Tag Archives: heist movies

Grifting Away


by George Wolf

It may not be a textbook Rashomon approach, but director/co-writer Benjamin Caron leans on a similar structure in his impressive feature debut for Apple Originals, Sharper.

Set up in chapters named for the main personalities, the film first introduces us to Tom (Justice Smith, from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu). Tom owns a struggling bookstore in NYC, and is mostly estranged from his billionaire father, Richard (John Lithgow) and his new wife, Madeline (Julianne Moore).

But when Tom sells a book to PhD student Sandra (The Tender Bar‘s Briana Middleton), a relationship begins. And a few weeks later, Tom is offering to give Sandra thousands of dollars to settle her troubled brother’s debts with some bad guys. He gives her the satchel full of cash, and watches her walk away. Yeah.

So, right away, we’re on Tom’s side. But then, we get Sandra’s backstory, which includes some important details about her life before walking into that bookstore, and about her shady brother.

And then there’s the relationship between Richard and Madeline, which gets plenty complicated with the sudden arrival of Madeline’s ne’er-do-well son, Max (Sebastian Stan).

Caron, from TV’s The Crown, Andor and Sherlock, weaves the agendas together with a fine hand, revealing mysterious secrets just when they can add the most fun to the journey.

And this is an entertaining slice of life on the grift, one leaning more toward gloss and polish than neo and noir. The performances are all stellar, which ironically adds to the film’s slight stumble at the finish line. That final twist will not be hard to sniff out, even for mildly experienced film buffs. But we believe these people know all the angles, and when a character calls out a con midway through, it should only increase the chance that their antenna would be up for this same play later on.

But cons are just fun, aren’t they? And Sharper is a well-crafted and clever one, even with a finale that dulls its edges a bit.

Surrender the Booty

The Vault

by George Wolf

If we were going to add a third certainty to join death and taxes, how about the fact that heist movies are fun?

A good one makes you want to go assemble your crack team to trade quips, try on parkas and steal a Picasso. A bad one just makes you want to watch the good ones again.

The Vault (formerly titled Way Down) borrows from a host of similar films, keeping the formula familiar, the pulse quick and the scenery exciting for a ridiculous caper that never takes itself too seriously.

Freddie Highmore is Thom, a 22 year-old engineering genius fresh from the University of Cambridge. Bored by all the job offers from Big Oil, his interest is piqued by a mysterious opportunity to “change his life.”

Adventurer Walter Moreland (Liam Cunningham) offers Thom a spot on his “salvage” team, and the chance at untold riches. The plan? Break into the Bank of Spain and steal a centuries-old treasure first buried by Sir Francis Drake. The vault holding the booty is a puzzle of engineering yet to be solved, and Moreland is counting on Thom to be the big brain that outsmarts it.

The upper-crust thieves will have a timely distraction on their side. Spain’s World Cup final will be shown on a Jumbotron set up right outside the bank, meaning that during the match, all security cameras will be pointed at the huge crowd of soccer fans flooding the street, and not at the bank itself.

The script-by-committee mentions “Danny Ocean” early on, which is just stating the obvious. The Italian Job and Now You See Me, Now You Don’t will also come to mind, but director Juame Balagueró ([REC] and [REC2]) isn’t pretending he’s breaking new ground, just trying out a new playground.

Balagueró keeps his pace impatient from the opening minutes. Expect a succession of fake outs, multiple “We’re screwed!” exclamations and a shameless amount of “all is lost” moments. Realizations come only at the most fortuitous junctures and the tests to Thom’s genius never seem quite that strenuous.

And the effect of all of that on the film isn’t nearly as deadly, or taxing, as it should be.

The two hour run time feels about half that. Balagueró gives his camera a stylish flow and keeps us supplied with plenty of opportunities to feel like we’re in on the con, and have a stake in the success of the heist.

And you know what that is?


Family Jewels

Ocean’s 8

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

More than 15 years ago, Steven Soderbergh recast the Rat Pack, pointing out a set of Hollywood A-listers led by George Clooney who were as stylish and cool as Sinatra and the fellas.

Three films later (four, if you count Soderbergh’s hillbilly version Logan Lucky, and you should) and the Ocean family is drawn once again to the big payoff.

This time it’s Danny Ocean’s sister Deb (Sandra Bullock). A life of crime runs in the family, it seems. Fresh from incarceration, Deb is looking to execute the con she’s been fine tuning over the last 5 years in lockdown.

What Debbie needs is a team, and she knows what kind.

“A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored.”

That’s a line well-placed and well-played, and though the film seems awfully familiar from the jump, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The music bumpers, throwback scene segues, strategy meetings and comfortable pacing set the cool vibe, and Ocean’s 8 is cheeky enough in its outright impersonation of the previous installments to shrug off feeling derivative. Instead, it comes off as second class, which may be more disappointing.

Though director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) can crib the style—his cast (including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna and a spunky Awkwafina) can’t generate the same chemistry. No one does a bad job, far from it, but Ocean’s 8 lacks the overlapping dialogue and easy rapport of earlier efforts. They have the talent, they just don’t have the material.

Anne Hathaway is the real thief in this caper, stealing every scene with a fun and funny send-up of the Hollywood diva persona (including her own). James Corden, popping in as a fraud expert investigating the theft of a multi-million dollar Cartier necklace during the Met Gala, brightens up the third act as well with his fresh perspective and savvy delivery.

