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Focus-2015-Movie“FOCUS”  My rating: C (Opens wide on Feb. 27)

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The key to pulling off a scam, according to master con artist Nicky, is to throw off your mark’s focus.

Tap the poor slob on his right shoulder while you remove the Rolex from his left wrist. Misdirect. Confuse.

The same can be said of long-con movies (think “The Sting”), which bluff the audience to deliver a big “Gotcha!!!” payoff.

That’s the goal anyway. The problem with “Focus” is that, well, it has no focus.

Not the characters. Not the fuzzy plotting. Not the halfhearted stab at romance.

Oh, there’s some diversion to be found in the high-roller settings: New Orleans when it hosts the Super Bowl,  Buenos Aires during a Formula One race.  It smacks of an old James Bond flick with a dash of “Thomas Crown Affair” slickness.

But this tepid “thriller” mostly coasts, offering a couple of minor diversions (it’s amusing to see how professional scammers go about their nefarious business) without ever delivering that “wow” moment.

TO  READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR’s WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article11151854.html

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leviathan“LEVIATHAN”  My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Feb. 27)

 140 minutes  | MPAA rating: R

There’s a lot going on just in the title of “Leviathan,” Russia’s nominee for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

Leviathan is the Bible’s term for whales, the huge sea creatures that once provided sustenance for the now-abandoned fishing village that is the film’s primary setting. Their massive bones still litter the sand — along with dozens of beached, decaying boats.

Leviathan is also the title of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book about the relationship of the individual to government and society.

In “Paradise Lost,” Milton employs the word to describe Satan’s powers.

All of those references are fitting in the context of this exhausting film, which savagely picks apart the new world order of post-communist Russia.

In writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s multi-character drama, the local government tries to seize the property of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), who owns the last occupied house on a spit of land that once was home to a thriving fishing community. Now it is under the jurisdiction of the closest viable town.

Kolya lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and his teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). He runs a car repair business out of his shed. The place is a dump, but at least it’s his dump.

Moreover, Kolya has a long-standing feud with the mayor, Vadim (Roman Madianov), who is not only forcing him to give up his land but is paying only a fraction of its worth.

To help him fight City Hall, Kolya has employed the services of Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), an old army buddy who is now a hotshot Moscow lawyer. Dimitri has assembled a fat dossier of the Mayor’s crimes and abuses; perhaps a blackmail threat will make the city back off.

Against this legal battle Zvyaginstev and co-writer Oleg Negin explore several personal relationships as well as their view that corrupt Communism has been replaced by crony capitalism and the theocratic dictatorship of the Russian Orthodox Church.

TO READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW VISIT THE KANSAS CITY STAR WEB SITE AT http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/movies-news-reviews/article11158901.html

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Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

“MAP TO THE STARS” My rating: C (Opening Feb. 27 at the Cinetopia)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There have been plenty of great movies about Hollywood.

“Sunset Boulevard.”

“The Bad and the Beautiful.”

“The Player.”

David Cronenberg’s “Map to the Stars” is not one of them.

It’s got a terrific cast (including recent Oscar winner Julianne Moore) and offers many observations about the pathetically fragile egos of those caught up in the celebrity/career cycle, and of the moral vacuum in which the entertainment industry operates.

What it hasn’t got is one character — just one — who isn’t either homicidal, mental, or otherwise set apart from the rest of us average folk. Now this may be a perfectly accurate reflection of life in LaLa Land,  but it makes for an uninvolving movie experience.

The screenplay by Bruce Wagner (“Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills”) follows the template of a classic Robert Altman film.  Take an evocative setting (Hollywood, Nashville, a wedding, a health food convention) and toss into it a dozen or so characters whose trajectories intersect at various points.

It begins with the arrival in L.A. of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a fresh face from Middle America seeking her future and fortune in the city of angels. Did I say she had a fresh face? Not pecisely. Agatha has a huge scar on her left cheek and wears old-fashioned over-the-elbow lady’s gloves to hide what she says are burn marks.

She hires a limousine driver (Robert Pattinson, late of the “Twilight” franchise) to give her a tour of the sights and of celebrity residences. He’s actually an actor, he says, and is contemplating Scientology. “I was thinking about converting. Be a good career move.”

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***...misbehaving

Taika Waititi…misbehaving

“WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS”  My rating: B- (Opens Feb. 27 at the Tivoli)

86 minutes | No MPAA rating 

After several lifetime’s worth of experiences, you’d think vampires would get it right.

But, no, the bloodsuckers starring in the faux documentary “What We Do in the Shadows” are a singularly inept bunch whose existence argues against the notion that with age comes wisdom.

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (half of the comedy/musical duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, “What We Do…” purports to be footage shot by a New Zealand  documentary crew that’s been granted permission to film the nightly activities of a group of vampires living together in a creaky old house.

Usually front and center is Viago (Waititi), an affable and childlike fellow in the Andy Kauffman mold who still wears the Byronic fashions of his human life and looks upon the film crew as an opportunity to dispel many of the misconceptions about  his vampire brethren.  (“We get a really bad rap.”)

Vladislav (Clement) has a taste for torture that reflects his flesh-and-blood life in the late Middle Ages. Think Vlad the Impaler.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is basically a frat boy.  A former Nazi, he now is a dedicated slacker and is often criticized by his housemates for not pulling his weight: “You have not done the dishes for five years.”

Finally there’s Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in the cellar and is a dead ringer for the bald, rat-clawed vampire in the classic silent film “Nosferatu.”  Petyr is the “father” of the others, but at age 8,000 he doesn’t exert any more energy than is absolutely necessary.

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Song-of-the-Sea-e1356164661128“SONG OF THE SEA” My rating: ** (Opens Feb. 20 at the Tivoli)

93 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Frame for frame, the Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea”may be the most visually beautiful animated feature film ever.  It’s breathtaking.

That’s the good news.

song seafdggThe bad news is that as storytelling the latest effort from Irish animator Tomm Moore (his “The Secret of Kells” was nominated for an Oscar back in 2009) is a clunky ride, with an overthought and overwrought plot so complicated that it never tracks emotionally.

Ben (David Rawle) and his mute little sister Saorise live on an Irish island where their widowed father (Brendan Gleeson) keeps a lighthouse.  Ben finds his little sister a bit of a pain — especially since she is drawn to swim in the dangerous waters and cavort with the seals who have shown up after an absence of many years.

In fact, Saorise is a selkie, a creature of  Celtic legend who is human on dry land but becomes a seal in the water.

When their grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) demands that they come to live with her in the city, the two children hit the road in an effort to return to the island that has been their only home.

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Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore

“STILL ALICE” My rating: B+

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Still Alice” deals with such a disturbing topic — early-onset Alzheimer’s — that most of us will decline to watch it, and those who do will take their seats with the butterflies of trepidation in full flight.

It is well, then, that a big reward awaits those who take the plunge.

Julianne Moore has won the best actress Oscar for her performance in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s drama, and it takes only about 10 minutes to see why. She delivers a brilliant turn that buoys “Still Alice” just when it seems too much to bear.

Moore plays Alice, who at age 50 seems to have it all. She’s a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and the author of a respected book. She has a husband (Alec Baldwin, doing a 180 from his frequent sleazeball portrayals) who clearly adores her.

The couple have two overachieving offspring: a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a doctor (Hunter Parrish). Their third (Kristen Stewart) blew off college to become an actress — not that anyone is paying her to act.

It is while guest-lecturing at a West Coast university that Alice suddenly loses her train of thought. After a tense moment she recovers nicely (“I knew I shouldn’t have had that Champagne”) and continues.

A moment of forgetfulness, nothing more.

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Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

“FIFTY SHADES OF GREY” My rating: C+

125 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Great literature often defies cinematic adaptation. Bad novels, on the other hand, are right up Hollywood’s alley.

Those who take reading even halfway seriously agree that E.L. James’ best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey is wretched stuff.  A page-turner, perhaps. But wretched.

And yet the movie version — the first 45 minutes or so, anyway — is actually kinda fun, embracing a tongue-in-cheek (no pun intended) sensibility that finds unexpected humor in James’ heavy-panting tale of fabulous wealth and kinky sexual proclivities.

One only wishes that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (whose only previous feature was her young-John-Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy”) had gone whole hog in slyly subverting the whole “Fifty Shades” phenomenon.

As it stands she’s taken a safe middle ground — nothing to outrage the novel’s loyal fans, but enough wryness that a non-believer can find the experience mildly amusing. And, thank heaven, the movie doesn’t force us to wade through James’ purple prose.

Credit for the film’s strong first half rests largely on Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith), who plays college student Anastasia “Ana” Steele as an adorably dweeby girl-next-door.

She agrees to fill in for her ailing editor roomie for a newspaper interview with Christian Grey (former model Jamie Dornan), the 27-year-old billionaire industrialist. There’s a great deadpan comic moment when she pulls up to the Grey House in downtown Seattle, finds a parking spot right in front of the entrance (religions have been founded on less) and stares up at the phallic skyscraper with open-mouthed awe.

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