Category Archives: Con Game

Shades of Ashby: Choke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2008)

There was a time, not too far removed,  when the phrase “character study” did not necessarily equate “box office poison.” I’m talking about the 1970’s, when maverick directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and Bob Rafelson made quirky, compelling “character studies” that audiences actually went out of their way to see.

The protagonists were usually iconoclastic fringe dwellers or workaday antiheroes who, like the filmmakers themselves, questioned authority, flouted convention and were generally able to convey thoughts and feelings without CG enhancement. The films may not have always sported linear narrative or wrapped up with a “Hollywood ending”, but they nearly always left us a bit more enlightened about the human condition.

I’m not saying that the character study ever really went away; it just became increasingly marginalized as the era of the Hollywood blockbuster encroached. Indie films of recent vintage like Buffalo 66, Jesus’ Son and SherryBaby are direct stylistic descendants of episodic 70s fare like Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Altman’s California Split, and Ashby’s The Last Detail, and prove that the genre is alive and well.

The main difference between then and now, of course, is that when you venture out to the multiplex now to such fare, you  feel like donning dark glasses and a raincoat. When I went to a weekend matinee to catch Clark Gregg’s Choke, I counted exactly 4 other patrons in the postage stamp auditorium. It made me feel so…dirty.

Gregg adapted  the screenplay for this unique dramedy  from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, whose previous book-to-screen adaptation was 1999’s Fight Club.  Similar to Fight ClubChoke serves up a melange of human foibles (addiction, perversion, madness and deception, to rattle off a few) and tempers it with a dark comic sensibility. Think of it as a screwball romantic comedy for nihilists.

In his straight job, Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is employed as a “historical re-enactor” in a theme park that replicates American colonial life. Victor’s personal life is more akin to a psycho-sexual Disneyland. In his off-hours, Victor regularly attends support group meetings for sex addicts, along with his pal/co-worker, the Portnoy-like Denny (Brad William Henke). Victor doesn’t appear to be making much headway toward recovery, as he customarily spends most of the session time furtively (and joylessly) humping fellow group member Nico (Paz de la Huerta) on the restroom tiles.

The rest of  Victor’s  spare time is spent running a con game. To help foot the private hospital bill for his ailing mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), he goes to restaurants and feigns choking fits. He carefully screens his “saviors” based on the likelihood of them having wallets that are as big as their bleeding hearts.

Ida suffers from dementia, subsequently she fails to recognize her son most of the time. In her rare moments of lucidity, Victor attempts to learn more about his unknown father, a subject Ida has always been reticent to discuss . Through episodic flashbacks of Victor’s childhood, we glean that the free-spirited Ida has raised her son in, shall we say “a creative fashion”. One thing that does become clear is that, insomuch as Victor’s abilities to run a skillful con game go, it looks like the apple has not fallen very far from the family tree.

The plot thickens when Ida’s doctor, a pretty, enigmatic young woman named Paige (Kelly MacDonald) counters Victor’s inevitable horndogging attempts with an invitation to assist her with some medical “research”. Paige’s proposed method for propagating the stem cells for her experiment requires Victor’s um, interactive participation, and is medically unorthodox, to say the least. So is it love, or purely science? I can say no more.

Rockwell gives a nuanced turn in the lead performance, and is well-supported by Henke and MacDonald. Anjelica Huston is excellent, as always. In a tangential sense, she is reprising the character she played in The Grifters. In fact, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship played out between Huston and Rockwell in Choke shares many similarities to the one she had with John Cusack’s character in the aforementioned film, particularly concerning unresolved “abandonment issues” on the part of the son.

This marks the directorial debut for Gregg,  previously known for his TV acting credits (The New Adventures of Old Christina). Gregg casts himself as a self-important “lord high” role-player in the faux-colonial village where Victor and Denny work; it’s a small but interesting part. Also look for Joel Grey (who we don’t see enough of these days) as a battle-scarred member of the sex addiction group.

