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Chasing Banksy
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by Jay Seaver

"Bad optics sink a neat idea."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 18TH ANNUAL BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: It's telling, I think, that the biggest ovation that this movie got was when somebody told the main character off for being self-centered and oblivious. Combine this with how the actor playing that guy is also the co-writer who based the script on his own experiences, and there's a weird disconnect - a well-constructed, zippy heist movie that is difficult to enjoy because it's so wrong-headed in conception.

The guy in question is Anthony (Anthony Sneed), a Manhattan street artist who, like many in that line, idolizes mysterious British graffiti artist Banksy, taking a road trip upon hearing about new works popping up in the South. He also has the idea that if he could manage to take one of these works off the streets and sell it, the proceeds could probably fund his own art. When Banksy creates several new pieces in post-Katrina New Orleans, Anthony pores through Google Street View to match the pictures to locations, and when he finally finds one, talks a couple of friends into going down there with him, with a local friend-of-a-friend helping them find the wall that they want to take home.

Remove context, and the ingredients for a pretty great caper are all there: The ragtag band, the risky plan, and the actual heist that depends upon doing things in plain sight without being seen. Co-writer/director Frank Henenlotter may be best known for bloody horror and exploitation, but he handles the bouncy aspects of this material well, and the fact that he's had some cult success that never translated into a big mainstream break gives him a pretty decent handle on the fringiness of the characters' world and shooting on the run. He's clever enough to turn scouring Google Street View into a high-energy sequence and brings talented folks in for a nifty animated bit. The heist scenes are quietly intense.

But, then, you can't remove the context, can you? Even taking into consideration that Banksy's art is meant to be seen in the environment that inspired it (imperfectly, as some of the people Anthony encounters point out that the artist often plays with fire and then leaves the owner of the building he used as a canvas to face the consequences), there's no getting around that this is a movie about a white guy privileged enough to look at "street artist" as a viable career option going into a black neighborhood to steal the side of a building, and Anthony never really seems to recognize this. In the character's mind, at least, this is the story about his crazy adventure, with the big question being whether to sell the Banksy to finance his own work or whether to keep it for himself. Henenlotter does manage to occasionally move in that direction, with the mentioned scene being the biggest and most obvious example, but it's clearly an accommodation rather than something that weighs on the characters and, to a lesser extent, the filmmakers.

Given that Anthony Sneed is basically playing himself, in a script he co-wrote, based upon events in his own life... yeah, he's pretty believable in the role. He's a bit stretched when trying to follow an arc, but does okay in keeping himself much less smug than he could have wound up. He's got some fun guys to play off in Will Cooper, Joel Mevissen, and Brian Fass, making the road trip kind of entertaining rather than just guys with the same cruddy attitudes bouncing off each other. The ladies don't fare so well; Hazel Honeysuckle is one of the few in the cast (other than the folks in the New Orleans neighborhood being burgled), and there are times when her character seems to be there to be impressed with (and sleep with) artists, even if they are losers like Anthony.

There are moments when Henenlotter and Sneed show that they've got what it takes to make a nifty caper flick in an unusual environment, but save for a few moments, are shockingly tone-deaf about how the thing plays out, right until the final frames. It poisons a potentially fun movie, and you can't help but wonder why this wasn't given more consideration in the writing stage.

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originally posted: 07/06/16 10:20:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Frank Henenlotter

Written by
  Frank Henenlotter
  Anthony Sneed

  Anthony Sneed
  Will Cooper
  Brian Faas
  Drew Freed

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