Wish Upon (2017)

JULY 14, 2017


I know I'm not the target audience for teen horror movies, so all I really ask of them is that they're OK enough timekillers and something I can watch with my son in a few years when I deem him old enough for PG/PG-13 fare. But I'd rather he went out and got laid than stayed home wasting his time and insulting his intelligence with Wish Upon, a hopelessly sloppy "Monkey's Paw" variant that can barely get the basics right, let alone what little it adds to the table - I'd wait until he was old enough to get drunk with me and "appreciate" nonsense like this. And by that I mean also laugh at (not "with") all of its clunky writing, at times abysmal direction, and shockingly horror-lite approach to this sort of thing.

In fact, one of the two nice things I can say about the movie is that it doesn't have any fake scares or even that many BOO! moments at all - everything just kind of happens with a shrug, usually telegraphed (poorly) long before it actually occurs. At times, director John Leonetti (Annabelle) and screenwriter Barbara Marshall (co-writer of the pretty good Blumhouse "Tilt" release Viral) throw in some mild Final Destination-y suspense to the proceedings, but otherwise it's only a horror movie in the technical sense - there is only one or two moments in the movie that might make even the least discerning teenage audience shriek, but even they might just laugh at it instead (like I did, sober and by myself at a 10:30 am screening). I give them credit for not falling prey to the "We need to get them jumping every five minutes!" mentality that has sullied any number of horror films aimed at the younger set, but they went too far in the opposite direction.

And that would be fine if the story and characters were involving enough to not even notice, but the script (or, at least, this representation of it - more on that soon) never gives its solid cast anything to work with, and everyone is a stereotype. Our heroine (Joey King) is a high school outcast with two friends of similar social standing, and since she's brunette her class nemesis is a blonde girl of no other distinction, and pretty much everyone else exists only to serve as a victim to the wish box's hazily explained rules. See, this isn't the usual "Monkey's Paw" kind of thing where the wish comes back ironically (like, you wish for someone to be alive and they come back as a zombie) - she gets her wishes and they work as intended, but later on (there's no rhyme or reason to when) the box will open and play some music, at which time it kills someone who had nothing to do with her wish, and in some cases is so unnecessary to the narrative that no one notices they're dead for a few days. There's no real reason for this other than to ensure it takes her most of the movie to figure out the connection between her wishes and people in her life dying, and Marshall botches what I guess was an inadvertent cause and effect scenario: her wish for a crush's returned affections leads to her uncle being killed, and then she wishes to get everything from his will. It'd be ludicrous, but at least kind of cool, to have the box - an old hand at this by now - continue this sort of chain, so that each death inadvertently inspires the next wish in order to keep things moving along, but that's the only time there's any sort of relation (and again, it's not acknowledged anyway).

The other nice thing I can say is that her wishes are typical teenager nonsense: she wishes to be popular, she wishes her dad (Ryan Philippe!) wasn't such an embarrassment (he's a dumpster diver, even though they own a big house), she wishes her bully would "just rot" (not "die", notice). She doesn't go big (a friend admonishes her for not curing cancer) or even particularly "bad" - she just asks for stuff any selfish 16 year old girl might wish for. Since the deaths have no relation and she doesn't even notice most (even her uncle's barely registers much of a reaction) you could remove them from the first hour of the movie and it wouldn't even really change anything; it'd just be a movie about a girl making her life better thanks to some Chinese box her dad found in a dumpster one day. By the time she actually notices (actually, she doesn't - her would-be boyfriend does the legwork and flat out tells her) that her wishes have deadly consequences, the movie is far past the point of being saved, with only the idiotic death scenes to occasionally give it some unintentionally hilarious life.

