U Turn (1997)

I never had much interest in Oliver Stone as a filmmaker, but I have plenty lingering fascination with Jennifer Lopez as an actor.  Besides her career-making role portraying pop idol Selena in an eponymous biopic and her music video performances of her own dance club hits, Lopez is most often thought of as a romcom actor – the kind of beautiful but relatable sweetheart archetype usually played by Julia Roberts & Sandra Bullock.  Maybe I’ve just happened to see one too many TV broadcasts of titles like The Wedding Planner, Monster-in-Law, and Maid in Manhattan, but I always feel like Lopez’s filmography as an actor is culturally misremembered for being lighter & breezier than it actually is.  Early in her career, Lopez worked on some fairly daring, hard-edged thrillers, most notably Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, Tarsem’s The Cell, and Stone’s sunlit neo-noir U Turn.  Maybe the wide cultural revulsion towards her gangster hangout comedy Gigli (which admittedly deserves the scorn) made Lopez a lot more careful in choosing daring, divisive projects.  Or maybe Hollywood producers foolishly overlooked her enduring sex appeal as she aged, redistributing her early sex-symbol thriller roles to the next hungry twentysomething down the line and, in the case of Hustlers, roping her in as their mentor.  I don’t have a firm handle on how or why Jennifer Lopez slowly softened the overall tone of her filmography, but I do know that it was exciting to pick up a DVD copy of 1997’s U Turn at a local thrift store, my ambivalence towards its director be damned.  It felt like a lost dispatch from JLo’s grittier, thrillier past, one that thankfully did not repeat the intensely sour notes of my recent, ill-advised thrift store purchase of Gigli.

The overbearing Oliver Stoneness of U Turn is impossible to ignore.  Stone shoots its American desert setting with the same hyperactive, multimedia style that he pushed past its limits in Natural Born Killers, violently alternating between handheld music video angles, flashes of black & white film grain, and the drunken fish-eye perspective of a 1990s breakfast cereal commercial.  Fortunately, it’s an improved revision of that distinctive NBK excess, slowing down and spacing out each stylistic flourish so that the intentionally bumpy ride isn’t so unintentionally shrill.  Sean Penn stars opposite JLo as the doomed lovers on this particular crime spree, except the spree is a nonstarter and the romance is a con job.  While smuggling a duffel bag stuffed with overdue loan money to the impatient Vegas gangsters he owes, Penn blows his muscle car engine in rural Arizona, forcing the self-described big city “slimy bastard” to spend a sunburnt eternity with small-town hicks he openly despises.  Juaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Powers Booth put in over-the-top caricature performances as the local lunatics who torment Penn as the universe at large seemingly conspires to block his exit.  Only Jennifer Lopez & Nick Nolte matter much to the narrative, though, playing Penn’s femme fatale seductress and her abusive, “slimy bastard” husband.  Both spouses attempt to seduce Penn into killing each other for a cut of the insurance money, but only one is nuclear-hot enough to win him over to her side.  Penn & Lopez’s murderous “romance” is mostly a nonstop back & forth of double-triple-quadruple crossings as they repeatedly backstab each other in their selfish attempts to escape their respective prisons: Penn’s small-town purgatory and Lopez’s abusive marriage.  It’s basically Oliver Stone’s 90s-era update to the classic Poverty Row noir Detour, which Stone makes glaringly obvious by including multiple shots of “DETOUR” road signs framed from zany music video angles.

There’s a lot of poorly aged, Oliver Stoney bullshit to wade through here, from the long list of shitheel contributors (Penn chief among them) to their casual cross-racial casting, to the post-Tarantino antihero crassness of the “slimy bastard” gangsters at the forefront.  I was most bothered by the lengthy, onscreen depictions of misogynist violence that Lopez suffers, both because it’s frustratingly common to what young Hollywood actress are offered (before they become chipper romcom darlings) and because it feels sleazily, unforgivably eroticized.  A more thematically focused, purposeful version of U Turn would only allow bad things to happen to Penn, since its sense of cosmic menace is built entirely on his impossible, Exterminating Angel style mission to speed away from rural Arizona.  Lopez makes the most of her role as the horned-up victim turned manipulative seductress, but it’s all in service of a tired misogynist trope.  Luckily, Stone makes up for the scatterbrained, unfocused themes of his writing (alongside screenwriter & source material novelist John Ridley) in the scatterbrained, unfocused visuals of his direction.  He shoots roadside buzzards from the low angles & wide lenses of a Beastie Boys video.  He shamelessly lifts Spike Lee’s signature double-dolly shot, scores the small-towners’ grotesque bullying of Penn with cartoonish mouth-harp boings, and just generally bounces around the desert sand with nothing but expensive camera equipment and a prankster’s spirit guiding the way.  As nastily blackhearted as U Turn can be, its visual style is buoyantly playful and excitingly volatile, somehow smoothing out the jagged annoyance of Natural Born Killers into something genuinely entertaining.  It’s both a major red-flag indicator of why Jennifer Lopez might have abandoned her early collaborations with high-style auteurs and a nostalgia stoker for the more exciting, challenging work she was doing in that era. 

