Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Rohan Laments A Certain Lack of 'Focus'

(Our friend Rohan Morbey seems to have been bitterly conned by Focus, Will Smith's new movie about, appropriately enough, conmen. His review, which he's generously let us cross-post here, appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!)

The fundamental problem with films like Focus lays in how many similar films like Focus you may have seen. In this case, you know you’re in for a con, but the fun is always in how the con is pulled off and how the film can gain the confidence of the audience only to trick us at the end. Unfortunately, even if you’ve seen just one similar film chances are it’s far better than this.

When I think of all the best con artist movies I’ve seen over the years – The Sting, Matchstick Men, House Of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, The Grifters, Ocean’s Eleven, and the largely underrated Edward Burns movie Confidence to name but a few – there are several elements which make them memorable: the con, the characters, the stakes, the set-ups, the writing or the obstacles the heroes face. Each film has many layers and all make for at least an entertaining romp, or in the case of The Sting something far greater. Watching Focus is like putting the pieces of far better films put together under a new title, when in fact it’s as bland as any remake/reboot you can name.

The film starts promisingly. Will Smith (the sole reason for watching) is a con man who leads a large team of con artists targeting popular events like the Super Bowl or World Series where people go to let loose, get drunk, open their wallets and let down their guard. After a meet-cute with Margot Robbie (pretty face but zero charisma) where she’s on the job, Smith initiates her into his team. Quickly she learns how to get to somewhere near his level of skill, and I quite enjoyed the promise of a team of con artists (‘Smith’s Thirty’ perhaps) traveling the world pulling jobs in 48 hours, getting out and getting rich. It’s a different take on a familiar genre, I thought, and I was on board.

That’s at around twenty minutes in. After this point, and you’ll have to excuse the pun, Focus quickly loses focus and becomes increasingly boring. After an extended scene of high stakes betting with a super-rich businessman whose resolution is as painfully obvious as it is stupid, the film tells us it’s ‘three years later’ for the sole reason that there is no where left to go. The plot has run out of steam at 45 minutes and a new story is brought in where essentially everything which has gone before is going to be either a (painful obvious) callback or of no consequence whatsoever. Either way the second half of this film is a non-starter.

There is a job for Smith to do but the focus is rarely on the confidence tricks and we’re left with the classic ‘here’s how I did it’ montage which relies on computer hacking at the heart of it. Computer hacking and file stealing is not a confidence trick, and it’s a total cop-out in a film about con artists. What’s left is a strained romance between Smith and Robbie which is never more than surface level, and twists which I actively tried to guess – and that’s something I never, ever do when a film which relies on twists and turns is actually engaging me.

Director/screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa shoot nothing but style (or at least lavish locations and sexy people on repeat) over substance, giving their two lead characters no arcs or discernible characteristics. The status quo never changes for Smith and nothing is ever at stake in the film; and even when Ficarra and Requa try to make you think it is, you know it isn’t. In movies like this the film works best when it’s one step ahead of the audience but in Focus I think we’re matching it stride for stride; eventually, no one really cares what’s going on.

Will Smith is such a charming leading man, he could have pulled off a Danny Ocean-like role with charisma to spare and Focus could have served up a new take on an old tale. Alas, this is just another attempt to rework a genre which has seen some truly great films do it all before and it isn’t like Focus even tries to copy them; it loses its focus, and the audience loses its patience.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Recommended!: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

For all of the innovations of the cinema of Peter Greenaway, he is not necessarily known as an actor's director. Though many famous and prolific actors have appeared in Greenaway's films (a list that includes Sir John Gielgud, Ewan MacGregor, Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes, Martin Freeman, and even Brian Dennehy), it is Greenaway's style, the playfulness of his writing, the classicism of his compositions, the breadth of his historical and cultural allusions, that concerns most of his critics.

But word came in this week (belatedly, as many things from outside the US come) that actor Alan Howard had died, and immediately his performance in Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover came to mind. It's a gruesome and intense movie, to be sure, as Greenaway lays bare the greed and anti-human impulses of the Margaret Thatcher regime in a Jacobean-level revenge parable. But there are many ways into the movie: a classically-orchestrated revenge drama; political satire; playful exegesis on food, eating, and consumption.

