Friday, October 30, 2015

Goosebumps Review

As a child of the nineties who was in elementary school at the dead center of the decade I was completely immersed in R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series. I'd go to bookstores monthly and was constantly checking to see if the latest installment was on the shelves yet. I owned and had read pretty much the entire series at least once, probably more. I was such a fan that 20 years later when a movie trailer for Goosebumps (2015) was released, everyone who put up with my fanaticism back in the day linked the video to me. Goosebumps not only is a really fun adventure movie that showcases many of the classic Goosebumps monsters, the movie's story even felt like a Goosebumps book.
Upset about moving from a big city to a small town, teenage Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) finds a silver lining when he meets the beautiful girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), living right next door. But every silver lining has a cloud, and Zach's appears when he learns that Hannah has a mysterious dad who is revealed to be R. L. Stine (Jack Black), the author of the bestselling Goosebumps series. It turns out that there is a reason why Stine is so strange... he is a prisoner of his own imagination - the monsters that his books made famous are real, and Stine protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their books. When Zach unintentionally unleashes the monsters from their manuscripts, they begin to terrorize the town, it's suddenly up to Stine, Zach, Hannah, and Zach's friend Champ (Ryan Lee) to get all of them back in the books where they belong before they destroy the city.
Jack Black and R. L. Stine
So, after seeing the Goosebumps trailer for the first time, I was psyched. Up until I saw Jack Black and my interest plummeted. When I think of Jack Black, my mind immediately goes to titles like Year One, Gulliver's Travels, and Mars Attacks. But he keeps giving me reasons not to dislike him, which is really annoying. He's good in Kung Fu Panda and Peter Jackson's King Kong. And now I can say he's good in Goosebumps. Black plays a fictional version of the actual author; little of what I know about Stine himself was incorporated into the fictional character. The two don't look remotely similar. But that's fine because Jack Black creates an effectively droll characterization of R. L. Stine, combining a pair of heavy-rimmed black glasses, Orson Wells-type literate tones and a spiteful vanity that makes Stephen King the bane of his existence.
Goosebumps features a huge number of monsters from the book series. I did my very best not to jump up and down in my seat excitedly pointing out ones I recognized. "Oh! It's the Werewolf of Fever Swamp! Yay! It's the Haunted Mask! Oh, it's Mud Monster! YES! They included Lawn Gnomes! The Lord High Executioner! Scarecrows! Mummy of Prince Khor-Ru! Pumpkinhead! Cuckoo Clock of Doom! And Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy!" I'll bet I could have been really annoying to sit next to. As a fan of the books, this catered to audiences who grew up reading the books; it was hugely nostalgic for me. I was disappointed that a few of my favorites was omitted such as Monster Blood or the Horrorland Horrors, The Beast from the East, or possibly the Barking Ghost. To be fair, there were 62 titles in the original Goosebumps book series and not all of them could be used or have screen time. I'm grateful that the movie didn't beat you over the head with what any given monster was and the title the book came from; that would have become irritating quickly and felt like overt advertisements for a 23 year old book series.
There were three monsters I didn't recognize at all. I had to look them up and it turns out they were taken from titles from some spin-off book series that were published after I had stopped reading them religiously. They were the only ones I couldn't identify. There were some fantastic shots of the monster ensemble that didn't last long enough for me to take it all in and appreciate the detail of. Sure, the shots were good and lasted an appropriate amount of time, but I wanted to just look at it and watch for characters I recognized. I guess I'll just have to get a copy of the movie to geek out over.
Not only did Goosebumps feature some above average camera work here and there, it boasted some pretty good special effects which I appreciated. Practical effects were used as often as possible. Monster suits, costumes, and make up were used instead of CGI animated creatures when it could be done, but even the digital creatures were well animated. Puppets were used to great advantage as well. Having Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy (the movie's main antagonist) as a digitally animated creature would not have worked as well. He's a puppet, so a puppet was used to get that natural puppet movement.
Goosebumps is rated PG, and even with it's scary veneer it's a comedy adventure suitable for kids. There are lots of laughs and exciting chases to enjoy. Parts of it might get a bit too spooky for kids under 7, but overall it's a lot of fun. I laughed a whole lot during the movie. With all the mismatched monsters roaming about, it's almost like a kid-friendly version of The Cabin in the Woods. It's a fast-paced, never-boring trip to a world where stories and imagination are powerful tools. And that sort of thing just might inspire kids to do the scariest thing of all: pick up a book.
Goosebumps doesn't particularly do anything original, but what it does do is remarkably fun! There are fun characters, an uneven story, great special effects, exciting monsters, some surprising emotional heft, a generous helping of humor, and several gags at the expense of Stephen King. This is a fun movie the whole family could enjoy, especially around Halloween time! I admit that I could be viewing this movie with rose-tinted nostalgia glasses, but I really enjoyed it. You don't need to have read the books to appreciate this movie, but you certainly will have a lot more fun if you have. This is worth seeing in theaters, and I plan on getting a copy of this myself; in part because it was a good, fun movie and because it was an amusing trip down memory lane. Make sure to be on the lookout for a cameo by the real R. L. Stine.

