Focus


Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an arresting couple.

(2015) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, Robert Taylor, Dotan Bonen, Griff Furst, Stephanie Honore, David Stanford, Dominic Fumusa, Steve Kim, Don Yesso, Juan Minujin, Jano Seitun, Melania Lenoir, Pietro Gian, Justina Bustos, Paola Brasca, Kate Adair . Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

Con artist movies are not the easiest things in the world to undertake. For one thing, we’ve all seen at least a few, from The Sting on down. It’s hard to fool veteran moviegoers and keeping the audience misdirected is the key to a successful con movie, or else the audience leaves the theater feeling as if it was they who had been conned.

Nicky (Smith) is a con artist and one of the best. He finds big sporting events – the Super Bowl, Championship Boxing matches, All-Star games – and basically invades those towns with a crew of pickpockets and thieves, using plants to distract and confuse while his light-fingered operatives steal wallets, jewelry, electronics – whatever items of value they can get their hands on. There are also the grifters who pose as aggrieved husbands and cheating wives in one of the oldest tricks in the book. Nicky and his crew can make a fortune.

Nicky has taken under his wing the lovely Jess (Robbie), an aspiring con artist who has natural talent at it but lacks the experience and some of the skills. Nicky teaches her that all of this is a matter of focus, keeping track of the lie and sticking with it. Die with the lie, he tells her when they meet when she tries unsuccessfully to swindle him. You can’t con a con man, after all.

However, when Nicky grows too fond of her, he abruptly pulls away. You can’t get too close to people in this game after all. You always have to keep your focus.

Three years later, Nicky is in the midst of working a con involving an experimental Grand Prix auto engine from a smarmy Brazilian billionaire (Santoro) with a curmudgeonly but deadly bodyguard (McRaney) when who walks into the picture? Jess, of course. Is she playing an angle or has she, as she claims, left the life and become the girlfriend of the billionaire? And what is Nicky’s angle? Who’s conning who?

Directors Ficarra and Requa also co-wrote the movie and while they have given us a slickly filmed opus with some nice visuals, there’s a good deal here that is lacking, particularly in the writing. Smith is in dire need of a hit and this isn’t likely to be it; despite the fact that he still has the charm and manner that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, audiences aren’t responding to it as much as they once did and this is the kind of script that really Smith should have passed on. He’s too good for this material.

Robbie is a star in the making. After garnering attention for her role as the trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street she shows that she has natural screen presence that holds up nicely to one of the most charismatic stars in the world which bodes well for her career. She and Smith in fact have a good chemistry, the sort that money can’t buy and their complex onscreen relationship works because of it. As I intimated, you’re never quite sure who’s conning who.

The supporting performances are strong here too, particularly from Wong who plays an Asian businessman with a penchant for gambling who gets into a battle of wills with Nicky, Martinez as the socially awkward best friend and obligatory computer genius, Brown as the captain of Nicky’s crew and McRaney at his gruff best. The acting isn’t the problem here.

The sequences of pickpockets working the Super Bowl crowd in New Orleans are artfully choreographed and fun to watch. The cinematography is nicely done as well, delivering a world that exists in the underbelly of night and on the fringes of the good life. It’s a believable looking film.

Where it goes off the rails is in the writing. For one thing, most veteran moviegoers should be able to predict what’s going to happen next without missing the mark which is a cardinal no-no in a movie like this. There are few really genuine left turns here and the movie suffers for it. There are also plenty of plot holes; the con of the Asian businessman is supposed to rely on subliminal persuasion but the explanation of them is unconvincing at best. The character development is sloppy and fairly stock for movies of this nature; one gets the sense that this is more of a compilation of con man films more than an original take on the subject, and characters often act out of character – Nicky at times for a hardened con man with a supposed heart of stone is awfully sentimental.

The movie works okay as strictly entertainment but it is eminently forgettable and won’t do much for the careers of Smith and Robbie, although they’re both pretty good here. It is typical of the kind of movies that are released in February; a cut above those that come out the month previous but in general flawed, sometimes deeply. This one is of the latter persuasion.

