PODCAST: SJ49: Focus; Disney movies and Oscar winners

White Background LogoSwanner and Judd talk about Focus; Disney movies and Oscar winners

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Focus

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Judd: In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky, a professional pickpocket and con man who meets Jess, played by Margot Robbie, when she marks him and tries to steal his wallet in a fumbled con attempt. When she realizes who he is, she wants in the game, but will emotions get in the way? Focus is scripted and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who have teamed up in the past for both Cats & Dogs movies, Bad Santa and I Love You Phillip Morris. Not a bad start for a duo who only have 8 credits to their name. Does Focus add or detract from their oeuvre?

The movie rests entirely on the effortless charm of Will Smith, who Ficarra and Requa direct with finesse. They tone down his usual braggadocio, to make Nicky a slick and smooth, trustful character, with slight air of mystery – a real con man. The problem is that you know going into a movie about two con artists that fall for each other there’s going to be a Grifters like twist coming, except in Focus it never does. The first half of the movie we’re treated to Nicky and Jess stealing from marks and building a relationship over it. At one point the mood turns tense, but we realize that’s a con too.

An aspect of the film that I really liked was the soundtrack. Heavily featuring chill electronica and West Coast jazz, the music matches Smith’s the easy breezy Nicky. It’s definitely a soundtrack that I’ll be purchasing in the near future.

The only problem I had with Focus is that I kept waiting for what I expected to happen and instead I got a bunch courting that tiptoed the line between cutesy and droll. It wasn’t saccharine sweet, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s not until the last act when the final twist comes. It’s not dark, it’s not tawdry and in fact, it’s kind of dumb, but it is fun. From beginning to the almost end, I was waiting for some earth shattering, dark twist, but Focus isn’t that kind of con movie. It’s a romantic caper posing as a con movie, and I’m the one that felt like the mark.

Judd: 2 ½ stars

McFarland, USA

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Swanner: Disney likes making sports movies about underdogs. Million Dollar Arm, Secretariat, Glory Road, Miracle and Invincible, all are real stories about coming from behind. McFarland USA has the same formula, a cross country team from a poor town making it big. The films are always good but don’t always catch the attention of the public. Will McFarland USA find America’s dollars at this week’s box-office?

Judd: The problem with Disney and these movies is that they’ve become a formula. While I wouldn’t say that these movies aren’t good, they’re basically all the same and their appeal has become limited to the sport theme. Don’t like cross country? I’m sure there’s a swimming or fencing movie right around the corner. I’m looking forward to the bowling themed movie myself. Kevin Costner and Maria Bello star, Niki Caro directs.
Swanner: You’re right. The funny thing is that most of these films don’t find a wide audience. I liked this movie a lot. I liked that it showed characters I’d never seen before except as bit players in the background. These characters had a richness we haven’t seen very often in film. Farm workers who are struggling to live but never forget the importance of their families. Its formula, but at least they’ve changed up the players

Judd: I’ll give you that this movie shines a light on a culture that exists in our country that, at best, we know very little about, or at worst, look down upon. While McFarland USA is a more subtle introduction to this culture than a movie about Cesar Chavez, it still suffers from the trappings of “The Formula”. Kids from a less-than-privileged background compete against the best and whitest brightest. The captain of the team has some obligation that the coach needs to overcome or integrate into training. Someone dies or almost dies. In the end the underdogs win and if you’re not careful, you just might learn something.

Swanner: No one would watch these movies if there wasn’t a happy ending for these characters. These are crowd pleasing films that have audiences cheering these characters on and I found myself cheering along. The formula works and that’s why it continues. Whether it’s a football team, an Olympic hockey team, a racing horse or a cross country racing team as long as there are inspectional stories to tell movie studios will tell them.

Judd: I know these films serve a purpose and a niche. They’re always well-made and they’re always uplifting, but what does that count for when they’re all the same? McFarland USA has the interesting edge of focusing on farm laborers of the Central Valley, but in the end it would have been no different if they were steel workers of Pennsylvania or coal miners of West Virginia.

Swanner: 3 stars
Judd: 2 ½ stars

The Duff

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Swanner: I wasn’t looking forward to this film because all society needs is another slang term to insult the less beautiful. Duff stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, the one person in your peer group that makes everyone else look thinner or prettier. In the film, Bianca finds out that she is the duff amongst her friends and decides she is going to change her social standings with the help of her next door neighbor, Wesley, the guy who initially tells her she’s a duff. As a duff myself, this film had a long way to go to get my approval.

Judd: One look at the poster and you know exactly what you’re going to get. In the end, the ugly nerd goes to the dance, and the captain of the team realizes he’s been in love with her the whole time. The Duff takes the genre to a new low by being flat, horribly unfunny, with glacial pacing. Directed by newcomer Ari Sandel, The Duff feels like you’re binge watching an awful teenage sitcom.

Swanner: It’s true, everything you expect to happen will happen but i disagree when you say it’s not funny. The movie is funny and at moments charming. I knew when you were yawning before Bianca found out she was a duff there would be trouble. This movie is made for people who buy Taylor Swift albums, and not for old guys who use the term “glacial pacing”.

Judd: Yes, I retired my Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper many years ago and I’m OK with that. The movie has its funny moments, but they are few and far between. An ugly duckling needs to have personality, and outside of the mall montage, we don’t get a sense that Bianca is anything more than a flimsy stereotype. The same can be said about all the characters. When a movie is made around a well-worn genre such as this, it absolutely must have something that makes it unique. The Duff doesn’t have it.

Swanner: It’s not the best movie of its genre but it’s sweet and entertaining and the duff’s of this world like to win sometimes…even if only on film. Since i do own Taylor Swift albums i think i can speck for my people. Comedies are built on stereotypes and teenage ones are even more so. We like to see ourselves on screen and whether a hit or a miss it still reminds us that we are relevant to the story. This movie wasn’t made to win awards it was made for it’s audience…me.

Judd: Not the best of its genre? The Duff is literally the duff of its genre, except in this case no one is waiting to take it to homecoming. Comedies may be built on stereotypes, but the good ones expand upon those tropes; the rest get released in February.

Swanner 2 ½ stars
Judd: 1 star

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

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Judd: I don’t remember the first Hot Tub Time Machine, and since I was too lazy to read our old review, I went into Hot Tub Time Machine 2 with an unbiased mind – as unbiased as I can be about a low budget comedy released in February.

The first movie left our heroes Nick, (Craig Robinson), Lou (Rob Corddry),Jacob (Clark Duke) and Adam (John Cusack), who is missing from this sequel, in considerably better standing than the losers they were in their previous life. Hot Tub Time Machine 2 picks up five years later. Lou has become a billionaire rock star and inventor of Louggle. Nick has become a mega-pop star, having stolen and produced all the Billboard hits before their creators. Jacob is Lou’s butler. Things go awry when some mysterious stranger shoots Lou in the dick, and the boys are forced to go into the future, rather than the past, to save Lou’s life.

As I mentioned, I don’t remember much about the first movie, other than the fact that it wasn’t as bad as I expected. The same cannot be said about the sequel. Director Steve Pink and Screenwriter Josh Heald are still at the helm; however, the first movie had the benefit of screenwriters Sean Anders and John Morris who have written other good-for-what-they-are comedies such as We’re the Millers, She’s Out of My League and Horrible Bosses 2. Without Morris and Anders, Heald’s script wanders and the scenes feel like only a setup for the punchline. None of the stories are fully fleshed out, and some of them barely make sense. What disappointed me the most, though, were the squandered visual jokes they could have played with the boys looking like their future selves. We were only given one good look at what they looked like while they studied their reflection in the mirror. Lou looked like a homeless Bret Michaels, Nick looked like Fredrick Douglass, and Lou looked like a bald cabbage patch doll. That could have been some supremely funny stuff.

The whole movie feels exactly like what it is, a half-hearted cash-in, though maybe that’s a bit harsh. It’s obvious that Anders and Miller were the training wheels on Pink and Heald’s tandem bike, and they’re not quite ready to ride alone yet. It’s too bad they had to wreck what could have been a perfectly good franchise instead of getting a little more practice. I thought that’s what the Van Wilder/American Pie franchises were for.

Judd: 1 star

The Last Five Years

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Swanner: The Last Five Years is a two person off Broadway musical that I’ve been in love with for years. Written by Jason Robert Brown, it follows Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), a young New York couple who we see from the beginning to the end of their relationship. The difference here is, we also follow them from the end to the beginning of their relationship, as well. Written for the stage, there it was much easier to tell the story, two actors, no sets and an amazing score. Trying to tell this story on film was much harder. Richard LaGravenese directs and adapts the story for the screen.

Since it is a two person film with limited dialog you become heavier entangled in the couples’ lives. Jamie is an inspiring novelist while Cathy wants to be an actress. As Jamie becomes successful Cathy struggles with summer stock and failed auditions. Cathy’s unhappy, Jamie’s not, and we start to see the relationship disintegrate. I mean we know their doomed, Cathy told us with the opening number, but you still feel compelled to watch because the material is just that good.

As I mentioned before, most of this musical is sung so if you get antsy about a lack of dialog… this might not be your thing. Between LaGravenese’s story telling and Brown’s fantastic score, you have a lovely film about the heartbreaking reality of a couple who never quite ever meet up in life; never on the same parallel at the same time. This is great theatre no matter how devastating. If it’s not available in your city because of its limited release, it is available online as a rental or purchase.
Swanner: 3 ½ stars