Did you read the Goosebumps books back in the day? Which book was your favorite? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Martian Review

A couple of years back I heard book podcasts ranting and raving about Andy Weir's novel The Martian. I had intended to read it, but the queue of other book titles before it prevented me from getting to The Martian before the 2015 movie was released. The movie was most impressive. There were times it was downright stressful to watch, but you just couldn't take your eyes from it.
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, director of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring "the Martian" home, while Watney's crewmates and their Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney's safe return.
The structure of The Martian is outstanding. Really, it could have been a cross between Cast Away and Gravity. In some regards it is; there's a lot of Watney trying to survive in an inhospitable environment all by himself, must like Tom Hanks' character did in Cast Away. It also has a great deal of peril from unfamiliar, though natural circumstances like Sandra Bullock's character had to endure and survive in Gravity. Heck, we've even got Matt Damon as an astronaut for the second time since Interstellar. Unlike Gravity, which was nearly non-stop peril, The Martian features lots of ups and downs in terms of action. There are times when Watney is on the brink of death and times when he is doing pretty well under the circumstances. But there is also a great deal of urgency on earth for NASA to develop something to get to Mars as fast as possible to rescue Watney; deadlines for designing a spacecraft that are not met means that someone literally dies while the whole world watches. Also, what Watney's crewmates are going though as they struggle over whether or not to take great risk to themselves to turn around and save Watney is also tense and interesting. The story is not about Watney poking around Mars, making video logs, and waiting to be saved. There is a lot of tension in this movie and there are times it becomes downright stressful to watch, but it's so good, well written, and exciting that you can't pull yourself away for anything!
Long ago the term "Science Fiction" meant a work of fiction that incorporated theoretical science, but that has evolved into our modern definition that is basically something akin to "a fantasy in space." The Martian despenses with so much of the standard violent-action fare we have come to expect from the Science Fiction genre and instead returns to the genre roots in the thrill of exploration and the wonders of science. I admit that I am not much of an expert when it comes to matters of physical science. However, as I understand it, Mars has too little atmosphere to create weather conditions intense enough do much damage to anything. The atmospheric pressure on the Martian surface averages 600 Pa (0.087 psi), about 0.6% of Earth's mean sea level pressure of 100 kPa (14.69 psi). It is so low that a "fierce storm", as they put it, would be something akin to a very light breeze messing up your hair. Author Andy Weir admitted this was his biggest inaccuracy in the story. But as far as I can tell, that and ignoring Mars' gravitational difference were about the only major stretches the movie takes. The story takes place in the near future and the technology used doesn't look very far off at all from what we currently have. The story and science is so well grounded that you can't help believe what you see happening on screen. I've even heard that the mission to Mars in The Martian movie emulates actual missions that NASA is planning for the future.
The Martian is an excellent film, with spectacular visual effects and is infused with Matt Damon's charm. It dares to go where only a few modern science fiction films go: optimism. The cast is spectacular, the characters are great, the story is absorbing, the visual effects are remarkable, the overall message was inspiring, and the pacing and structure are marvelously arranged in the framework of the story. I can't honestly think of a single negative thing to say about this movie. It's positively fantastic! This is a major step up from the other substandard films director Ridley Scott has done in the last few years. This is certainly worth seeing in theaters, and worth the price to own on home video.

I found this interesting bit of trivia about The Martian book: The writer of the novel, Andy Weir, first published his book for free on his own blog for fun. Then people asked him to put it in a downloadable form, then to put it on Amazon for Kindle download which he did at the then minimum price of $0.99.

What is your favorite science fiction movie or book? Not the "fantasy in space" sci-fi, but real, classic science fiction. Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Pan Review

