#144. Con Artists

To succeed in this life, all you really need is confidence. No one is going to hire someone without confidence. Similarly, girls won’t go out with guys who don’t have confidence. And yet, if you say something with a deep conviction and confidence, there’s a chance you can get everyone else to believe it. This is where confidence (or “con” for short) can get you into trouble. If you can get enough people to believe something which will end with them giving you money, you can live pretty comfortably. However, this is considered fraud and, if you get caught, you’re liable to do some time in prison. This is why the genuinely successful con-men are regarded as artists of their craft: it takes real skill to not get caught in the web of lies. This week’s two films look at some successful con artists.

Catch Me if You CanCatch Me if You Can
Year: 2002
Rating: PG-13
Length: 141 minutes / 2.35 hours

As many parents know, if you say something with confidence, your child will believe you. The real trick comes when your child has more confidence than you do and can convince you of many erroneous facts. While ignorance on the receiving end helps cement the lies of confidence, there’s something to the innocence of youth that helps pull off some complex cons. Of course, in situations like those portrayed in Paper Moon (1973), the child is often part of the con and not the one singularly running the scam. Take the case of Frank Abagnale Jr., a kid who ran away from home when he was only a teenager and managed to milk $2.8 million from a major airline. When it comes to such large amounts of money, the cons become more elaborate to remain hidden but often require a life on the run.

Some of the most successful con artists are the ones who perfect a persona and use it in different locales to make their money. While this requires a lot of moving around, what if your persona was of someone who frequently traveled anyway? What if you were a fake pilot? Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) has run away from home and done just that. Posing as a pilot for Pan Am, he figured out a way to travel all across the country without actually flying a plane while also managing to rake in a paycheck. But one persona is not good enough for him. As soon as he adopts the personas of doctor and lawyer, this lands him in a relationship with Brenda Strong (Amy Adams). Unfortunately, Frank needs to keep running as Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is always on his tail, trying to fulfill his duty as an FBI agent: stomping out the source of some significant fraud.

The StingThe Sting
Year: 1973
Rating: PG
Length: 129 minutes / 2.15 hours

While the tale of Frank Abagnale Jr. is impressive, it’s actually quite rare. Most cons require multiple people to pull off. Whether it’s a handful like in Matchstick Men (2003), a small group like in The Italian Job (2003), or eleven in Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001), the more people involved in the con make it easier to execute. It’s harder to discount the word of one person when it matches up with so many others. This adds credence to the lies. And yet, the more people you get to work on a con, the more ways the money has to be split, which is why many choose to only trust one other person for the job. Even though there have been many movies about heists (even more so in recent years, probably due to financial and economic difficulties), The Sting (1973) stands out as the best, having (legitimately) won an Oscar for Best Picture.

A con is only a good con if you don’t get caught. If someone finds out you conned them out of a lot of money, you’re going to have hell to pay. If that someone just happens to be a powerful mob boss, you don’t stand a chance. This is just such the case with Johnny “Kelly” Hooker (Robert Redford), who has managed to anger Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a man who will kill to get his money back. Of course, Johnny not only runs away to Chicago, but he also looks up famous grifter Henry “Shaw” Gondorff (Paul Newman) to convince him to team up and go for all the money Lonnegan’s got. Since Henry is trying to hide from the FBI, he is hesitant to do something too big; but eventually, he agrees and pulls out one of the most elaborate cons ever: creating a fake horse racing betting house. It takes a lot of work, but will Lonnegan figure out he’s being played again, or are Johnny’s and Henry’s lives forfeit?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 classic cons

#016. All-Star line-up

Often, people will go to see a movie merely based on who is in it. After all, almost every movie poster in existence highlights the lead actor or actress as a means to get people into the theater. Generally, these actors and actresses are highlighted because they are good at what they do, be it action, drama, or comedy. They are stars of their profession. So, it stands to reason that if one star can elicit a monetary response from moviegoers, a whole lot of stars could exponentially increase that amount. If one star makes a movie good, a lot of them will make it great! Of course, that’s not always the case, as the 2010 film, The Expendables, showed us. There needs to be cohesion between the stars in order to make a great film. This week’s two films highlight some all-star casts that work well together.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World                                              It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Year: 1963
Rating: G
Length: 154 minutes / 2.57 hours

The cast list from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) reads like a “who’s who” of comedy. Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, and Buddy Hackett just to name a few. That’s not even mentioning the plethora of other comedy legends that made cameo appearances throughout the film. Jack Benny, Stan Freberg, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, and even the Three Stooges had screen-time in this film. With so many funny people showing up, you just know that the antics of this movie must be absolutely hilarious.

