Masterminds

For F*** Magazine

MASTERMINDS

Director : Jared Hess
Cast : Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Ken Marino
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 3 November 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References)

masterminds-posterMost movies and TV shows would have you believe that criminals need meticulous, elaborate planning to get away with grand larceny. It turns out that some real-life criminals who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer made out with a whole lot of cash. This is their story (with additions in the name of comedic license that we trust are minor in nature).

It is 1997, and David Ghantt (Galifianakis) is an armoured car driver working for cash handling company Loomis Fargo. He is engaged to Jandice (McKinnon), but his true affections lie with his colleague Kelly Campbell (Wiig). When Kelly’s friend Steve Chambers (Wilson) hatches a plot to rob the Loomis Fargo vault, they rope David in to do the actual dirty work of making away with the cash. The robbery is a success and David escapes to Mexico, leaving the bulk of the cash with Steve. However, Steve intends to double-cross David, and hires a hitman named Mike McKinney (Sudeikis) to take care of David. Meanwhile, FBI special agent Scanlon (Jones) is hot on the trail of the thieves. With their extravagant spending, Steve and his wife Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) aren’t exactly lying low.

Masterminds is, incredibly enough, based on a true story. The perpetrators stole a staggering $17.3 million, approximately $2 million of which is still unaccounted for. The direction taken by director Jared Hess, best known for cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite, is full-tilt silliness. While said silliness does yield some laughs, it also detracts from the ‘this really happened’ quotient, leaving the realm of strange-but-true and entering the land of over-the-top slapstick hijinks. With jokes that seem like they were written in a hurry, set pieces that are big but not overly complicated and an assortment of wigs and goofy facial hair, Masterminds is wont to remind audiences of Saturday Night Live. Most of the cast members are SNL alums, and SNL creator Lorne Michaels is a producer. Like SNL these days, Masterminds is a hit and miss affair.

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Hess has wrangled a talented, funny cast. This might not be a highlight of any of their résumés, but because the actors seem to be having a fair amount of fun, the audience does too. David is a standard-issue Galifianakis character: the well-intentioned doofus. There’s more bodily function humour than there needs to be and we get a nigh-inordinate amount of Galifianakis bumping into or dropping things, but Galifianakis is charming enough. Maybe “charming” isn’t the right word, but you catch our drift.

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Kelly Chambers seems like a role Jennifer Aniston would be great at playing, which is not a knock on Wiig. Wiig is often cast as awkward, endearing women, and in this film she’s entertainingly brazen and confident. Wilson plays a character with a sinister bent, which is slightly outside his wheelhouse, but not too much is asked of him.

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Sudeikis’ inept hitman is a scene-stealer, but one can’t help but think that the filmmakers missed an opportunity here. If it were an actor not known for his comedic chops, perhaps one closely identified with the action/thriller genres, it would be more novel and surprising. McKinnon’s role is relatively small, but she does provide a healthy number of laughs, playing a somewhat creepy, unbalanced woman. The presence of Jones as a no-nonsense Fed means that three out of four of the reboot Ghostbusters are present and accounted for. Bit of a shame that all three don’t share a scene together, or that Melissa McCarthy doesn’t get a cameo. Ken Marino is at the centre of the film’s most inspired visual gag.

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The film was pushed back a year because of Relativity Pictures’ financial woes. Masterminds doesn’t seem like something everyone was clamouring for, but it ends up being inconsequential rather than egregiously bad. This story of working class folk from North Carolina robbing a bank and getting away with it would make for great satire, but Masterminds settles for the most obvious low-hanging fruit at every turn. That’s not to say it’s completely unfunny, but it is unsatisfying. It’s hard to shake the feeling of “is that it?” as the film concludes.masterminds-leslie-jones

Summary: Even with its funny cast, Masterminds is middling rather than brilliant, passing up incisive social commentary for lazy humour. We will admit to laughing more than a few times, though.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Ouija: Origin of Evil

