“Focus” (R) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
It’s not a full recovery, but Will Smith is definitely looking sharp again following his sci-fi disaster “After Earth” with “Focus,” a con-game thriller that’s fuzzy around the edges but overall comes out a winner.
Smith plays Nicky, the head of a pick-pocket ring who recruits Jess (Margot Robbie) to become a part of his crew after she unsuccessfully tries to pull a con on him at a hotel. A quick study, Jess also falls for Nicky at the same time, and the expert and protégé soon become lovers.
After using her in an elaborate con that takes a wealthy gambler for a ride through the power of suggestion, Nicky unceremoniously dumps Jess, only to cross paths with her three years later as he launches a plan for the biggest swindle of his life. The problem is, Nicky seems to still have feelings for his old love, which only complicates his scheme – and naturally, things can turn deadly if everything doesn’t go off just right.
Co-writers and directors Glenn Ficcara and John Requa have the wheels constantly turning in “Focus,” which not surprisingly as a con-artist movie has plot twists bubbling under the surface the entire time. And while the payoff takes a bit of time to unfold, it’s still fun trying to figure out exactly what kind of con is going to be pulled off and who exactly is going to execute it, even if it’s done in a cold and calculated manner.
While the ultimate con is fully explained by the end of “Focus,” the big mystery that remains for audiences is how Nicky and Jess in reality could possibly even like one other, considering the mean-spirited stunts each of them will employ to get and stay ahead in the game. But as a movie couple, Smith and Robbie (Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “The Wolf of Wall Street”) definitely work well together, which ultimately makes us suckers because we want to root for them despite their major flaws. In a way, the con in “Focus” is much more on the audience than it is the people marked for swindle in the film.
“The Lazarus Effect” (PG-13) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Stupid human characters aside — almost a prerequisite for horror movies — the new back-from-the-dead thriller “The Lazarus Effect” is good for what it is. An amalgam of several different scary movies and mind-bending thrillers, “Lazarus” gets it life from a good cast and examination of concepts not often found in your average horror movie.
Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass star as Zoe and Frank, who along with fellow scientists Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (“American Horror Story” standout Evan Peters) are working on a serum that is meant sustain brain function in clinically dead patients while they are being revived.
While experimenting on a dead dog, the team discovers that the substance – dubbed the “Lazarus Serum” – not only sustains brain function but enhances it, gives the animal powers that can’t fully be explained. Despite the obvious risks, Frank uses the serum on Zoe after she is electrocuted in a follow-up experiment, spawning frightening, unintended consequences that not only endanger Zoe, but her fellow scientists.
“The Lazarus Effect” seems to borrow its inspiration from several different movies, from “Flatliners,” “Pet Sematary” and “The Shining,” to any number of Freddy Krueger’s “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies and “X-Men: The Last Stand” — as Zoe’s behavior tends to mimic Dark Phoenix during her fits of uncontrollable fury.
More than anything, though, “The Lazarus Effect” examines, like in the Scarlett Johansson summer blockbuster “Lucy,” the potential of the brain’s power if used beyond 10 percent of its capacity.
The result is much less outlandish than the lengths we see in “Lucy,” as Zoe not only can move items and read other people’s thoughts, but manage to possess people’s minds to the extent that they’re placed in the nightmare that’s been haunting her since she was a child. The notion the film examines is that hell after death is essentially the person’s worst nightmare suffered during their life — and Zoe is trapped in it because the Lazarus Serum prevented her from dying and passing through the gateway to the other side.
Aside from a big twist and the mind-bending aspects of the narrative, “The Lazarus Effect” on the whole is fairly predictable. There are plenty of jump-out-at-you moments (some you will see coming, others will take you off-guard), and the naturally, the door is left open for a sequel. Despite its faults, horror fans will still likely get a charge of “The Lazarus Effect,” which is mostly void of blood and gore because of its PG-13 rating. Ultimately, “The Lazarus Effect” is sort of a thinking person’s horror movie, even though its characters do the dumbest things imaginable in the name of science.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.