Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nobody move! All we want is the top 10 Bank Heist Flicks!

Ah, the cinematic bank heist. Always meticulously planned, strategized to the smallest detail, manned with the best thieves money can buy. And yet, as the new movie “Inside Man” reminds us, it almost never goes according to plan. To wit, our list of the top ten Bank Robbery Movies....

10. Sugar & Spice (2001)
Diane (Marley Shelton) is a bubbly, popular cheerleader who gets knocked up by her quarterback boyfriend Jack (James Marsden). The couple try to do the right thing, but making ends meet on Jack’s video store salary is tricky. So, inspired by the Keanu Reeves flick “Point Break,” Diane decides that bank robbery is the answer. Enlisting the other cheerleaders (who, after all, are all for one, etc.), Diane studies caper movies such as “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and the #1 film on our list for Heist Tips... which, if she were paying attention, she’d know is a BAD idea. This satire of the high school caste system is an acquired taste, but a pep squad in cheap halloween masks robbing a bank is a sight to behold.

9. The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959)
Fresh off “The Blob,” Steve McQueen starred in this heist flick based on a true story. McQueen plays George Fowler, who, having recently been expelled from college, shifts his focus to a life of crime. George joins a motley gang of crooks planning to hit the local bank, but mistrust, jealousy and greed make for a rusty machine, and things don’t go so well. The movie’s reality is accentuated by the use of actual locations and performances by some bank guards and customers who were involved in the real life story. The film’s also notable for its influence on one of the greatest crime movies of all, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”

8. Sexy Beast (2000)
Gal Dove (Ray Winstone) is a happily retired British safecracker, living in the Spanish desert with his vivacious wife, enjoying the company of their friends and the high life bought by a fruitful career in crime. But it all comes crashing down like a boulder in a swimming pool when mobster Don Logan (a positively riveting Ben Kingsley) shows up to recruit Gal for one last bank job. Gal has no interest, but Don’s not taking no for an answer. The bank robbery, complicated as it is, is actually just the maguffin in this film, but the movie is such a crackling good neo-noir, we couldn’t leave it off the list! No! Nononononononononononono!

7.The Bank Dick (1940)
W.C. Fields was near the end of his career when he played Egbert Sousé, a (surprise!) drunk who, after rolling blotto out of a bar called The Black Pussy, accidentally foils a bank robbery, subsequently landing a job as a security guard. In typical Fields fashion, the film is loaded with shrewish women, rotten kids and lots of hooch (as well as some unfortunate racist humor). As bracingly black as comedy gets.

6. The Getaway (1972)
Movies don’t get more testosteroney (our word) than this heist/chase flick, adapted from a Jim Thompson novel by Walter Hill, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Steve McQueen and Ben Johnson (we feel like a little girl just typing those names)! In the movie, Carol McCoy (Ali MacGraw) makes a deal under the sheets with a Texas politico to get her robber hubby Doc (McQueen) paroled from prison, in exchange for a cut of their next heist! Double crosses abound, and a torrent of bullets, car chases and blood follows (this is a Steve McQueen film, after all). Plus Sally Struthers gets a smack!

5. Take the Money and Run (1969)
Woody Allen’s hilarious mockumentary about petty thief Virgil Starkwell (Allen) could be considered a cautionary tale of how NOT to rob a bank. For instance, make sure you have good penmanship, because no teller is going to be threatened by your possession of a “gub.”

4. Heat (1995)
Michael “Miami Vice” Mann is practically infamous for style over substance, and this thriller is as slick and shiny as a snakeskin suit. But under the surface lies some intense character drama as L.A. police detective Vince Hanna (Al Pacino) matches wits with bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro). The movie’s marketing focused on the fact that it was the first (and, to date, only) time the two movie legends appeared onscreen together, which must have driven both the director and the rest of the cast nuts. But the movie became far better known for its blistering, intense “last big score” bank robbery and subsequent shoot-out (blamed by those who scapegoat media for inspiring some real life bank robberies).

3. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the Depression-era bank robbers, with some stellar supporting performances by Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Denver Pyle. At the movie’s release, director Arthur Penn was widely criticized for romanticizing the criminals and, moreso, for putting more blood onscreen than any other movie to date. With time, however, the film’s visceral images, razor-sharp acting, writing, direction and editing have ushered “Bonnie and Clyde” into the pantheon of groundbreaking classics.

2. Quick Change (1990)
Bill Murray co-directs (with Howard Franklin) and stars in this black comedy that’s gaining cult status. Murray plays Grimm (just “Grimm”), a fed-up New Yorker who enlists the aid of his girlfriend Phyllis (Geena Davis) and high-strung pal Loomis (Randy Quaid) to pull off a clever bank heist involving a clown suit, the threat of vomit and a Monster Truck. But getting away with the cash proves to be far, far easier than getting out of New York as the fleeing trio encounters a stream of urban nightmares. Ostensibly “The Out of Towners” as crooks, this funny charmer is also a nice time capsule of NYC just before it became Disneyfied.

1. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Not putting “Dog Day Afternoon” at the top of a list of bank heist flicks is like not putting “Citizen Kane” at the top of a list of movies about power-mad newspaper magnates. Al Pacino stars as Sonny Wortzik, a man so desperate to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation that he resorts to robbing a Brooklyn bank. But when he and his accomplices are cornered by the NYPD, the ensuing media frenzy turns Sonny into an unlikely anti-hero, a voice of the frustrated common man. Filmed on location, the movie captures the sweltering, oppressive heat of summer in New York, and as with other contemporary films like “Taxi Driver” and “Midnight Cowboy,” the city is as much a character as any played by an actor. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film is a prime example of why the gritty, character-driven movies of the 1970s have caused some critics to label that decade American film’s greatest era.

Certain genres that held movie audiences rapt in the 20th Century have been rendered obsolete by technology and changing times. You don’t see too many musicals about cafe society any more. But as long as we live in a capitalistic society with an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the Bank Robbery Movie is sure to evolve with the times. But geez, online bank heist flicks are gonna be dull!

Where there's smoke, there's a cinematic stereotype

In “Thank You for Smoking,” tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) does battle against a culture increasingly hostile towards cigarettes. Using his considerable charm, gift of gab and the aid of a Hollywood agent, Nick tries to spin cigarettes back into the realm of acceptability, all while dodging his son’s questions about his vocation. The film is a hot-button satire that’s sure to ignite debate among co-workers and bar patrons (at least until the smokers have to go outside to light up).

“Thank You for Smoking” couldn’t have been made during Hollywood’s so-called golden age. Not because smart satire didn’t exist (see 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”) and not because movies were afraid to take on the corporate world (see 1956’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”). The simple reason is that in films, as in real life, nearly everyone DID smoke.

Nick and Nora, Captain Spaulding, Charles Foster Kane, Rick Blaine, Bugs Bunny, Gilda, George Bailey, Stanley Kowalksi, Joe Friday, Holly Golightly, Rooster Cogburn, the Man with No Name and a thousand other movie characters all lit up, and usually for no particular reason. They just smoked, as did most Americans.

But these days, a cigarette is almost always a metaphor. Some directors still love the visual impact of wafting smoke and glowing embers (David Lynch seems to put an extreme close-up of a burning butt in every film). But for the most part, in these politically correct times, smoking in films has to MEAN something. To wit, there are a handful of archetypes that are still allowed to smoke in contemporary films. Let’s count ‘em down, shall we?

• Those Whose Primary Tool of Trade is a Gun
We were going to say “Bad Guys,” but then we thought of James Bond and “Die Hard”’s John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) from “Pulp Fiction” (an anti-hero, to be sure, but not a “bad guy” in the film) and we realized that there’s some strange connection between shooting a gun for a living and smoking. Maybe nerves need to be cooled so as not to miss the target? But what about smoke getting in your eyes?

