Movie Review: Haven’t we seen “Brittany Runs a Marathon” before?

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Maybe there aren’t a hundred movies about somebody taking stock of their life and deciding “the ultimate test” of running a marathon will help them change everything for the better.

But including documentaries and episodes of TV series? Yeah, it’s common enough.

The dismissive take on “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a makeover movie of the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” variety — “put-upon fat girl gets fit and finds love, health, happiness and renewed purpose.”

It’s “Run, Fat Boy Run” in an era when fat shaming has become verboten, unless you’re Bill Maher. 

But it’s also a little more than that, a story of an unpleasant woman wrapped up in self-loathing and body image issues who might start to engage with others once she starts to love herself.

Still, to accomplish that — “judgemental” movie cliché here — she’s got to lose weight. 

“Brittany” is played by Jillian Bell, a comic actress often cast as the the testy, plus-size wife (“The Night Before”) or the plump best friend or member of a pack of friends (“Rough Night”).

Here, she’s a downtrodden cliché — a 28 year-old who stress-eats at every reminder that New York, and life itself, is “fat shaming” her. Her low-self-esteem is an plain as her double chin and a top-knot hairstyle that screams “Who cares?”

Her petite and pretty roommate (Alice Lee) drags her to the clubs, and if she’s lucky, lets Brittany paint her toenails for her when they get home.

The only guys to take notice of her prey on her sense of self. Of course you’ll join me in the bathroom — on your knees. That’s how little you think of yourself, why should I be any different?

Brittany sleeps until the crack of noon, and tries to crack up the patrons at the theater where she’s an usher, a job this once-aspiring advertising jingle-writer could lose at any moment.

These early scenes are meant to establish a bubbly person smothered by weight and depression, and Bell is better at the smothered part than “bubbly.” Brittany may be acting out the “funny (fat) person comically compensating” stereotype, but neither the writing nor Bell’s performance of it deliver many laughs.

Having a character say “You’ll always be the funniest person I know” doesn’t make it so.

Maybe that’s because Brittany can’t hide the bitter.

She doesn’t let it out to her roommate Gretchen, or to her adoring, nurturing brother-in-law on Skype (Lil Rey Howery). But she lets the photographer-neighbor she nicknames “Moneybags Martha” (Michaela Watkins) feel her wrath. A Fitbit fascist who’s always jogging, she just brings out Brittany’s desire to add another pizza box and jumbo bottle of “Cannonball” wine to her collection, after another night of getting hammered at the club with Gretchen.

A trip to her doctor is her wakeup call. At 5’6″ and nearly 200 pounds, drinking and sedentary, Brittany is headed for a shortened life of major health issues. And even if she isn’t telling her doctor or anybody else, she knows how young her obese father was when he died. Seeing her “real” self in the distorted chrome reflection of a hot dog cart seals the deal.

Gym memberships cost money. Running it is. But as she begins, she rejects the encouragement of “Martha Moneybags,” real-name Catherine. “I don’t want your pity.”

She uses that word a lot. And “judgemental.” But if she’s angry, at least she’s channeling it into running — first a block, then a mile, then running with a jogging club.

Two things she picks up from Catherine (Watkins)? Set “tiny goals” in life, and in running. And everybody is dealing with something. If she ever stops calling her “Moneybags,” perhaps she’ll see that.

It isn’t long before running a marathon with two new jogger friends, Catherine and gay dad (rom-com cliché) with a dad-bod Seth (Micah Stock).

Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo builds the picture on a conventional framework. We watch Bell transformed from multiple chins to a single one in short order.

The obstacles are generic, too. Progress, then a setback. A little boosted self-esteem has her sign up for OK Cupid, but promising dates are abandoned, awkwardly.

Brittany is still working on Brittany.

Her renewed ambition has her take on pet-sitting/house-sitting work, which runs her afoul of 30something “entrepreneur” and slouch Jern, amusingly played Utkarsh Ambudkar of “The Mindy Project.”

There might be “something” there, if only she can see it, if only Brittany can get past Brittany issues to let it happen.

