“Wish Upon”



Girl finds mysterious Chinese wishing box. Girl makes shallow wishes. People around her die. That’s all you really need to know about “Wish Upon,” a lame scarer aimed at the preteen Disney set. The recycled plot isn’t the worst thing in the horror world, but the movie’s timid attempt at horror comes close. Can you really call a movie like this “disappointing” when you expect nothing from it in the first place?

The perpetually irritating Joey King is Clare, an unpopular high schooler dealing with being bullied by mean girls and being constantly embarrassed by her dumpster diving dad (Ryan Phillippe). People close to Clare (but not too close) begin dying in supposedly horrific ways after she makes lame wishes with her magic demon box. It takes her quite a while to catch on to what’s happening, but even the carnage doesn’t stop her from making more demands of the box.

One thing the film gets right is the type of wishes a teenage girl would make, even after realizing they all have a “blood price.” World peace? A cure for cancer? Eradicating hunger across the globe? Nah, she instead chooses to be rich, popular, and idolized by the dreamboat in third period.

Looking for suspense and real terror? You aren’t going to find it here. There’s nothing horrifying about this story and the blood and gore is as tame as they come. I suppose this would be a good “starter” PG-13 horror film for an eleven year old. There aren’t even that many cheap jump scares and the only thing that builds suspense are the hints about the method in which people close to Clare will die (although this sort of tease was done much better in “Hot Tub Time Machine” with the armless bellhop). My emotional detachment from the characters grew so rapidly that I didn’t care who lived or died.

This film isn’t fun at all and would be better suited as a direct to video release. The camp (including a ridiculous scene of Phillippe playing a saxophone) isn’t intentional or entertaining, and the movie never gets so lousy that it becomes funny — it just remains lousy.


You want a horror movie like “The Box” but that’s made specifically to appeal to teens? Be careful what you wish for, because you just might end up with a toothless, PG-13 retread of a story that’s already been done countless times. And that’s precisely what we got with “Wish Upon.”

The most frustrating thing about “Wish Upon” is the protagonist, Clare Shannon (Joey King) takes a maddeningly long time to figure out that her wishes have a terrible price. Wish after wish, she starts to realize that things aren’t working out precisely as she had hoped, and at the same time she starts losing friends and family members. But somehow she never puts two and two together and continues making the same mistake over and over again. And, while we as the audience continue to become more and more frustrated with Clare’s stupidity, we are still expected to sympathize with her — a difficult task.

So we have an unsympathetic protagonist hell-bent on repeating her past mistakes; do the horror elements of the story redeem the film? Sadly, not really. The only interesting death is spoiled by the trailer, and the PG-13ness of it really neuters its effectiveness.

For teenagers looking to get out of the house for the summer, “Wish Upon” might be just entertaining enough to justify going to the theater. Everyone else should skip it.

“Band Aid”



I often complain that indie films would be so much better with tons of editing, and once again it’s true with “Band Aid,” an intensely personal movie from filmmaker Zoe Lister-Jones. Jones wrote and directed this intimate story, but oh how I wish someone had helped her shave about 20 minutes off the run time. This film is only 94 minutes but it feels like a six hour miniseries, and I guarantee you’ll be worn out by the end.

The story centers around Uber driver Anna (Lister) and her lazy husband Ben (a perfectly cast Adam Pally), a millennial couple who simply can’t stop fighting — about everything. After a particularly knock-down drag-out f-bomb fueled yelling match, they decide to turn their arguments into songs and soon form a garage band with weirdo next door sex addict neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen). The premise sounds goofy and fun, but this isn’t a feel good comedy.

The film takes a dark turn when it becomes clear that the couple’s constant bickering only scratches the surface of something far more tragic, where it then rolls into a study of monumental, unspoken grief. While this shift should feel natural and effortless, it comes across as stiff with a forced sentimentality usually reserved for the worst theatrical movies of the week. This entire movie is caustic in every way possible, even when it succeeds at mustering up some laughs.

Lister seems to be quite full of herself as a triple threat writer, actor and director, but her obvious love for her own material has blinded her across all departments. When you have such a strong personal investment in a project, it often becomes difficult to know what to put in and what to leave out — and Lister needed to leave out a lot. Because there’s so much stuffed in each scene, the film suffers and becomes a bit of a bore.

Armisen adds some genuine comic relief but his character seems so out of place that it’s like he stumbled onto the wrong set and belongs in a different movie altogether. Pally is great as always, and this role will prove to serve him well on his rise to indie darling status.