But there's a powerful love story at the movie's core as well, as Georgina (Helen Mirren), the wife of vicious and stupid gangster Albert (Michael Gambon), falls for Michael (Howard), a quiet, bookish patron of their favorite restaurant. Georgina and Michael begin a clandestine affair in the restaurant's bathroom, propelling the two of them into terrible danger as a keenly felt, genuine love grows between them, and Albert begins to suspect the affair. As outlandish as the movie is, Mirren and Howard keep this aspect of the movie grounded and believable. Mirren's desperation is palpable, and we understand why she'd accept the limited escape her affair with Michael would offer. And Howard's Michael is bookish and unassuming, but smart and resourceful enough to take on a heroic aspect; gauging just the right level of defiance to present against Albert's insults to rebuff him (knowing that too much would get him brutalized or killed). Georgina responds initially to his wit, and when she unleashes his passion we suspect it's lurked under the surface all his life. Grrenaway's story patiently reveals details about Michael; Howard fleshes these details out beautifully, but is more than present enough to register him as a full formed human being even in his initial, peripheral appearances.

Howard's performance is memorable enough to argue against the notion of Greenaway as a non-actor's director (and opens the door to consider other fine performances by actors under Greenaway's direction, as well). Looking over Howard's body of work one finds a number of other notable movies, but also a huge array of performances for the Royal Shakespeare Company. One imagines that any of his takes on Shakespeare's kings would have been something to see. The man was clearly a colossal talent, and it shows even in the role of the fourth-billed character in a film by an artist not best remembered for his work with actors. Fire up the ghost light, and hoist a glass for Alan Howard.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tasting Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

The Kickstarter era of movie-making is in full swing, with even veteran filmmakers using the crowd-funding platform to finance smaller-scale, more experimental projects that larger studios might not touch. And so Spike Lee has used the platform for the first time to fund a remake of Ganja & Hess, Bill Gunn's 1973 blaxploitation vampire allegory. With about $1.2 million raised (a miniscule budget by Hollywood standards, but more than enough to make a coherent movie) plus other financing via product placement, Lee shot Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 16 days, and after making the rounds of festivals it is appearing in rep theatres and on line. Wherever you can find this curious, uneven, but ultimately winning movie, it's well worth a look.

Lee's movie, it has been noted, is often a line-by-line remake of Gunn's, retaining Gunn's story: wealthy African-American archaeologist Hess Green (theatre veteran Stephen Tyrone Williams) is stabbed by his emotionally unstable assistant with a newly unearthed relic, a tribal dagger, which leaves Hess alive (after a fashion) but unquenchably thirsty for blood. The assistant's wife, the headstrong Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams) arrives on the scene, embarking on a strange but absorbing relationship with Hess, propelling them both on a harrowing and bloody journey into obsession, addiction, and, possibly, redemption.

Lee insists his movie is not a vampire movie, and it's clear that he's much more interested in the metaphors he's exploring (which exist in all vampire movies worth watching) than in delivering straight-up vampire carnage. Indeed, Ganja & Hess was originally borne of Gunn's desire to explore cultural politics within the grindhouse vehicle he'd signed on to make. It's been suggested that many of Lee's movie's lapses into stillness are simply a direct appropriation of Gunn's more relaxed style, but some of the movie's interludes - including two lengthy stops at a neighborhood church and a number of lingering closeups on NY Knicks logos - seem essentially Lee, borne from both his patient documentarianism and his now-signature expressions of his abiding love for, and pride in, his hometown. (This affection is abundantly clear in the movie's gorgeous title sequence, with dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley executing his patented moves amid Red Hook landmarks, which dropkicks us beautifully into the setting.)

Between the tightness of its shoot and these offbeat stylistic flourishes, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus doesn't always come together. (Williams' measured, occasionally somnolent line readings don't always mesh with Abarahams' natural exuberance, and even playing lovers they occasionally feel like they're acting in two different movies.) Yet Lee's earlier films have just as many different things on their mind, and something about Lee's approach here lays out each thing - addiction, African history, assimilation, religion, redemption, love - and gives us a Brechtian distance from which to take it all in. Take it all in we do, but even after Lee takes us all over the map a major character breaks the fourth wall, glares right at us, and nails us to our seats. This final gesture puts the onus of interpretation right back on us, and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus lingers in our minds. Our veins, even.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Leviathan is a big story about small people in a small community, and the forces that overwhelm them. There's a powerful sense of inevitability as a family fights the purchase of its land by the town mayor, whose counter-measures expose his true ruthlessness. Andrey Zvyagintsev's story, among many other accomplishments, vividly realizes its setting (the small coastal town Pribrezhny), to the point where you can practically smell the sea air, and taste the vodka enjoyed liberally by nearly every character. But as powerfully as it indicts the Russian regime, there's a pointed universality to its portrait of small-minded politicians drunk on power, and the ultimate helplessness of those who cross them. (I mused that an American remake could very easily transport the story to the Bible Belt with minimal changes, considering the prevalence of places where booze, corruption, and firearms all figure in the local culture; I was unsurprised to ultimately find that it was an incident in Colorado that inspired Zvyagintsev's story in the first place.)