This is not a popcorn movie. Challenging and thought-provoking, it does demand your full attention; and even though it offers a fair share of chuckles, it is not designed to be taken lightly. There’s a hell of a lot of ideas packed into 90 minutes here, ranging from Oedipal conflict to Christ metaphor. There’s even a sense of twisted cinematic homage to Tom Jones when we are treated to the occasional fast-cut montage of bodice-ripping flashbacks depicting Victor, replete in leggings, waistcoat and tri-corner hat, having it off “on the job” with a few of his more comely fellow re-enactors.

Prepare yourself for a lot of sexual frankness, not visually graphic, necessarily, but still the uncompromising, in-your-face kind that makes a lot of people squirm in their seats. Warning: one scene that some may find very disturbing takes place between Victor and a woman he has met through the personal ads. She “enjoys” acting out rape fantasies. In the context of the narrative,  it is actually an important and pivotal moment in the protagonist’s journey. This trip can be psychically brutal at times, but if you’re open-minded and willing to take the whole ride, it may blindside you with genuine warmth, humanity, and yes, even some redemption.

Girl, you know it’s true: My Kid Could Paint That ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 3, 2007)

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You’ve heard the expression, “If I told the truth, no one would believe me”? Dig this: I’ve just watched the best Christopher Guest film he never made. In fact, it wasn’t a mockumentary. Amar Bar-Lev’s new documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, is ostensibly about the “career” of 4-year old (not a typo) Marla Olmstead, who hit the spotlight when her abstract paintings became a hit in the New York art world. I say “ostensibly”, because by the time credits roll, you realize this film goes deeper than news-kicker fodder about another child prodigy. As one of the film’s subjects (a local newspaper reporter) says, “…this story is really more about the adults.”

The back story: Mark and Laura Olmstead, a young couple living in sleepy Binghamton, New York, begin to notice that their daughter, Marla, appears to have a knack for art that transcends the random scribbling of a typical toddler. To be sure, every parent likes to think their kid is a bloody little genius, but the Olmsteads receive validation when a friend suggests they hang some of Marla’s work in his local coffee shop (for a lark) and to their surprise, the paintings start selling like hotcakes. A local newspaper reporter picks up on the story, as does the owner of a local art gallery.

Then, faster than you can say “just out of diapers”, young Marla becomes a media darling, resulting in a substantial spike in the value of her paintings (some are sold in the five-figure range). Everything is going quite swimmingly until 60 Minutes sets their sights on the family, airing a “take-down” story in 2004 that includes hidden camera footage showing Mark Olmstead barking instructions at Marla as she paints. Needless to say, sales drop off dramatically.

Bar-Lev began filming prior to the 60 Minutes report; hence the first act is standard documentary fare: interviews with the parents, the gallery owner and the newspaper reporter. You glean early on that Markis enjoying the spotlight more than the rest of his family; Marla is too young to understand what’s going on, and his wife Laura retains a cautious pragmatism. “I know there’s a fine line between a child prodigy and a freak show” she says at one point. Even while she is backstage getting prepped for Marla’s Tonight Show appearance, she worries out loud “…if all of this is really good for Marla”. Is she telling this to the camera, or taking a by-proxy jab at her husband?

The first real seeds of doubt are sown when Bar-Lev sets up his camera to capture Marla at work. Marla sits on the floor, staring an empty canvas for quite some time while her father fidgets. At one point, Marla says something very interesting. “Do you want to paint something, Daddy?” Whoopsie! “I don’t know what’s wrong,” Mark says nervously, “She usually doesn’t act like this.”  The awkward moments are just beginning…with many twists and turns ahead.

At the end of the day, My Kid Can Paint That is not just about whether or not Marla is the real deal; it’s about the nature of “art” itself (be it painting, film making, music, whatever) At what point does childish scribbling become “abstract expressionism”? Does a “documentary” become a lie the nanosecond the filmmaker makes the first edit?

Whose judgment determines the intrinsic and/or monetary value of a painting-a local newspaper reporter, a New York Times art critic or Mike Wallace? Does the eye of the beholder still count for anything? Does it really matter who painted it, if you feel it’s worth hanging on your wall? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays-Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, and do you care? Does it really matter that the Monkees didn’t write any of their hits or play their own instruments? Feast your eyes on this exceptional film and decide for yourself.