REASONS TO GO: Good chemistry between Robbie and Smith who make engaging leads. Some nice supporting performances as well, particularly from Wong, Martinez, McRaney and Brown. Nice choreography on pickpocket scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing really surprising here. Plenty of plot holes and “huh?” moments. Characters don’t really behave like how you would expect those sorts of people to behave.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, brief violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robbie and Smith will be co-starring again in next year’s Suicide Squad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grifters
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: What We Do in the Shadows

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Four-Warned: February 2015


Jupiter AscendingEvery month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Most of the movies will never play theatrically where you live (unless you live in either New York or Los Angeles) but many of those that won’t will be available through Video-on-Demand; check with your local cable or satellite providers to find out if any specific movie is available through that medium.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. JUPITER ASCENDING (1.0)
2. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (1.2)
3. FOCUS (1.6)
4. MC FARLAND (1.8)
TIE. THE SEVENTH SON (1.8)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANNE ANSALEM (1.4)
2. ALL THE WILDERNESS (1.5)
TIE. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (1.5)
4. BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER (1.6)
TIE. THE SALVATION (1.6)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

FEBRUARY 6, 2015

1971 (Maximum Films) Genre: Documentary. At the height of the Vietnam War, a group of ordinary citizens broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole documents only to mail them to newspapers, leading to the COINTELPRO investigation; their identities have never been revealed until now. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.4 In the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations, this is more relevant than ever.
3 NIGHTS IN THE DESERT (Monterey Media) Genre: Drama. Three former bandmates reunite for a three-night camping drip in the desert only to have old romantic entanglements rear their heads once again. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 A kind of indie rock mini-Big Chill with some gorgeous desert vistas thrown in.
BALLET 422 (Magnolia) Genre: Documentary. A look at the creative process within the New York City ballet as they craft their newest original work. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 A fascinating look at what goes on within one of America’s most elite and prestigious institutions.
BOY MEETS GIRL (Cinephile International) Genre: Romance. Three Kentucky young people, one a transgender, find that their friendship is being tested by sexual longing. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 Much respect for tackling modern romantic relationships without resorting to stereotypes.
CALL FOR HELP (The Orchard) Genre: Documentary. Details the story of the Global Disaster Immediate Response Team in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 Not sure what to make of this; will have to see the whole documentary to really form an opinion but could be something special.
ENTER THE DANGEROUS MIND (Variance) Genre: Psychological Thriller. A reclusive composer with a sizeable online following falls for a beautiful social worker but when his fragile mind breaks with the voices in his head growing louder and more destructive, her true devotion will be tested. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Looks pretty intense.
JUPITER ASCENDING (Warner Brothers) Genre: Science Fiction. The fate of the galaxy is in the hands of an insignificant human woman whose genetic code marks her as the heir to a mind-blowing empire. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D). RATING: 1.0 The Wachowskis have not had a hit in awhile but this might just be the one.
LISTEN (Mance) Genre: Science Fiction. After a man discovers that everyone has music inside them, he uses his discovery to find his own true love. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 Kind of an odd trailer but the premise has promise.
LOVE, ROSIE (The Film Arcade) Genre: Romantic Comedy. Two childhood best friends are separated through the years but keep reconnecting; is it just friendship or something more? Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 I’ve been wondering when Sam Claflin would be getting a lead role.
ONE SMALL HITCH (Freestyle Releasing) Genre: Romantic Comedy. Two childhood friends agree to pretend to be engaged to please a dying father but things quickly get out of hand. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 Wacky families, a wedding, a plethora of misunderstandings and a little white lie – haven’t we seen this one before?
THE OTHER MAN: F.W. DE KLERK AND THE END OF APARTHEID (First Run) Genre: Documentary. The story of the last president of apartheid South Africa and his role in ending the heinous policy. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 A fascinating look at the other side of the equation, seeing things from a viewpoint other than Mandela’s.
OUTCAST (eOne) Genre: Action. When a ruthless older brother takes the throne of China from the rightful heir, he seeks out a legendary bandit, the White Ghost, to help set things to rights. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.2 Another forgettable Nicolas Cage action movie.
PASS THE LIGHT (DigiNext) Genre: Faith. A high school student runs for Congress on a candidacy based on Christian love to face down a candidate running on exclusion and fear. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 4.0 Way too preachy for my tastes.
THE SEVENTH SON (Universal/Legendary) Genre: Fantasy. The last member of a mystical order seeks out a prophesied hero to stop an evil witch bent on ruling the world. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, 3D, IMAX). RATING: 1.8 Despite having Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in it, trailer didn’t impress me as being anything more than another hack fantasy film.
THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER (Paramount/Nickelodeon) Genre: Family. The denizens of an underwater world are forced to come to our world to save their own. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.7 For those who loved The Smurfs, this is for them; for those who hated it…
THE VOICES (Lionsgate) Genre: Horror Comedy. After being stood up for a date, a sweet but psychotic man begins to hear voices coming from his dog (good) and his cat (evil). Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 Weird in a satisfying kind of way; Ryan Reynolds and Anna Kendrick are two very appealing actors.

