31 Days to Scare ~ Welcome to the Blumhouse – Evil Eye & Nocturne

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It’s Week Two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, the October collaboration between Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios meant to drum up some scares with four curated genre films released over the course of two weeks.  Week One saw the arrival of The Lie and Black Box, both of which I found entertaining and, in the case of Black Box, a film I’d advocate you add to your queue, post haste.  I was expecting another week of sturdy films that couldn’t quite justify a theatrical release but made sense to appear in this curio of tales presented by producer Jason Blum.  Heck, I even expected them to save the best for the second week…but sadly these aren’t any stronger than the first entries, though one highly outranks the other in almost every way.  Looking over these four features, I’m glad these two entities joined forces and hope it happens again, albeit with product that feels like it was made for it and not just shoehorned in.  For this first time around, I’d pass on to Welcome to the Blumhouse a qualified return greeting.

The Facts:

Synopsis: A superstitious mother is convinced that her daughter’s new boyfriend is the reincarnation of a man who tried to kill her 30 years ago.

Stars: Sarita Choudhury, Sunita Mani, Omar Maskati, Bernard White, Anjali Bhimani

Director: Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani

Rated: NR

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Okay, so maybe I should walk back my comments above when I said the movies this week weren’t the strongest.  Thinking about it more I did find myself enjoying this low-key (really low-key) thriller based on a popular podcast originating on Audible.  This isn’t the first time a podcast has been adapted for television.  Amazon’s popular Homecoming successfully brought that buzzy paranoid drama to life a year or two ago, but Evil Eye does have an interesting premise and a lead that’s strong enough to earn a recommendation based on that factor alone.  That is winds up feeling like one of those old USA Mystery films by the end is more to do with the glossy direction from Elan Dassani and Rajeev Dassani than anything.

Thirty years ago in India, Usha (Sarita Choudhury, Admission) was attacked by a former boyfriend who she claims put a curse on her unborn baby.  The events of that night will come back to haunt her grown daughter, now single and living in New Orleans on her own.  Superstitious Usha has kept her daughter’s best interest in mind these past years and is always checking up and checking in on her, with her latest quest to find her daughter the proper Indian husband.  Matchmaking from halfway around the world isn’t easy on the mother-daughter relationship but Pallavi (Sunita Mani, The Death of Dick Long) lucks out and meets a keeper on her own, the darkly handsome Sandeep (Omar Maskati).  The one drawback is that though they are moving quickly, Usha’s senses tell her something is off about the match and even though the signs and mystics she normally consults tell her otherwise, she’s convinced her daughter is in danger.  Eventually, she becomes convinced that not only is Sandeep not the right man for her only child, but he’s actually the reincarnation of the man who tried to kill them both years earlier.

I haven’t heard Madhuri Shekar’s podcast so can’t tell you how faithfully she’s adapted it for the screen but this is a premise that works on a higher level than you’d think.  Silly though it sounds, it’s one that has to be taken with a degree of sincerity for it to work and everyone is onboard with that approach.  Steeped in Hindu culture with their own belief in reincarnation and their theory of the spirit never dying, there’s validity to Usha’s feelings even if no one around her actually believes what she says is true.  We don’t even know either, though it wouldn’t be much a thriller without that mystery hanging over our heads for a least a little bit.  The main suspense is due to how long we wait for Usha to get that one true sign that Sandeep is the man from her past, come back to finish what he started.

What gives the film its surest sense of worth is Choudhury’s lightening rod performance, first as the typical meddling mother and then as the parent, unraveling at the fact that she is too far away to save her daughter from an evil she may have unleashed.  Most of the film, Usha and Pallavi are separated and communicate only by phone yet Choudhury and Mani capably develop their relationship above simple surface level conversations.  As has been the case with many of these films, the supporting cast is tiny but I found myself liking Bernard White (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Usha’s husband and Pallavi’s dad…the one who is often stuck in the middle between the women he holds close to his heart.  I only wish Maskati had been a more convincing maybe-villain…he lacks a command of the screen and there are times when he’s working hard to come across imperious but winds up robotic.

