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.

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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.