Tag Archives: The Spanish Prisoner

Focus (2015)

There was a time when I’d never met a movie about con artists that I didn’t like. You name it: the almighty Sting, the classic you-didn’t-even-know-this-was-a-con Usual Suspects, George C. Scott’s The Flim-Flam Man; modern takes like Matchstick Men, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle; the super-rewatchable original Italian Job and the super-rewatchable remake Ocean’s Eleven. Some of these — like, say, The Spanish Prisoner — technically aren’t that great as far as cinema is concerned. Maybe that’s part of what’s so damn endearing about them: they’re movies, not films, which means they could conceivably appeal to just about anyone because style and fun outweigh technique and competence. I think I was just fine with that for a while, and I might still be.

But I also remember taking issue with Christopher Nolan (you: “who the hell are you to challenge Christopher Nolan?”; me: “I have as many Oscars as he does“) when he made the following comment about heist movies in an LA Times interview while filming Inception:

I originally wrote [Inception] as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms…they’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes.

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Parenthood (1989)

Parenthood might be the first time Ron Howard really showed his talent as a director. Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift were passable as Howard found his directorial voice, and Gung Ho and Willow were larger productions that achieved different levels of success as Howard matured. I’d entertain an argument for Cocoon as the first glimpse of the great director Howard would one day become, mostly for the subtle mix of fantasy, sentimentality, humor and drama. But Parenthood, although admittedly very different, is the better film. With a burgeoning cast that can only be described as an ensemble, Howard’s brilliance lies in making that ensemble feel more like — oh no, he’s going to say it — a family.

There are the young ones — Kevin, Taylor, Justin, Patty, “Cool” and Garry (a pipsqueak Joaquin Phoenix) — each content in their kid ways to run around with head-in-bucket (in Justin’s case) or figure out the square root of 8,649 (in Patty’s case [it’s 93]). There’s Garry’s older sister Julie and her boyfriend/husband Tod. There’s the next generation, the brunt of the Buckman clan led by Steve Martin’s Gil, and the spouses of each Buckman sibling. And then there’s the patriarchal generation, with Grandpa Frank played by the great Jason Robards, utterer of the greatest line in cinema history (from Once Upon a Time in the West — either ya knowhadimean or ya don’t).

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The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Most everybody loves a good con movie. While the thrill of the illegality of it all – the curiosities, the impossibilities, the big reveal – is ostensibly what makes heist flicks appealing, the fact that everything about the crime subgenre seems so damn stylish is probably more of a reason to keep making films about con artists (and more of a reason to keep watching them). The Sting remains the ultimate con movie, super stylish from start to finish, and everything that followed owes a great deal to that film. But even recent takes like Inception and American Hustle breathe new life into the idea by inhabiting a distinct aesthetic niche.

This is taking the long way around the barn to say that David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, through it is very much a part of the aforementioned genre, is a surprisingly and suspiciously unstylish little film. It’s extremely well-written, as is almost everything Mamet touches, but it’s noticeably devoid of any of the visual trickery or larger-than-life characters that we might expect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that The Spanish Prisoner promises a lot in the first act and doesn’t quite deliver on that promise when all is said and done.

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