Masterminds

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Release: Friday, September 30, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Bowman; Hubbel Palmer; Emily Spivey

Directed by: Jared Hess

Masterminds didn’t need to be masterfully made to be effective, but a little discipline could have gone a long way.

Directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite; Nacho Libre), the film is a comedic dramatization of the October 1997 Loomis Fargo bank robbery that took place in Charlotte, North Carolina. The story made national headlines when an employee made off with $17.3 million from the bank’s vault, making it at the time the second-largest cash heist in American history, second only to a Jacksonville, Florida incident seven months prior in which the same bank lost $18.8 million to the driver of an armored vehicle transporting the cash. Not a great year for Loomis Fargo, admittedly.

The details of the heist seem ripe for the tabloids, or even a solid comedic outing. Hess adopts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction angle by going balls-out on the zaniness and slapstick elements, employing star Zach Galifianakis‘ trademark gooberisms to often irritating effect. Masterminds is a film stuck on one setting and it never demonstrates aspirations to become something more . . . not even important, but watchable. A collaborative screenplay is only ever interested in puerile jokes, making fun of “simple Southern folk” and accommodating Galifianakis and his weirdness.

David Scott Ghantt (Galifianakis) is the focus of this southern-fried farce. He’s a loyal employee of his local bank although quite the simpleton. He has a crush on a girl he works with, a Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig) who suddenly quits her job because it sucks, basically. She falls in with a rough crowd and cozies up to the bad news Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), who has this idea to take that branch for all it’s worth. Good thing Kelly happens to know someone on the inside that she can manipulate/seduce into pulling it all off.

Masterminds is aggressively unfunny. Having absolutely no faith that the sheer absurdity of the actual circumstances will do much of the work for them, the filmmakers overcompensate, aiming for the lowest common denominator as loud farts, sweaty redneck culture and Wiig’s cleavage become major talking points. Galifianakis tries his best to make us empathize with David but he can’t. And he doesn’t get much help from the rest of the ensemble, as Wiig looks bored, Owen Wilson is still just Owen Wilson, and Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon lay two distinctly rotten eggs — the former playing the world’s worst hitman and the latter David’s psychotic country bumpkin fiancée. (If you somehow make it through the film’s opening 10 minutes or so, you might as well stay. McKinnon features prominently here and she’s the worst part of the film.)

You’d think with Wilson’s casting there’d be an element of Bottle Rocket to proceedings in this heist film, but sadly that film with made-up characters feels more authentic than this one based upon real individuals. What we have here are caricatures who shout dumb things, make weird noises and enthusiastically check off items from a master list presumably titled ‘Things Everyone Who Has Never Lived There Hates About the South.’ The movie doesn’t mean to offend but it does when the whole thing is just so inept.

Recommendation: Offensively low joke-to-laugh ratios can be found in Masterminds, an ill-advisedly goofy recreation of a bizarre real-world bank heist. If you have love for any of the actors in this movie, I have to say you should try and keep that love going by outright skipping this turkey. A deep-fried, southern turkey covered in about as many stereotypes as you can think of. Zach Galifianakis is only as good as the material he works with, so here I have to say he’s actually pretty awful.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “Katie Candy Cane . . . is she a stripper?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

In a World…

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Release: Friday, August 9, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

If ever you’ve wanted to learn more about the voices behind all those movie trailers you’ve seen, then look no further than In a World…, a glimpse into the industry of voice-overs that’s simultaneously humorous and heartfelt; awkwardly distant, yet fully immersive.

Though it features all fictionalized characters, the film tips its hat to real-life movie trailer voice legend Don LaFontaine, who’s seen in the opening title sequence (in clips of archived footage) doing a few interviews — openly expressing his joy over what it’s like having one of the most recognized voices in the world. This being released almost five years after his passing, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this film a tribute of sorts to the man behind the iconic voice. His signature phrase “In a world…” functions as an interesting title for director, writer and actress Lake Bell’s new film, as well as it serves as the motif. In the wake of LaFontaine’s death, much debate is fueled over whether that catchphrase should ever be uttered by another person; and if it is to be used again — who should be the next person to follow in his footsteps?

Lake Bell — as if writing and directing this wonderfully entertaining picture wasn’t enough — also stars as Carol Solomon, a young yet frustrated vocal coach who has yet to find her rhythm professionally. She’s first seen trying to make Eva Longoria effect a Cockney dialect for an (obviously staged) voiceover role, and this scene is every bit as humorous as it is intriguing. After her father — acclaimed movie trailer voice Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) — tells her he can no longer support her and that she needs to move out of his place, 31-year-old Carol finds her life at its most disoriented, forced to move in with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Corddry).

