Corporate Animals


There is no “I” in team but there IS meat…

(2019) Comedy (Screen Media) Demi Moore, Jessica Williams, Ed Helms, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Karan Soni, Martha Kelly, Dan Bakkedahl, Calum Worthy, Jennifer Kim, Nasim Pedrad, Frank Bond, Wendy Meredith, Britney Spears, Courtney Cunningham, Chris Harding, David Phyfer, Richard Beal, Tobiah Powell, LynNita Ellis.  Directed by Patrick Brice

 

There is something inherently funny about corporate life. From the platitudes that are meant to inspire to the team-building exercises that are more an exercise in wasting time to the gorilla in a velvet suit venality of corporate politics, it’s a wonder that the subject hasn’t been mined more often for the comedy gold that is clearly there. Maybe it just hits a bit too close to home for most of us.

Lucy (Moore) is the high-strung platitude-spewing CEO of a company that makes edible cutlery. The corporate culture is supposed to be diverse and inclusive but below the surface of civility there is an awful lot of discontent. Perfect time for a team-building session, right? Of course, right.

Brandon (Helms) is their guide as he attempts to get the group to move a stone sphere that is clearly too heavy for the group to budge until the intern Aidan (Worthy) is injured, but that’s just the warm-up. The main event is spelunking in some deep caves in New Mexico. When the group comes to a fork, Lucy insists that they take the more difficult “advanced” route despite everyone else – including Brandon – trying to dissuade her.

At first, it looks like Lucy might have been on to something when the group reaches the majestic Cathedral Cavern but what little triumph the group can muster is quickly quashed when an earthquake buries them in the cavern and kills one of their number. Bummer.

Finding a way out doesn’t seem to be much of a priority for Lucy who is confident that there will be a rescue party finding them shortly; after all, she had left an itinerary with the ranger’s office and as soon as they’re listed as overdue the cavalry will be coming. When it soon becomes obvious that they are going to be trapped for more than a few hours, it becomes clear that the problem of survival is going to start with the fact they have no food and no water.

This is very much a dark comedy with elements of parody meant to take on the aforementioned subjects of office politics and corporate culture. Brice, who previously helmed the much better comedy The Overnight works off of a script by Sam Bain which is too scattershot for its own good. There are too many subplots, including the rivalry between Jess (Williams) and Freddie (Soni) who were both promised a big promotion by Lucy, Lucy’s sexual harassment of Freddie and the fact that Lucy’s incompetence has left the company nearly bankrupt, a fact her workers are ignorant of.

Lucy is definitely the centerpoint here and the movie could have used an actress with a deft comic touch. Demi Moore is a lot of things, but she has never been known for her comic timing. She ends up coming off as vile and venal, self-absorbed and arrogant who believes herself to be superior in all ways to those who actually do the work that keeps the company going. One has to wonder if Moore was cast because she had a similar role in the drama Disclosure which was also a far better movie than this one. One imagines that Ms. Moore cashed the check as quickly as she could and moved on to something a bit more challenging.

Someone who does have a deft comic touch is Jessica Williams who is note-perfect as the long-suffering assistant Jess who is far more competent than anyone else in the workplace. Anyone who has seen her in the Netflix film The Incredible Jessica James knows what Williams is capable of and the career path in front of her is bright and shiny indeed. I look forward to seeing her in more movies.

By necessity the movie is dimly lit over long stretches and while the cavern set is pretty decent, it also looks like a set. While apparently some of the film was lensed in the famed Frankfurt Caverns of Kentucky, the rocks look like papier machė. The movie would have benefitted from a little more focus and fewer subplots. The critics have pretty much savaged the film so don’t expect there to be much of an audience for it but adventurous readers who are interested can take a chance on it when it hits home video in a few months.

REASONS TO SEE: Jessica Williams is absolutely stellar.
REASONS TO AVOID: This has been done better elsewhere.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug and sex references, a bit of violence and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharon Stone was originally cast as Lucy but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. Demi Moore stepped into the role instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews: Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Severance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements

Margin Call


Margin Call

Kevin Spacey discovers the wonders of Internet porn.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell, Maria Dizzia, Jim Kirk. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Money makes the world go round, and certainly we all need it to get by. There are those, however, who can’t get enough of it and have plundered and pillaged their way into a global economic meltdown. The worst part of it is that there are those who knew what was about to happen but did nothing; they are at least complicit partners in the crime.

At a staid, respected Wall Street firm in 2008, layoffs are underway. A tap on the shoulder is the kiss of death as 80% of the workforce on this particular floor is about to be sent home. One of those being let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), a manager in the risk assessment team. As he is being escorted out, he hands a flash drive to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him it’s something he was working on and asks Peter to see if he can finish it. Then, somewhat strangely, he tells him to “Be careful.”

Well, that’s like catnip to a former rocket engineer like Sullivan so while the other survivors are out celebrating their stay of execution, Sullivan is working on the file and when he figures it out, the results are so monstrous that he has to call someone in. That someone is senior trader Will Emerson (Bettany) who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey), the head of trading.

What Sullivan has discovered is that the company has purchased a lot of mortgage-based securities that, if their value were to deteriorate by just 25% would mean that the companies losses would be greater than what the company was worth. That would mean bankruptcy and scandal and the end of the gravy train they’ve all been riding on.

During the course of the night, the findings are pushed up the ladder. The head of Risk Management Sarah Robertson (Moore) and her boss Jared Cohen (Baker) are brought into the loop and it soon becomes apparent they knew  a lot more about the situation than they had let on. It quickly becomes a case of looking out for your own tush as the firm’s British CEO John Tuld (Irons) flies in via helicopter as dawn breaks.

These executives will be making decisions that will have far-reaching economic implications, not to mention a moral dilemma as Tuld’s decision is to sell off the worthless securities before it becomes general knowledge that they’re worthless. Can Rogers order his traders to essentially destroy their own careers to save the firm? Should he?

The story is rather loosely based on that of Lehman Brothers (whose CEO is Richard Fuld) although there are certainly some factual differences. That there are those in the financial industry who played fast and loose with the rules and with morality there is no doubt. That the greed of banks, financial firms and those politicians who helped remove the safeguards and overseers that might have protected us from these rapacious sharks has put our economy down the tubes there is also no doubt.

Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch executive, has an insider’s perspective and he helps make a movie that really covers some fairly arcane numbers-based material without going too far over the heads of the average audience member. There’s some good writing here; understanding what happened in 2008 often feels like you need a degree in math just to grasp the basics. Here, it’s shown in fairly plain terms what happened to a lot of firms at the time.

The performances here are universally compelling. Spacey is more or less the focus of the moral dilemma; he alone of most of the executives has a pretty good wrestling match with his conscience. He isn’t possessed of a snowy white soul – he certainly is flawed – but at least his first thought isn’t of his own career but the ramifications on the general public when this gets out.

Irons is also amazing as the reptilian CEO. There is a moment when he’s rattling off the dates of all the crashes and downturns on Wall Street, seemingly not noticing how much closer together those dates are getting as the years go by. Does he really not notice or does he actually not care that each of those dates represent enormous human misery?

This isn’t what you’d call action packed fare; much of it takes place in conference rooms at high level meetings. It gets pretty talky at times. While this is mostly an indictment of the greed and arrogance of Wall Street, it also does put a certain onus on the general public for aiding and abetting, a charge which isn’t entirely unfounded. In that sense, this is as fair and balanced a portrayal of the meltdown as I’ve seen to date.

This movie puts a human face on the greed and how the mentality of CYA and testosterone-fueled “profits first, people second” culture in Wall Street made what happened in 2008 inevitable. This is the dark face of capitalism and that the executives sound uncannily like prison guards at Dachau only makes this movie more compelling.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic look at what goes on behind the curtain on Wall Street. Terrific performances and a well-written script augment this.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the talky side.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly at One Penn Plaza in New York on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: In Time

The Joneses


The Joneses

David Duchovney is justs a material girl trying to live in a material world.

(2009) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) David Duchovney, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, Chris Williams, Lauren Hutton, Glenne Headly, Christine Evangelista, Rob Pralgo, Tiffany Morgan, Joe Narciso. Directed by Derrick Borte

Our society has devolved into one in which the old truism “whoever dies with the most toys wins” has taken on a new meaning. The crucial signposts of life have become the things we acquire – the shiny new sports car, the state of the art electronics, the high end golf clubs, the designer clothes. Our pursuit of the trappings of success has overcome our pursuit of excellence, making keeping up with the Joneses more than just a spectator sport.

