Matchstick Men (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

The distinctive thunk-thunk-thunk of Angela's skateboard punctuates his first look at her from behind his smoke-clouded windshield.

Matchstick Men

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell, Bruce Altman, Sheila Kelley
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-09-12

Conman movies like to be clever. The trick is that the basic They're supposed to fool you. The hitch is that you know they're all about tricks, so if they can surprise you at any point, they've done something special. Matchstick Men, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted by Nicholas and Ted Griffin from Eric Garcia's novel, uses a very peculiar trick: it's a family melodrama dressed up like a conman movie.

On its surface, this melodrama is as sappy as they come. L.A.-based smalltime conman Roy (Nicolas Cage) is feeling more and more fidgety, indicated by a widening array of tics and Tourette's discharges, choking, hissing, and swearing. His tics emerge forcefully during a con he's tag-teaming with his protégé-partner Frank (Sam Rockwell, excellent in what seems an abbreviated role): the victim-to-be opens a door and sweaty Roy almost collapses under the threat of air from the "outside."

When he accidentally dumps his unidentified anti-tic pills down the garbage disposal, Roy's paroxysms go into overdrive: at once anal and out of control, he scrubs his table legs with toothbrushes and compulsively repeats specific rituals (shutting every door three times, insisting that no one wear shoes on his carpet), but he also eats tuna from the can, chain-smokes (while he's scrubbing), and keeps his wads o' cash (wrapped in plastic) stowed inside a large china bulldog in his living room. In Cage's hands, such devices too often become grand gestures: if Roy isn't quite so broad as his turns in Vampire's Kiss (1989) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995), the character does suggest that Cage has been told once too often that twitching is effective acting.

That said, this is one of his more restrained and more consistent versions of this performance; Roy grows on you, and like those around him, you might begin to overlook the spasms and appreciate his efforts to work around them. His special sense for how cons work emerges in part from his daily swindle -- either that he is "normal" or that he is inexplicably spastic, depending on how you read Roy's (as opposed to Cage's) performance. And he's a good teacher. "For some folks," he rehearses before using the line during a job, "Money is like a foreign film without the subtitles." He believes that, and makes his marks believe it too.

When he turns visibly desperate without his pills, Roy visits a shrink ostensibly chosen at random, one Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman). A couple of therapy sessions later, Roy discovers he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (24-year-old Alison Lohman, who is excellent, though she has to burst into girly tears a few too many times), the result of a long over and apparently painful relationship. Thinking that he needs to put right his messy past, Roy seeks out Angela, whom he first spots skateboarding along the sidewalk.

This scene, at once simple and intense, shows Scott's legendary attention to visual and audio detail, whatever genres he's mixing. The distinctive thunk-thunk-thunk of Angela's board punctuates his first look at her from behind his smoke-clouded windshield: earnest and pigtailed, she appears the ideal antidote to his corrupt and anxious existence, but Roy is frozen with fear, the camera capturing his disorientation as he scrunches down in close, low-angled frames. Their first meeting is predictably rocky, but Angela warms to him, understanding beyond her years that he's perpetually harried and self-absorbed, but a decent guy beneath the excesses.

Angry at her mom one night, Angela takes the bus to Roy's place, expecting that she'll just hang out and watch tv while he attends a "business meeting." There are two problems with this pseudo-reunited family scenario: Roy doesn't own a tv, and his meeting is at a strip club, where he and Frank are setting up the scuzzy businessman Chuck (Bruce McGill) for a really big score. No matter. Angela is determined to forge a father-daughter bond, even if she has to make it up as she goes along. And since Roy is essentially incapable of taking responsibility for himself, let alone a child who prefers ice cream to eggs for breakfast, her sheer will needs to go a long way.

She's game. On learning what Roy does for a living, Angela does the movie-daughter thing: she asks him to teach her a con, threatening him by reeling off specifics concerning a recent sexual encounter: he's so undone by the thought of her intimate activities that he agrees to her demands, that is, he suddenly looks like an extraordinarily easy mark.

Still, even Angela is at the mercy of Roy's contradictory frenzies, as these shape the film's bizarre emotional logic. He's a distressingly ideal dad, so in need of his daughter, learning to accept his own imperfections as he sees them in her. And yet, their cutesy balance is increasingly unlikely and unsatisfactory: she takes him bowling, he includes her in a high-stakes con; she whines, he puts her name on his security deposit account; she cries, he agrees to quit the trade.

All the while, he's making eyes at the supermarket cashier (Sheila Kelley) who remarkably resembles his much bemoaned ex (Melora Walters). This developing "relationship" insinuates that Roy is making progress toward emotional maturity, or at least being able to introduce himself to a pretty girl, but it feels peripheral to the conman movie, which you know has to come to its own fierce and (of course) enlightening end. Conmen always learn moral-unto-social lessons in their movies, their epiphanies conveyed via kinetically cunning plot twists that you supposedly can't see coming (but actually can, if you're paying attention even slightly). The fusion of Matchstick Men's usual conman life lesson with the father-daughter business is awkward and rushed by film's end. The pieces come together precisely, but sentimentally.

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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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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