Movie Review ~ Wish Upon

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage girl discovers a box that carries magic powers and a deadly price for using them.

Stars: Joey King, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Ki Hong Lee, Mitchell Slaggert, Sherilyn Fenn, Elisabeth Röhm, Ryan Phillippe

Director: John R. Leonetti

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: This movie sucks. Let’s just get that out there at the start so you can never ever say you weren’t warned. I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to these types of PG-13 horror flicks but even I have a breaking point. Maybe it was because I lament the mid-level studio film that’s slowly disappearing in favor of endless sequels and franchise starters, but I really was rooting for Wish Upon to be 90 minutes of harmless fun. Be careful what you wish for.

Supposedly, the budget for Wish Upon is a staggering 12 million dollars, not exactly cheap considering decent horror films like Split, Insidious, The Visit, and The Purge franchise were made for considerably less. I’m not exactly sure where that 12K was spent. It surely wasn’t on the director, John R. Leonetti (Annabelle) who doesn’t seem to understand how to assemble a movie, much less how to create any kind of sustainable tension. It definitely wasn’t on Barbara Marshall’s threadbare amateurish script which feels an outline of an idea never fully fleshed out. It certainly wasn’t spent on a decent casting director based on a ensemble of forgettable faces almost entirely dead behind the eyes.

A Chinese wish box is the MacGuffin at the center of our tale. Given as a gift to high schooler Clare (Joey King, White House Down) by her dumpster diving dad (Ryan Phillippe, I Know What You Did Last Summer) it’s a good thing Clare is taking Intro to Chinese because she quickly translates that the box will grant her seven wishes. If only she had been in an AP class, she’d have been able to see the warning that went along with it. See, for every wish granted someone she knows will meet a gruesome end…well as gruesome as Wish Upon’s teen friendly rating will allow. As she uses her wishes up on important things like wealth, admiration of her peers, the attention of a hot senior, revenge on a tyrannical mean girl, and for her dad to be less embarrassing (no, really), she gets ever closer to the final wish for which she’ll pay dearly.

A big problem is that our lead protagonist vacillates between being so bafflingly clueless and knowingly reprehensible that you feel nothing for her. It doesn’t help that King is far from up to the task of carrying a movie on her own, too often looking like she can’t decide if she wants the chicken or the beef for lunch. Phillippe is a sad sack in his taped on beard that mysteriously grows and shrinks in size and the less said about his badly faked saxophone playing, the better. Though she’s etched herself on a commercially large canvas, I at least appreciated Sydney Park’s energy as King’s sassy friend…she’s light years better than Shannon Purser (crazily Emmy-nominated as Barb from Stranger Things) who’s acting chops are so green she literally can’t walk and talk onscreen at the same time.

I’m wondering if the studio gave Leonetti and editor Peck Prior a note to tighten the film up because there’s an alarming number of short scenes that don’t make sense when stitched together. Some people are barely introduced only to be swiftly killed before you ever know their name.   It’s just a mish-mash of plot contrivances spewed forth with no one to corral them into anything resembling a cohesive product. As it strenuously plods to its conclusion, the shrieks shrink and the laughs loom large.

It’s not an entirely thumbs down idea for a movie if I’m being totally honest and with a better director, a more polished screenplay, and just more risk-taking in general (clearly the film was edited down from a gorier R-rated escapade) something far more entertaining could have been accomplished. There’s a myriad of problems with countless aspects of the movie, so many in fact that if the film has any redeeming quality it’s that it could be used as grave warning for future filmmakers on just how badly you can screw up.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stonewall

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Synopsis: A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.

Release Date:  September 25, 2015

Thoughts: Though we still live in a world plagued by racism, homophobia, sexism, and a lot of other unfortunate “isms”, it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way over the last half century and these key moments in the civil rights movement for all walks of life are getting the silver screen treatment in full force the last few years.  2014 had its Selma and 2015 audiences will get see Meryl Streep in Suffragette and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.  Fitting for the director of Independence Day, Emmerich (White House Down, who I wasn’t aware was gay himself until a few years ago) takes on a dramatized version of the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, placing a fictional story in the midst of the very real conflict.  I’ll admit to being under-educated on this period in history and while I won’t rely on the film to tell me all I need to know, I hope it’s a good jumping off point to continue the discussion on equality.