-Brandon Ledet

Gigli (2003)

So far, the most wholesome, unexpected pop culture news of the year has been the out-of-nowhere reboot of Bennifer.  In this age of division & strife, isn’t it nice that we can all gather around to celebrate two smoking hot millionaires who love boning each other?  JLo beaming in her Vegas wedding gown; a scruffy Battfleck taking dad-naps on yachts with his hand resting gracefully on his bride’s world-famous ass . . . Everything just feels right again.  It’s worth remembering, though, that even something as beautiful & pure as Bennifer was born the darkest, dankest of pop culture dungeons – just as every rose has its thorn and every cowboy sings his sad, sad song.  Jennifer Lopez & Ben Affleck first fell for each other on the set of the 2003 crime “comedy” Gigli, which lost roughly $70mil at the box office and was instantly reviled as one of the worst motion pictures of all time.  Starting off on such a sour note would have tanked most couples, but Bennifer soldiered on to collaborate on such beloved art projects as Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl, JLo’s “Jenny from the Block” music video and, of course, an endless procession of tabloid headlines.  May they never separate again.

In case you’re as morbidly curious as I am, and you also happen to find a used DVD copy of Gigli at your local thrift store, please know that it is a total “DEAD DOVE, DO NOT EAT” proposition.  There is no room for critical revisionism here.  Gigli is just as bad as originally reported.  It’s worse than bad, actually.  It’s deeply embarrassing.  It’s an early-aughts hangover from the post-Tarantino 90s, the kind of wryly overwritten gangster comedies like Get Shorty & Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag that were convinced saying “fuck” every three words was all you needed to seem funny & cool.  Affleck appears in greased hair & loose bowling shirts as the titular Gigli (a name he hates hearing pronounced “jiggly” or “giggly”, which means you should definitely go for it).   He’s a low-level gangster assigned by his higher-ups to kidnap the brother of a federal prosecutor as political leverage before a mob-busting trial.  Only, the hostage in question is an intellectually disabled horndog who acts like a toddler with the world’s biggest boner for Baywatch.  Queasy hijinks ensue as the uptight, macho Affleck butts heads with the loveable goof in his care.  Then things get even queasier when he’s forced to co-parent with a fellow low-level gangster played by Lopez – a lesbian that Gigli is determined to convert through the seductive power of unchecked machismo (positioning the film as Elmore Leonard’s Chasing Amy).

The frustrating thing about Gigli is that the sexual chemistry between Lopez & Affleck is genuinely explosive.  The basic premise of a macho gangster wooing his way into a lesbian’s bed is boneheaded, but it actually leads to some interesting sexual power dynamics between the two leads.  The meathead argues his case by expounding upon the natural marvel of dicks & dildos in faux-philosophical monologue, and his lesbian adversary shoots back that “The mouth is the twin sister of the vagina” with equally mighty inanity, giving him lots to chew on (“gobble gobble”).  She warms herself up to the idea of sleeping with the galoot by softly forcefemming him, making him question his own gender identity – a kinky undercurrent made even more arousing by how rottenly into each other Bennifer obviously are out-of-character.  It’s too bad, then, that every other aspect of the movie is so deeply unpleasant and determined to self-sabotage.  Every time their unlikely, problematic romance heats up, it’s quickly deflated by the film’s catastrophic choice of comic relief: the neurodivergent tics of its only disabled character.  Their hostage raps to old-school hip-hop tracks in a “funny” voice; he shouts random catchphrases as if he has Tourette’s; and he just won’t stop slobbering over the boobs on Baywatch.  It’s not just unfunny; it’s cruel.  And it ruins any enjoyment that could possibly be found elsewhere in the picture.

