Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Moss run the show here, delivering our most powerful and impactful moments. While it might be hard to take McCarthy serious, I feel like she’s done enough serious pictures now to start to wear that reputation down. I also want to give kudos to Domhnall Gleeson, who plays a completely detached sociopath pretty easily.

This movie also offers lots of “WHOA WHAT” moments, so if you want something that leaves you guessing and you never know what will happen next, you’ll find plenty of that here, right up until the last shot of the film.

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What doesn’t work?

While there are plenty of shock and awe moments, it can feel a bit familiar. Most movies revolving around the mob feature plenty of “What the! They killed them!” moments. It also lacks a punch at the end, all of these big twists ultimately feeling a little underwhelming. As the credits began to run, I didn’t really feel much of anything, so the whole journey felt a little inconsequential, including squandering Domhnall Gleeson, who they built up to be something and instead they disappointed.

I’m also conflicted about Tiffany Haddish here. There were plenty of times when her line delivery caused the audience to laugh, but I don’t know if it was really meant to be a punchline. We’re just so used to seeing her in comedies, this first outing in a drama might be a rough transition.


This movie is fine, which is pretty much what I expected. McCarthy, Moss, and Gleeson carry the film, while Haddish is a little more hit or miss. The story will keep you engaged and has plenty of twists and turns, but ultimately lacks the punch and impact in the climax, leaving you feeling apathetic about the adventure you just went on. It’s fine if you’re looking for some air conditioning for a few hours, but this won’t top any Best of 2019 lists for sure.


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Review: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

This is the ninth movie by Quentin Tarantino. By now, you probably have an idea if this is your cup of tea or not. You might love these films or you might be incredibly put-off by them. If you’re already a Tarantino fan, why are you even reading this? It’s a no-brainer, you’ll go see this. If you’re not a fan, I’m not sure this movie will be the one to convince you.

The gist.

It’s 1969 and we follow actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is going through a rough patch and is trying to redeem his name, while Cliff gets distracted by a woman (Margaret Qualley) who it turns out is part of the Manson Family, a cult following Charles Manson who ended up murdering people. One of their famous victims is the actress Sharon Tate, played here by Margot Robbie.

Now, I think it’s important that you know that the Manson Family was involved in the death of Sharon Tate because the movie doesn’t really tell you much, I don’t even think the word “Manson” is said at all, they only allude to the character as “Charlie.” If you don’t know this history or what these people were up to, I think this movie would be much more confusing, so I’m telling you now.

We also have supporting characters played by Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino, Luke Perry (in his last movie role), and Timothy Olyphant.

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What works?

There’s a few things you can always rely on Tarantino for. Firstly, the movie is gorgeous, bringing that era to life completely. They drive through Los Angeles and you can tell a lot of work went into either physically or digitally transforming the city. His shots are long, allowing these incredible actors to just breathe. Some of the movie’s best moments are seemingly inconsequential, just these characters living in this world.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio absolutely shine here. DiCaprio has much more of an arc, as he struggles to remain relevant, but Pitt’s character gets plenty to do as well. These are two of today’s best performers, so undoubtedly they deliver here.

Our supporting cast also shine, including a hilarious performance from 10-year-old actress Julia Butters, whose back and forth with DiCaprio is one of the highlights of the film.

If you’re looking for a high-level movie that might challenge you and not handhold your experience, this might be it.

What doesn’t work?

This movie isn’t a solid pick for casual audiences. If you’re just looking for escapism, this movie’s nearly 3-hour runtime might discourage you. And in those 3 hours, very little happens. This movie, like some of Tarantino’s other films, doesn’t have much of a plot. I could spoil the entire plot in a line or two. This is just characters living and doing, sometimes planting seeds for things that never come to pass.

The biggest complaint I can see coming is Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, a real life actress. If you’re not familiar with Tate and her unfortunate death in real life, you may be wondering the whole time who she is and what she has to do with this movie, and there’s no payoff for her character. If you do know and can see what’s coming, you might find the movie’s climax a little more interesting.

So, if you’re not interested in the journey, a lot of this movie can feel slow and uneventful, plenty of long driving shots with no dialogue. It’s beautifully shot but may feel unnecessary.

Also, there is some violence in the climax that made me incredibly uneasy. Now, I loved films like Kill Bill so I understand Tarantino’s penchant for violence in his movies, but some of these shots still made my stomach turn, so a warning to those of you with weak stomaches.

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This is a mixed bag, so I’m going right down the middle. However, this means some of you might absolutely love this film. You’re okay with the slow pace, the performances are solid, and you knew enough about the history to appreciate what Tarantino has done. On the flip side, some of you will hate this. You don’t appreciate the stretches of silence, you don’t know the history and so Margot Robbie’s character felt pointless and disconnected, and you ultimately felt it was a waste of time. This is a hard movie to rate, since it’s likely so dependent on YOUR attitude going in. For me, it was right down the middle.


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