FEBRUARY 10, 2015

ACCIDENTAL LOVE (Millennium) Genre: Dramedy. After a freak accident with a nail gun turns an ordinary woman into a supercharged sexpot, she goes to Washington DC to campaign for health insurance relief since no company will cover her and ends up involved with a conniving politician with his own agenda. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 Despite a strong cast, this one turned out so great that David O. Russell, who directed it, took his name off of it.

FEBRUARY 13, 2015

50 SHADES OF GREY (Focus) Genre: Drama. The sexuality of a repressed college student is opened up by a 27-year-old billionaire. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.4 While mommies are entitled to their bondage fantasies, this soft-core story looks like a Cinemax adult film for the big screen which doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me.
BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER (The Cinema Guild) Genre: Documentary. Jewish inmates of concentration camps made secret drawings and paintings which reveal daily life in the camps more vividly than any words ever could. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.6 As we pass the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz it behooves us to look back so that we might be reminded of the need to remember.
DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (Gravitas) Genre: Horror. When a scientist discovers an ancient African artifact, he is infected with a cursed thirst for blood. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 The latest Spike Lee joint is his first foray into horror, but the trailer looked a bit…ummm…disjointed.
GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANNE ANSALEM (Music Box) Genre: Drama. Trapped in a loveless marriage, an Israeli woman fights for a divorce that must be approved in a rabbinical court but requires full cooperation of her husband who is intransigent. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 A gripping courtroom drama as well as a relationship story; A Golden Globe nominee.
GIRL HOUSE (eOne) Genre: Horror. Trying to make some extra cash for college, a young co-ed moves into a house where X-rated video is streamed out but when a demented fan hacks into the system, she finds herself in a fight for her life. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Sort of a standard slasher film with a 21st century twist.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (20th Century Fox) Genre: Spy Action. An erudite and cultured operative for a secret espionage organization takes a street kid under his wing just as a global threat from an insane tech genius emerges. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.2 Matthew Vaughn is one of my favorite directors and Colin Firth looks to be a great spy in the John Steed mold.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS (Radius) Genre: Musical. The five years of a relationship and marriage is told through song in a unique fashion; the woman’s point of view begins at the end of the marriage whereas the man’s begins at the beginning of the affair; they meet in the middle when he proposes. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 Really intriguing concept but the songs I heard on the trailer didn’t impress me.
OLD FASHIONED (Freestyle) Genre: Romance. A free spirited young woman and a more socially conservative young man with a checkered past develop a relationship. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.0 The trailer makes it out to be a kind of anti-50 Shades but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of cliches.
PLAYING IT COOL (Vertical) Genre: Romance. Trying to write a romance, a screenwriter’s own limited jaded experience are making it impossible so he turns to his friends to see if their experiences can help him write the ultimate romance. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 Could be very powerful but the trailer was awfully talky.
THE RE-WRITE (RLJ/Image) Genre: Comedy. A burned-out screenwriter takes a teaching job in an upstate New York college and instead of working on his own screenplay becomes invested in the work of his students. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.6 Kinda looks sweet and the cast, led by Hugh Grant, is stellar.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Paladin/Unison) Genre: Horror Comedy. Vampires living together in a flat invite a documentary crew to chronicle their daily lives. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.5 Some very funny stuff from the people behind Flight of the Conchords.
WYRMWOOD (IFC Midnight) Genre: Sci-Fi Action. When an infection turns all the people around him into marauding zombies, an ordinary mechanic soups up his car into a mean machine and takes to the wasteland. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 A turbo-charged Aussie Mad Max meets Day of the Dead.

