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

Annie ***


Beasts of the Southern Wild child star Quvenzhané Wallis drags the character of Annie kicking and screaming into the 21st Century in the 2014 remake. For starters, she often reminds us she’s “not an orphan” but a “foster kid” – a term more commonly recognised these days with unconventional families the norm. She’s still singing and dancing, albeit to more current, ‘street-vamped’ versions of the classic songs but the bare bones are still there for fans.

There is also a heavy use of social media throughout the film – just so you get the point that it’s set in present day. This makes you think, surely, the search for her parents would have been over a lot sooner with all the social platforms at work? Or maybe Annie’s parents aren’t as tech savvy?

The story follows Annie, a foster kid living with washed-up foster mum Miss Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) and fellow female foster kids in a run-down apartment in Harlem, New York. Each Friday Annie visits an Italian restaurant – the place her parents left her along with a note and half a locket, in the hope they will return to collect her.

Events take a turn for the worse, leading Annie straight into the path of neurotic billionaire businessman Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) who is on the election trail to become New York’s next mayor. What starts out as a press ‘photo opportunity’ to get higher poll ratings, with Stacks spending time with Annie, turns into a father-daughter relationship.

Wallis is a little ray of sunshine in this, instantly loveable as Annie, while sometimes too ‘cookie’ sweet to stomach. However, the latter just goes to annoy the more uptight characters around her in a gleeful way, causing your smile to linger longer than you imagine on more than one occasion.

Initially, Diaz seems like an unlikely (miscast) Hannigan but soon wins you over – she’s as much of a big kid as her charges, and has more of an apparent reason for turning to booze than the original Hannigan. It seems ‘must-have solo gags’ have been added into Diaz’s contract, maybe for the film’s producers, including Jay-Z and the Smiths, Will and Jada, to get their full money’s worth out of the comic star, but these Diaz quips can grate.

Foxx has a lot of fun – and is value for money – as the germophobe Stacks. He also has one of the campiest scenes ever in recent cinematic history, with a singing number performed to Annie high above Manhattan in a helicopter that is beyond cringe – it’s just pain hilarious. Rose Byrne plays smart sidekick Grace, Stack’s long-suffering PA (and love interest), while Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is chauffeur/bodyguard Nash, the modern-day Punjab; the more eagle-eyed of you will spot the homage in the name of the place across the street where Stacks first meets Annie.

There are some interesting socio-economic factors that don’t go a miss; Annie is an African America in deprived inner city area, and although a bright kid, has fallen through the educational cracks and not been taught to read. This point is further highlighted in a charity dance mob scene at the end. Let’s face it, Annie as a story was always a moral consciousness prod.

In the meantime, this film is full of gadgetry (and product placement), from phones to the latest high-tech living arrangements – in case the adult audience members’ interest in the basic story starts to wane. And no current kid’s film would be complete without a saturation of mobile/app/social usage, (lazily) marking out the tension points in the film.

Annie 2014 is almost a mild spoof of the original film. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, though the serious issues simmer below the surface. With running gags – like Stack’s pollen problem to the kleptomaniac social services lady (a crazy turn from Stephanie Kurtzuba), it is meant to be a fun panto time with songs you recognise. It’s a cold-stone heart that doesn’t come out of the cinema with as much as a smile.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Men in Black III (3D) ***

The fact that the second MiB film seems to draw a complete blank either means it was totally unforgettable tripe or someone’s been trigger happy with a Neuralyzer. Needless to say, it’s a happy predicament to be in as having watch the first film recently, to then watch the third in the series the latter nicely ties up the J and K relationship and explores a deeper bond.

In fact, mimicking the Back to the Future series – second film being duff and the third redeeming the franchise, there is also a bit of time travel involved. That’s not to say there aren’t a few soggy, bloated parts full of unnecessary banter, but it’s the charisma of Will Smith and the cantankerous, grumpy nature of Tommy Lee Jones that keeps the life source flowing. What’s more thrilling is Josh Brolin adopting the mannerisms, like for like, as a younger K. Eternally witty Emma Thompson is right at home as the eccentric Agent O, too, entertaining as always as you never know where she will take a character next.

In film number 3, Agent J (Smith) must travel in time to MiB’s early years in the 1960s to not only prevent murderous alien Boris The Animal (Jemaine Clement) from assassinating his friend Agent K (Lee Jones), but also stop Earth being destroyed in the present by an alien warship attack. The goal is to change history, but J finds out more about the younger K (Brolin) than he bargained for in trying to change history for the better.

The initial concern for any fan of the first film is just what director Barry Sonnenfeld and his new writing team could conjure up that’s at all fresh for a third outing by the mystery men in black suits. After a hilarious opening eulogy, it all starts out in much the same way with a far grumpier and lacklustre team tackling yet more devious aliens in disguise in a local Chinese restaurant then Smith supplying his humorous trademark comments to passing onlookers that raises the necessary laughs and places us back the frame. A decade has passed and the jokes and grouchy nature are still in full flow – but rather than being tiresome, it’s somehow reassuring and quite nostalgic. Thompson as the new agency boss doing her usual po-faced comedic turn punctuates the atmosphere, and helps give further clues to the characters’ past.

