Neal Slavin's surreal adaptation of Arthur Miller's 1945 novel Focus is as didactic as it is genuinely harrowing. Written as an illumination of the rampant anti-Semitism that Miller experienced as a young man in wartime Ne... more »w York, the film is a suffocating fable of the perils of conformism, which repeatedly corners the viewer into wondering what he or she would do in Lawrence Newman's shoes. Set near the end of World War II, Focus posits a grim, nightmarish outcome to the end of the war where patriotism has eroded into xenophobia and growing paranoia. The Union Crusaders, following the inflammatory rhetoric of a nationally broadcast radio preacher, have begun to openly blame the Jews for the war and threaten all non-gentiles with bodily harm. As the meekly protestant Newman (William H. Macy)--recently demoted at work because his new glasses make him look "too Jewish"--soon becomes a target in his own home, he is forced to open his eyes to the hatred surging throughout the city and his own past silences and collaborations. While the script is relentlessly one-dimensional in its message, strong performances by Macy, Laura Dern (as Newman's leftist love interest), and Meat Loaf (as Newman's menacing neighbor) deliver anxiety and fear presciently reflective of today's climate. --Fionn Meade« less
LGwriter | Astoria, N.Y. United States | 11/04/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Approaching Arthur Miller's heavily moral tale cinematically, one could fashion a straightforward story that would very possibly leave the audience both stony-faced and weary upon exiting the theater. What director Neal Slavin has done is to imbue this film with striking visuals including occasional, intense dream images that make this an unusual work, easily transcending the realm of the ordinary.Set in the 40s in Brooklyn, New York, the story concerns a mild-mannered joe, Newman, played by the always-engaging William Macy who works as a human resources officer in a nameless firm. Single, he lives alone with his mother; his lifestyle and mannerisms brand him as something between convention-abiding milquetoast and lonely recluse. There's an ever-present edge to Newman--whenever he smiles, you can't tell if he's trying desperately to feel inside what should accompany the corners of his mouth turning up, or if he is truly pained making the effort.Into his life comes Gertrude Hart, played brilliantly by Laura Dern. This is very likely one of her best roles; she's flawless here. Sassy, fun-loving, but simultaneously caught up in the ruthless rule of the mob, she both fights and gives into Newman, letting us know that love can happen, but that social convention can easily sway how it goes.The vicious anti-Semitism on display here is typified well by none other than Meat Loaf--perfectly cast in Fight Club, and here just as effective. As Newman's next door neighbor, he effortlessly vacillates between sham innocence and the crude, fearful hostility of "them"--Jews, blacks, whoever--that those of his ilk live to destroy. Kenneth Welsh does a superb job as Father Crichton, modeled after the real-life Father Coughlin, who preached undying hatred of non-white, non-Christian people, American or not. And David Paymer turns in an equally impressive performance as Finkelstein, the Jewish owner of a newstand on the corner of Newman's block who bears the brunt of the bigotry on display.The strongly noir atmosphere that pervades the film underlines the dark nature of the story quite well. Similarly, Newman's strange and sometimes horrific dream images let us know that there's more to him than a pained expression. Inside, his doubts scream at him constantly.This is not a film to run to for an evening of escape, but one instead to see when you're interested in something quite different. And quite telling, given the circumstances of the day."
