Masterminds

By: Kevin Jordan

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

MASTERMINDS Teaser

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for Saturday Night Live alumni, its writers, or its producers.  I stopped watching the full show in college (we would watch the opening segment, then ignore it until Weekend Update when Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey were crushing it), then quit altogether due to a combination of Fey and Fallon leaving the show and the show becoming the least funny thing on television, which includes those animal commercials from Sarah McLachlan.  Perhaps my biggest problem with movies written for and by SNL people is that most of the jokes seem like they are either really long setups with little to no payoff or inside jokes between the cast and crew.  And we know this is likely to be the case because every one of their films include production notes or interviews describing all of the improvisation going on throughout production.  Just once, I’d like to see the screenplay for one of these films to see how much of it was flat out ignored because there is no way you will convince that every movie featuring Wiig wrote down that she should sing at some point during the film.

The good news is that I’m willing to give these people repeated chances to impress me rather than just being a curmudgeon.  Jason Sudeikis won me over after Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers and is one of the main reasons why I decided to give Masterminds a chance.  Kristen Wiig is slowly improving in my book, as I may or may not have made a voodoo doll of her after Bridesmaids.  While she can’t carry a movie, she’s decent in supporting roles and delivers well when restrained by good writing and directing.  Toss in Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson and Masterminds seemed like it might have a chance with me.

There was a time when I'd be rooting for her to shoot herself.

There was a time when I’d be rooting for her to shoot herself.

More good news is that this movie does have some funny content.  The movie is based on the true story of a man named David Ghantt (Galifianakis), a Loomis Fargo employee, who (with several other people) decided to rob Loomis Fargo and got away with more than $17 million dollars, though all of them were eventually caught and most of the money recovered.  You should always beware of films claiming to be “based on a true story,” and this one is no different, but to its credit, the film keeps the major plot points intact (if you want to read about it, the wiki page is pretty good, as are many other search results).  My favorite factoid is that local residents came to refer to as “the hillbilly heist” and that’s where the film gets its real inspiration, though not the better parts of its comedy.  For me, the film got funny when unexpected things happened, which is basically the opposite of what happens on SNL.  Just to ruin one joke, Wiig takes a punch to the gut as she is standing next to a door and David is trying to open it from the other side.  And, no, it’s not just because Wiig got punched.

This is where the unexpected happens.

This is where the unexpected happens.

The bad news is this movie is very obviously SNL-inspired.  Or maybe that’s good news for those of you who forgot what good comedy looks and sounds like.  It features jokes that take way too long to develop, including walking meme, Kate McKinnon, playing David’s fiancé Jandice.  She delivers every line through clenched teeth and a sociopath’s smile and literally has nothing to do with the plot.  She is used as nothing more than an elaborate setup for a fight involving vagina cream (I am not making that up) and David’s crush, Kelly (Wiig).  What’s odd about this fight is that the two women have never met (at least that the audience is aware of), yet Jandice jumps her like a mountain lion when they meet at a department store.  It features gross-out gags (diarrhea in a pool, among others), one of which is far funnier in the outtakes than in finished film.  It features uncomfortable/awkward humor, including pre-wedding picture-posing by David and Jandice and a how-we-met story that makes you die a little inside.  In other words, it’s a great reminder of why I don’t watch SNL any more.

The ugly news is that the film features hammed up costumes, makeup effects, and accents (or lack thereof).  Of all of the true components to keep, the fact that the actual heist took place in 1997 is probably the last one that should have been kept.  Since the movie takes place in a North Carolina trailer park and Mexico, two places where time stopped mattering long ago, trying to be authentic with the visuals doesn’t add to the comedy, but does make you wonder when this movie really is taking place.  All of the sight jokes involving looks they go for fall flat, from David’s Lord Farquat haircut, to Steve (Owen Wilson) and Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) Chambers’ teeth and braces, to all of their bad clothing.  Considering I am the target audience for those jokes (I was in high school in 1997), I can definitively say that 1997 didn’t look that way.  And as for those accents, either do them or don’t do them.  Galifianakis’ and Sudeikis’ held steady, but Wiig’s went in and out, and Wilson didn’t even bother.  That’s the sign of a director who was hired basically as nothing more than a manager to make sure everyone showed up for work every day.

Our reasons for watching, despite their looks.

Our reasons for watching, despite their looks.

Despite all of that, the movie was better than I expected, especially considering it featured three-fourths of the cast of the Ghostbusters remake.  I found myself laughing at times and never thinking about how to get hair from the actors in order to make more voodoo dolls.  Galifianakis and Sudeikis make the movie worth watching and the film refrains from making Ghantt a total idiot (which would have ruined the movie outright).  It’s by no means good enough to make me want to sit through another SNL skit (let alone an entire episode), but it could have been a lot worse – it could have featured four-fourths of the cast of the Ghostbusters remake.