Otherwise, the side characters are neither as meaty or as interesting as in previous franchise efforts. Surprisingly it’s Blanchett who disappoints most. Too dialed down, her Lou lacks the color and definition to be effective as Debbie’s second banana, and Blanchett’s casual greatness feels wasted.

The best of the Ocean’s films rely on sharp characterizations and sharper sleight of hand. You believe you’re watching the con unfold only to find that …whaat?….the real heist was somewhere you weren’t looking. It is you who’s been conned.

While 8 follows that formula it succeeds only to a degree, its script simply not crisp enough to charm you into buying all in. The con itself is not believably intricate and Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch, cops out in act three with heavy exposition.

But hey, heist movies are fun, and movies with this much star power are fun. Ergo, Ocean’s 8 is a fun time at the movies.

Glitzy, forgettable fun.

End the Fed

Den of Thieves

by George Wolf

They’re back, baby! The star and one of the five writers from London Has Fallen are reunited, and it feels…so much better than you are thinking right now.

This time, writer Christian Gudegast also takes the director’s chair for his debut feature, an ambitious mix of Heat and The Town and maybe a few other heist flicks I’ll bring up later.

Gerard Butler is Big Nick, an L.A. County sheriff who’s a very bad lieutenant. Some cops just got killed in an armored car job, and Nick is pretty sure it’s the work of Merriman (Pablo Schreiber).

He’s right, but the big score is still to come: a master plan to rob the L.A. branch of the Federal Reserve. Amid some surprisingly engaging dialog, Gudegast effectively contrasts the good bad guys and the bad bad guys, slowly laying the groundwork for a final confrontation while getaway driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) openly works both sides.

At 140 minutes, it’s at least half an hour too long, bloated with some futile attempts at character development, and a bit tone deaf on police brutality and some other current events. But there is well-plotted tension, some inventive turns among gaps in logic and an Ocean’s/Logan Lucky inspired wrap-up that will bring a chuckle.


Hillbilly Heist

Logan Lucky

by George Wolf

You’re not long into director Steven Soderbergh’s latest before you expect to see Brad Pitt standing around eating something.


Because Logan Lucky is essentially Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 with hillbillies, which had to intrigue Soderbergh when he first read the script from Rebecca Blunt. If that is her real name.

No, seriously, Blunt is rumored to be a pseudonym for the actual writer, who should just ‘fess up and take credit for this hoot of a heist homage.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) gets laid off from his job fixing sinkholes underneath Charlotte Motor Speedway, so he puts together a 10-point plan for his next career move. Two of those points are labeled “shit happens.”

The rest is simple.

Jimmy, his one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), will bust redneck robber Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of jail to help them rob the speedway during the biggest NASCAR race of the year, and then have Joe back in the slam before anyone is the wiser.

Soderbergh structures everything to parallel his Ocean‘s films so closely that when he finally addresses that elephant outright, the only surprise is how often the rubes draw a better hand than the Vegas pretty boys.

Logan serves up indelible characters, fun suspense, finely tuned plotting and solid humor, including a hilarious bit with a prison warden (Dwight Yoakam) explaining to some rioting inmates why the next Games of Thrones novel isn’t available yet.

As Bang, Craig is a flat out riot, doing fine justice to the best character name since Chest Rockwell, and standing out in an ensemble (also including Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank and Sebastian Stan) that shines from top to toe.

Assembled as precisely as a letter-perfect grift, Logan Lucky has smarts, charm and some downright weirdness. It’s a late August blast with more than enough fun to beat our summertime blues.



Botched Heist Countdown

The Drop opens this week, another of Dennis Lehane’s gritty crime dramas, this time starring the great Tom Hardy alongside the late, great James Gandolfini in his final performance. We’re eager to screen the film about a botched heist later this week, and thought we’d prepare for it with some of cinema’s best robberies gone wrong.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sydney Lumet’s excellent Seventies true tale covers what may be the oddest bank hold up ever. Al Pacino’s Sonny and his skuzzy friend Sal (John Cazale) hold up the Chase Manhattan in Brooklyn to pay for Sonny’s boyfriend’s sex reassignment surgery. Excellent writing feeds wonderful performances all around, but be sure to check out the documentary The Dog, proving that the real perpetrator, John Wojtowicz, exceeds all weirdness expectations.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Thirtysome years later, Lumet returned to the scene of a crime with his magnificent final effort. Family dysfunction has never looked quite like this, when two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) decide to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Surprising, devastating, and full of exceptional performances, it was a fitting send off for one of America’s finest filmmakers.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

In 1992, Quentin Tarantino announced his presence with authority. His directorial debut takes us inside a botched jewel heist, introducing us to a modern filmmaking master, and taking classic rock radio to new and creepy heights.

The Town (2010)

Ben Affleck stars and directs this Boston crime tale about a thief who falls for a bank teller. He shows the ability to orchestrate ensemble drama and action that would mark his Oscar winning Argo, and draws truly excellent performances from Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper, the great Pete Postlethwaite, and even Blake Lively.  Who knew?

Animal Kingdom (2010)

This Aussie export of the same year follows a newly orphaned teen welcomed into his estranged grandmother’s criminal family. Unsettlingly naturalistic, boasting exceptional performances all around – including the Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver – and impeccably written, it’s a gem worth seeking.