Exceptional Work by Macy
Reviewer | 07/12/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Without question, film is a powerful medium, more so now than ever before, due to the accessibility of DVD/video, which gives the filmmaker the added assurance that his story or message is going to be seen by possibly millions of people. Use of this medium, therefore, attaches an innate responsibility to the artist, inasmuch as film can be educational, as well as entertaining, which dictates that certain subjects should be approached accordingly and with a corresponding sensitivity and sensibility. A film like Spielberg's "Schindler's List," for example, is important, in that it keeps alive the memory of that which must not be forgotten, and as history tends to repeat itself, Spielberg's film can be viewed as a valuable tool in preventing a recurrence of that tragedy. In that same vein, this film, "Focus," directed by Neal Slavin, is important, in it illuminates the problematic reality of anti-Semitism, which for years beyond number has affected millions of people, is still unimaginably prevalent today, and like any manifestation of bigotry, will perpetuate itself if left unchecked or ignored. Born of a xenophobic strain, it's a disease infecting society which, unabated, could be terminal; and with it's penetrating insights into the condition, this film is an effective vaccine that just may at the very least help stem the proliferation of it, and hopefully may act as a step toward eradicating it altogether.Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy) served his country in the Great War, and has since lived a quiet, conventional life in New York. He's had the same job as a personnel director for some twenty years, and owns the house, located in an average, middle-class neighborhood, in which he lives with his mother (Kay Hawtrey). Lawrence is the kind of guy who gets by just fine by minding his own business and refusing to involve himself with matters that are not (he feels) his concern.All of that is about to change, however, as with the advent of World War 2, Lawrence, along with the owner of the corner market, Mr. Finkelstein (David Paymer), inexplicably finds himself a target of the neighborhood xenophobes, who have aligned themselves with the "Union Crusaders," a national organization currently taken to channeling their fears and hatred upon Jews, or anyone who even "looks" like a Jew. And suddenly Lawrence finds that he can no longer just stand on the sidelines and watch the game being played; because now, he IS the game, whether he wants to be or not.Working from an intelligent, well written screenplay by Kendrew Lascelles, which he adapted from Arthur Miller's novel, Slavin presents a chilling scenario that incisively examines the effects of bigotry upon those against whom it is leveled; and when one considers the fact that this is not merely a hypothetical situation, but a depiction of reality, it becomes all the more disquieting, even unnerving. And what makes the film so effective is Slavin's obvious grasp of his subject, and his studied presentation, which is thought-provoking in it's subtlety. In the opening scene, Slavin establishes Lawrence's "character," and very soon afterward reaffirms it in another scene, which affords the audience the opportunity to observe and assimilate how Lawrence's mind actually works; the thought processes that direct his life. With that in place, then, Slavin is able to take his audience along with Lawrence as his problems gradually begin to unfold. By so doing, he effectively illustrates how the problem evolves, rather than merely stating the problem and addressing it head on, which heightens the viewers emotional involvement, and ultimately enhances the impact of the film. Slavin makes an important statement with this film, which is not only an indictment of bigotry, but carries a cautionary message about apathy, as well. And to his credit, he never hits you over the head with it or engages in subjective finger-pointing to make his case; instead, he proceeds carefully, taking great pains to be as objective as possible with all that he is submitting for your consideration. His approach is that of a cinematic diplomat; and it's an approach that serves Slavin-- and his film-- quite well.As Lawrence, William H. Macy-- one of the best character actors in the business-- gives an amazing performance, establishing the credibility and believability of his character with a sensitive, honest and introspective portrayal. He never attempts to circumvent the personal flaws of Lawrence's nature, but uses them, instead, to create a character that is decidedly three-dimensional, which not only makes him convincing, but serves to reaffirm the integrity of the portrayal. What makes it so compelling is Macy's ability to convey the process by which he examines his own conscience, which successfully enables the viewer to share in the experience of his personal epiphany. In the final analysis, it's the strength of Macy's performance, more than anything else, that makes this film so significantly distinct. Another of the film's strengths is the performance turned in by Laura Dern, as Gertrude Hart, a portrayal that effectively complements Macy's work, as well as that of Slavin. Dern lends tremendous substance to her character, capturing her physically as well as emotionally, and her colorful zeal crates a striking contrast to Lawrence's reserve that works extremely well, for her character as well as the film itself.And just as Sean Combs recently (in "Monster's Ball") made a good case against dismissing out-of-hand the acting endeavors of an established "rock star," Meat Loaf Aday gives a powerful performance here, as Fred, Lawrence's next-door neighbor. It demonstrates, too, that a true artist will produce, regardless of the kind of canvas he's given to work with.The supporting cast includes Michael Copeman (Carlson), Kenneth Welsh (Father Crighton), Joseph Ziegler (Gargan) and Arlene Meadows (Mrs. Dewitt). The kind of film that makes a filmmaker proud of his craft, "Focus," offers a memorable experience that hopefully will prove to be enlightening, as well, to those unaware that such conditions have existed, and still do-- even in this, the land of the free."
