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

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…