Colaizzo fearlessly makes a movie about body-shaming that indulges in more than a little of this as it does — extreme close-ups of body parts oozing out of tops and shorts. The “health” angle allows the picture to separate itself for the curvy-and-proud comedies of Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”) or America Ferrara (“Ugly Betty,” “Real Women Have Curves”).

But those movies had more emotive, funnier stars who gave us a sense of joy that came with accepting themselves. As complicated as “Brittany” the character and the character comedy can seem, both still feel “judgy.”

And Bell, parked front and center in a tale built around her, never lets Brittany truly blossom. The bitter, like the body fat she’s lost, clings to the character and makes any attraction anybody else might express for her feel contrived. The performance is muzzled when it cries out for exulation.

She’s not unattractive, except when the movie goes out of its way to make her so. But Bell’s screen presence isn’t warm or engaging and the script’s jokes aren’t good enough to transform that.

We know where the finish line to “Brittany Runs A Marathon” is, and have a very good idea what’s standing between it and her goal of crossing it.

It’s just that while Brittany might smile most days when she steps on a scale, we feel no joy in her for what she’s doing. We feel none of the thrill that her new friends express at reaching her “tiny goals” and her biggest one.  That makes this a comedy that never quite reaches the finish line.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexuality and some drug material

Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins and Alice Lee and Micah Stock.

Credits: Written and directed Paul Downs Colaizzo. An Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: Brad Pitt seeks answers and meaning “Ad Astra”

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“Serious” science fiction cinema often chooses to walk the line between the real and the ethereal, especially as it concerns films about space travel.

But from “2001” onwards, it’s proven a delicate balance, hyperrealism that puts us in space with an exploration of what experiencing the infinite cosmos does to the human mind — our inner space.

James Gray (“The Immigrant,” “Two Lovers”) takes his swing at this genre within the genre with “Ad Astra,” a son-seeks-lost-father odyssey with hints of “Interstellar,” “2010” and “Gravity” about it.

He sets up an intriguing, if derivative mystery and makes something of a hash of resolving it.

And he reminds us that of the many things filmmakers have asked of Brad Pitt over the decades, pathos, sentiment and heartache were never on the menu.

In Gray’s “not too distant” future,  travel to the moon has become so routine (oddly, via Virgin Atlantic, not Virgin Galactic) that tourism is a big part of the economy. Another logo we recognize on landing is Vegas Vic, the neon cowboy identified with America’s gambling capital.

Travel to Mars is less routine, and the inner solar system is littered with spacecraft from many countries pursuing research, mineral exploitation and the like.

There are legions of lunar astronauts from all over Earth, with competing mining and lunar exploitation claims, creating a “no man’s land” of Old West style claim jumpers, violence and “pirates.” They still travel in newer, faster but open-topped lunar rovers, and a show-stopping piece in the movie is a chase and ambush straight out of a dozen Middle East thrillers — a convoy intercepted by armed rogues.

Space Command is here to guard America’s interests, with hands tied with regards to possible international incidents, just like America’s military on present day Earth.

Brad Pitt plays veteran astronaut Roy McBride, a major who handles the frequent “psyche profile” debriefings required of his profession with ease.

“I am focused only on the essential,” he tells the computer program evaluating his mental state. “I will not allow myself to be distracted.”

The computer program doesn’t hear McBride’s endless interior monologues, where he muses over his “self destructive side.” The first sign of trouble in the picture is Gray’s over-reliance on this anti-dramatic screenwriting crutch.

Roy is separated (Liv Tyler plays his wife) and devoted to his work. But it’s his surname that his bosses (John Ortiz among them) are interested in.

There are these power surges that caused electrical death and destruction all over the Earth, including on the upper-atmosphere space antenna Roy was working on in the film’s spectacular opening. Space Command has traced them to Neptune. That’s where Roy’s father, “the best among us” every astronaut who meets him tells Roy, disappeared several years before.

Space Command thinks Doctor Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) and his “Lima Project” are behind these anti-matter surges, that all human life in the solar system — on Earth and every base off Earth — could be destroyed.