Now, we all know that horror movie characters have to occasionally act stupid for the plot to work. It's just how it is, and it's something we just accept, like sound in space or everyone in a musical knowing the words to a seemingly spontaneous song. But the Wish Upon creative team forces its actors to at times even unnaturally contort their bodies to make their not-great (and not even original) death scenes work, in particular Sherilyn Fenn's garbage disposal one. Like all disposal scenes in horror movies, something goes down the drain and we get a bunch of shots of their hand reaching around in the drain cut with shots of the switch that will turn it on - except this switch isn't on the wall like a normal one - it's BY HER WAIST BELOW THE COUNTER! I can't imagine anything more idiotic, or at least I thought I couldn't - because 30 seconds later she goes for a closer look at the drain and starts awkwardly shaking her head around just to get her long hair in there, and then awkwardly moving again in order to bump the switch and send her to her doom. There's also a bit where Philippe is changing his tire and one of the lug-nuts goes under his car - does he use the tire iron to pull it back? Of course not, he climbs completely under his car (it never occurs to him to just go to the other side of the car to get it, since it's clearly closer to it) so that we can get some half-assed suspense about whether or not the car will fall on him. Another character is also encouraged to awkwardly lean far from his ladder while cutting a tree branch, to the extent where I began wondering if these characters were all suicidal.

Speaking of suicide (my transitions are on fucking POINT), the film begins with a woman hanging herself after throwing away something wrapped up so that we can't see it, but the dog is afraid of it and she gives about forty seven worried glances at the trashcan before going inside to start noosin'. If you've never seen a movie (hell, if you're not even sure what a movie IS) you can still know instantly that the thing is the wish box that will soon wreak havoc on our heroine's life (said woman is her mom, by the way), and yet the movie treats this as a big reveal for some reason, and it's never clear what exactly mom wished for. We can assume it has something to do with the aforementioned uncle character, who Philippe doesn't like much and even tells his daughter not to talk to him, but the reason for his excommunication is never explained. The box also gets one tragic backstory too many, as we learn about its origins from a Chinese woman during the bubonic plague in the 14th century, but then our exposition dumper throws in a few seconds' worth of what I'm betting was originally a full prologue scene starring Jerry O'Connell (think Drew Barrymore or, more recently, Billy Burke in Lights Out), a man who used the box to get a car dealership or something but then his life was torn asunder - it was hard to get the details because I was too distracted by Jerry O'Connell (and Rebecca Romijn!) suddenly appearing in a flurry of random wordless shots, 75 minutes into a movie that had already burned through two other "Older star cashing a paycheck" performances (Fenn and Elizabeth Rohm being the others).

There are other sloppy bits as well; there's an establishing shot that looks like they grabbed it off a VHS tape, and for some reason the main house King and Philippe live in changes each time we see it - when they first move in and throughout the film we can see it's a two or three story white mansion, but then at other times the house is established as a single floor extended ranch kind of deal. King freaks out over her friend (Barb from Stranger Things, basically playing Barb here as well) taking the box from her, but it's not until about 30 seconds after her reaction and subsequent tirade that we even see the box to know what she's talking about, because Leonetti didn't bother to include a cutaway to the damn thing. I know the film had its death scenes trimmed for a PG-13 rating (why they'd shoot R rated deaths for a teenager's wish-fulfillment thriller is beyond me), but there is plenty of evidence to suggest they cut more than the gory bits, and I'm curious if the promised extended Blu-ray will make more sense out of some of its subplots.

Long story short, it's another one to add to the pile of this year's "Not even as good as the "eh" I was expecting" efforts like Rings and The Bye Bye Man, though this at least has a slight edge over those thanks to its unintentional hilarity (there's a bit involving someone getting hit by a car that rivals Meet Joe Black for its misguided excess), and again, I appreciated that they weren't trying to make me jump out of my seat at doorbells and dogs barking and things like that. The idea of getting your actual wishes but making something else awful happen is intriguing (it's not dissimilar from The Box in that regard, sans all the alien shit Richard Kelly added to the scenario), but the aforementioned sloppiness and bad-even-by-teen-horror-standards characterization make it impossible to care about anything that's happening any more than King's character does.

What say you?

P.S. Stay for halfway through the credits for the most obvious and eye-rolling sequel setup ever! Or don't bother since you'll know exactly what it is once the movie has its first ending anyway!


