Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Nine Best Con Man Movies

As an addendum to my review of "Focus" yesterday, here's my list of the nine best-ever con man movies. Note that these don't include heist movies, or movies that include a small con as part of a larger plot.

1)  "The Sting." The standard by which all other con man movies must be measured. Not only does the plot involve multiple cons (sequentially and simultaneously), but it has a great villain in Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) and Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) want to take down as revenge for killing their grifter friend Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones). They're all perfect, as is George Roy Hill's direction, Marvin Hamlisch's score, and what a supporting cast: Jack Kehoe, Charles During, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, and Dana Elcar.

2) "House Of Games." David Mamet's first directorial outfit, from his own screenplay and a story by Jonathan Katz, is a look inside the world of con men as they pull off a long con on Lindsay Crouse's uptight psychiatrist. Joe Mantegna leads the pack, wrapping his tongue around that unique Mamet word rhythm, supported by pros Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum, and JT Walsh. Like a great con game, Mamet gives you just enough information to think you know what's what without actually giving anything away.

3) "Paper Moon." Ryan O'Neal plays a grifter during the Depression who cons people out of the few dollars they have with a bible-selling scheme. His real-life daughter Tatum plays the 10-year-old daughter of a dead woman O'Neal once knew, so he agrees to drive the girl across the midwest to her extended family in St. Joseph, Missouri. Along the way, he discovers that she has a natural knack for helping him pull off his con, and he teaches her a few more along the way. With Madeline Kahn as a stripper who he picks up at a state fair, in a very funny performance.

4) "Confidence." Edward Burns plays the leader of a group of grifters who cross paths with Dustin Hoffman as a bad guy with ADD and a helluva temper. Hoffman kills one of Burns' men when they steal his money, and now they have to figure out a way to get back at him while pretending to pull something off on his behalf. With Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Donal Logue, and Luis Guzman.

5) "Matchstick Men." Forget about your image of Nicolas Cage from every other movie he's done. In "Matchstick Men," he's great as a career con man with a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder who works with partner Sam Rockwell and long-lost daughter Alison Lohman to pull off a big foreign-exchange con. The personal side and the professional side build together to a very satisfying climax.

6) "Catch Me If You Can." Based on the life story of Frank Abagnale, who flew around the world in the 1960s pretending to be a Pan Am pilot while cashing bogus checks in city after city. When he got bored of that, he passed himself off as a doctor and a lawyer -- all while still a teenager. Abagnale is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, his father is Christopher Walken, the FBI agent chasing him is Tom Hanks, there are supporting roles by Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, and Martin Sheen, and crisp direction by Steven Spielberg.

7) "Criminal." John C. Reilly is a con man going after a big score by trying to swindle a currency collector with a forgery of an extremely rare bill. Along the way, he picks up Diego Luna and teaches him some of the tricks of the trade, while trying to stave off his sister, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. "Criminal" (based on "Nine Queens," a Spanish movie made four years earlier) is Reilly's best work.

8) "American Hustle." Christian Bale is a con man who falls for Amy Adams, and the two pull off some big-money fake loans until FBI guy Bradley Cooper busts them and forces them to help him set up some corrupt politicians. Stylishly directed by David O. Russell, with very solid performances by the three leads and a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, and Louis CK.

9) "The Grifters." John Cusack plays a small-time grifter who learned about the business from his mother, played by Angelica Huston, but finds himself caught up in a power struggle between her and his girlfriend, Annette Bening -- and they're both playing for bigger stakes. As always, there's a terrific supporting cast including Pat Hingle, JT Walsh, and Jeremy Piven.

Followup: Kids Walking Home Alone

Six weeks ago, I talked about a couple in Maryland who were in trouble with police and Child Protective Services because they let their ten- and six-year-old children walk home from a park by themselves. The response from authorities was excessive (at one point threatening to take the kids away), and the ruling they handed down this week is confusing.

Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were found responsible for unsubstantiated child neglect, which means, according to the Washington Post, "CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what would happen if the Meitiv children get reported again for walking without adult supervision." The Meitivs are upset by the ruling, as I would be, and are trying to appeal.

If the neglect is unsubstantiated, that means it is unproved or unverified. In a court, if charges against you are unsubstantiated, the verdict is going to be not guilty. But in this case, the Meitivs have essentially been found "could be guilty," and will have CPS looking over their shoulders for the next five years.

Instead of keeping an open file on parents who have done nothing wrong, authorities should follow Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids And Parents Bill Of Rights.

Jimmy Kimmel vs. Anti-Vaxxers

Kudos to Jimmy Kimmel for using his show as a platform to urge parents to vaccinate their children, and taking on the ridiculous arguments (and insults) put forth by the anti-vaxxers. Here he is on Friday's show, with a followup from Monday's show...

Monday, March 02, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

I'm a sucker for con artists. Not in real life, but at the movies. Give me a charismatic con man and a good grift, and I'll fall for it all the way to the end, but it had better pay off along the way.

