Fantastic Fungi


Paul Stamets makes some new friends.

(2019) Documentary (Diamond DocsPaul Stamets, Brie Larson (narrator), Michael Pollan, John Stamets, Charles Grob, Art Goodtimes, Lori Carris, Jay Harman, Andrew Weil, Peter McCoy, Steve Sheppard, Suzanne Simard, Patricia Stamets, Eugenia Bone, Roland Griffiths, Tradd Cotter, Tony D. Head, Brandon Hopkins, Judith Goedeke, Mary P. Cosimano. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg

 

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the fungus among us; if anything, when we see molds and mushrooms growing, we react with revulsion (for the most part). These things accompany decay and death, and remind us of our own mortality. One day, we too shall rot.

But the various types of fungi are part of a vast world we know little about. This documentary, directed by Schwartzberg who happens to be one of the best at utilizing time-lapse photography in the business, aims to educate us about these things which are somewhere between animal and vegetable

Paul Stamets is our main guide and he has the enthusiasm of an obsessive hobbyist. Self-taught about the marvels of mycology (the study of mushrooms and their ilk), he has become one of the foremost experts on the subject, holding half a dozen related patents and recently giving a TED talk on “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” And no, that isn’t a facetious title.

We find out about mycelium, a thread-like growth that connects trees to one another, allowing them to share nutrients and even identify other trees grown from their own acorns. Mycelium have a similar architecture to the Internet as well as our own neural net; vast networks of them exist in the old growth forests. The largest and oldest living thing in the world is a patch of mycelium living on an Oregon mountaintop.

However, fungi have a usefulness that have real world applications. Penicillin is derived from a mold that is related to mushrooms and has saved thousands upon thousands of lives since its discovery; a variation of that mold is responsible for Gorgonzola cheese. There are studies that show that a variety of mushrooms may allow neural connections that have been destroyed to grow back again, which may end up being a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Mycelium and other molds and fungi also take carbon out of the air and store it underground, which helps with the climate change fight.

There are also, of course, the magic mushrooms, those that alter consciousness. While Stamets expounds on the so-called “Stoned Ape” theory in which homo erectus, consuming psychedelic mushrooms, which in turn makes neural connections that allow us to develop speech and intelligence (a bit of a stretch), there is no doubting the real-world benefits of psilocybin as organic pain reducers for those with terminal diseases. Stamets also credits the use of magic mushrooms with curing his childhood stutter.

Stamets makes for an engaging subject and the visuals are beautiful (and occasionally terrifying). The film is crammed with information, so much so that you’ll probably need repeated viewings to take it all in; fortunately, the film isn’t too long and the visuals make it more palatable. There is some voiceover narration by Oscar winner Larson taking the point of view of the fungi which I found unnecessary, interrupting the flow of information with flights of fancy.

Nonetheless this is one of those documentaries that has a lot to offer and for those who are inquisitive about the world around them, doubly so. I found it to be fascinating both visually and in terms of the information that’s delivered. While those frightened of decay and rot may shy away, there is a bit of comfort in it as Stamets explains; our DNA becomes part of the world, nourishing it and helping heal it. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind for anyone.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative. Some wonderful time-lapse sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Larson’s voice-over narration is unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of death and corruption.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

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Mister America


Sometimes you drain the swamp and sometimes the swamp drains you.

(2019) Comedy (Magnolia) Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, Terri Parks, Curtis Webster, Don Pecchia, Manuel Giusti, Ndidi Amadi, Sarah Sherman, Corey Landis, Joe Estevez, Michael Diliberto, James Mane Jr., Melinda McColgan, Jesse Popp, Mark Proksch, Alessandro Serradimigni, Inger Tudor, Gabriel Patay, Dan Anderson, Eric Notarnicola, Ayaka Ohwaki.  Directed by Eric Notarnicola

 

Tim Heidecker is a very acquired taste. One of the minds behind such cult comedy shows as Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show: Good Job! and On Cinema at the Cinema, this mockumentary grew out of a plotline in the latter show. Heidecker, playing a none-too-idealized version of himself, was a movie reviewer who knew nothing about movies alongside Turkington, playing a film geek version of himself.

Heidecker, a schemer with anger issues, organized an EDM festival in San Bernardino, distributed vape pens at the festival with tragic results. Indicted for mass murder, he gets off on a hung jury – all documented in The Trial mini-series. This movie proceeds from there, after Tim in a rage-filled rant on the final episode of the series, threatened to run for District Attorney of San Bernardino county.

