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Review – Focus

With Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney. Written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Directed by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. 104 minutes.

FOCUS is not one of the great con artist films, along the lines of “The Sting” or “House of Cards.” It is, nonetheless, an enjoyable and colorful film with several surprising twists and turns (some more plausible than others), and with two attractive leads in Will Smith and Margot Robbie. You don’t have to check your brain at the door, exactly, but you might want to set it to cruise control.

Smith plays Nicky, a charming con man who prefers to work small time, high volume operations. In what amounts to a prologue he meets Jess (Margot Robbie), who needs rescuing from someone in a restaurant bar. When it turns out she’s in the game herself it leads to a couple of amusing scenes including one that–for film buffs with long memories–may recall the “meet cute” in “Trouble in Paradise” (1932).

The story then jumps to New Orleans for the Super Bowl where Jess has tracked Nicky. He is planning to fleece as many of the rubes as possible with a team of confederates including the comical Farhad (Adrian Martinez). We see them in operation as Jess takes on what amounts to an apprenticeship and becomes involved with Nicky. The section concludes with an increasingly preposterous series of bets involving a Chinese gambler (B.D. Wong).

This leads to a jump in time and place where Nicky has become involved with an auto racer (Rodrigo Santoro) in Buenos Aires. There’s a thuggish factotum (Gerald McRaney) and, surprise, Jess turns up in an unexpected way as well. For viewers looking for a single story, this is going to baffling, because the film really consists of three or four consecutive stories with only Nicky and Jess appearing throughout. The payoff has several surprises and will either leave you satisfied or annoyed at what has turned into a shaggy dog story.

What makes it work are the colorful characters and the changing scenery. We go from New York to New Orleans to Buenos Aires, and from hotel rooms to swank ballrooms to sky boxes. Just as we’re settling in, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who are credited as co-writers and co-directors on the film, pull the rug out from under us. That, of course, is the point of the film both as a storytelling strategy and as a theme. Nicky keeps telling Jess that the secret to a con is to keep the mark’s focus while you’re relieving them of their valuables from where they’re not looking.

Smith is a fine actor who has done better work elsewhere but certainly isn’t phoning it in here. His Nicky can turn on the charm but also has some deep-buried wounds. Or does he? It could be part of the con. Robbie is “the pretty young thing” and carries that off, as in “Wolf of Wall Street,” with hints that there may be more there if she gets a role that’s sufficiently challenging. In the meantime, personality and good looks get them both through this.

You can try to follow the various cons, but “Focus” will find ways to distract you. For a movie like this, that’s what it’s all about.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Lazarus Effect

With Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, Donald Glover. Written by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater. Directed by David Gelb. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references. 83 minutes.

THE LAZARUS EFFECT is a low budget horror film from Blumhouse Productions, a company which has done such movies as “The Purge,” “Sinister,” and “Oculus” so you know they’re capable of interesting stuff. On the other hand they’re also responsible for the “Paranormal Activity” series, so there’s no guarantees.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are scientists working on an experimental process that seems capable of bringing the dead back to life. At the film’s start they and their two assistants, Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover) welcome new arrival Eva (Sarah Bolger) to record their progress. When it succeeds with a dog, this seems to be a big breakthrough.

Of course, the dog acts strangely and has no appetite, leading to some not unintelligent speculation of what little we know about death and whether such resurrections are a good thing. That sets the stage for most of this short film when things go wrong and Zoe dies. Frank, who was to marry her, insists on using the experimental process on her.

In terms of story this falls into the old mad scientist standby that “there are some things man is not meant to know.” Reviving Zoe unleashes intense and unstoppable brain activity, giving her unexpected new abilities. Things don’t look good for Frank and his team.

The film fits the Blumhouse formula perfectly. First, make the necessary deals to get some significant talent in the lead roles. Duplass and Wilde are better known for their work elsewhere, but they add some heft to what, in other hands, might have been two-dimensional roles. When they have their debate over life after death you get the sense of two people who had been arguing over this for some time. Wilde, in particular, is a surprising choice in this kind of film but a glance at her filmography shows an actress willing to take chances beyond her usual roles.

