GAMBIT (2012)

Stars 1

An all-star cast gamble with a poor Coen brothers script and come off second best in this remake of Michael Caine’s swinging sixties caper.

Colin Firth plays a much abused gopher for Alan Rickman’s ludicrously rich businessman, and so invents a scheme to relieve his boss of ‘zillions’, and employs Cameron Diaz’s cowgirl, to help.

There are double crosses and twists but hampered by the dreadful script, the normally reliable cast struggle to generate enough zip. Diaz grins manically, Rickman sneers and Firth bumbles about to no good effect.

Crucially none of the characters are sympathetic or deliciously nasty enough to care what happens to them. And with everyone’s acting antennae is jammed at ‘wacky’, every joke and comic situation is drained of humour.

I suspect the Coen’s didn’t make this movie themselves because they knew their material was substandard, ensuring this disappointing waste of everyone’s time and talent. Especially mine.

OCEAN’S 8

Cert 12A 110mins Stars 4

Be dazzled by a sparkling mix of high crime and haute couture in this hugely enjoyable diamond heist caper.

Sandra Bullock stars in this all female spinoff sequel to the super-successful Ocean’s 11 trilogy, which began way back in 2001.

It featured George Clooney as crook, Danny Ocean, who is supposedly now dead, and now the The Gravity star plays Debbie, his con-artist sister.

Leaving prison on parole after five years inside, she cuts a strikingly strong, sexy and smart figure as she promptly blags her way into an expensive hotel suite with plans for an audacious, risky and hugely profitable con.

Hooking up with former partner-in-crime, Cate Blanchett, they put together a multi-ethnic team of women which includes Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, and Awkwafina.

Helena Bonham Carter is entertainingly distracted as a fashion designer roped in to help, and popstar Rihanna is confident and surprisingly good as the teams technical genius.

It’s fun to hang out with the all-girl gang who have a convincing and easy going chemistry, and each of them is given their moment to shine in the spotlight and demonstrate their varied skills.

Dressed in a series of fabulous outfits, they plan to steal a $150 million necklace from an exclusive fundraising Gala in New York while it’s been worn by a famous actress, played with comic vacuity by Anne Hathaway. Though not everyone knows there is more than one con being played, which raises the stakes for all concerned. 

Cameos by worthies such as Vogue supremo, Anna Wintour, and tennis player, Serena Williams, are thankfully kept to a minimum. And not even the late arrival of James Corden to the party can spoil the fun.

This is a slick and highly polished good time, and is all the better for feeling as if it smells of expensive perfume rather than the men’s locker room.

THE VAULT

Cert 15 91mins Stars 1

Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca leads a team of bank robbers in this a shoddy mess of a horror heist movie.

The actress is variously described as a model, television personality and socialite, and is best known for a reality series. She’s a decent enough actress undermined by some appallingly weak material.

Beginning the film as a baby doll blonde, she reveals herself as strong and determined character. But her best moves can’t save this shocker from its many flaws.

When the thieves find the safe boxes empty, James Franco’s asthmatic assistant bank manager tells them of an old vault downstairs, which many of the staff believe to be haunted.

There’s an unforgivable absence of fun to the brain drilling violence which follows, conducted with a grim determination to survive an increasingly difficult job. Which exactly mirrors my feelings towards the film. 

A nasty, repetitive, grisly and garbled work where nothing is more alarming than Franco’s 1980’s style stringy moustache.

 

LOGAN LUCKY

Cert 12A 118mins Stars 3

Having reportedly retired from making feature films in 2012, the director of classic heist movie Ocean’s 11 can’t resist returning for one more criminal caper.

Sadly for Steven Soderbergh as decent as Logan Lucky is, this is in all ways a down market riff on his glossy 2001 George Clooney Las Vegas smash. Though it is far better than the lamentable and self indulgent Ocean sequels.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play the good old Logan boys Jimmy and Clyde, whose family it is locally believed are cursed by ill fortune, hence the title.

Jimmy’s ex wife is taking their daughter to another State and he needs money to hire a lawyer to fight for custody. He’s also just unfairly lost his job at the nearby motor racing track, from which he promptly decides to steal a fortune.

He rounds up a crew which includes Daniel Craig. The 007 star is clearly having a blast a tattooed explosive expert.

Riley Keough, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston add glamour, romance and some brains.

Written by the fictitious Rebecca Blunt in the quirky comic style of the Coen Brothers, many suspect the writer was really Soderbergh himself, who has previously used the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard when working as an editor. If it is him then we know who to blame for various script issues.

With the absence of a bad guy and the police generally incompetent, the good guys are more or less pushing at an open door to get the loot. Nor is it always clear if the film is laughing with or at the dim witted desperadoes and townsfolk.

Subplots featuring Seth MacFarlane as a British racing driver and Hilary Swank as a FBI agent should have been cut to give proceedings a much needed sense of urgency. The pace mirrors the drawl of the hillybilly West Virginia characters.

As Logan Lucky failed to make a killing at the US box office, perhaps early retirement wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

AMERICAN ANIMALS

Cert 15 117mins Stars 4

Wildly ambitious and superbly crafted, this intriguing, tense and funny real life heist thriller is a light fingered and dexterous modern day morality tale.

In 2004 four misfit college students infamously stole rare books worth millions from a university library, they are astonishingly idiotic and incompetent amateurs.

Actors recreate the theft using typical Hollywood storytelling conventions such as the recruiting of the specialist members of the gang, and meticulous planning scenes.

Plus there are many nods and winks to the films such as Ocean’s 11, which the likeable conspirators watch to discover how to commit the perfect robbery.

However interrupting at regular intervals in confessional documentary style, are the actual gang members.

Now older and somewhat wiser, they question each other’s account of events, turning this extremely entertainingly thriller into a commentary on the glamorisation of on-screen violence and criminal behaviour, with the script emphasising there is no such thing as consequence-free crime.

Catch these American animals if you can.

Hell Or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie (2016) BBFC cert: 15

With scorching violence, bone dry humour and a social conscience, this hard baked heist movie is an extraordinary ride into the dark heart of the new wild west.

Jeff Bridges is magnificently grizzled as Marcus, a cantankerous Texas Ranger leading his Native American partner in pursuit of a pair of likeable bank robbers.

This finely balanced construction contains a timelessness and an immediacy as mythic archetypes canter across the cruel climes of current economic conditions. The four lead characters suggest reincarnations of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued by The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And the film is frequently and intentionally entertaining as that sounds.

This acidic exploration of the American Dream touches upon the ownership of oil, land, money and its effects on life chances and family legacy. It reaches deep into the history of the nation to bring forward a lament for the state of the Union.

The of setting of Hell Or High Water is the macho world of dirt poor West Texas. An irony free world of cowboy hats, casinos and cattle drives, where every male of age carries a gun and drives a 4X4. Long shadows are cast by absent mothers and wives.

The action sequences are fast slaps to your face and the morally complex script bites with the venom of a rattlesnake. The melancholy tone is layered with lyricism via the earthy soundtrack provided by Aussie songsmiths Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The cinematography of Giles Nuttgens captures the rust and neglect of abandoned farm machinery, symbols of a poverty line existence.

Director David Mackenzie’s last offering was the vicious prison drama Starred Up (2014). Once again he demonstrates his keen ear for dialogue, sharp nose for a story and an astute eye for an image.

Mackenzie references the crime movies Touch Of Evil (1958) and Rififi (1955). He does it not to demonstrate his own knowledge, pad the film’s length or to distract the audience during a lull. There are no lulls in this film. The references are chosen for thematic sympathy and used sparingly and appropriately.

Bridges’ turn is also a modern day riff on Rooster Cogburn, the US Marshall from the remake of True Grit (2010) for which the actor was Oscar nominated. Plus the star’s presence recalls the actor’s early career where he sparred with in Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino’s crime road trip Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). That film was based on Captain Lightfoot (1955) which also concerned a pair of highwaymen brothers.

The tremendous script by Sicario (2015) scribe Taylor Sheridan so acutely observes human behaviour  it could have been penned by the late great Elmore Leonard, the writer of novels from which sprung the films 3:10 To Yuma (1957 & 2007) Mr Majestyk (1974) and Out Of Sight (1998).

Marcus is partnered with Alberto, a native American officer played with a wearied reservation by Gil Birmingham. Knowing Marcus is days away from retirement, Alberto chooses to dismiss his casual racism as office banter.

Thieves Toby and Tanner are played by the film’s other excellent double act, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. They’re on a stealing spree from the very banks which are threatening to foreclose on their ranch. And they’ve only a couple of days to raise the cash. After every job they bury the getaway car, an exercise laden with grave portent.

Best known as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Pine’s leading man looks and easy on-screen charm often obscure his talent. He plays Toby, the younger, more bright and reflective of the siblings, an estranged father who owes months of child support.

Neither pair are abundantly blessed with great intelligence or skills and this ordinariness helps to incubate an empathy for all four protagonists.

Elegiac, bleak, funny  and always accessible and commercial, come hell or high water, you have to see this movie.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Focus

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (2015)

Using the glossy glow of its stars and dazzling colour palette, this stupid and sexist heist movie tries to distract our focus from its failings.

In a buddy movie without a buddy, there’s no intelligence, danger, tension, fun or sexual frisson. Jokes fall flat from a 1980’s throwback of a script with Will Smith‘s once assured delivery the most culpable.

With no-one to riff off he delivers an unusually tired performance from a self-satisfied script. It works like patchwork not clockwork and seems stitched together from other films, all better than this one.

Incompetent pickpocket Jess (Margot Robbie) fails to hustle super-slick conman Nicky (Smith). It’s hard to tell whether Jess is playing dumb or simply dumb.

Nicky explains that a successful con relies like a magic trick on distracting the victim’s focus. One of his cons is strikingly similar to the work of British illusionist Derren Brown.

Persuading Nicky to mentor her, Jess joins his huge crew of high-living con-men as they fleece unsuspecting tourists in New Orleans. We’re supposed to be impressed by their flash tricks as they callously steal wallets, cameras, phones and watches from ordinary people.

Jess and Nicky share an over-abundance of banter but no chemistry and can’t keep their hands off each other.

There’s an interlude at an American football game which has no relevance to the rest of the story. It does at least have an entertaining performance from BD Wong as the wealthy gambler Liyuan.

Characters such as Nicky’s right hand man Horst (Brennan Brown) are written in and out on a whim and act without comprehensible motivation.

After making a huge stash of cash, Nicky abruptly terminates their relationship for no explained reason and abandons her at the airport, albeit with a considerable financial advantage.

Three years later in Argentina, Nicky is hired by racing car team boss Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to indulge in a little corporate skulduggery.

In the close knit world of professional racing Nicky pretends to be a disgruntled engineer defecting with technical secrets to the opposition, ran by boorish Australian McEwen (Robert Taylor).

However when Jess turns up as Garriga’s girlfriend Nicky must confront his feelings for her, threatening the big con.

We’re given no reason to like the lead characters other than they’re insanely glamorous. He has a vaguely troubled personal history and she’s avoided becoming a prostitute. Far from being a romance the most important relationship is between Nicky and his father.

Nicky is always presented as powerful; wearing shades and suits while leaning out of soft-top cars. Jess suffers the camera leering over her as she parades in bikini and heels.

The coarse and laugh-free dialogue has Nicky spouting science says women are easily persuaded by soft words and trinkets. He stalks, seduces and exploits Jess before reducing her to being a nurse with a meal ticket.

Jess is possibly the only female with a speaking role.

It ends with an astonishingly predictable sting in the tail stolen from a far superior couple of con-men.

★☆☆☆☆