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
:

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?

Movie Review ~ Goosebumps

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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.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

The Silver Bullet ~ Goosebumps (2015)

goosebumps

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

Release Date:  October 16, 2015

Thoughts: The series of novels from which this new Jack Black fantasy is based on was a little after my time.  I grew up in the days of Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan suspense novels and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps page-turners were geared toward the grades below my interest level.  Truth be told, the movie has my curiosity slightly piqued…but then again I’m a fan of campy creepers like The Monster Squad and Waxwork.  If I had to draw another comparison based on this first look at the October release, I’d toss Jumanji out there…and we all know how that one turned out.  Still, it’s rare to have a Halloween film aimed squarely at the PG set so the inner child in me won’t mind sidling up to the scares…however light they appear to be.

Movie Review ~ The D Train

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The head of a high school reunion committee travels to Los Angeles to track down the most popular guy from his graduating class and convince him to go to the reunion.

Stars: James Marsden, Jack Black, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, Kathryn Hahn, Henry Zebrowski, Kyle Bornheimer, Adria Tennor, Russell Posner

Director: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I used to be a movie-goer that loved to see previews of coming attractions sometimes more than the feature presentations themselves.  I’d consider being late to a movie if even one preview had unspooled…but over time the fifteen minutes worth of trailers took their toll on me and I was exhausted before the movie even began.  A nice part of being a critic and seeing screenings of films in advance is quite often there won’t be any previews before a movie…cutting down on my exasperated saturation of seeing the same teaser over and over and over again.

I mention this right away in my review of The D Train because it was one of those rare flicks I went into without ever having seen a preview or reading much about it.  All I knew was that it starred Jack Black (Bernie), James Marsden (Robot & Frank), and Kathryn Hahn (Bad Words) and that was good enough for me.  While not the biggest Jack Black fan in existence (his shtick having long since worn out its welcome on me in the mid-2000s) I’ve come to appreciate that the actor has taken some risks at this stage in his career.

The D Train is another risk that’s paid off not only for Black but Marsden too.  While not graced with the most profound character arcs thanks to writer/director Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul’s almost fully formed script, the two actors deliver surprisingly effective performances that are even-keeled and grounded even with some unexpected twists and turns that pop up.

Black plays another middle-aged everyman but this time the actor makes his Average Joe a human being and not some overgrown man-child.  The head (more figurehead) of his high-school reunion committee, Black works for a non-descript boss (Jeffrey Tambor, The Hangover Part III) at a non-descript job in a non-descript office that isn’t even wired for high-speed internet.  Though he has a loving, high-school sweetheart wife (Hahn) and kids he’s flatlining and knows it.

That all changes when he catches a commercial late at night featuring a high-school classmate (Marsden) that moved to LA shortly after graduating.  Hatching a plan to up the reunion attendance and at the same time becoming a local hero by convincing the “star” classmate to attend the reunion, Black travels to California to reconnect with an old pal that can’t remember him.

Up to this point, Mogel and Paul have kept things pretty standard fare.  Even a hackneyed scheme for Black to get his company to pay for his trip out west seems like something out of an ‘80s comedy checklist.  When Black arrives in LA, though, things take an unexpected turn that I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Needless to say, it instantly ups the ante of Black and Marsden’s comedic stock and elevates the picture from being just another screw-up-makes-good farce.

That’s not to say it’s totally smooth sailing from then on out.  There’s more than a few slow sections in the third act of the film and the resolution seems a bit too pat considering all the carefully placed turns that came before; however at the end of the day I was more impressed with the comedy than I thought I would be.  There’s a certain sweetness to it and Black makes for a charmingly hapless sad sack dealing with a lot of feelings he hadn’t planned on exploring.  Marsden is one of the gamest actors out there, willing to play against type and trade on his looks if the part calls for it.  Make no mistake, though, the actor is always 100% aware of what he’s doing, which at times means you can see him stretching to be acknowledged for coloring outside the lines.  While she’s become known for being a gifted comic actress, Hahn has dramatic chops to counter the laughs and those are put to good use here as well.

With its retro synth score and overall old school ambiance, The D Train would be a film I’d think ‘80s maestro John Hughes would have given his stamp of approval to.  In a season getting stuffed with big budget action lollapaloozas and high concept studio comedies, you’re encouraged to hop on the indie goodness of The D Train.