Then, keep the horror effects minimal. You get the sense that they wanted to make every dollar of their tight budget count. We know Zoe has slipped over to the dark side when her eyeballs turn black, an effect milked several times. Many of the scares involve the “boo effect” where a character (and the audience) have their attention drawn in one direction only to be startled by the appearance of something or someone coming from a different direction. It’s expected in such films but they do it a few times too many here.

The story concludes with a twist completely in keeping with the film’s premise and, not incidentally, opening the door to a sequel. That may or may not be a good thing, but if this film does well they’ll presumably have a bigger budget next time around. For some, a sequel to “The Lazarus Effect” might seem like trying to raise the dead. However, for those willing to accept the limitations inherent in this production, it’s a B-movie that manages to be more than a potboiler.

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Hot Tub Time Machine 2

With Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Jason Jones. Written by Josh Heald. Directed by Steve Pink. Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nudity, drug use and some violence. 93 minutes.

Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) was a brainless, lowest common denominator comedy about a group of middle-aged friends going back to their young adulthood and trying to fix their lives. For some reason it achieved a cult following and so now we get HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2, a sequel along the same lines with John Cusack missing in action. Viewers may wish to join him.

Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) have used their time traveling ability to steal ideas and then get there first. Lou became a rock star and then formed an internet company called “Lougle” (get it?). Nick also became a music star with similar success. Only Jacob (Clark Duke)–nephew of the missing Adam (Cusack’s character)–is less successful, essentially serving as Lou’s butler. Actually, none of them are happy and we get the idea that Lou and Nick are in broken marriages. Then, at a big party, Lou is shot.

The premise of the movie is that Nick and Jacob take Lou back to the past to discover who shot him and prevent the action from taking place. Only they end up in 2025, ten years in the future. Somehow this will help them fix the past. There they meet Adam’s son Adam Jr. (Adam Scott) who is about to get married. This involves lots of “jokes” involves sex, drugs, and vomiting. Oh, also gay sex, which the filmmakers seem to think is both hilarious and humiliating, something we might have expected forty years ago. Now, not so much.

The weight of the film is on Corddry and while he can be funny, he is not a leading man, particularly when asked to play a loud, boorish, and obnoxious character like Lou. The first film may have been an ensemble, but if it worked at all, it was Cusack’s hangdog everyman who provided an anchor for it. Here Corddry–who is essentially a sidekick–is surrounded by other sidekicks and supporting players, including Jason Jones who, like Corddry, is a veteran of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” (Indeed, the best joke in the film is connected to a 2025 episode of the program and who the host turns out to be.)

Just how bad is this? It is a movie that thinks the word “ejaculate” is so funny it is used repeatedly in one scene. It is a movie that thinks so little of its female characters that the most likable one gets to have a scene where she parades around topless, presumably to give the fourteen year old boys who snuck into the theater a thrill. It is a movie that thinks it’s the height of comedy to have a woman see her future husband experience gay sex against his will on a television show.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is an embarrassment to all concerned. The only one who looks good in this is Cusack, for choosing not to be a part of it.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Fifty Shades of Grey

With Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini. Written by Kelly Marcel. Directed by
Sam Taylor-Johnson. Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. 105 minutes.

The important thing about FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is not that it’s based on a badly written best seller about kinky sex. What’s important is that the novel began life as “Twilight” fan fiction. That tells you everything you need to know. It’s about teasing and yearning and holding back and getting to the end leaving you wanting to know what happens next.

Oh, there’s kinky sex. The story is about Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), a college literature major who meets the mysterious Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) when she substitutes for her roommate Carka (Jennifer Ehle) to interview him for the school paper. He’s hot and rich and has a certain aura about him, so naturally she’s attracted. For some reason he finds her attractive and starts finding ways to see her.

It’s not revealing any big secret that when things get physical his tastes are somewhat different. He’s not interested in “making love,” he’s interested in control. That may involve somewhat traditional sex, or it may involve her being tied up, or it might involve some of the toys in his playroom, which includes floggers, whips, and ropes.

This has led to all sorts of misguided controversy about the film which mostly misses the point. The key to these kinds of relationships is consent, and the movie scrupulously makes the point that not only does Anastasia consent to the various things that happen, but that Christian both respects her limits and is clear that she has the right to refuse at any point. On that score the movie is firmly in the “No means no” camp.

