Family Matters

The Gateway

by George Wolf

Opening his film with a quote from Charles Dickens, and closing it with a statistic about foster care, director/co-writer Michele Civetta wants us to know he has serious issues on his mind.

There are children out there hurting. If no one cares enough to help them, there’s little hope of breaking a sad cycle of dysfunction.

True enough, and fair enough. The problem is the 90 minutes of heavy handed cliche that fall between quote and quotient.

Shea Whigham pulls the weight here as Parker, a social worker in St. Louis who’s – you guessed it – battling some personal demons. After fighting his way out of a troubled childhood via a promising boxing career, Parker now grapples with booze and blow, looking for redemption through his caseload of damaged souls.

Parker is particularly drawn to Ashley (Taegen Burns), a bright young teen whose mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) requires frequent checkups to keep on the straight and narrow. Her path gets rockier when Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) comes home from prison a bit earlier than expected.

If Mike can give his boss “The Duke” (Frank Grillo) one last big score, he’ll be set up with a cushy job running some strip joint instead of risking his life in the streets.

Just one more, then he’s out! That always goes exactly as planned, right?

It’s great to see the veteran support player Whigham get a lead role, but the script doesn’t give him – or anyone else – much chance to develop a character with any authentic layers. True, social worker as avenging ass-kicker is a wrinkle, but nearly every other role is either interchangeable with countless other crime dramas or a familiar face (Keith David, Taryn Manning) in a distracting cameo.

Whigham, Munn and even the legendary Bruce Dern (as Parker’s estranged father) can’t do much to elevate the material, or the film’s occasional slapped-together feel (at least two dialog dubs are badly mismatched).

And once even the core message about the social safety net picks up sidebars on the military industrial complex and government-sponsored drug trafficking, The Gateway becomes an overwrought and overwritten mess leading to little that is satisfying.

The Gateway hits VOD on Friday

Playing Dirty

Buddy Games

by George Wolf

Buddy Games has the smell of something that’s been sitting on a shelf for quite a while, thrown out to theaters now like a piece of rancid meat to a hungry dog.

The theaters that are still open may be starving for content, but this meal is rotten to the core.

Director/co-writer/star Josh Duhamel leads a group of lifelong friends (Dax Shepard, Kevin Dillon, Nick Swardson, Dan Bakkedahl, James Roday Rodriguez) as the “Bobfather,” rich guy ringleader of their annual brodown throwdown they call the Buddy Games. Indulging their “primal need to dominate,” the guys hit an outdoor obstacle course to compete against each other in a variety of events for a lame trophy and – most importantly – bragging rights.

But an unfortunate paintball-to-nutsack incident shuts the games down, sending Buddy Game Champ Sheldon (Bakkedhahl) into a downward spiral that leads to rehab.

So at the urging of Shelly’s mom, the boys revive the Games after five long and aimless years, this time with a $150,000 prize to the victor.

If you’re sensing a mix of Tag and Grown Ups, you’re close, just remove all the charm of the former, and add even more stupidity than the latter.

It’s a tone deaf, crass and almost completely humorless exercise in objectifying women and indulging the selfishness of entitled d-bags. The longer it drags, the more you just wonder: why? Why did Duhamel pick this for his directing debut? Why did Olivia Munn accept another role as “low cut shirt for the marketing”? Why are we seeing Nick Swardson without Adam Sandler?

But, like most of those Sandler comedies, it looks like the cast of Buddy Games had a blast making it.

I guess you had to be there.

Monster Squad

The Predator

by Hope Madden

Shane Black loves him some Eighties, doesn’t he? The over-the-top machismo, the sentimentality, the tasteless and insensitive one-liners—the writer/director revels in every opportunity to splash those (and some blood and entrails) on the screen as he reboots The Predator.

This is the sixth installment, if you count the Alien vs. Predator films, so Black has his hands full finding a fresh perspective. First things first: a damaged, hyper-masculine male lead who uses humor to mask his pain. Enter Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Logan).

