They used to call Will Smith “Mr. July” because of his string of successful big-budget summer popcorn movies that began in the mid-1990s (most notably 1996’s Independence Day and 1997’s Men in Black). And career numbers certainly support Smith’s overall success. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, Smith is ranked 20th on the all-time box office list with his films having earned a combined total of over $2.76 billion. What’s remarkable in that context is that he has the 2nd-fewest number of films (21) of anyone in the Top 20, behind only Orlando Bloom (in 17th place with over $2.81 billion from 17 films, half of which have to do with Hobbits, Pirates, or Lords of Rings). That said, the summer isn’t endless, Smith’s hot streak eventually cooled, and a quick glance at the calendar (or the thermometer) offers an instant reminder this isn’t July – it’s late February.
In his newest release, Focus, Smith plays Nicky, a seasoned con-man who finds himself in the rare position of being a mark, albeit to a pair of amateurs who get nothing from him but a tough lesson. He lets the male con artist go, but the female, Jess (Margot Robbie), intrigues him. He invites her to be something of an intern in his highly organized, highly successful 30-person crew that specializes in everything from pick-pocketing to credit card fraud. Jess learns a lot in a short amount of time, and while the crew is in target-rich New Orleans for a faux Super Bowl, she and Nicky begin a romantic relationship. Once the trip is over, though, they part ways on less than amicable terms.
Three years later, Nicky and Jess run into each other in Buenos Aires. He’s running a solo con and she has found happiness – and wealth – as the girlfriend of successful Formula 1 driver Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Still, there seem to be some sparks left between Nicky and Jess, but both soon learn that love and lies don’t mix.
Once the frivolity of the Meet Cute between Nicky and Jess is dispensed with (mercifully quickly), the first act of Focus crackles with energy. Nicky gives a narrated education to Jess about how the crew works – from the front-end execution and intricacies of pickpocketing and theft in a crowded city, to the back-end factory where the credit card fraud and property liquidation take place. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa present this at a blistering pace (with great help by first-time editor Jan Kovac), and the best part is they never cheat. Their scene blocking and camera movement clearly show how teams of two, three, or more work in flawlessly synchronized harmony. Despite their non-violent nature, the scenes play like well-orchestrated martial arts pieces, and never suggest camera or FX trickery at time.
But it’s as if Ficarra and Requa, who also wrote the screenplay, sold the idea of the entire movie based on only the first act, and without having any of the rest of the story fleshed out. Thoughtful and meticulous detail about the construct of small, intricate cons gives way to a lot of gorgeous and flashy scenes, but in terms of substance they offer a silly “trust us on this” con that wanders into painted-corner territory, only to be rescued by throwing twists at the audience. It’s difficult to elaborate without getting into spoiler territory, but the most surprising aspect of the rest of the film is that despite how simple the con actually is, its presentation is terribly convoluted. Even at a running time of 1:45, it feels like a lot of time is wasted.
And wasted it is, on the wholly unbelievable relationship between Nicky and Jess. It never works for a few reasons. The first is that a two-week fling three years prior is not going generate the kind of hand-wringing over each other these two characters do three years later. The second is that for all of the deftness of direction found with the New Orleans scams, the directors struggle – and mightily – to properly shoot intimate personal scenes between Nicky and Jess. That doesn’t mean just sex scenes; it also means basics like conversations over wine or chats in bed in the morning or so forth. These scenes – and there are many – grind the film to clumsy halts with too many close-ups, too many scenes of each of them speaking while the other is OFF camera, and too many out-of-focus-for-overt-effect shots.
Third? Smith and Robbie have no chemistry whatsoever. On his own and despite the weak later material, Smith is quite good in this role. It requires the natural charm he has, but he’s also able to tap into his personal career of “conning” people (as an actor pretending to be others) to deliver a world-weary performance that suits him well. Robbie is perfectly fine, although the role has very little depth to it. (The directors take the opportunity to showcase Robbie’s beauty, of course, including several costume changes that include everything from a stunning red gown to a bikini and heels.) When they are together, though, and with the exception of a sizable con set-piece that takes place near the end of the first act (featuring B.D. Wong), there is never a moment where Smith and Robbie believably connect.
When your entire film is built on the foundation that two people have something – and the two actors playing them don’t have anything – your story is in trouble.
Focus starts out great, following in the footsteps of some of the terrific con films (it pays homage to) by being confident and strong enough to let the audience be a part of the con. Once the film abandons that approach, though, and relies instead on weak deception and convenient twists, the audience is no longer the film’s partner. Instead, the audience becomes the film’s mark, and no one wants to be taken like that.
It’s Spirits and Oscar Weekend, what I consider to be the official close of the film year (in this case, 2014). Since many films see only a limited release late in their eligibility year (to qualify for awards ballots), there is much to be watched in the early weeks of the following year to catch up on what industry insiders have already seen. And because each film is considered awards bait, many of them tend to be heavy stuff. Themes of just some of the 2014 awards fodder I’ve watched in the first six weeks of 2015 include: race relations, animal poaching, early onset Alzheimer’s, organized crime, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Hobbits. Oh, those Hobbits.
All these weighty tales have me yearning for something a little fluffier. Hellooooooo Disney and your based-on-actual-events, feel-good-sports-story McFarland USA.
It’s 1987 and Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school teacher and coach with something of a temper. In fact, his temper has cost him enough jobs to force him to take whatever job he can get to provide for his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and their daughters. That “whatever” turns out to be a P.E. teaching gig at McFarland High, a school in the near-exclusively Latino town of McFarland, CA. Struggling to fit in and not making a great early impression, Jim feels like life has him on the ropes … until he watches some of the boys in his P.E. class run. And can they run.
Seeing them inspires Jim to start a cross-country track team at the school, an idea that presents new challenges, most notably the boys’ availability to train. They are all “pickers” – field workers who pick crops for a living in the morning hours before school and in the evening hours after, all in the name of helping to provide for their families. But they are a dedicated team, and after a disappointing debut, the runners and their coach redouble their training and dedication. That’s when they start finding success.
I don’t recall exactly when, but there was a moment in the overlong 128-minute McFarland USA when I realized I wasn’t watching a sports movie – I was watching a collection of moments one might find in a sports movie, strung together to create something reminiscent of a sports movie. The film doesn’t start this way, though.
In fact, it starts with solid potential. Kevin Costner, star of some of the great sports movies of the last 40 years (Field of Dreams; Bull Durham; Tin Cup), finds himself in a role that is perfect for him: that of the aged coach. His Jim White character isn’t drawn this way, but because it’s Costner, you get the sense that he is a once-glorious athlete who never made it to The Show, so he has spent his life trying to maintain that pre-failure glory by living vicariously through subsequent generations. He never reminisces about glory days, but there is a fading gleam in his eye that suggests a once-fiery spark. Sadly, that potential is never built upon.
What follows those promising opening minutes – courtesy of writers Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, and screenwriter Grant Thompson – is a string of shoddily-drafted clichés, plot conveniences, and half-thoughts that feel like they were randomly selected from a box of sports film screenwriting flashcards.
It begins with flimsy characters in Jim’s personal life. Cheryl serves only as the doting wife who is there for him to talk to so it doesn’t look like he is talking to himself. His older daughter, Julie (Morgan Saylor), is THAT teen – the one who complains about their lot in life, the one whose birthday Daddy misses. Their other, younger daughter is the fourth wheel.
As for the team of seven runners, other than the fact they are all “pickers” (something we are endlessly reminded of throughout the film), only two really stand out. One, Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), is memorable for being the slowest runner (essentially because he’s the fattest). The other, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), is the one Latino character, in a film full of Latino characters, who is given the most screenwriting flashcards: he’s the best runner; he has a woefully contrived teen romance with Julie that is only worthy of about three scenes; and he has daddy issues that are also only worthy of about three scenes.
The rest of the cast is central casting material: the underfunded school principal; the grocery store owner; the neighbor with the chickens; the nail stylist; the Latin matriarch who cooks too much and bosses Coach around like he’s her own son; the car club members mistaken for gang bangers.
Cue humor built on cultural differences, that moment when Coach has an epiphany about his life choices, and a pair of late, second act subplots designed for no other reason that to create inflammatory conflict, and you have a whole lot of nothing special.
But beyond all of this, the greatest sin committed here is by Niki Caro and her leaden direction. The film, which is supposed to be about young men rising above their rough lots in life to do this greater thing, fails to draw any inspiration from that whatsoever. Never is there a moment that elicits the desire to cheer for these young men because most of the running scenes – from training sessions to the climactic race at the end – look like cross country b-roll clips you might see playing on a giant TV at a runner’s expo.
The story of the McFarland runners is an inspirational one, but McFarland USA isn’t an inspirational sports movie. The runners win some but with no real thrill of victory. The runners lose some but with no real agony of defeat. There is only running and picking, occasionally interrupted by attempts at drama and humor, and all of it completely devoid of any sustained excitement or tension.
Late in 2013 I became a member of Film Independent. One of the great privileges of that membership is the opportunity to vote in the Independent Spirit Awards. This is my chance to support and celebrate the industry I so enjoy, and to be an active participant in a way writing reviews can never allow.
For the second straight year, I am publishing my votes (now that voting is closed). I do this because I am of the opinion that voting for this sort of thing should be transparent; besides, I’m vocal with my opinions on social media, so why wouldn’t I be equally so here?
Below are the categories and nominees. My votes are as indicated, along with an image from that film and my thoughts. Certain selections are linked to my reviews.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Love Is Strange
My Vote: Selma
My Thoughts: The months that led to and included the marches from Selma to Montgomery, championed by Martin Luther King, Jr. and done in the name of voting rights equality, mark a pivotal point in our nation’s timeline. This film captures that piece of history like few historical films I’ve seen before.
Damian Chazelle, Whiplash
Ava DuVernay, Selma
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
David Zellner, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
My Vote: Ava DuVernay, Selma
My Thoughts: While I have respect for the other directors and their technical efforts, DuVernay commands with her storytelling skills above all else. She masterfully constructs the story of one defining moment by using a collection of smaller, more intimate tales – tales ranging from the political to the marital – to arrive there. The film is never about one person – not even Dr. King – and yet it’s about all of them. To tell this story that way is a gift.
BEST FEMALE LEAD
Marion Cotillard, The Immigrant
Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Jenny Slate, Obvious Child
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
My Vote: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
My Thoughts: The gap between the quality of the film Still Alice and the quality of the performance by its lead, Julianne Moore, is so great, it’s as if Moore is in another better film contained within this lesser one. Without her work here, this film never finds a theater.
BEST MALE LEAD
André Benjamin, Jimi: All Is By My Side
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton, Birdman
John Lithgow, Love Is Strange
David Oyelowo, Selma
My Vote: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
My Thoughts: As a two-bit thief who devolves into a raging sociopath, Gyllenhall manages to devour every scene without looking like a glutton. He has the all the memorable attributes of a great character performance with the confidence and heft of a lead.
Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, Big Eyes
J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Jim Jaramusch, Only Lovers Left Alive
Ira Sachs & Mauricio Zacharias, Love Is Strange
My Vote: Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
My Thoughts: The might of the story is just as formidable, if not more so, than its contemporaries, but its smaller moments are as memorable as its larger ones, it drips neo-noir, and if you tweak a few details here and there, it plays just as well as a Corporate America tale as it does a local TV news one.
BEST SUPPORTING FEMALE
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Carmen Ejogo, Selma
Andrea Suarez Paz, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors
Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
My Vote: Emma Stone, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
My Thoughts: It’s easy to forget how good an actress Emma Stone is because she is immeasurably adorable as one of those celebrities who “gets it” and never takes herself too seriously. Then she dazzles with her performance as the young daughter/personal assistant tasked with managing the business and emotions of an actor looking to feed his ego by recapturing his past glory and sooth his soul by repairing his reputation. She also goes toe-to-toe with the great Edward Norton and never flinches.
BEST SUPPORTING MALE
Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange
Edward Norton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
My Vote: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
My Thoughts: Whatever the opposite of anthropomorphism is, Simmons delivers it. His performance is one of human-as-cobra: lithe and sinewy, slithering around the room and around his musicians, and perhaps most fearsome when he is still because you never know what will set him off or who he will strike. (Click HERE for my full SoF review.)
BEST FIRST SCREENPLAY
Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior
Sara Colangelo, Little Accidents
Justin Lader, The One I Love
Anja Marquardt, She’s Lost Control
Justin Simien, Dear White People
My Vote: Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior
My Thoughts: Each of the screenplays nominated is about, or deals with, relationships. Akhavan’s first effort, though, is the only one that feels natural, that feels real. The others, all varying degrees of good, feel like stories intended to be made into movies; Appropriate Behavior feels like a story intended to be a story that happened to be made into a film.
Darius Khondji, The Immigrant
Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Sean Porter, It Felt Like Love
Lyle Vincent, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Bradford Young, Selma
My Vote: Bradford Young, Selma
My Thoughts: This was probably the toughest category to vote on, but in the end, Young’s cinematography manages to simultaneously set and capture the tenor of each scene to such an amazing degree, you can watch this film with no sound and at least understand the mood of the moment.
Sandra Adair, Boyhood
Tom Cross, Whiplash
John Gilroy, Nightcrawler
Ron Patane, A Most Violent Year
Adam Wingard, The Guest
My Vote: Tom Cross, Whiplash
My Thoughts: Tom Cross’ editing is as important to the success of Whiplash as every other aspect of the film. Without his precision cuts, the film fails. (Click HERE for my full SoF review.)
20,000 Days on Earth, Directors: Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Producers: Dan Bowen, James Wilson
Citizenfour, Director/Producer: Laura Poitras, Producers: Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky
The Salt of the Earth, Directors: Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, Producer: David Rosier
Stray Dog, Director: Debra Granik, Producer: Anne Rosellini
Virunga, Director/Producer: Orlando von Einsiedel, Producer: Joanna Natasegara
My Vote: Virunga, Director/Producer: Orlando von Einsiedel, Producer: Joanna Natasegara
My Thoughts: This riveting documentary finds itself at the intersection of three tremendous competing forces: animal poachers, political rebels, a greedy corporation. Documenting life, war, and money in a part of the world most of us know little-to-nothing about, Virunga is the only doc to grab you by the lapels and refuse to let you go.
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM
Force Majeure (Sweden)
Norte, The End of History (Philippines)
Under the Skin (United Kingdom)
My Vote: Ida (Poland)
My Thoughts: Pawel Pawlikowski’s devastating drama is not only my choice for Best International film, it’s my overall #1 film of 2014. Click HERE for my SoF review.
BEST FIRST FEATURE
Dear White People, Director/Producer: Justin Simien, Producers: Effie T. Brown, Ann Le, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Lena Waithe
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Director: Ana Lily Amirpour, Producers: Justin Begnaud, Sina Sayyah
Nightcrawler, Director: Dan Gilroy, Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Obvious Child, Director: Gillian Robespierre, Producer: Elisabeth Holm
She’s Lost Control, Director/Producer: Anja Marquardt, Producers: Mollye Asher, Kiara C. Jones
My Vote: Nightcrawler, Director: Dan Gilroy, Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
My Thoughts: Completely without gimmick and loaded with gritty confidence, Nightcrawler keeps you riveted despite trying to make you look away with its unflinching look at the depths of one man’s depravity. You will never watch your local news in the morning – hell, at any time of day – the same way again.