The newest entry on the con-man movie roster is "Focus," with Will Smith as a smooth operator with a quick line, a light touch, and enough years in the business to know when to go and when to stop. But he has a weakness, and in this case it's a young pickpocket wannabe played by Margot Robbie, who you may have seen as Leonardo DiCaprio's wife in "The Wolf Of Wall Street."

It's clear that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who co-wrote and co-directed "Focus," saw the 1973 movie "Harry In Your Pocket," with James Coburn, Walter Pidgeon, Trish Van DeVere, and Michael Sarrazin. I added it to my Movies You Might Not Know list five years ago because I liked its story of a veteran pickpocket taking on a couple of rookies and teaching them the trade -- and showing us how it's done, too.

For "Focus," Ficarra and Requa also enlisted the technical assistance of Apollo Robbins, who does pickpocket routines onstage, and there's one sequence where Smith shows Robbie some things she should know while relieving her of a ring, purse, and phone, among other things -- it's a clever combination of Robbins' roving hands and the basics of "Harry In Your Pocket."

That's followed by an extended sequence in New Orleans with Smith and his crew ripping off everyone in sight. It's exciting and perfectly-timed, but more than a bit worrisome -- I found myself wondering if I should be rooting for them as they pull off petty thefts from regular people, rather than greedy marks who should have known better.

From there, the movie moves on to a couple of longer con sequences which I won't give away except to say that BD Wong is terrific as the mark in one of them.

In movies like this, it's important that the audience not know too much, so you can't assume you have all the information at any time. One fault I had with "Focus" was the directors' unnecessary insistence on going back to show us how a certain move or ripoff was set up. It's fine to fool us and then move on -- you don't have to point out the parts of the con that we didn't see -- and the more complex the twists, the better.

"Focus" works entirely because Smith has the charisma, Robbie has the body, and the plot has the cleverness to make it worth your while. But watch your wallet on the way out. One thing you'll learn from "Focus" is how much more secure you have to keep your personal items whenever you're in a crowd.

I give it 7.5/10.

Unreal Estate

My daughter goes to college in New York and will need a new apartment for her senior year. Unfortunately, the one I thought would be perfect for her -- complete with a billiards room, a jacuzzi, a fitness center, and three bullet-proof panic rooms -- has already been scooped up for the low, low prices of $48.5 million. My favorite part of this Wall Street Journal story describing the place is that the owner is selling it because he rarely uses it. Well, sure, why keep it if you're not going to use it, probably because you're spending all of your time in a rent-controlled $400/month apartment in Williamsburg with the other hipsters.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Best Thing I've Read Today

In a column entitled, "Despicable Us," Frank Bruni asks his media colleagues to change the way they cover presidential elections, including giving less emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire, paying less attention to spouses, and two more:

Don’t buy tickets to circus acts. When someone on the fringes of both the race and serious discourse says something clownish that’s a cry to be noticed, ignore it. This means quitting our addiction to Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, no matter how good they are for readership, ratings and belly laughs.

We are too often like the parents who attend only to the screeching 3-year-old, plying him with Gummi bears and Goldfish crackers, which simply reward and ratchet up his screams. Meanwhile the virtuous, unexcitable older sibling is ignored, until she wins the Michigan primary and leaves us no choice but a grudging, belated magazine cover.

Resist glorifying certain horses for the sake of having a horse race. Some are obviously bound, in the end, for the political glue factory. Remember Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain in 2012? Enough said.
Read Bruni's full piece here.

Leonard Nimoy

I was sad to hear of the death Friday of Leonard Nimoy, and not just for his years of playing Spock on television and through eight movies (and it's Mister Spock, not Doctor Spock -- the latter was not a fictional Vulcan, but a real-life pediatrician who wrote the definitive baby book for the generation before "What Do Expect When You're Expecting").

While I liked him as Spock, and as Paris on "Mission: Impossible" from 1969 to 1971, my favorite Nimoy role was on a 1973 "Columbo" episode called "A Stitch In Time." Here's how it's described on Wikipedia:
Cardiac surgeon Dr. Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. Edmund Hidemann (Will Geer) have pioneered a major medical breakthrough that Mayfield wants to publish immediately, but Hidemann wants to continue testing. When Dr. Hidemann has a heart attack and needs an emergency bypass, Mayfield performs the surgery and plans to kill his partner by placing dissolving sutures in his heart. After their nurse, Sharon Martin (Anne Francis), discovers the plot, Mayfield kills her, and stages a mugging to pin the crime on her drug addict ex-boyfriend.
That's a terrific murder mystery plot, and Nimoy was a perfect foil for Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo. You can stream it right now on Netflix.

