How much longer for pleasant, diversionary cinema? Mar 16, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 26 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
There should be movies like Focus every week. It’s a stylish and amusing film with glamorous actors, memorable supporting players, lush settings, and lots of twists and turns. Will Smith plays a successful con artist who chisels people all over the world. He’s amused when a two-bit newbie played by Margot Robbie tries to run a hustle on him—amused and also powerfully attracted, because Margot Robbie may be the most beautiful woman to grace the screen since the 1960s heyday of Natalie Wood and Julie Christie.
He’s the Paul Newman to her Robert Redford, except that there’s sex involved.
Like Redford in The Sting (1973), Robbie wants to learn the “long con”—the big-money score that not only requires stealing from a very rich and dangerous person but also ensuring that said person never knows he’s been had. Smith pooh-poohs the long con: “We’re in a volume business,” he explains as he and a crew of 20-30 people set up a thievery ring during the week of the Super Bowl in which they work together like a corps de ballet in beautiful synchrony on hundreds of small scores.
But—and this is the graceful aspect of the otherwise workmanlike script and direction by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra—you’re never quite sure whether Robbie might not be conning Smith or what Smith is really up to with Robbie. And he may not be as dismissive of the long con as he says.
Now 46 and a decade past being the biggest star in motion pictures, Will Smith is not the rough-edged force of nature of his early years or the weird martyr-type he became after he stopped playing his kid roles. He downshifts here. And in playing it cool, he is as smooth as anyone has ever been on screen. He’s really a joy to watch.
Robbie is not only an exquisite camera subject; she gives every sign here, as she did in The Wolf of Wall Street, of possessing real comic chops and an underlying core strength. She’s too tough to be winsome, but she gets you on her side somehow. There’s something new about her.
Requa and Ficarra clearly studied the classic caper pictures and learned the importance of having a vivid secondary cast. There are two terrific turns here. An actor, heretofore unknown to me, named Adrian Martinez plays Smith’s heavy-lidded and heavyset partner in crime. And Gerald McRaney, a television star of the 1980s and ’90s who staged a dazzling move back into the spotlight as an enigmatic billionaire on the Netflix series House of Cards, pops up at the end as a tough-as-nails security guard, and in a few minutes’ screen time all but steals the picture.
Focus isn’t a world-class film by any means. It doesn’t reignite the caper-movie genre the way that, say, the Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee Jones version of The Fugitive reinvented the chase film back in 1993. It has nothing on its mind, and all the watch-stealing and con-man gimmicks grow a bit tiresome when you know they’re just movie-staged nonsense. Still, Focus doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not: It’s diverting, and even a little bit surprising, and it goes well with popcorn.
Yes, movies like Focus should be released every week. But they aren’t, because the sad truth is that movies like Focus don’t quite work any longer—and by “work,” I mean that they don’t make all that much sense as a central item in one’s weekly entertainment diet.
When movies were the best, or even the only, game in town in terms of large-scale entertainment, and when they didn’t cost anywhere near as much to attend, a good-but-not-great star vehicle could be a terrific diversion—the way you can have fun now when you land on some cute television program, like the cop-detective show Castle or the military-detective show NCIS, and find yourself happily diverted for an hour.
And that’s the problem. A happy diversion ought to be enough to make any movie a success; but for most people, it isn’t—not any longer. Most people hardly ever go to the movies; the trick to making a movie succeed is getting those folks to leave the house and give it a shot. (That’s the secret to the colossal triumph of American Sniper, which turned out an audience of people who haven’t been to a movie theater in years.) Focus doesn’t offer enough of a reason for a couple to spend 30, 40, 50 bucks on it, a large soda, and a package of Twizzlers. It was more than enough for me. But I have to admit, they pay me to go.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
Including the virtue of keeping a straight faceMar 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 24 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When I tell you that, in my opinion, the three novels now known as the Fifty Shades Trilogy are the worst books I have ever read all the way through, I am not telling you anything interesting. To criticize E. L. James’s publishing version of winning the Irish Sweepstakes is to attack a cultural phenomenon entirely beyond the reach of criticism. These three books, originally published as a series of posts on a fan-fiction website, ended up earning their author $95 million in a single year.