FEBRUARY 18, 2015

QUEEN AND COUNTRY (BBC America Worldwide) Genre: Drama. Having survived growing up during the London Blitz, a young man is conscripted into the British army and sent to Korea. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 A sequel to John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical Hope and Glory.

FEBRUARY 20, 2015

ALL THE WILDERNESS (Screen Media) Genre: Drama. A young man with deep psychological problems retreats into a world of darkness but glimmers of light appear in the form of a girl he’s fond of and a mysterious young boy who takes him into a strange city. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.5 The trailer looks visually impressive.
BLACKBIRD (RLJ/Image) Genre: Drama. When his dad abandons them, a teen boy must take care of his emotionally disturbed mother while hiding a secret of his own. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Takes on the ongoing struggle between being who others expect you to be and being who you are.
DIGGING UP THE MARROW (RLJ/Image) Genre: Horror. A documentary filmmaker is contacted by a man who says he can prove monsters are real and gets a lot more than he bargains for. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 Based on the art of Alex Pardee, looks like an inventive horror film with a unique look.
THE DUFF (CBS) Genre: Teen Comedy. It stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” and when a high school senior discovers that she carries this designation, she decides to rehabilitate her image. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 This could either end up a typical teen comedy or one that actually has something to say.
GLORIA (Picturehouse) Genre: Musical Biography. Latin American pop star Gloria Trevi has had a checkered career but has faced every adversity she’s encountered and emerged triumphant. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 Looks like a fairly standard musical biopic about a performer not well known outside the Latin community, although there is a certain kind of 80s spunkiness with some fairly lurid overtones.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 (Paramount/MGM) Genre: Sci-Fi Comedy. In this sequel, the boys use their hot tub time machine to go back and change things for their better but each time they go back, they make things worse. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.4 I’m not sure this will work as well without John Cusack, although Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Gregg are fine comedians.
MCFARLAND USA (Disney) Genre: True Life Sports. In a California farming community, Hispanic farm workers make up the bulk of a high school and have no real shot at the American dream until a cross country coach comes along and pushes them farther than they thought they could ever go. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.8 Kevin Costner seems to be at his finest in these underdog sports movies.
TREEHOUSE (Uncork’d) Genre: Horror. Two teenage boys discover a missing girl in a treehouse and become part of her fight to keep an unimaginable evil from entering our world. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.8 Looks intensely creepy but doesn’t seem to be too terribly original from what I could tell.
WILD TALES (Sony Classics) Genre: Thriller. Disparate people cross the line between civilization and barbarism as they give in to the pleasure of losing control. Release Strategy: New York City/Los Angeles. RATING: 2.7 This Spanish movie looks to be heavily influenced by Pedro Almodovar.

FEBRUARY 25, 2015

FAREWELL TO HOLLYWOOD (International Film Circuit) Genre: Documentary. A young woman’s video diary meant for her soulmate shows the effect of art on her life as she fights the cancer that will eventually take her life. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 The trailer is oddly moving and uplifting at once; could be a sleeper.
WILD CANARIES (Sundance Selects) Genre: Comedy. When their neighbor in a Brooklyn rent-controlled apartment suddenly drops dead, a couple suspect foul play. Release Strategy: New York City (opens in Los Angeles March 6). RATING: 2.5 Sounds intriguing but was unable to find a trailer online for it.
WORLD CIRCUS (FilmBuff) Genre: Documentary. In Monte Carlo, circus performers vie for the highest awards their profession gives out. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.7 Appeals to the kid in all of us who loves the circus.