It’s difficult to determine in what capacity Bell excels the most. As an actress, her Carol is whimsical, a little more than socially awkward, and somewhat impulsive. But all of this translates into a rather enjoyable character to watch, especially as you may take note of her increasing confidence — both professionally and personally — as the film develops. As a writer, she might be even better. There is such a natural flow to the way each character acts and interacts with one another; the world she’s created is just charming. In particular, her Carol and the dorky sound engineer that she works with, Louis (Demetri Martin) have an on-again, off-again relationship that is bumbling yet heartwarming. When Louis brings Carol over one night, he insists the two sleep in separate rooms despite the obvious chemistry between them. Louis simply doesn’t want to make things more awkward than they already are; thanks to the strong script, he does. And then as a director. . . .perhaps this is Bell at her most ambitious and distinctive.

The film could have easily been dulled down by focusing on general industry trends, or by trying to make drama out of things that need no drama created for them. Much to her credit, Bell approaches an already interesting subject matter with a rarely-used angle. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the use of female voices for movie trailers was nonexistent, with the exception of the Gone in 60 Seconds trailer back in 2000. Indeed, her character’s own father, along with his equally misogynistic colleague and friend Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), demonstrate the general attitude held by males at the time — in particular, their feelings towards women attempting to earn the same status. Their conversations in the sauna are rather unsettling as they talk business. Men become cruel, uncivilized beasts before our very ears. And because LaFontaine’s line, “in a world…” is suddenly being reconsidered for posthumous use in trailers, fierce competition to become the next individual who gets to say these words is eminent. With an inventive twist, the race to become the number one movie trailer voice becomes even more heated as the identities of the competing voice talents slowly become revealed to each character.

Because the film features a cast playing individuals in an unusual and competitive career, Bell ingeniously decided to give all of her characters peculiarities to match. There’s not a single “normal” person to be found in this quirky world. Perhaps Corddry’s Moe is the closest to such a description (wow, that’s a change). The studio in which Carol works as a vocal coach is filled with weird characters — as previously mentioned, Louis is an odd one as Carol’s secret admirer; Nick Offerman makes a brief appearance as a studio manager (?) and well, yeah, you can just color your own imagination with that. . . and then there’s a wonderfully eccentric performance in Tig Notaro‘s Cher, who’s mainly there just for a few laughs. She may be limited but damn is she effective. Even the “villains” who happen to be in Sam Soto and Gustav Warner have peculiar mannerisms and character traits that make them convincingly nasty people. Considering all of this, the overarching film is quite a strange experience, if not delightfully strange.

Although Bell clearly enjoys delving into the mentality of men who are all of a sudden feeling threatened by an empowered woman in their field of expertise, one of the side effects of detailing characters this much becomes clear: the narrative does run away from her towards the end. A couple of romantic subplots veer from the very compelling narrative a few times, and while these are not entirely uncalled for, they become a bit distracting as more and more focus seems to be placed on the relationship aspects. Still, they serve to add a little bit more to the chaos of the lives behind the scenes, which I appreciated personally. I also understand where it detracted more for others and there certainly could have been some cleaning up on Aisle 7 in this department.

One of the larger ironies of this film is that when you go and check out trailers afterwards — specifically for more contemporary releases — you are going to notice a distinct lack of voice over work on the trailers you’re watching. Instead, these days, it’s all about snappier/fancier editing, increasing the frequency of taking scenes out of context for dramatic effect, and replacing what once were voiceovers with text/captions (most of which are some variant on ‘life is a journey’ — that kind of hokey B.S. most of us see right through). It’s fascinating listening to the conversation going on here, and this applies on a number of levels.

Virtually everyone on the planet is exposed to trailers and commercials, and this film provides a rare opportunity to go beyond that and get a glimpse of the dynamics of this particular aspect of the entertainment biz. Thank you, Lake Bell for providing that for us.

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3-5Recommendation: It could be easily labeled as a film for a very niched audience. Some might even call it a snooty film for just movie buffs. Forget all of that noise. This is a heartfelt character study as much as it is a spotlight on a rarely-studied industry (at least in terms of mainstream media coverage — when was the last time you saw a documentary on the current voices of TV/film advertisements/trailers?). It is a movie that is both socially and culturally relevant and while it may slide by under most people’s radars, it most certainly shouldn’t. I highly encourage anyone who sees this film on the listing at their local theaters to go check it out.

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com