Goosebumps


For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

For Jack Black, the only terrifying thing about this movie are the reviews.

(2015) Family Comedy (ColumbiaJack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell, Ken Marino, Halston Sage, Steven Kreuger, Keith Arthur Bolden, Amanda Lund, Timothy Simons, Karan Soni, R.L. Stine, Caleb Emery, Gabriela Fraile, Nate Andrade, Sheldon Brown, Melissa Brewer, Vivian Kyle, Clare Halstead. Directed by Rob Letterman

In the 90s, kids flocked to author R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. The books were essentially Twilight Zone episodes focusing on monsters that terrified many a kid back in the day. Stine continues to be a prolific author but has moved on to different series, but Goosebumps is the one that started it all.

When young Zach Cooper (Minnette) moves to a small Delaware town, he’s not exactly thrilled. He’s still dealing with the death of his dad a year ago and his mom (Ryan) has found a job as an assistant principal at the high school there. She thinks a new start in a new town might bring Zach out of the doldrums and while Zach puts up a good front, it’s clear he’s hurting.

Then he meets the girl next door and for any teenage boy, the girl next door is excellent tonic. Hannah (Rush) is beautiful and seems interested in him, but her tyrannical father (Black) seems more interested in keeping Zach as far away as possible. Georgia might do.

But Zach and his self-appointed friend Champ (Lee) discover that Hannah’s dad is none other than R.L. Stine and that the manuscripts in his basement, all of which are locked, contain the spirits of the monsters he invented and that unlocking those manuscripts transforms the creatures from imaginary to very real. And those real monsters are out to wreak havoc all over town, led by Slappy (also voiced by Black), a homicidal ventriloquist’s dummy that is seeking revenge against Stine for incarcerating him inside the manuscript for so many years.

The concept is a swell one, especially given the popularity of Stine and how many kids – who are now adults with kids of their own – know all of his books backwards and forwards, and for them and kids who are looking at their teen years with impatience, this is going to be a must-see and although Halloween has come and gone, this is excellent kid fare for that season of the year.

Black is as manic as ever as Stine, although his accent is a little bit bizarre. Black, being the human cartoon that he is, is perfect for this kind of audience and he doesn’t disappoint. He doesn’t get the majority of laughs here – Lee gets those – and Minnette is essentially the protagonist but Black is really the presence here. None of the other actors can really compete with his personality which is bigger than life. Bigger than ten lives, to be honest. Rush is also memorable as the ingenue.

The CGI creatures – and there are a lot of them – range from giant praying mantises, abominable snowmen, murderous garden gnomes, hungry zombies, implacable alien invaders and a gigantic Venus flytrap, among others. Pretty much every monster from the prolific series makes at least a cameo appearance, if you can call the Invisible Boy an appearance. In some ways it becomes sensory overload; a few monsters go a long way but hundreds soon becomes kind of background noise.

Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a nice job of setting the mood, and a setting of an abandoned amusement park is both lovely and bittersweet (Zach and Hannah have an encounter there early in the movie). I could have done with a few more moments like that although frankly, that’s not what the target audience is looking for so I can understand why those moments were few and far between.

The humor is pretty much vintage Nickelodeon although there are some clever bits, most involving Lee as the cowardly wingman. The pacing here is a little bit choppy although it generally moves pretty quickly and to Letterman’s credit he gets right into things without an overabundance of exposition. That’s both good and bad; good for those devotees of the book series who want to get right into it, bad for those less familiar with the books who need at least a little bit of explanation.

For the most part this is harmless entertainment and little more than that. This isn’t going to be (and never was intended to be) anything more than a distraction for a couple of hours. And that isn’t a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. For whatever it’s worth, this movie will probably be on a lot of family viewing lists for many Halloweens to come. Not a half bad fate for a movie, don’t you think?

REASONS TO GO: Some scary monsters. Nifty concept.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses something if you haven’t read the books. A little over-the-top in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some creature scares (a few of them intense) and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real R.L. Stine makes a cameo as a teacher named Mr. Black, who passes Jack Black, as R.L. Stine, in the school hallway.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fright Night
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Documented begins!

Passengers


Passengers

Anne Hathaway figures out that Columbia has buried her movie.

(Columbia) Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, David Morse, Andre Braugher, Clea DuVall, Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis, Ryan Robbins, Don Thompson. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

If we’re going to properly deal with life, we also must learn how to deal with death. Every so often, we experience an event in which death stares us right in the face. How we react to that can be a life-defining moment – or a life-destroying one.

Claire (Hathaway) is a grief counselor and budding psychiatrist who is assigned to work with the few survivors of a horrific commercial airline crash. Her group contains the suspicious and skeptical Shannon (DuVall), the paranoid Norman (Thompson) and the euphoric stockbroker Eric (Wilson) whose brush with death has turned him into a type “A” personality.

Soon, the passengers begin to assert that contrary to the official report (which blamed the crash on pilot error), there had been an explosion in the main cabin. Arkin (Morse), an airline executive, begins to lurk around Claire’s patients and sessions, and as the survivors begin to disappear one by one, Claire begins to suspect that a conspiracy is afoot.

When she reports her suspicions to her boss (Braugher), she is met with some skepticism but as the coincidences begin to mount, even he starts to admit there might be something to her fears. In the meantime, she has become more and more attracted to Eric who is encouraging her to cross ethical lines (or as she incorrectly puts it in the dialogue, unethical lines). Soon, Claire herself finds that she may be in danger of joining the list of victims of the crash.

This movie was shelved several times from the Sony release schedule, eventually receiving a modest and somewhat begrudging limited run with a minimum of publicity behind it. This is what is known as burying a film, and that’s just what happened to Passengers. Generally, that means the film is truly awful and the studio is only releasing it to make back a modicum of its cost; generally execs will view the buried film as a kind of tax write-off.

I was expecting the worst when I saw this and was surprised to find that it wasn’t truly bad. Hathaway is an engaging performer and even if there were a few wrong notes hit for her as a psychiatrist, she makes up for it by being sympathetic (other than the ethical violation thing) and interesting. While the subplot with her sister seemed a bit forced, still Hathaway is one of the better things in the movie.

The script definitely has a “Twilight Zone” feel to it and while I think they would have benefitted with the input of a Rod Serling or a Richard Matheson, director Garcia and writer Ronnie Christensen have managed to create a nice, unsettling atmosphere with some legitimate spine-tingling moments. Unfortunately, much of the good will is undone with the ending, which is borrowed from a recent classic and brings the movie screeching to a halt. It’s not so much the concept I had problems with but with the execution, which felt a little too close to the way the twist was revealed in the other movie I referred to.

This is one of those movies that is certainly flawed but has enough going for it to get a mild recommendation. Those who like those old TV shows like “The Outer Limits” and of course “The Twilight Zone” might get a kick out of this. Those who like Anne Hathaway will certainly enjoy this since she’s in virtually every scene. This isn’t a hidden gem so much as a hidden rhinestone; still, it is much better than I expected it to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Hathaway is becoming one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood. Some seriously good moments in the thriller vein, especially if you’re a fan of “The Twilight Zone.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “twist” ending has been done before and much better; savvy moviegoers will be able to suss it out pretty quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: A few decent scares and some sensuality make this suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eric tells Claire he’s a vice-president at the brokerage firm Kahane-Drake. Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake are the executive producers on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature about the staging of the plane crash is relatively interesting, but most of the features are the usual standards.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie Bartlett