FEBRUARY 27, 2015

’71 (Roadside Attractions) Genre: Action. Accidentally abandoned by his squad in Belfast in 1971, a British soldier struggles to make it back to his barracks over the course of a deadly night. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 A soldier caught behind enemy lines always makes for compelling drama.
A LA MALA (Pantelion) Genre: Romantic Comedy. An aspiring actress is persuaded to flirt with her best friend’s boyfriend to test his fidelity which becomes a lucrative business for suspicious women all over town – until she falls in love with one of her marks. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 While we’ve seen rom-coms with similar themes, the Latin twist makes it intoxicating.
BLUEBIRD (Factory 25) Genre: Drama. When a Maine school bus driver fails to notice a child sleeping in the back of his bus, the consequences are enormous. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.0 Set in a frigid winter setting in Maine, the trailer looks bleak and cold but with a lot of passion burning through.
DELI MAN: THE MOVIE (Cohen Media Group) Genre: Documentary. Ziggy Gruber is a third generation deli man with lox running through his veins and corned beef in his heart; he explores not only his life behind the counter but the joys of delicatessens everywhere. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 Suddenly I have an intense craving for pastrami.
EASTERN BOYS (First Run) Genre: Drama. Illegal immigrants from the Ukraine to Paris band together for support; when one is picked up by a gay Parisian man for sex, he figures he’s doing what he must to survive, but the relationship spirals into something more profound and dangerous. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 Sometimes anonymous pickups can be something else entirely.
EVERLY (Radius) Genre: Action. A mob boss, furious at his ex-girlfriend, sends assassins to take her out but she has some skills of her own as it turns out. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.8 Salma Hayek is one of the most beautiful women in the world and she makes a terrific action star.
FOCUS (Warner Brothers) Genre: Drama. In the midst of one of his most dangerous and complex cons, a grifter has his game thrown off by the appearance of a former girlfriend who is also his former protégé. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 1.6 I’d see Will Smith in just about anything, although he has been in the throes of a dry spell as of late.
FUTURO BEACH (Strand) Genre: Drama. After failing to save a drowning man, a would-be rescuer decides to start his life over in Berlin but his past doggedly follows him. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Gorgeously shot, this is a Brazilian film about a man’s search for his own identity.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT (Relativity) Genre: Horror. During an experiment on bringing dead animals back to life, a researcher accidently is electrocuted, then brought back to life – but she’s not the same anymore. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.2 We’ve seen this kind of thing before but damn if it doesn’t scare the beejezus out of me every time.
MAPS TO THE STARS (Focus) Genre: Thriller. When a renowned Hollywood actress takes on the role that her mother – who died in a fire – made famous, she is haunted by a young woman who may or may not be her late mom. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.1 Director David Cronenberg takes on a type of supernatural movie that up until now he hasn’t tackled.
OUT OF THE DARK (Vertical) Genre: Horror. Having relocated to a new life in South America, a young American family take possession of a house which is already possessed – and not by anything good, spiritually speaking. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 Strong cast and some strong scares – who could ask for anything more?
THE SALVATION (IFC) Genre: Western. After a peaceful settler takes revenge on the men who killed his family, a local outlaw gang leader decides to get his own brand of justice; with the corrupt and cowardly townsfolk turning their back on him, the settler will have to kill the entire gang if he is to find peace. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.6 Terrific cast includes the great Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a scar-faced Eva Green.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
Jupiter Ascending, The Seventh Son, What We Do in the Shadows, 50 Shades of Grey, Kingsman: The Secret Service, The DUFF, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, McFarland USA, Focus, The Lazarus Effect, Maps to the Stars

The Eagle


The Eagle

Tahar Rahim checks to make sure Channing Tatum isn't carved of wood as Jamie Bell looks on indistinctly.

(2011) Swords and Sandals (Focus) Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, Lukacs Bicskey, Dakin Matthews, Tahar Rahim, Pip Carter, Simon Paisley Day, Aladar Lakloth, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

It is said that in 117 A.D., the Ninth Legion of Rome marched into the wilds of Caledonia on a mission to expand the Empire. They were never seen again, nor was their standard, a golden Eagle that represents Imperial Rome.

