Movie Review ~ Life (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: On the drive home after the screening of Life, I ran afoul of my partner after repeatedly referring to it as an ‘odd, little movie’.  At first thinking I was just lazily falling back on a casual turn of phrase, I began to agree with myself that for all its A-List star power, occasional scares, and well-executed special effects the film was a strange, small endeavor for all involved.  Not tiny enough to be a direct-to-video tax write-off and not big enough to be a major player in the summer months (though it was intended for a May 2017 release until Alien: Covenant moved its release date in close proximity), Life fits decently into the grey area between Oscar season and the mid-year blockbuster event films.

In an unusually long pre-title sequence, we meet the crew occupying the International Space Station as they intercept a satellite returning from Mars containing a specimen from the red planet.  As the camera glides from person to person, it feels less like an introduction and more like a location tour to help orient the audience for the action to come.  Macho Rory (Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool) is the wise-cracking dude of the team, Army vet David (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) is about to break the world record for most consecutive days in space which worries quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).  They join commanding officer Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, Jupiter Ascending), and pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, 47 Ronin) in marveling at the extraterrestrial life discovered when the Mars sample is thawed out.

Fascination turns to horror as the specimen, dubbed “Calvin”, begins to grow rapidly in mind and body, eventually escaping the confines of the lab and hunting down the crew one by one.  It’s Alien-like premise aside, there are a few surprises to be had in Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s script for Life as it takes some turns you may not be expecting.  Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) is no Ridley Scott, however, and the workmanlike way Life is compiled and its odd pacing gives it the feeling of a movie that desperately wants to be better than it is.

When Reynolds, Ferguson, and Gyllenhaal signed on, I’m betting they were counting on this being a summer release but truth be told the way the film is structured and performed it feels more like an art-house alternative to a sci-fi horror tent-pole picture.  Reynolds is on cruise control as his usual cool as a cucumber self while Gyllenhaal surprisingly rests a bit on his laurels and goes only halfway in crafting the haunted character he’s perfected in films like Enemy and Nightcrawler.  Only Ferguson seems to lock into her role, never over-doing the “company man” attitude or under-selling her rising terror that this creature may somehow find its way back to earth.

Had the movie only had three characters, it may have felt a bit less cramped…and been a bit easier to understand.  Dihovichnaya & Sanada’s thick accents make it difficult to understand them at times, which becomes a problem anytime they’re tasked with delivering key bits of information.  There’s an attempt to give Bakare an interesting back story in a briefly mentioned tangent as to how the wheelchair bound man is living out his dream of mobility in the anti-gravity playground above earth.  Alas, any deeper development is jettisoned in favor of more scenes of peril inflicted by the bloodthirsty fast evolving being that’s taken over the ISS.

While there are some solid special effects sequences that take place outside of the station, anything that happens inside had me alternately rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows.  Calvin flirts between an animated starfish-like object and a questionably created CGI monster that looks like an evil cousin to the benign alien creatures from The Abyss.  Espinosa films so much of the movie in tight close-up or without any establishing shots that it’s often hard to tell where anyone is in relation to each other and voiceovers are used as a cheap gimmick to tell what they can’t show.  I definitely got a couple of guffaws from the way the astronauts kept bobbing up and down (some more violently than others) as a way to show the zero-gravity atmosphere.

So yeah…it’s an odd little (big-ish) movie and while it may carve out some decent box office numbers by being released in a movie climate that’s been largely earthbound, Life isn’t going to be on the calling card for anyone involved.  It’s bound to be forgotten entirely by the time Alien: Covenant is released in two short months.  Perhaps this will find greater value on Netflix which, come to think of it, would have been an ideal release platform instead.

Movie Review ~ Passengers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

The Silver Bullet ~ Passengers

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Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Release Date:  December 21, 2016

Thoughts: It’s okay if you watch this first trailer for Passengers and feel like you’ve been to this space rodeo before.  Peppered with hints of Gravity and The Martian with a little old (Sunday) school Adam and Eve business, our initial look at the late December release feels promising.  I mean, two hotter than Hades A-list stars with their choice of scripts wouldn’t sign up for this without it having some thrust, right?  I’m counting on blind faith that Chris Pratt (Jurassic World) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) have chosen wisely.  Under the direction of Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) script that’s been orbiting Hollywood stars since 2007, Passengers could pure rocket fuel at the box office if these heavy hitters bring their A game.  As for me…it’s set in space so…I’m in.

Movie Review ~ Don’t Breathe

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist. They’re wrong.

Stars: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m getting old.  I mean, that’s really the only explanation because I think if I’d have seen Don’t Breathe a decade ago I would have given it practically a perfect score.  But…I’m older and, I think, wiser and my better judgement tells me that while this home invasion thriller hits many of the right notes (and, for a good stretch of time creates a near-symphony) there’s something overly slick about it that keeps it from being the true horror masterpiece the poster quotes would have you believe. Still, in a summer with box office duds that are horrors unto themselves (I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad), Don’t Breathe arrives in the last gasp of August with some refreshingly fresh air.

I simply hate movies that start out with a flash forward to the end of the film only to fold back on themselves and take you back to how it all began.  While I don’t often read other reviews in full before catching a screening, my #1 trusted reviewer Brian Orndof mentioned in his review that it would be a good idea to arrive a few minutes late so you miss what might be considered too much of a spoiler.  I’d go further and say you should arrive a full fifteen minutes after it starts because the opening stretch of Don’t Breathe is pretty terrible.  Bad acting, bad exposition, and bad dialogue had me wondering if we’d all been pranked into thinking this was horror on a higher level.

Three teens spend their aimless days breaking into houses in the Detroit area, committing petty burglary not so much for the monetary benefits but seeking some kind of thrill to break up their dead end lives.  Rocky (Jane Levy, Fun Size) and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) would likely think of themselves as a modern day Bonnie & Clyde…if I believed they had any clue who the doomed burglars were.  Tagging along is Alex (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) who not only holds an obvious torch for Rocky but the keys to the security systems his dad oversees.

When Money gets a tip on a score big enough to get them out of town, the trio decide to stage one last heist before retiring to a sunny life in L.A.  Located in an abandoned neighborhood, the house they set their sights on belongs to a blind veteran (Stephen Lang, The Nut Job) who, aside from owning a cranky Rottweiler, appears harmless.  Breaking into the house is easy…but getting out is another story.

It’s best to keep the details slim about what happens over the next 75 minutes but rest assured that right about the time you think you know what’s coming next, the tables get flipped and then flipped again and then broken apart and then the pieces thrown at you. Much like their Evil Dead remake in 2013, high points go to writers Fede Alvarez (who also directs and reteams with his Evil Dead star Levy) and Rodo Sayagues for keeping things unpredictable until the very end.  This isn’t nearly as gory or bloody as Evil Dead was, but it has head-spinning, armrest clenching, and eye-covering shocks all its own.

As original as the film is, it has a few flaws mostly involving pacing and performance.  Even at a trim 88 minutes it feels slightly slack in the opening half, saving the major adrenaline thrills for right around the mid-point before sputtering through multiple endings.  While Levy and Lang make for prime prey and predator, Minette is bland and Zovatto’s thug comes across like a parody done better on SNL.  Lang’s blind veteran eventually takes shape as an unstoppable force ala Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and though I applaud Alvarez for letting the actors appear bruised and bloodied the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” trope feels worn out by the final credits (which, by the way, are impressive).

For horror aficionados, Don’t Breathe may be the summer movie they were most excited to see and for that, it doesn’t disappoint.  It may have some cracks and creaks to it but the house that Alvarez and company build mostly holds up to the storm.

The Silver Bullet ~ Don’t Breathe

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Synopsis: A group of teens break into a blind man’s home thinking they’ll get away with the perfect crime. They’re wrong.

Release Date:  August 26, 2016

Thoughts: If you believe the early buzz (and you often can’t), Don’t Breathe is going to be one of those word of mouth flicks that seem to arrive at their release date with a lot going for them only to fizzle out after its first weekend.  True, the horror genre is a bit limited at any time of the year but in the waning summer months it can be hard to drum up excitement/scares when audiences are exhausted after the effects-a-paloozas they’ve sat through so far this year.  What gets this one a higher position on my radar is what’s going on behind the scenes.  The director is Fede Alvarez who successfully remade Evil Dead in 2013 as a gore-orgy that was as impressive visually as it was scary.  Another Evil Dead alum, Jane Levy (Fun Size), stars alongside Dylan Minnette (Prisoners), and always interesting character actor Stephen Lang (The Nut Job) in a plot that finds the tables turned on a trio of teens out to burglarize a blind man.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.