This is the results of that rant, a mockumentary following Heidecker’s campaign. Heidecker schemes with his hapless campaign manager Toni Newman (Parks) – who also happens to be the one juror who refused to convict him of mass murder. We also get commentary from the Judge (Webster) who retired after the debacle that was this trial and occasionally, we see appearances from the incumbent (Pecchia) who is more concerned with his Democratic challenger (Giusti) than on Heidecker, much to Tim’s frustration. We also get man-on-the-street interviews with bewildered residents of San Bernardino.

If you’ve seen any of Heidecker’s web series, or his other movie (Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) you probably have a good idea of whether the sense of humor is going to appeal to you or not. If you’re new to Heidecker, this is as good a spot to start as any; you can pretty much follow along with the story even if you haven’t seen any of the work that preceded it.

This is definitely aimed at young Millennials, particularly of the male persuasion. Heidecker is thoroughly unpleasant and not too smart; Turkington is shifty and obsessive, the kind of movie buff who gives movie buffs a bad name. Heidecker is channeling Trump in a lot of subtle ways, minus the rabid fanbase. I get the sense, however, that he is out to satirize the system and not specific politicians.

The action is fairly slow moving and some impatience sorts might get squirmy by the middle of the film. There are some wonderful bits in here, although the humor is so desert-dry that you might miss them. This takes deadpan to a whole new level.

I will never criticize anyone for having a different sense of humor than I have; everybody’s sense of humor is a highly personal thing and the things I find funny you might not and vice versa. That’s all good; this is really not my own personal sense of humor and I sense that it will appeal to only a narrow band of viewers. I will say that this is pretty typical of what I’ve seen of Heidecker; if you love Between Two Ferns and Adult Swim, you probably will enjoy this a bit more than I did.

REASONS TO SEE: Bone-dry political satire.
REASONS TO AVOID: A slow-moving acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trial scenes were partially re-filmed after Heidecker had filmed them for his The Trial mini-series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bob Roberts
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Fantastic Fungi

Wrinkles the Clown


This is why clowns terrify people.

(2019) Documentary (Magnet) D.B. Lambert, Wrinkles the Clown, Tyler Beck, Colby Gatlin, Sean Whittaker, Edie Love Anderson, Matt Wideman, Miguel Rey, Benjamin Bradford, Nikki Conklin, Bri Jones, Christopher Barcia, Trevor J. Blank, Linsey Kelsey, Andrew Caldwell, Colby Brock, Logan Williams, Peter Barcia, Antonio Harriss, Cheryl Sellars. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols

In a year that has brought us Pennywise and Arthur Fleck, the scariest clown of all might just be Wrinkles. You may have seen him in the several viral videos he appears in; slowly emerging from a drawer underneath a sleeping child’s bed, standing at the side of a busy road holding a bunch of balloons, driving a shopping cart across a parking lot. He seemed to be an urban legend in the making.

Then stickers began to appear all around Naples in Southwest Florida, advertising Wrinkles the Clown with a phone number for parents to call if they wanted to hire him to scare their kids. More than a million voice mail messages were left; some were parents taking him up on the offer, others were curious kids, still others were death threats. Suddenly the mainstream media was looking into this phenomenon and documentary filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols decides to investigate and he finds an old retired ex-party clown who finds it increasingly difficult to make it in his chosen profession. Now living out of his van, he decides that perhaps the profit lies in scaring kids rather than entertaining them and judging by the more than one million voicemail messages he received, he’s absolutely right.

But this seems pretty straightforward and even if our suspicions are immediately raised by a man whose face is never shown but appears to have a flowing white beard, we begin to realize (or perhaps not since the story we’re getting feeds right into our expectations) that not everything we’re being told is, strictly speaking, reality.

This documentary is ostensibly about a cultural phenomenon but to be honest, it is really more about our culture, how myths are made and how badly we want to believe them. It’s also about modern parenting, or lack thereof. Talking head interviews from folklorists, child psychologists and law enforcement give us different outlooks on the Wrinkles phenomenon but as we eventually find out, Wrinkles is more of a pawn than a provocateur.

There are a lot of interviews with children, some of whom could do with a visit from a homicidal clown (just kidding). Others seem to be more dialed in to things than we give kids their age credit for. One thing is for certain; one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to raising children; every kid is different and requires different techniques. We tend to forget that in an age where we look for quick fixes, and express ourselves in tweets and memes. As a society it feels like we have no attention span whatsoever anymore and while that isn’t necessarily a point that the movie makes, it certainly can be deduced from what the movie presents.

