A collection of reviews of films from off the beaten path; a travel guide for those who love the cinematic world and want more than the mainstream releases.
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
"In the Year of the Grifter," A Series for Our Present Moment, Opens December 14 at Metrograph
Beginning Friday December 14, Metrograph will present a timely retrospective, "In the Year of the Grifter." That “Fake it ‘til you make it” has become the unofficial motto of these United States isn’t an unexpected development—way back in 1857 Herman Melville’s satirical The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade proposed a vision of the Republic as a ship of fools, lured in by a shapeshifting flim-flam artist. America and the world have gotten older but no wiser, and yesteryear’s snake oil salesmen and false prophets seeking actual profits give way to a new breed of fakers, art world hustlers like Anna Delvey and born-rich real estate swindlers who turn a long history of bankruptcies into a campaign for public office. The real-world results aren’t anything to celebrate today, but cinema, based as it is on feats of audio-visual deceit, has long had a kind of love affair with fabulous frauds, and we’ve brought some of the rogues, rakes, mountebanks, and outright bastards together. It’s a special, and perhaps especially insightful, collection of movies—and that’s no lie.
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola/2013/90 mins/35mm) Coppola, whose filmography might be described as an extended study in the tones and textures of privilege, made one of her best and least-understood films with this cool, deadpan, and totally hypnotic based-on-a-true story work, following the larcenous larks of a group of ultra-materialistic southern California teens who get their kicks snatching haute couture from the homes of celebrities, a game that goes so deep that the players seem to actually believe that they’ve become friends with rip-off victims Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton.
Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris Jr./1990/93 mins/DCP) L.A. Weekly called this grimly funny American independent treasure “one of the ten best films of the decade.” Based on a true story, it’s a singular, stylishly constructed tale of Doug Street, a Detroit man who, unsatisfied with his life, becomes a con artist impersonating, variously, a reporter, a surgeon, a lawyer, and more. A great work of both allegory and realism, Chameleon Street won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1990.
The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese/1986/119 mins/35mm) Twenty-five years after The Hustler, Paul Newman returns to the role of peerless pool shark Fast Eddie Felson, dragged out of retirement by a hungry young wannabe played by the pushy and preening Tom Cruise. Working with the late, legendary DP Michael Ballhaus, Scorsese turns the poolhall into a gladiatorial spectacle of dynamic action, an arena for youthful verve and middle-aged rectitude, as exemplified by the two improbably handsome leading men, to fatefully face off.
Desire (Frank Borzage/1936/95 mins/35mm) Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper reunite in this delightful urbane comedy by Borzage, a master of romantic delirium, here working somewhat after the style of producer Ernst Lubitsch. La Dietrich’s stylish jewel thief stashes a clutch of pearls in the pocket of an upstanding American businessman, and while trying to get back the goods she can’t help but notice the big lug isn’t half bad-looking. An excuse to recall the following lines from the 1936 Times review: “Lubitsch, the Gay Emancipator, has freed Dietrich from von Sternberg’s artistic bondage.” Those were the days.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Frank Oz/1988/110 mins/35mm) The French Riviera is the happy hunting ground of suave, cultured hustler Michael Caine, so when he finds a tacky, penny ante American competitor (Steve Martin, at the height of his prowess as a physical comedian) working his territory, he conspires to run the interloper off with a challenge: whoever is the first to separate heiress Glenne Headly from $50,000 gets to stay on. Director Oz (What About Bob?) keeps the outlandish gags coming nonstop, with Caine and Martin irresistible as the not-so-friendly rivals, the hysteria reaching a fever pitch in the introduction of Martin’s alter-ego, Ruprecht.
F for Fake (Orson Welles/1973/89 mins/35mm) Welles, a serial fabulist who almost never appeared on-screen without a false nose or something of the sort to hide behind, understood implicitly the kinship between artists and conmen, and made this the subject of his scintillating essay film/autobiography, which uses materials from a documentary about art forger Elmyr de Hory as a springboard for the director to hold court on his own career of charlatanry, from the bogus news broadcast of War of the Worlds on down the line. Nimble, puckish, and almost completely without precedent.
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma/2002/114 mins/35mm) Brian De Palma uses everything in his bag of cinematic tricks for this sumptuously shot, mind-bogglingly entertaining meta-movie masterwork. Beginning with an elaborate jewel heist set at the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Palais on opening night, Femme Fatale—starring Rebecca Romijn as a bad girl hurtling toward redemption and Antonio Banderas as the photographer who gets roped into her schemes—is constructed of one amazing set piece after another. It’s a movie high off the pleasures of movies.
