Top 5... - July 6, 2015

Focus (and five of the best films about con artists)
by James
James
by James hmv London, Bio "Like the legend of the Phoenix, I've just eaten a whole packet of chocolate HobNobs..." Editor, hmv.com

Focus (and five of the best films about con artists)

Hustlers, grifters, confidence tricksters - call them what you will, but over the years Hollywood has produced its fair share of movies detailing the exploits of con artists, and there's no shortage of romantic comedies out there either. But movies that are both at the same time?

Arriving this week (July 6th) on DVD & Blu-ray, Focus is exactly that. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the duo behind I Love You Phillip Morris, the film stars Will Smith as a seasoned third-generation grifter named Nicky Spurgeon who finds himself being 'seduced' by a young woman named Jess (Margot Robbie) in an attempt to con him by having her 'husband' burst in on them in her hotel room, expecting him to run and leave his wallet. Nicky, however, has seen this game before and after giving her some advice he decides to take her under his wing, teaching her the ropes and introducing her to his crew.

Using Jess as his unwitting accomplice, Nicky takes her to an American Football game where he swindles a wealthy compulsive gambler for millions. However, fearing he is becoming too romantically involved, Nicky ditches her after handing over her share.

Three years later, Nicky is working a con on the owner of a Formula 1 team named Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) that involves stealing confidential engine designs and selling them to his rivals. However, Nicky gets a surprise when he discovers that the girl Garriga is dating is none other than Jess. Realising that he still has feelings for her, Nicky begins pursuing her again, but Garriga's security become suspicious and soon Nicky risks blowing the entire con, or getting killed.

Like all decent films about con artists, the plot of Focus has enough twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing throughout and there's some impressive on-screen chemistry between Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Although it's billed as a 'comedy-drama', the emphasis is more on the 'drama'; in fact, it's probably more accurate to describe Focus as a slick crime thriller with some romance and comedy thrown in. That's not to say it isn't funny though – the interplay between Smith and Robbie does provide some laugh-out-loud moments, but the funniest scenes in the film come courtesy of Nicky's obnoxious friend Farhad (Adrian Martinez), whose constant inappropriate behaviour is the source of most of the big laughs.

You can find the trailer for Focus below and you can order the film on the right hand side of this page, but in the meantime we've picked another five of our favourite films about con artists for those who fancy themselves as a budding grifter...

 

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Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg's 2002 film is based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a confidence trickster who defrauded millions from banks by posing as a Pan-Am airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, among various other guises, all before he was 21 years old. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Abagnale, who is doggedly pursued across the globe by tireless FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks. The film also co-stars Christopher Walken as Abagnale's father.

Abagnale was eventually caught and served five years in prison before being recruited by the FBI themselves as an advisor, a position the real Frank Abagnale still holds today. Although elements of Spielberg's film have been fictionalised, it's a thrilling but often stressful account of a real life conman who used alarmingly simple techniques to swindle huge sums of money from some of the world's biggest institutions and even though he's breaking the law, you just can't help rooting for him.

 

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Frank Oz's 1988 comedy stars Steve Martin and Michael Caine as two rival conmen living and plying their dubious trade in the fictional town of Beaumont-sur-Mer, a resort village on the French Riviera with an ageing but extremely wealthy population. Caine plays a suave English conman named Lawrence Jamieson, swindling his way through the town's rich and elderly when he becomes aware that a second con artist, known as The Jackal, is muscling in on his territory.

When he discovers an American hustler named Freddy Benson (Martin) working on his patch, Lawrence believes he's found his man, but this town isn't big enough for both of them, so the settle on a wager; whoever can swindle $50,000 out of wealthy American heiress gets to stay, while the other must leave town.
Both Caine and Martin are hilarious and though it's dated a little bit these days, this film very silly, but very funny.

 

The Brothers Bloom

The second feature film to be helmed by Rian Johnson following his 2005 debut feature Brick, The Brothers Bloom stars Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody as two world-renowned con artist brothers who are tempted out of semi-retirement for one last con, in which they target the owner of the largest house on the Eastern seaboard, a wealthy but eccentric heiress called Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz).

With the help of their mysterious sidekick Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), they set about swindling Penelope in their biggest scam yet, but there are problems. Their mark is extremely unpredictable and to make matters worse their long-time enemy, Diamond Dog, is bent on revenge and may be closer to delivering it than either of the brothers realise.

Johnson's film wasn't a huge hit, but it's a much more entertaining film than its takings at the box office would suggest and it's well worth a look if you like you crime capers served with a side order of belly laughs.

 

The Grifters

John Cusack, Angelica Houston and Annette Bening star in this 1990 film from Stephen Frears in which Houston and Cusack are mother and son – and both are grifters. Cusack plays Roy, a small-time crook who finds himself on the receiving end of a beating when one of his cons goes awry. His mother, a hardened con artist making a living from shortening odds on horse races for a crooked bookie, finds that she isn't quite as hardened as she thought when she realises that even an absentee parent can have feelings for their offspring, a fact that soon gets her into trouble with her own employers.

Produced by Martin Scorsese, The Grifters isn't overly flash or showy, but instead depicts the grimy downside to life as a grifter and the film earned four Oscar nominations for its trouble.

 

American Hustle

One you've gotten over the initial shock of Christian Bale's appearance – and he's really suffered for his art here – David O. Russell's film will have you totally absorbed. Bale stars as a fading con artist named Irving Rosenfeld who finds himself sucked into a politically charged game of cat and mouse involving a zealous FBI agent, the Mafia and the popular mayor of a New Jersey town. Russell's film is loosely based on Operation ABSCAM, a real-life sting operation conducted by the FBI in the 1970s that saw as many as 30 politicians convicted for corruption, although many of them accused the bureau of entrapment.

Starring a talented cast that includes Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle was unlucky to walk away empty handed at the Oscars, despite winning 10 nominations, losing out in an extremely competitive year to films like Gravity and 12 Years A Slave, but Russell's film is as worthy as any of them.

Focus
Focus Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

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