• The Newly-Minted Cuckold
Let’s say you’re a movie character that’s just caught your spouse in bed with the pool guy (or mailman or pizza delivery guy or your best friend, whatever). What’s the first thing you do? Okay, you go to a bar and order a shot of whiskey. But then you chase it with a cigarette, ESPECIALLY if you’ve never, ever smoked before. Drag deep, cuckolded friend, your life just went in the dumper!

• The Soldier in the Foxhole
It doesn’t matter if the setting is Virginia in 1862, France in 1944, Vietnam in 1972 or Iraq yesterday, any movie soldier facing death is likely to find solace in a cigarette. The whole “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” rationalization comes into play when the character seems about to buy it: Why worry about your health now? Too bad there aren’t any juicy steaks in that foxhole.

• Europeans
There are a number of visual shorthand devices to indicate to an American audience that a character is from another country (if ethnicity is not obvious). If the pretentious artist or spoiled royal is from one of the European countries, they will inevitably light up, usually at an inappropriate time. Like say, when the heroine is trying to enjoy her dinner or Grandma is dying of emphysema. Bring on the Freedom Fries!!

• The Devil
Almost every human manifestation of Satan in movies... Al Pacino in 1997’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” Robert DeNiro in 1987’s “Angel Heart,” Elizabeth Hurley in 2000’s “Bedazzled,” Billy Crystal in 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry”... smokes. And, in typical devilish fashion, they usually smoke giant, obnoxious cigars. That ol’ Beelzebub... so rude! Well, at least the devil never has to fumble for matches.

• Catholic Priests
While we’re on the subject, you rarely see a Catholic priest in a movie who doesn’t have a cigarette between his holy fingers. Father Karras (Jason Miller) in “The Exorcist” (1973), Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) in “The Godfather, Part III” (1990), Father Casey (Vincent D’Onofrio) in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (2002) and Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro) in “Sleepers” (1996) all smoke like they’re anxious to move on to the Great Reward! We guess when your calling denies you so many earthly pleasures, a stick of tobacco may be your only vice! Well, hopefully.

• Drug Addicts
Actually, this one not only makes sense, it’d be unbelievable if the movie addict DIDN’T smoke. While they may not wanna spend money on the relative minor high of nicotine, most habitual drug users are likewise addicted to that still-legal substance.

• The Wall Street Tycoon
Film characters who are all about making money are usually portrayed in a negative light (which is ironic since many would argue acting is the most overpaid profession on Earth). Picture the silk-suited arrogance of Ricky Roman (Al Pacino) in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or, of course, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in “Wall Street” (1987): Narcissistic slimebags who don’t care about anyone other than themselves. Having them blow second hand smoke (usually from the same cigar the devil favors) in the faces of others is an easy, but effective metaphor.

• That Punk Johnny Down the Street
In movies of the past, juvenile delinquents all came in the same package: Cuffed dungarees, greased hair, dirty white T-shirts, leather jackets and a butt dangling from every lip or cocked behind an ear. These days, most of those fashion choices are ubiquitous and bad kids in movies can look as innocuous as Macaulay Culkin (what? He’s 25 now? Get out...). Okay, as Rory Culkin (pick a Culkin, any Culkin). But any underage character with a cigarette is still movie shorthand for BAD (while in real life, it’s usually shorthand for “trying to look cool / older”).

• Most Characters in a Period Piece
Would choosing cigarettes for a film fall under the auspices of costume or production designer? Usually, smoking is indicated in the screenplay, but if the movie’s a period piece, set in, oh, say the offices and studios of CBS News in the 1950s, it goes without saying that there had better be a dozen cartons of Kents sitting nearby. As last year’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” shows, smoking was so pervasive in the hard-boiled 50s that newscaster Edward R. Murrow did so ON THE AIR! And he wasn’t alone. We’re not sure, but we think Lassie may have lit up once or twice.

As we move closer to a smokeless society, we have to wonder if, like fedoras, land-line telephones and indie record stores, the gray swirl of cigarette smoke will one day be relegated solely to the period piece. Geez, we hope Johnny Depp can handle it.