The Grifters (Stephen Frears/1990/110 mins/35mm) Pulp writer Jim Thompson saw American life for the hustle that it was, and didn’t pull any punches in writing about it. Adapting one of Thompson’s most pungent novels, Frears gives us con artistry as another family business, with John Cusack’s Roy doing his best to make proud mother Lily, played by Anjelica Huston, one of the film’s four Academy Award nominees along with Annette Bening and, adapting Thompson, another crime fiction legend, Donald Westlake. “So good that one leaves the theater on a spellbound high.”—Vincent Canby, The New York Times.
House of Games (David Mamet/1987/102 mins/35mm) Joe Mantegna, a key member of Mamet's stage and screen stock company, reunited with the playwright-cum-filmmaker (and avid poker player) to star in his directorial debut as Mike Mancuso, a polished swindler who takes uptight, adventure-hungry therapist Lindsay Crouse under his wing. The result is an ingeniously knottily plotted actor’s duet that consistently baffles expectation—and one that features a meaty role for infamous sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, at that!
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges/1941/94 mins/35mm) “I’ve got some unfinished business with him—I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” So says con artist and cardsharp Eve (Barbara Stanwyck), looking out for herself and her feckless father (Charles Coburn) when she sets her sights on the mark of a lifetime in the form of “Hopsy” Pike (Henry Fonda), the snake-obsessed scion to an ale fortune who she meets aboard an ocean liner. Sturges deftly mixes verbal and dialogue comedy, resulting in surefire horse-laughs.
Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles/1955/93 mins/DCP) Welles revisited and revised the potent premise of Citizen Kane for this seamy thriller, in which the titular Eastern European financier—played by Welles, taking inspiration from Stalin and other strongmen—hires a tinhorn criminal (Robert Arden) to investigate his unsavory past, looking for dirty details that might be used against him. The mission leads through the back alleys of the Old World, and through a gauntlet of grotesques and decadents, played by the likes of Michael Redgrave, Katina Paxinou, and Mischa Auer, all contributing to the air of gathering anxiety, and the sense that ours is a venal, corrupt, and fallen world.
The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet/1997/110 mins/35mm) Mamet’s return to the criss-cross territory of House of Games aptly takes its title from a classic confidence trick. Campbell Scott is a corporate employee who, after striking on a million-dollar invention, suddenly finds himself whisked off to a Caribbean island where he attracts the attention of Jimmy (Steve Martin), a well-heeled stranger who massages his ego and lures him into a world of double- and triple-crosses. Rug pull follows rug pull in this head-spinning Hitchcockian concoction of conspiracy and masterful misdirection, vibrating with the giddy pleasure of being hoodwinked.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella/1999/139 mins/35mm) There’s a glowering darkness at the heart of Anthony Minghella’s sun-kissed, classically polished continental thriller, working from the same source materials as Purple Noon, but bringing the homoerotic subtext to the fore. Here Matt Damon’s Ripley lucks into a passport to the continental high life (and unrequited love) with epicurean rich kid Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), though Philip Seymour Hoffman smells something funny: “Tommy! How’s the peepin’?”
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch/1932/83 mins/35mm) If you are looking for the quintessence of Ernst Lubitsch’s art, simultaneously effortless-seeming and totally purposeful in the smallest gesture, you couldn’t do much better than this larcenous romantic comedy, in which thief Herberrt Marshall and pickpocket Miriam Hopkins meet-cute while trimming the smart set on the Riviera and decide to team up, an arrangement complicated when he decides to set up heiress Kay Francis and starts to fall for her instead. Trouble in Paradise will be screening with Dinah, featuring music act The Mills Brothers practicing their unique four-part harmonizing on the song of the same name.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese/2013/180 mins/DCP) From the Long Island suburbs and penny stocks to yachts, palatial mansions, and debilitating drug habits, Scorsese’s hallucinatory comedy of lucre and lunacy follows buccaneer financier Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his meathead bros—including a hysterical Jonah Hill—from the dizzying, debauched highs to the hollow-headed lows, in the process offering a panorama of a puerile money-mad America. At once bleak and hysterical, with one particular Quaalude scene perhaps the comic set piece to beat in the 21st century.
Yolanda and the Thief(Vincente Minnelli/1945/108 mins/35mm) In a head trip vision of Latin America, imagined as a Dalí-inspired studio-bound fantasy by MGM producer Arthur Freed, fortune hunter Fred Astaire has set his sights on the considerable assets of heiress Lucille Bremer, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when he fools around and falls in love. Considered a failure on release, it has since seen reconsideration as the nearest thing Minnelli ever got to going full-fledged Surrealist, a film of blithe spirit and inventive musical numbers like the show-stopping “Coffee Time,” staged on an Op Art-esque dance floor.