They need Roy to go to Mars “and make a personal appeal to your father” by laser-com link.

We get little sense of what Roy’s emotional connection to his father might be. The news that Dad might still be alive doesn’t move him in the least. Video slips of Clifford suggest an all-business/utterly-consumed space professional who had no time for family or sentiment. He went to Neptune to get far enough away from Earth to hunt for signs of life in the rest of the cosmos, and that’s still said to be Mission One for Space Command.

This emotional disconnect is what Gray’s movie is about. All the drama about ambushes on the moon, a distress call on the way to Mars, intrigues in the underground Martian base and Space Command’s real reasons for reaching out to McBride is served up as a long demonstration of Pitt’s ability to play chilly reserve, coolness under pressure and a dispassionate regard for his “legendary astronaut” father.

I kept hearing echoes of real space mission radio communications in Pitt and his fellow space travelers’ speech patterns, that “A-OK” or “Houson, we’ve got a problem” unflappability that embodies “The Right Stuff.”

It’s spot on. But it keeps this film, with lovely images, brilliantly recreated spacewalks, low gravity car (Rover) wrecks and the like, at a remove. There is no connection to Roy, his father or any character in the film.

The odd instance of a space traveler not showing “The Right Stuff” is, at least, human. Gray’s point seems to be about the humanity we have to surrender to work in an environment this alien and unforgiving, humanity we have to hide in our “psyche profiles.”

Gray casts some good actors with big names — Donald Sutherland plays a higher-up sharing the mission with Roy, Ruth Negga of “Loving” is in command of Mars Base ERSA, Natasha Lyonne is an admissions officer (clerk) at that base. None of them, including Ortiz and Tyler, have much of anything to do.

It’s a joyless enterprise, with a few flashes of excitement recycled from other spaceflight films (and Westerns and Middle East terrorism thrillers) interrupting the meditative voice-over narration and reams of exposition introduced, all the way into the finale.

Roy’s professionalism doesn’t allow for any emotion to be expressed — be it anger about a slur against his father’s reputation, or the deaths his mission leads to.

“Ad Astra” (Latin for “To the Stars”) has dazzling eye candy and reasonable extrapolations of what near future space colonization might look like.

But like too many imitation “Space Odysseys,” it flunks that most basic test applied to science fiction of this nature. It doesn’t make us care what happens, and I, for one, don’t care to see it again.

2stars1

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and bloody images, and for brief strong language

Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland, John Ortiz, Natasha Lyonne and Kimerbly Elise.

Credits: Directed by James Gray. script by  James GrayEthan Gross. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 2:02

 

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SOMEbody just lost his brand new ‘SNL’ gig

gillis.jpgHe doesn’t know it, yet, and the reason he is almost sure to be canned before he ever starts his new job is for something he did it over a year ago.

You can hear the clock ticking, too, can’t you? I know Shane Gillis can.

I give comics a LOT of license, but homophobic and racial slurs are, in comedy, what “dick” jokes are. Low, free laughs among the mouth breathers in the audience, desperate. It’s what you do when you can’t get a laugh the hard way.

Dave Chapelle even trotted out a few in his latest special. Lame, easy laughs for morons in the crowd, the lazy comic’s best friend.

But Shane Gillis may pay a high price for going for the “shock” to get an easy laugh.

https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/shane-gillis-snl-racial-slur-saturday-night-live-nbc-1203334216/

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Next screening? Brad Pitt goes to space, Tommy Lee Jones returns from space, “Ad Astra”

This one seems right up my alley, so let’s hope this Sept. release has a hint of “fall film” sci-fi seriousness about it.

Fingers crossed!

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Movie Review: Frankenstein is stitched together in New York in “Depraved”

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Once one figures out “Depraved” is a modern re-setting of “Frankenstein,” how does a filmmaker maintain interest through the over-familiar story beats that march us toward that inevitable hunt with pitchforks?

Sure, it’s changed up a bit. The “monster” is pieced together by an Army surgeon haunted by all the mortally injured comrades he lost in the Middle East. He does this in a loft in modern day Brooklyn (Gawanus), and there’s this college pal/drug maker/financier who is backing the “experiment.”

