Masterminds

masterminds-movie-poster

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?”

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Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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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.

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Blue Ruin

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

From the opening shot silence dominates, ominously foreshadowing a journey fraught with tension and dread. It doesn’t take long to realize that something is wrong, to feel the disconnect between a vagabond and his surroundings. Macon Blair’s Dwight is floating through existence, living out of his car and presumably without a job. The comforts of our typical daily lives feel far out of reach even though they are quite literally right in front of him. Despite his disheveled appearance Dwight seems functional, making use of a few odds and ends to help him get through another day of living on the streets. But he’s clearly a broken man, a scruffy beard and unkempt hair and meals derived from what he can scrape out of trash cans being the most telling.

For at least the opening 20 minutes he remains enigmatic, inspiring an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Possibly a bit of frustration too — who is this guy? Empathy towards the homeless isn’t a necessity — if you’re not empathetic I can’t say I blame you as it seems more often than not their plights are derived from a long series of poor life choices — but in this case the issue doesn’t seem to be a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Drama begins in earnest when Dwight receives the news that the man responsible for the murder of both his parents is being released from prison. A policewoman asks him to come into the station, insisting that it’d be better for him to hear this in a safe place rather than being alone on the streets and finding out in the local paper.

Unfortunately the catalyst for the blood-splattering that is to come is less dependent upon the way in which he receives the information as it does upon how he will choose to respond to it.

Given the thrill of the discovery, it’s difficult to talk plot without ruining much of the experience so I vote instead we talk about how good Blair is in the lead. Um, yeah. He’s good. Evoking an emotional instability that borders on madness, Dwight comes across as a surprisingly threatening man even though his ineptitude at handling violent situations may say otherwise. That he’s out of his depth on more than a few occasions is a brilliant manifestation of Blair’s physical performance. This is a role that, rather than relying on extensive dialogue, depends upon how his countenance reflects a steadily more desperate reality. Such change is more often than not subtle but by the end the disparity is noted. It’s an incredible performance, elevating Blue Ruin well above your average revenge tale.

As good as Blair is, however, Jeremy Saulnier might just outdo him. He isn’t just responsible for allowing his lead to flourish under intelligent writing and precise directing, he’s painting a gorgeous backdrop through crisp, colorful cinematography that ironically romanticizes the lush landscape of Virginia, particularly Dwight’s hometown, a sleepy hollow interrupted by violence. Thickly forested hills serve as creative conceals for confrontations that don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. In this film, Virginia is not for lovers; it is for survivors. It is for men who stand very little to lose.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Saulnier’s minimalist portraiture of a life gone awry it arrives upon a frozen plate.

Recommendation: Blue Ruin is a great example of minimalist storytelling. Dialogue-lite, it’s far more concerned with body language and subtle visual clues to keep viewers constantly engaged. The violence it does feature is rather vivid but it, too, is limited to moments that tend to be extremely effective. I loved this film, but I can see others having a problem with its deliberate build-up. It’s not heavy on action but it is heavy on great acting and beautiful cinematography. Give it a shot sometime. E-hem. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I would forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

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12 Years a Slave

12 years poster

Release: Friday, October 18, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Every so often there are those releases that stir up a buzz unlike any other; a certain climate that generates perhaps as much interest in the film as the film itself. This feverish talk might be about the cast involved and the work they have turned in, or the timing of such a film, or simply the subject matter. The hype can become so great as to almost assume a deafening roar, becoming something unto itself.

In the case of Steve McQueen’s telling of a free man being abducted into slavery in pre-Civil War America, the graphic contents of this particular journey certainly reached this kind of level for me. A great deal of discussion stemmed from the accuracy of its depictions of human suffering and cruelty, of violence and bloodshed, and what may be worst of all, the language and dialogue. 12 Years a Slave was thereby rendered as something more than what it perhaps should be viewed and appreciated for.

Even if personal expectations were skewed because of this unique psychological component, it would be wildly inaccurate to say the film did not do what it needed to. My bracing for some extraordinary scenes helped me get through them a little bit easier, but that’s not to say the rest of the material is easy, either. Yet, if there’s any beauty to be found within this piece (and there is, for if you want to tell me that this man’s true story doesn’t end well you’d be dead wrong), it’ll likely take several views to actually appreciate such beauty. Unfortunately most of the film is just miserable enough to make sitting through it all a second time a rather unreasonable proposition.

But maybe this speaks to the true scope of McQueen’s vision and the transparency of John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation of the memoirs penned in 1853 by Solomon Northup. There are beautiful moments to behold, but there’s a heavy, heavy price to pay. Like reflecting back on any number of societal injustices as through a textbook or studying up on it in class, the meaning is in the details but you must read to find it.

There is no question that 12 Years will become 2013’s most notorious film, and this will be for a variety of reasons — most of which are good, though some will be more difficult to understand than others. Among the more shocking revelations, the simplicity to the story will eat at the viewer for the entire two hours. Not only is it the ease in which Solomon disappears off the streets of his hometown that’s disturbing, but the constant physical and psychological abuse he suffers is mostly derived from his inability to proclaim his true identity.

In Saratoga, New York in 1841 Solomon is approached by a couple of gentlemen who have a business proposition for him. As a talented violist, Solomon has a great reputation, and is always away from home playing for a variety of special events. These men need some music for one of their own events, and they convince him to join them on a trip to Washington D.C., where he shall be treated well and paid for his efforts.

The deceit is unnervingly simple. One day, he wakes up not in his bed, but instead chained to a dirt floor by his wrists and ankles. Two men enter the dank room and tell him that he’s no longer who he says he is; from hence forth he is Platt, a supposed Georgia runaway. When Solomon begs to differ, he is beaten within an inch of his life and left to cry out for help, as a camera pans out, revealing the truth about his undisclosed location. Solomon is forced to put on new clothes — the pajamas he once was wearing being the last item from his home that he had on his person — and is then sent away from this place and put on the slave market, bound for Louisiana on a ferry.

Solomon will bounce from a couple of different plantations where his workload and conditions become more dire and degrading. First he becomes the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who seems to possess at least some tangled thread of humanity. He is the one to provide Solomon with another violin, perhaps the single good deed that will befall him for the next several years. However it’s on his property where Solomon also clashes with a particularly nasty slave driver named Tibeats (Paul Dano), and incurs his wrath after Solomon proves himself more than a hard-working slave. This event results in a protracted pseudo-lynching scene — arguably one of the most difficult scenes to view throughout — and furthermore, it forces Ford to turn over Solomon to another man because of a mounting debt Ford has to pay off.

This transfer will land Solomon officially in hell, as he winds up the property of none other than Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless man with a reputation for being an “n-word breaker.” Simultaneously, Epps has heard some things about this Platt, about his work ethic and his reputation for questioning his Masters. Being the maniacally drunk, perversely racist man he is, Epps makes it his mission to go out of his way to really break him down, make him sorry for ever having shown up on his plantation. As if he could help it.

Mind you, while all this is going on, Solomon’s family is growing up. The man spends over a decade in the south under a new identity and not being able to communicate at all to the outside world. All the credit possible must be bestowed upon McQueen and Ridley here for their ability to convert their southern plantation settings into the scenic yet stifled pits of inhumanity that they effectively were. It is in these moments, these scenes where you truly feel cut off from civilization, suffocated. The difference between where Solomon starts off and where he winds up is really felt.

In his last year of being enslaved at the hands of Epps and the perhaps even more hateful Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), Solomon comes across a carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt) who’s originally from Canada. A believer in the abolition of slavery, he is inexplicably friendly with Epps and these moments offer up some poignant lines that address directly what is being put in front of our eyes. . .as well as Epps’. The pair’s views on the matter couldn’t differ any greater; yet as strongly written as this moment is, and as accurately as these characters may be rendered, this oasis of peace seems very strange. At the very least, a little oddly timed.

We toil along with Solomon throughout this whole saga, feeling the weight upon his shoulders as he watches in horror at the pain others are also enduring. A mother whom Solomon is traded with earlier on is unable to reconcile her grief after being taken away from her young children. On Epps’ plantation, he meets a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is the center of all of Epps’ affections. While she may be the most tragic victim on display, there are many others.

So we trudge through the weight of all of this, and yet there is a moment or two of tranquility. What does any of it mean? Is it just the sheer randomness of his abduction that we should be the most attentive to or is it the collective poison of slavery’s influence not only over those in the southern cotton fields, but over the spirit and soul of the nation at large? What are we to take away from this aside from receiving an update on the barbarity of the white man at his worst? It’s a little difficult to say really, because while McQueen does limit the violence to really only six distinct moments, the atmosphere of the movie will ultimately be more memorable than the miraculous survival of Solomon as a slave and his freedom finally regained.

Perhaps what hurt my own viewing was the aforementioned and self-imposed psyching out. I certainly elevated my expectations going in, most all of which were met (good and bad). However, what I recall the most after walking out is feeling a great sadness. This creation is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but yet it seems strange to only feel gutted after watching, and not something more akin to being enlightened. Yes, slavery and racism is pointless, but we knew that already.

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4-0Recommendation: Raw, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave sets a new standard for cinematic displays of human suffering, not only in its realism but with regards to the nature of the treatment. At times, it can be certainly heavy-handed, though there’s no denying its a journey virtually everyone must see. Through graphic depictions we can start to get an appreciation for the barbarity of it all. It wouldn’t have hurt for an extended conclusion, but I suppose there’s enough there to nominate McQueen’s third project as one of the most powerful and well-crafted (and damning) pieces of the year.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A man does as he pleases with his property.”

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