This Is a Movie Review: There Are Spurts of Cinematic Magic Within ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Copyright: © 2018 Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldberry, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Colleen Camp

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Children in Danger and Creepy, Occasionally Macabre, Magic

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Despite some spirited performances and thorough production design and effects work, The House with a Clock in Its Walls ultimately feels rather perfunctory. But would I have this way if I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old, or would I have instead been truly excited? And as a PG-rated fantasy flick, perhaps we should primarily be asking what pre-teens will think about it. But maybe we should also be asking if it is good enough for them to continue to cherish it (beyond nostalgia value) as they grow older.

There is definitely plenty in here for kids to identify or empathize with, as recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) makes his way to his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, Michigan. Any youngsters who have ever struggled to fit in – whether because of a new school, a weird new home, cruel classmates, or whatever else – will be able to see themselves in Lewis, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But beyond his fashion signature of goggles based on his favorite sci-fi TV show, he doesn’t have the most memorable personality.

Luckily, the adults around Lewis do make more of a lasting impact. Jack Black leans into his bumbling side as Uncle Jonathan, a warlock who constantly downplays his own abilities, perhaps to his detriment. His neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) is a much more regal magical presence. Black and Blanchett have decent platonic chemistry, with their insistence that they are nothing more than friends never undercut by their repartee. As Jonathan’s sinister former partner Isaac, Kyle MacLachlan displays plenty of charisma despite working under mounds of makeup. And the house itself, in which the furniture acts like a pack of friendly dogs, is fun enough, with director Eli Roth demonstrating his knack for rendering fully realized, character-rich settings (but obviously more kid-friendly than what we’re used to from him). But at the end, you’re liable to be left thinking, “Welp, that all happened.” The stakes are apocalyptic, but they never feel that dire. Lewis saves the day, and that’s nice and all, but there could have been more zip and zaniness.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is Recommended If You Like: The Pagemaster, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The NeverEnding Story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Magic Keys

This Is a Movie Review: Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’ is Plenty Entertaining If You Don’t Want to Grapple Too Much with Vigilantism’s Complicated Morality

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CREDIT: Takashi Seida/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Beau Knapp, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Mike Epps

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Brutal Gunfire and the Corresponding Bloody, Bone-Breaking Injuries

Release Date: March 2, 2018

By Eli Roth standards, Death Wish – a remake of the notorious 1974 Charles Bronson franchise-starter of the same name – is actually rather tame. The director of such modern-day exploitation as Cabin Fever, Hostel, and The Green Inferno has made a career out of pushing buttons, but the most objectionable elements of Death Wish are borrowed from the original. Based on the evidence on display here, I don’t know if Roth is an advocate for vigilantism, or if he even necessarily has any fully formed opinion. But no matter his own personal feelings, the film is plenty confrontational and liable to stir up heated feelings.

The setup is essentially the same as the original: Chicago-based surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) turns to vigilantism after a robbery by professional burglars leaves his wife Lucy (Elisabeth Shue) dead and his daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. He is frustrated by the lack of leads in the case and the constant gang-related violence in his city, so he takes to heart those who bandy about the maxim that police only arrive after the crime has happened. So he procures a gun, dons his hoodie, and does what he can to clean up the streets, initially dispatching the likes of carjackers and soon working his way up to executing career criminals in broad daylight. He becomes a viral sensation, with some calling him the “Guardian Angel,” with others opting for “Grim Reaper.” There are some clear racial overtones, underlined by footage of real talk radio personalities discussing his activity, as Kersey is white and his targets tend to be people of color. But pointedly, he is also protecting many people of color. Admirably, Roth actually lets this issue remain as complicated as it deserves to be, but it could still have been addressed more head-on

When viewed straightforwardly as action movie fish fulfillment, Death Wish is well-crafted, crackerjack entertainment. I cannot deny that I was thrilled, nor can I dispute the comic relief that comes in the form of Vincent D’Onofrio as Paul’s schlubby but loyal younger brother, or Mike Epps as the resident horndog doctor, or just a well-timed gunshot. But naturally enough I find myself hesitant to cheer any movie in which a vigilante is the clear hero. That is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Paul is so clearly a decent person and that everyone he kills is clearly a bad guy. But then that clear demarcation between good and evil makes for its own problems. That stark opposition can work, with Lord of the Rings perhaps the best example.

So I would like to propose a theory of the Uncanny Valley of Realistic Violence, wherein a fantastical setting makes it easier to stomach an inherently good character killing an inherently evil character. But the closer the setting is to reality, the harder the killing is to accept, because the good/evil split is not so easy in real life. Roth flirts with examining that complication, but for the most part he is more interested in being a showman. Despite my problems with Death Wish’s ickiness, I do not feel too compelled to condemn it all that strongly on moral grounds. After all, it is clearly a fantasy, because where else but in the movies would the lead detective (Dean Norris) close the case with a delicious bite of pizza and an equally delicious one-liner?

Death Wish is Recommended If You Like: Eli Roth’s in-your-face style, Bruce Willis downplaying while remaining intense, Comic relief when it might not be appropriate

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Head Shots