I do enjoy the concept of Peter Pan, though I've found the book and most of the movies it inspired to be subpar. Then along comes an unnecessary prequel movie that no one was asking for; Pan (2015). It certainly takes some creative liberties; Pan raises some questions no one thought to ask, introduces more of Neverland which we'd never thought to wonder about, and shows us events which don't make a lot of sense considering its source material. But on the other hand, it shows us some genuinely good scenes and some fantastic special effects.
Peter (Levi Miller) is a tiresome golden-child orphan in second-World-War London. But the nuns who run this orphanage are selling off their charges to Pirates who drop from the ceiling on bungee cords and pluck them from their beds before stowing them aboard an airborne galleon to Neverland. Head of the Pirate's exploits is Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who imprisons Peter and the other boys as slave labor to mine for Pixum; a rejuvenating substance with magical properties. Peter meets a fellow minor named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and his accomplice, Mr. Smee  (Adeel Akhtar). The three steal one of Blackbeard's flying ships and escape into the forest where they are found and nearly executed by the natives before the Chief's daughter, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), notices Peter's pan flute pendant, left to Peter by his mother (Amanda Seyfried). The natives decide that Peter is their people's greatest hero, the legendary Pan. As part of his heritage, Peter should have the ability to fly, but lacks the ability to do so. Peter, Hook, and Tiger Lily race to reach the hidden Fairy Kingdom to enlist the help of the fairies to defeat Blackbeard before Blackbeard, himself, launches an attack to destroy all the fairies.
The story here has little rhyme or reason to it. It's a prequel for the sake of a prequel, and prequels notoriously anger fans and bore audiences. Sure there are images that herald back to the original Peter Pan, but it's all mashed up, weird, and inaccurate. It's like an origin-myth reboot of the Peter Pan story from studio executives who don't care how it got booted in the first place. And then for good measure, they shoehorn some steampunk where it has no business being, not unlike 2011's The Three Musketeers. Sure, there's some neat scenes, but the story raises questions no one was thinking to ask and then doesn't even bother answering them all. The story is very bland, by-the-book re-imagining of a classic story that was simply not called for.
On the other hand, there are some really neat scenes in Pan that probably couldn't have occurred without this particular twisted take on the classic story. One of the earliest action scenes involves Peter and a few other boys being abducted by a flying pirate ship in the middle of World War II London. Naturally, this draws the attention of the British air force and an exciting aerial battle between a cannon firing galleon and World War II fighter planes ensues. This scene was incredible! Later when making their escape from Blackbeard's clutches, Peter, Hook, and Smee rotate their flying ship upside down and have to cling on the ships rigging to avoid falling hundreds of feet to their deaths. That was another truly fun scene that probably couldn't have been done in the original setting.
The camera work was above average. Granted, a large portion of this movie had to be filmed in front of a green screen. So many of the impressive wide shots of detailed scenery were mostly impressive thanks to a large number of busy CGI artists. I think that in order to emphasize Peter's lack of ability to fly, there are a number of scenes that showcase some dizzying heights. The shots in those scenes were probably more impressive in 3-D. There were a number of scenes that made me stop and simply appreciate how well organized the shot looked, despite how bland the story is and how CGI intensive it is.
Ignoring the fact that nuns are in cahoots with pirates from another world, Pan does some weird things with its characters. James Hook is a miner in Blackbeard's mines, he's got an awkwardly fake cowboy accent, and seems to be a dreadful amalgamation of Indiana Jones and Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove. How this Stetson-wearing steampunk cowboy eventually becomes the infamous dreaded Captain Hook, I'll never understand. In what looks like it could have been a deleted scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, thousands of grubby slave-worker youths mine for Pixum while singing along to the rock band Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from their album "Nevermind." (Get it?) This is just as bizarre and out of place as watching some medieval peasants sing Queen's "We Will Rock You" in A Knight's Tale. Sure creative liberties were taken, but golly, some of them are just so weird it makes the movie hard to swallow. To be fair, though, it was a pretty good cover of Nirvana's song.
Of the many things I can rant about the Pan movie, the one that bothers me the most is how "The Natives" were handled. The orignal book has a tribe of wigwam-dwelling Native Americans who live in Neverland and are referred to by the author as "Redskins" or the Piccaninny Tribe. In what is possibly the best known rendition of Peter Pan, Disney's 1953 animated movie has these characters depicted in the most embarrassing of racial stereotyping and political incorrectness. To avoid risking such racial profiling, "The Natives" in Pan were a cluster of multiple racial backgrounds, and instead of living in wigwams, their culture seems to be inspired by Polynesians and the tree dwelling Ewoks of Star Wars. There are Asians, blacks, whites, pacific islanders, Hispanic, and middle-eastern people making up The Natives. Of course, the one Native that we're meant to be concerned with (Tiger Lily) is white, which ends up being another example of whitewashing in the film industry in spite of obvious attempts to appear multi-racial and politically correct. Pan seems to be trying to show us how open minded it is with the natives and falling flat on its face.
Pan does have some good scenes here and there, but overall it's a weak attempt to start a franchise specifically made in hopes to make sequels. The movie raises questions no one thought to ask about a solid, well-established piece of literature, and then doesn't bother answering them. This was probably in hopes of tackling them in a sequel. Pan has done so poorly in the box office and with critics that I doubt there will be one. Sure, the movie takes a generous number of creative liberties, but it retains the adventurous spirit of the classic tale and finds a few bursts of magic in its treatment of classic characters, though not enough to offset the rushed plot and GCI-fueled action. Some scenes I think are worth seeing on the big screen, but not at full ticket price; get a matinee ticket if you can. If you don't really value the big screen experience as much, wait for it on home video.

What is your favorite Peter Pan-inspired movie? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Spaced Invaders Review

When I was little Dad would rent some of the weirdest and most obscure movies from the video rental stores. Recently I've looked up some of the titles I remember and found some of them on the internet here and there. One of these weird and obscure movies was a terrible movie from 1990 called Spaced Invaders. It was a produced by Touchstone Pictures, a division of Walt Disney studios, and was so bad that no one remembers it other than some Millennials who happened to get a kick out of is as small children. Sure, I laughed a few times, but it's still really bad.
The space armada from Mars is fighting an interstellar war against their long-time enemy, the Arcturans. An incompetent crew of a small Martian spaceship intercept a distress signal from the fleet, followed by a Halloween rebroadcast of Orson Welles' 1938 The War of the Worlds radio dramatization from Earth. Mistaking this for a real invasion and not wanting to miss out on the glory, they land their ship in the tiny community of Big Bean, Illinois. It happens to be Halloween and it happens the invaders are only about four feet tall. As the bumbling aliens wander around the countryside, they are taken to be children in Halloween costumes and they make friends with two children, Kathy (Ariana Richards) and Brian (J.J. Anderson), one of whom is the daughter of the Sheriff Sam Hoxly (Douglas Barr). As their troubles mount (it's difficult for five aliens to conquer a world) they begin to give up their plans of conquest, but then there is that nasty Enforcer Droid, tasked to keep the Martian soldiers in line.
Upon this recent viewing of Spaced Invaders I noticed Ariana Richards at once. She's probably best known for play Lex Murphy (one of the two kids) in Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park was released three years after Spaced Invaders, so she looks particularly young in this movie. I looked up several other cast members. J.J. Anderson went on to play an extra in the Casper movie five years later. Spaced Invaders seems to be the height of Douglas Barr's acting career, which is really sad. It seems there was a Royal Dano in the movie who plays the local "old coot." He had a filmography comprising a bunch of old western films that I doubt anyone remembers. It seems that the whole cast was B-list material.
Spaced Invaders seems like a late summer cash grab. It's the kind of movie that is completely without value and was made to earn some money in the box office between major titles that have better production value. The effects were not bad, but hardly state of the art for its day. The props and effects deserve some notice for being frankly phony in the spirit of low-budget space movies from the 1950's; the Marians look like they bought their costumes at a local novelty shop. The characters are stock characters you've all seen before; the hopeful girl, the weird friend, the struggling single parent, etc.
The premise of the plot is amusing enough, but about half way through there is a profoundly illogical plot twist. Something about the space-time continuum causing a black hole that will destroy the solar system if the Marians don't leave Earth by a certain time. Spaced Invaders really is an attempt to make some money with a cut-and-paste family comedy that has no soul and is terrible any way you look at it. It exists solely to get kids to drag their parents to the movie theater, not unlike the many Alvin and the Chipmunks and Smurfs movies that have been clogging up theaters over the last few summer like a backed up truck stop toilet.
I remember finding Spaced Invaders funny as a kid, so in that regard the movie succeeded in what it set out to do. Seven-year-old me enjoyed the silly, brainless entertainment it provided. I now contend that the reason for growing up and getting an education is to learn why movies like Spaced Invaders is a waste of time. And yet, a small, far-away voice inside of me reminds me there once was a time when I liked this movie, when I was young and open to wonderment. Most of the weird humor falls flat and the sparse few lines I remember from childhood simply aren't funny anymore. There were a number of wacky slapstick gags that utilized cartoon physics to wonderful effect, and some of those still got a boisterous laugh out of me. Everything else was so lousy and juvenile I'm almost embarrassed to say I re-watched this.
I liked Spaced Invaders as a kid, I don't think it holds up today, though. It's so full of movie family comedy clich├ęs you could almost say you've seen it before even if you have not. There is a certain charm in the movie's naive look; it lets kids know it's all play, and they don't have to worry too much about being unpleasantly scared. Even as an adult, there were a couple of things I still laughed at, so it's worth a few laughs if you must see it. It is otherwise a goofy, bubble-headed comedy that probably would not hold the attention of anyone over the age of 10. This certainly isn't worth seeking out a copy to add to your collection. But if you do want to see it, or show it to your kids, I'll have a link posted below.

I saw Spaced Invaders on YouTube. Like most full-length movies to be found there, it probably wasn't posted with Touchstone's consent, so I don't know how long it will be up there. But here's the link if you want to check it out yourself:

What are some really bad movies you remember enjoying as a kid that you don't care for so much as an adult? Comment below and let me know!