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Who Am I This Time?
By Ann Morrow


Identity
Directed by James Mangold

Who’ll be the next to die? (l-r) Cusack and Peet in Identity.

A torrential downpour lets !loose just as a stay of execution is issued for a homicidal maniac (Pruitt Taylor Vince). The rain doesn’t let up until the next day, when his fate has been altered on the basis of new psychiatric evidence. Simultaneous with the transport of the prisoner to his 11th-hour hearing, 10 people take cover from the rainstorm at a desolate motel. By the next day all but one of them will be dead. That’s the basic premise of Identity, a smashingly scary whodunit from writer Michael Cooney, whose previous serial-killer thriller, Jack Frost, can’t even be considered a warm-up. Cooney’s wicked screenplay is given added dimensions of creepiness by the wicked direction of James Mangold: Unusually convincing despite its puzzle-box construction, Identity prolongs its hidden identity by building up and then eluding expectations even as it pins the audience to its seats with its ingenious plot swerves.

The long and jarring opening sequence centers on a car accident that critically injures a mother in front of her passive young son and his dweeby stepfather (John C. McGinley). The sequence also works as a glissando of evasion, for heading down the same rain-slicked highway are Paris (Amanda Peet), a call girl who loses control of her convertible on her way to a new life; and Edward (John Cusack), a chauffeur who takes his eyes off the road when his actress client (Rebecca DeMornay) gets hyper. Trapped by flooded intersections, they all book rooms at the motel and hand over their IDs to the high-strung manager (John Hawkes). Other stranded travelers arrive almost immediately, including an unhappy newlywed couple and a cop (Ray Liotta) and his manacled prisoner. The prisoner, it turns out, is not the one from the hearing, although he is assumed to be a homicidal maniac nonetheless, especially after he escapes from his handcuffs . . .

The film itself changes identity more than once. It starts out as a stylish update on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, with many a wink at the movie genre Christie’s play inspired. Such familiar gambits as the dead body in the laundry-room dryer and the jiggling lock on the bathroom door are milked for all their cinematic resonance. And then the film shape-shifts into a well-written character study fraught with psychological tension. There’s Edward’s unexpected gutsiness, and Paris’ surprising intelligence, and the odd tension between Edward and the hot-tempered cop, and the even odder sympathy between Edward and Paris. The three-way chemistry (Cusack, Peet and Liotta are exceptional) will later inspire the film’s telling line: “Stay with me” (uttered by Paris). But before that, while on the brink of panic, the characters discover that they all have the same birthday—at which point Identity changes identity again, and becomes a horror movie expertly dispensing jolts of fright and chaos.

Amazingly, Mangold keeps these narrative ploys plausibly in the air. Although the director is best known for the asylum confessional Girl, Interrupted, the juggling skills he evidences here were acquired in two of his earlier films: the 1995 indie film Heavy, a weirdly moving psychological drama starring Vince; and Cop Land, an acutely plotted police drama that gave Sylvester Stallone the best role of his career. With its popcorn-spilling twists, Identity can also be compared to The Sixth Sense, only without the fuzzy downtime, or to Memento, sans the cerebral brain teasing. But to say anything more would be giving something away—and that’s the highest compliment a thriller can be paid.


Troubled: (l-r) Cheung and Shen in Better Luck Tomorrow.

Stung

Confidence
Directed by James Foley

OK, let’s get something straight: It’s not like I need stories to be completely linear, A-to-B-to-C, in logical order to understand, enjoy and even appreciate them. I like twists and turns—why else would I be so enamored of The Big Sleep (the original version), a film which is so convoluted that even the screenwriters couldn’t tell you who killed the chauffeur? But when those twists and turns are merely a disguise for faulty thinking and lazy writing, I get angry.

Which is why I wasn’t such a joy to be around after watching Confidence, a film that aspires to be a Grifters for the 21st century but is more like Bill and Ted’s Not So Excellent Adventure in Pulp Fiction. Edward Burns plays Jake Vig, a con artist who thinks he’s on to the scam of a lifetime. Joining him in this venture are Gordo (Paul Giamatti), Shills (Brian Van Holt), pickpocket Lily (Rachel Weisz), and cops Whitworth (Donal Logue) and Manzano (Luis Guzman). Their opposition: The King (Dustin Hoffman), an L.A. biggie to whom Jake already owes big bucks. The already numerous potential problems are compounded when it’s learned that Jake’s other nemesis, federal officer Butane (Andy Garcia), is hot on their trail. So we’ve got all these colorful characters, who say things like “the skirt’s got a point” and other quaint-but-outdated metaphors that make one long for a late-night showing of an Edmund O’Brien B-movie. We’ve got a filmmaking style that oozes coolness.