Rating: Ask for 4 dollars back.  I’d say it was slightly better than meh.

No Escape

By: Kevin Jordan

Or is there?

no_escape

About halfway through No Escape, I was ready to walk out of the theater.  Up to that point in the film, people were slaughtering other people with no explanation, Pierce Brosnan had vanished from the film, and the plot was nothing more than “Run, Owen, Run!”  Basically, we were watching a snuff film with decent casting.  The only thing keeping me in my seat was the knowledge that Brosnan had to show up at some point and, despite the seemingly pointless and definitely gratuitous violence, it was the tensest film I’d seen since 2013’s The Call.  When Brosnan did finally show back up, the film finally reveals the WHY, as in “why is half the population of Laos (or Cambodia – the film intentionally omits what country this is happening in, but we know it borders Vietnam and it’s definitely not China) trying to kill Owen Wilson and his family” and I couldn’t have been more satisfied.

There’s a book called Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins that I’m pretty sure nobody in the theater had read besides me.  The book is Perkins’ account of roughly thirty years working for the NSA as a consulting engineer for a firm called Chas. T. Main.  He describes his job as visits to impoverished nations where he would provide inflated economic forecasts in order to convince them to borrow huge sums of money to build infrastructure.  Of course, their economies would never grow as predicted, they would default on their loans, and the companies/countries they borrowed the money from would own them.  In other words (Perkins’ words), empire building by America and its corporations.  I know it sounds a bit conspiratorial – and if you read the book, you can decide for yourself how much you want to believe – but it’s the perfect premise for a movie.  When the film is transitioning to the third act, Brosnan explains this very idea to Wilson, though Brosnan’s character is a bit of a mix of Perkins and a lethal spy (Perkins never claims to have any kind of training beyond engineering forecasts).

That’s the entire plot of the film and is more of a political-statement film than a simple thriller that seeks dead Americans.  Getting back to the film itself, the most notable thing is the tension that never ratchets down from nail-biting ass-clencher.  It’s right there in the title, No Escape – you really don’t know if Wilson’s family is going to survive or if some or all of them (Brosnan as well) are going to die.  The movie is one tense scene after another, one close encounter followed by another, all the while dripping/spraying/covered in blood from the numerous brutal murders occurring just steps behind the family.

Perhaps just as notable is the performance put forth by Wilson.  In playing a father (Jack) trying to protect his family in a serious thriller, Wilson shows that he is capable of playing more than just a charming doofus, even managing to weave that doofus into the role to slightly ease the tension every now and again.  Lake Bell (playing his wife Annie) is just as convincing, as are the two kids playing their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare as Lucy and Beeze, respectively).  As opposed to most movies with families, these people are believable as kin and avoided many of the family clichés that Hollywood loves inserting into movies like this.

Kudos need also go to the writers, John and Drew Dowdle (John doubled as director).  I’ve already mentioned the tension, but they also managed to make each character sympathetic, as well as the family as a whole.  One scene in particular will stick in your mind – in one of the many places they hide, young Beeze whispers that she needs to pee.  Annie and Jack exchange a quick glance of desperation, then Annie tells Beeze to go ahead and pee where she is (had this been a clichéd thriller, the parents would have tried convincing her to hold it until they were safe and Lucy would have teased her somehow).  Beeze puts up a mild protest – that she isn’t a baby – and Annie and Jack assure her that it is okay this one time and that they love her.  Beeze relents and puts on one of the saddest and pitiful faces you will ever see in a film.  That little kid manages to look ashamed and embarrassed at what she is doing and if your heart doesn’t break a little right there (or a lot), you are dead inside.

After the film, the general consensus among my friends was that the movie was a solid B, but they had never heard of the book I mentioned.  However, one of them had a much more visceral reaction to the film – he thought it was very good, but it made him a little disgusted at our country (and even more so after I explained the book to him).  Regardless as to whether you believe our country does things like that, when a movie can have that kind of effect on a viewer, you know the filmmakers did something right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back and go read that book.

Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb

By: Kevin Jordan

How is this still a thing?

Night at the Museum

I want to make it clear that I understand who this movie is for – children.  That’s why it’s rated PG.  It’s a harmless movie just trying to have a little fun and entertain the kiddos.  In fact, if you are looking for a movie to take your kids to this Christmas, you should take them to Unbroken.  Nothing says Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas like a war movie about prisoners in a Japanese internment camp.  Wait, what?  Don’t take your kids to Unbroken; that would be a terrible idea.  Take your kids to Night at the Museum 3 – a movie that goes out of its way to fit in a scene where a monkey pisses all over Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan and sends the message to kids that college is stupid and they should definitely throw parties when their parents aren’t home.  Your call on movie night, parents.

I really wasn’t expecting much out of this film, and I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s one of those movies you watch, shrug at, and an hour later, forget you ever saw it.  Really, you’re just glad you had a choice of movie that didn’t include 90-minute orc/human/elf/eagle/dwarf battle scenes, torture scenes, hospitals-filled-with-injured-people-being-bombed scenes, or God murdering thousands of innocent Egyptian children.

Secret of the Tomb has a very straightforward plot.  The golden tablet that brings everything to life is corroding and night watchman Larry (Ben Stiller) must find a way to restore it.  After consulting with the crooks from the original film, specifically Cecil (Dick van Dyke), he learns he must travel to the British Museum in London to speak with Ahkmenrah’s (Rami Malek) father, Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), to learn the secrets of the tablet.  Like any decent adventure story, there are obstacles in the way, mostly in the form of a hydra and Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens).  Of course, the rest of the supporting characters (Attila the Hun, Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea, the monkey, the tiny cowboy, and the tiny Roman) are there too because this movie was way too lazy to come up with any decent new characters.

That’s not to say they didn’t come up with new characters.  Just not decent ones.  As I said, Sir Lancelot is one of the main characters, and the very first question any educated person should be asking is “what is a fictional character doing at a history museum?”  Or, “what is a fictional character’s suit of armor doing at a history museum and why would there be a wax figure inside of said armor?”  The answer to that question is that it had to be a knight of the round table so that they could justify a cameo scene with Hugh Jackman and Alice Eve performing as King Arthur and Guinevere, respectively, in a stage performance called Camelot.  Seriously, I did not make that up.  To its credit, that scene is easily the best scene in the movie (I won’t ruin why), but also (and unfortunately) highlights how much better an actor Hugh Jackman is than everyone else in this film (sorry Ben Kingsley, but have you seen your latest work?).

In addition to Lancelot and Meren-ur-whatever, the film gives ample screen time to a new caveman (also played by Ben Stiller) and a British Museum security guard (Rebel Wilson).  The caveman thing is supposed to be funny because he looks like Larry, but the movie ruins the joke by having Larry acknowledge the similarity almost immediately, rendering the caveman pointless.  Wilson’s character is even more useless, for a couple of reasons.  (1) Wilson is not funny.  She wasn’t funny in Bridesmaids (though, to be fair, nobody in that movie was funny), she wasn’t funny in Pain & Gain, and Super Fun Night was cancelled during its first season because, you guessed it, not funny.  (2) Judging by this movie, the British Museum is guarded by one single person, outside, in a guard shack with one single camera that points at the inside of an exterior door.  Let me reiterate – a museum with thousands upon thousands of priceless artifacts is guarded by a lone, short, fat woman and no video surveillance or other security measures.  Again, I realize this is a children’s movie, but COME ON!!!!

While we’re on the subject of the British Museum, I’m not sure the writers or producers or anyone involved in the making of this movie bothered to so much as Google what’s actually inside the British Museum, let alone step foot inside.  The potential for comedy and new visuals was enormous, yet the best we get is a weird little golden troll, a hydra, and some Greek statues missing some limbs.  Just one example of missed opportunity – didn’t the writers know that the Rosetta Stone is in that museum?  Wouldn’t it have been funny to include a scene with Attila, the caveman, the monkey, and Larry standing by the stone and suddenly being able to understand each other?  Kind of like the scene in Bedazzled where Brendan Fraser is a drug lord and is astounded that he can speak Spanish?  (“¡Estoy hablando Español!”)  Ye gods, did they blow that one.

Perhaps the worst part of the film is the barely-developed father-son tiff that occurs.  Larry’s son informs Larry that he doesn’t want to go to college, but wants to be a DJ in some island off the coast of Spain.  Larry harrumphs a bit, but the subject is dropped until the end of the film when Larry says he’ll support whatever and his son responds with “eh, whatever.”  What was the point of that nonsense?  Did the writers really try to include a human story in a movie featuring Owen Wilson receiving a golden shower from a monkey?

I could get into a lot of the incongruities of the film’s story and lack of continuity with the other films (the fix for the tablet and why the tablet is failing in the first place will make even the six year olds cry foul), but it’s really not worth it at this point in my review.  Suffice it to say, any rules that were established in the first film are all but forgotten this time around, but that’s not surprising considering the lack of effort that went into the story.  Just know that the alternative to Secret of the Tomb is scaring the Christmas out of them with movies featuring killing, torturing, bombing, and killing.  Merry Christmas…?

Rating:  Ask for all but three dollars back.  That’s thirteen dollars for Hugh Jackman’s scene and minus ten for the rest.