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Films I Neglected To Review: Strip Stakes
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Freaks," "Haunt," "Hustlers," "Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins" and "Tigers Are Not Afraid."

Of course, there are a lot of movies that are more dramatically effective if you go in knowing as little about them as possible but in the case of "Freaks," even the title alone may be a little too suggestive for its own good. (Needless to say, those who want to go in as fresh as possible may want to check out at this point.) The film tells the story of Chloe (Lexy Kolker), a seven-year-old girl who lives in a run-down house with her father (Emilie Hirsch, a wild-eyed paranoiac who refuses to let her step outside for even a second and who constantly drills her on the alternate identity he has devised for her in the event that they are ever separated. At first, one might think that we are watching a dark story of abuse in the manner of "Room" but there hints here and there that there is something far more bizarre going on--Chloe has visions of a strange woman (Amanda Crew) seemingly being held inside a closet and has an unusual connection with a neighbor girl that she has theoretically never met while Dad has a disconcerting tendency to bleed from his eyes at times. Eventually, Chloe is finally lured outside her home by an ice cream vendor named Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), who tempts her into his truck with the promise of chocolate ice cream and proceeds to reveal that. . . well, that is just one of the many things that I will leave for you to discover on your own.

"Freaks" was written and directed by the duo of Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, who have worked together on a number of low-budget projects in the past (including the recent "Kim Possible" live-action TV movie) and who are obviously using this project as a sort of calling card for entrance into the bigger leagues. On the basis of their work here, I would say that they probably do deserve a shot. They do prove to be a little weaker on the screenplay front--although the story is undeniably intriguing in the early going when we aren't entirely sure what is going on, it becomes progressively less interesting in that area as it begins to explain itself more and starts wearing its influences on its sleeve with increasing prominence. On the other hand, the direction of the story is stylish and sure-footed throughout--which is especially impressive when you consider that they were presumably working on a relatively low budget (though they have clearly managed to squeeze every penny spent for maximum effect--and puts any number of far more elaborate productions of recent vintage to shame. They also show a strong hand in dealing with actors, especially in regards with Kolker, who is on screen for virtually the entire movie and more than holds her own against everything from the increasingly weird goings-on to the cheerfully scenery-chomping Dern. "Freaks" isn't perfect but at least when it does stumble--which is not too often--it is happily out of ambition rather than laziness.

On the other hand, laziness is clearly the driving force behind "Haunt," a dreadfully dull psycho-slasher film in which the closest thing to a genuinely terrifying moment comes when Eli Roth's name is listed as one of the producers. In it, a group of largely interchangeable friends go out on Halloween night and find themselves coming across a haunted house out in the middle of nowhere promising extreme thrills--patrons are even required to surrender their phones and sign liability waivers before entering. It turns out that the masked staff members aren't kidding about the extreme aspect because the haunted house turns out to be a complex maze in which people are led around to increasingly creepy rooms and then brutally murdered one by one by the hosts. Although the basic premise is not exactly fresh and innovative, there are any number of ways in which it could have been creatively executed, none of which have been employed by the writer-director duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (previously and continually best know for co-writing the screenplay for "A Quiet Place"). Instead, they offer up a trite situations, uninteresting characters and kill scenes that are gory enough but which lack any real inspiration. The most horrifying things about it is the way that they try to build up central character Harper (Katie Stevens) by giving her a dark and abusive past that has carried on to the present--when we first see her, she is covering up a bruise given to her by her loutish boyfriend. I don't have a problem with inserting such touchy subject matter into a movie of this sort as long as it is willing to actually deal with it in a thoughtful way--here, it just seems like a cheap ploy to get audiences to root for the character in lieu of making her into an interesting person in her own right and the whole thing winds up smacking of the sleaziest sort of exploitation as a result. Dumb, gross and tasteless in all the wrong ways, "Haunt" is an easily forgettable genre programmer that wants to be considered as a diabolical cinematic treat but which proves to be about as exciting and tasty as a couple of pennies sitting in the bottom of your trick-or-treat pail.

On the other hand, the very idea of "Hustlers"--a jazzed-up crime spectacle in the vein of "Goodfellas" and "Boogie Nights" that has been given a feminist spin--is so undeniably appealing at its core that it takes you a while to finally realize that it never really comes together in a satisfying manner. Inspired by an article in "New York" magazine, the film tells the story of Destiny (Constance Wu), who, as the film opens in 2007, takes a job as a pole dancer in a popular Manhattan strip club despite having virtually no experience on the pole in order to make money for herself and to care for her grandmother. She is taken under the wing of the clubís star, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who teaches her the ins and outs of both dancing and working the Wall Street sleazes who patronize the joint for the maximum amount of money they can get from them. For a while, the times and the money are good but when the 2008 recession hits, the bottom drops out of the strip club business and when the story picks up in 2011, Destiny is once again struggling to make ends meet, this time with a young daughter in tow. After a chance reunion, Ramona recruits her into a scheme that she has concocted to make a lot of quick money and strike back at the very people responsible for the financial crash---the two, along with two other strippers (Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart), will find guys with big bankrolls and little common sense in order to drug them and max out their credit limits while they are too impaired to notice. Dorothy is somewhat ambivalent towards this even though it appears to be the perfect crime--it is unlikely that their victims are going to tell the cops that they were fleeced by strippers--but after a while, Ramona starts taking bigger and bigger risks that threaten to destroy the entire scheme and land them all in jail.