It is 20 years later and the son of the commander of that ill-fated expedition, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) has requesting a posting for his first command in Briton. His identity doesn’t sit well with the men but they follow him resolutely like good Romans, particularly his second-in-command Lutorius (O’Hare). When Marcus seemingly uses psychic powers to detect a raid on the outpost and saves the men from annihilation, he gets the admiration of his men. When he is severely injured in the melee, he is given a commendation. He is also discharged from the army.

He recovers at the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Sutherland), who regales him with stories of his father. While recuperating, he attends some gladiatorial games and witnesses the bravery of a slave sent out to fight a gladiator. When the slave Esca (Bell) refuses to fight, Marcus is impressed and urges the mob to spare him which they do. As a reward, Aquila buys the slave for Marcus. 

When word reaches them that the Eagle of the Ninth has been sighted in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Marcus decides to go – not with an army behind him, but just him and the slave who has said that he hates all Romans, including Marcus. There they will go where no Roman dares go – master and slave, neither one trusting the other. Together they will find the truth of the fate of the Ninth – and restore the family name of Aquila, or die in the attempt. 

Kevin Macdonald has directed Oscar nominees (The Last King of Scotland) and Oscar winners (One Day in September). This will be neither. What it turns out to be is an old-fashioned action adventure film with a nice historical perspective – it is rumored that the Ninth Legion disappeared around that time, although there are some facts that dispute it.  There is a minimum of CGI and no cast of thousands here. Most of the battle scenes take place amidst a very few soldiers, and we get no sense of vast numbers here. All this makes for a fairly intimate setting as epics go.

Tatum is not known to be among Hollywood’s most revered actors, although he has shown some promise in films like Stop/Loss. Too often he gets cast as the hunky action hero and that appears to be more or less his speed, at least as far as Hollywood’s concerned; something tells me he has a lot more to offer, given the right role. Here he does the strong silent type, although he seems to be trying to affect an English accent which slips in and out somewhat unfortunately. It’s distracting and I would have preferred he retain his American accent had I been directing.  

The master-slave relationship is at the crux of the movie, and fortunately Bell and Tatum make a good team. Bell is another young British actor who I foresee good things happening from in the near future; while this movie isn’t likely to catapult his career forward, at least it isn’t setting it back either. His performance is strong and competent.

Also of note is Rahim as the leader of the Seal People, a tribe of Celts in northern Caledonia. Some might remember him from A Prophet as the young Franco-Arab sent to prison but here he is the nominal villain, and yet he engenders such sympathy that you almost wind up rooting for him in spite of yourself. That’s the definition of a great movie villain in my book. 

If you are looking for the fairer sex here, look elsewhere. There are few women seen in anything other than as extras, mostly looking at Tatum and Bell lustfully. This is most certainly a man’s world and we are just passing through. I’m not sure that it helped the movie any – I for one like having both sexes present in a movie – but I suppose it made a sort of sense that the women took a backseat in this film.

That’s kind of odd too, because the novel the movie was based on, “The Eagle of the Ninth,” was written by Rosemary Sutcliff back in 1954 and she by all accounts was all woman. While some more ignorant critics have labeled the source material a children’s book (and Sutcliff wrote a great many of those), it was in fact not specifically aimed at children and is a good read for young and old alike.

The movie differs from the book in a number of very basic and fundamental ways so purists beware. One of the more basic tangents is the relationship of Esca and Marcus which is less a factor in the book than it is in the movie. I like the movie’s interpretation of it, although the thought of a patrician Roman and a lowly British slave becoming friends…not likely.  

Still it’s that chemistry that drives the movie and while it reeks of old-fashioned Hollywood smarm, it’s still effective in an era that tends to choose flash and glitter over story. The Eagle doesn’t necessarily blow one away visually, but the story and the underlying adventure are a bit of a breath of fresh air. For those who are fond of saying they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, here’s living proof that they can and they do.

REASONS TO GO: Good buddy dynamic between Tatum and Bell. Some nice adventure action and an authentic looking Roman setting.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit on the pedestrian side and the lack of women in the film is a bit off-putting but not as much as Tatum’s attempt at an accent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle violence and a few images that might be disturbing to the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family name of the main character is Aquila, which is Latin for “eagle.”