As for thrills, Evil Eye is fairly light on any, though there was one moment involving the purposeful reveal of a pair of earrings and the direct fallout after that gave me chills.  It’s the one moment in the film that feels like it sprang from something more sinister and supernatural and I wish there were more of them.  Ultimately, this plays like a family drama with traces of the mystical intertwined which feels like a missed opportunity.  All that aside, it’s well-made and short enough to not overstay its welcome.  Choudhury’ll never bore you and she’s in the majority of the film so that’s a plus right there.  Let’s just say, you won’t give it the stink eye….unlike the next film.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage pianist makes a devilish deal in a bid to outplay her fraternal twin sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.

Stars: Madison Iseman, Sydney Sweeney, Brandon Keener, John Rothman, Rodney To, Jacques Colimon, Asia Jackson

Director: Zu Quirke

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Oh boy, a good plot synopsis will trick me every time.  I mean, every time.  Out of all the films in the Welcome to the Blumhouse stable, the one for Nocturne sounded the most interesting to me, which is why I saved it for last.  There’s something wickedly voyeuristic to any film or program where you have artists competing against one another who have already scarified so much and are willing to go a step further (see Suspiria and its remake) to attain their goals.  Now, recently Netflix had their own classical music horror show with twisted musicians in The Perfection and I was curious to see if Nocturne would measure up with the same level of bizarre developments and truly boffo ending.  Unfortunately, Nocturne has a totally different movie in mind to emulate and can’t even commit fully to that either.

Fraternal twins Violet (Madison Iseman, Annabelle Comes Home) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) are senior pianists attending a celebrated private music institute that has trained some of the best talent in the country.  Raised by their airy parents who seem to want their kids to succeed even if it means they step over each other while doing it, Violet is the one that has landed a spot next year at Julliard while Juliet didn’t measure up and now is facing the next year with no back-up plan.  In Juliet’s eyes, everything seems to come easy for Violet.  She’s the one with the boyfriend, the friends, the opportunities, and the sister the teachers appear to favor.  Or maybe she just doesn’t take it all so seriously.  Either way, Juliet wants what Violet has.

When a classmate dies under suspicious circumstances, it leaves an opening for a replacement to take her place in a pivotal piece at the culmination of the year.  Everyone knows that Violet will get it…but Juliet wants it.  By chance, she discovers the notebook of the dead girl and in it finds a strange link to the occult and through it finds a power that may unlock the key to finally rising to the top.  Each turn of the page leads to a new opportunity to move her forward at the expense of something in return.  What price will she pay to be seen for once as the better twin and who will suffer for it the higher she climbs?

In 2010, I was all about Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s truly unforgettable Best Picture nominee which won Natalie Portman as Best Actress Oscar for her chilling take on a ballerina that becomes obsessed with playing the lead in a production of Swan Lake after paying her dues in second place.  The more her obsession grows, the more her psyche and body morph into the character she is portraying onstage, leading to a haunting one performance only showstopper that sees her achieve her dream for a brief shining moment.  Nocturne is such a direct copy of that Black Swan mold it could almost have been labeled a sequel in some way.  It has the same chilly tone, color scheme, music, dreams that turn to nightmares and then back to reality…it’s just all the same but done at a watered down level and totally toothless.

Writer/director Zu Quirke never truly makes the argument for Juliet to be worthy of the kind of attention she craves.  At least in Black Swan we get the idea that Portman’s character was maybe unjustly overlooked.  Juliet seems to want the spotlight just because her sister has it and makes deliberate steps to unseat her because she’s selfish…and that doesn’t make for a compelling watch.  Obsession of this sort should come from neglect, not from petty sister squabbles.  The mythology behind the magic also is a bit of a head-scratcher, with it making precious little sense and failing to be captivating – at the end they just feel like pages in a book.

I thought I was saving the best for last but Nocturne turned out to be the worst of the bunch.  Even its finale is bungled, lingering long enough to come off as a joke instead of a shock.  A better editor would have cut that final shot down and left the audience with their heart in their throat.  There is great deal of discussion about how classical music is a dying form and one character argues for it’s necessity…but not when it’s the driving force behind poorly recycled plots like this.

 

Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
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Synopsis: Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target-the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy, and her friends.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, McKenna Grace, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When I first heard the filmmakers behind The Conjuring were interested in creating a universe of their own which would do for horror what Marvel did for superhero comic book movies, I was pretty dubious as to how it would all pan out. I mean, The Conjuring was such a perfect scare machine that its unexpected success with audiences, critics, and the box office of course meant a sequel would be produced but were there enough good ideas to truly expand it into something bigger? Moreover, would the real life case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren continue to be used or would new poltergeists haunting houses be unearthed?

The first attempt out of the gate was 2014’s lackluster Annabelle, a direct spin-off from The Conjuring centering on the scary doll. The film had a creepy vibe but failed deliver anything more than surface shockwaves. While The Conjuring 2 in 2016 had its moments of excellence it came down with a case of sequel-it is and overstayed its welcome. Then, a minor miracle occurred in 2017 with the release of Annabelle: Creation, which managed to improve upon its predecessor by some truly terrifying leaps and bounds. Consider how well put together that film was and how nicely it managed to fold in elements from all the films that came before, it felt like the filmmakers took in the criticism received from the previous films and made the changes necessary to keep this universe expanding.

Now, something very strange and special is happening within The Conjuring Universe as it continues to grow as a rapid pace. While 2018’s The Nun and The Curse of La Llorna from this past April stumbled a bit (but still did good numbers at the box office), things are back on the terror track with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, another strong entry that bodes well for the future of this franchise. Employing a healthy dose of atmosphere long before the real scares begin, it rewards longtime fans of the series and invites newcomers in with a wicked grin.  While it largely benefits from the jump scare, there are an equal amount of frights that come when you least expect them and plenty of misdirects to goose your bumps nicely.

So far, each Annabelle tale has found an interesting way into the timeline of the events in the history of the Warrens and this one is no different. The prologue for Annabelle Comes Home begins right after the prologue from The Conjuring when we were first introduced to the doll that had spooked a couple of college co-eds. Ed (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are taking the troublesome toy back home to their room of once (and still?) possessed artifacts for safekeeping, but Annabelle doesn’t make the journey an easy one.  The trip back presents car trouble for the Warrens and, wouldn’t you know it, they break down right outside a cemetery inhabited with spirits drawn to the doll.

Once locked away safely, things stay relatively quiet where Annabelle is concerned until Ed and Lorraine leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) under the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) while they go to an overnight conference. While Mary Ellen is a responsible caregiver, she’s friends with Daniela (Katie Sarife) who is more interested in the Warrens profession and poking around in their artifact room than baking a cake and entertaining Judy for the night. She’s not just looking for a cheap tabloid thrill either, there’s a reason why Daniela wants to know if the supernatural afterlife is real. Left alone in the house while Judy and Mary Ellen try out a new pair of roller skates (this is the ‘70s, remember?), Daniela snoops her way into trouble when she accidentally lets Annabelle out. Once the doll is free, she brings an assortment of crazed curios from the Warrens unholy collection out to play as well.

In the past, the more sequels a movie gets the less time these installments seem to take on set-up and exposition before launching into what audiences are craving for. That’s not true with the films in The Conjuring Universe. At 106 minutes, the movie isn’t in any rush to get to the unleashing we all know is bound to happen and that allows director Gary Dauberman the opportunity to let us get to know these characters a bit more. Peppered with creepy moments for the first hour as we see the Warrens leave the girls for the night and Daniela taking her need for emotional closure in the spirit world one-step too far, when the movie does reach its apex it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up.

Popping up over these last several years in small roles proving herself as a dependable young actor, Grace is an ideal lead as the Warrens only child. Maybe possessing some of the same gifts as her mother, Grace paints Judy as struggling to fit in but not unware that maybe she’s one keeping people at a distance. Her sisterly friendship with Mary Ellen is believable and Iseman too turns in a winning performance as the smart, responsible babysitter that doesn’t let a pining boy (charming Michael Cimino) in because she’s already committed to spending time with Judy. Though at first glance Sarife’s role looks like the bad girl there to cause all the trouble and pay a huge price, the script by Dauberman (who also did good work with IT) and James Wan (Insidious) has bigger (and surprisingly emotional) plans for her in the long run.

