Wednesday 23 August 2017

Cinema reviews: Focus - not as clever as it aims to be

Focus 15A

Focus - which stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is nowhere near as clever as it aims to be.
Focus - which stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie, is nowhere near as clever as it aims to be.
Stars of India: Maggie Smith and Richard Gere
Hardly a computer geek: Chris Hemsworth
Under siege: Jennifer Lopez is competent as the yummy mummy whose life is made hell, but The Boy Next Door is hopeless

Hilary A White, Padraic McKiernan and Aine O'Connor

Warner Brothers has held a tight rein on reviews of Will Smith's latest star vehicle, embargoing, with great success, all reviews until last Wednesday. Such a tight rein generally suggests that someone is trying to generate momentum, desire to see the film and keep a lid on reviews because they are unlikely to be favourable. And that is the case here.

Smith plays conman Nicky who is targeted by fledgling conwoman Jess (Margot Robbie) who wants to work with him on bigger jobs. Nicky's refusal is all part of a test which Jess passes and they, as part of a large team, embark on a big scamfest in New Orleans. The couple begins a romance which both profess to feel unique, but Nicky hasn't given up all his secrets yet.

They meet again some years later in Buenos Aires, both having moved on but their attraction remains, or does it?

What starts off as an intriguing enough if poorly scripted heist-ish comedy in the vein of one of the dodgier Ocean's sequels slides into a spiral of too many tricks that just ends up getting tedious. It's good to see an interracial romance and Smith's physical appeal is as mined as Robbie's is, he even spends a good deal more time with his top off than she does. But the film, written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra who also brought you Bad Santa and I Love You Philip Morris, is nowhere near as clever as aims to be.

Robbie seems more invested in delivering a performance than Smith who perhaps realised at some point it wasn't working. That review embargo was probably a good idea.

AO'C

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Editor's pick: Paper Souls

 Cert Club

The mantra is often that we should write about what we know. For those behind  movie screenplays, where better to start then than with themselves? Thus films about writers are a regular occurrence in movieland, and with frequency comes variability in the shape of both the sublime (Wonder Boys, Barton Fink, Adaptation) and the god-awful (Third Person). 

Despite its inclinations towards metaphysical whimsy, Paper Souls is a nice addition to the more respectable side of the canon. Director Vincent Lannoo takes the oft-trodden path of a writer who's down on his luck arcing towards rebirth and redemption. In this case, it's Parisian Paul (Stephane Guillon) who cannot repeat his early success as a novelist and is now reduced to penning funeral eulogies for strangers. Beautiful widow Emma (Julie Gayet) appears before him, asking for something to be written about her late war-photographer husband that will help her young son connect with his dad.

A bond begins to form between Paul and Emma, and just as it seems like a new start is on the cards for both parties, Emma's husband (Jonathan Zaccai) turns up inexplicably at Paul's door with no memory of who he is. Paul's conscience and desire go to war with one another.

Lannoo's film is cheerfully touching stuff, a soft-centred and chucklesome Gallic soiree peopled by wonderfully vibrant characters (Pierre Richard steals the show as Paul's mischievous bookworm neighbour).

Buttressing the romance, humour and redemption is a sprinkling of childhood magic that provides a high charm quotient central to its appeal.

HAW

Exclusively at IFI

It Follows

Cert 16

When The Babadook last year breathed new life into the decidedly stale demonic possession genre, critics joined lovers of frights and deep chills to tremble with appreciation in cinemas. Horror was returning to its roots, looking inwards for scares rather than at CGI cartoons or camp make-up. The metaphor behind the macabre was making a return.

It Follows continues the purple patch, and in this case (it would appear) that sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy and fear of impending adulthood are the psychological monsters getting whisked into the metaphorical batter. How quaint.

Indie actress of the moment Maika Monroe is Jay, a 19-year-old who is the apple of many local boys' eye in her neighbourhood. But following a date and a back-seat romp with a new beau, she suddenly awakes to find herself tied to a chair with her suitor talking her through the new demonic presence that their intercourse has now passed on to her.

As the title suggests, malevolent spirits immediately begin stalking Jay across her US suburban landscape, walking in straight and blood-chilling lines that can be seen only by her. A small motley bunch of sisters and friends forms around her to help her elude the mysterious evil, but never far away is the lurking feeling that hormonal teenagers might not be the best thinkers in the plight of a nubile young victim.

Squint and you may think that you are in some horror remake of last year's riotous The Guest. Both star Monroe as the archetypal glum hottie- heroine. Both feature aggressively 80s aesthetics and John Carpenter-esque soundtracks (take a bow, Rich Vreeland) that no one will complain about. Finally, both balance their menace with the everyday humdrum headaches that are part and parcel of teendom.

For all these things, It Follows is very much worth investigating, but like so many of its genre it does lose its way slightly at the very end, as if writer-director David Robert Mitchell has realised it all needs to get tied up somehow.

HAW

Now showing

The Second Best exotic Marigold Hotel

Cert PG

The first Best Marigold Hotel was well-received and much enjoyed but in the interests of clarity I have to confess a failure to be enchanted. Like many British comedies, it had that odd mix of studious Britishness and near- mawkish sentimentality that feels pitched shamelessly for a US market. It did however have an  appealing concept and appealing cast, both of which are carried forward to the sequel which is staged in the run-up to the wedding between hotel co-owners Sonny (Dev Patel) and Sunaina (Tena Desae).