But, folks, we also have a plot you could drive an Abrams tank through. There are too many double- and triple-crosses going on that don’t add up, even upon reflection hours after leaving the theater. Would a hit man really wait, gun poised at somebody’s head, for the kneeling victim to spill out his entire two-hour seminar on the art of the con? Worse, the nature of the con is just too amorphous. Hoffman looks like he’s having a swell time playing a real lowlife, but that’s about all this vapid feature has going for it.

In the end, what’s important is how stylish everybody looks—and Foley gives us plenty of shots wherein the main characters, in sunglasses and leather, scope out prospective targets or question the nature of fate versus luck—and not what they’re saying or doing. Style is such a priority that crucial elements to character, such as vulnerability, are never brought to the fore, a flaw most crippling to, of all people, our protagonist, Jake. As a child watching The Sting, it bothered me a little that Robert Redford’s character wasn’t suave and in control, that he was a bit immature and professionally green. As an adult, I realize that this characterization tremendously enhances the overall tale. The makers of Confidence, while so wanting to be as great as The Sting or any lesser David Mamet movie, could have benefited greatly from watching those great movies, not just for style points, but as primers on character and plotting.

—Laura Leon

Studies in Crime

Better Luck Tomorrow
Directed by Justin Lin

Better Luck Tomorrow is a slick, shocking and ultimately thoughtful film about overachieving Asian-American teens who prove as adept at crime as they are at academics. This sophomore effort from filmmaker Justin Lin (who cowrote the screenplay and edited as well as directed the film) is a refreshing new take on an old genre: the suburban-kids-in-trouble film.

The story is told from the point of view of Ben (Parry Shen), a hardworking, “nice” kid. He studies hard, is active in school activities, takes care of his pet fish, worries about getting into a good college, lusts after a cheerleader—and, in his spare time, boosts computer equipment from big-box stores with his goofy pal Virgil (Jason Tobin) and Virgil’s laconic cousin Han (Sung Kan). It is, he explains in the narration, something to do.

When an unexpected, disillusioning turn of events makes Ben bitter, he drifts more seriously into crime. He and his friends team up with suave Daric (Roger Fan) in an escalating series of scams that earn them plenty of money and an aura of dangerous glamour. They never let their schoolwork or activities flag, however; they may be stealing high-tech equipment or peddling dope by night, but they still find time to practice for school debate competitions or collect donations for food drives by day.

This may sound absurd, but that is not how it plays out on screen. As Ben cheerfully notes, as long as their grades are OK, no one pays any attention to them. The film makes the audience believe this.

Things get out of hand as Ben spends more time with the cheerleader, an Asian adoptee wonderfully named Stephanie Vandergosh (Karin Anna Cheung) and her ultrarich, condescending boyfriend Steve (John Cho). Stephanie is the object of Ben’s chaste devotion, and the sexual tension and class rage prove a volatile mix. When Steve, in a fit of hubris, hires Ben’s gang—by this point, there’s no other word for them—to teach his wealthy parents a lesson, events spin out of control.

Lin’s work is suggestive of two of the more influential filmmakers of the last 20 years in Better Luck Tomorrow. He deftly uses the shock violence and flashbacks that made Quentin Tarentino a star; Lin’s scene in which two characters are lounging in the sun over a backyard gravesite is especially Tarentino-esque. Lin also pays specific homage to David Lynch and Blue Velvet in the film’s opening sequence: Iconic, all-American images in slow-motion are immediately followed by closeups of rotting flesh and bugs. (He also casts the original suburban everyboy—the Beaver himself, Jerry Mathers—in a bit as a fatuous biology teacher.)

Lin’s vision is his own, however. Better Luck Tomorrow presents an upper-middle-class world in which overachievers are criminals and still succeed within the system; where the race and class wars are as vicious at the top of the economic heap as they are at the bottom; and where kids are amoral but not completely soulless. This is as far away from Tarentino’s ironic, nonpolitical stance as it is from Lynch’s belief in the reality of absolute good and evil. It will be interesting to see where Lin goes from here.

—Shawn Stone


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