Film

Confidence (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

They meet at King's club, where he's auditioning strippers: Dustin Hoffman, big pimping.


Confidence

Director: James Foley
Cast: Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, Paul Giamatti, Luis Guzmán, Donal Logue, Morris Chestnut
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-04-25

"So, I'm dead." Jake (Edward Burns) introduces himself as the camera looks down on his body, lying in the street, crumpled and bloodied. "I think," he adds, "it's because of this redhead." And you think, okay, I'm in.

You might think this because James Foley's Confidence opens with a bit of an homage to Sunset Boulevard's famous dead-guy-in-a-pool opening. Or because Burns has a part sweet, part gravely voice, good for selling a noirish premise as well as Fidelity Investments. Or maybe because the movie begins with this sort of dare, a jaunty smartness that will be hard to maintain. And with that, it cuts back to "three weeks earlier," so Jake can explain how he came to be dead.

The action begins with Jake and his boys -- Gordo (Paul Giamatti), Miles (Brian Van Holt), and Big Al (Louis Lombardi) -- on a job. They've got crack timing, can read each other's slightest signals. At this particular point, they're in a bar, conning some poor office-worker weasel out of his money, which turns out not to be his money, exactly. The upshot is, when the job looks most successful, Jake's crew is in serious trouble. Now they owe $$150,000 to a too-tanned, unforgiving, and ADS-afflicted Mr. Big, Winston King (Dustin Hoffman). The threat he poses is summed up in customary fashion: Jake must meet him at his downtown club, all abstract edges and neony lighting, where King is auditioning strippers: Dustin Hoffman, big pimping.

Cocky, Jake plays the hand he's dealt: he assures King that he'll sting someone else of his choosing, who turns out to be a guy named Morgan Price (Robert Forster, who, sadly, only appears for a few minutes). If King puts up the front money, Jakes promises a $5 million return (figuring he'll make be able to keep the money he's already swindled, and either pay back or get over on King). Cockier, King agrees to let Jake play, but only if he takes in his guy, the apparently standard-issue henchman, Lupus (Franky G). Though Jake protests ("I work with my guys"), the terms are set before he even begins to negotiate. So now, the conning starts in earnest.

Though Jake's guys are not especially happy with the situation (feeling content with their relatively safe smalltime status), he spins an elaborate scheme, which includes the participation of that redhead he mentioned, Lily (Rachel Weisz), though she isn't actually a redhead yet. They meet cute when she picks his pocket; Jake admires her nerve, if not exactly her skill, and he makes an offer, Walter Neff-ishly: "I'm talking about a grift, and it pays well." Though the guys aren't completely comfortable with bringing in a new partner for this, their biggest job ever, they go along because there has to be a girl in a noiry con movie, to jumpstart heterosexual intrigue, destabilizing and enhancing generic homosocial tensions.

Just so, Lily throws a couple of seeming wrenches in the guys' posturing. Most ostentatiously, she decides to dye her hair red, which sends Jake into a tizzy over bad luck and his personal past. The guys moan and groan about this omen, but the hair stays red, because Jake's already brought it up in his framing voiceover. Lily also introduces distrust among the crewmembers (crucial in a con movie). She and Jake share a lustful evening, which either is or isn't a sign of genuine affection. In turn, Gordo and Miles either see this as a sign of Jake's debilitating distractedness or womanizing business as usual. How you read these responses ambiguous depends on whether or not you've figured out who's scamming whom.

This figuring is, in turn, either easy or tricky, depending on how much attention you're paying, or maybe, how many con movies you've seen. Jake's plan is suitably complicated, involving bank embezzling, wire transfers to Belize, a couple of cops on Jake's payroll, Whitworth (Donal Logue) and Manzano (Luis Guzmán). And, by the way, he's not in it for the money, he asserts, but for the "fucking principle." The commotion attracts the attention of a dogged fed, Gunther Butan (Andy Garcia), who's been tracking Jake and company for years.

This plot point allows for lively crosscutting between marks and surveillance positions -- binoculars, cameras, listening devices -- which Foley, editor Stuart Levy, and cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia use toward achieving an appropriately slick surface. Among the more striking instances is a scene in which the crew meets at a sidewalk café. The camera shoots them from across the street, traffic passing before a series of increasingly intense close-ups. It matters less what they say than what you're looking at: style filling in for scanty plot.

Other stylistic flourishes are somewhat less efficient. Doug Jung's script is structured as a series of flashbacks, embedded within the broad flashback that begins with "So, I'm dead." Jake's storytelling is occasioned by the fact that he's being held at gunpoint by Morgan Price's guy, the smooth-suited Travis (Morris Chestnut). This suggests that things don't go completely as planned during the scam, but then again, maybe they do, since Jake is telling the story. Movements between past to present (however you understand these relative concepts here) use wipes and overhead pans, suggesting an eye-of-goddish overview of events, in which motives and backstories are withheld in order to sustain a kind of suspense.

But suspense is always a function of style in a con movie: the plot can twist a bit, but it follows a formula. As dedicated con-catcher Butan observes, "A fox is not a fox until he's caught in the henhouse." And once he's caught -- say, in frame one of such a movie, his destiny is clear. The route toward this end can be sophisticated or snappy, obvious or tortuous, but the end isn't in question. What may be worth asking is what functions are served by such tidy little puzzles, as they reflect a liking for nominal outlaws and system-buckers, even as they reinforce a basic faith in systems.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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