HOME OR THEATER: There are some battle scenes and wilderness shots that certainly will look nifty on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Just Go With It

Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading

George Clooney and Frances McDormand find more to laugh about than I did.

(Focus) John Malkovich, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, Olek Krupa. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The only thing in Washington easier to find than a crooked politician is someone else’s secrets. There are few towns in the world with more skeletons in more closets than D.C.

Osborne Cox (Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who is given his walking papers. Judging from his reaction, we can safely assume it was because of his people skills, although actually it was because of his alcohol abuse which led to the erosion of his people skills.

Cox, a self-righteous prig when he’s sober and a mean-tempered bastard when he’s not, decides to write his memoirs, which predictably are completely uninteresting to anybody but Osborne. His wife, Katie (Swinton) who’s the kind of dentist who scars kids for life over tooth hygiene, is thoroughly disgusted. She’s been having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a U.S. marshal who’s never fired his weapon and a wannabe lothario. His marriage to a children’s book author is a thing of boredom, and not only is he sleeping with Kate, he’s using a variety of dating services to fill up his remaining days while she’s on a book tour.

Kate, a true bitch (and maybe the reason Osborne drinks so much), is dead-set on divorcing her husband and taking as much as humanly possible for herself. At the behest of her divorce lawyer, she loads all the financial information for the household onto a CD-ROM which, as it happens, also has the first draft of Osborne’s memoirs on it. She gives this disk to her lawyer’s secretary, who promptly loses it at her gym.

This gym has quite possibly the world’s most knuckleheaded employees at any gym anywhere. Linda Litzke (McDormand) is an administrator who desperately wants surgery to enhance her face and figure; her romantic life has been an utter disaster and she’s tired of being alone. Chad (Pitt) is just a knucklehead who actually looks at the contents of the disk and deduces that it’s “spy shit.” He gives the disk to a friend who is knowledgeable about computers and is able to deduce that the source of the disk is one Osborne Cox.

Linda sees this as an opportunity to make enough money to be able to pay for the surgeries her insurance won’t cover (“Elective? My doctor signed off on it!”) and that her harried but smitten manager (Jenkins) doesn’t think she needs. They call Osborne, hoping that he will be so gratified to get the disk back that he’ll give them a generous reward.

He instead gives Chad a bloody nose and an earful of invective. Linda, by now sleeping with Harry, decides to take the obviously valuable disk to the Russians, where a disinterested functionary (Krupa) promises to look into it. In the meantime, Chad decides to do a little reconnoitering in Osborne’s house, not realizing that Osborne has been tossed out on his ear by Katie. Then, things get really complicated.

The Coen brothers are known for their slightly bent perspective and quirky sense of humor. Usually they keep the quirkiness reined in to a dull roar, but here it overwhelms the story to the point where it becomes annoying. The characters are all so unlikable that you actually don’t care what happens to any of them, not even Linda who is self-centered and a bit stupid.

That’s not to say that this fine cast doesn’t do a fine job. Clooney and McDormand are two of the Coens’ favorites, and they both turn in sterling performances. In fact, most of this cast does. Malkovich is a it over-the-top as only Malkovich can do it, but he plays one of the most disagreeable louts you’ll ever meet covered with a veneer of civility that is a patent falsehood. He may be well-educated and upper-crust but he’s still just another S.O.B. drowning in his own bottle.

There is a lot of swearing in this movie. A whole lot. I’m not usually prudish about such things, but those who are ought to give this a wide berth. Still, it is a Coen Brothers movie, which means it’s well written, well-acted and professionally filmed and always interesting. Still, even their least efforts are better than the best of most other directors. This ain’t no Fargo but it has enough moments to make it worth your while.