Into a wealthy suburban enclave move in Steve Jones (Duchovney), his impossibly gorgeous wife Kate (Moore), his gorgeous daughter Jenn (Heard) and his handsome son Mick (Hollingsworth). They don’t just have the outer trappings of success – they embody it.

However, what you see on the surface – behind the beautiful home, the flashy car, the nice clothes – is something completely different than what is underneath. There are problems in the perfect family. In fact, they aren’t really a family of all.

What they are is revealed in the trailer, which is another case (see Dream House) of a marketing department robbing a film of its maximum impact. For that reason, I’m leaving the plot description a little thin, other than to say that what the movie is really about is America’s obsession with consumerism and how it robs us of our soul.

Duchovney is perfect for the role of Steve. He has a dry delivery that just hints of the smarmy while remaining acerbic and eventually, empathetic. For a role that could easily descend into self-parody and completely turn off audiences, the very likable Duchovney turns it into a role that audiences will identify with as his character is forced to confront the fall-out of his actions and put his familial loyalty to the test.

Moore has never been one of my favorite actresses, but it has to be said that she can play the driven executive-sort better than nearly anybody and that’s the place she goes for this part. She makes a good foil for Duchovney and I must say the 40-something Moore looks amazing.

That’s neither here nor there though. What I liked is that first-time writer/director Borte takes a terrific concept and uses it to look at an issue that is subtle and seldom explored onscreen, with surprising insight and humor. There is an element of parody to it, but it also hits somewhat uncomfortably close to home.

When it comes right down to it, we tend to be sheep moving from one trend to the other, fickle consumers with an eye to what’s the latest and greatest, not realizing that these things are going to be obsolete in less time than it takes to bring it home from the store. Still, keeping up with the Joneses is as American as apple pie. We just should take a good look at the Joneses and ask why we should aspire to keep up with them.

WHY RENT THIS: A witty, smart commentary on materialism. Duchovney’s dry delivery serves him well here. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s plot twist is given away in the trailer. The final reel is a bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and teenage drug use, a bit of sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Borte is the brother of professional surfer Jason Borte; both were born in Germany but raised in Virginia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Three Musketeers (2011)

Flawless (2007)


Flawless

Michael Caine and Demi Moore make their plans.

(2007) Period Crime Drama (Magnolia) Demi Moore, Michael Caine, Lambert Wilson, Nathaniel Parker, Joss Ackland, Shaughan Seymour, Nicholas Jones, David Barras. Directed by Michael Radford

Corporate stuffed shirts have always been with us, and the movies have always used them as villains; greedy, heartless and amoral. Heist films have always been a means for audiences to vicariously thrill to these individuals getting their comeuppance, although in real life they almost never do.

Then again, this isn’t real life although to the filmmaker’s credit, it sure feels that way. Laura Quinn (Moore) is a bit of a rarity; a female executive at a London diamond exchange circa 1960. While she is clearly capable and even, in many ways, superior to her peers, she continues to knock her stiff raven-shaded bouffant against the glass ceiling. She wants nothing more than to get ahead to prove to herself that she is capable and in many ways superior, but all her long nights of chain-smoking, fretting over reports and bantering with Hobbs (Caine), a friendly night janitor, have gotten her nowhere.

To add insult to injury, she discovers that she is about to be fired by the very people who stole her ideas and then took credit for them. At first, when Hobbs – who is much more than he seems – comes to her to propose a quiet little robbery of just a few gems (which the exchange would hardly miss but would set up the both of them for life), she is appalled but as she realizes that she has no future at the exchange, she finally relents.

What follows is pretty much a standard caper film. Radford, who directed the far superior Il Postino, is certainly a capable hand at the game but to be honest, the movie suffers from the same petrifaction that permeates the London diamond exchange depicted here.

Most of that is due to Moore, who operates as if a wax figure from Tussaud’s. Rarely does she betray any emotion, some of which could be attributed to the stiff upper lip mentality of the Britain of that time, but even when she is displaying emotion it rings false. Perhaps it’s her truly atrocious accent that brings that feel along.

Fortunately, the movie also has Caine, who has fun with the grandfatherly cockney who hides a brilliant strategist with an axe to grind. Caine seems to be having more fun than everyone else in the movie combined, and for my money the movie could have used a good deal more of that sense. Far too much of the movie comes off as stodgy.

While the scenes of the actual heist build credible suspense, it is the first reel and the last where the movie falls a bit. While the movie succeeds in creating the era and brings the sexual discrimination card into play, it never really captured my imagination nor grabbed the heart the way better heist films like The Bank Job and 11 Harrowhouse did. Fans of movies like The Sting and the Oceans trilogy will find this lifeless, but that’s somewhat unfair of a comparison. The movie is solid but unspectacular, and lacks the kind of twist that these types of films really call for.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places but otherwise this is suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; My guess is that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Objective

Top 5 “I Can See Dead People” Movies


Charlie St. Cloud (see review) playing catch with his deceased brother is only the latest in a long line of Hollywood films in which the living interact with the dead. There is a certain appeal in knowing that death is not The End, either of consciousness or box office receipts as well. The theme continues to be while not a certain box office draw, at least extremely marketable even now – perhaps especially so given the use of digital effects to make the dearly departed even more spectacular than ever.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Beetle Juice (1988) was one of Tim Burton’s most bizarre and delightful films, and the delightfully kitschy afterlife still resonates with hipsters everywhere – I would love to do the calypso to Harry Belafonte in the next life. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) explored the love between the dead and the living much more believably than the over-earnest (and in the case of Demi Moore, overacted) Ghost. A Christmas Carol (1938) is my all-time favorite holiday film but doesn’t make this list because it is the Spirits that are the central supernatural characters, not Jacob Marley’s ghost. Finally, 13 Ghosts (2001) had some truly terrifying images but just missed because the means of seeing the dead people came with wearing special glasses, and this list is organic if nothing else.

5. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

 

Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were at the top of their games when this supernatural comedy became an icon of 80s movies. “Who ya gonna call” remains a catchphrase we still use today, a quarter of a century later. Second City TV alum Harold Ramis (who would become a fine filmmaker in his own right) and character actor Ernie Hudson would make up the rest of the Ghost Buster team, while Sigourney Weaver made for one hot femme fatale, getting possessed by a demon in her refrigerator. Usually the demon in my refrigerator looks a lot more like cheesecake (although come to think of it, she had a couple of scenes where she looked an awful lot like cheesecake). Rick Moranis, he of SCTV and Honey I Shrunk the Kids fame was designated comedy relief. New York was threatened by a supernatural event of biblical proportions, not to mention a gigantic Sta-Puft marshmallow man, and only Egon, Stantz, Venkman and Winston stand in the way. Together with their proton packs and containment devices, they take the horror elements, temper it with a little science fiction and make it dang funny. The movie did spawn a sequel as well as a couple of animated kiddie shows centered around Slimer, the ghost that, ummm, slimes Venkman in the original. Fans of the movie will be gratified to note that the long-rumored much-delayed third movie is finally greenlit and will be filming this fall for a Christmas 2012 release.

4. TOPPER (1937)

 

Made during the height of the screwball comedy era, this is the movie where Cary Grant perfected his screen persona of the debonair and charming rake. George and Marion Kerby, a pair of gadabouts, played by Grant and Constance Bennett, live the good life during the Depression but its cut short when they die in a car accident in their beloved speedster. The car is ultimately purchased by Cosmo Topper, played by Roland Young, who also has an accident but survives; however, the result is that he can see the Kerbys and they take it as their life’s ambition….um, make that afterlife’s ambition…to turn around the stuffy Topper’s prim and proper life and teach him the meaning of fun. The point was that life was too short not to live it to the fullest, a point that may have been lost on Depression-era audiences who were struggling just to keep their families fed. Still, Topper is and remains an iconic movie of the era, one that would inspire not only several sequels of its own (although none with Grant, who had become too big a star by that time) but also a TV series in the 50s, a TV movie and now, a remake starring Steve Martin that is reportedly going to begin filming soon.

3. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)

This not only has the distinction of being one of the greatest “I See Dead People” movies of all time, it is also one of the greatest baseball movies of all time as well. Kevin Costner became a baseball legend for this movie as a farmer who hears voices in his cornfield, telling him to build a baseball stadium…well, actually it says “If you build it, he will come.” He turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, who eventually brings the rest of the Black Sox, and then later other dead baseball players as well. The movie uses baseball as a metaphor for America, and addresses all sorts of issues but primarily the regaining of lost innocence. Not everyone could see the ghosts, but those that needed to did. With a cast that included Amy Madigan as Costner’s long-suffering wife, Timothy Busfield as his skeptical brother-in-law, James Earl Jones as a reclusive writer from the 1960s and the great Burt Lancaster as a doctor and ex-ballplayer, the movie touches a chord in every heart, American or not, who sees it. Certainly I still get misty every time I put it on. The cornfield ballpark that the production crew built in Iowa still stands as a tourist attraction, although it was listed as for sale as of July 2010.