While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t ultimately land with the same electric punch as Annabelle: Creation, it’s still a resoundingly worthy entry in this growing universe. If the scripts continue to be creative and the casting remains strong, I can see these doing good business if the interest is still there. Looking ahead we have The Conjuring 3 in 2020 and then nothing firm yet for the next slate of films and I think that’s a good thing. Let’s see how these movies land and then figure out where to go from there.  Something tells me Annabelle has more untold stories waiting to get a big screen scream treatment.

31 Days to Scare ~ Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Facts:

Synopsis: Halloween comes to life in a comedy adventure based on R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books.

Stars: Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jeremy Ray Taylor

Director: Ari Sandel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Fall is in the air and it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Halloween. This is the time each year I can watch whatever I want if it’s related to Halloween and not feel the least bit of guilt for neglecting non-genre films. That’s why I opted out of a screening for a movie with considerable more buzz than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and found myself in an early evening preview of this follow-up to the modest hit from 2015.  Side note…why aren’t all screenings at 6:30pm?  Makes it possible to have some part of your night free if you’re seeing a shorter film.

I found the first Goosebumps to be a perfectly fine family film that tweens could watch with their parents as an alternative to the adult fare. I’m already dreading seeing how many children there will be at the new Halloween movie next week. The original had a good-set up, decent effects, solid acting, and while it turned into too much mayhem near the end with iffy CGI it was still more than modestly enjoyable. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware a sequel was greenlit, much less in the can and ready to go until I caught the first preview several months back.

With the principals from the first film unavailable and star Jack Black (The D Train) tied up making the also Halloween family friendly The House with a Clock in Its Walls, screenwriter Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Peter Rabbit) and original writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) fashioned a new story set in a different fictional town in upstate New York that takes their Halloween very seriously. Houses are decorated to the max (must be nice to have expendable cash) and costumes are several notches above your standard vampire fangs.  Sonny (Jeremy Taylor Ray, IT) and his upperclassman sister Sarah (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) live with their single mom Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended) in Wardenclyffe, NY and it’s almost Halloween. Sarah is occupied with boyfriend troubles and trying to get into college, Kathy is overworked, and Sonny is just trying to perfect his school science experiment. Though it often takes a backseat to the shenanigans that will follow, there’s a nice family dynamic created here and one that stresses responsibility to ones self and loved ones – not a bad message hiding amidst all the scares.

Together with his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), Sonny finds himself in an abandoned house cleaning out junk and that’s where the two boys come across a hidden chest that holds only a locked book and a key. Opening the book releases Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and that’s when all Halloween hell breaks loose. Though Slappy originally starts out as being somewhat helpful by showing Sonny and Sam’s bullies a thing or two and doing their chores, his benign nature gives away to something more evil when he causes an accident that sends Sarah’s cheating boyfriend to the hospital. Eventually, Slappy’s true nature is revealed…he wants to make Halloween come to life 365 days a year and rouses every manner of beast and ghoulie to achieve his task.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for a short film in 2007. I haven’t seen that movie but it’s clear he has some style seeing that the movie bops along so pleasantly for its 90 minutes. It’s fast moving without making too many narrative leaps and surprisingly cohesive even with a sometimes overstuffed plot. Introducing R.L. Stine (Black, who also provides the menacing voice for Slappy) late into the mix feels unnecessary because he doesn’t have much to do. I get the impression Black became available after the script was completed and went through a small revision to include him. It’s all low-stakes but that’s what makes it a less intense experience than the first one, making it easier to recommend for smaller children…but parents should still heed the PG rating if your kid is of the nervous variety or else plan to invest in a nightlight.

I’m liking these low-impact scary films targeted at families more and more as studios start to get the idea of how to make them not quite so scary. While it isn’t something I would normally seek out in theaters, both Goosebumps films (and a second sequel hinted at in the finale) have been pleasant diversions to the more intense creepy fare that rises from the dead this time of the year.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
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Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?