Dir. Justin Lin; writ. Ernesto Foronda; feat. Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Roger Fan (R)

For some college-conscious high-school seniors, there is no present tense. Everything is preparation for the future, and whatever the here-and-now has to offer becomes peripheral. Too often, it takes a crisis to recognize the importance of living in the moment, no matter the age or stage in life.

Ben agonizes over his approaching SAT, devotes himself to extracurriculars, and maintains a flawless grade-point average with the single-minded zeal of an OCD sufferer, all in the hopes of producing a transcript irresistible to Ivy League decision-makers. It's a numbing cycle of busy-work that practically begs for charismatic thug Deric's intervention. Before long, Deric has Ben's repressed id laid bare and his once buttoned-down existence spiraling toward tragedy.

This tale of the good-at-heart protagonist slip-sliding into the realm of amorality one bad decision at a time is nothing new, and comes to a predictably bloody end. Ten minutes into the movie, and it's no longer a question of whether the shit is going to hit the fan, but when - and who is going to be splattered. Foronda's script intimates that overwhelming societal pressures are a factor in Ben's downfall, but instead of a levelheaded examination of the cause of the disease, Better Luck is 90 minutes of sensationalistic symptoms. The film's heart is in the right place, and many of its characterizations apt, but where it goes astray is the moment it forgets how damaging public schooling can be in and of itself - guns, drugs, and murder aside. JW


Dir. James Foley; writ. Doug Jung; feat. Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Donal Logue, Luis Guzmán (R)

"Style can get you killed," warns a scuzzy, drooling lecher called the King. But lack of style can be even more deadly, especially for a film; Confidence has plenty, coming to brazen life in its opening sequence, a deftly executed scam that nets four smooth scoundrels $150,000; and it does not die until the final frame. The film could be called a

Dustin Hoffman is a Confidence man.
triumph of style over substance, except that substance is never in contention. Like The Sting, The Grifters, and Ocean's Eleven, Confidence is yet another caper flick, and its pleasures are not only in seeing how adroitly a squad of charlatans can separate their quarry from its cash but in how well director James Foley (whose adaptation of David Mamet's Glengarry Glenn Ross observed desperate salesmencircling for the kill) can scam even a wary and weary viewer.

To pull it off, Foley has assembled a consummate crew of cons (i.e. actors) led by Edward Burns as Jake Vig, a supremely suave young swindler. When Jake and his confederates inadvertently fleece the accountant to a top L.A. mobster dubbed the King (Dustin Hoffman wrapping himself into a ball of sleaze that bounces back to his performance as Ratzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy), they are forced to collude with him in separating a crooked banker from $5 million. Double-crosses multiply exponentially, in a baroque plot that is recounted by Jake under duress, a pistol to his head. Look for Andy Garcia to disappear into the part of Gunther Butan, a low-rent FBI agent who seems outclassed by the flashy criminals he pursues.

The bank that Jake's gang sets out to plunder is called the Price Trust; there's no one to be trusted in Confidence, a film in which every man - and woman - seems to have a price. It's a murky world of cheats and marks, brightened only by counterfeited confidence, the smile that comes from grifting with style. SGK


Dir. James Mangold; writ. Michael Cooney; feat. John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, Clea DuVall, Rebecca de Mornay, John C. McGinley, John Hawkes (R)

It is a dark and stormy night, and 10 assorted travelers check in to a seedy motel somewhere on a desolate stretch of Nevada highway. They include a pampered movie star (de Mornay), her stoical

Rebecca de Mornay in Identity.
limo driver (Cusack), a couple of quarreling newlyweds (DuVall and Scott), and a hooker who has given up the Vegas life to grow oranges in Florida (Peet). A frantic man (McGinley) carries in his blood-drenched, comatose wife, the victim of a roadside accident. A convicted homicidal psychopath (Molina) accompanied by an armed guard (Liotta) stops off at the motel en route to a sanity hearing in Carson City hours before his scheduled execution.

The sojourners begin dying violent and mysterious deaths. "What is going on out here?" asks one. Are they being preyed on by the con? By the maniacal manager of the motel? By something supernatural? Director James Mangold exploits lighting, music, and camera angles to amplify the unknown horror; a stranger sitting next to me shrieked punctually every three minutes. One character remarks that what is happening to her and the rest of the terrified guests reminds her of a movie, and viewers not too overcome by dread will note familiar creaks in the creepy plot. However, about two-thirds of the way through, the film changes its identity. Introducing the theme of dissociative identity disorder, the story enters a psychological dimension that redeems it somewhat from mere spookiness. To lay bare the clever strategems of the script would be like serving up a glass of Dr. Pepper without the carbonation. However, by the end of Identity, we know why the motel guests are dying and why screenwriters should not be trusted to analyze the human psyche. SGK


Dir. Steve James; feat. Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Tonya Gregory, Bernice Hagler (UNRATED)

A few years ago, Steve James directed Hoop Dreams, the documentary that followed two aspiring athletes through their school years. It was exceptionally popular for a non-fiction film, partly because it was hopeful and partly because, in its years-long scope, it was lucky enough to capture some affecting drama.

Stevie is another kind of time-lapse portrait: After many years, the filmmaker went back to Southern Illinois to visit his old "Little Brother" - an abused, abandoned kid who has grown into a failure of a man. The eponymous Stevie has been arrested for countless stupid crimes, but soon after we meet him, he is accused of a terrifying one: While babysitting an 8-year-old girl, he allegedly assaults her

Stevie Fielding's troubled life is the subject of the documentary Stevie.
sexually; the cops get a hand-written confession, but Stevie quickly changes his story, denying the event took place.

Ambivalence is the key word in this painful, gripping film. Stevie wavers between accepting what little help he is offered and giving in to deliberate self-destruction. Steve James wonders (at first) whether he should believe Stevie or his accusers; he continually asks himself if his re-entry into Stevie's life is beneficial or too little, too late; he captures devastating emotional scenes on film with empathy, then worries that he's exploiting his friend.

The audience should wonder that, too. James plays catch-up with Stevie at the movie's beginning, crowing about how upset he is that he lost touch with the boy - but then vanishes from Stevie's life again, only returning with cameras two years later, after hearing about the sexual assault charge. It's easy to see this as shameful opportunism, and to view James' perpetual sad-sack expression, as he listens to countless stories of parent-figures who have neglected his subject, as more than a little hypocritical.

At the same time, the portrait James paints is a deeply moving one, one that forces a middle-class audience to relate intimately to a cast of characters we'd be relieved to dismiss as trash. Only a completely callous person could see Stevie's surroundings and hear his history without wondering how things could have been different and mulling age-old questions about crime, punishment, and culpability. Steve James' partially self-serving motivations don't change the service he has rendered to us and his subject, any more than Stevie Fielding's circumstances, however brutal, can absolve his crimes. JD

Films reviewed by:
JD: John DeFore
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
JW: Joe Weiss


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