REVIEW: “Focus”

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I can’t say I have always shared the general enthusiasm for Will Smith’s movies or his performances. It’s not that he is a bad actor. But, with a few exceptions, he often seems to play variations of the same type of guy. That is certainly not a problem for his fans who have made him a bonafide box office draw, but as someone who doesn’t always care for ‘that guy’ he plays, it can be a turn off.

Smith’s time on the big screen hasn’t been as prominent as during his heyday. He had at least one film (sometimes more) come out every year between 1995 and 2008. “Focus” ushers in a bit of a return to the starring spotlight and once again he is playing a variation of the same type of guy. He’s cool, stylish, cocky, and a bit of a wise guy. Sound familiar? Here he plays a dapper professional con-man with a seemingly endless amount of resources at his disposal. But more on that later.

 

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The story begins with Smith’s character, Nicky Spurgeon, being seduced and conned by a novice scammer named Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky isn’t fooled and he sees through her amateurish scheme. A few days later Jess approaches Nicky in dire straits begging to be his protegé. Nicky agrees and tests out her sticky fingers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Impressed by her success Nicky invites Jess to join his crew. A few good scores and a painfully predictable romance follows.

Nicky’s dad always taught him that business and pleasure don’t mix, so he drops Jess after realizing he was falling for her. But obviously the story doesn’t stop there and the two meet again three years later in Buenos Aires. Is it a chance meeting or doesn’t Jess have something up her sleeve? A web of twists, turns, deceptions, billionaires, parties, and race cars make up the second half of the story.

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There are times when “Focus” could be called a fashion extravaganza masquerading as a con-artist movie. Some scenes serve only as opportunities for the two stars to show off their good looks, nice physiques, and chic attire. This works well with the aforementioned typical Will Smith character. We get a lot of that here. It’s interesting that the film’s best scene features Smith casting aside that persona and showing us a vulnerable and intensely human side of his character. I won’t build it up but you will know it when you see it.

Ultimately “Focus” is a movie stymied by its amoral vanity, its overload of mediocre twists and turns, and the lukewarm chemistry between Smith and Robbie. If you view it through a very simple and straightforward lens you’ll notice a few fun moments. But it is never as cool or crafty as it tries to be and designer sunglasses, swanky sports jackets, and posh gowns only carry things so far. And even the movie’s title makes you wonder if you are the one being conned because there isn’t a lot of focus here.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2 Stars

REVIEW: “Z for Zachariah”

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The post-apocalypse has become one of the favorite settings for modern day filmmakers. Think about it. We’ve witnessed the aftermath of an earth ravaged by everything from nuclear war to energy depletion to zombie outbreaks. And while some may argue it has been done ad nauseam, I have to say I love it. It’s a setting that offers filmmakers opportunities to put human beings through a plethora of powerful emotional and relational situations.

So right off the bat “Z for Zachariah” places itself in this familiar setting. But the film, directed by Craig Zobel and based on a novel originally published in 1974, shows us several new things and quickly differentiates itself from the post-apocalyptic norm. Flickers of science fiction can occasionally be seen but for the most part it lingers in the background. Instead the film focuses on the most compelling and absorbing dynamic – human drama.

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The movie begins after what appears to be a nuclear holocaust. There is no widespread destruction or vast wastelands. Only emptiness and radiation – vacant mountain cities filled with remnants of a once vibrant past. It is here that we meet Ann (Margot Robbie) rummaging through a radiation-soaked town before heading back to her home – a farmhouse in a miraculously radiation-free pocket of territory high in the mountains. Ann is alone, surviving by working the same farmland as her father during her childhood. She also shares her father’s deep faith believing God has sheltered their land for His own purposes.

One day while out hunting Ann is stunned by what she sees – another human being. Roaming a winding mountain road in a radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his belongings is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). After a complicated first meeting, Ann brings John to the farm where he begins sharing in the work. John was a scientist and an engineer and is respectful of Ann’s beliefs and gracious for her hospitality. We watch as a unique human relationship is formed, each approaching it from very different walks of life. But things get complicated when a mysterious stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives; a veritable ‘third wheel’ who brings an entirely new set of emotional complexities to the relationships.

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This is the story Zobel seeks to tell. There are no mutated monsters, hordes of zombies, or packs of marauders. Simply three people dealing with their internal and external situations. They could just as well be the last people on Earth which adds a unique perspective to the story. Even in their incredible instances of survival, the basest and most primal human instincts still must be dealt with. And despite their miraculous situations, people will always birth conflict.

But Zobel and writer Nissar Modi look at these things through different lenses. For example there is a deep spiritual element that we see in Robbie’s character and through the rich symbolism sprinkled in the story. It allows for the pondering of several compelling points. But Loomis and Caleb bring interesting twists of perspective that ask a number of thoughtful questions. This was one of the many things that impressed me. Even in its simplicity, the story is an intelligent and nuanced exercise in human examination and internal exploration.

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And what a telling performance from Margot Robbie, an actress I had given little attention. She is sublime, turning in a beautifully delicate and stripped-down performance. She is the heart of the film and in many ways its frail moral compass. But right behind her is Ejiofor. In a sagacious performance he gives us the most layered and complex character of the film. Even Chris Pine, and actor who hasn’t always impressed me, is very good in giving us an interesting and cryptic third character. These three make up the entire cast and each deliver on a high level.

“Z for Zachariah” is a breath of fresh air, a post-apocalyptic morality yarn that may play out too slowly for some. It unwinds at a deliberate pace, patiently touching on its subjects while never spelling itself out. Yet there is such a satisfying effectiveness to the slowness. Zobel engages his audience not through the normal and expected genre machinations, but by peeling back revealing layers of humanity. Layers that, when examined by an honest eye, can sometimes be quite ugly. Personally, I found it fascinating.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS