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Matchstick Men

Is there any way that Nicholas Cage can shake his off-kilter movie persona? Or even if he could, would he want to? Cage (né Nicholas Coppola) got his start in the film industry back when he was a teenager, scoring parts in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Cotton Club, and the cult hit Valley Girl. But his role as ex-con H.I. McDonnough in the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona secured his place among Hollywood's leading actors; he would soon follow up with David Lynch's Wild at Heart, as well as Vampire's Kiss, a movie for which he was willing to eat a live cockroach. A student of the "Method" style (he's famously commented that there's a fine line between Method and schizophrenia), Cage took home an Oscar for his 1995 turn as a dying alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. Concerned that he was only getting new scripts with self-destructive characters, he subsequently made two action movies with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, The Rock and Con Air, as well as John Woo's Face/Off. But even these were played with Cage's notable sense of irony, as well as his disdain for simply drawn heroism. Originally cast in Tim Burton's ill-fated Superman project, he said he was attracted to the part because the Man of Steel should be played as a "beautiful, lonely freak who never fit in." It may be an unconventional way to view one of the world's most beloved superhero icons, but it also in part explains Cage's interest in Matchstick Men (2003), where he finds nobility — and a bit of heroism — in a nondescript L.A. con-artist. Cage stars as Roy Waller, one of Southern California's many "flimflam men" or "matchstick men" — confidence hucksters who pinpoint marks, develop elaborate schemes to gain their trust, and then pull the rug out from under them, often just moments after the scam is complete. The veteran Roy works with one partner, Frank Marcer (Sam Rockwell), whom he describes as his protégé. We first meet them as Frank sets up a "free prize" con on an eager, unsuspecting housewife — a trip to Paris awaits, as long as she buys a water-filtration system and gives a check to their courier service right away. It sounds simple enough, but Roy and Frank give it a further twist by arriving at the woman's house the next day posing as Federal agents, revealing the con to her and her husband, and then collecting the family's bank-account information. But if Roy Waller is one of the best hustlers on the street, his personal life is in shambles. An obsessive-compulsive personality, he's severely agoraphobic, opens and shuts doors three times before walking through, and sterilizes his entire house if he forgets to take his medication. Needing a new prescription, he becomes a patient of Dr. Klein (Bruce Altman), who encourages Roy to talk more about his personal life, his divorce, and the child he has never met. Roy's ex-wife still wants nothing to do with him, but Dr. Klein soon learns that Roy's daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) is curious about her father. A visit is arranged, and before long the free-spirited 14-year-old moves in with her dad, who claims he's in the antiques business. But she learns the truth — and it turns out that a teenage daughter might come in handy with Roy and Frank's latest scam.

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Matchstick Men marks a change of pace for director Ridley Scott, who's accustomed to helming epic films and isn't known for treading on David Mamet's turf. Scott took the job after reading the script by Nicholas and Ted Griffin (based on the novel by Eric Garcia) — figuring that he wouldn't be needed for the entire six months of pre-production on Tripoli (not due in theaters until 2007), Scott decided Matchstick Men would be the right sort of project to fill his time. It's a remarkably modest undertaking in terms of modern film-production, with just a few carefully chosen sets and five principal characters. And of these, the central story concerns just two people, a long-estranged father and daughter carefully working their way through a newfound relationship. Alfred Hitchcock often would take small projects while waiting to embark on grander scenarios (Psycho was meant to be a low-budget thriller in preparation for The Birds), and one can sense Scott's talent straining at the seams of this small movie with his elaborate use of light, as well as his illustration of Roy's neuroses with color-tinting, jump-cuts, and camera speeds. He also shows that he's one of the quintessential actors' directors, allowing his cast to carry the bulk of the story. Sam Rockwell comes across with a flamboyant-yet-natural charm, while Alison Lohman manages to hold her own in her many scenes with Cage, countering his eccentricity with youthful enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Cage gets the sort of role he's built his career on, playing the smooth con-man in public, at other times breaking under the strain of obsessive-compulsion and violent facial tics. And his devotion to his daughter is both genuine and moving — an even a little heroic — leading to one of the smoothest endings in the history of heist movies. Warner's DVD release of Matchstick Men features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track with director Ridley Scott and scenarists/brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin. All three find plenty to talk about, with Scott discussing his working methods and preparing scenes, while the Griffins cover the adaptation and re-writing, and even how they first pitched their script to Scott at a Hollywood cocktail party. Additional features include the documentary "Tricks of the Trade: Making Matchstick Men," a 71-min. behind-the-scenes videography broken up into pre-production, production, and post-production. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.

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