Dir. Rob Letterman
R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books and the TV series that spawned from them basically initiated my love affair with the horror genre at a young age. I have fond memories of reading the books late at night and watching episodes of the show over and over again on good ol' VHS (my all-time favorite is Stay Out of the Basement!). I have a deep-rooted nostalgia for the property, so when I heard that Sony had casted Jack Black as R.L. in an all new Goosebumps film where in a Jumanji-like family adventure his characters come to life and cause mayhem...I started getting nervous. All signs pointed to this movie - which I imagine was meant to re-introduce Goosebumps to a whole new generation of kids - being a soulless cash-grab. And after seeing the film: my fears came true.
The story is much less based on scares than laughs; unfortunately the jokes rarely land. The lead actor is quite terrible, and it's pretty obvious he was cast solely for his Abercromie-worthy looks. His twerpy buddy Champ (Ryan Lee) is also grating, who seems to have been written to be as obnoxious and humorless as possible (i.e. screaming at a really high pitch, constantly asking about girls). He's that common "nerd" stereotype that could only be written by a non-nerd (like the writers of Big Bang Theory...). Zach's love interest, again, seems to have been cast for her looks alone, and they have zero chemistry together. Jack Black is sporadically funny, but he goes so over-the-top with his performance that it just feels like Jack Black goofing around instead of playing an actual character. He looks and acts nothing like R.L. Stine, which is so strange to me. Why not cast someone gaunt and scary for R.L. Stine? Stine himself used to introduce each episode of the show in the '90s and developed a kind of "character," a la Alfred Hitchcock Presents; casting Black as Stine is almost the equivalent as casting him as Hitchcock, it just doesn't make sense.
I don't have much to say, this is just a total throwaway movie. Its main story sounds like a half baked scrap from the writer's room floor, the emotional beats feel forced with the bad acting and truly uninspired "whimsical" score by Danny Elfman, it's filled with enough product placement to make Adam Sandler proud (at one point, for no reason, R.L. hands Champ a bottle of Crush orange soda and says "drink this!"), but perhaps worst of all, it really isn't very scary at all. The CGI creatures look really fake, with only Slappy the Dummy having any tangible weight to him, making every set piece feel danger-free. Overall, Goosebumps is just a big disappointment for me. There's really nothing out there marketed for kids nowadays that's meant to actually scare them; Goosebumps is just another cynical example of our inoffensive, sugar-coated "save the children" society.
Dir. Robert Zemeckis
The Walk, besides being a sort of pointless retread of the documentary Man on Wire, is notable for having caused audiences to throw up in theaters from vertigo. The story follows wire-walker/daredevil/"artiste" Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt), who notoriously walked across NYC's twin towers without a safety harness. While presented as a very basic biopic for its first half, the film builds up to the ultimate "walk" itself, done illegally of course, and turns into a semi-thriller and a dizzying special effects picture (which I'm assuming looks amazing in IMAX). This Oscar-grabby flick didn't do a whole heck of a lot for me, but it was competently made, and in terms of pure spectacle filmmaking, Robert Zemeckis gets it right when he needs to.
The worst thing about The Walk is its terrible voiceover narration, during which we occasionally hear and see Petit directly addressing the camera in clearly green-screened segments on the torch of the Statue of Liberty. The pointless voiceover holds your hand throughout the entire film, and it robs many scenes of their quiet poignancy. Levitt however, as always, brings his A-game (along with his "Bruce Willis" makeup from Looper), giving the character a real sense of showmanship. On a physical level, I totally bought into the idea that he was a high wire walker; his 4 months of training before the film really shows here. He unicycles like a pro.
The Walk falls for so many terrible "biopic" cliches (childhood montage, relationship drama, etc), but in the end, I think it was worth the journey for the central set piece alone. Zemeckis milks the moment for all it's worth, but I enjoyed it, especially since, unlike the documentary, we can literally see and feel what it must have been like on that wire, a hundred and some odd stories high. So I'd recommend you see The Walk on the biggest screen you can before it leaves theaters, and just in case, bring a barf bag!
Dir. Ramin Bahrani
99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani's well-acted melodrama about foreclosed homes and the "One Percenters" who get rich off them, at one point presents America's economic situation as a Noah's Ark metaphor. "This nation is rigged for winners. I'm not going to drown." This cynical quote is deliciously delivered by Michael Shannon, playing a ruthless real estate broker who ends up hiring one of the family men he evicted (Andrew Garfield), who effectively becomes his own worst enemy just to make ends meet. I don't have much to say about the film here other than it has some powerful acting and presents the housing crisis in a thrilling way. Some of the character decisions towards the end are a bit wonky, but overall, 99 Homes is a solid drama about an important issue. And you're always in for a treat when Michael Shannon is given a bunch of complicated, semi-evil dude monologues.