Review: ‘Sharper’ and its starry cast play a slick, well-crafted long con

Julianne Moore, left, John Lithgow and Sebastian Stan in the movie "Sharper."
Julianne Moore, left, John Lithgow and Sebastian Stan in the movie “Sharper.”
(Apple TV+)


The best movies about con artists — such as “House of Games” and “The Sting” — ask audiences to question everything we’re seeing, and to wonder if anyone, at any level, is who they say they are. The twisty thriller “Sharper” isn’t on the same tier as those classics; but it’s stylish and well-acted, and it does keep viewers guessing. It does its job well. It’s a pretty-looking puzzle.

This is one of those movies where even describing who the characters are risks spoiling the plot. But it is safe to say that Sebastian Stan plays Max, a long-con grifter meddling in the lives of two couples: the mega-rich hedge-fund manager Richard (John Lithgow) and his socialite lover Madeline (Julianne Moore); and the gentle independent bookstore owner Tom (Justice Smith) and his charming new girlfriend Sandra (Briana Middleton).

Director Benjamin Caron and screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka gradually peel back the layers of these relationships through a series of flashbacks. First we meet Tom and see how he and Sandra fell in love; then we jump back to see what Sandra was up to before that relationship started; then Max enters the picture so we jump back to see where he came from; and so on. Each of these chapters alters our understanding of what we’ve already seen.


As often happens with these kinds of caper pictures, by the time the story loops back to where we started the coincidences and double-crosses have piled up to such a degree that it’s best not to get too invested in any character’s stated identities or goals. The cast, though, keeps the movie grounded from scene to scene, even when their characters are lying. And Caron (a prestige-TV veteran who has worked on “Andor” and “The Crown”) has fun playing with the polished surfaces of the spaces where wealthy people dwell — the places where they can’t escape the reflections of their own guilty faces.

‘Sharper.’ R, for language throughout and some sexual references. 1 hour, 56 minutes. Available on Apple TV+; also playing theatrically, LOOK Dine-In Cinemas, Glendale

‘The Integrity of Joseph Chambers’

The anxious indie drama “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers” reteams writer-director Robert Machoian with actor Clayne Crawford, the star of his superb 2020 film “The Killing of Two Lovers,” for another insightful look at one man’s masculine delusions. Crawford plays the title character, Joe: a suburban family man who decides to prove something to himself about his basic survival skills by going deer hunting. While deep in the woods, Joe gets so bored and restless that when the opportunity finally arises for him to shoot at an animal, his lack of focus leads to a terrible mistake.

Machoian keeps the dialogue to a minimum, letting the quietly expressive Crawford carry a lot of the story with his face and his muttering. As in their previous collaboration, Machoian and Crawford balance the frequently grim subject matter with dark humor, as Joe makes up songs about himself or tries out arguments aloud to justify his various screw-ups. Sound designer Peter Albrechtsen and composer William Ryan Fritch help craft the movie’s mood, which shifts between muted realism and a deep look at what’s going on inside Joe’s head.

There’s not a lot of plot in “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” so Machoian sometimes lingers longer than necessary on shots of Joe just walking or sitting. Some of his experiments with sound also cross the line from bold to corny. But for the most part, this is an absorbing and nuanced character sketch, with a well-deployed supporting cast. In the few scenes where Joe has conversations — with his wife (Jordana Brewster), a vagabond (Michael Raymond-James) or a cop (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — the movie shows him working through a dawning understanding that mere machismo doesn’t make someone a good man.

‘The Integrity of Joseph Chambers.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 36 minutes. Available on VOD; also playing theatrically, Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood

Callie Hernandez and Will Madden in the movie "Jethica."
Callie Hernandez and Will Madden in the movie “Jethica.”


Indie filmmaker Pete Ohs and a small cast of committed actors ventured out into a barren New Mexico nowhere for “Jethica,” a horror-comedy that doesn’t offer much in the way of scares or laughs but is strangely fascinating regardless. Ashley Denise Robinson plays Jessica, who is driving across the country after some harrowing experiences with a lisping stalker named Kevin (Will Madden) when she reconnects with an old friend, Elena (Callie Hernandez), living in a trailer on an old ranch. When the sunken-eyed, incessantly babbling Kevin shows up at Elena’s door, Jessica panics because — surprise! — this man is supposed to be dead.

