Movie Review ~ Goosebumps

goosebumps_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Stars: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jillian Bell, Ryan Lee, Ken Marino,

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Before YA fiction was solely developed as a target market for the next big cinematic franchise there were actual stories to be read.  I was a voracious reader when I was younger (who has the time now?) and I loved latching on to a series of books that I could develop a rapport with.  There was a certain safety in finding multiple volumes of a continuing story or interconnected adventures that made reading exciting.

I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s more teen centered fare when I was at the target age and his Goosebumps series was developed for a slightly younger crowd.  Short, sweet, and filled with any number of nightmarish happenings that didn’t feel all that scary, these were thin page-turners that helped prep youngsters to sleep without a nightlight and explore loftier fare as they grew older.  I went back and read a few of the early works in advance of the big screen adaptation of Goosebumps and found them to be energetic, creative, and breezy reads.  No wonder they’ve spawned several spin off novels, a T.V. series, and a handful of T.V. movies.

So the time had finally come to make a Goosebumps movie and the question was, which of the hundreds of stories to tell?  In a smart move, screenwriters Mike White and Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) mashed many of the memorable monsters together in one film, front-loading their movie with fan favorites and several of the lesser known creepies that Stine thought up over the years.  In a further meta-twist, R.L. Stine would actually be a central character in the film, with the plot involving the secretive author helping teens in a small town after they accidentally release a bevy of ghoulish delights that escaped from Stine’s library.

Director Rob Letterman has cast the film with a strong roster of young and old talent and the movie has a Jumanji-like feel to it that made it a perfect choice for an early fall evening.  I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the film for the first hour or so until some budget conscious special effects took center stage and the movie became less interesting with each passing oogy-boogy moment.  What starts as a pleasantly genuine mystery/adventure turns into another run-of-the-mill everything-but-the-kitchen sink kinda experience.

As R.L. Stine, Jack Black (The D Train) is mostly amusing until you realize that he’s on auto-pilot, recycling the same manic seriousness that is his fallback whenever he’s feeling less than challenged. Employing his strange British accent (the real Stine hails from Ohio) and wide-eyed double takes, Black at least believes every line he says and commits fully.  Still, I find myself longing for the actor to continue to take steps outside of his usual shtick…like his stellar work in Bernie shows he is more than capable of.

Dylan Minnette (Prisoners) is a nice all-American teenager next door, a big city transplant to the small town where his mother (an underused Amy Ryan, Bridge of Spies) is the new vice principal.  Living next door to Stine he becomes enamored with his daughter (Odeya Rush, The Gift) who has secrets of her own.  The comic relief of the film comes from Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) as Ryan’s flighty aunt and Ryan Lee (This is 40) as Minnette’s buck-toothed buddy.  Coming off as a young Don Knotts, Lee steals every scene he’s in, providing some genuine belly laughs along the way.

Though rated PG, this is one that parents should consider watching first before letting their younger tykes screen it.  I found the film to be fairly frightening and a little intense when the monsters get loose.  It’s one thing to read about these creepy crawlies but it’s another thing altogether to see them come to life on a very big screen (in 3D if you’re willing to pay for it).  Judging by the squeals and shrieks from the young audience I saw it with, parents will want to tread carefully.

Even with some misguided moments near the end, the film is welcome fall fare and nice counter programming to the scary adult offerings October usually brings.

Movie Review ~ Freeheld

freeheld_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.