Movie Review ~ Wish I Was Here

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a 35-year-old man who finds himself at major crossroads, which forces him to examine his life, his career, and his family.

Stars: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon

Director: Zach Braff

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I’m nothing if not entirely honest in my film likes and dislikes so back in May when I reviewed the trailer for Zach Braff’s Kickstater-funded (sorta) dramedy I let the cat out of the bag that Braff’s critical darling of a directorial debut (2004’s Garden State) wasn’t my cup of tea.  It’s true that I’ve only seen that film once and probably owe it to myself to try it again to see if a more world-weary version of me responds better to Braff’s overly angsty exploration of twenty something (im)maturity.  Then again, after seeing his sophomore picture, I’m not sure I really need to.

Though While You Were Here is a totally different story, it’s filled with similar characters to his previous effort that lead a perfectly fine life but seem to only focus on what’s missing…and proceed to talk about it for two hours.  I’d liken the film to an overly tired toddler…vacillating between happy and sad but mostly just populated with the sound of whining.

Co-writer and director Braff (Oz, The Great and Powerful) plays a mid thirties out of work actor living with his wife (Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and children (Joey King, White House Down and Pierce Gagnon, Looper) in a California home he’s too busy to put much time into.  Right off the bat the film feels like a cheese grater on sunburned skin as Braff and family pithily argue over the breakfast table about a jumbo swear jar that will factor into events later in the picture.

When Braff’s father (Mandy Patinkin, The Doctor) selfishly can’t continue to uphold his agreement to pay tuition for his grandchildren to attend an Orthodox private school because he’s, oh, dying, Braff is treated to a wake-up call that he needs to focus less on his dreams in order to support his family financially and emotionally.  Thus begins a series of scenes featuring the aimless father home schooling his children, first in a make-shift classroom in their den and then, when that doesn’t work, by taking them into the schoolroom of life including, but not limited to, a desert camping trip and making them read poems while they fix up their ramshackle house.

Braff and his co-writer/brother Adam have filled their script with so many clichéd moments that one wonders if they weren’t attempting a farce of some sort.  This type of melodramatic dreck had a place in the early 2000’s when sappy pontificating was de rigueur in young filmmakers but now its lack of justified sincerity is mostly just aggravating.  Famously funded initially by 3 million dollars worth of contributions on Kickstarter before a major film financier kicked in an extra 7 million bucks (causing a bit of a dust-up around why Braff resorted to Kickstarter in the first place) I wonder if anyone would have donated their hard earned money had they read the script.

If Braff’s script fails him, he’s equally off the mark in his acting.  With hair in a constant state of weed whacker mess (obviously no money was devoted to combs or Chap-stik for his alarmingly chapped lips), he moves through the film with a tightly puckered look suggesting he’s just tasted a Mega Sour Warhead.  Though Patinkin is usually king of melodramatic line readings, he isn’t able to eek out even a passing interest in his obtuse father figure…even when he’s on his death bed.  I can’t for the life of me get the appeal of Josh Gad (Frozen) who plays another version of the slacker socks-with-sandals comedic relief character he’s unfortunately called on too often to replicate.  His entire contribution could have been excised from the proceedings, saving the film 20 minutes and the audience a grossly superlative storyline involving Comic-Con and sex with furrys.

Only Hudson as Braff’s put-upon wife and King as his daughter coming into her own deserve praise for their performances, if only for the fact that they manage to make some awfully trite material seem valuable.  Hudson suffers through an unnecessary subplot involving a co-worker talking to her as his penis and several embarrassingly awkward romantic scenes with Braff to speak some truth to her hospitalized father-in-law.  King sheds some tears and shears her locks, valiantly rising above Braff’s heavy handed attempts to hold her down.

