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)

EPSON MFP image

three star

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“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