Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Wild

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Release: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Hornby 

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée 

In Wild Reese Witherspoon is desperate to escape her home life. Does she succeed?

I could spoil the movie right from the get-go and answer that question but I actually do have a heart, so I won’t. (Plus, I’m fairly sure anyone should be able to guess the outcome anyway.) With a narrative as surprisingly complex as that of Wild, ruining a movie about a woman who is ostensibly getting away from it all for the sake of getting away from it all is kind of hard to do.

The director of last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club returns with an offering that refuses to be undermined by cliché, of which there could be a decent amount given that the movie does not begin well in that department. The rocky start to her epic journey seems to be pulled from a textbook on how to make hiking/camping look like a pain in the ass. Things like figuring out how to set up a tent, learning how to preserve fuel, trimming down one’s pack load. Of course, this is an adaptation of the real Cheryl Strayed’s written account of her 90+ days in the great outdoors, ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.’ In that regard the film is accurate, but for experienced backpackers the potential for eye-rolling might seem alarmingly high in the opening sequences.

For all of the premature panic a certain subgroup of the general moviegoing masses might experience, Vallée’s picturesque drama still opens with quite the attention-grabber. It’s Cheryl atop a razor-sharp ridge, overlooking the vast expanse of wilderness that sprawls out before her ad infinitum. She has stopped to nurse a badly bruised and bloodied toe, an ailment she appears to have been dealing with for some time. In a fit of frustration she loses both hiking boots down the mountainside and with the fade-to-black we end up back in civilization in the next scene. What is this girl doing out here? Why is she doing this alone? What’s the end game here?

In the beginning we know two things about Cheryl: 1) she doesn’t seem happy. Presumably she will be hiking to get away from something negative ongoing in her domestic life; and 2) she is quite stubborn. That’s a trait that carries as many positive connotations as it does negative: in the earlygoing we are treated to a humorous scene in which the first-timer is attempting to mount her external frame in her hotel room, a pack that looks like it could easily outweigh its carrier. It doesn’t exactly go as planned but she makes it work. Foreshadowing? Yes, yes that is foreshadowing I smell.

Over the course of an unexpectedly engaging and semi-non-linear two hour timeline — you’d be surprised how effective cutting between segments of the PCT and her life back in Minneapolis can be — these questions, among many others, are addressed but they aren’t answered in the manner in which you might expect. No solution is presented without complication or having to sacrifice something else; no weed is killed completely unless the roots themselves are cut, and this is precisely what Vallée is hoping to convey by flashing back and forth between the two timelines — that of her past and of her present predicament on the trail.

Wild is fundamentally a psychological journey into the heart and soul of this daring, if inexperienced explorer. In fact the inexperience is what helps elevate the stakes considerably. Witherspoon delivers a performance that affects viscerally and consistently. She’s strong-willed, defiant even; stubborn, yes but eventually even that character flaw develops into something more useful — determination. It’s compelling stuff witnessing the transformation of this previously doomed character. (Is doomed too strong a word?)

Around Witherspoon gathers a small cast that delivers big. Laura Dern plays Cheryl’s eternally upbeat mother Bobbi, who has raised her and her brother (there were three siblings, if you want to get technical, but the film decides to pair it down to a more simple family dynamic) on her own for as long as she has been divorced from her abusive ex-husband, whom she still loves dearly. Dern is wonderful in the role. There’s also Gabby Hoffman who puts in quality, albeit limited screen time as a friend of Cheryl’s still living in Minneapolis. And Thomas Sadoski plays Paul, Cheryl’s ex-husband. He’s not in it much but he also makes his moments count, powerfully reporting back to us the state his life has become in the absence of his wife who thought it wise to go hiking on a trail for months at a time on her own.

In short, Wild is a movie that continually surprises with its thoughtful, provocative introspection, spectacular vistas (that part isn’t so much surprising) and keen sense of direction. It’s not a predictable movie, even despite a few sign postings. Witherspoon’s determination to overcome her haunted past is akin to the bold vision Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless had of a future without material possession. I urge you to get your ticket and lose yourself in this well-acted drama.

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3-5Recommendation: Despite reservations, Wild is a unique experience. Its only shopworn elements are how it initially presents the challenge of hiking and camping. Of course, even if this was cliched through-and-through, the performances are still enough to make this film soar aloft. The outdoors-oriented should really give this a go. In a way it is an odd blend of mainstream acting talent with the intimacy of exploring nature on a solo backpacking trip but I find the combination to work to great effect. This is now the second extremely well-made film I’ve seen from Jean-Marc Vallée in as many years. I think Dallas Buyers Club is the superior film, but really, not by much.