A musical love story finds its mediumFeb 23, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 23 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
I don’t remember when I have been more deeply affected by a film than I was by The Last Five Years, a jewel box of a movie-musical that is unquestionably the best of its kind since Chicago was released in 2003. It is at once a tiny slip of a thing and an emotional blockbuster. Over the course of a brisk 90 minutes, The Last Five Years provides an exhilarating and devastating account of the relationship between a successful young writer and an unsuccessful young actress.
A grim, epic allegory of Putin’s RussiaFeb 9, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 21 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The director of the new Russian movie Leviathan now lives in Canada. This was a wise decision on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s part—because even though Leviathan received grants from the Russian government and was officially selected to represent the country in this year’s Oscar race, at some point in the near future, Zvyagintsev’s career and maybe his life won’t be worth a plugged kopek in his homeland.
One man, one war, and the cost of serviceFeb 2, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 20 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The overwhelming American Sniper is cast in shadow from start to finish by two real-world tragedies, one very broad and one very precise. The first is the irresolution of the Iraq war, the conflict to which the film’s titular character—Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle—was deployed four times. The second is the 2013 murder of Kyle at the hands of a disturbed veteran he was trying to help. As a result of these tragedies, the movie that tells their stories is haunted and grave.
Is the Alan Turing seen here the Alan Turing who was? Jan 26, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Imitation Game is the fanciest ABC Afterschool Special ever made: It takes the inspiring, mystifying, and upsetting life story of a great genius and turns it into a didactic and banal lesson about how people who are “different” are also very, very special.
When a historical drama is devoid of dramaJan 19, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 18 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The marketing genius of movies like Selma, the highly praised docudrama about the march in Alabama that triggered the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is that they simultaneously confuse and intimidate critics and audiences by making them feel as though it would be an act of disrespect to speak anything but words of praise for the way they depict life-and-death historical events of great moral moment.
The biblical saga gets an up-to-the-minute adaptationDec 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 16 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Raise your hand if you want to see Moses portrayed as an insurgent lunatic terrorist with a bad conscience, the pharaoh who sought the murder of all first-born Hebrew slaves as a nice and reasonable fellow, and God as a foul-tempered 11-year-old boy with an English accent.
A weird, tragic, compelling tale tainted by politicsDec 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 14 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Foxcatcher is a slow, gripping, fact-based movie about a bizarre and lonely heir to the Du Pont fortune whose obsession with the sport of wrestling eventually led him to commit a pointless and vicious murder. What makes Foxcatcher compelling is that its story, its setting, and its characters are so odd, so singular, so unlike anything we’ve seen before.
I’m OK, you’re OK, and you’re entitled to your opinionNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you go see the universally praised Birdman, the story of an over-the-hill film star trying to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway play, I hope you enjoy yourself. I really do. That’s what movies are for—to provide enjoyment, a few hours of diversion. Genuine art transcends that shallow goal.
The pursuit of excellence makes a great movieOct 27, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 07 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In Whiplash, a dislikable teenager runs afoul of a dislikable adult, and what emerges from their conflict is the movie of the year so far. It’s rare for an American film to offer such an unvarnished portrait of unattractive people, and rightly so: Why would people want to watch?
Feckless men, reckless women, flawed castingOct 20, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
In the universe according to Gone Girl, men are no great shakes: They’re inconstant and weak and foolish. But women . . . ah, women. They’re smart, resourceful, infinitely clever—and profoundly dangerous.
Not so mad about the boy, but the premise is promisingSep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you know that Boyhood has been rapturously received as a revolutionary work in the annals of American filmmaking, it is almost sure to disappoint you. I know this, because I saw it two weeks after it opened and it disappointed me, even though I knew I was seeing something no other filmmaker had ever really tried before and that the experiment was an undoubted success.
For Tom Cruise, from top gun to second fiddle? Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Movie stars go cold. It’s part of the way popular culture works. For a long time, people just love watching them. People can’t get enough of them. And then, after they go to the well once too often with a formula that has gone flat, or after their messy personal lives get all mixed up in the characters they’re playing, stars become even slightly distasteful.