WHY RENT THIS: Malkovich is over-the-top in a good way. Uniformly good acting throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unusually for the Coens, the story isn’t very compelling and so daffy that it doesn’t resonate as much.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a ton of “F” bombs dropped here, particularly by Malkovich’s character. There is a graphic murder as well as a rather explicit sex machine that is…well, see for yourself. In any case, this is REALLY rated R.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Coen Brothers movie without cinematographer Roger Deakins since 1990; he was busy filming Revolutionary Road.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sunshine Cleaning

9


 

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

9 battles the terrifying Fabrication Machine in a bleak post-apocalyptic world.

(Focus) Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Alan Oppenheimer, Fred Tatasciore, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson. Directed by Shane Acker

Is our humanity found in the skin and bones we inhabit, or something else which resides within? And, once those skin and bones are gone, what becomes of humanity?

The future is a bleak place. Humankind is gone, wiped out by machines of their own making. The world is empty, devoid of any living thing, a monument to the hubris of our kind.

And yet, life perseveres. A rag doll awakens in a laboratory, ocular goggles blinking owlishly at a world he can’t understand. He has no name, only a number painstakingly painted on his back; the number 9 (Wood). As he gazes quizzically at the world around him, he notices movement; a doll, much like himself. Curious (and voiceless), he runs out into the ruined streets, past the body of an elderly human man.

The other rag doll sees the fear in 9 and gently tells him “I’m a friend.” He finds a speaker so that 9 might have voice. He is 2 (Landau), a wise rag doll out looking for an artifact, one that 9 happens to have with him. 2’s joy at finding the artifact is short-lived as they are attacked by the Beast, a cat-like machine that takes 2 and the artifact with it. 9 runs away and is found by 5 (Reilly) who had been looking for 2.

5 brings 9 to the Sanctuary, where their pope-like leader 1 (Plummer) interrogates 9 before accepting him into their small band, which includes the prophet-like 6 (Glover) and the large, bullying 8 (Tatasciore). 9, however, can’t accept just leaving 2 to his fate and convinces 5 to go with him on a rescue mission.

They go to an abandoned factory where the Beast has locked 2 in a birdcage. The Beast is occupied with the artift, allowing 9 and 5 to rescue 2, but the Beast attacks. They are saved by 7 (Connelly), a rebellious rag doll who had left the Sanctuary to fight back against the Beast. Unfortunately, 9 inadvertently awakens something far more dangerous than the Beast and must convince the remaining rag dolls that they must fight together against the thing that wants them destroyed.

This is based on a short film Acker directed several years ago that made the film festival circuit (Da Queen and I first encountered it at the Florida Film Festival and were extremely impressed). The short was silent and extremely well-made. So, too, is this well-animated but the story is a little less focused. This seems more like an action movie done as animated CGI, whereas the Short was something new entirely.

The imagery is definitely the reason to go see this. The ruined world is one of newsreels, vaguely Eastern European architecture and an almost steampunk sensibility, science fiction that shows the past as future. The mechanized creatures are terrifying, so much so that I wouldn’t recommend small children go and see this. The rag dolls have distinct personalities, from the fearful 1 to the inquisitive 9. Each seems to have a specific purpose, although it isn’t clear whether that was intentional or not. That is one of the maddening elements of the story.

I don’t mind a story that requires viewers to connect the dots – I encourage it as I think sometimes our intellect needs pleasing as well as our sense of wonder. However, if you’re going to do that, you do need to provide dots for us to connect. The feature is only 79 minutes long – barely over an hour – and I thought it could have used another 10-15 minutes to give a bit more backstory, particularly in regards to the Scientist (Oppenheimer) and his intentions.

I liked the movie enough to recommend it, especially due to the vocal performances which are wonderful, and the visuals which are breathtaking. As bleak as the world of 9 is, it is still a world worth exploring. I just would have wished that Acker and producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) would have given us more to explore.

REASONS TO GO: Acker has created a breathtaking visual world that is worth exploring. The voice actors give each doll a distinct personality.

REASONS TO STAY: It seems like whole parts of the story are missing, particularly the backstory of the Scientist.

FAMILY VALUES: Terrifying mechanical monsters make this a no-no for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sanctuary that 1 leads the characters to is based on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, famously the sanctuary of the Hunchback.

HOME OR THEATER: I would see it in a theater just for the experience of the visuals.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Standard Operating Procedure