Will V FOR VENDETTA break the Alan Moore Adaptation Curse?

Arguably, the most lauded name behind “V for Vendetta” isn’t first time director James McTeigue, stars Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman or John Hurt, nor even writers/producers the Wachowski Brothers. The most celebrated person responsible for the futuristic tale of totalitarianism is Alan Moore, the award winning author of the ‘80s comic book series on which the film’s based. The irony is, Moore neither has nor wants anything to do with “V”... or any other movie adaptations of his comics work. Taking into consideration what’s come thus far.... we can’t blame him.

Alan Moore burst onto the comics scene in the early 1980s, first bringing his literary sensibility to books such as “Warrior” and “2000 AD” in his native England. Moore then moved on to DC Comics, where he reinvented “Swamp Thing” as an elemental force of nature rather than simply a human-turned-muck monster. From there, through use of cinematic writing techniques, non-linear storytelling and injection of mature themes, Moore managed to bring fresh perspective to sometimes stale superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Green Lantern. But it was his groundbreaking 1986 series “Watchmen” (with artist Dave Gibbons) that turned the entire concept of superhero comics on its head, earning Hugo, Kirby and Eisner Awards (within the comics and sci-fi world) as well as a ranking among Time Magazine’s 100 best novels of the past 75 years, cementing Moore’s position as comics’ greatest writer.

In “Watchmen,” all non-government-sanctioned superheroes are outlawed, Richard Nixon is still president in 1985 and the threat of nuclear war with Russia weighs heavily on the nation. Deconstructing superhero comics, Moore posits the psychological, social, economical, political, sexual and moral ramifications of how the real world would cope with super powered vigilantes, and, moreso, vice versa. It’s a vastly complex, non-linear, multi-layered 300+ page narrative that takes full advantage of comics’ inherent and unique storytelling techniques. From the beginning, it seemed to be unfilmable. But that never stops Hollywood.

As early as 1989, “Watchmen” has been in various stages of movie development. At first, Terry Gilliam was slated to direct. If any filmmaker has the proper twisted vision to adapt “Watchmen,” it’s the director of “12 Monkeys” and “Brazil,” but after numerous failed attempts to develop a workable screenplay, Gilliam realized it was a Quixotic effort at best and abandoned the project (although anyone who’s seen “Lost in La Mancha” knows it wouldn’t be his last fight against the odds). Producers, conversely, are not known for bowing to creative wisdom, so the property has continued to bounce around Hollywood. At one point, “Requiem for a Dream”’s Darren Aronofsky was going to make “Watchmen,” but the budget proved too much for a green light. Most recently, Warner Bros. (sister company to DC Comics, the publisher of “Watchmen”) is supposed to be developing a screenplay adapted by “X-Men” co-writer David Hayter, and “V” director McTeigue has expressed interest in helming.

Don’t expect Alan Moore to have any involvement on any level, however, and not just because in order to do the comic justice, “Watchmen” would have to run about eight hours long with at least an R rating and a budget of four “Titanic”s. While many comic book creators (like Todd “Spawn” McFarlane) may see movie adaptations as validation of their oft-maligned artform, Moore embraces comics as a singular, inimitable medium, capable of perhaps more experimental and rewarding storytelling techniques than film.

Additionally, the “too many cooks” nature of filmmaking, with everyone from producers to marketing executives having input into the script, is anathema to Moore’s visionary style. He’s always worked very closely with his collaborating artists, but has never taken kindly to editorial interference. Moore had enough tussles with Marvel and DC Comics over censorship issues to make him refuse to work for either of the “Big 2” publishers any more, and they’re small potatoes compared with the meddling he’d encounter at a major motion picture studio.

So, any movie that attempts to recreate the complexity of an Alan Moore comic must do so without any aid or endorsement from the notoriously cranky creator. For better or (mostly) worse, most of the time... they don’t really aim that high.