For F*** Magazine

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL 

Director : Mike Flanagan
Cast : Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 22min
Opens : 3 November 2016
Rating : PG13 (Horror)

ouija-origin-of-evil-posterThere’s probably no other product with a movie-long infomercial proclaiming “buy our board game, unspeakable terrors lie in store!” In this prequel to 2014’s Ouija, we meet the Zander family. It is 1967, and Alice Zander (Reaser), with her daughters Lina (Basso) and Doris (Wilson), perform séances. Using props and special effects, Alice simulates activity from the spirit world, rationalising to Doris that this is her way of helping others find closure. When Lina and her friends play a board game that purports to be a method with which the dead can be contacted, Alice incorporates the Ouija board into her act. Doris attempts to use the board to speak to her late father Roger, unwittingly unlocking a host of terrors and becoming demon-possessed. An alarmed Lina goes to her school’s principal Father Tom (Thomas) for help, as the dark history behind the hauntings is gradually unveiled.

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2014’s Ouija was largely dismissed as a cash grab, yet another economical horror franchise for production company Blumhouse to churn out. It used the tired formula of unlikeable kids getting picked off one by one. This prequel is a colossal surprise in that it is legitimately good, not just “better than the first Ouija”.

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Writer-director Mike Flanagan crafts a loving homage to the domestic horror films of the 60s and 70s, with the influence of The Exorcist strongly felt. There’s a gratifying attention to period detail in the sets, cars, costumes and dialogue. The film opens with the old-school Universal Studios logo, and there are even blemishes which mimic cigarette burns on the film reel. Alice is seen painting the Ouija planchette in order to make it look authentically aged, and the mechanisms that she uses to execute her con are all pretty nifty. It’s a clever narrative trick: establish that none of this can possibly be real, so when things actually start going bump in the night, it’s all the more unnerving.

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Instead of feeling gimmicky, Ouija: Origin of Evil has a story with reasonable emotional heft to it. It deals with bereavement, and the door to the other side is unlocked as a result of Doris’ innocent desire to talk to her deceased father once more. Our three leads are all compelling in their own ways: we forgive Alice’s deception because we see she’s trying to make ends meet and provide for her kids in the aftermath of a tragedy. Reaser, best known as Cullen family matriarch Esme from the Twilight series, is remarkably authentic. Basso’s fiery defiance and scepticism is magnetic instead of obnoxious, the push and pull between mother and daughter providing most of the conflict. Wilson gets to be the creepy kid, and she’s awesome at it – not every child actor can withstand a slow push-in and completely sell the idea that there’s an otherworldly evil deep within them.

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Remember Elliott from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial? Of course you do, it’s one of the most memorable child performances ever put on screen. As such, it’s nice to see Henry Thomas in a film. He’s been working since E.T., but never in anything with that high a profile. Thomas has a comforting presence about him, but there’s also a discernible creepiness lurking just below the surface, such that we’re never sure what exactly the make of Father Tom.

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Ouija: Origin of Evil is hair-raising without relying on gratuitous gore. There are several disturbing images, just the right number of jump scares, and a demon/ghost played by renowned physical actor Doug Jones. Unfortunately, when the film relies on digital effects to conjure up traditional exorcist movie shenanigans (Cirque du Soleil-style contortions and scuttling along walls and ceilings, eyes clouding over), things look a mite goofy. For all of the first Ouija film’s teen aimed-ness, Origin of Evil has a truly harrowing climax and does take chances with its ending, instead of going down a predictable horror movie path.

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This has got to be one of the most impressive franchise saves we’ve seen yet, with Flanagan rescuing the fledgling Ouija film series from the teeny-bopper horror doldrums. Committed performances, well-executed scares, period detail that suggests a larger budget than it actually has and a spine-tingling back-story make this a horror flick that’s several notches above average. Stick around past the credits for a stinger which connects this film to the 2014 one.

Summary: Nobody could blame anyone for being sceptical about the follow-up to the ho-hum teen horror that was Ouija, but colour us completely surprised: Origin of Evil is scary good.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

For F*** Magazine

THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS

Director : Ron Howard
Cast : John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Richard Curtis, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver
Genre : Documentary
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 3 November 2016

the-beatles-eight-days-a-week-posterIn 1964, after enjoying success in their home country, four Liverpudlian lads made their first appearance in the United States on The Ed Sullivan Show. The rest, as they say, is history, with said history chronicled here by filmmaker Ron Howard. This documentary splices together archival concert and interview footage, some of which is hitherto unseen, with present day interviews to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the band’s experiences on the road. We glimpse lots of fainting, screaming female fans; see John, Paul, George and Ringo at their goofiest and most candid, and hear from currently-active artists and musicians about the impact the Beatles had on them when they were growing up.