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Finish that sentence. Why do I have to walk a thousand miles. . .?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fault in Our Stars

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Release: Friday, June 6, 2014

[Theater]

For every hundred or so saccharine romances that Hollywood will churn out in a year, probability suggests there will be the odd exception or two that comes along and says “enough is enough.”

The cinematic adaptation of John Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is at once a beautiful and heartbreaking celebration of life and love, a journey fraught with emotional highs and lows and enriched by some of the most endearing characters to ever fall head-over-heels in love on the big screen. Jack and Rose may have “I’ll never let go” trademarked, but the main characters presented here prove equally hard to part ways with.

What this particular adaptation has that many romances often lack — I’ll refrain from comparisons to the book as I have not yet had the opportunity to read it — is a keen awareness of cliché. Director Josh Boone bucks convention wherever he can, despite not being able to flush them out completely. Predictability fails to lessen the blow of what is to come in this case, though.

The Fault in Our Stars is intensely likable, maybe even hauntingly so. In fact it takes a perverse pleasure in constructing a beautiful reality before shattering it into pieces — a hammer into a fabergé egg. Newcomers to the story are introduced to Shailene Woodley’s latest character, while the majority of the audience who have already been following along finally get to see the beautiful Hazel Grace Lancaster reincarnated in visual form.

Hazel, your otherwise typical teenager were it not for the thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs (hence her portable oxygen tank), insists she is not depressed about her situation. Her parents (Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) likewise insist she attend a cancer support group. Surely that’ll be healthy for her, although Hazel can’t help but scoff at the irony. Fortunately for her, there’s an incentive to keep attending after she meets the handsome and hilarious Gus (Ansel Elgort) whose own cynicism seems to mirror the one she quietly harbors. Immediately sparks fly.

(Meanwhile, Nicholas Sparks is sitting in the back of the theater, furiously taking notes.)

This is, after all, the kind of conviction about a feeling as complex as love that doesn’t come around too often, let alone in a mainstream Hollywood production. As well, the film isn’t just about a couple falling in love. It deals with an extremely weighty concept such as facing mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars tracks the two lovesick youngsters as they embark on a physical and emotional journey that perhaps neither were expecting to experience prior to meeting one another. Gus’ powers of observation — he takes an interest in reading Hazel’s favorite book, written by American author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) — are responsible for transforming Hazel’s presumably very limited days into a series of extraordinary adventures that simultaneously captivate and devastate.

In addition to extracting mesmerizing performances from it’s young leads, the film accomplishes something else that further separates it from other romances. As the time with Hazel and Gus dwindles, the film feels ever more precious. There’s a very pressing sense of urgency in the film’s closing moments, a desperation for knowing what will become of not only these wonderful characters, but of us in the end. What’s it going to be like? And in these moments the film feels the heaviest, and in effect the most rewarding.

Optimism is neither a word nor a concept The Fault in Our Stars is comfortable with dwelling on. And by the same token, neither is pessimism. The characters aren’t so much fatalists as they are brave. Focus falls on realism and honesty, rather than despair and misery. Yet, there is no escape nor any hiding from fate. A script from Scott Neustadter provides little in the way of shelter from harm, and the result is a story that becomes mightily weighty as it progresses. Though not bereft of comedy completely, it’s fair to say romantic-comedy is a term that does not apply here.

The fault isn’t in the stars, nor is it in the genre of romance. Rather, it’s in Hollywood itself and a general fear of owning up to the truth so readily as John Green and his wonderful characters clearly are.

A Fault In Our Stars

4-0Recommendation: Hard to imagine this being anything but a must-see for those who have read the New York Times Best-seller. However, the adaptation proves to be an incredibly potent drama that deserves to be viewed by a much greater and more diverse audience. Anyone with a sensitivity for believable love stories and memorable personalities be prepared to bring tissues.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Book Thief

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Release: Friday, November 8, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

The talented, young Sophie Nélisse steps into this significantly bleak lead role as the orphaned Liesel Meminger after her mother leaves her with a German couple during the escalation of World War II. Burdened with an extraordinarily trying existence, Leisel’s pain soon will become your own as you watch her life deteriorate as the movie progresses. Make no mistake: there may be a child actress who’s going to carry the story, but this isn’t exactly candy and unicorns we’re dealing with here. There are no neat bows to tie things off nicely as gifts or holiday surprises. There are just books.

