Movie reviews: 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' is good, silly gothic-themed fun for kids
Published Friday, September 21, 2018 6:00AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 21, 2018 6:10AM EDT
Movie expert Richard Crouse shares his take on four films opening in cinemas this weekend: 'The House With A Clock In Its Walls' starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, Michael Moore's new documentary 'Fahrenheit 11/9,' Dan Fogelman's 'Life Itself' and 'Assassination Nation' from writer-director Sam Levinson.
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS: 2 ½ STARS
That director Eli Roth, he of "Cabin Fever" and the "Hostel" movies and the coiner of the term "torture porn," is making a film about a warlock and a haunted house should come as no surprise. That it is a spooky PG rated movie for kids is. Based on the children's classic "The House With A Clock In Its Walls" by John Bellairs with illustrations by Edward Gorey, the film stars Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.
The movie begins with 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) losing his parents. Sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), a wizard who lives in a rambling old house -- the locals call it the "slaughter house" -- with a mysterious tick-tocking heart.
"There's a clock in the walls," he says. "We don't know what it does, except... something horrible." It's a place of wonder and magic, complete with tentacle monsters ("He's safe as long as he's fed," Jonathan assures the youngster) and deadly secrets.
"It's scary," says Lewis. "I see things out of the corner of my eye and I think Uncle Jonathan is hiding something from me."
Next door is witch Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), a friendly face and substitute mother figure for young Lewis. Stumbling into this world of magic, Lewis unleashes holy heck when he accidentally awakens Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), Jonathan's former best friend and warlock, from the dead. The trio must stop Isaac from locating the sourcing of the house's mysterious doomsday clock, whose tick-tock is a threat to all of humankind, but the onus is on the preteen. "I can give you the right books, teach you the right spells," says Jonathan, "but that last 1 per cent, that's up to you."
"The House With A Clock In Its Walls" is a fantasy-based thriller with gothic flourishes for kids raised on the "Goosebumps" books. Imagine a mix of "The Addams Family" and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and you'll get the idea. For the most part it is harmless Halloween fun, more spooky than scary, although Isaac's reanimation scene, complete with white, rotting flesh and stray maggots and the barfing pumpkins may inspire nightmares for the younger set.
Roth pays attention to the details — the set decoration and costumes are terrific — but draws out the action in the first half of the movie. Black and Blanchett chew the scenery and are clearly having fun, but the tick-tocking clock seems to be running extra slow in the movie's set-up scenes.
Once "The House With A Clock In Its Walls" kicks in, it's good, silly fun, a throwback to the goodtime horror films of 1980s Amblin flicks.
FAHRENHEIT 11/9: 4 STARS
Millions of words have been written about how and why Donald Trump became the forty-fifth President of the United States. In "Fahrenheit 11/9," his new documentary, Michael Moore has a new theory. He boils it down to three words: Blame Gwen Stefani.
Moore suggests that when Trump found out that Stefani was making more money as a judge on "The Voice" than he was as host of "The Apprentice" he cooked up a false run-for-president announcement to show the bosses at NBC how popular he was. The plan backfired. NBC fired him but Trump's sons encouraged him to go ahead with two rallies he already had planned. The turnout at the gatherings convinced the real estate tycoon he could be "king of the world" and the race for the White House was on. The media bought in lock, stock and barrel. Especially NBC who didn't think Trump would win, but at least they could now put him on TV for free.
"It may not be good for America," says now disgraced CBS executive Les Moonves, "but it is great for CBS."
From there the film takes the expected jabs at Trump, complete with the usual Moore flourishes. There's a thumb-wagging montage of Ivanka sitting on her father's lap — "If Ivanka wasn't my daughter," says Trump, "I'd be dating her." — and archival footage of Hitler dubbed with Trump's voice, but here the left-wing filmmaker does an equal opportunity smear job.
Moore is a singular voice, unapologetically on the left but here he criticizes sacred left-wing icons like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama ("The worst thing Obama did was pave the way for Donald Trump.") and paints the Democrats as an out of touch group of elites who may only be saved by young, insurgent candidates like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
He even takes a job or two at himself. He admits he has been in the enemy camp. Jared Kushner once threw him a party. Steve Bannon released the "Sicko" movie on DVD and Kellyanne Conway snuggles him in some cell phone footage.
Mostly, Moore sews together a patchwork quilt of political woes. He dives deep into the case of Michigan governor Rick Snyder, the man he says is responsible for the poison water in Flint, Michigan. He goes as far as to say Snyder has bested the terrorists. "No terrorist organization has ever figured out how to poison an entire American city." He uses the Flint water supply crisis as a microcosm of what is wrong with the system.
He makes a case against the Electoral College, "the last vestige of the constitution written to appease the slave states 200 years ago," and details how Bernie Sanders was swindled out of a nomination in state after state by the use of super delegates.
Frankly he hasn't uncovered much that is new, he just presents it differently than everybody else. His brilliance is in creating pop-culture pastiches with a flood of news clips, archival print material and voiceovers that drives his points home. It's not all style and eye candy, however. "Fahrenheit 11/9" is a look at why men like Trump and Snyder thrive on power; about how corporations have infiltrated politics and how the future is based in the kind of resistance championed by Parkland shooting survivors Emma González. "It doesn't need to be like this," Moore says in voiceover during a montage of modern misery, "and it still doesn't. We don't need comfort. We need action."
Is it heavy-handed? Yes. Of course it is; it's Michael Moore. Is it effective? Yes. It's a dissertation on where we are and where we are headed, for better and for worse.
LIFE ITSELF: 1 STAR
If the title itself didn't give it away, fans of the sappy television hit "This is Us" will know what to expect from "Life Itself." The new film from "This is Us" guru Dan Fogelman is a Xerox of his TV show. Grab some Kleenex and cue the schmaltz.
Divided into chapters, Fogelman goes multigenerational in "Life Itself," guiding us through the lives of a handful of people on a couple of continents. Anxious New Yorker Will (Oscar Isaac) bends his therapist's (Annette Bening) ear, droning on about Bob Dylan and his failed marriage to Abby (Olivia Wilde).
Cut to the future. There's Will and Abby's daughter Dylan (Olivia Cooke), an angry punk chanteuse who specializes in, SURPRISE, Bob Dylan songs.
Jump across the pond to Spain. There the wealthy Mr. Saccione (Antonio Banderas) promotes one of his workers, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta). With the extra money he is able to marry his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa), but later a tragedy witnessed by their son Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) traumatizes the boy. Saccione pays for therapy and later, after some turmoil, pays for Rodrigo to go to school in New York, which co-incidentally is where the story comes full circle.
See how everything connects in the grand soap opera of life?
There's more. Mandy Patinkin pops up as Will's father, a cancer diagnosis rocks a family and don't forget molestation. It's a litany of tragedy—suicide, mental health issues, abandonment and family dysfunction — that feels like a sappy Afterschool Special written by Nikolai Gogol, coated in a fine dusting of schmaltz. It longs to be a rich, complex look at life, love, loss and olive oil but is instead a metaphorical Crock-Pot: a slow burn of the story that never comes to a boil and, unlike the one on Fogelman's TV show, never actually catches fire.
ASSASSINATION NATION: 3 ½ STARS
You can't say you weren't warned. "Assassination Nation," the new film from writer-director Sam Levinson, comes complete with a long list of trigger warnings. Fragile Male Egos. Torture. Swearing. The list goes on. All that and more is contained within this lurid look at life in a small town vexed by a computer hacker.
When Salem, Massachusetts high school seniors Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef) and Em (Abra) aren't in class they spend their time partying, chasing boys, sexting and sending thousands of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts. When a computer hacker reveals the sexual peccadilloes of their town's mayor and school principal it wakes up the sleepy suburb's townsfolk. When the hacking continues, uncovering Lily's cyber affair with an older man, and the deepest darkest secrets of many others, the town's men band together to find the hacker. "The media is complicit," they say. "People are laughing at us. We can no longer be helpless. If the government can't save our law and order, we will do it ourselves!"
Most every hot button woe of modern life is either literally or metaphorically covered in "Assassination Nation." Toxic masculinity, privacy concerns, desensitization to violence, mob rule, homophobia and racism for a start. It's a Pandora's Box of social ills, told through the prism of a satire that feels both exploitative and timely.
As the story goes on, shifting from edgy teen sex comedy to a manifesto of female empowerment it echoes back to the events of 300 years previous when rumours led to the demise of twenty of the town's women. Blamed for their sexuality and treated as objects, the four women at the centre of the story react against the righteousness and hypocrisy they say has become their town's sickness.
"Assassination Nation" is in-your-face stuff, a movie that is part slasher flick, part call for revolution. "You may kill us," says Lily after all hell has broken loose, "but you can't kill us all." It's not always pleasant but it is never less than interesting.