If we’re rebooting Bennifer in the 2020s, maybe it’s time we also reboot Gigli as a straight-up erotic thriller.  Drop the ableist punchlines and just stick to JLo breaking down her new husband’s gender barriers in a steamy power struggle at the outskirts of the crime world.  The only problem there is that the erotic thriller version would definitely stick to the film’s original, discarded ending, in which the lesbian character was shot dead for her moral transgressions (because of course she was).  You know what?  Scratch that.  Let’s never speak of Gigli again.  The return of Bennifer has given us all a culture-wide goofball smile, and there’s really no reason to spoil that vibe with a return to its sour beginnings.  Unless, of course, you really need to see JLo model the low-rise jeans, exposed midriffs, and gigantic belt buckles of early-aughts fashion.  It’s at least good for that.

-Brandon Ledet

JLo: All-American Hustler

It’s almost undeniable that the most All-American event on the cultural calendar is the Super Bowl: a championship football game adored for its TV ads, its excessive snack food rituals, and its pop music spectacle intermission. There’s a reason why so much emphasis is placed on who will sing the National Anthem that kicks off the game every year (and how well they did or didn’t perform); the event is just as much a celebration of American culture as it is a championship football game. I’ve gradually stopped watching football over the years as pro wrestling, the Oscars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race have replaced it as my competitive sports events of choice, but even I still tune in for the Super Bowl Halftime Show most years due to my overriding interest in pop culture at large. This year was a great one! Whoever booked the game’s intermission entertainment made great use of its Miami venue by featuring Latinx entertainers like Shakira & Bad Bunny, representing an often-overlooked facet of the American cultural fabric that’s been especially politically charged under the xenophobic reign of the Trump Presidency. The centerpiece of this celebratory Latinx protest display was a pop music medley from singer-dancer-movie-star Jennifer Lopez, whose section of the show took the biggest, most direct political jabs of the event – while also conjuring Lopez’s most recent onscreen persona as a modern marvel of Cinema in particular.

The reason I’m talking about football & pop music on a movie blog is that JLo’s Halftime Show performance was greatly influenced by her recent movie-stealing role in the film Hustlers. Adapted from a New York Magazine article chronicling a real-life series of crimes, the film is a post-2008 Financial Crisis period piece about a ring of strip club employees who drugged & fleeced their wealthy Wall Street clientele for tens of thousands of dollars. Told in a flashback style directly borrowed from GoodFellas, the film is ostensibly aligned with the POV of its top-billed narrator character, played by Constance Wu. In practice, Wu is the lead performer in name only. As soon as Jennifer Lopez saunters onto the screen to perform a strip routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the movie is entirely her show. Both the audience & Wu herself are fixated on the spectacle of the almighty JLo as she shows us the ropes – first on the gymnastic basics of working a stripper pole, then on the basics of fraudulently running up transactions on an unconscious client’s credit card. Some of Wu’s fixation on JLo’s Stripper Queen persona is explained to be a result of her character’s Mommy Issues (a refreshing change of course from cinema’s usual Daddy Issues fixation among macho narrators), but that almost feels like overkill. It’s self-evident; no explanation necessary. Even much-advertised cameo roles from major pop music personalities like Lizzo & Cardi B do little to distract from JLo’s nuclear charisma. She just casually walks away with the entire movie tucked into her overpriced designer handbag, never breaking a sweat.

Early in Hustlers, Constance Wu’s narrator pontificates that “This whole country is a strip club,” drawing a parallel between her industry’s sexual hustling to the “stolen money” of Wall Street’s own daily hustles. Nothing could better illustrate America’s function as the world’s largest strip club than JLo performing from atop a stripper pole at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Bringing her newfound exotic dancer skills from the Hustlers set to that All-American pop music venue was a brilliant maneuver, as she then had an entire nation gawking at her in awe the way Wu & Hustlers‘s (much smaller) audience had already been on the hook. And what did she do with this amplified, captivated audience? She redirected our eyeballs to Latinx children posing in cages on the football field, peeling back the pop culture escapism of Super Bowl spectacle to refresh our horror with ICE’s abuses in the ongoing refugee border crisis. JLo even emerged from one of her many onstage costume changes during her short set in a fur coat/body suit combo outfit that directly recalled her Hustlers costuming, except redesigned to resemble the American flag. In the movie, she welcomes Constance Wu into the warmth of her coat, purring “Climb into my fur.” On the stage, she opens her All-American fur in the same fashion, only to reveal that it’s a Puerto Rican flag on its reverse side – further emphasizing the Latinx prominence in America’s DNA that’s often dismissed by the country’s falsely “patriotic” right-wing goblins. This whole country is a strip club, and it was wonderful to see it get so flagrantly hustled by a performer who’s been in her prime for decades, with no signs of slowing down.