Release Date: July 15, 2016

Thoughts: When 1989’s Ghostbusters II failed to materialize big bucks like its 1984 predecessor, plans for future Ghostbusters installments were put on hold.  An animated series or two and almost two decades later, Ghostbusters is revved up and ready to be rebooted.  Though I wasn’t too enamored with The Heat, the last time director Paul Feig, screenwriter Katie Dippold, and star Melissa McCarthy (Spy) teamed up, our first look at the all-female team of Ghostbusters looks fairly fun and quite promising.  Enlisting the stellar talents of Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones was a smart move so the comedy doesn’t rely solely on McCarthy’s pratfalls.  If all goes as planned, rumor has it that a second set of Ghostbusters will be involved in another series of films that run parallel and overlap with the gals…but let’s take one thing at a time, shall we?

Movie Review ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

Director: Burr Steers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Let’s just get something out of the way right from the start, shall we?  If you’re willing to pony up the cash to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies you simply must be prepared to check your brain at the door.  Not just because the walking dead that populate the film would love to snack on it, but because the premise is so absurd that to take any of it at all seriously would be your fault, not the movies.

Based on Seth Graeme-Smith’s wildly bold in concept (but stilted by its one joke premise in execution) 2009 book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies marries Jane Austen’s much loved 1813 novel with Walking Dead-style zombies preying upon the upper crust ladies that just want to find a husband and the men that fight off the advances of both.  Adapted and directed by Burr Steers after being bandied about Hollywood for half a decade, the long-awaited (I just said that but I don’t really believe it) page to screen journey of the zombie fighting Bennet sisters is complete and sad to say it’s a maudlin, bloodless romp that’s neither comedy nor horror.  Like the living dead, it’s trapped in a sort of genre purgatory of which it can’t ever escape.

After a brief prologue of zombie hunting and a credit sequence of the history of their rise from the grave that’s beautiful if overstimulating, Austen’s story kicks in with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Cinderella), Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows) and their sisters being pushed by their meddling mother (X) to get married off right quick.  While Jane falls for the handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, Noah), Elizabeth is pursued by the goofy Parson Collins (Matt Smith, Terminator Genisys) while fighting with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, Maleficent) and a parade of zombies that infest the countryside.

Fans of Austen will either get a kick out of the memorable text being interlaced with references to decapitations and brain gnoshing or be horrified that their favorite heroines now train in their basement to eviscerate the undead and store daggers in their garters.  Like I said before, you just have to prepare yourself to go along with it or find another movie to see that won’t be nearly as frustrating.

Still, even if you do see it you’re bound to be frustrated by the fact that the film never really goes all the way with its concept.  Bound by a financially friendly PG-13 rating, the bloody business is rendered with little red stuff to be seen.  Though heads roll and slashings slay, nary a drop of viscera sully the perfectly coiffed hair and period costumes of our players.  Had the filmmakers been ballsy enough to go for the R, I think there would have been more opportunities to have fun with the blood and guts that are sorely missed here.

Performance wise, you’re not going to find anyone here that will place higher than previous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  James fares the best as the headstrong Elizabeth, the only one that feels like she could ably handle the role as Austen intended or carry a picture where she’s a badass zombie slayer.  Smith is next in line, with his Parson Collins also being note-perfect in his delivery and timing of the comedic elements that don’t feel like they are stretching for laughs.  Riley is just not Mr. Darcy. At. All.  With his gravelly voice and brutish emo looks, he just isn’t even in the ballpark…and forget about any chemistry with Elizabeth.  Recasting Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a young eye-patch wearing gladiator zombie slayer may have seemed like a good idea, but Lena Headey (The Purge) and her campy performance leave much to be desired.

Though it fares better than Seth Graeme-Smith’s last novel adapted for the screen, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suffers from being too coquettish with it audiences that desire more blood and romance.  Possibly worth a rent down the line, but easily skippable in theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ Money Monster

 

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Synopsis: A bombastic TV personality is taken hostage along with his crew live on air. Unfolding in real time, they must find a way to keep themselves alive while simultaneously uncovering the truth behind a tangle of big money lies.

Release Date: May 13, 2016

Thoughts: I miss Jodie Foster.  The two time Oscar winner hasn’t been in a film since 2013 (Elysium), choosing her projects so carefully that she’s now in a state of semi-retirement.  So whenever she does choose to come out to play, I tend to take notice.  Foster’s in the director’s chair for Money Monster but she’s brought on some heavy artillery casting two mega A-list movie stars to play a brash financial guru and his weary producer that get taken hostage by an irate fan. Foster’s directing roster may be spotty but this has the whiff of something interesting, and not just because George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) look well-matched (too bad I Love Trouble hadn’t been made today…then again…). Co-starring Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) and arriving at the cusp of the onslaught of big summer pictures, I’ll invest some time in this Monster.

Movie Review ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

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.