In some ways I’m reminded me of the Catfish movie which set up expectations in one direction but turned out to go in an entirely different one when you finally sat down and watched it. In some ways I admire Nichols for having the huevos to shift gears but at least as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out as to whether it worked for me or not. I’m still kind of ruminating on this one.

Sometimes a movie appears to be going in one direction and then it zings dramatically in another. For the most part, those of us who see a lot of movies appreciate that as a change of pace but not everybody will feel that way; when this movie shifts gears, it comes out of left field and even though when you look back and consider it, you come to an understanding that it was headed that way all along. This is the rare documentary that bears repeated viewings.

REASONS TO SEE: Just might be a reflection of how disturbed we are as a society. Exceedingly disturbing in places and yet from a certain point of view, hilarious.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the Skype interviews are distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and a plethora of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made it’s debut at Fantastic Fest in Austin last month.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google PlayMicrosoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killer Klowns from Outer Space
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Eco-Terrorist: The Battle for Our Planet

Wallflower


Reflection of a mass murderer.

(2017) True Life Drama (Passion RiverDavid Call, Atsuko Okatsuka, Conner Marx, Hannah Horton, Cequoia Johnson, Hassan Cristos Messiah, Molly Tollefson, Hope Shanthi, Jose Abaoag, Stewie Valencia, Sheila Houlihan, Joe Cummings, Kyle Jewell, Rosario Rieger, Nathan Christopher Haase, Geoff Garza, Reza Leal-Smartt, Rachelle Henry. Directed by Jagger Gravning

 

Sometimes, when a mass murder is committed, there’s a reason, an explanation that those left behind can at least understand. Other times, however, the act is senseless and we are left to wonder why the killer did what he did.

The movie is based on the 2006 Capitol Hill Massacre in Seattle. A loner, a disturbed young man identified only as Murderer (Call) in the credits, attends a rave at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. He seems aloof and quiet, but he meets Link (Marx), a happy-go-lucky prankster who invites him to an after-party at a local home owned by aspiring comic book artist Strobe Rainbow (Okatsuka) – the victims are mainly identified by their rave names.

The movie tends to move around in time quite a bit. Therefore, the murders actually occur about 15 minutes in (incongruously set to the strains of the Archies bubblegum pop hit “Sugar Sugar,” one of the most upbeat songs ever) and the rest of the film (except for the final scene) is mainly told in a series of flashbacks as the murderer hovers on the edge of conversations, a figure of judgmental indignation who grows creepier as the night progresses. He’s the kind of guy who sees life as a party that he hasn’t been invited to and as a result despises those who seem happy and part of the community

By all accounts the Seattle rave community was known for its inclusive nature and while recreational drug use was a heavy part of the scene, they also look out for one another and make sure everyone is okay.

Most of the characters other than those of Link and Strobe, are mainly undeveloped. Even the murderer is essentially labeled as an angry white guy which  seems to me to be a gross over-simplification; while I applaud the director’s refusal to give the murderer a name or even a motive (to this day, nobody is sure why he erupted the way he did) it doesn’t serve the movie well to boil him down to an archetype.

Most of the conversations we overhear (through the murderer’s ears) are inane and even downright immature. The main question that bothered me while I was watching was why did this movie have to be made? To illustrate the innocence of the victims? Since they are never named, it makes me wonder if the project was done without the cooperation of the survivors and the families of the victims.

That doesn’t mean that Gravning doesn’t have some moments. There’s one sequence set at the rave where he changes the music on the soundtrack to classical music. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition and is a welcome relief from the occasionally monotonous EDM music that dominates the soundtrack. There’s also a conversation between Strobe and Link near the end of the film that has some depth that is staged in an interesting way with Strobe at the bottom of a staircase leading to the basement and Link, smiling and good-natured, leaning over the railing. Some of the shots show a nimbus of the rising sun around his head, presaging what was about to happen to him (although we saw his fate early on).

Most of the film is dimly lit by necessity but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The performances are solid even if the characters are mostly forgettable, although Marx and Okatsuka were both impressive and Call makes a game effort to make something of a thankless role. I’m still not 100% sure that I understand what the director had in mind, but this is nonetheless a reasonably interesting take on an act of violence that has become, tragically, so common that this particular act has been forgotten outside of Seattle.

REASONS TO SEE: Gravning makes a few interesting choices that really work nicely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching a party is never as much fun as being at one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of drug use and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wrinkles the Clown

Jim Allison: Breakthrough


They call him surf cowboy…

(2019) Documentary (DadaJim Allison, Woody Harrelson (narrator), Willie Nelson, Sharon Belvin, Malinda Allison, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, Andrew Pollack, Eric Benson, Murphy Allison, G. Barrie Kitto, Lewis Lanier, Tyler Jacks, Jeffrey Bluestone, Max Krummel, Alan Korman, Nils Lonberg, Dr. Elliott Sigal, Rachel Humphrey, Padmee Sharma. Directed by Bill Haney

 

Occasionally, you see a documentary that resonates with you because of the place and time that you’re in. It’s the cinematic version of all the planets aligning to smite the viewer with something so personal, so relevant to the viewer that one can’t help but be sucked in.

Jim Allison is a Texas iconoclast with a scruffy beard, a wild mane of hair and a collection of Hawaiian shirts that would shame Magnum, P.I. He plays blues harmonica with such luminaries as Willie Nelson but that’s more of a hobby. You see, when Jim Allison isn’t busy blowing his harp or fighting the powers that be in Texas education regarding the teaching of creationism in schools, he is developing a cure for cancer.

This particularly hits home for me since in May I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just this past Wednesday I had surgery to have it removed. This type of cancer is the same that Jim’s brother Mike was stricken with and eventually succumbed to. Jim’s mom also passed from lymphoma when Jim was just 11 years old; it was then that the seeds of beating this dread disease were planted in him.

Jim went the route of immunotherapy, using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer. The T-cell is one of the components of white blood cells that seek out cells that are causing harm in the body. Cancer cells have managed to figure out a way to turn off the receptors in T-cells which effectively renders them invisible to the body’s immune system, allowing them to flourish and grow until it’s all over but the funeral arrangements.

Jim developed a drug with the odd name of Ipilimumab which faced a daunting task to make it from the lab to the pharmacy. A tremendous amount of research would be needed before the FDA would approve the drug, the kind of money only Big Pharma can provide and to be bloody honest Big Pharma has a reputation to be more about treating cancer than curing it. However, Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the biggest of Big Pharma, led by Dr. Rachel Humphrey, decided that the research Jim had conducted was promising. The rest, as they say, is history. Jim’s dogged persistence had a great deal to do with his success, but it also cost him his marriage as his wife Malinda like most human beings didn’t have an inexhaustible well of patience.

The movie is essentially a whole lot of talking head interviews interspersed with some nifty computer graphics depicting how T-cells work and other medical matters. One of the most compelling interviews is with Sharon Belvin, at the time a 22-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with melanoma, essentially a death sentence. She was part of one of the first to participate in clinical trials for the drug and eventually became the first patient to use the drug that Allison met, one of the most emotional scenes in the film.

Much of the science went right over my head – there’s a reason I’m a film critic and not a research scientist – and some might find the scientific sequences thick. However, Jim’s “I gotta be me” personality and perseverance in the face of widespread disbelief on the part of his colleagues and often outright disrespect are some of the highlights of the film.

I’m hoping that I don’t need to use drugs like ipilimumab in the future; I’m hopeful that the cancer was caught early enough that the surgical removal of my prostate will leave me free of cancer for years to come. There are no guarantees when it comes to the Big C, however, and it’s comforting to know that there are drugs and methods out there that may extend my life many years beyond what prostate cancer patients in years past were able to survive so if I rate the documentary on the high side, I think I can be excused for that.

REASONS TO SEE: A really close look at how important research is done. Portrait of a Texas iconoclast.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the science is a bit dense.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allison shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Tasuku Honjo of Japan in 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Blood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Omaha

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements


Better to soar among the eagles than walk with the turkeys.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama/HBOJonas, Paul, Sally, Colleen, Matthew, Irene. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

 

As someone who loves movies and music, my senses of sight and hearing are particularly precious to me. As such, I tend to feel a tremendous pity for those who lack one or both of those senses. How can someone without those senses appreciate the grandeur of Laurence of Arabia attacking Aqaba or the soaring Maurice Jarrė score that accompanies it? It seems to me to be an irreplaceable loss – but there are other compensations that perhaps I failed to take into account.