2. THE FRIGHTENERS (1996)

A pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson directed this cult favorite. It served as something of a bridge between his early horror films, with the black humor of movies like Bad Taste and the visionary effects sense of the LOTR trilogy. Michael J. Fox starred as Frank Bannister, a charlatan who offered to rid people of ghosts haunting their homes by using fake Ghostbuster-esque science. The kicker was that he really was psychic and could see ghosts, thanks to a near-fatal car accident (near-death experiences are a favorite way for Hollywood to explain why living characters can see and interact with the dead). He used a trio of ghostly accomplices to scare clients into believing they were being haunted. Yes, it was a bit of a scam, but one case would lead Frank to take on a malevolent ghost bent on killing the living. Jeffrey Combs had a memorable turn as a deeply disturbed FBI agent who was on Frank’s trail, and Chi McBride, John Astin and Jim Fyfe played Frank’s ectoplasmic sidekicks. The movie has a bit of a quirky side to it, but the combination of Fox’s likability, the terrific-for-their-time special effects and the mythology of the film’s reality make this a favorite that I like to revisit whenever it plays on cable, which it does frequently.

1. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

The movie that gave this Top Five it’s title and with one of the best twist endings ever is director M. Night Shyamalan’s magnum opus, a movie whose success he hasn’t been able to match either artistically or commercially since. Young Haley Joel Osment plays a disturbed boy who is able to see the dead; Bruce Willis plays a child psychiatrist whose life was destroyed by a patient of his (played in a brief but memorable turn by Donnie Wahlberg) who is trying to help young Cole (Osment’s character). Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom in a role that helped establish her as an important actress. The film served as a career resurrection for Willis, whose Die Hard-style action movies were falling out of vogue. It also established Willis as a more mature actor whose performances can be surprisingly nuanced given the right director. Some of the imagery is pretty terrifying, but the movie turns some pretty interesting corners before the final jaw-dropping scene which had audiences worldwide blindsided. Many believe it to be one of the best movies of the 90s and in many ways, it is as iconic to that decade as Ghostbusters was to the 80s.

New Releases for the Week of April 16, 2010


April 16, 2010

A little girl with a BIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG gun!!!!

KICK-ASS

(Lionsgate) Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong, Lyndsy Fonseca, Elizabeth McGovern, Craig Ferguson. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

A young suburban high school student and comic book geek decides that he, too, can be a superhero. The lack of super powers is no deterrent; he just wants to do good, fight crime and maybe get some respect. However, when he becomes famous and inspires others to take up cowl and cape, he finds himself drawn into a war between a local Mafioso and a real-life crime-fighting duo. This is not your standard superhero movie!

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use – some involving children)

Death at a Funeral

(Screen Gems) Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover. An African-American family is just trying to lay their patriarch to rest. However, nothing goes according to plan in this remake of a 2007 British comedy with a misplaced corpse, a case of a hallucinogenic mistaken for a tranquilizer, a little person with a taste for blackmail, a cranky old uncle and a libidinous son all conspiring to make this a funeral to remember.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, drug content and some sexual humor)

The Jonses

(Roadside Attractions) David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard, Glenne Headly. They appear to be the perfect family, living in a nice home in a gated community with possessions that are all the envy of their neighbors. But the truth is that they’re not a family at all; they’re all employees of a marketing firm whose aim is to get people to want what they’ve got.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, some sexual content, teen drinking and drug use)

The Perfect Game

(Slowhand Releasing) Clifton Collins Jr., Louis Gossett Jr., Cheech Marin, Emilie de Ravin. The true story of the first non-American team to win the Little League World Series, a team from Monterrey, Mexico that battle poverty and prejudice to eventually triumph.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements)

The Runaways

(Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton. The Runaways took the music world by storm back in the late 1970s with their fusion of punk and hard rock, all with a taste of girl power attitude. There had never been an all-girl band like this before – or since. While their career was brief, it influenced rock and roll to this day, and while internal pressures tore them part, their union with impresario Kim Fowley made them legends. This is their story.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language, drug use and sexual content – all involving teens)