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Focus

February 27, 2015
Focus

Will Smith’s con movie Focus breaks no new ground as a con movie, but I don’t think anyone expected it to. It’s not bad, as they go; a by-the-numbers execution might be unsatisfying to caper movie fans, but wider audiences don’t seem to mind. Still, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in style, and style can go a long way.

So of course we’ve got the con man, Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), and we’ve got the ingenue, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). She tries to pull a grift on him, which he sees coming a mile away. He gives her some tips and sends her packing.

Jess catches up with Nicky in New Orleans in the runup to a big football game. Marks are streaming in from all over the country, and Nicky’s crew is set up to run a high-volume business in pickpocketing, credit-card skimming, and all other manner of small-time cons. The long con where everybody gets rich and retires, he explains to her, is something of a myth; this is all about quantity. After they wrap up, he blows her off again.

Years later, they meet again in Buenos Aires. Nicky sets up a scam for Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the owner of an F1 team that has developed a technical MacGuffin putting them in contention for the lead. His job is to play a disgruntled Garriga engineer and sell a fake version to the only other serious contender, but then he sees Jess as Garriga’s new arm candy.

The con is pretty thin, compared to more satisfying entries in the genre. Fans will see the dramatic blowoff twist coming from the first act, though it seemed to play effectively for the audience in the screening I saw. That said, the movie is really more about setting up this dance between Nicky and Jess. Nicky was convinced he had to be hard and keep nobody close in order to succeed as a con man — a person you care about is a weakness that can be exploited — but after New Orleans he’s reconsidering that stance. Meanwhile, Jess is keeping him at arm’s length, saying she’s happy with Garriga.

And this dance plays out on a particularly well-dressed stage with a particularly well-dressed cast. Smith and Robbie look wonderful, and the scenes look wonderful around them. Writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa play the story out at a neat clip, setting it to a hip needle-drop soundtrack. Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet makes even the side streets of Buenos Aires seem to shine, even while he uses the license the script affords him to play around with arty uses of, yes, focus.

It may be an inch deep, but Focus makes that inch look fabulous. If you go in wanting a great con, you’ll be sorely disappointed, but if you just want to bask in the pretty, pretty glow, you’re all set.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Lazarus Effect

February 27, 2015
The Lazarus Effect

When you watch a lot of different movies, you start to notice odd little quirks. One of them is the weird overlap between the new wave of slasher horror like You’re Next and mumblecore-inspired indie fare like Drinking Buddies. The notable figures in each group of filmmakers collaborate heavily, and there’s far more cross-pollination than you might expect. And so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see indie darlings like Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, and Donald Glover show up in the latest horror entry from the high-gloss wing of Blumhouse Productions.

The Lazarus Effect doesn’t have quite as lush a backstory as the Insidious series, and it’s not a mindbender like Oculus. In fact, next to them it’s downright pulpy. But there’s an elegant simplicity to this story: it knows what it wants to be, and doesn’t overreach that point.

Wilde and Duplass play Zoe and Frank, the two leads of a biomedical lab investigating the possibility of using Zoe’s fundamental research to prevent decay in the brains of comatose patients. At least that’s what they put on their grant application. In fact, they think that a combination of Zoe’s serum and electrical pulses can actually revive the recently deceased. After some promising results bringing a dog back to life, a lab accident leads to Zoe’s death. Frank insists they use their experiment to bring her back, with terrible consequences.

That’s all the story you really need to hang some nice scares on. There are some creepy moments building the atmosphere before Zoe’s resurrection, but it really gets going as she grows into the power the serum has given her, in a different take on the “10% of our brains” myth featured in last year’s Lucy. Wilde carries the second half of the film, effortlessly shifting between panicked distress and diabolical confidence.

It also helps that the director, documentarian David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), keeps the running time down to a brisk eighty-three minutes. He hasn’t trimmed quite all the fat — a few early exchanges with lab assistants Niko (Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) seem to set up relationships that never pay off — but he keeps the story humming along smoothly until he can throw us into Zoe’s terrifying funhouse.

On the other hand, the pace can feel a bit rushed, which doesn’t leave much time to develop a proper atmosphere. Some choices feel a bit on-the-nose, like the cruciform lab hallway. Zoe’s soundtrack for working late is the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute; the actual title translates as “Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart”. On the other hand, how many people in the audience will remember that?

It isn’t all lazy jump-scares, but The Lazarus Effect is never remotely as creepy as the best of Blumhouse’s movies, especially for a jaded horror fan. Still, there are some nice thrills, and it’s fun to watch Wilde sell the hell out of her transformation. It’s a neat little horror story that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and I, for one, would rather leave wanting more than have a movie drag on as I grow utterly bored.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

McFarland, USA

February 20, 2015
McFarland, USA

Another month, another swipe Kevin Costner takes at playing the Great White Savior. Thankfully, McFarland, USA isn’t nearly as tone-deaf as Black or White, but it’s not exactly great either. Instead, it’s nice — incessantly, relentlessly nice.

