Tuesday, April 30, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

Movies. Movies! Movies?

Cash Out (Dir. Ives)

Movies are for everyone, right? Audiences shouldn’t have to pass an intelligence or creativity test to watch a movie — although there’s an argument to be made that they should do so before posting about them online — and we should certainly extend that same courtesy to those folks aspiring to make them. Film school offers theoretical context and professional opportunity, but the whole appeal of cinema is that its engagement methods are universal. Fade outs convey the passing of time by imitating sunsets. Low angles cause us to “look up to” something, indicating its power and dominance. Cutting between two characters and/or objects creates an inherent relationship between them (Thanks, Kuleshov!). We don’t need to be told these things; we feel them in our guts. That’s why they work. History is full of independent upstarts fueled by gumption and a dream who will their way into the annals of film legend simply by using a language everyone in the audience speaks to create something new, captivating, original, alluring, and exciting.

None of that really applies to Cash Out, a low-budget actioner directed by the mononymic “Ives” and destined to rot inside your least-visited Redbox carousel, but you get the point. The latest entertainment product from the Saban Capital Group, Cash Out stars John Travolta as Mason, a Dollar Tree Danny Ocean who believes just one last job will earn him the security to ride off into the sunset for good. When his girlfriend Amelia (Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis) reveals herself to be an FBI agent and betrays him, however, Mason is instead forced to limp back into the underground with his tail between his legs. Some time later, his brother Shawn (Lukas Haas) reassembles the gang — including Natali Yura’s snarky hacker, with Noel Gugliemi and rapper Quavo as their loyal buttonmen — for a heist that puts them not only in a local mobster’s crosshairs, but Amelia and the rest of the FBI’s, as well. How will Mason get out of this one? Whatever he does, it absolutely cannot cost more than a week’s shooting in an empty office building and a couple of rubber handguns.
Cheap and derivative as it is — with frightful CGI-assisted drone shots that look as if they were imported from the “street view” on Google Maps — Cash Out benefits from the undeniable magnetism of John Travolta, who seems to be navigating his DTV era (era) with a bit more tenacity and optimism than his contemporaries. Travolta is reasonably fun and earnest in a film that doesn’t come close to deserving it, a trite cops-and-robbers caper that mostly asks him to talk on a series of cell phones while looking longingly into the middle distance (A scene in which he playfully rattles off a complicated pizza delivery order might be the highlight of the entire endeavor). He and Kristin Davis rustle up about as much chemistry as possible under the circumstances, never once believable as lovers but serviceable as two old pros who are in on the same joke. So, is Cash Out uninspired? Yes. Is its photography rudimentary and are its performances on par with your local amateur theater troupe? Yes. But. Wait, what was I saying? Oh, yes: Anyone can make a movie. Some of them turn out like Cash Out, though, so maybe film school isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Cash Out is in theaters and on-demand now.

Queen of the Deuce (Dir. Valerie Kontakos)

How’s this for a logline: A Greek-born Sephardic Jewish woman leaves her unhappy arranged marriage — and the young children it produced — and heads to America just before the breakout of World War II. With only five dollars in her pocket, she becomes an entrepreneur, hawking peanuts and soda pop until news of the Holocaust inspires her to devote her energies to helping Greek Jews who have escaped Hitler’s horrors. She rents a run-down movie theater on Manhattan’s infamous 42nd Street, showing Greek films for the immigrants whose papers she’d helped obtain and gradually builds a small but loyal “framily” of iconoclastic rebels, wanderers, and other assorted misbegotten. By the late 1960s, Chelly Wilson is one of the most powerful figures on the Deuce: Owner of several pornographic movie theaters — as well as the studios that shoot and distribute the films they show — a restaurant that caters to everyone from movie stars to mafia bosses, and a reputation as one of the coldest, savviest, and most unrelenting dealmakers in the city.
That’s a bit more than a logline, I’ll admit, but Valerie Kontakos’ new documentary Queen of the Deuce is one of those stories that requires a lot of runway. Told through interviews with Chelly’s family, friends, and collaborators — the occasional anecdote animated by Abhilasha Dewan — the film chronicles an American success story like no other, that of a woman whose egalitarian capitalism brought together refugees from war-torn countries, broken families, and sexual subcultures alike. Though she’s alternately described as an indifferent mother, a boisterous entertainer, an underhanded opportunist, and a feminist pioneer, those who knew and loved Chelly seem to agree on her power as a matriarch, the driving force behind so many of their own opportunities for profit, companionship, and creative expression. Marrying several men but always preferring the company of women, Chelly also became an LGBTQ+ icon whose willingness to push the on-screen envelope helped lead pornographic filmmaking from its softcore infancy into hardcore adulthood.

At just seventy-eight minutes in length, however, Queen of the Deuce ends up posing more questions than it has the time or capabilities to answer. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the filmmakers, but rather a testament to the punishing dispassion of time, the way entire reams of family and business history can be lost to incomplete record-keeping, unresolved grudges, or, quite simply, the untimely death of its principal architect. It’s hard not to wonder what Queen of the Deuce might have uncovered had Chelly lived to sit for interviews herself — and had several statutes of limitation graciously expired — and there’s an argument to be made that the film fails to examine the darker, less congenial aspects of her life to which the interviewees only delicately allude. I would have loved to have heard from those Chelly bested in her rise to power, as well as the politicians and mafiosos who made deals over her poker table that bent the rules of gods and men to ensure their collective success. Absent that, we’ll just have to remember her the way her family does: As a stone-cold badass who took absolutely no shit from anyone.

Queen of the Deuce hits theaters, Prime Video, and Apple TV+ on May 24th.

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