Review of “Office Christmas Party”

I don’t know about you but where I work used to throw a very nice Christmas party. We would dress up, go to an off-site location, like a restaurant that closed for us or a ballroom, have a great spread of food, open bar, karaoke and prizes for employee of the year and gift cards for the staff would be passed out. It was quite a shindig that would be talked about for days after. Now things are a bit more laid back. We gather in a conference room at work, have a potluck lunch and play a few games for gift cards. There’s no bar, no catering and, much to my chagrin, no karaoke. I’m not complaining as we probably get far more of a holiday treat than most. Still, I miss the parties that sometimes got a little wild and how we would talk about “that” co-worker that passed out in his chair or puked on the dancefloor from too much holiday cheer. No matter how excessive our get-togethers became, they look like a Boy Scout Jamboree compared to the events in “Office Christmas Party.” While I think I would feel wholly out of place and very uncomfortable at such a massive drink-and-drug-fueled bacchanalia I did enjoy watching it in movie form.

The Chicago office of tech/server company Zenotech is managed by Clay (TJ Miller), son of the late company founder. His sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is the interim CEO which may be made permanent at the next board meeting. Clay and Carol have a strained relationship as he was coddled and protected by his father, allowing him to skate through school and life, while she worked hard and made herself into a smart and shrewd business executive. Chief Technical Officer for the Chicago office is Josh (Jason Bateman) who has just finalized his divorce. His immediate underling Tracey (Olivia Munn) thinks Josh plays it too safe and she has been working on a new method for wireless internet access that could revolutionize connectivity. Josh thinks the plan is far from ready. Carol storms into the office and calls a department head meeting where she announces layoffs of 40% of the staff, no bonuses and cancels the Christmas party. Clay and Josh tell her they are about to pitch a big server contract to Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) who handles tech purchases for a giant company. If they can land the contract Carol, who is leaving that night for London, agrees there won’t be any layoffs and bonuses will be paid. Clay, Josh and Tracey meet with Davis but he fears Zenotech is more concerned about the bottom line than its employees, citing the recent closing of another branch. Clay ensures Davis Zenotech is more like a family than a company and invites him to the office Christmas party despite it being cancelled by Carol. He agrees to come giving Clay, Josh and Tracey only five hours to throw together a massive blowout from scratch.

“Office Christmas Party” is a pretty typical R-rated raunchy comedy. There is some nudity, some drug use, some hidden attraction between a couple of characters that slowly is exposed, a quirky member of the staff that goes from being hated to being loved, family rifts are mended, etc. Looking at what makes up the story, the film is a convoluted and overstuffed mess. Judging it by how much I laughed, it’s a holiday miracle.

“Office Christmas Party” is filled with lots of funny people: TJ Miller, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Karan Soni, Matt Walsh and more. Some of these folks, namely Miller, were allowed to improvise on set extensively. A surprisingly high percentage of what stayed in the film works. It’s one of those rare comedies where the actors were allowed to just play and see what happens and it actually came out funny. There are a lot of laughs in “Office Christmas Party.” Many of them are cheap visual gags and tasteless sexual humor but funny is funny so who cares.

A surprising comedic performance is turned by Courtney B. Vance. Better known for his dramatic roles in a couple of the “Law & Order” series and most recently in “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” for which he won an Emmy outstanding lead actor in a drama limited series, Vance starts out serious and straight-laced; but an encounter with a face full of cocaine accidently put through a snow blower releases the party animal within the character. It is a wildly different role for Vance and he performs it with abandon and glee. You actually feel his character is relieved to let loose and have fun for once. Granted, it ends somewhat badly for that character but still, Vance’s performance is so energetic it almost makes his injuries worth it.