We see the murder of the man whose brain turns up in “Adam,” the stitchwork creature “born” the day he is revived on the operating table.

Otherwise, it’s the same movie.

Actor turned writer-director Larry Fessenden (“Beneath,” “Wendigo”) seeks to distract us from the well-worn path by talking us to death. There are endless scenes of the doctor (David Call of “Tiny Furniture”) “teaching” the creation he names “Adam” (CLE-verrr) the fundamentals of life.

“OK. Can you say ‘OK?'” “Gravity makes the ball go down.”

Then there are debates — moral ones between Henry the doctor and his psychotherapist girlfriend (Ana Kayne), ethical and financial quarrels between Henry his rich backer, Polidoro (Joshua Leonard of “The Blair Witch Project”).

And don’t get me started on Polidoro’s “field trip” with Adam (Alex Breaux of “When They See Us”) — to museums, strip clubs, into “the world.” Polidoro loves the sound of his own voice, and teaching Adam about violence via an exhibit of war artifacts and weapons.

“Depraved. That’s what we are, Adam, utterly depraved!”

Adam silently absorbs much of this, learning all the time, quickly mastering the master at ping pong. He shows off his scar collection and his handiness with a pun come-on to Henry’s girlfriend, Liz.

“How do you feel?”

“With my hand!”

How “Rocky Horror.”

It’s all just a slow/slower/slowest prologue to the moment Adam becomes self-aware, questions his captive state and discovers his power. “Depraved?” He’ll show you depraved!”

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Fessenden begins by adding a prologue, “How this person died,” the person whose tiny remnants of memory linger in Adam’s brain, tossed about in the special effects bubbles and murk meant to show him thinking.

Leonard comes off best in all this chatter, playing an amoral, rich schemer who loves the sound of his own voice, and likes the notion of “teaching” this science experiment that will make his new drug a blockbuster.

“Do you know what a lie is, Adam?”

None of this talk-talk-talk alters the course the story must take, and simply makes one impatient for the filmmaker to get on with it. Tedium sets in early and rears its head often as “Depraved” unfolds.

The violence, save for that opening stabbing, is exactly where it always has been in Frankenstein tales — in the third act.

And the villagers with pitchforks are, you know, cops and tracking dogs now.

As any viewer will see through this very early on (the damned stitching gives away the game, for Pete’s sake), there’s no excuse for dragging “Depraved” out. It crawls along, a  mildly creepy tale with no pace to go along with its lack of suspense.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, explicit sex, profanity, alcohol

Cast: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Chloe Levine, Owen Campbell

Credits: Written and directed by Larry Fessenden. An IFC Midnight release.

Running time: 1:54

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Movie Review: Coping with the worst, with comedy, for “3 Days with Dad”

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The comedy “3 Days with Dad” is a dark farce about a family gathering to say goodbye to their patriarch as he faces the end of life on tubes and life support in a hospital.

It’s a dismissable, hit or miss affair intended as a star vehicle for career supporting player Larry Clarke, who wrote and directed it.

But here’s why we stick around to the finish, kids. This one concludes with a flourish, some genuinely amusing moments and a couple of heart-stopping ones, both from unexpected places.

The third act makes the movie.

The Mills of Maryland gather for the funeral of brusque, racist hard-drinking ex-military husband and dad Abner (Brian Dennehy). His widow (Lesley Anne Warren) is barely keeping it together, but steady, weepy and devoted Catholic son (like his father) Andy (Tom Arnold) is prepared to give the man a eulogy he deserves.

Only Dad’s wish was that the more disappointing son, Eddie (Clarke), a hotel doorman in Chicago, single, 40something and as we’ve heard on phone conversations in the opening, not flush enough to be able to buy his own plane ticket to get there, be the one to honor him before his funeral mass.

Eddie breaks Catholic decorum and “wings it” through his speech, and we can’t figure why on Earth the Prodigal Son would be the one picked for this hefty responsibility. The movie, in flashbacks to the more distant past and the last few days, and in the stumbling sibling-and-stepmom debates about how to proceed AFTER the funeral, sets out to show us why.

There are funny lines, here and there — and funny supporting players.

J.K. Simmons plays a stereotypical goombah funeral home employee in training, blunt and profane, but with a compassion that makes him born for the job.

Mo Gaffney makes an amusingly human, but over-the-top mourner as daughter Diane. Jon Gries plays her tactless husband, always ready to say the wrong thing.

“So, who’s next?”

Eddie runs into high school crushes in a bar (Amy Landecker) and in the hospital (Julie Ann Emory), and a brutally outspoken classmate who wound up quadriplegic (Mike O’Malley). Everybody wants to know why they’ve checked his father into “the Death Hospital, the Roach Motel — ‘They check in, but they don’t check out!'”

And they have to hear what Eddie’s been up to.

“I’m a doorman. I’m broke. And I’m single.” 

At some point, though, the comedy is joined by an unblinking look at dying in America today — the succession of tests and “teams” an increasingly enfeebled man must face in his terminal days. “Swallow tests” and “lung clearing” and the myriad of conditions, from diabetic kidney failure to “end of life emphysema,” the “bed team” that has to come in and evaluate bed sores and decide on a course of action.

Never dealt with any of this, with helping an infirm, aged parent to a hospital bathroom, struggled to allow them cling to a little dignity in the face of an inhuman machine bent on prolonging life at the very end? You will.

Some of the jokes land — “So, last rites again? Third time’s the charm, Father?” Some don’t.

But the reality of it all almost never fails to connect, and some of that is amusing.

Dennehy has made a career out of barely-lovable and gruff, and his bluff turn anchors the picture. Warren’s stepmother figure is a fascinating study in distraction. She’s fretting over how much more she “can take,” doting on her husband but already moving on in her mind, hunting for distractions — routines that move her out of this vortex of death and dying.

And veteran funnyman David Koechner breaks free of “type” as an end-of-life doctor who is all soft-spoken tenderness, with the occasional euphemism, dealing with a distraught family at the bedside of the dying man.

It’s those human touches that make “3 Days with Dad” endurable. And if they don’t quite save it (the difference between character actors and leading actors is not skill, but charisma), they at least give it purpose, with the occasional break for levity.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic sexual situation, adult subject matter, profanity

Cast: Larry Clarke, Lesley Anne Warren, Tom Arnold, Mo Gaffney, Brian Dennehy, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Jon Gries, Julie Ann Emory and Amy Landecker

Credits: Written and directed by Larry Clarke. A Unified releease.

Running time: 1:34

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Movies getting longer and longer. The Hollywood Reporter says audiences are noticing

Yes. Yes we are.

A 2:40 “It” sequel, and that’s just last weekend’s example.
https://t.co/Yd16VmWnMI https://twitter.com/THR/status/1172140355963277313?s=17

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Movie Preview, James Franco and friends do a stoner comedy, “Zeroville”

Joey King, Megan Fox and Jackie Weaver are the leading ladies, Farrell and Rogen and Robinson and McBride…and Feanco– those are just the guys in this movie about a movie.

A wide-eyed young actress comes to LA in the same year that “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is set.

“Zeroville” opens Sept. 20

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Movie Review: Princesses of Pole Dancing hit the jackpot as “Hustlers”

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Think “Hustlers” is just about strippers ripping off lap-dance clients in a well-publicized New York skin club?

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who scripted “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” sees this “true” story in epic parable terms.

These are the She Wolves of Wall Street, working class women who screwed over The Street the way Wall Street screwed over America. And Scafaria treats them as classic antiheroines, glammed-up, sisterhood strong and when the need arose — pitiless about the “Masters of the Universe” of the 2008 Great Recession, who should have been in prison when a gang of out of work pole dancers lured them into maxing out their credit cards in the years just after that.

Scafaria and a game cast headed by Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez — glittery cleavage, T-backed, tattooed and feminine to the max — strike a blow for equality in the ruthlessness they employ in carrying out their crimes, showcased on the dance floor with dazzling lighting and stripperwear, stalked into combat in the longest tracking shots this side of Tarantino.

