" I guess you used up all the ugly in the family "

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Alias: Season Three

In its third season, Alias pulls off a hat trick with another round of pulpy page-turner adventure —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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After originally being released in Argentina in 2000 and receiving numerous awards and accolades, Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) is finally scamming its way into American theaters. This highly entertaining romp follows the exploits of two swindlers who join forces and go from chump change to the big leagues of con games all in the course of a single day.

A Day In The Life

A day in the life of a conmanNine Queens starts with a simple scam at a gas station. Juan (Gaston Pauls, La Sonambula) is a street-smart guy looking for some quick cash. He plays the cashier by confusing her while making change and walks away with extra dough.

He then acts too quickly and tries to scam a second cashier. Unfortunately for Juan, his first victim, finally aware of what happened, returns in time to warn the current till tender. Conveniently, an undercover cop is on hand to arrest the scammer. The cop takes Juan, and the money, with him.

As it turns out, the “cop” in question, Marcos (Ricardo Darin, La Discoteca del Amor), is another swindler, one armed with a toy gun pulled from the gas station’s toy rack. A sage man of the street, Marcos takes Juan under his wing and, since they both have their reasons for needing money fast, the two agree to split the proceeds from one day of scams.

Marcos is a tough cookie; he has no qualms about ripping off an old lady or pumping a waiter for change from a bill he never paid. Juan, on the other hand, is a con man with a conscience and is afraid of getting caught.

Their morning pursuits are penny ante games compared to what falls into their laps: A set of nine stamps (the Nine Queens) from the Weimar Republic. Juan’s old partner, Sandler (Oscar Nunez, Tacos Altos), has hand crafted a near-perfect forgery of the “defective, rare, and very valuable” stamps, using paper from 1920 and making each perforation one at a time. The forgery itself is a work of art.

Sandler’s gimmick: Sell the forgery to the perfect target, a wealthy stamp collector, Vidal Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal). He’s being deported to Venezuela and within 24 hours he’ll be far away and without recourse.

What follows is a finely woven con game that offers twists, turns, and one wrench being thrown into the works after another in a constant guessing game of who is conning whom.

All In The Family

While Nine Queens revolves around the ad-hoc team of Marcos and Juan, it is in no way an Argentinean copy of some simple Hollywood-style “buddy” movie. The relationship carved out between the two is always tentative at best.

Plus, in a concept that is becoming more and more foreign to Hollywood, this movie manages to make some observations and comments on the Argentinean society – and times – in which it was filmed. The location is Buenos Aires, but it could just as easily be Los Angeles, New York, or any other city. The people, their situations, and their appeal are universal.

Part of the trick to movies like this is having a cast of characters that can play with the audience’s sympathy. The cast of Nine Queens offers that trait in spades. Breathing life into the characters is a talented group of players, each with a poker face behind which to conceal their motivations.

Pauls, as the conscientious trickster, is an Argentinean Vince Vaughan with a dash of Tom Hanks. He’s an aloof loner-type who’s also capable of some serious smooth-talking when in a pinch.

Darin, as the con-in-charge Marcos, is equal parts schmoozer and swine. He’s the kind of guy who is begging to be smacked upside the head before hanging out with him over a couple beers.

Adding some sizzle to the film in a role that could’ve been that of a simple “token female,” Leticia Bredice (Burnt Money) burns up the screen as Valeria, Marcos’ drop-dead gorgeous sister. She’s a siren who’s a tough-as-nails businesswoman, yet she’s also willing to become a puppet in her brother’s game… for a price, of course.

Honor Among Thieves

At first it appears as though the director, Fabian Bielinsky, is being too honest with the audience and the film’s setup seems clear. Soon enough, though, things become fuzzy as Bielinsky deftly adds layer upon layer. Characters jump out of the woodwork as player after player makes a bid for a stake in the game.

Bielinsky, in his directorial debut, pulls off the ultimate trick. He creates a unique situation with a unique set of characters. While it would be enjoyable to see them get their butts kicked, they’re also oddly sympathetic characters and it would be satisfying to see them succeed

Surprisingly, he actually manages a compromise. To say more would only spoil the fun.