Kate McKinnon also turns in another brilliant supporting performance as Mary, the head of human resources. Constantly reminding people about the risks they run for enjoying themselves too much at the party (including telling them they need to have any party sex off the work property and in the parking lot next door), McKinnon plays Mary like a volcano about to erupt. She wants to do the things she warns others not to but lacks the confidence and fears what her co-workers would think of her. She shouldn’t worry since none of them like her for her constant reminders about following proper office protocols and the dress code. McKinnon might be getting pigeonholed as the eccentric supporting player but she tears into this one with enormous gusto and fearlessness. I’m sure we’ll discover she is a brilliant dramatic actress one day but I do enjoy her performance here as the odd duck that finally finds her place.

The story of “Office Christmas Party” is overly complicated and takes a few odd turns while still being rather predictable. I won’t get too specific about the details but it seems to not be sure exactly how to get to the inevitable happy ending so it keeps throwing in complications for the main characters while juxtaposing it with the increasing insanity of the party. The ever increasing alcohol abuse, drug use and office casual sex reaches such an overload it isn’t realistically sustainable. I know it’s a movie and there wasn’t any actual substance abuse and rampant unsafe sex but there comes a point where its onscreen depiction exceeds the audiences’ ability to accept or believe it. The same can be said for the complications piled on complications that show up for our heroes. The speed with which they are solved also makes the weak and overloaded story that much more threadbare.

“Office Christmas Party” is rated R for drug use, crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language throughout. Pot and cocaine are shown being freely used in the latter half of the movie. Alcohol overindulgence is also a major part of the story. There are several brief views of topless women, a very brief view of male genitalia and an equally brief view of a couple having sex on a desk as well as many bare backsides of both sexes. Foul language is common throughout.

It may not become a family holiday tradition to watch the DVD of “Office Christmas Party,” but it is a fun way to kill a couple of hours if you want to take a break from holiday shopping in your local multiplex. The laughs are as free flowing as the alcohol at the party of the title. It isn’t for the easily offended and those that can’t take a joke at the expense of the holiday. If you have your big boy Santa hat on, this might be just the relief from the holiday hassle you are looking for.

“Office Christmas Party” gets five stars.

This week we get a visit from death, love and time plus we return to a galaxy far, far away. I’ll see and review at least one of the following and who am I kidding as we all know what I’m going to see:

Collateral Beauty—

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Central Intelligence”

Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart) was the king of his high school: Lettering in various sports, always the lead in school plays, homecoming king and voted Most Likely to Succeed. He even had a cool nickname: The Golden Jet. On the other side of the popularity scale was Robbie Weirdicht (Dwayne Johnson). Overweight, with no friends and the target of bullies like Trevor (Jason Bateman) and his gang, Robbie’s only claim to fame was being thrown naked into the gym during the year end assembly in front of the entire student body. The only person nice to him that day was Calvin who gave Robbie his letterman jacket to cover up. Twenty years later, Calvin is married to his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet). Calvin is an accountant and feels like his life since high school has been a waste so he doesn’t want to go with Maggie to their 20 year high school reunion. Calvin receives a Facebook friend request from someone named Bob Stone who turns out to be Robbie Weirdicht. He wants to meet with Calvin for a few beers and talk over old times. Calvin is shocked to see Robbie is muscular and strong as an ox. He is also surprised to see his formerly fat and timid school mate take down four bullies who want to start some trouble at the bar. After they leave the bar, Bob asks Calvin to go online and look over some payroll issues he’s having from his previous job. Calvin notices it isn’t payroll information but what looks like an auction of some sort. Suddenly several security warnings pop up and Bob “accidently” spill a beer on Calvin’s laptop, shorting it out. The next day, CIA agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan) shows up and informs Calvin that Bob is a mentally unstable former agent that killed his partner Phil (Aaron Paul) and stole codes for all of America’s spy satellites. The auction site Calvin went to, and informed the CIA of his location, is where Bob is selling the codes to the highest bidder which will blind US intelligence of terrorist activities. Bob shows up at Calvin’s office and explains a terrorist named the Black Badger is responsible for killing his partner and stealing the codes and Bob needs Calvin’s help to clear his name and keep the codes out of dangerous hands. Calvin wants nothing to do with Bob or the CIA but circumstances on both sides work against him.

I didn’t have much hope that “Central Intelligence” would be funny or entertaining. It seems like Kevin Hart has played this “fish out of water” role in several of his movies. Dwayne Johnson is the latest king of big, dumb action movies. Putting them together in familiar roles may make great marketing sense didn’t exactly scream “quality entertainment ahead.” Fortunately, I was wrong as “Central Intelligence,” while not a smart comedic action film, does manage to find enough humor in the chemistry between its lead actors to overcome some dead spots and a plot that telegraphs many of its moves well in advance.

If you are hoping to be surprised by the events of “Central Intelligence” you are going to be disappointed. A key plot twist is telegraphed well in advance simply because of who is cast in a particular role. The story follows a conventional line that finds our heroes reluctantly thrown together, working toward a common goal, pulled apart by mistrust then reunited in triumph. Anyone considering that to be spoilers must have been in a cave and not watched a movie in the last 50 years. Practically every buddy comedy (not to mention romantic comedy and other films) has followed a very similar path. I can’t blame director and writer Rawson Marshall Thurber and writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen for keeping things simple. They aren’t trying to recreate the art form; they are trying to crank out a basic Hollywood action comedy. Since they have two of the biggest moneymakers in each of those genres working together it makes sense to do what’s worked in the past.

The other aspects of the story like Calvin not wanting to go to the class reunion, his feeling like a failure and his mildly troubled marriage tend to bog down the parts of the movie we are actually interested in, specifically the spy stuff. I’m not sure why film makers feel the need to humanize everyone in stories like these with the more mundane aspects of life and family. If we wanted to watch a family drama we’d tune in Lifetime or OWN on cable. Keep the focus on the action and adventure and leave the emotions to the soap operas.

Half the script seems to have been improvised on set by Kevin Hart. Several of his scenes, mostly involving him trying to talk his way out of the mess he finds himself, are just Hart firing off various lists or giving reasons things are not as they seem. Hart is gifted with a motor mouth and a quick wit so some of these scenes actually work. Sadly, others feel like they drag on far too long and aren’t that funny. These are the dead spots that threaten to derail the film. Fortunately these scenes are brief and are quickly replaced by far more interesting material.

Many of the bigger laughs come from the very physical nature of Dwayne Johnson. His character is for part of the film a walking joke. He wears a unicorn t-shirt and a fanny pack, both of which he is very proud. This is juxtaposed with Johnson’s strength and size in the fight scene early in the film where Bob takes on four tough guys at the bar. Johnson towers over Hart and that size difference is played up frequently, such as when Johnson is cradling Hart like a baby. The film probably depends too much on the physical difference between its two stars but that dichotomy frequently works.

“Central Intelligence” is rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language. There are some mildly crude jokes scattered through the film but none are particularly memorable. We see the bare backside of the body double playing the fat version of Dwayne Johnson’s character (Johnson’s face is digitally stitched on to the other body). There are numerous gunfights and fist fights throughout the film. One scene shows Johnson’s broken finger after he is tortured for information by the CIA. There is very little blood and only a small amount of gore at the very end of the film. Foul language is relatively mild but frequent.

When I go to a comedy that, based on the trailer, should be funny, I often enter the theatre primed to laugh and expecting a good time. Preparing to watch “Central Intelligence” I told myself to tamp the feeling down and accept the film for what it is, not what I expect it to be. I was surprised to find it was what I expected it to be: Not the most original action comedy in the world but with enough humor and stunts to keep the experience from becoming a bore. That’s really all I could ask for.

“Central Intelligence” gets four stars out of five.

