Focus ***

The trick to writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s new ‘rom-con’ flick Focus is to keep things going at rapid speed and make everything look super glossy, so as to fool the rest of us into thinking this qualifies as another Ocean’s Eleven. Sure, this 100 million dollar film looks the pretty picture and puts pickpocketing in a glamorous, 5-star lifestyle – no Fagins here, but Focus has us wandering off sometimes on the peripherals, and less than convinced at others, even if it is stylish to look at.
Will Smith plays successful, wealthy con artist Nicky who spots wannabe trickster Jess (The Wolf on Wall Street’s Margot Robbie) a mile off when he’s tagged as the mark. After being rumbled, she pleads with him to teach her the high-roller ways that bring the big bucks. Nicky employs her as his sultry new intern in his multi-million dollar racket. Feelings develop between the pair. Fast forward three years, and Nicky’s latest con is helping crooked Formula 1 boss Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) get ahead of his rivals on the circuit. Only Jess makes an unlikely appearance and unsettles things.
With all the turkeys Smith has cooked in recent years, Focus is a more solid comeback for the actor into ‘grown-up’ cinema. It also makes him look very good – physically, and gives him the opportunity to get entangled with one of Hollywood’s hottest screen babes, Robbie [you can see how rumours of a real-life liaison between the actors have arisen].
Smith and Robbie on a purely physical level are good together. The problem is there is a lot of physicality in the first half that it’s like watching two lustful, slurpy teenagers in public at it all the time. It certainly gives Fifty Shades a run for its money. Things just become a little ‘ho-hum’. The colourfully stylish surroundings do their best to keep us ‘entertained’ and engaged, visually. The dialogue is unnecessarily quick that it becomes a background mumble in some cases.
Smith’s wit only seeps through occasionally that you yearn for the odd wisecrack or three, if only to recognise the actor as himself. It’s Robbie that comes off the best, combining seduction and charm with leading-girl confidence.
It’s only after Nicky and Jess finally meet again in the second half that the story gets really interesting – bar one neatly-shot scene in the first half that shows sports fans in New Orleans being fleeced of their valuables with frightening speed. The irony of all of this is pickpockets tend to blend in; Robbie as blonde bombshell Jess sticks way out.
The second half keeps you interested, purely as you want to see where it goes with the Formula 1 con angle, and Ficarra and Requa do not disappoint keeping things edgy – and yet more exotic surroundings, outfits, cars and tanned flesh. It’s like an advert for luxury goods straight out of a Mile High magazine. Santoro gives a convincing turn as the unhinged Garriga too. After all the high-life fizz on show, it’s the very end that leaves things a little flat and might have some of you wanting to see alternatives shot and disguarded on the cutting room floor, especially after a tense standoff between the tricksters and an irritate Garriga.
As heist flicks go, Focus is a lavishly shot example with an attractive cast to boot, but not as stylishly planned out at Ocean’s. Whether it satisfies the basics of such a crime genre is down to how taxing a watch you want – it certainly suffices as a reasonable date movie.
3/5 stars
By @FilmGazer

The Wedding Ringer **


Everyone likes a happy ending, and weddings are the perfect setting. We all know how this is going end, don’t we? Well that could be the only surprise The Wedding Ringer has to offer because the rest of the bromance comedy feels like a complete rip-off of other in a similar vein – even with a few giggles to still be had.

Josh Gad plays Doug, successful in his career but friendless, and about to marry a gorgeous girl called Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). When asked for his groomsmen list by the bride-to-be, Doug panics and gets put in touch with ‘wedding ringer’ Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) who will be his best man for a price – and even find groomsmen for an even bigger cost. Hence, the con is on, and Jimmy becomes Doug’s best pal, military chaplain Bic Mitchum, while Jimmy tries to coach the rest of the oddball bunch of groomsmen in time for the big day. Can he pull off the biggest stunt yet?

The Wedding Ringer is very understandably predictable to a point, with a lot of the plot stretching the realms of believability, but it offers that ultimate feel-good factor – the one that allows all oddballs to become heroes in life. The film does struggle with what it wants to be; either a screwball farce or a lesson in relationships mattering. Obviously, there has to be some substance that flourishes out of all the idiocy, but you do wonder if a more fulfilling and sincere comedy lurks in the midst that addresses why some of us are so ‘lonely’ in life when we’re surrounded by people – that’s essentially the essence of the bromance here. It’s just this film is tonally all over the shop as it pitches for laughs and goes beyond toilet humour one minute then tries to be all serious and philosophical the next.

Gad and Hart do get off to a less than convincing start, with some clunkiness to their comic timing, until the very end when they suddenly gel on screen – perhaps it’s the wedding moves that seal the deal and show them stepping out in sync? Fans of both will get enjoyment from each of their idols in some form, it’s just the rest of us are left waiting for that collective comedy force to kick in. There are too many daft set-pieces that get in the way of that bond truly taking hold.

If you like your comedy served fraternity style and aren’t into life grand morals, The Wedding Ringer is perfectly acceptable brotherly-love viewing. Ultimately, someone will win out of all the chaos that ensues; it’s just hard to know who in this instance.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Duke Of Burgundy ****

As with its central theme of submission, The Duke of Burgundy from British writer-director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) demands just that of you to persevere with his exquisitely crafted homage to 60s/70s Euro soft porn that is rather curious to say the least. On a ‘normal’ level, this film looks at relationship role playing, and what happens when one member begins to question their antics and how fulfilled they feel. It is a fascinating piece of filmmaking nevertheless.

Every day, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and partner Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) act out a master-and-servant ritual that ends with Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. If they are not fulfilling fantasies, they are attending Lepidoptera lectures at the local institute in what appears to be a female-only existence in an unnamed European setting. However, as one seeks more erotica, the other begins to yearn for a more conventional relationship, causing the relationship to reach breaking point.

There is a stunning precision and elegant pose that transcends Duke above the obvious label of ‘soft porn’ erotica that is dallies with, coupled with engrossing animal (butterfly) sounds and imagery. The porn element becomes peripheral merely to extenuate the extreme demands of the central relationship. They attempt to explore new things, keep things fresh, but ultimately, are in danger of reverting back to conventional, societal norms in an absurdly abnormal environment. In the end, as corny as it seems, true love conquers which is why the antics are unsustainable. The plot also suggests age difference can put a strain on a physical relationship — there is little to suggest the women do anything else, socially, other than study butterflies.

Stars D’Anna and Babett Knudsen are captivating, drawing us in with deliberate actions and reactions, and both look stunning on film. Strickland keeps them alluring and fascinating in each frame. There is a lot of absorb while trying to figure out what seems so unsettling about the actual place that seems to be full of S&M-loving females offering similar services (and implements) to height arousal. The title refers to a butterfly, ironic and a humorous nudge to Strickland’s playful side – there are comical elements in the film, such as a ‘perfume ad’ in the end credits that keep you visually alert if nothing else.

The Duke of Burgundy is as odd as it is genuinely affectionate, with Strickland treating both female characters with respect and awe, even if their antics often suggest otherwise – he worships the female form as much as the delicate beauty of the insect. In that respect it is even more anti-soft porn in its approach than first thought. It is perhaps one of Strickland’s finest works so far – and surprisingly, his most commercial to bring in new audiences.
4/5 stars
By @FilmGazer

LFF 2014: Love Is Strange ****

Love Is Strange is a strangely affecting love story from writer-director Ira Sachs (Keep The Lights On). Its protagonists are in their autumn years, played by John Lithgow (Ben) and Alfred Molina (George), and it features on another gay relationship like his 2012 film. What is intriguing with his latest film is it starts from the opposite way around to a traditional love film, with domestic bliss achieved that is subsequently dissolved due to circumstances. It also translates perfectly for any audience, showing how one couple who believe they have it all can be so affected by life’s regularities.
Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) decide to get married after 39 years living together. It’s a joyous occasion attended by those who hold them near and dear. However, when music teacher George returns to work at a faith school he is fired for reasons that can only point to his recent marriage, something the church disagrees with. With artist Ben out of work, and no money coming in, they are forced to sell their beloved Manhattan apartment and must rely on the same friends and family for help — a situation that weighs heavily on all involved.
Lithgow and Molina are so affecting in their roles, so natural and comfortable, that there is a huge amount of instant empathy for them – regardless of your views on gay marriage/same-sex relationships. Their situation seems too familiar in one way or another; that of accommodation, job security and support worries when the worst happens. It is excruciating to watch their supposed close network unravel but equally complimentary as they find they have been everyone else’s rock over the years. Also, both men are separated while they stay as house guests at very different residences that go against their personalities. From this they learn more about what they want and do not want, and how strong their relationship actually is.
Both men almost revert back to their youth, the thrilling beginnings of their relationship. Sachs’s film has a wonderful scene where George visits Ben as his nephew’s and stays over. Both men are like excitable teenagers, grabbing the precious time they have for affection while the ‘parents’ are through the walls. It’s a scene of glee, deep affection and woe at they predicament that sums up the stresses the separation is putting on them. Sachs also provides the space for the surrounding characters to flex and learn too, with some wonderful performances from all.
Love Is Strange beautifully captures the daily trials that test a relationship but without the melodrama and a certain understatement that makes Sachs’s film a quietly powerful affair. Lithgow and Molina are superb in this and instantly heartwarming to watch. It is a conventional tragedy of our times that is life-affirming in its own right.
4/5 stars
By @FilmGazer