Uncertainty, hope do battle in Fingernails
Christos Nikou's low-key Fingernails delves into matters of the heart through the lens of science, or at least the science of the nebulous future where it takes place. In a world in which uncertainty is prevalent, a test has been created that determines whether you are with your one true love. Anna (Jessies Buckley) and her partner, Ryan (Jeremy Allen White), have gone to the Love Training Institute and taken the compatibility test. The cost? A small fee and a fingernail apiece, taken out with a set of surgical pliers, each analyzed in an analog whatsis and, voila, you know whether you are in love with each other, whether only one of you is in this state of bliss or if neither of you are with who you should be.
Curious as to how it all works, Anna takes a job at the Love Training Institute. There she meets Amir (Riz Ahmed), a coworker assigned to mentor her. Kind, soft-spoken and smart, he's the kind of co-worker you could easily fall in love with...that is, unless you've already taken a test that says you're with your soulmate. It comes as no surprise that Anna begins to question the results she's put so much stock into. She adheres to them so faithfully she becomes blind to the facts staring her in the face. She lies to Ryan on more than one occasion, while her mind turns more often to Amir than it should. The phrase "work husband" only scratches the surface of how she regards him.
There is a surprise or two in store during the film's third act, though the conclusion is hardly shocking. However, there is a sense of the vicarious to be had. Who among us hasn't tortured ourselves in the way Anna does here? Her needing assurance regarding her decisions is common and her clinging to the test results is understandable. Ultimately, the futility of determining matters of the heart is at the core of the story. Love defies logic, resists reason and revels in unpredictability.
To be sure, having some reassurances would be comforting, but to avoid its highs and lows, that simply isn't living. We require a bit of uncertainty, a bit of risk-taking. As a species, we abhor monotony, we seek challenges of a physical, mental and emotional nature. Boredom leads to ennui, our spirits withering as a result.
This is the lesson Anna is forced to confront and Buckley does a wonderful job conveying her fear and uncertainty. Ultimately, she must decide whether to settle on a seemingly sure thing or take a chance. Whether she realizes that love is more meaningful if it's allowed to blossom naturally is the question. Streaming on Apple TV+.
Hustlers plumbs dark side of American business
David Yates Pain Hustlers looks at the opioid crisis from the perspective of the pushers. Those would be the drug representatives who promoted their company's miracle painkillers, giving incentives to doctors to prescribe it, reaping huge profits as a result.
Liza Drake (Emily Blunt) has reached the end of her rope. Having lost her home and dealing with a daughter with epilepsy, she's been forced to take the only job she can find, as a dancer at a strip club. Her ship comes in the form of one of her patrons, Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), a salesman for a floundering pharmaceutical company. He offers her a job on impulse, she accepts, and their fates are changed.
Realizing opportunities like this don't come along every day, Drake immerses herself in the company culture, learning all she can about their products and just how much money she can make if she proves successful. Their cornerstone product is Lonafen, a painkiller used for cancer patients, created by their prime investor, Dr. Neel (Andy Garcia). Drake is such a natural huckster, her efforts make the drug's market share jump from zero to 86% in a few short months. She single-handedly rights this sinking ship and, before you know it, the now-thriving company is expanding, raking in millions of dollars a month.
Yates adopts a breakneck tempo, an approach meant to replicate the dizzying pace of Drake's life that ultimately gets away from her. Suddenly awash in money, she never pauses to consider the consequences of her actions or the collateral damage that's resulting from her company's predatory practices. Blunt is very good; once Drake's conscience is awakened when the result of her actions hit too close to home, her remorse is genuine.
While Drake seems genuinely contrite, the film's final message is a reminder that predatory monsters walk among us, viewing the rest of us as prey to be used to their own ends. The fact that people's lives were ruined is seen as nothing but an unfortunate consequence on these reps' path to success. The pursuit of the almighty dollar is their justification, a notion our capitalistic society is built upon. In the end, Hustlers shows it was just business as usual as far as Brenner and his colleagues were concerned. Streaming on Netflix.
Strong performances overshadow Story's familiarity
Though not overly original, the deft touch and genuine sincerity of Aristotle Torres' Story Ave is so effective your emotional response to the material will likely trump any objections you may have towards its familiarity. A showcase for veteran character actor Luiz Guzman, the film also serves as a calling card for Asante Blackk, the young actor making an impression as a lost teen searching for purpose and absolution.
The film opens with a somber gathering in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, as family and friends have gathered to mourn the death of Kadir's (Blackk) brother. A natural artist, Kadir has fallen in with a gang that takes pride in invading their rivals' turf and tagging it with their symbol. However, he has grander plans, painting intimate works on any bare wall he can find. His de facto mentor, Skemes (Melvin Gregg), sees him for vulnerable boy he is and starts to mold him so that he can do the dirty work.
As a test, he gives Kadir a gun, tells him to go out and rob someone and bring back proof he's done so. Reluctant and nervous, the desperate teen holds up Luis (Guzman), a transit worker who, rather than being scared, recognizes this boy needs help. He convinces Kadir to come share a meal with him, after which he gives him some money to do as he wishes. A friendship is born that will have a profound effect on them both.
Blackk does a marvelous job conveying Kadir's inner turmoil, caught between wanting acceptance from his peers and expressing himself through his art. The young actor has learned that less is often more when acting for the screen and he compliments Guzman to great effect, the veteran giving the sort of nuanced performance we've come to expect from him. At times, as much is conveyed between the two by what isn't said as what is, a complement to their skill and the solid script. And while the film is predictable, it does contain a surprise or two in the third act that results in one of the most beautiful moments I've seen on screen this year. In the end, Story Ave proves to be an unexpected and moving surprise. Available through Video-on-Demand.