Swamp Thing” the comic book (originally canceled in 1976) was revived in 1982 to capitalize on Wes Craven’s rubber-suited B-movie version of the character. Moore’s run on the title began in 1983, and by 1989, as the movie’s sequel approached, comics fans hoped against all odds that the filmmakers would’ve tried to capture the gothic sophistication of the rejuvenated comic book. But alas, aside from approximating Swampy’s goopier, moss-laden new look (designed by artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben) and some ecology-based banter with Heather Locklear, “The Return of Swamp Thing” is even campier than the first film, with nary a hint of Moore in the muck.

(It’s also worth noting that Moore created the character of John Constantine as a favor to Bissette and Totleben, who wanted to draw a character who looked like Sting! In “Swamp Thing,” Constantine was mostly an expositional character, and his spin-off comic, “Hellblazer” was never written by Moore, so the 2005 movie “Constantine” starring a wildly miscast Keanu Reeves doesn’t really fit into our rant).

Beginning in 1989, Moore teamed with cartoonist Eddie Campbell to create “From Hell,” a serial positing Jack the Ripper as a metaphor for the onset of the 20th Century. Early on in the tale, the Ripper is revealed to be Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s royal surgeon, whose motivations for slashing prostitutes are only partly to protect the reputation of the whore-mongering Prince Albert Victor. Gull’s ritualistic slayings are designed to symbolically announce man’s continuing dominance over women, and he experiences mystical visions of the future during the murders. “From Hell” (eventually collected as a massive 500+ page graphic novel) is a challenging, metaphysical, sociological, political work, one of those comics that’s “not for kids anymore” as the saying goes.

But when “From Hell” was turned into a movie in 2001, almost all of the complexity was excised. Directed by the Hughes Brothers (“Menace 2 Society”) and starring Johnny Depp as the absinthe-addled Inspector Abberline and Ian Holm as Sir Gull, the movie turned the story into a simple slasher whodunit (albeit with some incredibly accurate and detailed production design).

Hollywood spat on the source again with the regrettable “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the 2003 movie based on Moore’s same-titled series with artist Kevin O’Neill. The comic teamed 19th century fictional characters Allan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and “Dracula”’s Wilhelmina Murray as a Victorian-era group of crimefighters, battling such adversaries as Fu Manchu and the Martians from “War of the Worlds.” Moore peppered the stories with many references to and cameos by other fictional Victorian characters, and the books gained a rabid following amongst literate comics fans some intelligentsia that never deigned to crack a “funny book” before.

While high-concept, “The League” is not nearly as complex as “From Hell” or “Watchmen,” so you’d think a movie version would be fairly simple to pull off. But, no. Fearing that an American audience wouldn’t be familiar with (or care about) British characters over a century old, the producers of the film shoehorned in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer as an American agent sent by Teddy Roosevelt to aid the League. The movie also transforms Mina into a vampire herself and adds the character of Dorian Gray. But more egregiously, the film puts a Hollywood gloss on the more seemly aspects of the comic, eliminating Quartermain’s opium addiction, and toning down the more malevolent personalities of the Invisible Man and Jekyll / Hyde. All literary allusions were dropped in favor of a standard action plot with some really bad CGI and more holes than James Bond’s liver.

It looks like “V for Vendetta” may finally burst the curse of poor Moore movies, but regardless, the writer’s work will continue to inspire the geekier of filmmakers while he remains out of the picture. We wouldn’t be surprised if “Batman Continues” (or whatever it will be called) looks to Moore’s classic 1988 Batman graphic novel with Brian Bolland, “The Killing Joke” for inspiration as to how to handle the Joker.

Normally, we’re against the comparison of movies with their source material. As we’ve railed before, different media have different needs and offer different rewards. But the alarming disparity of quality between Alan Moore’s comic books and the films that came after makes us implore you: If you like “V for Vendetta...” or, even more, if you DON’T like it... you owe it to yourself to read the book.

POSTSCRIPT, October 2010:
Of course, WATCHMEN did get made, with Zack Snyder as the very-reverent director (I liked the movie, but didn’t recommend it to anyone not down with comics) and, of course, Moore had nothing to do with the film whatsoever.