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 . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

The D Train

the-d-train-poster

Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Directed by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Ah, the time-honored ‘Act Like a Jackass at Your High School Reunion’ plot.

Even though it’s a far cry from consistent entertainment, The D Train presents a valid argument for staying away from said social function if you’re not in the right mindset. Although I admit I would be more inclined to attend mine (happening within a matter of weeks) if I could get either of these movie stars to come and crash the party. . .

Head of reunion committee Dan Landsman (Jack Black) wants to compensate for his status back in high school by convincing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the most popular guy in school, to attend the humble little get-together after seeing him in a national commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. “Hell-to-the-yay-yeah,” Dan says, in thinking that what he has seen is Oliver truly making a name for himself post-grade school.

Dan’s presumption gets him on a flight out to California to visit Oliver in a desperate attempt to pitch the idea. But it’s not quite that simple. In excusing himself from his job for an extended weekend, Dan inadvertently involves his boss Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) by selling the trip as an effort to expand their business. In one of many examples of writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s rather contrived script, Dan passes Oliver off as the business contact. This is only possible after the pair. . . e-hem. . . establish a repartee the night prior. Talk about an awkward scene.

The D Train chugs along with little consideration for tonal or logical consistency. It toots its horn for being a comedy but in truth it’s closer to black comedy, and not just because of who stars in it. Black’s character is something of a jerk whose ostracism from most social circles doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It is odd, though, how quickly Marsden’s slick and suave Oliver takes to him when he arrives, especially given the disinterest he advertises when the two first speak on the phone.

The poster may advertise this as a buddy-comedy, but in truth the spotlight falls on Dan and his desperation for redemption. He’ll all but ignore his family, even refusing to give relationship advice to his son Zach (Russell Posner) who is this close to getting into a threesome at the ripe age of 14. (“Dad, you should be proud of me.”) Empathetic, Dan is not; though we may at times feel sympathy towards him when he’s fully backed into a dark corner. This is largely due to Black’s strong presence, juggling comedy and drama often in the same scene.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him — nor Marsden for that matter — too harshly in the context of a story that favors humiliation, melancholy and selfishness. Kathryn Hahn’s Stacey as the under-appreciated wife is an oasis of kindness, but she’s undervalued both by her husband (apparently she’s known Dan since high school) and questionable characterization.

Contrivances extend beyond the little stunt Dan manages to pull over his boss and they include Stacey’s willingness to let Oliver crash with them at the drop of a hat, not even blinking an eye when he brings his Hollywood partying lifestyle home with him; Dan’s plan for financially reinstating Bill’s company following Dan’s essential bankrupting of it because of that one little lie he told. In fact the entire plot is one long shot in the dark that even fellow members on the reunion committee acknowledge as such.

The fates of some of the characters in The D Train are almost too good for them. Almost. However, this is the stuff of farcical modern comedy. More often than not what Mogel and Paul come up with is pretty damn amusing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m closer to calling this a B-grade movie experience, it’s not totally deserving of the D-grade.

jack-black-and-james-marsden-in-the-d-train

2-0Recommendation: You are likely to find far worse films in Jack Black’s rather inconsistent comedic backlog. On the other hand, he has been better elsewhere. But the pairing of him with James Marsden is very interesting and these two together make up for some of the film’s many shortcomings. Come for the jokes and the high school drama, but maybe not for the story.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “It’s like one of those charity events. They bring out the celebrities; if Dave Schwimmer goes, everyone goes.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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