John Hawkes, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, and John Cusack in IdentityIDENTITY and CONFIDENCE

By some bizarre coincidence, this past weekend saw the arrival of two new films, Identity and Confidence, that share an almost frightening number of similarities.

Both employ labyrinthine narratives that inevitably involve one character having to explain the entire movie to another. Both end with one of those oh-now-I-get-it finales that forces you to re-think almost everything you saw. Both feature casts of terrific character actors slumming, good-naturedly, in a genre pic. Both run a sleek 90 minutes. Hell, both are directed by guys named James. (Identity has Mangold, Confidence has Foley.) Granted, one is an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery and the other is a David Mamet-esque con job, but they're even similar in terms of overall quality: Both are remarkably easy to sit through, even though neither is very good.

Cribbing from Christie's Ten Little Indians setup, Identity concerns a group of 10 strangers whose paths cross at a dilapidated motel during a Biblical rainstorm. One by one, the guests begin dying in gruesome fashion, and it eventually becomes clear that this group's accidental meeting might not be accidental at all. Despite the movie's considerable cleverness, there's nothing much at stake in Identity, and it has little resonance. For the most part, the actors are encouraged to play their one-dimensional characters' one dimension to an almost cartoonish level - John C. McGinley's near-autistic mumblings, Clea Duvall's wailing breakdowns, Rebecca De Mornay's neurotic self-centeredness - and the film's Big Twist, though psychologically acceptable, makes you care even less about Identity's resolution; you can re-trace the movie's pretzel of a plot on repeat viewings and see that it plays fair, but few viewers are likely to want to. Yet it's all pretty enjoyable nonetheless. James Mangold has a fine time with numerous genre staples - The Abandoned Laundry Room, The Killer Outside the Bathroom Door - and there's a smart scene early on in which the characters unpack and each one appears secretive and mysterious; it's like The Big Chill in splatter-flick garb. Entertaining work is supplied by the likes of Amanda Peet, John Hawkes, Ray Liotta, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and fans of the John Cusack oeuvre will be thrilled by getting to see him spend an entire movie emoting in a downpour. Now that's witty.

Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz in ConfidenceIt's all preposterous, of course, but Identity manages to provide a good deal of cineplex fun; Confidence is equally watchable, but also has bigger problems. Like Mamet's House of Games and Heist, James Foley's film is an extended con, in which a group of grifters (including Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Paul Giamatti, Luis Guzman, and Donal Logue) attempt to scam $5 million from unwitting bankers before being nailed by either the shady entrepreneur they're indebted to (Dustin Hoffman) or the federal agent on their trail (Andy Garcia). Several of the film's twists are inspired, and Foley gives Confidence a rotting-L.A. decadence that's unusually vivid. Like its characters, the movie feels scuzzy and lived-in, and Foley delivers a lot of information in a very short span of time; he's a master of economy. You won't find yourself bored by Confidence; you might, however, often find yourself annoyed. The film features not one but two sets of narration - Burns recounts the plot in flashback to Morris Chestnut, but, in a ridiculously lazy screenwriting device, also details his exploits directly to the camera - and the film's Big Con only works, it turns out, because a major player acts uncharacteristically like a moron at exactly the right time. Plus, any movie's fun is seriously hampered by the presence of Edward Burns in the lead. Though the feisty, nimble Rachel Weisz does her damnedest to lighten him up, Burns is, as ever, a stolid and ungiving performer; he rolls his eyes and looks put-out with every character he encounters, as if to say "You're not worth my time." Actually, Ed, you're not worth ours.


City of GodCITY OF GOD

One of 2002's best-reviewed works was the Brazilian drama City of God (now playing at the Quad Cities Brew & View), and it's not hard to see why; the film, by Fernando Meirelles, is about as imaginatively directed and bursting with energy as you could possibly want. Set in the poverty-stricken slums of Rio de Janeiro, and detailing the lives of a group of young drug dealers, gun runners, and murderers, City of God features scene after scene of exquisite directorial prowess. There are so many unforgettable moments and brilliantly edited passages - the opening chicken chase, the swirling camera shot that sends its characters back in time, the montage of an apartment's numerous inhabitants, the sequence of a drug lord demanding that two children choose exactly where on their bodies they'd like to be shot - that only later do you realize how banal the actual story is. Like Boyz N the Hood or many of Scorsese's pictures (Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino), it's a coming-of-age tale in which boyhood friends meet tragic fates while our main protagonist remains an observer; the movie might be suffused with genius, yet it's also moralizing and a little pat. We've been here before, but it's to Meirelles' immense credit that we rarely feel like we've been.


Seann William Scott and Chow Yun-Fat in Bulletproof MonkBULLETPROOF MONK

I didn't hate Bulletproof Monk because it's stupid. I hated it because it's boring. Superhero pacifist Chow Yun-Fat, in a dorky haircut, plays mentor to Seann William Scott's small-time hood in this Crouching Tiger-meets-The Matrix-meets-Shangai Noon piece of gobbledygook, and what with the incomprehensible plot, the shoddy visuals, the incoherent editing, and the lame banter between the embarrassed-looking leads, you'll find yourself fighting the urge to nod off with nearly every scene. The film is based, apparently, on a moderately popular comic book, and gamely sets itself up for a sequel (Bulletproof Punk?). The fact that the filmmakers thought audiences might want more of this nonsense is the only good joke in the picture.


Keili Lefkovitz, Jamie Kennedy, Nick Swardson, and Kal Penn in Malibu's Most WantedMALIBU'S MOST WANTED

For my money, Malibu's Most Wanted is the most hysterical dumb-ass comedy since Zoolander, which, in turn, was the funniest since Superstar; all three found their inspiration in characters the leads had perfected long before their feature films came along, and that seems to be the key to their success. Like Ben Stiller's Derek Zoolander or Molly Shannon's Mary Katherine Gallagher, Jamie Kennedy's overprivileged white rapper B-Rad - from Kennedy's TV series The Jamie Kennedy Experiment - has been so meticulously thought-out that Kennedy's performance is more than just deeply amusing; it's freakishly smart and, shockingly, even touching. His inspired clowning would be reason enough to catch Malibu's Most Wanted, uneven though the film is, but we also get a surprisingly tart parody of 8 Mile, the hilarious Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson as fey actors trying to pull off "ghetto dangerous," and, in terrific casting, Ryan O'Neal and Bo Derek as B-Rad's ultra-white-bread parents. Fun-ny.

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