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Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Gerald McRaney
Synopsis: Will Smith used to be one of the biggest movie stars working. There was a time when he owned the Fourth of July. But then came a string of poorly received films, culminating in a strange accent and even stranger plot in 2013’s summer dud “After Earth.” That’s what makes “Focus” a welcome change of pace. The things we love about Smith — the way he embodies smooth characters that light up the screen with their charm — are in full effect here. It’s not a great movie, but it’s enjoyable, mainly because of Smith’s work at the center of the film. And in “Focus,” his smooth work in the lead role elevates a so-so crime caper into something enjoyable. There are a few twists and turns in this film, but it pretty much goes the way you’d expect. A few solid actors — Gerald McRaney, Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez and BD Wong — show up in supporting roles, but the film pretty much comes down to Smith, Robbie and their chemistry. Writer/directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have set up a decent story that hits all the points you’d expect and throws a few twists in. It’s a sleek con-man story, but it’s also meant to be a romance. At the heart of “Focus” is the relationship between Nicky and Jess, and what Nicky is willing to change or give up to forge a strong relationship with Jess. That is kind of a problem. They are fine together, but I don’t know that I totally bought into their attraction and romance. Jess is not well defined, and not that incredible of a character, which is a bit of a problem. What really holds the film together is Smith, who seems to be back in his wheelhouse with Nicky. It’s a character that works for him, and his performance in the part elevates a marginal story and set up into something entertaining. You care about what happens to Nicky because of Smith, who keeps the film interesting and the audience engaged. Aside from that, “Focus” is a well-crafted film that’s not all that memorable. It’s the kind of sleek-looking entertainment piece you get at the end of February that no one will really remember come the fall. That’s OK, if only because it’s nice to see Smith back in something more suited to his unique talents.
Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Enter with caution.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

The Lazarus Effect
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, and Donald Glover
Synopsis: This is a horror movie with a little higher concept and a little better cast, albeit a cast you might not expect. Duplass, Glover and Wilde aren't the typical actors you think of in a small horror movie, but it works here. This is a film about a group of scientific researchers looking for a way to bring people back from the dead. When one of their own group (Wilde) is killed, they put their research to the test. What they didn't count on was it going wrong, which it does. Director David Gelb has created a tight, claustrophobic film. Most of "The Lazarus Effect" — which runs just 83 minutes — is centered around five actors who are trapped in a basement lab. The action isn't drawn out, and neither is the story. It's tightly constructed, and the close quarters help add to the dramatic tension. That being said, the source of the violence and terror is somewhat nebulous. This is a movie that's OK when you're watching it but falls apart quickly when you have time to think about it. The script from Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater doesn't seem to have a defined sense of where the terror comes from. Is this a demon story? There's also not quite enough put into most of the characters to give them dimension, while there's enough back story provided for Wilde's character that "twists" and "revelations" in the last act of the film aren't surprising. There is potential in this idea, it's a nice cast, and Gelb has some interesting ideas about how to ramp up drama and terror. But there isn't enough story here to make this film work. It's an interesting idea, but the final product is underwhelming.
Rating:  PG-13 for intense sequences of horror violence, terror and some sexual references.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, March 6 — "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2," "Chappie," "Unfinished Business"
Friday, March 13 — "Cinderella," "Run All Night"
Friday, March 20 — "Insurgent," "The Gunman"
Friday, March 27 — "Home," "Get Hard"


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