Brodsky is the child of two deaf parents, Paul and Sally, who received cochlear implants while in their sixties. She and her siblings are all hearing, so they were in some ways insiders to the challenges their parents faced without perhaps understanding them fully, as those possessed of a sense can never truly understand what it is to be without it. How does one, after all, describe a world of silence to someone whose world is filled with noise?

She is also the mother of a deaf son, Jonas, who was born hearing but gradually lost his ability to hear when he was four. He was then given cochlear implants and when the documentary was filmed, was 11 years old who most of us would never realize he had any sort of hearing issue.

Music is also important to Jonas and he is taking piano lessons. He tells his piano teacher Colleen that he wants to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which his teacher tells him he doesn’t hav the skills for et. Jonas is insistent and at last Colleen relents. After all, Beethoven wrote the piece during a time when his hearing was failing him. Was that a motivating factor in Jonas’ desire to play it, or did he merely like the piece? We never find out for sure; at least, not from Jonas.

This is a very personal film for Brodsky and in many ways that makes it more difficult to review. Not because I believe she’s going to ever read this review, although I like to think she might someday, but it feels too much like I’m reviewing her family life. She is clearly devoted to er children and her parents, and although we see little interaction between the director and her husband Matthew, we see him comforting and encouraging his son and realize that he is a good man. The relationship between Jonas and his grandparents is a special one and the elder couple obviously adore their grandson even when they chide him over being sloppy when using American Sign Language.

As the film progresses, we see that Paul – one of the inventors of TTY technology which allows deaf people to use the telephone – is beginning to show signs of oncoming dementia. He is forgetful and sometimes loses focus on what he’s doing. When Brodsky lovingly but firmly tells him that she can’t allow him to drive her children any longer, it is a truly emotional moment; Paul not understanding why she’s come to this decision, Sally tearfully asking him to stop arguing. Many viewers who have undergone similar discussions with their own parents or grandparents will feel compassion.

In the background looms the ghost of Beethoven, his music providing a soundtrack. Quotes from his letters pop up throughout the film and animations depict him (but curiously always as an outline, never as a fully realized figure) linking him with a solitary bird flying within sight but definitely separate from the flock.

Jonas is, at the end of the day, a fairly typical 11-year-old boy. There are things about him that are admirable, there are other things in which he is less so. He sometimes tries to con Colleen into thinking that he’s doing better with the piece than he actually is but she’s having none of it; she holds him accountable but never in a cruel or vicious way. She simply calls him on his bull when he is espousing some. I don’t know that I would have liked my life immortalized when I was eleven; I would like to hope that I would handle it as well as Jonas does here.

Brodsky has two other children who show up incidentally and always with Jonas; the clear focus is on her eldest son. I wonder what her kids thought about that or how they handled not being the center of mommy’s attention. Still, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn your cameras on your kids when you know that the footage isn’t going to be shown just to family and a few long-suffering friends but to the entire world, or at least that part of it that subscribes to HBO (this film will be available on the premium content channel later this fall).

Like any life, there are ups and downs in the film. We get to see Jonas playing the Sonata at a recital and we get to see the difficulties that the grandparents face as old age robs Paul of memory and cognitive thought. He is just in the beginning stages here but the ordeal to come is one that many children are sadly familiar with and it’s hard not to feel compassion for Paul, Sally and their family. The road ahead won’t be easy for them.

I found that Brodsky dividing her film into movements to be kind of gimmicky and arbitrary; the first movement seems to be about beginnings, the second about the journey and the final about destinations but that’s over-simplifying. I thought the movie would have been better without it. Using Beethoven as a linking device doesn’t always work either.

But let it not be said that there are not moments here of exquisite grace; Jonas takes off the external device of his cochlear implant to practice, rendering him deaf but also removing the distractions of sound. Jonas speaks of how when the implant is off, he can just play for the sheer joy of it. When the implant is in and working, he can hear his every mistake and every one gnaws at him. He has not yet gotten to the point where he understands that imperfections are okay, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. We all would like to be flawless but none of us achieves it truly (other than my dog Penelope but that’s another story entirely). Our mistakes make us human and our humanity makes us beautiful. It’s the aspiration to be flawless that is wonderful, not the achievement of it.

REASONS TO SEE: This is probably as close as the hearing are ever going to get to understanding what it’s like to be deaf.
REASONS TO AVOID: The division of the film into movements seems arbitrary and gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brodsky’s previous documentary on her deaf parents, Hear and Now, was nominated for an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes:82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sound and Fury
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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