This week there are four new films including a sequel long expected and finally here. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Free State of Jones—

Independence Day: Resurgence—

The Neon Demon—

The Shallows—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Reviews of “The Other Side of the Door” and “Zootopia”

(Edit:  The audio for my review was messed up so I have deleted it and I do not plan on rerecording.  Sorry for the inconvenience.)

The Other Side of the Door

Michael (Jeremy Sisto) is an antiques dealer based in Mumbai, India. He lives there with his wife Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and their two children Lucy and Oliver (Sofia Rosinsky and Logan Creran). A traffic accident leaves Oliver dead and Maria devastated to the point where she attempts suicide. Their housekeeper Piki (Schitra Pillai-Malik) lost her daughter some years earlier and tells Maria of a way to say a final goodbye to Oliver. There is an abandoned temple far into the country where Maria must spread Oliver’s ashes on the steps then close and lock the door behind her. She will be able to briefly speak with Oliver once the sun goes down but must not, under any circumstances, open the door. Wanting more time with her son, Maria opens the door and allows Oliver’s spirit to cross over from the land of the dead to the living. It accompanies Maria home where strange and disturbing things begin happening.

“The Other Side of the Door” has the elements to be a fair to middling horror movie. It does a pretty good job of establishing a spooky atmosphere, troubled and troubling characters and consequences for not following the rules. What it fails at is capitalizing on the good points with quality scares and involving all the major characters in the meatier parts of the story.

Poor Jeremy Sisto’s character is pretty much done with the story once he impregnates Maria. Left out of or in the dark for the majority of the story, Sisto is only seen occasionally throughout the film as either a hard working or deeply concerned husband and father. Once the supernatural elements begin to develop his Michael is nowhere to be found. When he is brought in near the end of the film, his role is as the doubter that only gets pain and injury for his trouble. Leaving Michael out till the end is like if the “X-Files” kept Mulder and Scully apart until the last five minutes of the episode. Michael could have started skeptical then, as he saw more weirdness, became more of a believer and actually could have helped in the movie’s somewhat messy finale; however, for some reason he is considered as nothing more than an afterthought.

Sarah Wayne Callies is tasked with doing most of the heavy lifting in the movie. She is saddled with the more emotional role and is also the reason all the bad things happen. While Callies may be the best thing about the movie, there is still a kind of vacancy to her performance. Her reactions to weird happenings around her home feel a bit inappropriate at times. A book falls from a shelf and a chair moves near the edge of the dead boy’s bed, encouraging Maria to sit down and read the ghost a story which she happily does. Maybe the character is in shock and is just happy to have something of her child back in her life; however, if it was me I would have run screaming out of the room. There are other odd reactions to the presence of her dead child’s spirit throughout the film.

There has recently been a great deal of talk about diversity in Hollywood and I thought a film set and shot in India would probably be a showcase for Indian actors. I was wrong. Apart from Suchitra Pillai-Malik playing a housekeeper and a few scattered brief speaking roles, there are no Indians performing in any major parts. While the city of Mumbai and the Indian countryside are briefly displayed, the focus is squarely on the white characters. A few local actors play the parts of a cannibalistic tribe that follows Maria around after she visits the temple but their sole purpose is to act as boogeymen and provide the occasional mild scare.

“The Other Side of the Door” is filled with tense set ups and mild scares. It never manages to pull off a really frightening moment. Seeing the spirit of Oliver manifest itself as a rotting corpse, while explained later in the film, doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The budget for the film appears to have been fairly low as there isn’t much in the way of special effects. A walking/crawling death demon appears to have had its appearance borrowed from “The Grudge.” If your expectations are low or you are easily frightened, “The Other Side of the Door” may be precisely what you’re looking for, otherwise stay away.

“The Other Side of the Door” is rated R for some bloody violence. The movie doesn’t deserve an R rating because that violence comes very late in the film and isn’t that graphic or gory. PG-13 probably would have been more accurate. We do see Oliver as a rotting corpse on a couple of occasions. We also see dead birds on the ground that quickly rots before our eyes. Foul language isn’t an issue.