Going in, I thought that "Hustlers" had pretty much everything going for it--an intriguing premise, an engaging cast and a writer-director in Lorene Scafaria whose previous films ("Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" and "The Meddler") were both interesting combinations of oddball humor and genuine human emotion--but it just never really clicks. The screenplay is as flimsily constructed as the outfits that the main characters sport for much of the running time--the characters are not very well-written with everyone other than Lopez and Wu getting but a single character trait to play with (Reinhart's character barfs whenever she is nervous), we never get any sense of the day-to-day reality of the lives of these women and the framing device in which Destiny recounts the story to a magazine reporter (Julia Stiles) is such a clunker that it virtually brings the proceedings to a dead stop every time the story cuts back to them. The biggest problem is that it simply isn't much fun--even the sight of overprivileged assholes getting deservedly fleeced fails to pay off here thanks to the slick but ultimately empty manner in which Scafaria handles the material. There are a few amusing moments here and there (I laughed at a bit where Dorothy is shopping at a high-end store and purchases an expensive bag with a lot of ones) and J-Lo's first appearance--an eye-popping dance routine choreographed to Fiona Apple's "Criminal"--is an undeniable knockout. That said, if you are in the mood for a film critiquing the sins and excesses of late-stage capitalism while using stripping as a not-especially-subtle metaphor for the human condition, you are probably better off passing on "Hustlers" and giving the genuinely audacious "Showgirls" another chance instead.

The great political columnist Molly Ivins, a truth-teller of the first order who never hesitated to skewer people of power on either side of the political spectrum if she felt that they were not doing the job of properly serving the people, died in 2007 and in the 12 years of turmoil and chaos that has followed, I am almost certainly not alone in wondering what she might have made of the current climate. For certain, it is a question that will occur more than once to anyone watching the new documentary "Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins." Using interviews with colleagues and a plethora of archival material featuring Ivins at her most bitingly acerbic, Janice Engel's film charts her life and career, paying special focus on her willingness to speak and write her mind, even when it threatened to harm her career, and how she grew to become one of America's most celebrated political columnists, an unabashed liberal who loved sticking it to people like George Bush (who she famously dubbed "Shrub") and Dan Quayle but who was just as willing to call out Democrats for their failings with the same degree of fervor, indignation and slashing wit--perhaps most famously when she publicly stated that she would not be voting for Bill Clinton for a second term because of his approach welfare reform. The film is less successful when it tries to probe elements of Ivinsís personal life in order to get a fuller picture of who she was, including her prickly relationship with her stern father and her battles with sexism, institutions where she found herself unable to fit in and alcoholism. "Raise Hell" is one of those documentaries that is not especially striking from a cinematic standpoint and it is unlikely that it will mean much of anything to anyone who isnít already a fan of Ivins and her work before going into it. That said, those people will no doubt get a kick out of seeing and hearing her once more while feeling the loss of her unique voice more acutely than ever.

"Tigers Are Not Afraid" has received much acclaim in certain corners for its audacious mix of gritty reality and magical realism set amongst a group of children literally caught in the crossfire of the brutal drug war in Mexico. It is an undeniably ambitious film but when it was all over, I felt strangely unsatisfied. The focus is on Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl who, as the film opens, is learning abut fairy tales in school when the place is rocked by an explosion. Her teacher calms her by handing her three pieces of chalk, each one meant to represent a wish. With the school now closed, Estrella returns home to discover that her mother is missing, possibly taken by members of one of the local gangs wreaking havoc. Before long, she joins up with a group of young boys who have been similarly orphaned and survive by stealing what they can. One of the boys, it turns out, has stolen a gun and cell phone from the drunken leader of the most dangerous of the gangs, who will do anything to get them back. After Estrella seems to prove herself to the boys, they join together in order to survive in the streets, get revenge on the gang members and try to solve the mystery of what happened to Estrella's mother.

With its commingling of fairy tale tropes and imagery with the horrors of the real world, "Tigers Are Not Afraid" may suggest a modern-day version of Guillermo del Toro's classic "Pan's Labyrinth" to some viewers and indeed, del Toro is one of the many genre specialists (alongside Stephen King and Neil Gaiman) who have praised the film. Now there is a lot to like here--writer-director Issa Lopez has a good eye for creating arresting imagery and getting strong and convincing performances from her cast of young actors. The problem with the film is that for me, the blending of wild fantasy and everyday horrors just never quite came together in a satisfying manner for me. I get that Estrella is using fantasy as a way of coping with the things she is forced to endure through no fault of her own but at a certain point, the film seems to be using them in much the same way--as an easy excuse to avoid dealing with the reality of the situations being presented. Don't get me wrong--"Tigers Are Not Afraid" is still intriguing enough to warrant a look, especially for genre fans, but those who choose to seek it out may want to lower their expectations slightly before doing so.

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originally posted: 09/14/19 01:56:10
last updated: 09/14/19 02:23:46
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