“Band Aid” is still a mildly successful movie overall and if you’re a fan of intimate, personal stories, this one is worth seeing. But be forewarned that this is more of a feel-bad exercise than an enjoyable, fun rom-com.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”



If you want the good news before the bad, here it goes: Tom Holland, following in the footsteps of the home run that Marvel has earned from its casting decisions, is the perfect Spider-Man. The studio suits finally got it right with him, and he fits the character with a charming immaturity that is so charismatic you can’t help but love him. I wish I had more positive things to say about “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but that’s where the glowing praise is going to end.

At least this is the best Spider-Man movie of the entire series (which isn’t saying much). It took six (yes, six!) screenwriters to put together this story, which in itself should start those alarm bells ringing in your ears. “Homecoming” attempts to give a fresh take on the franchise by exploring Peter Parker’s new transition into a serious superhero. Instead of parading Peter’s elaborate back story, the film assumes that its audience is already familiar enough with the origin of the character (which is fantastic).

The timeline of this story picks up with Peter living in New York City with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). He has an internship of sorts for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and is thrilled to be taken seriously in his fancy new technologically advanced suit (also courtesy of Mr. Stark). As he attempts to navigate the pains of high school life with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while struggling to balance his new crime fighting alter-ego, Peter discovers a new weapons hungry villain called the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and gets in way over his head when he tries to single-handedly save the day.

The movie creates an atmosphere that’s overtly geared toward a preteen audience, and there’s not one thing wrong with that. But while the movie is entertaining enough, something just seems totally “off” about the whole thing. First there’s a forced multicultural aspect that is super obvious and distracting in its desperation to appear all-inclusive (look at the “Fast & Furious” franchise for sincere, organic multicultural casting). Second, there are several examples of dialogue that seem hell bent on offending or poking fun at the core adult nerd audience of comic book based films, like when Stark takes a snarky dig at fanboy writers (“these are real reporters too, not bloggers”). Some of the sarcasm works well, and most of it comes courtesy of Captain America (Chris Evans) in a series of very funny PSA videos.

What wrecked the movie for me is how fake Spider-Man looks when he’s swinging through the air and cutting back flips all over town. Look, if animators can make the most incredible realistic looking talking chimps in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” then surely these artists can animate Spider-Man so he doesn’t look like a low budget cartoon. The handful of effects that aren’t a complete failure are just so rowdy and noisy that they get lost in the spectacle.

I’ve never been a fan of Spider-Man and this film failed to win me over. I know many of you love the web slinging superhero and if you do, you’ll probably love this film and its new direction. When you see the movie, make sure you stay until the very end of the credits for a good laugh — although I think dry irony still looks the best on Deadpool.

“Beatriz at Dinner”



I can wholly appreciate what screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta are attempting to convey with their mildly incendiary satire “Beatriz at Dinner,” but it’s just too bad that neither could figure out a rewarding ending for this political drama. The story of a Mexican immigrant (Salma Hayek) who finds herself uncomfortably thrust into position as a guest at a 1%-ers dinner party is not exactly enjoyable, but it sure is unforgettable.

Hayek is Beatriz, a kind and hardworking immigrant from a very poor town in Mexico. She has a spiritual sensibility and promotes natural healing and massage to aid cancer patients in Los Angeles. After making a massage house call to the mother (Connie Britton) of one of her former patients, her car breaks down and she is invited to stay the night — and join the group for their business dinner party. The evening’s guests include a cutthroat, endangered species slaughtering billionaire (John Lithgow) and a young couple celebrating their newfound wealth (Jay Duplass and Chloë Sevigny), environment be damned. These are pretty damn unlikable white people and as the lone truly kindhearted person, never mind her plain clothes and instantly being mistaken for “the help,” Beatriz is already the odd man out.

This is a very interesting idea for a film, and it’s as timely as it is disarming. Add this to another in the long list of fantastic performances from Hayak, an actress who is coming into her own lately. Here she has an alarmingly intense yet soft delivery that gives a great sense of what it feels like to be a true outsider among the elite. It’s a fish out of water tale that, while it’s undeniably a liberal fantasy story, is sure to spark many heated discussions.

Think of it as being a little preachy but with a whisper of subversiveness. This isn’t an action-packed film where much really happens on the surface, but its clear condemnation of the detrimental aspects of capitalism and the loss of basic human decency in the ‘Age of Trump’ are themes that I wish weren’t as relevant as they are. That being said, the movie could’ve done so much more to bring the point home.