Great American Fable
Dorian Gray | USA | 07/22/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"William H. Macy is at his best, as always, in `Focus' a well rendered screen adaptation of Arthur Millers book of the same title. Macy plays Lawrence, a rather meek man, living in a WASPy neighborhood during the early years of W.W.II America. At work he is pressed to wear glasses when he has "mistakenly" hired a Jewish woman, only to find that by donning the eye wear he himself appears to be Jewish. The next day at work after passing over a new applicant who also looks (but is not) Jewish, he is demoted to a less "visible" job and in protest quits his job.Back at home his bigoted neighbors notice his new appearance, and he begins to invite the same vandalism that has been plaguing the the new owner of the neighborhood corner store, a Jew. He also is unable to find work (on account of his appearance), until he meets the same woman he passed over, Gertrude (Laura Dern), who hires him to work for her Jewish employer.The story continues portraying a selectively forgotten era of American history, and manages to weave a fable of significant importance without ever feeling preachy. I would suggest this film to anyone, as it portrays its subject as well as any movie I have seen to date."
Prejudice in our midst
jotix100 | New York, NY | 12/02/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Arthur Miller wrote this novel, so powerful and so incisive in the subject matter that more than 50 years later we can still relate to it.
It took a vision such as Neil Slavin to get this into a film and he chose well his actor for the role of Newman: William H Macy, who is perhaps, one of the most underrated actors around, but one actor that always delivers with an integrity and honesty that makes him shine and make this film as enjoyable as it was reading the Miller text years ago.
Laura Dern and David Paymer excel in their roles, as well as the rest of the cast, but the biggest surprise was Meat Loaf in a very demanding role as the bigotted neighbor. This actor is just unbelievable and we can only hope he is given new opportunities to excel and shine on his own.
The cinematography evokes the New York and Brooklyn of the 40s and brings to mind some paintings by Edward Hopper, especially in two sequences: The first when Newman is looking for a job and leaves a building and he's seen walking down a desolated Manhattan street. The other one is the night sequence where the bullies are going to attack Newman, who is seen walking with his wife and long dark shadows behind them keep following until the confrontation.
This is a film worth seeing and recommending to people that enjoy Arthur Miller's work and the work of a good film director with the intelligence of Neil Slavin."
Watch your step, neighbor!
H. Schneider | window seat | 03/23/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Arthur Miller wrote the novel which is the basis for this movie during WW2. He is using his experience and observation of antisemitism in New York to build a vision of neighborhood Nazism, with a movement called Union Crusaders fighting against non-Christians. The story uses the clever device of a hero who is a non-Jew, who happens to look a bit like the Jewish stereotype and who happens to be a bit of an outsider who dislikes meetings and groups and handclapping and cheering, and who marries a woman with a German name, which supports the suspicions. The story is scary and easily transports from 1945 to any time you want to look at. The film skillfully supports this feeling of not being in a specific historical time by non-realistic settings for the suburban neighborhood. You never make the mistake to think that you are in a real place, it is always like a stage. You might just be in Brave New World. The film is strictly didactic with its obvious lessons for viewers, but rather than resenting that, I developed an admiration for the script. I have not read the novel, but I would assume, that the adaptation is very much in the right spirit. Actors are right on as well, not only Macy and Dern, but also Meat Loaf as neigborhood leader of the nazis. Frankly speaking, I expected not to like the film very much, but I was wrong."