The only way Jo’s Halftime Show performance could have been more blatantly political is if she had ripped a picture of Donald Trump in half, à la Sinead O’Connor on SNL (although the political effectiveness of either performance is up for debate). The only way it could have been more directly tied to her movie-stealing, Oscars-snubbed persona in Hustlers is if she had looked directly into the camera to ask the entire country, “Doesn’t money make you horny?” You can even see her Hustlers persona echoed in how easily she steals the show from Shakira, who’s just as capable of a singer & dancer as Constance Wu is an actor. Shakira is both a sex bomb & a total goofball, positively lighting up that Super Bowl stage with her spectacular hip gyrations, her to-the-camera tongue-wagging, and her comically over-the-top song selections (like choosing to open with the werewolf anthem “She-Wolf”). As the first & longest sustained performer on that stage, Shakira should technically be positioned as the central star of the Halftime Show, with Lopez slotted as a special guest star. Instead, as with in Hustlers, JLo’s blinding charisma easily overpowers Shakira’s own formidable presence – emerging as the de facto star of the show. If the Super Bowl is going to stand as an annual distillation of American culture, it’s only appropriate that the event acknowledge the country’s Latinx contingent through artists like Shakira & JLo as well as the hedonistic exploitation & excess detailed in Hustlers – both of which are American as fuck. It’s your patriotic duty to give it a watch even if you care way more about movies & pop music than you care about football:

-Brandon Ledet

The Cell (2000)

I remembered really liking Tarsem Singh’s debut feature, The Cell, when I first saw it as a blockbuster VHS rental in my impressionable teen years in the early aughts. That fond memory has faded over the last couple decades as the details of the film itself became overwhelmed by critical complaints that it was a thematically thin bore and, frankly, by an increasing number of goodwill-tanking stinkers within Tarsem’s own catalog. I have since left The Cell behind as if it were a childish plaything, convinced that The Fall was the sole fluke when Tarsem had stumbled into creating a feature film worthy of his consistently stunning imagery. It was a pleasant surprise on revisit, then, that The Cell holds up to the exquisite nightmare I remembered it being in my initial viewing. Contrary to its reputation, Tarsem’s debut absolutely fucking rules, meaning the “visionary” director has two anomaly masterpieces under his name, and one of them stars Jennifer Lopez.

If The Cell is lacking anything that’s achieved more eloquently in The Fall, it’s certainly a matter of narrative & thematic substance. While the latter film is a morally complex exploration of the nature of storytelling, deceit, and imagination, Tarsem’s debut leaves all its ideas & plot machinations in plain view on the surface. Its dumb-as-rocks premise is an attempt to take the “Entering the mind of a killer” plot from Silence of the Lambs as literally as possible. That’s it; that’s the entire movie. JLo is our de facto Clarice Starling in this ungodly mutation of the Silence of the Lambs template, with Vincent d’Onofrio putting in a deeply creepy serial killer performance in the Hannibal Lector role (and Vince Vaughn taking over some of her on-the-ground detective work). Like in the psychedelic anime Paprika & the dream-hopping blockbuster Inception that followed nearly a decade later, JLo literally enters the subconscious mind of her maniacal serial killer patient via futuristic sci-fi- tech that essentially allows her to lucidly dream inside someone else’s head. Once lodged inside the nightmare realms of his twisted mind, she must race against the clock to discover clues that could save his latest potential victim from death (and hopefully help him heal along the way).

I could maybe see this Dream Police setup being disregarded as too convoluted or silly to be worthwhile in certain audiences’ eyes if the nightmare fantasy realms it facilitates weren’t so intoxicatingly lush. Bolstered by breath-taking creations from legendary fashion designer (and frequent Tarsem collaborator) Eiko Ishioka, The Cell often plays like a haute couture fashion show by way of Jodorowsky. Nature footage, fetish gear, and babydoll-parts art instillations serve as mood-setting set decorations for Ishioka’s designs, which look like they were inspired by the Royal Court of Hell. On its own, the police procedural wraparound story that fames those high fashion nightmares might have been the boring, thin genre exercise The Cell has been misremembered as. I don’t understand how anyone can indulge on the exhilarating drug of these high-fashion kink hallucinations and walk away displeased with the picture, however, as it sinks all its efforts into the exact sensual pleasures & dreamlike headspace that only cinema can achieve. It’s disguised as a single-idea genre film, but its ambitions reach for the furthest limits of its medium (and the medium of fashion while it’s at it, just as lagniappe).

