True Grift

"Sharper," on Apple TV+, is a twisty con-artist drama with a hellacious Julianne Moore.

True Grift

After a long-overdue week of beach and birds, I’m back in wintry New England catching up on some of the new movies I missed while I was away from screens. One of them, the phenomenal “Return To Seoul” – the Boston Society of Film Critics’ choice for best film of 2022 – opened last Friday in New York and Los Angeles but is slowly rolling out and won’t get to Boston until March 3rd. I’ll write more about it then, but I will say that I just watched the trailer on the Sony Classics website and got verklempt all over again. It’s that powerful a movie. (The New York Times just ran a good interview with director Davy Chou, lead actress Park Ji-Min, and two acquaintances whose experiences served as the basis for the adoption storyline.)

l. to r. Julianne Moore, John Lithgow, and Sebastian Stan in “Sharper”

On a less high-minded note, there’s “Sharper” (⭐⭐⭐) on Apple TV+, a sleek and mostly nifty con-artist drama set in the upper canyons of Manhattan. In any movie about grifters, the suckers getting fleeced include the audience itself – that’s part of the pleasure of the con; that and the climactic reveal that suddenly transforms us from marks into accomplices. The script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandra Tanaka is built like a puzzle box, telling the story first from the point of view of one character, then backtracking chronologically through the eyes of the other characters one by one, filling in gaps of information and throwing narrative curveballs along the way. I really can’t get into details of the plot without spoiling the twists that are what “Sharper” really has going for it, but I will note that this B+ B-movie has an A+ cast, from the lesser-known but appealing Justice Smith and Brianna Middleton to heavyweights like Julianne Moore and John Lithgow. Somewhere in the middle is Sebastian Stan (“I, Tonya,” Bucky Barnes in the “Captain America” movies) as Max, the pivot of the long con that takes up the narrative of the movie as well as the long con that is the movie. Max is a snake but a seductive one, never not working a grift on someone, anyone, just to keep from being bored. His gift is making people think he has a soul, and Stan’s performance has a delectable reptilian chill to it.

That said, you come away from “Sharper” reminded that Julianne Moore can do just about anything, most of which is in this movie. (Not surprisingly, the actress co-produced along with filmmaker husband Bart Freundlich; she understands that women of a certain age have to make their own opportunities in the American film industry.) Again, I’m powerless to tell you exactly what it is she does here without giving away the film’s tricks, but I will say that I was struck, and not for the first time, by the thought that Moore would have flourished in the classic studio era of film noirs, melodramas, and suspense thrillers – indeed, might have given Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money.

Is the movie worth the $6.99 monthly subscription to toggle Apple TV+ on for a month? Just about. Director Benjamin Caron has worked mostly in TV – a lot of episodes of “The Crown” – and this is his first proper feature film. You can tell. “Sharper” looks luscious and rolls along with elegant meanness for much if its running time, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing: A climactic Double Immelman of plot fake-outs is dramatically satisfying but hardly convincing and the final scene is just limp. Produced by the adventurous indie film company A24 for Apple TV+, the movie went out to theaters for a week before heading to VOD, and that feels right – “Sharper” is more at home at home, a fun watch with friends and family or a solo evening’s light diversion, the kind you replay the next day in your head to see how it all fits together. It’s only a minor letdown that the filmmakers are so intent on conning the audience that they end up conning themselves.

You probably already know that “The Woman King” (⭐⭐⭐1/2) has arrived on Netflix as of last week – it’s the service’s No. 1 movie this week. (It’s available as a rental on other services as well.) But if you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself to a Black African female version of “Gladiator” and try to comprehend how Viola Davis could ever have been passed over for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Supporting actresses Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim are pretty ferocious too, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood further demonstrates her mastery of any genre she deigns to tackle. The movie’s not art; it’s the kind of full-blooded historical action epic the men have seemingly forgotten how to make.

Also new to streaming: “Armageddon Time” (⭐ 1/2, Peacock), a Very Serious Drama About Race and Responsibility that faithful readers of this newsletter know I found to be a pompous load of hooey. But since I appear to be in the minority on this – the movie’s 75% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, 74% on Metacritic – I am duty-bound to let you know it’s streaming on NBCUniversal’s VOD platform and a $6 rental elsewhere.

Last tip: If you get Turner Classics on your cable system and you’ve got nothing going on tonight, one of the greatest of all silent movies, F.W. Murnau’s 1927 “Sunrise” (⭐⭐⭐⭐), is airing at 8:00 p.m. Subtitled “A Song of Two Humans,” it’s the rare movie that can legitimately be considered poetry, and it stands at a curious juncture in time: A silent film made as the talkies were rushing in, the first Hollywood film for its German filmmaker (“Nosferatu,” “The Last Laugh”), and the only movie to win the Oscar for Best Unique and Artistic Picture, a category that was retired after the first Academy Awards were held in 1929. (If you miss the TCM airing, the film’s in the public domain and there are copies of it on YouTube as well as on the major streaming services.)

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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