However, this time, the true path of destiny between agents is explored, giving MiB 3 an unexpected emotional substance among all the alien chasing, and making it less superfluous at that special moment of clarity to the point that the unstoppable Boris takes a backseat. Much of the ‘buddy’ credit goes to Brolin for taking up the K mantle so fittingly and working to compliment Smith’s sarcastic stand-up act. There is also a notable performance by Michael Stuhlbarg as future-forecasting Griffin that emphasises all the characters’ vulnerability as they venture down a life-changing path, plus a bit of grounding in historical fact that some older viewers will enjoy reliving.

Those expecting wanton alien bashing will not be disappointed as such, but be prepared for more of a sentimental time-travelling journey down memory lane with less of the Smith wise cracks – though still enough to be comically flippant and charming. In the end, everything has to grow up, and J and K with renewed understanding will probably be on the case until they’re MiB Seniors.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Justin Bieber: Never Say Never – 3*

How do you review a Justin Bieber film? If you’re a fan, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what critics write – you’ve got the screening time, the date and the cinema ticket already. So, this is aimed at the non-fan, the curious, and those yet unaffected by ‘Bieber fever’. Is it worth seeing? It certainly builds a better picture of this social media phenomenon, even if feels a little tightly edited and controlled by Bieber’s machine (hardly surprising), namely overbearing mentor/producer Scooter Braun, a failed child star, if ever there was one, we suspect.

It basically follows the days leading up to Bieber’s sell-out concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena, and the ultimate gig by any artist’s standards, having hosted the likes of The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. In the run-up, we’re given an insight into where Bieber materialised from, including a smattering of cute baby photos and video clips of little Biebs in his hometown of Stratford, Ontario, Canada. It’s very much textbook stuff – plus free advertising for the town and Google’s YouTube.

Admittedly, the first time you are seriously impressed by Bieber’s talent in the film is when you witness his amazing drumming skills and rhythm, as ‘Baby Biebs’ drums away a tune on a chair seat. Whatever your reservations of how the Bieber brand has been developed, with help from the likes of rapper Usher and Island Def Jam’s L.A. Reid – much as Scooter tries for a chunk of that glory in the film, the boy can sing, dance and charm the pants off the locals. A young Bieber is shown singing and playing guitar for his supper, busking outside the local Stratford theatre. On a trip back home, where Biebs is told to tidy his room in front of his mates (priceless), the now mega star shows kindness to a young girl playing violin on the very same steps, spreading his brand of encouragement to her to ‘follow her dream’. It twangs the heartstrings, and gets you firmly onboard the ride to the Garden showdown.

To be honest, as much as you may kick against it, you can’t help liking the wide-eyed and bushy-haired teen as he goofs around and then becomes sick. But being cynical for a moment; it could be because we hear very little personal feelings directly uttered from Bieber’s mouth to camera, so he can retain this ‘ethereal presence’, as others around him ‘speak for him’, including Usher, Miley Cyrus etc – and even though his team try to convince us that he’s just a ‘normal kid’. Amusingly, and somewhat unfortunately for Karate Kid’s Jaden Smith, who performs at Bieber’s Garden show, is that the son of Will Smith comes off as a product of celebrity parent upbringing, swaggering and basking the Bieber limelight, when he’s really a nice kid.

The film has some hilarious sound bites from fans to enjoy, as they fall in hysterics outside the many venues Bieber is appearing at, dressed head to foot in Bieber’s favourite colour, purple. It’s like The Beatles all over again with kids and grown females (who ought to know better) cooing, drooling and fainting in corners at the thought, let alone the sight of their idol. Then Scooter and management arrive on the scene to whip the fanatics into frenzy with an offer of free tickets to one of Bieber’s gigs. It becomes quite bile-inducing, actually, as the ever tedious Mr Prawn, sorry ‘Braun’ tries to get even more screen time in the film, convincing us he has Bieber’s best interests at heart. It’s an unavoidable thing in such a film, where touring means meeting the ‘family’. That said Bieber’s family come off as normal, with even Ma Bieber stepping back from centre-stage, affectionately shown when everyone congratulations the star after the Garden gig, and Bieber goes to hug her.

As for seeing Bieber in 3D, there are some effective moments, where Biebs reaches out to the crowd on stage, or flicks his hair like in a slow-mo shampoo ad. The 3D merely enhances the stage performance’s depth, with the odd 3D camera at the bottom of screen popping out from time to time. Apart from that, it’s very much a case of ‘3D titling’ and a couple of ‘flying’ baby pictures during the performance, so the use of 3D is, once again on anything that’s not an animation, highly questionable, and kids are going to have to fork out more to see their idol.

Have we got the Bieber fever? We certainly don’t have a rash from watching this film – more a warm glow of enlightenment. If someone else wants to pay out for the 3D ticket price, as a non-fan, you could sit through worse music offerings. In the end, you really do wish Bieber the best of luck, so you could argue the film has done its job.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer