Movie of the Week: The First Great Train Robbery (1979)

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Michael Crichton directs Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie Anne-Down in this Victorian heist caper where a top hatted trio aim to steal bullion from a moving train. 

An absolute corker of a period adventure. Chucking us right deep into the world of 19th Century crime with convincingly obscure vernacular and telling detail. Brothels, hangings, dog fights and alleyway mugging are thrillingly recreated. Anne-Down rocks about in a series of wigs and corsets. Sutherland moans gleefully and cracks his knuckles friskily as the cocksure expert screwsman. And Connery smiles ruefully through a ton of Bondian innuendo and then performs an amazing 10 minute stunt atop a moving steam engine. It is a spectacular finale that fucking quickens the pulse like very little could these days. Expert entertainment.

9

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Black Panther (2018)

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Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o in this Marvel superhero adventure about the new king of Wakanda’s struggle to maintain power when a forgotten family member challenges him. 

I realise I’m in the minority here but the latest Marvel product felt very much like more of the ever diminishing same to me. There were two plus points; Michael B. Jordan’s reparations focussed antagonist Erik Killmonger is a lad, all street talk and deadly aggression, and the Afro-Futurism design work is impressive, especially the costumes. But, as I suspected from his smaller role in Captain America: Civil War, Boseman’s T’Challa is overly worthy, leading to a leaden dullness in most of his interactions. And the rare sustained action has the similar weightless tickle of Doctor Strange’s uninvolving rumbles, stuff is happening but with no real physical or narrative consequence. The only time you can tell if a character is winning or losing, hurt or victorious, is when they stop leaping and dodging to smile or grimace. Considering our blue blooded hero wears a vibranium cowl for a lot of it… blankness overwhelms. This has been lauded as the closest we’ll get to a black James Bond… it felt more like I was watching a sexless Flash Gordon. Still it is too glossy and too safe a film to really dislike.

5

I, Tonya (2017)

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Craig Gillespie directs Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan in this retelling of the 90s female figure skating scandal where the top US competitor had her knee broken by attackers associated with her teammate. 

Two blistering female performances carry I, Tonya. Robbie brings heart to the bullish and corrupt, eventually  demonised, figure skater Tonya Harding. While Janney as the harsh, unloving but devoted mother electrifies whenever she is on screen. In fact, the period where she drops off our radar drags… you can’t help but agree with her talking head when she interjects that she is noticeably absent. For the second half, Gillespie seems happy focusing on the doofs and unwise guys who farcically destroy one skater’s chances and end up crucifying the other. It is all told with a knowingly Goodfellas-esque verve – narration, breakneck pace, thumping timestamp soundtrack. And the modern day interview segments playfully reveal the ultimate truth is still obscured but not unguessable. Only the virtuoso skating sequences – absolutely stunt packed, whiplash inducing belters, you can tell CGI must have been used but struggle to see the joins – feel truly original though. This is mainly homage to established classics, made camp by the glittery, frilly nature of the subject matter’s sport. It is a scabrously funny film, yet deals unflinchingly with domestic abuse and tries to make a martyr of a figure, who while she was often dealt a shitty hand, was almost definitely complicit in an assault on one of her peers. That leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Similar to the moral blinkers Molly’s Game suffered from. At least this spirited, foul mouthed defence has a blast while trying to transmogrify a real life crim into a tarnished saint.

8

Wheelman (2017)

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Jeremy Rush directs Frank Grillo, Garret Dillahunt and Shea Whigham in this claustrophobic crime actioner where a getaway driver finds himself being strung along by various gangs over one long journey. 

I’m a big fan of Grillo. He is superb in The Purge sequels, all brow furrowed intensity and controlled brutishness. The man does gruff masculinity like Bill Murray does sarcasm or Jennifer Lawrence does vulnerability. It is just who he is. Here he delivers more of the same in this Phone Booth meets Baby Driver gripper. Almost enitirely set in his car’s driver’s seat we get car chases, dodgy drops, shoot outs, interrogations and frustrated parenting. It isn’t a massively different prospect from Locke. Just a desperate man on his hands free mobile, trying to get his life in order before he runs out of road. Only instead of a gargantuan cement pour the stakes are gang warfare. Locke, in all honesty, is the better film despite the risk being more obscure in its target. But with a clearly Michael Mann inspired nighttime shoot, unexpected punches of action and a decent score this proved itself as a solid, manly pleasure.

7

 

My Top 10 Heist Movies

1. The Getaway (1972)
2. Die Hard (1988)
3. Quick Change (1990)
4. Out of Sight (1997)

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5. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
6. Goldfinger (1964)
7. The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)
8. The Usual Suspects (1995)
9. Inception (2010)
10. Point Break (1991)

 

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

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Hayao Miyazaki directs Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama and Kiyoshi Kobayashi in this animated adventure where a master thief grows weary of counterfeit money turning up in his swag bag so goes to the small country that appears to be the source to investigate. 

A really fun, pacy adventure flick. The car chases have a Looney Tunes craziness to them, the gadgets are Bond meets steampunk, and the setting and mythology contain visual echoes of Miyazaki’s later, more personalised fairytale work for Ghibli.

7

The Hot Rock (1972)

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Peter Yates directs Robert Redford, George Segal and Moses Gunn in this caper flick where a gang keep having to steal the same gem over and over and over again due to… complications.

A fine little star vehicle for Redford. The various jobs aren’t particularly memorable and Segal, who you’d think would steal the show, doesn’t have that blunt movie star humour that Paul Newman would have brought to the nervous lockman role. Strange that in a relaxed farce the most naturally comedic actor feels out of sync with all the straightmen. The jazzy Quincy Jones score sells it all hard. The final sequence of victory, literally just Redford trying to walk calmly down a Manhattan sidewalk, is a 5 Star moment in a 3 Star movie.

6

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

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Brian G. Hutton directs Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland in this WWII heist movie.

Overlong and with very little oomph. Clint looks like he doesn’t want to be there. Donald Sutherland and the soundtrack are anachronistic, hippyfied but not hip. The penultimate stealth sequence where the outlaw squad move silently into position to take the secret bank full of Nazi bullion is the only entertaining 20 minutes. The robbery itself feels far too easy. I had high hope for this. From the writer of The Italian Job and director of Where Eagles Dare, it has an appropriate pedigree, yet this lacks any of the energy that made those classic movies work. Just watch Three Kings instead as that upcycles this plot to the first Iraq war with far more humour, peril and satirical bite.

4

The Sum of All Fears (2002)

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Phil Alden Robinson directs Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman and James Cromwell in this Jack Ryan espionager where the rookie CIA analyst finds himself between the White House and the Kremlin at a moment when both nations are poised with their fingers on the all out nuclear war buttons.

Affleck makes for a smug, dimples front and centre, everyman spy. Freeman is better as a mischievous yet in control data and defence Yoda. It often feels like near continuous shots of men sweatily grimacing at screens. Then… SPOILER… (you’ve had 16 years to watch it)… Baltimore is nuked. Brutally, suddenly, like a hard slap in your face, convulsing you to full alertness on your sofa.  All the principals are in the fallout zone. The final hour, set in the crumbling chaos, as Dimples tries to confirm the providence of the nuke is gripping stuff. Friday night filler just went up a notch. Sure it would be even better if Affleck was throwing up on himself from radiation poisoning, clumps of his preppy mane shedding off as he tackles Neo-Nazi stooges and tries to find a direct line to the retaliation bent president… But the escalation of that devastating explosion certainly ups what would have been a plodding, talky thriller.

6

England is Mine (2017)

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Mark Gill directs Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay and Laurie Kynaston in this biopic of Morrissey, pre-the Smiths.

Big Mouth Begins. The arrogance and the angst is there but it’s hard to believe this prick could translate that into the jangly yearning of Ask, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out or Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. All we get is rooftop fag breaks and moody bottom of the stairs phone calls. Lacks the urgency of Control or the myth confirming aggrandising of Walk the Line.

4

The Shape of Water (2017)

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Guillermo del Toro directs Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Doug Jones in this period sci-fi romance about a mute cleaner who falls for the amphibious creature being experimented on at the government lab where she works. 

Amelie meets The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Like a lot of Del Toro’s oeuvre (egg) this delivers exactly what it promises to, no more, no less, and therefore fails to withstand the scrutiny its inevitable hype exposes it to. It is a fine, consciously quirky film only really daring in its sexual explicitness. Everything else from its well cast ensemble to its green, green, greeny green retrofuturist design is solid homage. I feel I should love, rather than like, Del Toro as much as everyone else does but he consistently delivers fantasies that are a little too on the nose, and that never really travel any further than their pitch. When he surprises me, I’ll join the adulation.

7