Books and bad government. The Book Thief‘s set against 1940s Germany, as Hitler’s oppressive regime continued to tighten its grip around the necks of everything European, and when life for certain people was at its most intolerable. In the case of wide-eyed Leisel, in fear of getting her daughter also killed her mother, a Russian Communist, abandons her on the doorstep of Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Of course, the girl sees this as nothing but a betrayal, naturally, as she can’t comprehend something like the possibility of getting shipped off to a Concentration Camp at her age. Her new life with her foster parents seems depressing and strange, particularly as her mother is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type.

Rush, on the other hand, plays a kind old man whose care and concern for this troubled child is as evident as his appreciation for the accordion. Saddled with great loneliness, Leisel would desperately like to learn how to read and write since getting publicly humiliated at school one day, and since she doesn’t find much else in the town that interests her.

There is a blonde boy, Rudy Steiner (played by Nico Liersch), who tries to capture Leisel’s attention by showing off his flirt, his athleticism and his political affiliation (seriously, I had no idea Hitler Youths were so naturally inclined to running away — it’s sort of ironic, if you think about it). He’s more or less unsuccessful for the longest time as all Leisel wants to do is read. The only thing she’s brought with her from home is a single, black book, which reminds her of her brother. It’s a simple acting of collecting that will fuel her will to stay alive and try to remain positive, despite the destruction and chaos all around her.

What begins as a habit of reading to her Papa, trying to figure out what certain words mean, evolves into full-fledged obsession with the written word when Leisel meets a strange, quiet woman named Ilsa (Barbara Auer) who shows her an entire library of books. One by one Leisel takes these books and brings them home to read quickly.

An interesting development has rendered her not the only ‘guest’ in the Hubermann’s modest home. A debt from Hans’ past leaves the couple with no option but to shelter a young Jewish boy (Ben Schnetzer) on the run, confining him to their basement so no outsider can see him. So Leisel’s inadvertently picked up a roommate and now enjoys reading to him, showing this newcomer what she has learned.

Reading as a thematic element is used fascinatingly throughout Brian Percival’s sophomore directorial effort. Reading serves many purposes to Leisel: first as a tool to learn and blend in with society; later it blossoms into a source of passion for the young girl who’s torn between wanting to find her real mother again, and staying with her foster parents; later still it becomes a survival guide for her and the townspeople as the effects of war take their toll on Germany. The importance of being literate becomes more symbolic as the stakes are ever raised. Unfortunately, not a great deal of interest is raised with them, however.

What The Book Thief lacks is a significant ‘oomph.’ Like the scores of atomic weapons raining down over Europe from American bomber planes, there should be jumps and uncomfortable scenes aplenty throughout a movie set in such a harrowing time in history. Instead far too much time is invested in the act of reading itself, slowing down the pace of the film to a merciless crawl. Save for two scenes — one in which is quite unnerving as we crowd into a subterranean shelter with everyone and listen to the bombs exploding closer and more violently throughout the world above us — the entire film is bereft of the drama one would expect to find in a story about the persecution of an entire people.

The best thing that can be said about the way in which the director chooses to handle the adaptation of Australian Markus Zusak’s novel might be that it beautifully recreated this dark period. While Leisel’s plight is one deserving attention, her story seems only to fit in as a small jigsaw piece in this never-ending puzzle of why any of this genocide and the subsequent additional loss of life through war had to happen in the first place. Of course, there’s really no obvious answer to that question (if one exists at all), and that’s exactly the kind of thing that makes The Book Thief, an otherwise decent film to look at, such a frustrating chronicle.

Despite the gloominess in places, this is far too safe a tone to make much of a splash in the greater world of film. And it’s certainly not the Oscar-contender it first appeared to be in the trailers, though there are some lines of a thought-provoking nature dotted around the place.

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2-5Recommendation: Becoming dangerously close to being boring in several spots, The Book Thief prefers a quieter, more intimate examination of a brutal period in European history by using one girl’s tragic journey as the vehicle with which we travel through the emotions. Extreme patience is required for this one, as it picks a plodding pace and never really lets up on that until the end. It features good performances, but nothing extraordinary and the bleakness at times might prove wearisome for any who haven’t read the book before watching.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “I am haunted by humans.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com