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True Lies

Nine Queens, a lively thriller from Argentina, is an honest film about dishonesty; Murder by Numbers screams career makeover for Sandra Bullock.

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Conspiracy Theory: Left to right, Ricardo Darin as Marcos, Gastón Pauls as Juan, and Leticia Bredice as Valeria in Nine Queens.  

Finally, a movie about con artists that isn't made by David Mamet. Nine Queens, written and directed by Argentina's Fabián Bielinsky, certainly draws on Mamet's work and, to a lesser extent, movies like The Sting, but American audiences will probably find the film exotic. Argentines, who have suffered through their country's recent economic collapse, may have a more cynical view. Con artistry in this film is both a genre convention and a metaphor for a wider corruption.

Bielinsky doesn't make explicit the political meanings, and his film works perfectly well as a straight thriller. It's about two small-time bunko artists, Marcos (Ricardo Darin) and Juan (Gastón Pauls), who meet up accidentally and then, after a few trial scams, devise a half-million-dollar con game involving a forged set of rare Weimar Republic stamps called the Nine Queens. Marcos is the older and more worldly of the two men, while the fresh-faced Juan is the con artist you would never suspect. His main asset, according to Marcos, is that he looks like a nice guy -- something that Marcos, with his trim-cut-Mephistopheles couture, would never be accused of. In the best scene in the film, the one that really expands the terror, Marcos points to the teeming passersby on a downtown street and identifies all the swindlers lurking for prey. It's as if we were suddenly shown an infrared image of an ordinary urban scene, illuminating the rottenness within. We're looking not at a parallel universe but at our own, devoid of sentiment or illusion.

If Nine Queens were a great film, instead of just a very good one, this rottenness would be so pervasive that it would burst the bounds of the plot; it would make us shudder. Instead, except for that one downtown scene, Bielinsky keeps things on a fairly even keel. He's a conventional storyteller with a few good scams up his sleeve, and, perhaps wisely, he doesn't overplay his hand. Cosmic terror doesn't come naturally to him, as it does to an Argentine like, say, Jorge Luis Borges, and he's smart enough not to try to be something he isn't. His philosophy, at least in this film, can be summed up as "Who isn't a thief?" But it's not a question that eats away at him. It's more like a game-opener, a way to get the ball rolling.

What makes the film more interesting than a Mamet con-artist movie like Heist is that Mamet's ascetic worldview is almost entirely defined by the hustle; he devises elaborate board games devoid of social context. Nine Queens, almost by necessity, is situated in a larger social scene, and no matter how much Marcos -- or, by implication, Bielinsky -- may rail on about how corrupt everyone is, that corruption nevertheless exists in a universe where it is still possible to see glimmers of humanity. When Juan cons an old woman, we can predict her sadness and we can see his remorse. We also feel, when the scam is going down, a furtive thrill. Bielinsky doesn't deny us the pleasures of the illicit in Nine Queens because he knows that, without them, there would be little to draw us into this world. He's made an honest movie about dishonesty.

In Murder by Numbers, Sandra Bullock plays Cassie Mayweather, a hardened homicide detective and crime-scene specialist who dresses almost exclusively in turtlenecks and black leather jackets. It's one of those roles that practically screams career makeover. I've never quite gotten Bullock's girl-next-door appeal, and it looks like she may not have, either. For much of her new movie, she seems more involved in her performance than she's been in years, maybe because, for a change, she's actually playing a character and not just a fuzzy replica of niceness. It's a "dark" version of her FBI-agent role in Miss Congeniality. But eventually, the role turns into its own species of cliché: the tough-tender woman wounded by men and smarter than everybody else. With her naïve new partner Sam (Ben Chaplin), Cassie is investigating the seemingly random murder of a woman in a small California coastal town where the chief suspects are a pair of local high-schoolers, Richard (Ryan Gosling, who has a quicksilver screen presence), a spoiled rich kid, and Justin (Michael Pitt), a glum brainiac who quotes Nietzsche. These Leopold-and-Loeb wannabes devise what they believe is the perfect murder and leave a trail of clues framing an innocent man. Director Barbet Schroeder is too elegant an artist for this material, which veers between routine cop-movie conventions and high-toned malarkey that seems a lot closer to Dungeons & Dragons than to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Murder by Numbers does have one distinction: It may be the only film you see this year where a police detective is bitten by a baboon.

Enigma wants to be a thinking person's thriller. Adapted from the Robert Harris best-seller by Tom Stoppard, the thinking person's playwright, it's about code breakers at Britain's top-secret Bletchley Park in March 1943. Big brain Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott), who makes Russell Crowe's John Nash seem rather hale by comparison, is the neurasthenic genius who earlier in the war cracked the German Enigma code. When the code is suddenly changed, just as an Allied shipping convoy is crossing the Atlantic with emergency supplies, Tom is re-recruited to head off disaster. Helping him out is Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet), a crossword whiz who works at Bletchley. She's paunchy and dresses like a frump -- proof of her intelligence, I guess. Why is it that brilliant people in the movies are so rarely allowed to be glamorous? Somebody in Hollywood should start up a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Smart Persons.

Stoppard and his director, Michael Apted, must be aware of how dry their film is, because periodically they work in little thriller divertimenti -- car chases and such -- that only serve to point up how un-thrilling everything is.

Early Hitchcock movies such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes managed to be both smart and exciting, and the same is true of almost any of Graham Greene's entertainments. Enigma is sometimes smart, and less often exciting, and almost never both at the same time.

Nine Queens
Directed by Fabián Bielinsky; starring Ricardo Darin and Gastón Pauls.
Murder by Numbers
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; starring Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin.


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