Costner plays Jim White. The name is so on-the-nose — and everyone in the movie remarks on it — that it’s only excusable because the real person behind him really was named Jim White. He bounces out of a school in Idaho after a locker-room altercation with one of his football players, and it’s evidently not the first time. With few other options, Jim, his wife (Maria Bello), and his daughters (Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher) all move to the town of McFarland, in the San Joaquin valley of California. Most of the white teachers commute in from Bakersfield, but that’s not an option for the Whites, and they end up living among the majority of Mexican immigrant produce pickers in town.

Jim quickly establishes himself as a Nice Guy when he keeps one of the football players from returning to the field after a particularly nasty hit, against the orders of the head coach. Dismissed from his post as assistant football coach, he notices that, while hardly brawlers on the gridiron, the local kids can run forever. He starts up a cross country team — until then the sort of thing only prep schools had — and recruits seven runners.

The team are somewhat interchangeable. Victor (Sergio Avelar) is a budding juvenile delinquent with an older brother just back from the prison next door to the school. Thomas (Carlos Pratts) has a chip on his shoulder; his home life is tough, partly because his father travels far and wide for picking jobs, unlike the team-foreman father of the Diaz boys, Damacio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez), and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez). Danny, incidentally, is the chubby kid on the team, who you just know is going to come through in the end. There are also Johnny (Hector Duran) and José (Johnny Ortiz); I assume they have stories of their own, not that we see much of them.

Once the team comes together there’s not really that much of an arc to speak of. There’s no real opposition to their progress, and to the Whites’ steady integration into the community. Sure, there are setbacks and momentary obstacles — Jim doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be a picker; there’s a scary situation the evening of his daughter’s quinceañera; he gets a generous offer from a private school — but each one resolves itself within two or three scenes. In a way, it’s a metaphor for cross country running itself: there’s no single opposing team trying to impede your progress, just bumps in the trail that you get over or around and keep on running.

But still, the overall story is that Jim White lands among a bunch of brown people and makes everything better. Kids who only ever longed to escape now return to McFarland to contribute the way their coach did. The success of the team gives the people something to believe in and cheer for. And — no real spoiler here — Jim magnanimously decides to stay, having Learned a Valuable Lesson about community from these Simple Hardworking People.

And so, nice as it is, McFarland, USA just can’t resonate as well as last month’s Spare Parts, despite covering similar ground. It will certainly do better business than that film, though; maybe we’re just not ready for stories about good things happening to brown people that aren’t ultimately gifts from a really nice white guy.

Worth It: probably not.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

February 20, 2015
Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Hot Tub Time Machine 2, like its predecessor, is a stupid, silly comedy. But at least it knows how stupid and silly it is, and to be honest that goes a long way. Still, it’s not clear that there’s enough left in this tub to justify another dip.

The first movie had John Cusack as Adam, alongside his buddies Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson), and nephew Jacob (Clark Duke). With Cusack along, the movie was basically another homage to ’80s teen comedies, and it worked well enough at that.

But now it’s just Lou, Nick, and Jacob, now known to be Lou’s son. Nick and Lou both used their knowledge of the future for their own profit. Nick has recorded his own versions of popular songs — we see him shooting a remake of Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” video — while Lou gave up that rock-star route to invent “Lougle”.

Of course, none of them are happy. If they were, we wouldn’t have a story. But someone is even less happy, and takes a shot at Lou. Luckily, he moved the magic hot tub into his mansion, along with a supply of nitrotrinadium, so they escape to the past. Or the future. It’s kind of complicated and pretty clear that the writers didn’t think too much about the details so I suggest you don’t either.

Anyway, they have to figure out who was trying to kill Lou, and since they found Adam’s jacket beside the tub they try to look for him. Instead they find Adam’s milquetoast son, Adam Jr. (Adam Scott) and drag him along for the ride.

With Cusack out of the picture, this basically becomes the Rob Corddry show, and I tend to fond that Corddry is best in small doses as a supporting player. The general outlines of a “be excellent to each other” moral are pretty clear, and progress towards that goal isn’t terribly interesting. There’s plenty of funny, archly self-aware bits that kept me laughing throughout, but every so often you know you’re going to get dragged back into Corddry’s annoying bromophobia. One particularly bad misfire ends up with just Robinson and Scott playing out a gag involving a degenerate future game show, and you can tell their hearts just aren’t in it.

Still, Robinson, Duke, and Scott get their chance to shine as more than the supporting crew of The Office and Parks and Recreation, and Corddry’s not all bad either. February releases have to grade on a curve, and given the competition, I’ll take this one.