The film’s breezy 83 minute run time means nothing ever feels slow, and watching as the interactions between the “haves” and the “have-not” start to take their toll on Beatriz’s mental state feels unrelentingly real. Lithgow’s slimy criminal real estate developer is a man you instantly hate as soon as he appears onscreen, and the evening grows more uncomfortable as drinks are consumed and truths are no longer left unspoken.

The film unfortunately ends with an unsatisfying (yet haunting) conclusion that feels more like the screenwriter was flailing around and scrambling for ideas at how to bookend a final chapter on his story than something profound. The finished product is executed well enough, but I left wanting so much more.

“War for the Planet of the Apes”



“War for the Planet of the Apes” thankfully isn’t just another reheated, inarticulate summertime sequel. This is movie isn’t exactly tons of fun, but it is a sci-fi project that’s culturally relevant, philosophical, and considerably dark. The third chapter in the popular rebooted franchise is also thoughtful and smart, with some mindless fiery action hero explosion fun thrown in to keep audiences engaged.

This time around we find Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his charges hiding out in the forest to escape the war that’s raging with the humans. After a ruthless, psychotic Colonel (Woody Harrelson) discovers the hidden camp and wipes out many of the apes, Caesar vows to seek revenge. What he discovers when they finally meet face to face is a death camp for his species, and a struggle for the future of the planet ensues.

Summer blockbuster audiences are going to be sorely disappointed if they are expecting a literal “war.” This isn’t a nonstop battle movie with apes and humans going at it, it’s more of a psychological drama that’s excessively preachy and heavy-handed. There are far from subtle allusions to the inhumanity of slavery, the Bible, and the Holocaust, and the story crosses the fine line between homage and rip-off when it comes to both “The Great Escape” and “Apocalypse Now.” There isn’t much originality in the story — the filmmakers saved that for the special effects.

The film is a visual feast that relishes in being a true show-off (as it has every right to do, because this movie looks incredible). The sophistication of CGI in this film is in a class of its own. The apes look and feel real, to the point where you’ll never begin to take pause and question why you’re rooting for them to emerge victorious over your own species.

Aside from the breathtaking special effects, this one isn’t exactly a complete winner. Harrelson’s mentally unhinged Colonel is a great character that doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. Then there’s the strange Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a sort of comic relief character to soften the monkey torture going on in the next scene. We’re introduced to both Cornelius and Nova (Amiah Miller), which will delight fans of the retro Charlton Heston movies, but neither has much to do here.

Most disappointing is that the more thoughtful aspects of the film are all but wiped away with the end escape sequence, which is filled with dumbed down, unsubtle, Michael Bay-esque show-off shots like one of a giant grenade-strapped ape escaping from his one-dimensional evil human captors via a burning American flag with huge explosions all around. Yes, this really happens. Not joking.

If mainstream audiences aren’t already alienated by the gradual pacing and profound nature of the poignant narrative, those who aren’t too keen on reading subtitles will also hate this one because it’s captioned almost as much as a foreign film. The apes spend the majority of the film speaking through sign language. I feel this is worth mentioning because I remember years ago when half of my audience got up and walked out of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” because they didn’t want to have to read during the movie. (To that I say: get over yourselves).

While “War for the Planet of the Apes” might not be the traditional mindless fun blockbuster you’re expecting, it’s worth seeing for the visual effects alone. I’ve never seen a movie that looks quite like this, and the technical achievements are truly astounding.


Finally, a rebooted POTA movie with an actual beginning, middle, and end. Unlike the other two films in this new take on the franchise, “War for the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t focus solely on wowing us with computer-generated ape effects and instead works on the fundamentals — like telling a compelling story. I found myself quite engrossed in the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the conflict between his group of apes and a small human fighting force led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

Moreover, this was the first of these films that felt true to the original POTA series. As a fan of those movies, I very much enjoyed some of the backstory-filling references, which helped explain how this group of apes led to the ones Taylor met up with in the first film.

These motion-capture apes are (for the most part) convincingly lifelike and their motivations sympathetic. While there are some moments that appeal to the lowest common denominator — mostly those featuring Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who serves as the comic relief — for an effects-laden summer blockbuster, “War for the Planet of the Apes” was pretty darned enjoyable.

“47 Meters Down”



It’s always curious when a super low budget movie does well at the box office, and the killer shark flick “47 Meters Down” is, by all accounts, a big success. The project was slated to be a direct to video release but when the studio suits decided to take a chance and put it in theaters, the gamble paid off. So what does this tell us? That summer audiences will never tire of movies reminding them “don’t go in the water.”

Sisters Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore) are enjoying a relaxing vacation in Mexico when they are convinced by two cute local boys to try out cage diving. Wanting to live a little, the two decided to get up close and personal with the giant local sharks and hop on a rickety boat with sketchy tour operator Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine). This wouldn’t be a movie unless something goes wrong: the cable breaks and the girls are trapped inside the cage as it plummets 47 meters down onto the ocean floor.

The script is basic and most of the dialogue does nothing but state the obvious (we are reminded at least two dozen times that the oxygen tanks are dangerously low and they are soon going to “run out of air!”). The passable acting is as mediocre as you’d expect from a cast of bargain basement actors, but it doesn’t matter much because these are thinly developed characters. Think of it as a low budget B-movie with D-list actors and crappy CGI sharks.

Director Johannes Roberts stretches his modest $5 million budget to the limit, and it actually works well with the material. That means this isn’t action packed as most of the movie takes place with the two female leads trapped underwater in a cage and communicating via radio. The dark, murky water is perfect for obscuring the phony looking animated sharks — as well as the entry level acting.

The scenario is terrifying yet this PG-13 film isn’t very thrilling or even that scary, but there’s enough to keep teen girls squealing and newbies to the genre entertained. (For those of you who are pure horror fans, this should be on your “skip” list). It goes on a little too long (yes, even for its very short 89 minutes) and quickly gets super repetitive, and a lame attempt at a “gotcha” ending fizzles fast. But this is a nightmare scenario that’ll make most viewers swear off cage diving forever. And for that, I’d say it’s a mildly successful killer shark movie.

“Paris Can Wait”



“Paris Can Wait,” straight from the international film festival circuit, takes audiences on a culinary road trip through the French countryside. It sounds great until you quickly realize that you’d have been better off just staying at home.

Diane Lane is Anne, the wife of busy Hollywood movie producer Michael (Alec Baldwin). When he has to fly off to Hungary to put out fires on a film set, Anne decides to tag along on a road trip with charming assistant Jacques (Arnaud Viard). Of course, Jacques has other plans as he attempts to seductively woo Anne with a drawn out drive and plenty of fine French food and wine.

Foodie movies can be fun and road trip movies even more so, but not when they’re as poorly executed as this. Writer / director Eleanor Coppola, wife of Francis, has zero sense of style and timing, which leads to an uninteresting and tiresome movie. There are copious monotonous scenes of Anne taking a tiny bite of food, looking straight ahead, and saying “mmmm.” No, really. That’s the type of writing that counts as a substantial moment for the character.

Coppola isn’t skilled at filming food beautifully either, misusing her lens to quickly glance by plate after plate of creamy Brie, buttery escargot, and roasted lamb. Foodies want to see the food; I was yelling internally for her to “show me the cheese!” The film is definitely reminiscent of a low budget tourist ad for the French countryside, but it’s not even a good showcase for the beauty of the country or her cuisine. Think of it as a Food Network show for lonely-heart housewives that’s one step away from cancellation.

The biggest issue I have with the movie is that while its target audience is obviously female, Anne is almost completely defined by her husband. She just sits in the passenger seat while the man calls all the shots in quite the anti-feminist way. If this film is meant to be a journey of self discovery or a whirlwind torrid romance, it fails miserably and instead feels more like she’s a subordinate riding along in a powerful man’s world.

This flat travelogue also has a ridiculous, loosey-goosey “plot” and some of the worst dialogue of the year. Sit back and wait for gems like “it’s incredible” and “driving is the only way to see a country.” This project reeks of failed mumblecore, and you can tell the actors know it. The performances are bland and flavorless, the two leads have zero chemistry, zero motivation, and zero conflict — and it all comes back to the film’s lack of story line.

“Megan Leavey”



Animal lovers, get those Kleenex ready: the true life story of a U.S. Marine and her bomb-sniffing hero dog has been given the big screen treatment in the biopic “Megan Leavey.” This is a touching, uplifting story about companionship, devotion, and the lifelong friendship that develops from a mutual respect between a human and her animal.

Megan Leavey (Kate Mara, in a heartfelt and earnest performance) is a young Marine who, after a night of drinking and conduct unbecoming a soldier, is punished by being assigned to kennel cleaning duty in the military’s K9 unit. Eventually she is put in charge of training Rex, an extremely aggressive German Shepard. The two find that they both needed a little discipline and grow to understand each other.

Soon after, Megan is suddenly deployed to Iraq with her combat canine to sniff out bombs. (In real life, the pair completed more than 100 missions). When an IED explosion injures both of them, Megan is sent back home and Rex is assigned to a new trainer — but she won’t give up until she can adopt Rex and bring him home to live out the final years of his life with her.

