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 

Finders Keepers

'Finders Keepers' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bryan Carberry; J. Clay Tweel

A man wakes up. Man goes to a local auction at an abandoned storage unit; places the highest bid on a smoker. Man opens up said grill only to find part of another man’s leg inside, as if waiting to be barbecued. Man freaks out and calls the authorities to have it confiscated, only to later realize this find could be his ticket to an entirely different kind of life. Man goes on a crusade to fight for ownership of the body part. Man, what the hell . . .

In the backwoods of North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant, an enterprising but surly Southerner — the Man — meets up with John Wood in the parking lot of a Dollar General, hoping to find a way to negotiate with the equally obstinate man who had lost his left leg in a plane crash that also claimed the life of his father, a successful businessman with a lot of clout in the community.

Wood isn’t having any of it though. No sir, not today. Despite never having met Whisnant he harbors a lot of ill will towards him, and it’s sort of understandable. The bitterness between the have’s and the have-not’s manifests as a redneck version of the ideological disputes between the Capulets and the Montagues, sans the romance of course. And despite a bizarre chain of events that saw Wood transferring the leg from the hospital (yeah, they let him take it home) to a freezer in the back of a Hardee’s restaurant and finally to a storage unit he would ultimately relinquish due to nonpayment, Wood’s confident he’s getting the damn leg back.

Finders Keepers is merely the latest inquisition into this beyond ridiculous backyard fiasco. Front-and-center is this battle over who should be awarded legal ownership of the limb — one that plays out both in reality and on reality TV shows and in the tabloids, the likes of which earn the attention of national media outlets, even if they’re more interested in making jokes. But this isn’t the entirety of what Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s strange project represents.

Finders Keepers represents a kind of tug-of-war between two very different social classes. Whisnant, coming from a much poorer background than Wood, recalls childhood memories that cause him to tear up, citing his lack of inclusion at parties thrown at the Wood estate and his many “whoopings” at the hands of his father as low points in his life. We get to know John on a much more personal level as well. His story is similarly one of redemption, and not simply because he manages to get fitted for a prosthetic leg. His battle with drug addiction is embraced head-on, with interviews with relatives providing a strong emotional pulse. The catalyst for his dependency — a morbid fear he would never measure up to his dad’s success — is rather heartbreaking.

There’s a lot of beauty in the bizarre, apparently. As the narrative develops into something more than just another example of why southern stereotypes exist, the more we see how Whisnant’s bizarre discovery has shaped both the lives of the individuals and the lives of their families. Some of the results are surprising while others are, sadly, more predictable. There’s a clear winner and a clear loser here, and the sheer number of sacrifices and poor decisions made on both sides can be difficult to comprehend.

It’s less white trash fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy than you might think (although funnily enough Judge Mathis‘ gavel becomes a pivotal plot point in the resolution of this custody battle, and Jerry Springer is part of that reality TV charade Whisnant involves himself in). This is a documentary that requires one to set aside personal judgment and biases in order to access the fundamentally human story that exists at the core.

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Recommendation: Finders Keepers features an outrageous true story that has to be seen to be believed. The brilliance in the design is that neither party is demonized or put upon a pedestal, but rather uses the objectivity of documentary filmmaking to tell a human story that might be easier to identify with than one might first assume. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

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

Out of the Furnace

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Release: Friday, December 6, 2013

[Theater]

Sneaking up on you quietly, toxically, like steam billowing from the chimneys that scratch and tear at a skyline of charcoal gray, this original screenplay from Scott Cooper is most likely not the product most people were expecting. It is a solemn look at the not-so-quiet life in the Appalachian region; a story that’s as laced with brilliant performances as it is populated with shots of its gorgeous, rustic backdrop.

That the affairs ongoing in this unrelentingly dark tale might lead anyone other than Russell Baze (Christian Bale) to the breaking point much sooner than the two hours it takes for him is not really the surprising factor that I refer to. A title like Out of the Furnace is — yes, okay, grimly poetic — but moreso foreboding, and the title alone should be enough for most people to realize that what they are laying down $10 for is not for the sake of comedy.

Just as the thick plumes of smoke snake ever higher into the air, eventually to caress and blend in with the clouds, expectation levels of this particular story have similarly soared. Not that that was an unexpected phenomenon, or anything. Cooper’s ensemble cast in 2013 far and away outdoes that of his critically more successful debut film in 2009, and is probably one of the best casts of the year. Understandably, it’s difficult not to imagine a film featuring a cast like this offering up dramatic and epic grand gestures, scene after scene.

That’s not the case here, though. There is such a thing as actors also humbling themselves.

If the main impetus for seeing Out of the Furnace is for the performances, then it is going to be equally difficult to consider this an underwhelming experience. The talented cast should leave audiences speechless, as only one this good can.

Bale in particular is exceptional. In fact, he might be less recognizable as this down-and-out, soft-spoken countryboy than he was behind a cape and cowl. As Russell, Bale plays the elder brother to Rodney (Casey Affleck) with a heartbreaking tenderness and vulnerability that should virtually wipe clean any memory that he was indeed our Dark Knight.

He works a dead-end job at the local steel mill in an effort to keep a roof over his and his beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana)’s heads. At the same time, his family life burdens him. Russell splits his time working longer hours to pay off Rodney’s ever-mounting debts — for reasons he doesn’t quite know — and caring for their terminally ill father. As if this isn’t stress enough, Russell is for the longest time left oblivious to the real reasons his younger brother is in such debt. Until the day Rodney goes missing in New Jersey.

Rodney, desperate to pay off the debt himself and already having fallen in with a tough crowd, forces local bar manager John Petty (Willem DaFoe) to put him into a legitimate street fight in which he could stand to win good money. Rodney’s been serving in the military for years and whenever he’s back home he fights for money, finding himself unable to take up a normal job or joining his brother at the steel mill. Unfortunately his pride, blind determination and short temper land him in a ring overseen by the notoriously violent and demented redneck Harlan DeGroat (an ice-cold Woody Harrelson). He’s told to take a dive (intentionally lose) in this match, but will his ego be too big to obey this simple request?

Out of the Furnace examines these issues — pride before the fall; showing mercy versus seeking vengeance; the deliberate counting of one’s own sins — using a myriad of characters facing a different set of circumstances to show what they would do to right the wrongs. In so doing, the film takes a much more graceful, deliberate pace than many might be expecting to undergo. It might be difficult to understand that each of these brilliant actors, each with a legend preceding them, are much less of a “key” factor in the story as they more quietly assume puzzle pieces in a tragic story — much like the gigantic cast of Prisoners. Instead of jumping off the page as we all might expect them to do — an exception might be Harrelson, as he’s truly the personification of vile filth here — they end up passionately coloring in an otherwise black-and-white story of loss and redemption.

There are more than enough emotionally charged and nuanced performances that, even if are unsuccessful in breaking your heart, will at least make it ache.

The last thing screenwriters Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby are likely to be accused of here is a convoluted script. The hotheaded Rodney falls into the wrong crowd and it is up to Russell to try to bail him out. While the describable “problem” that arises out of the story is about as simple as that, the overarching story is actually an emotional journey that is something to behold.

The steam that belches out of the factories suitably obscures good guy from bad here. The moral ambiguity on display runs fathoms deep; hence, the beauty of this film. Each character, acting on his or her own reasons, is rendered with deep flaws, some perhaps more severe than others. DaFoe operates as a bartender, yet he finds himself balls-deep in debt with DeGroat and several nasty fellas up north as he spends a lot of money betting on bad street fighters. . .namely, Rodney. Saldana’s limited role as Lena is not without complication, either. Undoubtedly though, Bale’s character is the one who stands to lose the most, and becomes the centerpiece to this grim tale.

It’s not a film without its shortcomings, however. Forest Whitaker, as Sheriff Wesley Barnes, feels a little underused to say the least. As does Saldana. In fact, trailers seem to be quite misleading as the cut that is used in a rather dramatic moment involving Whitaker’s character does not actually make final cut. (This appears to be one of the movies that suffers from a pretty misleading trailer, in terms of its editing anyway.) Suffice it to say, though, that the limited screen time Whitaker gets he uses to its full potential. Ditto Saldana. The two add more concrete evidence for the argument that each character involved is deeply flawed, on some level.

There are also a few moments that feel a bit drawn out and redundant, but mostly these boil down to editorial issues rather than the innate elements that compose this surprisingly harrowing story. It’s again nothing to do with how unwelcome these people will likely make you feel; these are their woods you are trespassing in, and Harlan DeGroat’s neck of the woods is the meanest of all.

The acting is inspirational. It’s cinematography almost dreamlike. Cooper’s follow-up film respectably relies on its remarkably talented cast to bear the weight of the heavy emotions that penetrate these small towns and unstable relationships. It doesn’t need to lean on big-budget police chases, the high-stakes dramatic stunts and whatever else may go into what may be getting misperceived as a blockbuster film to get its brooding message across.

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4-0Recommendation: The film is quite simply incredible, while still possessing a few dents in the armor. Look to this film for it’s powerful performances and beautiful scenery; the story may be a bit lacking for some, and it’s likely this will become more obvious on repeat viewings; however it’s more than easy to overlook simplicity for the sake of some of the year’s most provocative performances.

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “The people up in those hills, they have their own breed of justice, and it does not include us.”

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

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