Focus

 

Focus is like meatloaf and mashed potatoes—solid, satisfying and filling but no “wow” factor. Sure, Will Smith is a box office giant who we all love. And Margot Robbie is unbelievably gorgeous (and talented). The trailers for Focus hinted at something special. But, alas, that is not the result.

This story of con men and women is told in three acts: Nicky (Smith) meets Jess (Robbie) in a hotel restaurant in NYC. He shares tips on picking pockets, advising her to shift a mark’s focus somewhere other than where the watch, ring, wallet, purse, etc. is being lifted.

Act two takes them to New Orleans for the “big game” in the Superdome. (The film takes special care not to mention the NFL, its teams or trademarks. The game, by the way, features the Miami Sharks versus the Chicago Threshers.) Jess joins the team of crooks who reap a major haul. Meanwhile, the duo’s relationship heats up.

Nicky and Jess attend the game in the luxury suite of a wealthy Chinese businessman (B.D. Wong) who they engage in a series of risky bets. Nicky keeps losing and the businessman keeps raising the stakes. The scheme concocted to dictate the outcome of the final bet is ludicrous, as is carrying over a million in cash to a football game in a satchel.

Act three happens three years later in Buenos Aires where Nicky is involved in a scam to steal software from one auto racing team and sell it to each of the other teams. At a reception Nicky acts surprised to see Jess hanging out with race car driver Garraga (Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) whose software is about to be compromised. Likable TV mainstay Gerald McRaney has a significant role in this third act.

In your better confidence scheme movies, the reveals tend to elicit a “Whoa!” from the viewer. In Focus, the reveals made me say (to myself), “Hmmm. How about that?”

It’s certainly great to see Will Smith redeem himself following his After Earth vanity project. And Margot Robbie keeps the momentum she created in Wolf of Wall Street going. Focus is a decent movie, though not a mind-blower. Set your bar at mid-level and your expectations will be met.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

 

Let’s time-travel ahead 5 years to this 2020 vision: It’s 3:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. After a night on the town, you’re winding down by flipping through cable channels. Most are running infomercials for weight loss supplements, Bowflexes, etc. But, alas, Comedy Central has a movie!

It is Hot Tub Time Machine 2, which you have never seen. In a manner similar to that of a morbidly curious person staring at a horrible car crash, you are transfixed by the film’s awfulness. When a commercial comes on, you travel back in time by rewinding your live DVR and rewatching the previous 10 or so minutes to confirm that you actually saw what you thought you saw.

This film is unfunny and not at all entertaining. The story, of course, is absurd and hardly worth mentioning. But that was not a surprise. The shocker was the appropriate absolute silence from the preview audience in response to much of the movie’s script. Low comedy is okay; unfunny low comedy is a bore.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a movie that, for me, stirred one particular emotion: pity. For the cast and crew whose names will be forever linked to this stinker via IMDB. Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Adam Scott, Jason Jones and Chevy Chase have all done worthwhile work, but HTTM2 is a shameful mess. Clark Duke is a lesser-known actor but he, too, like the aforementioned men, should’ve known better.

(Should you watch the above red band trailer, you’ll note that it says “This Christmas.” Apparently, somebody knew better than waste valuable holiday theater screens on this turkey.)

Okay, back to your future: On that late Saturday/early Sunday in 2020, you finally come to your senses and flip from Hot Tub Time Machine 2 to that Bowflex ad. And you are a happier person for having done so.

 

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a ton of fun! It’s action-packed and full of surprises. It moves at a frantic pace and never slows down until its final postscript. Like last year’s Lego Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a better movie than we usually get in February.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad is the dapper, well-dressed ops director of the secret spy organization that works out of a men’s clothing store in London. The versatile Firth is, as the British say, “spot on” in this role.

Following the death of a colleague in a 1997 mission, he gives a medallion and contact information to the man’s young son Eggy. Years later, now in his early 20s, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) needs help getting out of a jam and calls Galahad who takes care of the situation. When Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed in action, Galahad recruits Eggsy to try out for a position. The competition is tough and Eggsy works hard to succeed.

When the film’s villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, he is apparently a good guy, an environmental warrior. But his method for saving the planet involves eliminating much of the world’s human population. He scores good will by giving the entire world free wi-fi and internet—but there’s an evil motive to his generosity.