It’s a fantastic true tale that’ll be a surefire hit with animal lovers (and women too), but it’s also something audiences rarely see: a military drama with great warmth. It’s not political, it’s not religious (as so many military movies are nowadays) — it’s just a good, old fashioned, all-American story.

There are some heavy undertones present, like the brief mention of PTSD that’s suffered by our soldiers of both the two legged and four legged variety, but the movie never gets too serious and instead chooses to go the uplifting route. Criticize that if you want, but the story is well told and stirring, and it manages to avoid the trap of launching into a sappy, overly melodramatic, clichéd mess. Yes, Megan “finds herself” by finding love and a special bond with her dog, but nothing about Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s direction or Pamela Gray‘s script feels hollow or hokey.

The performances radiate the utmost sincerity. I found myself fully invested in all of the characters, including Bradley Whitford and Edie Falco as Megan’s estranged parents, Common as her military boss, and Tom Felton and Ramon Rodriguez as two fellow soldiers.

Regardless of how you feel about our military, this movie will give you the highest respect for our servicemen and women and it may even make you want to stand up and cheer. And animal lovers: don’t forget those Kleenex.

“Despicable Me 3”



The ho-hum “Despicable Me 3” is trapped in its own world of “nots.” It’s not funny. It’s not touching. It’s not exciting. It’s not even remotely original. But at least it’s not unwatchable.

In this tired retread, Gru (Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are struggling with fighting evildoers and being parents to their trio of precocious adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Nev Scharrel). A family secret is unearthed, revealing that Gru has a charming long-lost twin brother Dru (also voiced by Carell). As Gru struggles to keep his promise of no longer being a nefarious villain, his brother has other plans and recruits his twin for one last heist.

It’s not a terrible story, but nothing really happens. There’s so much that could’ve been done here, but the film and its characters deserve far more than what we’re given: a fanciful cartoon with greatly missed potential. There aren’t enough quality scenes with the minions either, and the filmmakers know that’s what most audiences want to see. There’s an ill advised bit where the little yellow men end up in jail, giving us an unfunny, pointless break in the film.

Come to think of it, there isn’t much that’s entertaining at all except for Trey Parker‘s character Balthazarr Bratt, a Bazooka gum loving, shoulder pad clad super villain trapped in the the 1980s. It’s a funny idea that eventually feels like nothing more than a method to elicit chuckles of familiarity from disinterested parents by showing him breakdancing to Michael Jackson’s “Bad” or blasting out the opening notes to Van Halen’s “Jump” on his weapon of choice: a handheld keyboard. Yes, this is the kind of story idea that sadly passes for creative originality these days.

As expected, the animation and voice talent are both wonderful and there’s a lot of visual noise to keep the easily distracted young ‘uns appeased. But the reality is that colorful animation can only carry a series so far, and this franchise is quickly running out of steam.

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”



The trippy indie animated movie “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” feels a heck of a lot like it was dreamed up during an artistic hipster’s drug induced stupor. The film, written and directed by graphic novelist Dash Shaw, is an apocalyptic mind-bender about the many reasons why high school totally sucks.

The movie takes a look at one truly terrible day in the life of high school junior Dash (Jason Schwartzman), his nerdy best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts), high strung school paper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), and popular girl Mary (Lena Dunham). When an earthquake suddenly strikes, it sends their high school crumbling into the sea, and the kids must reach the senior level of the building before it’s too late. The gang encounters sharks, jellyfish, a jock-led cult, drug seeking bullies, and more, eventually enlisting the help of tough Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) to lead their escape to safety.

The simple plot is fattened up with extraneous padding in order to get to a feature length runtime of (an already brief) 75 minutes. The film is at its best when dark humor rules the scenes with a subversive snark; what a pity the idea starts to feel stretched too thin by the halfway point.

This is a really weird movie that’s packed with a kaleidoscopic vibe and psychedelic visuals that at times reads like a piece of experimental visual art. The eccentric backgrounds are colorful and delightfully garish, with inventive screen burns, crude hand-colored characters, and bits of digitally created handiwork thrown in the mix.

Shaw utilizes various media types to create a boldly original work of art, from uncomplicated pen and ink line drawings filled in with crayon and chalk to finger paint and dribbling watercolors. The action sequences rely heavily on the use of strobe lights, and there’s even a pre-credits warning that people with epilepsy may need to exit the theater.

This is a gonzo spirited adolescent disaster movie that artistic types are guaranteed to love.