Of prose and cons: The Hoax (***1/2) & Color Me Kubrick (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2007)

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One of my favorite movie lines is from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” (Alas-if we could only remember that sage advice before writing our phone number on a cocktail napkin, signing on a dotted line, dropping coins into a collection plate or pulling on a voting lever.) Indeed, the art of the con is as old as the snake in the Garden of Eden. Hollywood loves con artists, probably because movie audiences never appear to tire of watching yet one more poor schmuck getting bamboozled. It makes us feel superior-“Oh, I’d never fall for THAT!”

Director Lasse Hallstrom has delivered a smashing entry in the genre with his new movie, The Hoax. The film is based on the story of Clifford Irving, a struggling writer who toiled in relative obscurity until he stumbled onto an idea for “the most important book of the 20th century”- the “Autobiography of Howard Hughes”. The book was the most hyped literary event of 1972, and would assure Irving the notoriety he craved. Hell, he even made the cover of Time. Unfortunately, his Time portrait was slugged with “Con Man of the Year”,  because as it turned out, the “autobiography” was a bit of a surprise to Mr. Hughes, because, you see, Mr. Irving made the whole thing up (oops). The books were unceremoniously yanked from the shelves soon after their debut.

Richard Gere tears through the lead role with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in quite a while (easily his best work since Internal Affairs). His Clifford Irving is a charlatan and a compulsive liar, to be sure, but Gere manages to make him sympathetic, in a carefully measured way that doesn’t feel like audience pandering. Even as he digs himself into an ever deepening hole, and you cover your eyes because you know the other shoe is going to drop at any time, you’ve just got to love this guy’s pure chutzpah. Compared to some other mass public deceptions that were brewing at the time (the Irving scandal was soon knocked out of the headlines by Watergate), his resulting fraud trial almost seems like malicious prosecution in retrospect (he did end up doing jail time).

Hallstrom does an excellent job at capturing the 70’s milieu; especially the insidious paranoia of the Nixon era (almost by accident, Irving uncovered documents that implicated Nixon family members and associates in defense contract bribery scams involving Hughes Corporation while Nixon was VP in 1956. It is suggested in the film that the 1972 Nixon White House was tipped off to the existence of the documents, and that it may have been an impetus for the Watergate break in. Hey-who knows?)

The outstanding cast includes Alfred Molina (in an Oscar-caliber turn as Irving’s researcher Richard Susskind), Marcia Gay Harden (sporting a Streep-worthy accent as Irving’s Eurotrash wife), and chameleon character actress Hope Davis (looking very Mary Richards as Irving’s agent). Also with Stanley Tucci, Julie Delpy and Eli Wallach.

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Another noteworthy new film examining the art of the con is Brian W. Cook’s Color Me Kubrick: A True…ish Story (concurrently on DVD and in theaters). John Malkovich gives a typically hammy, gleefully giddy performance as real-life con man Alan Conway, who flitted about England in the early 90’s, posing as the notoriously reclusive director Stanley Kubrick.

The irresistible hook in Conway’s story is the fact that he had virtually no idea what Kubrick was about, aside from the fact that he was a famous director. What is even more amazing is that he got away with it for as long as he did, scamming sex, money and accommodations with his hijacked nom de plume (ironically, had he actually bothered to watch Kubrick’s films, he could have picked up some pointers from fictional con men Barry Lyndon and Clare Quilty) His victims ranged from easy marks (aspiring actors, screenwriters and musicians) to those who should have known better (film critics!). His luck ran out when a New York Times columnist was tipped to his shenanigans and wrote an exposé.

Malkovich chews major scenery as he minces his way through the role, utilizing a variety of ridiculously funny accents and affectations. Director Cook worked with the late Kubrick, and ladles on the in-jokes with a nod and a wink (Kubrick aficionados should have a blast playing “spot the homage”). Good supporting performances, particularly from comedian Jim Davidson (one of Conway’s real life victims). Two notable cameos to watch for: Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore!) and director Ken Russell, who pops up as a mental patient (not such a stretch, if you are familiar with his work). Not for all tastes; but destined for cult status.