On the other hand, we don’t get the sense that either of them are getting anything but momentary pleasure from any of this. Anastasia may be submissive, but she’s clearly indulging Christian’s desires, not following her own. As for Christian, he seems more like someone who would love to lead a “normal” life, but because of some mysterious thing or things in his past, is now unable to do so.

This is where the film falls apart. We learn little about what motivates these characters or why we should care about them. For all the kinky sex, this is more about the yearning and unrequited love and the result is rather dull. This didn’t stop the “Twilight” books and movies from being big hits, and probably won’t prevent this one from cashing in either. Johnson and Dornan are both young and attractive but are given little to play. He broods. She seems to get off on the spanking and the tying up but eventually finds the relationship lacking. Where can the story go? No spoilers, but there are two sequel books.

Indeed, as with “Twilight,” the books were best sellers which means this movie has a built in audience waiting to see it. If, as expected, it’s a big success, filming the sequels is inevitable. What’s more, given the way Hollywood operates, expect the eventual announcement that the third book will be released as two films.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts

Review – Come Together

Directed by Steve Ison and John Scofield. No MPAA rating. 52 minutes.

It’s been kicking around for a few years, but the short and sweet documentary COME TOGETHER about Beatles tribute bands converging–coming together–for the annual Mathew Street Festival in Liverpool finally gets a Stateside release. It’s a light and fluffy look at the international phenomenon (there are reportedly upward of 8,000 Beatles tribute bands), but the film stands as proof that there’s always room for something else about the four Liverpool lads who changed the heart and soul of pop culture.

With on-camera narration by John Lennon’s younger sister, Julia Beard, who comes across a bit stiffly as part-historian, part-Liverpool tour guide, the film features quick glimpses of a number of bands that made the trek to play at the outdoor fest, both in performance and backstage, and of the throngs of adoring fans.

Among the bands donning the grey suits or the black suits or the Sgt. Pepper costumes, and playing the same makes and models of instruments as John-Paul-George-Ringo (different “Georges” give some love to Harrison’s sound on the Gretsch Country Gentleman and the Rickenbacker 12-string that he favored) are: The Fab Four (Las Vegas), The Mersey Beatles (Liverpool), Pepperland (Gothenburg), The Repeatles (Stockholm), 1964: The Tribute (Akron), The Aspreys (Tokyo), and the all-girl group The Beatelles (Liverpool). An added treat is an appearance by a fellow named Jerry Hobin, who does a credible impersonation of Ed Sullivan.

But the filmmakers and the musicians they interview make sure to point out that these bands aren’t simply imitating the Beatles. They’re paying homage to them. Some players talk of the frustration felt because of the stigma attached of being impersonators, while others proudly say that they make sure to include some of the rawness that was heard in early Beatles performances.

The challenge, says one of them, is to sound authentic. And most of them do, mostly on the instrumental side of things. Some come close vocally, but with the exception of a lovely a cappella section of “Because” by Pepperland, you’re not really going to mistake anyone here for The Beatles. Truth be told, a couple of them don’t even come close.

But everyone is into the spirit of it all. And everyone makes sure to fill their sets with the hits that everyone in the crowd knows. Though some go deeper. One group covers the rarely heard “The Word” from “Rubber Soul,” while another brings along a string quartet to accompany them on “Eleanor Rigby.” The Beatelles don’t worry about the fact that they’re females paying tribute to a male band. One of them even points out that “we add our own arrangements” to songs such as “I Dig a Pony” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.”

The best moment is when members of the Mersey Beatles are seen casually brushing out, then donning their Beatle wigs. The best band is the non-English-speaking Aspreys (wait till you hear where they got their name), who learned all the lyrics phonetically, and whose drummer says, in Japanese, “I have a stiff neck from shaking my head like Ringo.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Ed Symkus has been reviewing and writing about films since 1975. His favorite one is “And Now My Love.” The one he despises most is “Liquid Sky.” He lives in West Roxbury.

Review – Jupiter Ascending

With Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Written and directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity. 127 minutes.

JUPITER ASCENDING is a lot like “John Carter” (2012) and that’s meant as a compliment, not an insult. Sure to be dismissed as a “special effects-laden science fiction movie” by critics who don’t know much about the genre, it is, in fact, an imaginative and exciting space opera.

