Movie Review: “Focus”

Starring
Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney
Directors
Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Movies about con artists are almost as difficult to pull off as an actual con. They need to be clever enough to outsmart and entertain the audience without being overly complex or resorting to narrative cheats. “Focus” is definitely entertaining at times, a flashy crime drama highlighted by a pair of movie star performances from Will Smith and Margot Robbie, but it also commits the aforementioned offenses in order to get to its twist ending… by way of several other twists, naturally. That’s not its biggest problem, however, because most con films break those rules at some point. Instead, it’s the fact that “Focus” is basically two movies stitched together by the same connective tissue, and only one of the halves is any good.

The film begins with a gorgeous woman named Jess (Robbie) picking up the charismatic Nicky (Smith) at a hotel bar, eventually taking their soiree upstairs to her room where her angry boyfriend kicks down the door and threatens to shoot Nicky unless he hands over his wallet. It’s a classic con, and one that Nicky knows all too well as a seasoned grifter himself. But Jess shows promise, so Nicky invites her to join his large-scale operation, hitting big events like the Super Bowl that are packed with crowds of easy marks (read: drunks and cheating husbands) for them to rob, swindle and shake down on the streets. After Jess gets burned by Nicky at the end of the job, the two go their separate ways until they cross paths again three years later when Nicky is hired by the wealthy owner (Rodrigo Santoro) of a Formula One racing team to help ruin a fellow competitor using his powers of persuasion. Everything is going according to plan when Nicky discovers that Jess is dating his new employer, and though he wants to make amends after the way he left things, Jess is unable to trust him, convinced that Nicky must to be working some kind of angle. The real question is whether Jess is too.

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Movie Review: “The Lazarus Effect”

Starring
Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger
Director
David Gelb

A group of scientists are working on a serum that, combined with the right stimuli, can bring someone back from the dead. Their argument for creating this is that it would enable doctors to have a little more time to find a cure for whatever is ailing someone. That is a terrible, terrible idea, and the rationale for the idea is even worse. But here’s the worst part: “The Lazarus Effect” actually has some interesting bits mixed in with all of the stupid ones, and the ending is kind of fantastic. To get there, though, we have to slog through a bunch of home video and security camera footage (this looks like it started life as a found footage movie, which makes sense considering the film’s producers also worked on the “Paranormal Activity” films) and an ungodly number of faulty light fixtures. The only thing it was missing was a cat.

Frank (Mark Duplass), his fiancé Zoe (Olivia Wilde), and their assistants Clay (Evan Peters) and Neko (Donald Glover), are working in a basement lab at a school in Berkeley to perfect their Lazarus serum. They bring in student Eva (Sarah Bolger) to document their work on video. They test the process on a dog, and it works, though the dog doesn’t really act like a dog once alive, and there are numerous medical red flags that suggest the dog could become extremely aggressive at any moment. Soon after their success in resurrecting someone, which is only known to those five, the lab is raided by a pharmaceutical company that, according to the terms of the grant that was funding Frank and Zoe’s research, owns all intellectual property in the event the terms of the grant are broken, which happened once they started testing on animals.

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Movie Review: “Maps to the Stars”

Starring
Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon
Director
David Cronenberg

Less than a week after Hollywood celebrated itself at the Oscars in a televised circus of fashions, overlong acceptance speeches and underrepresented diversity, Canadian director David Cronenberg reminds us why even Hollywood excesses should have a limit in the weirdly satirical hybrid “Maps to the Stars.” The director best known for such classics as “The Fly,” “Scanners” and “A History of Violence” breaks new ground by filming in the States. It’s just too bad that he wasted the trip on such a manic, dated project filled with cynicism, incest and runaway egos.

Just off the bus is the fresh-faced but hideously scarred Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim who seems to take things way too much in stride. Introducing herself as being from Jupiter (the city, not the planet), Agatha instantly attaches herself to her limo driver, Jerome (Robert Pattison). Of course, what would a limo driver be in this town without acting and/or writing aspirations? Jerome is all too quick to write her off as just another weird client who happens to be a really good tipper, but Agatha grows on him as she does with many people in the film. Thanks to social media and Carrie Fisher, who stars as herself, Agatha manages to quickly find a job as a personal assistant, or “chore whore,” to aging C-lister Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). When Havana isn’t grasping to any last chance at stardom, she’s having fierce arguments with her dead mother (Sarah Gadon), who has no problems telling her what a disappointment she is.

Dysfunctional family time and visits from the beyond aren’t exclusive to the Segrand household, as we bounce back and forth between there and the Weiss compound. Agatha’s kid brother Benjie (Evan Bird) is 13 going on 40. He’s facing his own need for a ghostbuster with all the uncut crassness of a thousand Bieber clones rolled into one. Benjie’s the star of the “Bad Babysitter” franchise, which was so lucrative that stage mom Cristina (Olivia Williams) takes pride in squeezing out a multimillion dollar payday as if she were the real star. His dad, Stafford (John Cusack), is a self-help guru who rarely smiles, talks as though he’s three steps ahead of everyone, and administers a near-sadistic type of scream therapy to Havana.

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Movie Review: “VANish”

Starring
Maiara Walsh, Austin Abke, Bryan Bockbrader, Adam Guthrie, Danny Trejo
Director
Bryan Bockbrader

Here’s a tip for those hoping to get reviews of their new indie film by cold-writing movie critics: make sure your movie has Danny Trejo or Tony Todd in it, preferably both. “VANish” has both, and here we are.

“VANish” hits video and on demand this week. Writer and director Bryan Bockbrader tells us that he shot the film in 13 days, which brings to mind the story of how Robert Rodriguez shot “El Mariachi” on a $7,000 budget. The comparison is an apt one, as “VANish” is a warped wet dream of chatty Tarantino wise asses with “From Dusk Till Dawn” levels of bloodshed, and the entire movie takes place inside of a van, hence the capitalization in the title (and possibly a reference to the first half of “From Dusk Till Dawn,” which mostly takes place inside an RV). The majority of the acting fails the plot – and in some ways, the plot fails the plot – but it is a fun distraction, even if it pains us to think of a Tarantino/Rodriguez bloodfest like this as the two-decade nostalgia trip that it is.

College student Emma (Maiara Walsh) is kidnapped by Jack (Austin Abke) and Max (Bockbrader, the writer and director himself). They go to pick up their driver Shane (Adam Guthrie) with the intent of arranging a drop with Emma’s estranged father, drug lord Carlos (Trejo). Emma is not afraid of these guys in the slightest, and tells her dad as much in her kidnapping video. War veteran Jack, however, thinks he has everything under control, but as the job gets botched (on a number of levels), the three accomplices learn things about the other that cause mistrust to settle in. Oh, and did we mention that the damsel in distress is the daughter of a drug lord? (We did.) She is surely a delicate flower, and wouldn’t think of exploiting the circumstances at the first opportunity. Or the second. Or the third.

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Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Starring
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson
Director
Matthew Vaughn

After subverting the superhero genre with “Kick-Ass,” the creative team behind that film (director Matthew Vaughn, co-writer Jane Goldman and comic book writer Mark Millar) has returned with an equally over-the-top homage to spy movies. Developed separately from the Millar-penned comic on which it’s loosely based, Vaughn’s film improves on that version in just about every way, delivering a smarter (but no less absurd) take on Cold War-era spy movies that embraces as many genre conventions as it breaks. A mix of the old and new school, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a lot cooler than its clunky title might imply – a hyper-stylized, gratuitously explicit action film that would make James Bond blush. After all, this is a movie that cartoonishly blows up Barack Obama’s head without even blinking.

The movie opens 17 years earlier when, while on a mission in the Middle East, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is unable to prevent the death of a fellow agent. Feeling personally responsible, he visits the man’s wife (Samantha Womack) and young son, Eggsy, giving them a medal with a special phone number on the back should they ever need a favor. Fast-forward to present day and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has grown up to become a lower-class delinquent who’s wasted his incredible potential. When Eggsy gets in trouble with the law, Harry bails him out, eventually recruiting him as a candidate for the same secret agency his father worked for, the Kingsmen, an independent organization of highly-trained agents who put their lives on the line to protect the world. While Eggsy undergoes the ultra-competitive training program (with only one recruit earning a spot as a Kingsman), Harry investigates a potential threat involving a tech-genius billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to save the Earth from the dangerous effects of climate change by wiping out most of humanity.

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