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: ‘Life Itself’ Has a Few Too Many Twists and Way Too Many Tragedies

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CREDIT: Jose Haro/Amazon Studios

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

Starring: Oscar Issac, Olivia Wilde, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Laia Costa, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Alex Monner, Jean Smart, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Lorenza Izzo, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Dan Fogelman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Violent Accidents and Millennial Hipster Profanity

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Thanks to Crazy, Stupid, Love. (which he scripted) and This Is Us (which he created), Life Itself writer/director Dan Fogelman is now as synonymous with the game-changing twist as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s due for a backlash, and Life Itself is the perfect specimen to engender that anger. The film itself is not so much about the twist itself so much as it is about the entire concept of twists. Fogelman withholds essential information that prevents us from knowing until he wants us to know how various generations of people are related by coincidence or even closer connections. But he constantly shows his hand, or at least part of his hand, to let us know that a reveal is coming. In fact, this is all kind of a deconstruction about how we tell stories and save twists for maximum impact. I actually believe that such a theory-heavy idea could work, but the product we have here is filled with characters and events that are just exhausting.

The action is split by time and the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City, we’ve got Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), a mostly happy couple who might have some insidious relationship issues lurking. Meanwhile, over in Spain, Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) works the field and romances the waitress Isabel (Laia Costa). Along the way, we meet some of their parents, children, and employers. We immediately know how some of them are connected, while we then watch the other puzzle pieces come together in non-linear fashion to discover the rest of the connections. There could be a satisfying thrill to how the final twist weaves everyone together, but instead it is just exhausting, as all the misfortunes that these characters endure and the bad decisions that they make make for an excess of tragedy that is too much for any audience to bear.

Still, the ultimate lesson that Fogelman wants to convey is worth listening to and following: no matter what our history, no matter how much life has brought us to our knees, there is still a future worth pursuing. Life Itself does not need to be as excruciating as it is to make that point, but it is a valuable point nonetheless. And despite my misgivings, I still found this film oddly compelling, although that could just be because I like keeping track of how people are related to each other. Ultimately, I wish Fogelman had done more with the concept of playing around with the unreliable narrator, which he is clearly enamored with but ultimately a little tepid in how he examines it. It actually starts off promisingly, as the initial narrator shows up in person as himself to basically say, “Hey look, I’m really here!” But afterwards it’s pretty straightforward, but if that adventurous spirit had hung around, Life Itself coulda been something.

Life Itself is Recommended If You Like: This Is Us at its most emotionally manipulative

Grade: 2 out of 5 Unreliable Narrators