Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, June 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2014)

11. Not Safe for Work

Following his involvement with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you would think Joe Johnston would be the hottest he had been in decades. “Captain America” was a franchise launcher, of course, though its 370 million dollar gross seems modest compared to what these movies have raked in since. Instead of immediately going to work on another large scale blockbuster, Johnston’s next film would veer in the opposite direction. He would team with Blumhouse Production, Hollywood’s current lead purveyor of low budget genre films, to direct a small-scale thriller called “Not Safe for Work.” It would seem like a project with a quick turn around. The plan was probably this, as is usually the plan for Blumhouse’s films: Shoot a buzzy project cheaply and quickly, drop it into theaters during a not-so-busy weekend, throw in some decent promotion, and watch it make a profit in the first weekend even if it comes nowhere near the top of the box office charts.

That was the plan, one assumes. “Not Safe for Work” was set for a 2012 theatrical release originally. However, it would seem that Universal, the film’s distributor, deemed the movie not safe for theaters. The movie would sit on a shelf for two whole years before being released onto video-on-demand and straight-to-DVD in 2014. Why this happened, I’m not sure, as there’s very little information about the movie’s production. Maybe Universal was still stinging over Johnston’s “Wolfman” remake? Or maybe everyone just thought the movie was shitty. Due to its limited release, “Not Safe for Work” is among Joe Johnston’s most obscure films. Has it been rightfully discarded or is there something worthy here?

A man enters the office building of Dennings, a pharmaceutical company, and kills several executives and then himself. Turns out he was a whistleblower against the drug producers and was frustrated with the lack of action against them. He was also the primary legal witness against the company, frustrating Tom Miller, the paralegal assigned to the case. Tom isn’t popular at his office and, following an unsolicited memo about another case against a crime family, he’s fired. Returning to the office late at night to retrieve his phone, he sees a strange man entered the building. This is a hitman, who goes about murdering anyone in his way as he seeks something. Tom is trapped in the building with the killer and finds those he loves endangered.

Considering his previous attempts at horror had strictly been of the big budget variety, you can see why Johnston would want to take a wack at a lower budget genre affair. While “Not Safe for Work” sounds a bit like a slasher movie on paper, the execution leans more on the thriller side of things. The two modes are effectively combined. We have the basically unstoppable killer, relentlessly pursuing his target. While there’s quite a few deaths in the film — with the weapons ranging from a pistol and an axe to an extension cord — the focus is not on the gore. Instead, Johnston does a decent job generating some mild tension in the numerous stalking and hiding scenes. Even if he also throws in some lame jump scares.

There is a fair amount of novelty in “Not Safe for Work’s” setting. A few times over the years, horror films or thrillers have been set in office buildings. There is, admittedly, something creepy about the cubicles and sterile hallways of a nondescript building seen without the glow of the bland florescence overhead. (Though you can imagine the screenwriters thought of the title and then worked backwards from there.) The film makes decent use of its location, utilizing the file rooms and automated toilets that are commonplace in office buildings across the country.

Unfortunately, “Not Safe for Work” is not as creepy or atmospheric as it could have been. Johnston did not work with Shelly Johnson here, his usual DP. Instead, the film was shot by Jonathan Taylor, largely a second unit man for big budget action flicks who was making his cinematographer debut here. (He previously worked on “Captain America,” which is probably a coincidence.) Sadly, Taylor does not make a positive first impression. “Not Safe for Work” has a very flat presentation, looking quite a lot like a television movie. The colors are quite muted, the darkness and shadows of the office building not really popping the way they should. The camera angles are fairly basic. A cheap budget doesn’t necessarily mean a movie should be cheap looking but “Not Safe for Work” does look cheap.

“Not Safe for Work” is clearly aiming for some subversive social commentary. Quite expectedly, the crime family subplot ends up being a red herring. Instead, the killer has actually been hired by the drug company to cover up their illegal activities. The head of the law firm is totally aware of this, compliant in the crimes. Considering its office setting, taking aims at the evils of corporate America is rather obviously baked into the movie’s DNA. However, the movie treats this reveal as such a twist, one among several, that anything biting about this idea gets a bit lost.

Like most compact thrillers, “Not Safe for Work” has its slow-burn first act before the danger makes itself known. This is when the film’s cutest scenes happen. Tom, our protagonist, has an office romance with Anna, a secretary. A scene of the two flirting in the filling department, or the other small ways they tease each other throughout the day, are pretty damn cute. I also like the friendship he forms with Roger, a family man working late in the office. The scene where the killer forces Roger to say goodbye to his wife and kids over the phone is a strong one.

Starring as Tom is Max Minghella, who I remember most prominently remember as the awkward lead in “Art School Confidential.” Minghella is much more appealing here then he was in that film. He brings a slight snarkiness to the part that is likable. Moreover, Minghella strikes the viewer as an Everyman for our modern corporate age. He uses humor to diffuse the tension he feels throughout the day, his job always at risk despite working hard for it. His principals and willingness to stand up for what he thinks is right also makes him a less worth following. Minghella is also believable when playing up the characters’ resourcefulness, which comes in handy during the movie’s second half.

However, “Not Safe for Work” is largely dominated by one performance. J. J. Felid plays the nameless killer. Felid, who previously appeared as Union Jack in “Captain America,” is highly entertaining as the remorseless executioner. He goes about murdering the people in his way without sweating about it. He’s very casual while shooting a witness or preparing to strangle a man to death. Yet his personality isn’t as cold as his actions. It’s clear, from the tricks he employs in his attempt to draw the hero out, that he’s a charming and intelligent guy. Felid expertly deploys a chilly charm as this professional murderer and might be the most entertaining thing about the film.

Being a relatively small scale story, “Not Safe for Work” is largely dominated by these two performances. However, there’s one or two other actors here that stick out. Christian Clemenson, best known for memorable parts on TV shows like “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” and “Boston Legal,” plays Tom’s boss. Clemenson is well cast as a duplicitous executive, self-serving and glad-handing, who gets increasingly sweaty and nervous as the killer closes in. Eloise Mumford is also cute and charming as the love interest, sharing an amusing chemistry with Minghella.

“Not Safe for Work” ultimately feels like a minor work. What contributes to that is its short run time. The film is all of 74 minutes long and that includes the opening and closing credits. It’s quite unusual for a studio film these day to run that short but it works in “Not Safe for Work’s” benefits, as it gets the audience in and out in a Speedy fashion. Though it doesn’t dissuade the feeling that this was designed for television, as it could’ve been an hour long episode of an anthology series with a little trimming. The film does end by teasing a sequel, which is not an usual move for Blumhouse but comes off as very optimistic considering what happened to this particular movie.

Honestly, if “Not Safe for Work” was shelved because of its perceived quality, I don’t think that’s fair. The film is certainly better than some other Blumhouse Productions, like “Truth or Dare,” that were deemed worthy of a theatrical release. It is a deeply unimportant work and pretty forgettable, with a fairly flat visual presentation. But, as long as it’s playing, I found it to be a decently entertaining bit of thrilling fluff. It’s interesting to see Johnston try out a style so different from his usual work and it’s kind of a bummer that it ended up not working out for him. [Grade: B-]

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