Tag Archives: 2008 Reviews

Don’t nobody move: Top 15 heist capers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2021)

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There was a passing of note for true crime aficionados last week:

Robert “Bobby” Gentile, one of the last surviving named suspects in the infamous heist of 13 artworks valued at $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, died on Friday. He was 85 years old and had suffered a stroke, according to his lawyer, A. Ryan McGuigan.

“He denied having the paintings till his death,” McGuigan told the Boston Globe. “They say he was a bad guy, but he became a friend. He was the last of his kind.”

The Gardner robbery took place in the early morning hours following Boston’s spirited St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in 1990. Two men dressed as police officers gained access to the museum thanks to a night security guard, tied up the two watchmen on duty, and spent the next two hours stealing masterpieces by artists including Rembrandt van RijnJohannes VermeerEdgar Degas, and Édouard Manet.

The works have been missing ever since, despite the offer of a $10 million reward.

Keep your eyes peeled at those estate sales. You never know.

I’m sure you’re shocked, shocked to learn there is a Netflix docuseries about the robbery, entitled (wait for it…) This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist. I haven’t seen it yet (there are only so many hours in the day), but I have seen my share of heist films …so I thought I’d  break into my video vault and pull out a few favorites:

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The Anderson Tapes – In Sidney Lumet’s gritty 1971 heist caper, Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.

To my knowledge it’s one of the first films to explore the “libertarian’s nightmare” aspect of everyday surveillance technology (in this regard, it is a pre-cursor to Francis Ford Coppola’s paranoiac 1974 conspiracy thriller The Conversation).

Also on board are Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and Quincy Jones provides the score.

Bellman and True – This off-beat 1987 caper from eclectic writer-director Richard Loncraine (Brimstone & Treacle, The Missionary, Richard III, et.al.). Bernard Hill stars as a computer system engineer named Hiller who finds himself reluctantly beholden to a criminal gang he had briefly fallen in with previously. They have kidnapped his teenage son and threaten to do him harm if Hiller doesn’t help them disable the alarm system at the bank they’re planning to rob.

The one advantage he holds over his “partners” is his intelligence and technical know-how, but the big question is whether he gets an opportunity to turn the tables in time without endangering himself or his son. A unique, character-driven crime film, with cheeky dialog and surprising twists (Desmond Lowden co-adapted the screenplay from his own novel with Loncraine and Michael Wearing).

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Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.

The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the  atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.

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Charley Varrick – Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, The Lineup, Dirty Harry) and adapted from John Reese’s novel by Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, this tough and  gritty crime drama/character study from 1973 stars Walter Matthau as a master thief/ex- stunt pilot who gets into hot water when he unwittingly robs a bank that washes money for the mob. I think it’s one of his best performances.  If the cheeky dialog reminds you of a certain contemporary film maker, all will become clear when one character is warned that the mob may come after him with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.” Joe Don Baker is memorable as a kinky hit man.

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Criss-Cross – Burt Lancaster stars in this 1949 noir by revered genre director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Suspect, The Killers, The Cry of the City, et.al.). Lancaster is an armored car driver who still has the hots for his troublesome ex-wife (Yvonne De Carlo). Chagrined over her marriage to a local mobster (Dan Duryea), he makes an ill-advised decision to ingratiate himself back into her life, leading to his reluctant involvement in an armored car heist as the “inside man”.

Great script by Daniel Fuchs (adapted from Don Tracy’s novel; Steven Soderbergh adapted his 1995 thriller The Underneath from the same). Artful, atmospheric cinematography by Franz Planer.

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Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously using the airport’s security lock down for the visit of a foreign dignitary as cover. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to finance the heist, he uses his charm to bilk rich women out of their savings.

Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. It’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.

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$ (Dollars) – In this 1971 film from writer-director Richard Brooks, Warren Beatty is a bank security expert who uses intel  from his sex worker girlfriend (Goldie Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch several safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank (the boxes belong to criminals). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.

What sets this apart from standard heist capers is a chase sequence that  seems to run through most of Germany and takes up 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great Quincy Jones score.

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Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it features the planning and execution of several heists and delivers exciting action sequences, at its heart it is a character study.

Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship between the cops and the robbers, but by drawing  parallels between the characters’ personal lives he illustrates  how at the end of the day, they basically seek the same things in life (they only differ in how they go about “getting” it). De Niro and Pacino only have one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.

The great supporting cast includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd.

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The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so it’s back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Segal, Robert Redford Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.

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Kelly’s HeroesThe Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, a platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank with a secret stash of gold bullion worth millions.

Eastwood plays it straight, but there’s anachronistic M*A*S*H-style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.

Also with Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) composed the  theme song, “Burning Bridges”.

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The Killing – Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film (nicely shot by DP Lucien Ballard, renowned in later years for his work with Sam Peckinpah) is a pulpy, taut 94-minute noir that extrapolates on the “heist gone awry” model pioneered six years earlier in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (also recommended!). Kubrick even nabbed one of the stars from Huston’s film, Sterling Hayden, to be his leading man.

Hayden plays the mastermind, Johnny Clay (fresh out of stir) who hatches an elaborate plan to rob the day’s receipts from a horse track. He enlists a couple of track employees (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Joe Sawyer), a wrestler (Kola Kwariani), a puppy-loving hit man (oddball character actor Timothy Carey-the John Turturro of his day) and of course, the requisite “bad” cop (Ted de Corsia).

Being a cautious planner, Johnny keeps his accomplices in the dark about any details not specific to their particular assignments. Still, the plan has to go like clockwork; if any one player falters, the gig will collapse like a house of cards. Also in the cast: scene-stealer Marie Windsor, who plays an entertainingly trashy femme fatale.

Legendary pulp writer Jim Thompson was enlisted for the screenplay (adapted from Lionel White’s Clean Break). Stories have circulated that Thompson never forgave the director for the “screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialog by Jim Thompson” billing, when it was allegedly Thompson who contributed the lion’s share of original dialog to the script.

While certain venerable conventions of the heist film are faithfully adhered to in The Killing, it’s in the way Kubrick structures the narrative that sets it apart from other genre films of the era. Playing with the timeline to build a network narrative crime caper is cliché now, but was groundbreaking in 1956 (Quentin Tarantino clearly “borrowed” from The Killing for his 1991 caper Reservoir Dogs).

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The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios  concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together is a beautiful thing.

William Rose scripted (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to helm one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957.

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Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and Billy Wilder is said to have made some non-credited contributions to the script.

To be sure, it’s a vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.

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That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.

Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmerz; this subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same principal cast would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.

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Topkapi– I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively lighthearted 1964 romp over his darker and more esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for this list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?

The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum.

There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery to drink in. Entertaining fare.

…And just for fun:

DVD Reissue: The Ritz ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Ritz – Warner Brothers DVD

Everything’s coming up sunshine and Santa Claus! I suspect lots of folks have been waiting for this film to come out of the vaults.

I’m usually not a fan of broadly comic, door-slamming farce (is it necessary for the actors to scream their lines?)-but I make exception for Richard Lester’s 1976 film adaptation of Terrence McNally’s stage play, because it puts me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Jack Weston plays a N.Y.C. businessman on the run from the mob, who seeks asylum in what he assumes will be the last place that the hit men would think of to look for him-a bath house. And yes, campy hilarity ensues.

The cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard, and Treat Williams as a private detective with an “interesting” voice. They are all excellent, but ultimately upstaged by Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a female version of Bill Murray’s cheesy lounge act character on those old SNL episodes. I have learned from experience to not be sipping a beverage or munching a snack when Googie launches into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, because otherwise, I will be passing matter through my nose.

The DVD features an excellent transfer.

DVD Reissue: Serial ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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Serial – Legend Films DVD

Well, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news, of course is that this 1980 comedy gem starring Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld has finally been released on DVD. The bad news is that after the interminable wait, the releasing studio has done a less-than-stellar job with the transfer. The picture is adequate (and enhanced for 16×9) but really not that much of an improvement over previous VHS versions; the audio could have stood at least a minimum of EQ tweaking (it’s a bit muffled and thin).

So why am I still recommending it? Because it’s a hilarious satire of California trendies, featuring a crack ensemble of screen comedy pros (Sally Kellerman, Tommy Smothers, Peter Bonerz, Bill Macy).

Based on Cyra McFadden’s 1977 book, the film is a precursor to Michael Tolkin’s excellent 1994 L.A. satire, The New Age (which remains MIA on DVD, much to my chagrin). Serial takes a brisk stroll through California Yuppie Hell, with its barbs aimed at the late 70s Marin County crowd. Psycho-babblers blather, hot tubs gurgle, and razor-sharp one-liners are dispensed between gulps of white wine and bites of Brie. Almost worth the price of admission alone: the great Christopher Lee as  the “president” of a gay biker gang.

DVD Reissue: Day of the Outlaw ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Day of the Outlaw – MGM DVD

When this film was originally released in 1959, the posters screamed “Out of the blizzard came the most feared killers who ever took over a town!” A tough, gritty and stark film noir, cleverly disguised as a western. Directed by the late Andre de Toth (House of Wax), who had a propensity for creating  atmospheric B-films that belied their low budgets (like the 1954 noir Crime Wave).

Robert Ryan plays a hard-ass cattle rancher who is at odds with one of the neighboring farmers. Complicating things further is the fact that he has the hots for his rival’s wife, who is played by sexy Tina Louise. Just when you think this is going to turn into another illustration as to why the Farmer and the Cowman cain’t be fray-ends, the story heads into proto-Tarantino territory when some very nasty outlaws ride into town, led by Burl Ives. Ives is not so holly-jolly in this role; he convincingly plays a truly vile bastard. The nastiness that ensues, set in an unforgiving wintry Wyoming landscape, may have influenced the offbeat 1968 spaghetti western, The Great Silence. The DVD has no frills, but sports a good transfer.

DVD Reissue: The Boys in the Band ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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The Boys in the Band – Paramount DVD

William Friedkin’s groundbreaking 1970 adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway play has made its belated DVD debut in 2008. A group of gay friends gather to celebrate a birthday, and as the booze starts to flow, the fur begins to fly. It may not seem as “bold” or “daring” as it was to viewers nearly 40 years ago, but the hard truths about human nature revealed  here remain universal and timeless.

It’s one of the best American dramas of the 1970s; a wickedly acidic verbal jousting match delivered by a crackerjack acting ensemble so finely tuned that you could set a metronome to the performances. The film is also unique for enlisting the entire original stage cast to recreate their roles onscreen.

The DVD features an enlightening commentary track from the always-chatty Friedkin, plus three featurettes including interviews with two surviving cast members (sadly, we learn all principal actors save for three have since passed away). Warning: Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” will be playing in your head for days on end.

DVD Reissue: $ (Dollars) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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$ (“Dollars”) – Sony Pictures DVD

This lesser-known1971  Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn vehicle (written and directed by RIchard Brooks) has been languishing in the vaults for a quite a while, and is due for rediscovery. Beatty is a bank security expert who uses inside “pillow talk” intel provided by his hooker girlfriend (Hawn) to hatch an ingenious plan to pinch three safety deposit boxes sitting in the vault of a German bank that she has confirmed as belonging to people associated with criminal enterprises (what are they going to do-go to the police for help?). The robbery scene is a real nail-biter.

What sets this film apart from standard heist capers is its unique chase sequence, which seems to run through most of Germany and takes up a whopping 25 minutes of screen time (a record?). The cast includes Robert Webber and Gert Frobe (Mr. Goldfinger!). Great score from Quincy Jones, too. This DVD is part of a new series of reissues from Sony Pictures, which they have curiously labeled “Martini Movies”.

DVD Reissue: Touch of Evil ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s  Hullabaloo on December 13, 2008)

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Touch of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition) – Universal DVD (2-discs)

Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with “that” opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town (one of the most offbeat and grotesque  heavies in film noir).

This film also showcases one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who famously deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized by creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge and her thugs smacks of David Lynch; there are numerous such flourishes that are light-years ahead of anything else in American cinema at the time.

Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

Fans of the film have had to make do with an improperly matted and cropped DVD transfer-until now. Not only have those screen ratio issues been corrected, but we are also given  a choice of viewing 3 different cuts in this new edition: the restored and re-edited 1998 version (re-cut to the specifications that Welles had requested in a 58-page memo to the studio that ultimately fell on deaf ears), the original theatrical version, and the preview version (which has a commentary track with Heston and Leigh). With extras galore.

Michael Crichton: A Top 5 List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 8, 2008)

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I’m sure that you’ve heard the news about Michael Crichton’s passing. The prolific, Harvard-educated MD turned science fiction author/screenwriter/director/producer (and yes, yes, I know…global warming denier…but nobody’s perfect) invented the “techno-thriller” genre. He was the master of the science-gone-amuck/chaos theory narrative, a theme that informed his best books and screenplays. Crichton’s novels have become synonymous with edge of your seat thrills and nail-biting suspense, tempered with detailed and (mostly) plausible science. He also created  the TV drama  ER. He also has an impressive film legacy;  here’s my Top 5 picks:

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Westworld-This 1973 cult favorite marked Crichton’s first foray into film directing, and it shows. But the film has two very strong suits in its favor: Crichton’s taut, sharply written screenplay and Yul Brenner’s memorable performance as a psychotic android gunslinger (the original Terminator!). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin also have an appealing on-screen chemistry, which livens things up (although Benjamin is an odd choice as an action hero). The “amusement park attractions killing the tourists” concept was an obvious warm up for Jurassic Park. Brenner would later reprise his role in the dicey 1976 sequel, Futureworld (watch at your own risk).

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Jurassic Park-Crichton adapted the screenplay from his own original novel (with assistance from David Koepp) for this Steven Spielberg blockbuster. Years of re-watching on the home screen may have diminished the visceral thrill of the cinematic artistry in several key scenes (the unforgettable T. Rex attack in the driving rainstorm, for starters) but this film undeniably remains a groundbreaking affair; thanks to the impressive pool of talent involved. My favorite line: “Must go faster.” Director Spielberg, Crichton and Koepp reunited for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park; while the special effects were impressive, it was a relatively tepid rehash of the previous.

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The Andromeda Strain-What’s the scariest monster of them all? The one you cannot see. This 1971 Robert Wise film is the most faithful Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at alarming speed. With its claustrophobic atmosphere (all the scientists are  trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer.

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The Terminal Man-Paging Dr. Jekyll! George Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks.

Although it’s essentially “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who directed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Crichton’s novel.

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Twister-I admit, I went into the theater with low expectations, but this 1996 popcorn adventure about storm chasers tearing through Tornado Alley turned out to be quite the guilty pleasure. Crichton co-scripted with Anne-Marie Martin.

The film doesn’t have any threatening reptiles or rogue androids, and the science isn’t as complex as the typical Crichton story, but some of his signature themes are there (the violent unpredictability of a tornado-there’s your “chaos theory” at work).

Also, note that the protagonists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) have the same dynamic as Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s scientist couple in Jurassic Park. Action director Jan de Bont (Speed, Lara Croft Tomb Raider) isn’t a very deep filmmaker, but he certainly knows how to deliver a slam-bang cinematic thrill ride.

Also worth a peek: The 13th Warrior, Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun, Looker, Coma.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

SIFF 2008: Half-Life **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Global warming, family meltdown.

Variety has already beat me to the punch (damn you, sirs!) and dubbed writer-director Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life as an “Asian-American Beauty”, so I’m going to describe this provocative suburban dramedy as The Ice Storm meets Donnie Darko. An audacious melange of melodramatic soap opera, dark comedy, metaphysical conundrum and apocalyptic doom, the beautifully photographed Half-Life ambitiously poses a causality dilemma: Which came first, the dystopian society or the dysfunctional family?

The dystopia is our near “future”. Global warming has created worldwide coastal flooding, displacing millions. The sun (possibly dying) belches massive solar flares, wreaking havoc with technology and environment. Perky news mannequins chirp about a Tiananmen Square style massacre of environmental activists and tsk-tsk over a family murder-suicide conducted via chainsaw. A world gone mad!

Phang uses this sense of looming catastrophe as a metaphor for the emotional storms raging within the souls of her protagonists (much the same way that Ang Lee did in his dark suburban drama The Ice Storm) The global chaos serves as the backdrop for the travails of the single-parented Wu family, living in a Spielbergian California desert suburb and led by the exasperated Saura (Julia Nickson).

Saura is the classic “mad housewife”; perpetually exasperated and dead on her feet from trying to juggle a full time job and still spend quality time attending to the needs of a live-in boyfriend (Ben Redgrave) and her two children. Saura, along with her introverted 8-year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and confused teenaged daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) have all been dealing with abandonment issues since Dad took a hike some time back.

Young Timothy, who becomes the central character, escapes from all the fucked-up adult behavior that surrounds him (and possibly averts years of therapy in the process) by losing himself in escapist reveries, triggered by his imaginative crayon doodles. These brief but visually arresting scenes are nicely interpreted with a colorful blend of CG enhancement and rotoscoping techniques.  Unfortunately, Phang makes a misstep by taking this concept to a more literal plane. I’ll just say the film veers off into Carrie territory.

Phang wrestles good  performances from a mostly unknown cast, particularly from Nickson, Lake, and young Agate. Redgrave is quite effective playing a type of creepy suburban WASP character that has become an identifiable staple in twisty indie family angst dramas (e.g. Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather, Dylan Baker in Happiness, Brad William Henke in Me and You and Everyone We Know).

I didn’t “hate” it- but I’m still vacillating as to whether or not I “liked” this film. I do think it is safe to say that Jennifer Phang shows great promise, and is definitely a director to keep an eye out for.