“Jethica” has a short running time yet still drags, largely due to too many static shots of nothingness and a lot of dead air between lines of dialogue. The cast wrote the script on-set along with Ohs; and at times it feels like they’re all at a loss for what to do and say next. But while they had plenty of opportunities here to make something heavy-handed — commenting on the kind of men who won’t leave women alone, for example — their film is surprisingly gentle, and thus more haunting. It’s about emptiness and loneliness, and about how no matter where people are in their lives, everyone needs somebody to talk to who really understands them.

‘Jethica.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 12 minutes. Available on Fandor

‘The Civil Dead’

In the bone-dry supernatural comedy “The Civil Dead,” Clay Tatum (who also directed and co-wrote the film) and Whitmer Thomas (the other co-writer) play Clay and Whit, old acquaintances from childhood who haven’t spoken in years, even though they both moved from their hometown to Los Angeles. Then Whit suddenly shows up in Clay’s life again and admits that he’s actually dead — and that only Clay can see and hear him. “The Civil Dead” is intentionally shaggy, often to a fault, with several long scenes where the leads are apart and nothing much is happening. But Tatum and Thomas (who themselves have been friends for a long time) have a relaxed comic chemistry whenever they’re together. Clay’s neuroses and egotism plays off of Whit’s sometimes exhausting eagerness. The movie’s premise is clever; but what really makes it work is that these two use this ghost schtick as a way to examine the ways that friendship can be a hassle.

‘The Civil Dead.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 44 minutes. Available on VOD; also playing theatrically, Laemmle Glendale and Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills



Two friends with a taste for decadent adventure give drug-smuggling a try with disastrous results in writer-director Carter Smith’s queasy psychodrama “Swallowed.” Before heading out to Los Angeles to become a gay porn star, Benjamin (Cooper Koch) lets his up-for-anything pal Dom (Jose Colon) talk him into making some money by swallowing condoms filled with illegal substances and crossing the southern border. When Dom starts feeling sick, the two call for help from their unsympathetic supplier Alice (Jena Malone) and her cruel boss Rich (Mark Patton). That’s when they find out they’re carrying highly poisonous worms in their guts. “Swallowed” is slow-paced and often aggressively unpleasant — unless your idea of a good time is watching people moan in pain for minutes on end while clutching their stomachs. But it’s a memorably intense experience, with sharp points to make about how the lives of outsiders and outlaws can tip in an instant into sloppy chaos.

‘Swallowed.’ Rated R for disturbing/violent content, strong graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug content, and some sexual references. 1 hour, 32 minutes. Available on VOD

Black-and-white image of a man in a three-piece-suit from the documentary series "Bill Russell: Legend."
Bill Russell in 1966 when he was player-coach of the Boston Celtics, from the documentary series “Bill Russell: Legend.”
(Netflix via Associated Press )

‘Bill Russell: Legend’

An excellent companion piece to director Sam Pollard’s 2021 documentary “Citizen Ashe” (about the career and social impact of the tennis great Arthur Ashe), the comprehensive two-part doc “Bill Russell: Legend” takes a long and admiring look at a groundbreaking NBA great. Running over three hours, the film covers one of the pivotal eras in professional basketball, when Russell’s Boston Celtics dominated the game so thoroughly that they became must-see television — and, in the process, helped changed some of the public and media perception of Black athletes. Pollard’s team cuts together interviews with dozens of veteran sportswriters and basketball legends, threaded between thrilling footage from Russell’s multiple championship seasons. This documentary goes deep into NBA history, but also covers the uncommon pressure put on Black sports stars in the civil rights era to excel in and out of the arena.

‘Bill Russell: Legend.’ TV-MA, for language and smoking. 3 hours, 19 minutes. Available on Netflix

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