A US Army sniper, McKenna and his men are in Mexico after some baddies and some hostages when a predator ship crashes. McKenna faces off with the nasty before making off with some of his gear. Then he’s in a bar/post office in Mexico. Then he’s in custody.

How did he go from A to B to C? Nevermind that! There are predator dogs this time!

There are a lot of those odd gaps in action logic, but since when is narrative clarity the point of a Predator movie (or a Shane Black movie, for that matter)? In many ways, Black is the ideal candidate to reawaken the sport-hunting franchise.

He clearly loves it, and he should, having played the small role of Hawkins in the 1987 original. Black takes pointed but affectionate shots at the source material and celebrates much of what made it (and most of Schwarzenegger’s 80s output) so fun.

Holbrook is a serviceable lead that Black quickly surrounds with a team of soldiers (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane). What kind of bunch are they? Rag and tag!

Olivia Munn jumps in as a scientist who drops f-bombs, Jacob Tremblay is inarguably cute, and Sterling K. Brown (characteristically mesmerizing) plays the villainous military dude.

The story touches on humanity’s path to extinction, as well as our own evolution. That last part leads to some questionably respectful commentary on folks on the Autism spectrum. (Folks with Tourette’s can expect the same level of respect you might find in an Eighties action film. Or a Norm MacDonald interview.)

The FX are good. Not War for the Planet of the Apes good, but way better than the Aquaman trailer that rolled pre-film. The action is fun and sometimes imaginative, but the rest of the film is largely lacking in imagination.

There’s a lot of coasting going on in The Predator. A lot of boxes being checked—sometimes checked with flair, but they’re still the same old boxes.






Not So Secret Santa

Office Christmas Party

by George Wolf

They say bad things happen when the copier goes down.

When it’s fully operational at the Office Christmas Party …well, those aren’t TPS reports.

Clay (T.J. Miller) is the Chicago branch manager at a big tech company who wants to throw a Christmas party like his Dad did back in the days when employees “got drunk before noon.” Trouble is, since Dad died Clay’s sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is CEO and she wants to fill Clay’s stocking with budget cuts.

In fact, Carol might close the entire Chicago operation down unless Clay, Chief Tech Officer Josh (Jason Bateman) and IT wiz Tracey (Olivia Munn) can find a way to land the multi-million dollar account of Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance). Their standard pitch to Davis is less than persuasive, so what’s left to do but impress him with office camaraderie at an epic holiday bash?

Despite warnings from an HR head (Kate McKinnon) who wants a non-denominational mixer and hangs up “think of your family” signs, the staff naughty list starts getting crowded.

The premise (from the guys behind The Hangover) seems a perfect fit for this talent-laden ensemble. It might fit too well, as even the steady amount of laughs the film lands feels a tad disappointing.

I mean, if you need a wisecracking nice guy, a mean-spirited boss with sarcastic bite, and a Tommy Boy for today, Bateman, Aniston and Miller should be on speed dial.

Plus there’s a break room full of winning side characters. From Karan Soni’s guy-with-an-imaginary-girlfriend to Rob Corddry’s embittered lifer to Jillian Bell’s curiously polite pimp and beyond, entertaining impressions are mined from limited screen time by people clearly trained to do just that. And McKinnon? There may not be a better scene-stealer around, and you’re afraid to look away for fear of missing even the subtlest of gags.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) and their team of writers manage some passing nods to cutthroat corporate culture and political correctness, but thankfully don’t try to overthink things. Just let these ponies run. And though I’m guessing there was plenty of inspired improvisation (stay for the in-credits gag reel), even their best peaks can’t hide some valleys in the script.

But hey, it’s the holidays, be of good cheer and ride out them out for the payoffs. Office Christmas Party supplies them, even if, like that end of the year bonus, you were hoping for a little more.

Verdict-3-0-Stars