The Mummy (2017)

JUNE 25, 2017


Much like DC (which is only now getting it right with Wonder Woman), Universal is going about their idea to create a new shared movie universe based on all of their classic monster characters - Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, etc. I'm all for the gamble - the old ones crossed over anyway, and successful big budget horror (or, "horror") films can only help the greater good. Things were supposed to kick off with Dracula Untold, but pre-release press for The Mummy suggested that one has been retconned out of the grander plan for some reason. Well, I mean, the reason might be that it was not a big success nor was it liked all that much, but same goes for this goddamn movie (in fact it got even worse reviews), and Dracula didn't have one of the most dependable actors in the world starring in it, so in some ways Mummy is an even bigger flop (both films managed to make back their money thanks to overseas grosses, for what it's worth). The next one is Bride of Frankenstein, inexplicably coming before any actual Frankenstein film, so it seems to me they really don't know what the hell they're doing.

(For more evidence: they've also cast Johnny Depp in one of the proposed films.)

Anyway, I can't say I would be opposed to the idea of Tom Cruise going against the other monsters down the road, because he's Tom Cruise and I will watch him do anything, but this film does not inspire much confidence for their franchise or even a straightforward sequel. There's a great video online of Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking to a film class about how they hate big budget movies that can be broken down with "And then this happens, and then this happens" (as opposed to "This happens, which causes this to happen, which results in this happening", etc), and even though it's a few years old they might as well be talking about this movie, which is never boring as far as "stuff is happening!" goes, but I couldn't tell you much about WHY any of it was happening, and I certainly never cared about a goddamn person in it. The movie was so weightless that at one point I woke up without realizing I had ever fallen asleep, and couldn't tell if I had missed 30 seconds or 30 minutes based on how little engagement the film had provided until that point anyway.

Sadly, per the Wiki synopsis it turns out that what I missed (it turned out to be about five minutes, maybe) was a scene with Russell Crowe, who is the only good thing about the movie as he's clearly having fun and using a goofy accent on occasion for good measure, so I was at least charmed by his scenery chewing silliness. He's playing Dr. Henry Jekyll, a character that has been inexplicably refashioned into a sort of ringleader for a secret society of folks who take down supernatural entities. So he's a good guy in theory, but since he wants to kill Cruise (which will allow the film's female villain mummy, Ahmanet, to complete a ritual that will allow Jekyll to kill HER in turn) and also turns into Mr. Hyde for a few minutes the movie treats him as a secondary antagonist, which was a boneheaded call. Worse, we in the audience have to try to figure out how much of the actual Jekyll - i.e. the one moviegoers are familiar with - is still part of this character's story, since he's basically playing the exact same role as Colin Farrell in last year's Fantastic Beasts (he's even introduced the same way, waltzing into an area where workers are trying to clean up and throwing his weight around) instead of the usual scientist, and thus his split personality has no bearing on anything. You could cut his Hyde freakout entirely and it wouldn't make a lick of difference.

In fact you could cut any chunk out and it wouldn't matter. The editors (three of them credited) certainly did, as Annabelle Wallis' character has an awkward introduction that seems recreated with looping in order to hide what was an actual intro that got lost along the way. I also doubt Courtney B. Vance was hired to play such a thankless role as Cruise's superior (one of many things that suggest Cruise's role was written for someone younger; Vance is only like 3 years older than him but he treats Cruise like a rookie he'd like to kick in the ass) who has less than five minutes of screentime, and several other scenes seemingly come out of nowhere, as if there was more connective tissue (read: slower dialogue scenes) that got excised in order to ensure the audience never had to go more than 16 seconds without seeing another CGI effect. Once Cruise is "killed" (as seen in the trailer) and revived, the movie is little more than an endless chase scene where Cruise and Wallis dodge CGI (they even outrun a flood at one point) while trying to... well, I have no idea. They don't have any particular goal, no "We must return the stone to the tomb" or any kind of silly ticking clock scenario to deal with - they're just basically trying to not die, and run until the movie has reached a runtime that is acceptable for a film that cost $125m (at least).