Worth It: It’s shaky, but there’s not much better in the way of comedy right now.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The DUFF

February 20, 2015
The DUFF

Somehow, high school comedies just don’t seem as good as they used to be. Is it some form of nostalgia on my part, as I age away from the point where they’re actually aimed at me? I hardly claim that John Hughes’ brat pack movies were without flaw, but they were certainly better than The DUFF.

It’s not just the changing times; just five years ago we got Easy A. It took a hard look at some of the ways teenagers, in their somewhat amateurish ways, are awful to each other, took them apart, and turned them around. The DUFF is after something like the same goal, but in a cheap, pandering, tone deaf way.

For one thing, it invents a whole new form of social ostracism. “DUFF” stands for the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend”, an acronym almost as contrived as S.H.I.E.L.D. It means the somewhat less attractive — and thus more approachable — member of a group of friends, who others use as a sort of social on-ramp. Do people sometimes try to get to know their crushes through friends? I’m sure. But elevating the concept like this seems to come more from the pick-up artist’s warped sense of sociology, along with “alphas” and “betas”, than actual human observation.

But within the story itself, Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed that she’s the DUFF of her friends (Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels), with whom she prominently breaks off relations. She enlists her childhood next-door friend Wesley (Robbie Arnell) — now the football player in an on-again, off-again relationship with Bianca’s chief mean-girl tormentor Madison (Bella Thorne) — to do the whole Henry Higgins thing and make her over into a popular girl herself.

Of course, Bianca’s just fine. Whitman may not be as thin as the ever-willowy Thorne, but she’s still gorgeous by regular-people standards. Bianca’s got her own geeky interests — heavy on the B horror movies — and seems fairly smart and confident in herself to boot. She knows full well going in that she’s not the one of her friends the boys swoon over, and she seems fine with that up until the moment Wesley gives her position a name. Even less believable than the term itself is that this young woman would care about it.

After the setup it’s a long yawn, alternately pandering and heavy-handed. We know that eventually she’s going to get back with her friends, and she’ll regain her confidence in Being Her Own Person. And while I applaud that result — along with how they integrate her old flannel-wearing style into the obligatory Cinderella prom dress — it’s simply mean-spirited for the movie to have taken it away from her in the first place.

The real irony here is Whitman’s casting. She’s one of the best young character actresses on big or small screens, but she’s always relegated to secondary, supporting status. I’m sure she wanted her own lead; she absolutely has the chops on display here, and she deserves better and more prominent roles. Besides, the ugly truth is that there are fewer and fewer roles for female character work as an actress ages. Most of the great character players we remember are male; actresses like Allison Janney (appearing as Bianca’s mother) are rare exceptions.

But that makes her, in the movie’s parlance, the DUFF of young Hollywood. She’s not the star most people focus on, and she supports the ones they do. The entire hoary old point of the story, though, is that it’s a mistake to debase yourself into becoming what you think other people want you to be, which is exactly what she does by taking on this part.

Mae Whitman is a great actress, and if there’s any justice she’ll have a long career including some impressive leads. But The DUFF is not a step along that path. Like Bianca and so many teen comedy leading ladies before her, she’ll have to chalk this one up to youthful missteps before moving on to a place that’s right for her.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Timbuktu

February 13, 2015
Timbuktu

From our comfortable spaces, watching the evening news, places in conflict have a certain abstract scariness. Fox News viewers clamor that Something must be Done to prevent the brown scourge from getting a toehold here, but that’s the biggest effect it has on most of us in the west. We’re more in danger of choking ourselves to death in our panic than of any actual jihadist violence; a kind of political anaphylaxis.

Most of the time when a film takes us inside a conflict zone, it’s a scene of abject misery and violence, like In the Land of Blood and Honey. So when the news blares reports of DAESH or Boko Haram we see the violence and the misery, but we forget the life that always goes on under their thumb. We forget the people who live with this disease but do not die from it.

Abderrahmane Sissako did not make Timbuktu to remind us in the West about these people. He didn’t make it for a Western audience at all, in fact. Its structure is foreign to our ways of telling stories; its rhythms are strange, but wonderful and beautiful in their own ways.

There is no singular plot, as we normally think of it. There are a number of stories threading through the ancient city, now occupied by the jihadist group Ansar Dine flying the same black flag we’ve seen from Nigeria to the Levant. The inhabitants are almost all Muslims, but they are far more diverse than their occupiers would like. The mujahideen would flatten the vibrant local culture just as surely as an ignorant American might dismiss them all as “just a bunch of Arabs”; both do their own kind of violence to these people.

In fact, almost none of them are Arabs; only a few even speak a dialect of Arabic. They speak Koyra Chiini, and Tamashek, and Bambara, and Fulfulde, and even a little French and English. Many interactions require translators; some even require two.