“Space opera” is essentially a story with a lot of science fiction trappings–spaceships, robots, aliens–but which owes just as much to its fantasy elements. Not derived from any comic books characters, it is a fairy tale in which a fatherless young woman finds out that she may be one of the most important people in the universe. With various factions trying either to kill her or save her, she comes to discover the strength to face these challenges within herself.

Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones, whose Russian émigré family ekes out a modest living as housecleaners (cue repeated shots of her scouring toilets). One day she finds herself under attack by strange aliens, and rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a part wolf/part human who has been hired by a member of the wealthy Abrasax family. As is slowly revealed, her unique genetic inheritance puts her in line to literally own the planet Earth, something that the three Abrasax siblings (Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppance Middleton) each want for themselves.

Why? That would be telling, but since this is written and directed by the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, who were responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy, you know it’s not going to be good for most of humanity. Jupiter is the wild card in the proceedings, not quite sure why people like Stinger (Sean Bean) call her “majesty,” but learning not to be bowled over by the smooth manners and fantastic tech she’s exposed to on her journey.

Visually, the film is stunning, with creativity going into character design as well as art direction. We’re constantly being amazed by spaceships and devices, as well as the increasingly bizarre outfits that Jupiter finds herself required to wear. The fight scenes are equally impressive but since this is fantasy and not hard science, you’d do well to leave your knowledge of physics, astronomy, biology, etcetera at home.

This is not a serious–well, too-serious–statement on the human condition, along the line of, say,  “Blade Runner” or “Gattaca.” This is more like “Star Wars” or the aforementioned “John Carter.” Go with it. If you still have a sense of wonder with which a popcorn movie like “Jupiter Ascending” can connect, you’ll have a good time.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Seventh Son

With Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges,
Djimon Hounsou, Olivia Williams. Written Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight Directed by Sergei Bodrov. Rated PG-13 for intense fantasy violence and action throughout, frightening images and brief strong language. 102 minutes.

There’s a moment early on in SEVENTH SON when a group of medieval townspeople are taking a young woman to be burned while shouting, “She’s a witch!” The only thing that might have saved this pedestrian excuse for a fantasy film is if one of them announced, “She turned me into a newt!” Alas, there’s no “Monty Python” humor here, just a trite collection of clichés and solid, if not particularly overwhelming, special effects.

Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) is the “seventh son of a seventh son” and we’re just supposed to assume this is significant, for its importance is never explained. He has visions of the future, so that when Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) arrives to claim him, Tom tells his mother (Olivia Williams) that he’s destined to join the “Spook” in his hunt for witches. We know that Gregory’s last apprentice came to an untimely end from an encounter with Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), the recently-escaped queen of the witches.

Much of the film is about Tom’s apprenticeship as Yoda–excuse me, Master Gregory–teaches him various things in a gruff and confusing way (as Jeff Bridges is recently wont to do). The point of the story is less whether good will triumph over evil (do you have any doubt?) than whether Gandalf–pardon, Master Gregory–will decide that Tom is finally worthy to take on the task of fighting witches.

Complicating matters is Alice (Alicia Vikander), the accused witch, whom Tom rescues. Is she really a witch? Does Tom’s affection mean he will fail as Merlin’s–sorry, Master Gregory’s–student? And why should anyone in the audience care?

That is the real problem with the film. The story is so familiar that even if you haven’t read Joseph Delaney’s “The Spook’s Apprentice” (the film’s source material) you’re never surprised by what happens. Indeed, when we meet Malkin’s cohorts, you can predict the order in which they will die. (Bet on Djimon Hounsou–whose credits including “Gladiator” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”–to stick around for a while.)

Ben Barnes is sufficiently callow as Tom but doesn’t make us want to root for him, and Oscar-watchers who only know Julianne Moore from this may be surprised if she snags the Best Actress Oscar for “Still Alice,” as expected. You wouldn’t know she’s a first class actress from this. As for Jeff Bridges, what is there to say? After having finally won his Oscar, he just doesn’t seem to care anymore. His hammy turns in recent movies like “The Giver” and “R.I.P.D.” makes you wonder why he’s still bothering to make movies. “Seventh Son” provides the answer: for the money.

Perhaps he needs the money. It’s your decision whether you want to give him yours.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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