With a maelstrom of bleakness and negativity seemingly unavoidable these days, everyone needs an ameliorating balm, and this wistful, joyous nostalgia trip should do the trick. While longtime devotees of the Fab Four probably know all the factoids about the band’s history by heart, it’s still fun spending time in their presence. There is an almost mythic air about the Beatles: they were not pre-fabricated by committee in Simon Cowell’s office, they rose from modest obscurity and swiftly dominated the world, millions of hysterical teenagers in the pockets of their tailored suits. The sociopolitical climate in the U.S. then was even more fraught with tension than it is now, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy fresh in the public’s minds. People needed to feel happy, and the Beatles were as happy-making as they come.

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In addition to their musical talent, the Beatles’ affability won them plenty of fans. For those of us who weren’t following their endeavours at the time (i.e. those who weren’t born yet), it’s a bit of a surprise to see how funny the Beatles were in their interactions with the press. When a TV reporter asks John “which one are you,” Lennon replies without missing a beat “I’m Eric.” The reporter believes him. The original manuscript with the lyrics of I Want to Hold Your Hand scrawled on it has a postscript that reads “3/10 – see me!” Writer/director Richard Curtis identifies the Beatles as the platonic ideal of friends one would want to hang out with – he doesn’t use the phrase, but basically, the Beatles were his squad goals. Because of how much the boys seem to be enjoying their fame and popularity, it’s all the more emotional to see it take a harsh toll on them, the documentary covering their dizzying highs and also their hollowest lows.

Those who dismissed the band as lacking artistic merit have since eaten their words. We love the Beatles, but perhaps when composer Howard Goodall puts them on the same pedestal as Mozart, saying the Beatles have a similar ratio of memorable melodies in their prolific output, that might be overstating it a tad. Just as we’ve referred to them in this review, the film treats the Beatles as a singular entity, a four-headed, mop-topped Hydra. While there’s no doubt that they functioned as a unit and that their creative partnership and friendship was their lifeblood, it would’ve been nice to see more of John, Paul, George and Ringo as individuals.

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Howard wants to document both the Beatlemania phenomenon and the lads themselves, but the balance is slightly weighted in favour of the former. It would seem that more than half the interviewees, including actors Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, were observers from the outside. Aside from the two living Beatles McCartney and Starr, the most insight is gleaned from Larry Kane, the broadcast journalist who spent the most time on the road with the band. Kane recounts how Lennon and McCartney consoled him following the death of Kane’s mother, and fondly recalls how he initially baulked at the assignment, thinking it wasn’t “real news”.

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In addition to the general frivolity that follows teen idols about, the film has its heavier moments. The Civil Rights movement was unfolding just as the Beatles reached the height of their popularity in the States, and their refusal to perform at a segregated arena in Alabama is credited with eventually causing other stadiums in the south to abolish segregated seating. We also see the Beatles at their most burned out, with Harrison remarking that it must’ve been really difficult for Elvis Presley, since he was just one guy but the Beatles had each other to lean on when things got rough. There’s a clarity to the film’s recounting of the whole “more popular than Jesus” hullabaloo, when Lennon’s remark about the band’s fame was taken out of context and led to religious groups boycotting the Beatles.

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Because the film’s focus is on “the touring years”, the period of time when the Beatles were their most esoteric and consequently most fascinating is glossed over. Just as Henry Jones Sr. remarked in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “you left just as you were becoming interesting”. In any case, Eight Days a Week does its subjects justice and is a delightful slice of pop culture pie. Stay past the end credits to watch the 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Alas, even after a remastering at Abbey Road Studios, the sound quality’s still not great.

Summary: It’s not especially incisive and there aren’t any explosive revelations for long-time Fab Four fans to take in, but Eight Days a Week is a pleasantly entertaining baby boomer time capsule.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong