NOT QUITE 20/20: Focus, What We Do in the Shadows and All The Wilderness


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Warning: SPOILERS
focusFocus, the new film written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, comes from a genre with a proud heritage: the rom con game. It’s a genre that was extremely popular in the greatest period in film for romantic comedies, the 30’s, with such movies as Trouble in Paradise and Desire. But it has always had an endearing quality, as in such films as It Takes A Thief, The Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and more recently, Duplicity.
And this latest entry does have some of the qualities of these other films that ingratiate them so much to us: a cool and suave leading man; even cooler cons; and more than a touch of wit.
In addition, there is one marvelous scene of grifting involving an Asian businessman who loves to gamble and who finds himself going nose to nose with the movie’s hero on a series of more and more outrageous bets. You know what’s coming, though when it does, you’re not sure how it could possibly have been pulled it off. And then when it is explained, you marvel at the audacity and chance taking of it.
But this scene also works for reasons that much of the movie doesn’t. In the end, though there are some nice moments here, Focus never really quite rises to the level of many of these other films.

 

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first revolves around the opening scenes as Nicky, who is a con man’s con man, the Frank Sinatra of grifters, introduces the joy of pulling the wool over a mark’s eyes (or the wallet from their back pocket) to Jess, an up and coming pickpocket who Nicky is interested in for more than her deft hands.

 

In one way, this is a marvelous set piece as Nicky takes his crew down to New Orleans for the Super Bowl in order to steal billfolds, purses, wallets, ATM numbers, credit cards (this last of which they steal so smartly, they return them after taking the number so the owner doesn’t even realize the card is gone and can cancel it). They pilfer anything that isn’t nailed down (and probably much that is). It’s so well done that one certainly would want to check one’s pockets every time one left the presence of Ficarra and Requa.

 

But the longer this series of scenes went on, the more depressing I actually found it. Instead of going after the rich, after criminals, or banks or anybody else that fit into the haves part of the haves and haves not, these guys were basically stealing from you and me. Which means they were not really con men. They were little more than petty thieves.

 

Which kind of takes them down a notch or two as I watched them operate. I mean, it’s one thing to steal priceless gems from the decadent rich; or paintings or money from a casino; or dupe a murderous criminal. But it’s another thing to steal from poor working and middle class suckers like the rest of us (in other words, they’re the Republicans to David Niven’s Democrat).

 

A critic once talked about Groucho Marx’s television game show You Bet Your Life as not being quite as funny as his films. As the critic noted, it’s one thing to mock and ridicule the rich and pompous; it’s another to do the same to the poor and working class.

 

So when Nicky’s group is prowling the streets of the Quarter, that isn’t quite as entertaining as the aesthetically brilliant ruse they perpetrated on someone who has enough money that he can laugh off the loss of more than a million dollars as if it was a wad of bills someone else carries in their wallet.

 

The second issue has to do with the characters of Nicky and Jess, and Will Smith and Margo Robbie, the actors who play them. How you react to the film will probably be determined for the most part by how you feel about the two together.

 

For me, there was just something missing from their relationship. They are both more than capable actors (and Smith has no problem turning on his trademark charm and playing the roll for all its worth), but the sparks just weren’t flying for me. They just don’t seem to have the sexual chemistry demonstrated by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly or even Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

 

Their scenes fall a bit flat. Which causes structural problems toward the end of act two. After New Orleans, Nicky rejects Jess and sends her way due to inner psychological conflict left over from his youth (and, yes, it feels as forced on screen as it does when read). Three years later, Nicky has another con in the operation and Jess unexpectedly (or maybe not) shows up.

 

But at this point, in many ways, the whole forward momentum that is based on this con has to suddenly take a back seat as Nicky and Jess work out their relationship problems. And this might have worked, but again, the chemistry just wasn’t there for me, so I spent the vast majority of these scenes waiting for them to be over.

 

The final con is satisfactory enough (though it doesn’t quite have the brilliance of the Super Bowl one) and there is a nifty surprise here. But it’s a bit too little, too late.