They are ethnically diverse, dominated by the Songhai and Tuareg majority. Some live and work in town, and fall directly under the occupiers’ thumbs, like the fishmonger outraged that the new law says she must wear gloves in the market that make it impossible for her to handle her wares. The jihadists hunt down a singer (Fatoumata Diawara) in the night and lash her both for singing and for being in a room with a man. And yet one woman (Kettly Noël), claiming to have been teleported there from the Caribbean, dresses in fabulous colors and goes seemingly unmolested. A nomadic cowherd (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives outside the city in a beautiful tent with his wife and daughter (Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed), which seems to buy him a little leeway to sing and play his guitar. But a tragically violent altercation with a local fisherman brings him into the Sharia court just the same.

A local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) argues with Abdelkarim (Abel Jafri), the one mujahid we really come to know, over what “jihad” really means. The local interpretation of Islam is far different from the one these occupying fundamentalists want to impose, steamrolling over all the texture of the city. But even Abelkarim has difficulty living up to his group’s high ideals. The occupiers themselves are also human in Sissako’s lens.

The city of Timbuktu may have become a quiet backwater since the days when its ruler could spend so much money on his Hajj it devalued Egyptian currency, but it remains a rich and diverse local culture. Or at least it had until Ansar Dine moved in. Sissako takes a beautifully calm look at what has become of the city under the new jihadist rule. Timbuktu damns the occupiers far more effectively in its stillness than an American news source does in all its impotent, blustering rage. The film may not have been made for us, but we could learn much by watching anyway.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

February 13, 2015
Kingsman: The Secret Service

I understand the idea of counter-programming an action flick most likely to appeal to male moviegoers to open opposite a huge tent-pole romance likely to draw female audiences. And that might work as a distribution in, say, August. But to open opposite any romance the day before Valentine’s Day — much less opposite a guaranteed juggernaut like Fifty Shades of Grey — seems like a recipe for getting lost in the shuffle. And that’s especially unfortunate in this case, since Kingsman: The Secret Service is easily one of the most original, visually striking, and entertaining action movies in years.

You know how Guardians of the Galaxy brought the fun back to comic book movies? After years and years of superheroes getting darker and grittier — especially Christopher Nolan’s Frank Miller-inspired Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel — James Gunn brought us a superhero movie that was colorful and zany and just plain fun again. Well, Kingsman seeks to do that for superspy movies, explicitly calling out Bond films. It aims for a level of rollicking action fun somewhere between the Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore eras, only with director Matthew Vaughn’s eye for over-the-top action violence.

The hook, from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book The Secret Service is an ultra-clandestine organization of superspies code-named after knights of the round table, and disguised as high-end British tailors. When one of their number is lost, they nominate a new slate of candidates to be the next Lancelot. While everyone else sticks to Harry “Galahad” Hart (Colin Firth) chooses parkourist chav
“Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), everyone else sticks with the public school/Oxbridge crowd they themselves came from. They set off on a series of training exercises under the guidance of the quartermaster “Merlin” (Mark Strong).

Meanwhile, Galahad is chasing down the lisping American Bond-villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his razor-legged hechwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) before they can carry out their incredibly complicated and megalomaniacal plan. Obviously the trainees — or what’s left of them — are going to end up drawn into this mess by the end, and Eggsy will save the day. The ending may be clear, but how we get there is a mile-a-minute thrill ride.

Most notable in the action is how Vaughn and cinematographer George Richmond shoot the fight sequences. Spy movies have generally fallen under the spell of chaos editing; dozens of split-second cuts may inject an artificial sense of energy, but with no real sense of what’s going on or where the audience soon feels empty.

Vaughn and Richmond keep the amped-up energy that comes from flitting between many different angles, but in a completely new and compelling way: instead of cutting, they employ a virtual camera that flits around the scene like a gnat. It speeds from one perspective to another, slowing down for a moment to watch a punch land or a weapon fire, then zooms off to the next angle at high speed. We are as close, fast, and brutal as in any chaotically edited fight, but having everything visible as we tilt and whirl around the scene keeps us anchored firmly in place.

Like the suits, this technique brings a very particular feel to the movie, and luckily it’s one that works perfectly with the tone Vaughn sets with everything from the acting direction to the classic rock-packed soundtrack. Firth and Jackson’s leads are impeccable, as are the supports from Strong and the ironically cockneyed Michael Caine as the classist “Arthur”, heading up the service. Arianne Phillips’ costumes are fantastic across the board from the Kingsman suits to Eggsy and Valentine’s more hip-hop inspired outfits, and they fit perfectly into Paul Kirby’s production design.

It’s a look and sound and feel that grabs you right from the outset and never lets you go until the end. Yes, it’s hyper-violent, and yes, it’s got every bit of the sexism Bond films always have. It’s a lads’ movie through and through, but delivered with such panache and good humor it’s almost impossible not to be drawn in. This is truly one of the most fun times you can have at the movies right now.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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