Nimoy served my radio show well, never as a guest, but as a provider of punishment music for my Harris Challenge with his renditions of songs like "Proud Mary," "If I Had A Hammer," and "Put A Little Love In Your Heart." There were almost a dozen that I used many times over the years, and none of them would help convince you that he'd had quite a career in musicals like "The King and I," "Oliver," and "Fiddler On The Roof." It was only appropriate that I had one standing by for my most recent Harris Challenge on Friday.

Thirteen Down

I just finished binge-watching season 3 of "House Of Cards" on Netflix -- 7 episodes yesterday, 6 today. The show is not great, but still good enought that it kept me glued to the TV.

My only big complaint is about the subplot involving one character leftover from the first season that adds nothing to the ongoing larger plot involving the Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright characters. Without spoiling it too much, I have to question how that character would have time to do what he does in the last episode, considering the other things happening at the same time in a completely different place that he should be directly involved in.

That's all I'll say about it today, because I don't want to ruin it for anyone watching it at a slower pace than I did -- but if you've already binge-watched it, too, you know who and what I'm talking about.

I'm Just Asking

A few years ago, I told the story of going to a Burger King that had run out of ketchup. Last week, I ordered a milkshake in a diner and was told they had run out of ice cream. I shared that story with a friend and he said he'd recently been to a Taco Bell that had run out of soft tacos.

Is nobody keeping an eye on inventory in America? Is there no employee authorized to take some petty cash and go down the street to a supermarket to replenish that inventory until the next official delivery? Of course, it snowed here in St. Louis yesterday, so the grocery store was probably out of milk.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Harris Challenge 2/27/15

This week's Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- includes categories "Did You Ear About Spock?", "Government In Action," and "Have You Been Paying Attention?" Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Want more Harris Challenges? Click here.

Knuckleheads In The News® 2/27/15

On this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® I have stories about a closet full of nickels, a Nutella fire, and a stripper with back problems. Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Want more Knuckleheads In The News®? Click here.

Muppet Whiplash

A nice mash-up of JK Simmons, in his Oscar-winning role from "Whiplash," with Animal, drummer for Dr. Teeth And The Electric Mayhem on "The Muppet Show"...

Don't Lose Your Head

There were a few headlines this week about a neuroscientist in Italy, Sergio Canavero, who wants to perform a human head transplant. But Art Caplan, a bioethicist and frequent guest on my radio show, says not so fast:

Scientifically what Canavero wants to do cannot yet be done. It may never be doable.

To move a head on to someone else’s body requires the rewiring of the spinal cord. We don’t know how to do that. If we did there would be far fewer paralyzed people who have spinal cord injuries. Nor, despite Canavero’s assertions to the contrary, is medicine anywhere close to knowing how to use stem cells or growth factors to make this happen....

Ethically the big obstacle is what will happen if I stick an old head on a new body. The brain is not contained in a bucket -- it integrates with the chemistry of the body and its nervous system. Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.
Read Caplan's full piece here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

KTRS Friday

I'll be back on my 3-6pm CT show today at KTRS, with another chance for you to play The Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on -- plus a brand new batch of Knuckleheads In The News®, and Colin Jeffrey reviewing "The Lazarus Effect" (Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde) and "Focus" (Will Smith and Margot Robbie). You can listen over the air, via the station's free smartphone app or via KTRS.com.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Andrew Napolitano on how our leaders have subverted the Constitution and, in particular, the Fourth Amendment, under the guise of keeping us safer:

What if the Bush folks took Reagan's idea of spying on foreign spies and twisted it so that they could spy on not just foreign spies, but also on foreign persons? What if they took that and leapt to spying on Americans who communicated with foreign persons?

What if they then concluded that it was easier to spy on all Americans rather than just those who communicated with foreign persons? What if they claimed in secret that all this was authorized by Reagan's executive order and two federal statutes, their unique interpretations of which they refused to discuss in public? What if the Reagan order and the statutes authorized no such thing?

What if The New York Times caught the Bush administration in its massive violation of the Fourth Amendment, whereby it was spying on all Americans all the time without any warrants? What if the Times sat on that knowledge during, throughout, and beyond the presidential election campaign of 2004? What if, when the Times revealed all this, the Bush administration agreed to stop spying? What if it didn't stop?

What if President Obama came up with a scheme to make the spying appear legal? What if that scheme involved using secret judges in secret courts to issue general warrants? What if the Obama administration swore those judges to secrecy? What if it swore to secrecy all in the government who are involved in undermining basic American values? What if it forgot that everyone in government also swears an oath to uphold the Constitution? What if Edward Snowden violated his oath to secrecy in order to uphold his oath to the Constitution, which includes the Fourth Amendment, and spilled the beans on the government?
Read Napolitano's full piece here.

Rock Stars And Their Parents

That photo of Elton John at home with his parents (circa 1970-71) is from this collection, which also includes Frank Zappa, David Crosby, Eric Clapton, Grace Slick, the Jackson Five, Richie Havens, and other big music stars with their parents.