One thing I can give it some credit for, however: it's closer to horror movie than the Brendan Fraser version. Ahmanet is constantly sucking the life out of dudes (it's very Lifeforce) and conjuring zombie minions and the like to do her bidding, and director Alex Kurtzman keeps things fairly dark unlike the more sun-drenched Stephen Sommers films. It's still more of an action-adventure film than horror, but the balance is better than I expected, so for that I can give them some credit. I'm not sure why Universal is hellbent on creating a "monster" universe that downplays the monstrous side of things, but at least they're not totally dropping the genre angle. There's a bit where Cruise gets swarmed by bugs that's genuinely unnerving, and the scenes with Jake Johnson (as Cruise's best bud) are mostly lifted straight out of American Werewolf in London, as Johnson is a zombie/ghost thing that shows up to tell his still-living friend what's going on. I can't see how Bride of Frankenstein (from Bill Condon, no less) will be anything but a gothic romance/horror, but hopefully if this series goes forward it they embrace the horror elements as much as possible - I get that they can't go full R with these big budgets (and future installments being planned), but there's no need to turn all the monsters into superheroes. We have those in the other cinematic universe movies - make this stand out!

I also hope future films have zero involvement from Alex Kurtzman, who has proven time and time again that he is a simply awful storyteller. I can't imagine anyone trying to make sense out of this film if they had no previous knowledge of (and, more importantly, affection for) these characters, and more than once I was reminded of the Transformers films that he co-wrote. Everything is a big climax, everything is spectacle, and there's nothing holding it all together - the "slow moments" exist for no other reason than to provide the characters with an excuse to change locations before all the chaos starts again. He's one of the many filmmakers of modern times who seem to have never learned that action can't continue to be exciting when there's never any break from it. Even a movie like Speed, which is literally "non-stop" (since, you know, the bus can't stop) takes time to just let the bus be driving along without obstacles so the characters can talk, or cut back to Jeff Daniels (or even Dennis Hopper) doing non-action stuff, before they get back to the next impending disaster. Kurtzman's version of Speed would be an endless series of "Oh no the bridge isn't finished!" moments with zero dialogue beyond "Oh no!" and "Get down!" type of shit, and we'd be rooting for the bus to explode after 20 minutes.

Unfortunately he's set to produce them all, so unless they drop him like they did Dracula Untold, there's little reason to be hopeful. I mean, separate from all this shit I can't think of a better potential director for a Bride of Frankenstein remake than Bill Condon, but I also don't know how much influence Kurtzman will have over it and if Condon will have to acquiesce to including any of this film's characters and/or shoehorning in some introductory roles for ones from the next films (Depp's Invisible Man and, presumably, a new Dracula, since it'd be weird to leave him out). After some missteps in the middle there (Iron Man 2 being the worst offender), Marvel finally figured out how to keep their films from feeling like extended previews for the upcoming ones, and it seems DC has gotten it under control as well since Wonder Woman saves such crap for its bookending scenes (basically just a reference to an unseen Bruce Wayne), so there's hope Universal can follow suit. They'd be best to just let Condon be and figure out how to tie them together later, i.e. once they've gotten to a point where they've made a movie or two that people actually like. You know, like they did in the 1930s and 40s anyway.

What say you?


Here Alone (2016)

JUNE 21, 2017


Since I'm a lazy jerk, over the years I've seen a number of films that were more or less exactly like ideas I had and never got around to fleshing out. But I'm never too annoyed by their existence; good for them for being more productive than I am! Especially when they turn out good, as is the case with Here Alone, which is about 75% similar to an idea I had for a zombie movie that focused more on the survival elements than zombie action. Whenever we see a survivor type in a zombie world, he/she has already gotten their shelter secured, their routine down to a science, etc - I'm more interested in how they established those things, i.e. the part that usually gets skipped over.

(It's similar to how annoyed I was with Cast Away skipping four years - I want to see the whole process of him learning how to chuck a spear and kill a fish!)