If you boil down the most common complaints about The Cell to their most inane essence, the movie has been largely dismissed for following a “style over substance” ethos. This would be an incredibly boring take on any movie in my opinion, but it’s especially egregious considering just how exquisite the style is here (thanks to Ishioka, largely). My best guess is that Tarsem’s prior work as a music video & television commercial director had helped contextualize this piece as an exercise in pure style in critics’ minds, as he even calls attention to that professional background by recreating his sets from his “Losing My Religion” video in the killer’s troubled mind. Helpfully, though, he also calls attention to the aesthetic differences of this film and the grimy torture porn visuals that would soon become an industry standard. The next potential victim is locked in a time-controlled torture device (the titular cell) that will drown her if JLo doesn’t heal the serial killer in time, making the film’s real word setting feel just as much like a precursor to Saw as it is an echo of Silence of the Lambs. That grimy torture device helps establish clear, tangible stakes for JLo’s literal trips into the killer’s mind, but it also serves as a wonderfully illustrative contrast to the lush nightmare-couture of the dream sequences. In comparing that titular torture device to the serial killer’s nightmare realms, you can clearly see how Tarsem’s distinct sense of style transform a potentially mundane genre picture into an impeccable work of fine art – substance be dammed.

The only shame is that Tarsem’s struggled to repeat that miracle in the decades since, with one major exception in The Fall. Still, two five-star achievements in a single career would be an impressive feat for anyone. It’s a miracle that he got away with even that much.

-Brandon Ledet

The Boy Next Door (2015)


three star


“I really love your mother’s cookies.”

Jennifer Lopez’s new erotic thriller The Boy Next Door is the kind of movie you’d expect to find on Cinemax at two in the morning in the mid-90s. It is badly written, poorly acted, and campy to its core, but it’s also a lot of fun.

To quell expectations, the film starts with one of the lamest, most unnecessary montages ever. High school English teacher Claire is shown jogging through the park as melodramatic flashbacks of her crumbling marriage and the effect it had on her son Kevin are interspersed at random. Why the filmmakers chose to have a flashback in the first thirty seconds of the film when a few lines of dialogue could have done the same thing is beyond me, but it does establish the film’s “bad Lifetime Movie on steroids” vibe.

This sentiment continues when we are introduced to Claire’s seducer and new neighbor Noah, whose chiseled biceps appear on screen before his face. Handsome and charming, Noah quickly manipulates his way into the family’s inner circle by developing a bizarre, slightly homoerotic friendship with Claire’s asthmatic son Kevin. The two are supposed to be high school age but Noah looks closer to 30. Noah then moves on to seducing Claire by doing hunky things like fixing garage doors and working on cars in a sleeveless shirt. He even reveals his sensitive side (“Ah, poets. Homer, Shakespeare, Byron, Zeppelin, Dylan.”) and proceeds to win Claire over by buying her a first edition copy of The Iliad at a garage sale (huh).

One night, after a really bad date and a few too many glasses of wine, Claire gives in to temptation and lets Noah seduce her. That’s when the real fun begins. After Claire rejects Noah’s further advances, his transformation from hunk to psychopath happens almost instantaneously. What starts with double entendres like “I really love your mother’s cookies” & “It got real wet over here” quickly escalates to full-blown murder. Along the way we are treated to typical movie-psycho behavior: stalking, hacking email accounts, cutting people’s brakes, etc. This all leads to an absurd third act involving arson & eyeballs that approaches the high camp that could have made the film a true cult classic if there were only more of it.

Jennifer Lopez does the best she can with what she’s given but she alone can’t save the movie from coming across like a really crappy rehash of Fatal Attraction. There are lots of unintentionally funny moments, but the film doesn’t truly embrace its own badness until the last twenty minutes. The Boy Next Door isn’t going to be on any critic’s top ten list this year, but for fans of camp it is a trashy, highly entertaining mess.

-James Cohn