Galahad consults with Kingsman chief Arthur (Michael Caine) who suggests Galahad learn more about Valentine. At their first meeting, the dinner scene is a classic. (I’m tempted to share more, but… alas, no spoiler from me.)

K:TSS recalls early James Bond films, but in a more appreciative fashion than the Austin Powers movies did. As Q does in the Bond films, Galahad introduces Eggsy to amazing spy devices. Villain Valentine has an impressive mountaintop lair, complete with an airplane landing strip in a cave. And there’s the promise of a sexual payoff for the story’s hero, a la 007.

Kingsman: The Secret Service contains numerous memorable and bloody fight scenes. They are cartoonish and, in many case, quite funny. Director Matthew Vaughn (who also directed X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Stardust) has created a film that looks good and has plenty of clever bits. Like the woman with the lethal Oscar Pistorius prosthetic feet, the exploding opening credits and the high-speed chase scene where the car being chased travels in reverse.

Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers the goods. I like it a lot.

 

 

Jupiter Ascending

 

Big dumb movie. There’s a reason Jupiter Ascending’s release date was pushed back from July 2014 to February 2015: it’s not very good.

Co-directors/co-writers Andy and Lana Wachowski make movies that contain gorgeous, imaginative visuals. But their stories and their storytelling abilities leave much to be desired.

Here’s the Jupiter Ascending scenario: Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a Chicago housecleaner, just an ordinary (if beautiful) schlub whose 4:45 a.m. alarm gets her moving into another day of the drudgery of cleaning toilet bowls. Turns out that she has in her DNA some special stuff that several folks on a distant planet want.

Jupiter is transported to this faraway place where she encounters three siblings who are interested in her. Played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tupence Middleton, the three Abrasax nogoodniks do their evil while good guys Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Stinger (Sean Bean) line up on Jupiter’s side.

Redmayne should probably have his recent Oscar nomination rescinded based on his overacting in this film. Tatum, with goatee, resembles Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander. Kunis looks good, if occasionally baffled, throughout the film. The wedding outfit she wears as a bride-to-be is nothing short of stunning.

For what it’s worth, Jupiter Ascending, presents a welcome positive view of Jupiter’s U.S. extended family of Russian immigrants. (Several films of the past few years have depicted Russians as evil, treacherous people, often worse than the Cold War Russians.) Maybe this portrayal is a result of the Wachowskis’ eastern European family heritage. (A subtitle in Jupiter Ascending revealed a Russian curse that I may include in my repertoire: “Stalin’s Balls!”)

The effects are spectacular, the battles are amazing. But, ultimately, Jupiter Ascending fails. It’s a shame that the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 is no longer being produced. Jupiter Ascending, I think, would be an excellent candidate for an MST3K treatment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Or White

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to hug Octavia Spencer.

Black Or White is a message movie, yes, but not as heavy handed and unrelenting as many such films tend to be. There’s humanity and love here to counterbalance the resentments and grudges.

Elliott Anderson (Kevin Costner) is an L.A. attorney. He and his wife have been raising his mixed race granddaughter, following his teen daughter’s death during childbirth. When Elliott’s wife is killed in a car crash, leaving grandpa to raise the girl by himself, the other grandma (who is African-American) Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer) decides to seek custody.

A key element of Black Or White’s charm is the little girl Eloise (Jillian Estell) who is the subject of the custody battle. Estell is cute and she’s a good actor.

While the relationship among the grandparents has been respectful if not warm, Elliott still has hard feelings against Rowena’s son, Eloise’s father, Reggie (André Holland) who he blames for his daughter’s death. When Reggie joins in the custody battle, things turn ugly.

Complicating the situation is Elliott’s heavy drinking. In fact, he drafts Eloise’s tutor Duvan (Mpho Koaho) to serve as his driver when he’s too drunk to drive.

The always great Anthony Mackie is attorney Jeremiah Jeffers, representing Rowena and Reggie. Standup comic Bill Burr is surprisingly good as Rick Reynolds, Elliott’s friend, law firm partner and courtroom attorney.