What makes this film so fun, aside from the star-studded cast, is the frantic way that so many people travel to get the first chance to find a buried treasure. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The movie starts with a car crash, where it is revealed that the driver was on his way to pick up his hidden treasure of $350,000. The four groups of people who were there to help immediately get the idea that they can strike it rich by discovering the treasure themselves. They just have to find it first, by any means possible. Driving, running, flying, boating, or any other method that can get them to the fabled “X” that marks the spot is utilized to fulfill these characters’ lust for money.

Ocean’s Eleven
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 116 minutes /1.93 hours

Where the stars in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World may have gone to Clown College, the “Rat Pack” in the original Ocean’s 11 certainly graduated from the Cool School. The group of singers more commonly referred to as “The Rat Pack” included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The challenge presented to the 2001 remake was to be able to re-create a group of actors who were popular by themselves but made a dynamic team when put together. Of course, they could never replace the Rat Pack, but George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Matt Damon and even Carl Reiner (mentioned above) seemed to do a pretty good job, considering their predecessors.

In Ocean’s Eleven, George Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a recently released prisoner (much like the thief in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) who is ready to settle the score with Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). A clever con-man, Ocean gathers up some of his usual friends to start planning the biggest heist in Las Vegas history. Three casinos store all their money in one super-secure vault, and it’s Danny’s goal to take all that money. Why? Because it all belongs to Mr. Benedict. Of course, he can’t do it alone. With his few friends, he gathers more, until there are eleven guys ready to perform an intricate plan to get through the various countermeasures and end up with more money than they’d ever know what to do with.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 great groups of actors

#008. Fractured Storylines

Occasionally, a movie comes along that requires a second viewing. Usually, this is due to a fractured storyline. When the plot unfolds in a non-linear or non-forward fashion, many details can be missed the first time the film is seen. With so many movies pandering themselves as thoughtless entertainment, it is refreshing to see some films that require the audience to pay attention. This week’s two movies require the viewer to piece the story together, even if it takes a few times to do so.

Pulp FictionPulp Fiction
Year: 1994
Rating: R
Length: 154 minutes / 2.56 hours

I feel that one of the strengths of a good movie is a solid understanding of continuity and connections. It’s very simple, very Newtonian: cause and effect. Nothing happens in a vacuum, but instead, each action affects many other aspects of the film in ways that the characters don’t quite understand, but the audience is given full privy to. And yet, each piece of the plot gives a depth to the characters that perhaps wasn’t understood at first glance. This is what makes re-watching films like Pulp Fiction (1994) enjoyable. When you can see that a certain character acts a certain way early on in the film because of something that was revealed later as a semi-flashback, it almost makes it so you’re watching a whole new film.

Pulp Fiction starts out with a conversation about robberies and gets interrupted to tell the story of two hitmen (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) who were sent by Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to pick up a mysterious briefcase. We then get to see Vincent (Travolta) take Mrs. Marsellus Wallace (Uma Thurman) out on a date. From the previous section of the plot, we can see why Vincent is a little bit nervous about this, especially when Mrs. Wallace gets into trouble. We then move on to a story involving a boxer (Bruce Willis) and a gold watch. It’s through this storyline that we finally meet Marsellus Wallace, albeit not in any measure of pleasant circumstances. Just when you think you’ve figured out the flow of Pulp Fiction‘s plot, it jumps back to the end of the hitmen saga, when Jules (Jackson) comes to the realization that they were saved by a miracle. Of course, another act of God gets them in trouble, and eventually, the audience finds themselves back in the diner where the film started. Full circle. The diner scenes act as a set of bookends that tie the three plots together and makes one wonder what they missed on a first glance.

Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

While Christopher Nolan is certainly a big-name director after the successes of Inception (2010) and his reboot of the Batman franchise, his first few films tended to be very psychological. In fact, his very first film, Following (1998), was a black and white shattered plotline that becomes pieced together as the movie progresses. Memento (2000) took that idea and gave it a more linear flow. The first time I watched Memento, my mind was blown. I almost had to sit down and immediately watch it again, because now I knew what I was looking for in the strange progression of the plot.

Memento tells the story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) who suffers from short term memory loss and is searching for his wife’s killer. To keep two storylines separate, one is presented in black and white, while the other remains in color. SPOILER ALERT: The black and white segments progress a forward plot where the sections in color give a plot told in reverse. Therefore, when the movie starts, the audience gets a view of both the beginning and end of the plot and watch as it progresses toward a climactic middle. The method of breaking up the storylines, both forward and in reverse, gives a greater understanding of the main character’s memory loss condition, as the audience has seen what will happen, and not what has happened.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 non-traditional plot flows