Needless to say, Here Alone focuses on some of that, depicting a lone survivor (Ann, played by Lucy Walters) who lost her family somewhere along the way and is now scavenging for food, trying to stay out of danger, etc. It's a slow-paced movie that keeps zombie stuff to a minimum, but that's fine - I was legit more entertained by scenes like the one where she inspects some berries and ruffles through a little survival guide trying to figure out if they were safe to eat than I was with any of the rather generic undead action. Eventually she meets a pair of fellow survivors, a man named Chris and his stepdaughter Olivia, and things take on a more traditional "band of survivors argue about what to do next" zombie movie motif, but the focus is still on the humans and the empty world, instead of run n' gun zombie stuff that we can see anywhere.

Comparisons to the likes of The Road and Stake Land are fair; it's a bummer movie with lots of outdoor scenery accompanied by pretty music (I watched with captions and "somber orchestral music" appeared every 2-3 minutes), but if anything there's even less action than in those (well, Stake Land for sure had more - not sure about The Road, as I barely remember it and don't ever want to revisit). We got pretty burned out on the more Romero-y wannabe stuff in the past decade, so I'm fine with these more moody takes on the zombie apocalypse, but I do wish someone could find a way to do one in a suburban area, as I'm tired of looking at endless miles of trees in these things. I get that it's easier to secure a patch of woods on a low budget than it is, so I don't begrudge the indie filmmakers for going that route (this film was at least partially crowd-funded, in fact); it's more of a wish that the studios would try something in this vein. One of my favorite non-horror movies in recent memory was All Is Lost, which was nothing more than Robert Redford on a sinking boat - the zombie movie equivalent with a marquee draw like Kurt Russell or someone who isn't adverse to taking on unusual projects would be fascinating, I think.

Keeping things a little more compelling is the film's flashback heavy structure, cutting between Ann and her new friends in the present day and older scenes with her family, when the outbreak was just starting. Her husband (Shane West) teaches her a few survival skills and how to shoot, but really the main thrust of this stuff is "How did the baby die?", which is naturally kept secret until the film has almost concluded. I'm thankfully not as easily shaken by this stuff as I was in the first year or two of being a father, so this stuff, while sad, didn't leave me curled up in fetal position like it would have back then - my main personal sadness came from the little baby's cute pajamas, the kind my kid is now too big for. I miss those things! So snuggly. Anyway, nothing about this stuff will surprise you, but it makes sense why they try to sync it up with the present day events, offering something that feels like a particularly grim episode of Lost.

As for the zombie action, like I said it's nothing special, though I liked that the characters were far more concerned with simply staying out of their way than with killing them all. Ann locks herself in an ice chest at one point just to avoid ONE, even though she was in a kitchen that presumably had some knives or a rolling pin or something to ward it off. And they're often covering themselves with mud (or excrement? The IMDb said it was that) to hide their scent so they can get around without triggering any nearby walkers - it's an impressively inexpensive way to bypass the pricier action, and it actually makes things more suspenseful, as watching them mow down dozens of anonymous zombies would get tiresome, especially with such a limited cast. It's one thing for The Walking Dead to offer that sort of thing since people get killed off all the time, but with only three people there's only so much they could get away with before it became ridiculous that no one had been hurt/killed.

So if you like these slower kind of zombie films, it's worth seeing for sure; nothing about it is particularly unique, but it tells its simple story well, and I always, ALWAYS champion a zombie film that doesn't shoehorn in a bunch of evil humans in the third act (there is a minor human conflict, but it's far more interesting than the umpteenth "We can take the world for ourselves" kind of villain). The score is good and Walters handles the two sides of her character (scared mom and weary loner) well, allowing the film to hold my attention where so many others have failed. I should note I had to watch it for work, and it's the first one in a while that I felt like writing about after (I see at least 2-3 every week for this job), as so many of them just leave no impression. Good to know there are these minor gems still coming my way; if I was still doing the site daily I'm sure I would have seen it, but with such a massive drop in my "intake" I always wonder how many films like this will forever pass me by. Being paid to discover one is such a win-win!

What say you?


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