Sonny and Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith), resident turned co-owner, have been to America to seek funding for their expansion plan, and it all hinges on the favour of an undercover hotel inspector. Judi Dench and Bill Nighy are still dancing round their flirtation, Celia Imrie is trying to decide which of two men to marry, Ronald Pickup and Diana Hardcastle are trying to debate whether to be monogamous and into the mix comes Lavinia (Tamsin Grieg) who is casing the joint for her mother, and writer Guy (Richard Gere) who takes an instant and understandable fancy to Dev's mother (Lillete Dubey).

It is Guy that Sonny assumes to be the secret inspector and he begins a charm offensive, which, combined with his envy of rich boy Kush (Shazad Latif) makes Sonny a right pain in the face for most of the film. There's a lot happening but not much really going on and a slightly awkward detour at the end that suggests a test audience inspired reshoot perhaps. However it's all nice and easy and predictable, the guests have all settled in well, India looks gorgeous, there's a big Slumdog Millionaire dance routine at the end. Fans of the first film will enjoy this, which is basically more of the same with added Richard Gere.

AO'C

Now showing

Catch Me Daddy

Cert TBC

You'd never accuse Catch Me Daddy of selling the north of England to us. Daniel Wolfe's hard-nosed debut sets themes of cultural confinement, forbidden love and violence against a litter-strewn landscape of tracksuits, Benson & Hedges and wind-lashed moors. Connemara, it ain't.

That you won't easily forget the experience may be Wolfe's big victory in a film that's easier to admire than enjoy. Much of this is down to the big questions being asked about multiracial Britain, ones that will certainly come up for discussion after the film's release.

Laila and Aaron (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed and Connor McCarron) are a trailer-park Romeo and Juliet, living on soft drugs, homemade hooch and takeaway, but a latent fear restricts them. They know they're being hunted by her brother and a crew of brutal thugs hired by Laila's Pakistani father to bring her home so she will no longer 'dishonour' the family so.

When the pair are finally flushed into the open, they flee in the naive hope they will escape and Laila will be able to resist the wrath of "honour crimes".

Wolfe isn't bothered with happy endings. He and the brilliant Dublin cinematographer Robbie Ryan brew a desolate tone from the get-go, placing lives of loneliness and savagery against bruised skies while letting the camera catch shots of exotic pets in captivity. A tough 112 minutes.

HAW

Now showing

Blackhat

Cert 15A

Anytime Michael Mann returns to auditoria, critics can be seen popping up like meercats. The 72-year-old director of Heat, Manhunter and The Insider has always had a knack for wedding stylistic verve with an eye for an iconic cinematic showdown, precisely as he does in Blackhat, his first feature film in six years. So why then does this glossy cyberterrorism sprint fail to hit the target?

It has been well reported that the film bombed at the US box office on its release back in mid January, but even taking into account its unenviable task of going up against the confoundingly successful American Sniper and the decidedly drab Taken 3, Blackhat does itself absolutely no favours.

Chunky Chris Hemsworth is Nicholas Hathaway, an heroic hacker sprung from maximum security by law enforcers who need his help in taking down an international terrorist hacker. Nicholas teams up with Chinese agents Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) and his sister Lien (Tang Wei) while getting assistance from Viola Davis's FBI agent, and the chase is on.

Air is repeatedly let out of the tyre as they all stand around frowning at computer screens and expositing clumsily as to what is going on exactly. Then everyone hurries out to join the action.

It's definitely a Michael Mann film - nocturnal cityscapes are lit up like sexy birthday cakes, everyone wears cool shades through the daylight hours and tense chats are had near the glare of siren flashes. There is also the customary Mann romantic subplot underlying the high stakes. But these and gimmicky keyhole shots in through complex computer circuitry are almost evidence of a lack of fresh thinking. Techy just seems tacky, in this case.

Otherwise a fine actor, Hemsworth, more Australian rugby international than computer geek, is miscast, no matter how hard he frowns while tap-tapping hurriedly on the keyboard. When the laptops are shut and are replaced with automatic assault rifles and jolting street battles, things pick up, but there is the chance that you might just have lost interest by that stage.

HAW

Now showing

The Boy Next Door

Cert 16

The 1990s were notorious for trashy lightweight thrillers that traded solely on the possibility of glimpsing their high-profile female leads in a steamy scene (see Fair Game, The Specialist and Barb Wire). Twenty years on, it feels like we've learnt nothing, with The Boy Next Door taking big bucks at the US box office on the back of its curvacious Latina star, Jennifer Lopez.

Lopez heads up this hopeless "erotic thriller" that is about as steamy as yesterday's dishcloth. She plays Claire Peterson, a classics teacher who has just separated from her high-flyer husband (Sex And The City's John Corbett) after he was caught with his secretary. She and son Kevin (Ian Nelson) move in next door to hunky Noah, a bronzed 20-year-old Adonis who befriends the younger Kevin.

Noah is a walking Diet Coke ad for Claire, and when Kevin goes away with his dad for a weekend, she allows Noah to seduce her. When she comes to her senses and insists there is no follow-up for Noah, he, well, loses the plot and decides to make her life hell with increasing levels of psychopathy.

Had you flicked on to The Boy Next Door at 2am on channel 537, you'd be none the wiser. There is dialogue here that seems written by teenagers, for teenagers, and plot developments that defy logic. (One sees the aggressor beat a teenage student within an inch of his life yet only get called to the principal's office for a scolding.)

Lopez, in fairness, is competent as the yummy mummy under siege, but model and Step Up alumnus Guzman is too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a screen baddie.

Strictly for the less fussy end of the Fifty Shades... demographic.

HAW

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