Black Or White could have easily slipped into the talky melodrama of a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie, but with a busy plot and timely comic relief, it keeps up a good pace that should keep audiences engaged. Costner is the big star here, but Octavia Spencer is a joy to watch onscreen. Her takes are priceless.

This is a movie that Costner helped bankroll. He came to St. Louis, where racial polarization continues to bubble under, to promote the film and its message. Costner’s character says things that some white folks may have felt but never articulated. Rowena and her extended family are people who are easy to admire and respect. Black Or White presents a story that should entertain as well as provide a few things for everyone—black or white—to think about.

Why Is American Sniper Kicking Ass At The Box Office?

Cooper Sniper

  1. An excellent marketing campaign. A heavy TV schedule in December and January emphasized the tension of the sniper’s mission.
  2. Good awareness of real life sniper Chris Kyle’s story from his book and media appearances.
  3. Discussion of the film has become politicized, drawing praise and criticism from conservatives and liberals. People on both sides (as well as those in the middle) are anxious to see what all the uproar is about.
  4. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper. Eastwood’s recent efforts were misfires, but he’s delivered many crowd pleasers as a director. Cooper is a likeable actor who has several solid performances in the recent past.
  5. The competition at the box office has been weak, even for January films.
  6. The six Oscar nominations helped drive attendance (more than for other nominees), because they were announced on the day before the wide opening.
  7. The weather has been mild for January in many parts of the U.S.
  8. American Sniper is a good, if not great, movie. It focuses not just on combat in Iraq but also on Kyle’s life and family back home.
  9. The film’s sad postscript has had an emotional impact on many who’ve seen the film (and then posted about it on Facebook).
  10. Kyle is portrayed as a hero. America likes heroes.
  11. It appears to be drawing people who rarely attend movies in theaters. (In the tradition of Forest Gump, Titanic, Avatar and others.)

Even though American Sniper has sold most of its tickets in January, because it was released in four theaters on December 25 of last year, it is officially a 2014 movie. Experts predict the buzz will continue and American Sniper will go on to top 2014’s box office leaders The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy.

American Sniper

American Sniper is a red, white and blue story of a Texas cowboy who serves four tours of duty in Iraq. He is real life Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a deadly aim.

Kyle’s story, unlike those told in Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker includes significant amounts of time spent stateside between tours and after his final tour. Wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is supportive and understanding of the fact that he can’t dial things back when he’s at home. Kyle loves his family but keeps feeling the need to go back for more action.

And what action it is! Director Clint Eastwood brings a taste of what combat must be like in the Mideast, where you never know if a civilian has a bomb strapped to his or her body. The engagements Kyle and his crew have with the enemy reveal the peril that troops must constantly be aware of. (Some of the combat scenes were filmed in Morocco.)

Cooper’s not the guy I might’ve cast in this role, but he is excellent here. (Although his Texas accent tends to come and go.) He manages to bring both the hard edge of the warrior and a softer side as a husband and father. Cooper does have good range.

American Sniper enjoyed excellent buzz last year but failed to win significant love from year-end critics awards. Lately, though, buzz has trended up again and the film received 6 Oscar nominations including Best Film and Best Actor.

The Chris Kyle story has a sad ending. But Americans looking for a hero will find one in American Sniper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blackhat

Blackhat has numerous scenes that look cool. Plus it has a dreamy cool synthesizer soundtrack. But the plot is ridiculous. What might have been a good nugget of an initial concept is destroyed by the way this story is presented.

When hackers cause a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in China, followed by a hack into a commodities market in the U.S., swift action is called for. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) is selected by the Chinese to find the source of the hack. He drafts his sister and fellow computer geek Chen Lein (Wei Tang) to help. He also reaches out U.S. authorities and to a former M.I.T. classmate who is currently incarcerated in the states.

Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) is behind bars for hacking. When he’s released to help with this mission, he is chastised for having added credits to accounts of fellow prisoners at the lockup’s commissary. Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is the F.B.I. operative who joins the team.

Blackhat has a romantic element as Hathaway and sister Chen quickly hook up but their coupling seems more out of convenience than true attraction. As Hathaway and crew work to track the hack, they travel to Asia. The foreign settings in Indonesia and Malaysia provide nice backdrops for gun battles and chase scenes.

Director Michael Mann brings compelling visuals to the screen. His Tron-ish representation of data traveling over networks looks good. Setting a showdown between good guys and bad guys within a large folk dance ceremony makes the confrontation interesting. Many shots have a grainy video quality that adds a true verité feel to the film.

Overall, though, the film’s structure is flimsy. Actions and motivations are not easy to figure out. Others (such as the hackers’  real goals) are explained away with a simple line of questionable dialogue. With some films, such as certain James Bond movies, that’s okay. But with Blackhat, it’s not. This is a timely, ripped-from-the-headlines problem that’s real. A movie about hacking should be topically meaningful. But Blackhat disappoints.

Selma

 

Selma is a powerful and moving film that spotlights a brief episode in America’s civil rights movement. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) is a man who can remain calm and non-violent but can also ignite an audience with his fiery delivery from a pulpit. Selma is billed as a true story, although many have questioned the accuracy of certain key plot elements.

The historic Civil Rights act passed Congress in 1964 but, as the movie begins, blacks in the South are still not allowed to register to vote. King visits President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House and asks that the administration support federal voting rights legislation. LBJ is hesitant and continually puts off MLK.

King and his lieutenants choose Selma, Alabama, as the place to begin a march to the state capitol in Montgomery, about 50 miles away. King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has disagreements with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) about tactics. Despite resistance from Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston), the march begins. The police attack the marchers.

For decades Martin Luther King has been seen mainly as an icon, in video and audio clips and photos. Selma humanizes the man. He’s shown sharing social occasions with his SCLC colleagues. He works to engage the SNCC crew, which has similar goals, but wants a greater share of the glory. King’s womanizing is addressed as wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) listens to FBI-provided tapes of an extramarital liaison.

There has been a chorus of uproar from individuals about the film’s depiction of Lyndon Johnson and his commitment to King and voting rights for blacks. Diane McWhorter who wrote Carry Me Home, a book about the civil rights effort in my and her hometown of Birmingham, has said, “With the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’”

In all movies that tell true-life stories, a filmmaker may embellish the narrative to add drama and conflict. Is director Ava DuVernay’s alleged sin regarding LBJ so egregious that it renders the film meaningless? Certainly not.

The film’s depictions of the disrespect, the beatings, the shootings and the bombings suffered by blacks in Alabama in the 1960s are brutal and direct. I believe they reflect what actually happened.

I find it ironic though that for this story, a vital part of America’s volatile 20th century history, DuVernay has chosen British actors to portray King, LBJ, George Wallace and even Coretta Scott King. One would think that there are capable American actors available to play these truly American roles.

 

Inherent Vice

 

Inherent Vice is an enjoyable mess from director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson. The plot is secondary to the film’s characters and the amusing things they do and say.

It’s 1970. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a longhaired pot-smoking hippie L.A. private detective who gets a surprise visit from old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her newest flame, it turns out, is a married guy whose wife and the wife’s boyfriend are trying to get him out of the picture to get his money. Shasta wants Doc to find out what’s up.

The missing boyfriend is sleazy real estate developer Michael Wolfman (Eric Roberts) whose latest project is a subdivision ridiculously located next to L.A.’s concrete irrigation canal. When Doc goes to check it out, he finds a massage parlor where the menu of services is clearly posted on the wall.

The story brings in many players including LAPD Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (James Brolin) who has some hilarious moments onscreen. His enjoyment of chocolate covered bananas provides some of Inherent Vice’s humor.

Also in the cast is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a dentist who is handling money for other dentists in a company called the Golden Fang. Benecio Del Toro appears as Doc’s attorney. Reese Witherspoon plays an assistant D.A. who is another of Doc’s gal pals. Owen Wilson is Coy Harlingen, a musician with shady connections. Maya Rudolph has a role as a receptionist with the colorful name Petunia Leeway.

The narrative goes in many directions and brings in even more characters than those I’ve mentioned. My son described Inherent Vice as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for stoners. That sounds about right.

Inherent Vice, despite its too many plot elements has a charm not unlike that of The Big Lebowski. While it’s doubtful that IV might attain similar cult status, it provides a fun take on a time and a place. If Anderson is willing to share his characters and setting with a developer, I’d love to see an Inherent Vice TV series. Either in the more permissive setting of cable or the more restrictive arena of over-the-air TV, it just might work.