While starting out with an interesting premise and spooky environment, “The Other Side of the Door” squanders what it’s given and presents the viewer with just another mediocre mildly tense horror flick.

“The Other Side of the Door” gets two stars out of five.

Zootopia

Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) never let her small size get in the way of her big dreams. Growing up on a carrot farm, Judy always dreamed of being a police officer in the gleaming metropolis of Zootopia where animals of all types, from the biggest predator to the smallest prey, lived together in harmony. Judy attended the police academy and figured out ways to use her small size to her advantage graduating at the top of her class. Zootopia mayor Leodore Lionheart’s (voiced by J.K. Simmons) new inclusion initiative means Judy will be the first bunny on the police force. Her boss Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), a massive water buffalo, is unimpressed and assigns Judy to traffic detail writing tickets for parking violations. Soon Judy hears of 14 missing person cases all involving predators. A photograph connects one of the missing to a red fox named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) who considers himself a great con man. Confronted by Judy and threatening to use his own words against him to send him to jail, Nick reluctantly agrees to help Judy track down one of the missing predators. Judy and Nick soon discover there is a dark side to these disappearances that may tear all of Zootopia apart.

“Zootopia” is a simplistic film that manages to hide a deeply subversive message under its bright and colorful surface. It’s the kind of message that might upset some commentators in this contentious election year and could start arguments on talk shows. The subversive message I speak of? Don’t discriminate based on your fears and assumptions about those different from you. Shocking, I know.

“Zootopia” spends a great deal of time setting up its alternate universe where animals evolved (I know, another contentious word during an election cycle) beyond their base nature of being either predator or prey and began working together to establish a society that led to the city of the title. It is a fully realized world with high-speed elevated trains and various environments reflecting the homes of each type of animal. Rainforest, desert, savannah, tundra, and tiny rodent town are all explored and designed in a way that makes sense given the different needs of all the various sized animals. Visually, “Zootopia” is stunning with buildings one might expect to see in Dubai. While bright, the color palate of the film manages to avoid becoming a jangled mess and creates a world that is wild and imaginative yet still pleasant to look at.

The story of “Zootopia” takes a bit of time to develop and that’s great as it gives us more of an opportunity to get to know the characters, primarily Judy and Nick. There is a surprising bit of chemistry between the two even when they are at odds initially. The unbridled enthusiasm of Judy and the cynicism of Nick work to create a kind of combustible emotional mixture that at times explode into either humor or drama. Both Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are terrific in their voice parts. There is playfulness to both characters that the combination of the voices and the visuals really brings out.

I don’t want to ruin the film for you so I will keep specifics of the plot to myself; however, it is a rather sophisticated plan that takes a good deal of the movie’s 108 minute run time to unfold. As more details are revealed it makes the audience more and more curious about what exactly is going on. Any guesses before a certain point in the film will undoubtedly be wrong but feel free to join with your child and try to figure out the specifics. It is this plan that gets wrapped up in the ultimate message of looking past stereotypes and avoiding uneducated judgements. While parents will feel a bit beaten around the head and neck with the lesson the film tries to teach, the rest of the movie’s humor and action should soften the assault.

“Zootopia” is rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action. There are some chase scenes and a couple of threats of violence that may disturb the very youngest viewers. There are also a few jokes about how well rabbits multiply. The theme of discrimination and mob mentality might cause some discussion after the film. There are no language concerns.

“Zootopia” is the kind of film children and parents will both find enjoyable. From the goofy humor, the action and the bright colors to the message, this children’s film is one that is fully packed for audiences of all ages. Perhaps it should even be mandatory viewing for presidential candidates. They might learn something whether they like it or not.

“Zootopia” gets five stars.

Four new films hit screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these:

10 Cloverfield Lane—

The Brothers Grimsby—

The Perfect Match—

The Young Messiah—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.