 

With some marvelous character work by Gerald McRaney as Owens, who works the mark in the final con; B.D. Wong as the Asian businessman with a gambling problem; and especially Adrian Martinez as a foul mouthed dork who wins you over in spite of his lack of a filter.

 

Ficarra and Requa have done some memorable work in the past on such films as I Love You, Philip Morris and Bad Santa. And you can see their relaxed wit at full play here. But in the end, this film doesn’t quite make it to the same level as their earlier ones.

 

what we doWhat We Do In The Shadows, the latest creation from those involved in such filmmaking whimsy as the TV series Flight of the Conchords and the movie Eagle v. Shark, takes two genres that have at times more than outworn their welcome, the mockumentary and the vampire film, and mashed them together into a perfectly delightful, witty and clever little film.

 

The basic premise is that a house full of vampires in New Zealand is allowing a documentary crew access to their abode in order to film them. It’s preposterous, of course (as most mockumentaries are); as one character more or less says when he is accused of talking about being a vampire out on the streets and calling unwanted and unwise attention to the house, “you’ve got a film crew in here for God’s sakes”, while pointing to the cameras.

 

The film is written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi (whose sardonic wit and snarkiness is so splendidly displayed in this venture), who also have parts in it as two of the vampires. This slacker dynamic duo seem to be having a ton of fun skewering the various tropes and poking fun at the genres (such as how do vampires groom themselves for going to a party if they can’t see themselves in mirrors; and how do they get into nightclubs if the bouncer won’t invite them in).

The vampires can’t even mange to find a creepy gothic structure to inhabit, but are stuck in a second hand house with second hand furniture that would charitably be called a fixer upper in the real estate trade.

 

At the same time, as ridiculous and silly as it all is, everyone involved actually manages to pull off a few scenes that are actually somewhat moving.

 

The cast is filled out with some nice and clever performances, including Cori Gonzales-Macuer as a new vampire who can’t keep his mouth shut; Rhys Darby (the manager of the Conchords) as an alpha male werewolf who is about as un-alpha male as you can get; and perhaps most adorably, Stuart Rutherford, as Stu, a laid back IT specialist who becomes the pet of the group—he makes his mark by just about doing nothing.

 

all the wildernessAll the Wilderness, the new coming of age dramas written and directed by Michael Johnson (it’s his first film), has a wonderful pay off at the end. In a truly heart felt and heart wrenching monologue, the central character, lost boy James, reveals why he has been acting the way he is.

 

And it’s a doozy of an explanation.

 

But as far as I’m concerned, and unfortunately I have to say it, it took an awfully long time to get there and the film rarely connected with me until then.

 

James is angry, sullen, rebellious, disobedient. In other words, everything a teenager should be. But for James, these issues are magnified due to the recent death of his father, a suicide who jumped from a nearby bridge (one of the more stunning visuals in the film).

 

How you react to the movie will probably depend on how you react to Kodi Smit-McPhee (who was The Boy in The Road) as James. For me, Smit-McPhee is a bit too pallid for the part. He doesn’t project enough of a presence on celluloid to really engage the audience in any significant way.

 

Because of this, the story seems to drag on a bit and ultimately seems a bit overly familiar, a drama we’ve seen many times before.

 

The actors that surround James fair a bit better. Isabelle Fuhrman and Evan Ross are adolescents James runs into who introduce him to a different sort of life. They’re very solid and give satisfying performances.

 

Virginia Madsen as James’ mother is even stronger in her frustration at not knowing what to do for her son, slowly losing control of the situation.

 

The strongest performance, though, goes to Danny Devito as James’ therapist. It’s a heartfelt and empathetic bit of acting. But ironically, he’s only in two scenes and does so little one wonders why he’s in the movie.

 

There are times that the movies seems to suggest it may be going somewhere special as James becomes a sort of Alice entering Wonderland, a stranger in a strange land experiencing a new world of unexpected wonders.

 

Johnson flirts with surrealism at points here, especially with the unsettling appearance of some hooded figures. But in the end, it never really feels as if he follows through and instead falls back on the tried and true MTV style music video montages (at the same time and in their defense, they’re well done and are the most moving parts of the story).

 

Still, it never felt like the movie ultimately went there and in the end just fell a bit short.

 

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