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Lazarus and Focus lack spark

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THE LAZARUS EFFECT. Having recently discovered that some contemporary horror movies are actually pretty good, I was prepared to meet this one without old preconceptions. My expectations may have even been elevated. Lazarus is the latest feature from David Gelb, who previously directed and photographed Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). Jiro is a documentary about a man in Tokyo who makes maybe the best sushi in the entire world. He has three Michelin stars, a 10-seat restaurant with a months-long waiting list, and two sons whom he may or may not have completely alienated and enslaved in the pursuit of mastery of his craft. It's a beautifully shot, often insightful movie with subtle hints of psychological horror around the edges. I was expecting at least a little of the same from The Lazarus Effect which, in addition to the resume of its director, boasts a young, interesting cast. Unfortunately, the movie does little to nothing in terms of fulfilling its considerable promise.

In a subterranean laboratory on the campus of a Christian university, a team of scientists works to develop a serum to revive the dead. Ostensibly, their efforts are toward extending the life-saving window for victims of trauma, surgical patients, etc. Naming a medical advancement after a Biblical figure risen from the grave has other implications, but no matter. The team: Frank and Zoe (Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde), a couple who have delayed their nuptials in service of the project; their computer whiz (Donald Glover), who is in love with Zoe; Clay (Evan Peters), a vape-head whose talent/contribution beyond one stoned epiphany remains unclear. There's also a student documentarian named Eva (Sarah Bolger) in the mix for no reason at all. Due to a nebulous contract violation, the project is being shuttered, its materials seized by Big-Pharma bad guys. In the midst of this turmoil, the team manages to bring a dog back from the dead. They elect to sneak into the lab for one last experiment when things go terribly awry. Frank decides to use the serum on one of their own, with decidedly mixed results. There's a whole poorly drawn backstory about childhood trauma, repressed memories and the possibility of an after-life. Also there's some question as to whether the resurrected dog has acquired someone else's personality.

Not only is this premise as old as the horror cinema hills, very little is done here to develop it. There are a few weak attempts, and the talented cast does what it can with scant material, but overall The Lazarus Effect feels rushed and redundant. It exhibits none of the subtly striking visual style of Jiro, does very little to cultivate dread and, even with a primary cast of only five, feels crowded by characters with nothing to contribute. PG13. 83m.

FOCUS. Having seen the trailer for this too many times in recent months, I was ready to just get it over with. Remember that time Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan came to Humboldt and made a mess in the woods (After Earth, 2013)? Mr. Smith certainly does, as does everybody who made the mistake of buying a ticket for it. A far greater number declined to do so, a fact Mr. Smith may remember even more clearly. In an attempt to recover from the first distinct failure of his box-office surmounting career, here is a much-promoted, slickly produced, completely innocuous heist movie that soon nobody will be talking about.

It's Super Bowl week in New Orleans, one of the busiest times of year for diversified grifter Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) and his team. They're hard at work picking pockets, stealing identities and blackmailing philanderers when talented amateur Jess (Margot Robbie) wanders into their midst. She and Nicky have some minor history, and besides her big eyes and ability to wear short skirts, he recognizes her abilities as an asset to the team. He enlists her aid to pull off a big con, and then unceremoniously sends her to the airport with no intention of seeing her again.

Cut to three years later: Nicky's in Buenos Aires, scamming the owner of a Formula 1 team. To no one's surprise, except possibly Nicky's, Jess shows up, running her own game. Things get complicated and the air quickens with "will they or won't they." They will.

Focus, while proficiently executed by writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy Stupid Love) and buoyed by Smith's significant charisma, holds too few surprises to make a significant impact. It saves a twist or two for the end, but by then the languid, too-easy tone has taken hold. In spite of its style, posh settings and glamorous cast, Focus feels like a paint-by-number heist movie, with all its beats where we'd expect them to be. It's bland and palatable, never setting goals it can't easily reach. It can be fun in moments, but even as a mainstream star vehicle, it feels like something is missing. R. 104m.

John J. Bennett

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Previews

CHAPPIE. A boosted police robot gets an AI upgrade and becomes a target as the first self-aware machine. With Sigourney Weaver and a shaggy Hugh Jackman. R. 120m.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS. Vince Vaugn, Dave Franco and Tom Wilkinson play small businessmen on a disastrous European road trip. R. 91m.

MR. TURNER. Timothy Spall plays the famed British painter in this biopic. R. 150m.

Continuing

AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.

BIRDMAN. Back after swooping up all the Oscars. Excellent weirdness as a former superhero franchise star (ahem, Michael Keaton) grasps at a second act. While his character struggles, Keaton clearly still has his chops. R. 120m.

THE DUFF. Teen makeover comedy about a girl (Mae Whitman) who finds out she's the Designated Ugly Fat Friend in her group. It's like Mean Girls never even happened. PG13. 101m.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. The real torture is the muddled characters and blush-worthy story. If you came for more than a little slap and tickle, use your safe word and bail. R. 125m.

JUPITER ASCENDING. Gorgeous trademark visuals and a wreck of a story from the siblings Wachowski. With Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum and a stylishly villainous Eddie Redmayne. PG13. 127m.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Funny, charming Taron Egerton steals the show in this imaginative action comedy about a street punk who becomes a spy. With Colin Firth and Samuel Jackson. R. 128m.

MCFARLAND USA. The story about a cross-country coach (Kevin Costner) hits all the marks so that even the expected triumphs yield a few tears. PG. 128m.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER. He of the square pants leads his undersea crew onto land in this animation and live action mash-up. PG. 93m.

STILL ALICE. Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor losing her mind to Alzheimer's Disease. With Alec Baldwin. PG13. 101m.

WHIPLASH. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons play a young jazz drummer and his bandleader who pushes him to his limits in this breathless intensive on the nature of greatness. R. 107m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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