The furor surrounding the movie in its native Russia is ironic. The movie unflinchingly ties the small-town corruption it depicts into Vladimir Putin's reign; indeed, Putin himself is present in the form of a hilariously what-me-worry? portrait on the wall of the corrupt mayor. But to bill the movie as "the film Putin doesn't want you to see" is something of an exaggeration. As potent as the movie is, Zvyagintsev claims he never once felt the hand of the state try and stop him, or shape the movie's contents. And even though the state has a strong presence (in the form of Putin ally Nikita Mikhalkov) on the country's Oscar selection board, this scathing movie was the one it submitted for consideration. The Russian government, after all, has declared war on corruption, just as Zvyagintsev has in his remarkable movie, so it's funny that they're at such cross-purposes.

Leviathan comes by its plaudits and awards honestly. Hard to say if an Oscar win would mean this movie's being recognized on its own merits or simply the Academy trying to tweak the Putin regime. Regardless of Sunday's outcome, Leviathan is grim but gorgeously executed, capturing the thorny, anti-humane politics of its homeland and transmuting them into a warning that is intensely felt, bracing in its expression, and universal in its breadth.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Recommended!: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The last time there was this much back and forth about the release of a big budget sex movie was back in 1999 over Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The way people were going on about it you'd think that then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had hired Kubrick to write, shoot, & direct a $35 million sex tape to be distributed cinematically. Which seemed to be what the many people who lined up for it thought they were in for (unrealistic as the expectation was), and there was some serious backlash over what they ultimately got: a murky excoriation of the Tom Cruise character type, with Kidman seemingly relegated to a tiny supporting role, with Cruise thrust into increasingly ridiculous scenes, none of which climax in anything resembling the erotic release promised by the movie's hype. Hype exacerbated by Kubrick's death, leaving both expectations that this be some kind of a final masterpiece [as well as a multi-million dollar sex tape] and questions over whether or not the movie was actually finished.

Like most of Kubrick's movies, after the year that spawned it, with the hype surrounding it cheerfully forgotten, the movie's ready to be re-watched, and reassessed. What remains is this strangely timeless, dreamy wonderland, in which Dr. William Harford (Cruise), thrown into a talespin by his wife (Kidman)'s confession of a powerful adulterous urge, goes out into Manhattan in search of erotic payback. And yet none of his attempted dalliances ever amount to anything, culminating in an absurdly (and, on Kubrick's end, deliberately) overblown masked orgy, at which the trespassing Dr. Harford seems to awaken a dark conspiracy that threatens to follow him into the waking world.

Eyes Wide Shut reveals itself to be an engrossing, dreamy quest,  If it never rises to the level of flesh fest its initial audience was expecting, it's completely honest about the psychology of eroticism; about the profoundly masculine jealousy that rears its ugly head when a woman even fantasizes about sexual autonomy, about the weirdly elusive nature of sexual fantasy (and the damn near impossibility of realization), about the profoundly unmutual sexual aspect that can lurk within even the longest, apparently happiest marriages. It's a tall ask by a supposedly erotic movie to get us to sign on for nearly three hours of Tom Cruise not getting laid, but what we get is a fearlessly honest Cruise performance as he exposes a particularly stunted, thwarted, threatened masculinity. (Cruise went even deeper into self-examination for PT Anderson's Magnolia, an equally remarkable movie also released in 1999.) And though Kidman does wind up being in less than 15 minutes of the movie, the spell of her longing lingers over and through the movie like a ghost. We marvel that a man married to such a woman wouldn't welcome her erotic aspects, yet we wonder if we'd react any more rationally to the revelation of our own partner's depths.

Eyes Wide Shut is as meticulously realized as anything else Kubrick made, and is gorgeously lit by cameraman Larry Smith (who'd go on to work similar wonders for Nicolas Winding Refn). Its dreamlike aspects wind up giving us a deeper, weirder, and better movie than we might have expected (not to mention funnier; Steve Martin had been Kubrick's first choice for the Cruise role). Though the movie does, in some respects turn out to be a long tease, it does give us something resembling release at its coda, as the Harfords seem to be groping toward the realm of mutual sexual understanding...and the equally far-off possibility of a happy ending in a Kubrick film.

If the movie, as some complained, didn't look like it was set in contemporary New York, the distance that time allows lets us look at it in the dreamlike frame of mind intended, yielding hard lessons and dreamy fantasy from its depths. Fifteen years later Eyes Wide Shut seems as elusive, timeless, wonderful, and ultimately transcendent as the erotic impulse itself. I doubt history will be as kind to 50 Shades of Grey.

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