It feels lightweight at times, with some of its rough edges rubbed off for the sake of sisterhood. But man, this caper comedy packs a punch.

Wu sheds any shred of “Crazy Rich Asians” naivete and sweetness as Destiny, a skinny dancer with a pasted-on “I need the money” smile and a lack of polish that earns her the protective pity of Ramona (Lopez) the Queen Bee of Moves, the club based on New York’s Scores, over-familiar in its day due to the constant plugging it got on Howard Stern’s radio show.

Destiny lives with her grandmother, who knows her as Dorothy. There’s something of Dorothy in the way she approaches the work, not as an innocent, but not the most competent of “new girls.” She’s not that “new” either. Moves is just a step up from the dive where she used to offer inept lap dances.

Lopez, in a showcase moment, demonstrates how to work the pole to make the faceless Johns in the audience rain bills on the stage. “Ankle hook, knee hook, table top,” selling the sultry with every move, shaking her butt, arching her back and WORK that hair, girl –WORK it.

With another dancer (stripper turned rapper Cardi B), Ramona improves Destiny’s lap dancing, and dollar bills are soon raining down.

Some of the legion of girls at the club, mothered by “Mom” (Mercedes Ruehl) bond. That’s how Ramona gets Destiny, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) to join her in a self-preservation scheme when the 2008 Recession hits and the Wall Street types they’ve been sizing up, cozying up to and servicing for years suddenly are spending a lot less money at strip clubs.

After the fact, Dorothy tells this tale to a reporter, played by Julia Stiles (the “Bourne” movies) with a perfect blend of empathy and horror. Because the short cuts these ladies take to separate rich guys from their cash would make anybody blanch.

The script, based on a magazine article about the real women who did this hustling, fails to make the Robin Hood points it shoots for. And the distinctly feminine touches — shopping sprees (buying everything with stacks of dollar bills), line dancing, Christmas gift exchanges — are as cliched as any heist picture or caper comedy’s well-worn tropes.

The movie reduces the menfolk into simple marks — the pricey watch, the expensive shoes, the aggressive cheat, the power broker (Frank Whaley, the only recognizable male star in the cast) not shy about spending thousands for a single memorable night.

A hundred years of women being treated like meat in such movies makes this feel like a little payback. And it works.

Wu is transformed and Palmer (who had the title role in the indie “Pimp” last year) long ago left her child-star image behind. But Lopez is the stand-out in this cast, giving Ramona many facets — mother figure and real-life mother, user, cold-blooded cash hound and a polished dancer who has the muscle memory, the highlights, glitter, lip gloss and furs of a woman who has ridden this horse as far as she can take it and is ready, willing and able to “transition” into bigger paydays as demand for her stripping dries up.

“Hustlers” finds awkward laughs in female-on-male cruelty, loses its nerve in the late acts, but finds its heart in the finale. And it hits the “I don’t want to depend on anybody” empowerment message awfully hard.

It may not be the “cause” it tries to become, but if there’s justice at the box office, it will become a phenomenon.

And only Hollywood’s short memory could stand in the way of awards nominations for Lopez, who finally has a role as gritty and mercenary as the nickname she seemed ill-suited to wear at her pop star peak — “Jenny from the Block.” Ramona’s got rocks, too, and you’ll be shocked at what she did to get them.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, Lizzo, Julia Stiles, Mercedes Ruehl, Madeleine Brewer and Frank Whaley

Credits: Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, based on a magazine article by Jessica Pressler. An STX release.

Running time: 1:

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Next screening? “Hustlers,” Jo-Lo pole dances in an awards-bait dramedy

“Inspired by a true story,” women working at New York’s notorious Scores strip club, taking the marks for all they were worth. Or some of it, anyway.

Are the Toronto Film Fest group-thinkers right, that Lopez and STX have a shot at an Oscar nomination for her in a Sept. film about strippers/thieves?

We shall see what we see when we see it.

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