It’s a film where every scene seems to end with a declarative statement followed by the opening acoustic guitar strains of an indie rock song.  The soundtrack to Garden State was a phenomenon all its own and it becomes clear as the film and its songs play on that Braff was trying to recreate his entire experience from a decade ago.  Problem is, film has moved on while Braff has stayed put.  Wish I Was Here?  Yeah, Mr. Braff, we wish you were here too.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wish I Was Here

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Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a struggling actor, father and husband trying to home school his two children when his father can no longer afford to pay for private education. Through teaching them about life his way, Aidan gradually discovers some of the parts of himself he couldn’t find.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’m sure this will damage my overall cred, I was decidedly ho-hum about Zach Braff’s (Oz the Great and Powerful) freshman directorial effort, the critically praised Garden State. A decade later found Braff famously launching a Kickstarter campaign to help finance his follow-up, Wish I Was Here. Family dramas are a dime a dozen but I’m curious to see if Braff’s writing has matured over the years because the first preview for Wish I Was Here caught my interest. Featuring Kate Hudson (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Josh Gad (Frozen), Ashley Greene (The Apparition), and Joey King (White House Down) and set for later this summer, it remains to be seen if you’ll wish you were somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It’s fun to be scared, isn’t it?  I know many people that would disagree with that statement but I’ve always found a base thrill in any amount of fright that I can find be it at the hands of a ghoul in a haunted house, a towering rollercoaster that looks more than a tad bit rickety, and in a dark movie theater watching the latest horror flick designed to scare the pants off of you. 

Even after hearing early positive buzz on The Conjuring and liking what I’d seen/read up until it was released, I was still wary that my expectations were raised too high to get out of the film the kind of entertainment I was looking for.  That all changed frame one as the Warner Brothers logo appeared along with Joseph Bishara’s ominous music and I just knew…this is going to be one scary flick.  And it was.  And I loved it.

The Conjuring represents a full feast of fright after sparse offerings in theaters over the last year.  For my money, it’s the scariest movie released in theaters in some time and the scares it provides are well earned and long-lasting.  Moments of good old fashioned dread exist in the movie that are genuine and cleverly constructed for maximum impact.  Not merely content to scare you once, director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) applies the pressure and maintains it for long stretches of time, creating several truly harrowing sequences.

Based on the true story of Perron family from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring opens with a dandy of an intro to the kind of work that Ed (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) do.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this opening but will say that it plays a nice twist on the kind of opening that Scream introduced so well and that has been oft-copied ever since. 

It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor, Being Flynn) and Roger (Ron Livingston, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) Perron have moved their five daughters (including Joey King from White House Down and Oz, The Great and Powerful) to a large farmhouse nestled in the boondocks of New England.   Though the actual events took place over 10 years, for cinematic purposes the timeline is several weeks…compressing years worth of occurrences is something the movie pretty much had to do.   It’s not long before the family gets to know their house a bit better; finding a boarded up cellar filled with cobwebs and antique toys that provide a few cursory scares. 

Mysterious bruising, the unexplained nightly stopping of all clocks at 3:07am, and other spooky bumps in the night don’t signal much of a warning until all hell breaks loose one night in the first of many masterfully filmed passages of piled on horror. 

Though we’ve already met the Warrens and seen their suburban home life (including a locked room full of creepy items from their various cases), they finally step center stage when Carolyn begs them for help.  When the Warrens arrive and start looking into the house and its dark past, they discover a history of horrifying events that shed some light on the present happenings.  The deeper they dig, the more danger they unearth not only for the family but themselves as well.

Even the best made horror film is largely at the mercy of the actors that are involved and Wan has assembled a crack mix of interesting actors to take on these roles.  Wilson may be a tad milquetoast in the role but he never overplays it, wisely playing second banana to Farmiga.  Ah yes, Farmiga.  Aside from the treasure trove of terror, the chief pleasure of The Conjuring is Farmiga’s multi-dimensional and fully committed take on the role of a clairvoyant who sees/feels more than we could ever imagine.  This is a smart actress who keeps us interested in the movie even if, like most horror films centered on a mystery, the more we know about the “why” behind the terror the less we are scared of it. 

Just a slight step below Farmiga is Taylor, one of the best actresses of her generation that continues to take on a range of roles in mainstream and indie films.  Largely absent from the horror genre since the turkey remake of The Haunting back in 1999, Taylor is perfectly cast as a normal wife and mother that’s pitched into a nightmare she can’t wake from.  Farmiga and Taylor are a dynamic duo, bravely enduring the wringer that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes put them through.

The Conjuring has no nudity, no explicit language, and a modest modicum of blood so it landed an R from the MPAA due to its “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”.  There’s something revelatory about a movie earning that restriction based solely because it’s too scary – and earn it it does.  This hopefully will be a perennial classic that finds its way on the shelf next to films like Halloween, The Changeling, and Poltergeist.  If your spine needs a good tingling, The Conjuring is just the medicine the doctor ordered.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts:  I don’t normally post a second trailer for a movie so close to the time that I posted the first trailer, but this new preview for July’s The Conjuring rustles up more than a few scary moments that I wanted to share.  Though we’ve had many horror films that were “based on a true story”, the premise of The Conjuring intrigues me as its inspired by the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who were famous for their involvement in more than a few high profile haunting inquiries (they were consulted on the famous Amityville Horror case).  I always get nervous when a film shows so many key moments and hope that some scares are put on reserve for paying audience members.  I like the cast assembled here and it’s old-school style should play a part in creating an atmosphere rich with potential.

The Silver Bullet ~ Family Weekend

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Synopsis: A 16-year-old girl takes her parents hostage after they miss her big jump-roping competition.

Release Date:  March 29, 2013

Thoughts: Yeow!  I’m all for family togetherness but this one looks absolutely dreadful.  While I’m not the biggest fan of Kristen Chenoweth, I do think she possesses a certain charm that Hollywood hasn’t quite found a way to work with yet.  She’s struggled in both television and film, stuck in stereotypical roles that don’t suit her very well.  Being teamed with Matthew Modine makes for a strange combo – but the strangest thing of all is why anyone would want to see such a lame looking film.  Destined for the $5 bin at WalMart, Family Weekend will probably last that long in its theatrical release. 

Movie Review ~ Oz The Great and Powerful

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history.  Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.

So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.

Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers.  The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks.  Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.

It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz.  It’s a sign!  At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky.  Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons.  Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.

That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .

Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified.  Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz.  When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been.  Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film.  I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.

The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners.  Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes.  She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance.  Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?)  Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.

Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible.  Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz.  It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes.  Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.

Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses.  The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era.  The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz.  Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.

When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days.  No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory.  Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.  Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring

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Synopsis: A family encounters spirits living among them in their New England farmhouse.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: It’s so easy to put a shine on a dull coin so I always take movie posters and previews with a grain of salt.  Even a trailer for the worst movie can be edited to look like an Oscar contender while true award-worthy material can be hidden by a so-so preview.  Even knowing this, I have to say that the recently released poster and trailer for the summer scare-a-thon The Conjuring gives me high hopes.  It’s directed by James Wan who was behind the camera for Saw, the strangely underrated Dead Silence, and Insidious…even if those films weren’t quite your cup of tea I’d argue that they had more style/cinematic flair than many of the films in its genre.  Another bonus is the cast – Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga are two of the more interesting actresses in Hollywood so when you add Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson to the mix you have a quirky quartet that might just work.

Though the trailer may seem to give away a nifty scare for free I’ll be waiting patiently until July to see what thrills this team can conjure up for us.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oz: The Great and Powerful – Trailer #2

Synopsis: How the Wizard arrived in Oz and became the ruler. A prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the teaser trailer for Oz: The Great and Powerful, I’m getting a strong vibe of revisionism along the lines of Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.  Still, the Oz books have a wealth of adventure to them and I’m interested to see what screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and whip smart playwright David Lindsay-Abaire bring forth.  The visuals certainly look stunning and never underestimate the power of Oz…though with this trailer I’m officially on the fence about the value of Franco’s contribution to the film.  He’s such a modern style actor that I’m not convinced (yet) he’s the man who would be Oz.  Thankfully, he’s backed up by a trio of dependable ladies (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis) that should even things out.  Director Sam Raimi has worked wonders in film storytelling in the past – he might be the true man behind the curtain of the success or failure of the film.