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Focus

Will Smith’s latest movie, the heist-pulling con-comedy drama, Focus, is clichéd, it’s predictable, but it is hard to hate.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in FocusCon-man comedy-drama’s are a dime a dozen. The majority of those that get churned out of Hollywood’s money-making factories all follow a very simple, very tried and tested format.

Firstly, set up the characters and assemble a team; pull a few small jobs; set up the big one and look like they’ve failed before– SURPRISE! [That] wasn’t the real con. [THIS] was. It’s a format that has always served the genre well and continues to do so, regardless of how artistically it may be presented from time to time. From Steven Soderbergh to Guy Ritchie. From The Hustler to The Thieves. Sometimes it works more successfully than others, of course, but it never really strays too far away from that traditional stratagem. Focus is no exception.

Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who have previously worked together on the feature films Crazy, Stupid, Love and I Love You Philip Morris, they reunite to bring their own spin on the con film. Staring the ever-popular Will Smith as Nicky, a professional con-man from a family of con-men, and rising-actress Margot Robbie as his protégé, Jess, they bring their own brand of humour and sex-appeal to what is essentially a disappointingly bland script.

The narrative of the film (or its focus, if you will) is based around the relationship of Nicky and Jess. After Jess tries and fails to pull her own amateur con on Nicky, unaware of who he actually is, she eventually convinces him to take her under his wing after what can loosely be described as a job interview. A series of small but well paying jobs later, a hint of romance between the couple blossoms and gambling problems and presents itself, before the biggest job they’ll ever pull appears. It’s nothing outstanding and certainly something you’ve no doubt never seen before (unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid watching any con-man film during your lifetime.)

Let’s get the performances out of the way first of all. To use modern parlance, Will Smith’s gonna Will Smith. He likes to show off his physique, so every other scene where he’s not looking pukka in a suit either shows him in a tight shirt or no shirt at all. His comic timing hasn’t yet deserted him which does make him perfect for the role. He’s charismatic, he’s funny, he’s just reliable ol’ Will bloody Smith putting in a shift that’s at a level somewhere between his Anchorman 2 cameo and Men In Black 3. His opposite, Margot Robbie, does what few actors and actresses manage to do when sharing the screen with the Fresh Prince, in that she often steals the spotlight away from him, much like she often did with DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Despite having to deal with a much weaker character, whose role as exciting young pick pocket is snatched away from you before you’ve noticed and replaced with generic love interest, she still lights up the screen with her enthusiasm and humour. In fact, on a number of occasions, her conversations with ‘sidekick to the stars’ Adrian Martinez were the most natural and genuinely funny moments in the entire movie. It made me wish I had a friend like Martinez.

The thing is, the performances aren’t the issue here. Even the series of escalating con-jobs the characters pull aren’t a problem either. We all watch films like this knowing exactly how the story will pan out and what level of character we’re soon to be dealing with. What we all hope to see instead are creative and inventive cons, heists, twists and swindles. It doesn’t have to be tense, the jobs don’t even have to be on a grand casino-robbing scale, so long as they’re entertaining and fun. To be fair to Focus, it isn’t intelligent, it isn’t clever and the twists are polarised from the get go. Nevertheless, they still remain the most entertaining aspects, as they quite rightly should.

I can’t complain about the build up to the individual jobs, both large and small, because quite frankly the fast-cuts and jazzy music simply makes them hard to dislike. As soon as Robbie is strutting through a packed street, pinching wallets and slipping off watches, it’s all made to look so incredibly slick. A scene at a football stadium that sees the culmination of (admittedly well plotted) teasing is both predictable… and, surprisingly, absorbing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll think you know how everything is going to pan out eventually anyway, but it’s that need to see the film to its conclusion that will keep you rooted to your seat.

Therefore, whilst it undoubtedly has a badly written and predictable story, full of genre clichés and obvious twists, I can’t complain too much about the cons. If I were feeling generous, I’d probably even describe them as well directed. Focus is, if nothing else, impressively and suitably flashy. At worst, these fancy-Dan jobs are diversionary tactics to keep you from thinking too hard about the intelligence insultingly poor “who’s playing who” romance angle between Robbie and Smith. It tries to keep you guessing right until the end. Unfortunately, you’re not wondering what will happen, it’s more that you’ll be wondering when it will inevitably be revealed. It’s infuriating how often they felt the need to explain away events and how it will relate to events-yet-to-be.

Still, as I say, it’s hard to dislike. Occasionally I sat up and took notice at how well it had been cut and edited; just little things, like when Jess walks into a clothes shop, or as they’re pulling a few minor con jobs during her “interview”, or (as seen in the trailer) when a maniac smashes his car into Will Smith’s sporty little two-seater Peugeot etc. Evidently Requa and Ficarra know how to shoot and write stunts more so than they know how to build character relationships worth emotionally investing in.

Conversely, at other times, I was practically stifling laughs at how awkward and downright terrible it was. A super-serious-sex-scene that I assumed was being played for laughs, given how early on they make reference to the fact that Jess can’t “play” men and is utterly crap at being sexy, wasn’t actually meant to be so funny. It was a genuine, proper, “please take me seriously” sex scene that just happened to be absolutely dreadful. If there’s one problem between the dynamic of Robbie and Smith, it was that romantic chemistry just never sparked.

Overall then, as I said on last week’s podcast, it’s painfully obvious right from the get go exactly what sort of movie Focus is going to be, but it’s hard to hate it. If you can do your utmost to stop second guessing it, just sit back and let things play out as intended, then it does have a number of redeeming qualities. It’s funny when it wants to be, the jobs they pull are aren’t the most daring of any con-man film I’ve ever seen but are set at just the right tempo, but it won’t be anything new to regular film watchers. It plugs the gap of this year’s dumb but flashy light hearted thriller. To compare it to recent con-films, it’s more Now You See Me than it is American Hustle. Fine to watch if there’s nothing else on at the cinema and you’ve got a burning desire to munch some popcorn, but not really a particularly special film.

Focus is released in cinemas nationwide tomorrow (27 Feb). You can hear Owen talk about the film on last week’s Failed Critics podcast with Steve, Matt and Paul.

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Failed Critics Podcast: Your Unconventional Desire

focusAs always, your illustrious host Steve Norman and ever present Owen Hughes lead the way through a tightly packed episode. Coming into your earholes to review the 18-rated, arse-ticklingly rude 50 Shades of Grey is Failed Critics debutant, Paul Field. Also joining them this week is Matt Lambourne, mainly so he can recount the story of why he didn’t see the (not so) erotic flick.

The team also craftily knocked out reviews for two other new releases before climaxing with 50 Shades of Grey, as Will Smith’s latest con-film Focus, as well as mind-bending time-travel thriller Predestination also get the once over.

They also somehow found room to squeeze in an extra couple of reviews. Paul filled us in on Korean revenge film I Saw The Devil (as reviewed in the Half Decade In Film article this week); Owen got slightly topical with space-hopping sci-fi Virtuality; and our pal Matt welcomed Die Hard and Enter The Dragon to the party.

Tune in again next week to hear less innuendos, in addition to the results of our Academy Award prediction quiz.

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For your chance to win a few crumby randomly selected second hand DVD’s that we no longer want, simply comment on this article with your picks for each of the 11 categories below! The winner will be the entrant with the most correct guesses. In the event of a tie, the winner will be chosen at random. The term ‘winner’ is used lightly.

1 – Best Picture
American Sniper – Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole
Boyhood – Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson
The Imitation Game – Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman
Selma – Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner
The Theory of Everything – Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Anthony McCarten
Whiplash – Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster

2 – Best Director
Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum – The Imitation Game

3 – Best Actor
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher as John Eleuthère du Pont
Bradley Cooper – American Sniper as Chris Kyle
Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game as Alan Turing
Michael Keaton – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as Riggan Thomson / Birdman
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything as Stephen Hawking

4 – Best Actress
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night as Sandra Bya
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything as Jane Wilde Hawking
Julianne Moore – Still Alice as Dr. Alice Howland
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl as Amy Elliott-Dunne
Reese Witherspoon – Wild as Cheryl Strayed

5 – Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall – The Judge as Judge Joseph Palmer
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood as Mason Evans, Sr.
Edward Norton – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as Mike Shiner
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher as Dave Schultz
J. K. Simmons – Whiplash as Terence Fletcher

6 – Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood as Olivia Evans
Laura Dern – Wild as Barbara “Bobbi” Grey
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game as Joan Clarke
Emma Stone – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as Sam Thomson
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods as The Witch

7 – Best Original Screenplay
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

8 – Best Adapted Screenplay
American Sniper – Jason Hall from American Sniper by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore from Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson from Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten from Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle from his short film of the same name

9 – Best Animated Feature Film
Big Hero 6 – Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
The Boxtrolls – Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
Song of the Sea – Tomm Moore and Paul Young
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura

10 – Best Foreign Language Film
Ida (Poland) in Polish – Paweł Pawlikowski
Leviathan (Russia) in Russian – Andrey Zvyagintsev
Tangerines (Estonia) in Estonian and Russian – Zaza Urushadze
Timbuktu (Mauritania) in French – Abderrahmane Sissako
Wild Tales (Argentina) in Spanish – Damián Szifrón

11 – Best Documentary – Feature
Citizenfour – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutsky
Finding Vivian Maier – John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
Last Days in Vietnam – Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
The Salt of the Earth – Wim Wenders, Lélia Wanick Salgado and David Rosier
Virunga – Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara