House With a Clock In Its Walls: Eli Roth Fantasy Lacks Magic

1.5 out of 5 stars (one of the worst of the year)

House With a Clock in its Walls poster
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Watching The House With a Clock in its Walls is like being on a massive sugar high: It’s way too fast, very confusing, and eventually causes you as a viewer to crash and fight falling asleep.  Why horror director Eli Roth and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke were chosen to helm this project is a mystery given that neither are known for family entertainment, and it really shows here.  Add a completely miscast Jack Black, underused Cate Blanchett, and a child actor with little screen presence, and you have one of the dullest fantasies of the year, for adults anyway.  The kids in my audience laughed a lot, so I’m sure this film will be a hit at 12-year-old slumber parties on dark stormy nights, if that’s any consolation.

Following his parents’ death, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, of the tedious Daddy’s Home franchise) is sent to live with his quirky and mysterious Uncle Jonathan (a thoroughly annoying and out-of-place Jack Black) in his creepy old mansion.  Jonathan basically shirks his responsibilities as a guardian, except for one rule: Don’t open the ominous cabinet in the house’s center, or bad things will come.  Oooooo.

As always in these creepy haunted location movies, Lewis hears a ticking sound in the wall one night, only to see Jonathan sneaking around like a cat-burglar.  After discussing this with a kid at school, Lewis confronts Jonathan, and the man reveals himself and deadpan neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett trying her hardest to save the picture) are a warlock and witch, respectively.  They start training Lewis in magic as he tries to investigate the secret behind the ticking in the wall, which leads to yet another fantasy bad guy with a take-over-the-world scheme (Played with a modicum of energy by 90’s icon Kyle MacLachlan).

The House With a Clock in its Walls has absolutely no idea what it is or who it’s aimed at.  Black is in full man-child mode here, making funny faces to make kids laugh, but a blasé story, lack of momentum, and later scary images make it questionable for younger kids.  12-and-ups should be safe, but any younger may have nightmares.  Again, the kids in my screening laughed a ton, and I probably would have liked this too in my younger years, but I feel the pain of their parents who must pay for them to see it and watch good actors like Black and Blanchett act like one-dimensional cartoons.  Director Roth is expectedly more comfortable in the horror scenes than the comedic ones, but I found much of the humor flat.  At least I earned a free popcorn the next time I go to the theater and heard a comparably interesting podcast about the proper temperature of wine on the ride back home.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is a boring, drawn-out fantasy with mostly uninteresting direction, a rushed script, and unlikable characters that had me in an epic battle to avoid sleeping in my comfy seat.   As with The Nun, I must ask why this isn’t an October release.  Its creepy visuals and tone are tailor-made for tweens on a stormy night, but adults will likely be bored by this.  At one point, a character says to young Lewis, “It’s a total waste of time”.  I couldn’t agree more, young sir.  Skip it.

Rated PG for Thematic Elements Including Sorcery (seriously?), Some Action, Scary Images, Rude Humor, And Language

“Tomorrowland”: Clooney Sci-Fi Trip Entertains with Solid Action, Good Message

Tomorrowland poster
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3 out of 5 stars (average)

Disney is a fascinating company. In the past few years, they have produced several live-action family fare during the summertime in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.  Last year’s Maleficent was one of these films, and while I found it to be a decent time at the movies, it was far from what it could have been.  I was growing tired of Disney making big promises and not being able to deliver on them, so much so that I dreaded it when I found that the company was making a sci-fi film starring George Clooney.  I never thought that I would see George Clooney, an actor of extremely high prowess, in a film produced by the House of Mouse.  When the advertisements came, I was worried that it would not deliver on what it promised: a classic Disney fantasy.  Thus far, reviews of this film are mixed, citing that there is a lack of emotional depth.  I’m here to say that I like this film because it is a fun, action-filled ride for the whole family (pre-teens and up, at least).  Tomorrowland dazzles with its great visuals, well-shot action, and interesting characters, making for the first good time I’ve had at the movies this summer.

The film follows Casey (Britt Robertson), a reckless teenager in Cape Canaveral whose father (Tim McGraw) is about to be fired due to the launch pad being shut down. She has tried to hinder this by messing with the technology on the pad, but to no avail.  Though everyone around Casey has given up on changing things, just accepted them as they are, she still sees room for change, and is just waiting for an opportunity to do that.

She gets that chance when a pin shows up with her stuff after she is arrested for messing with the tech again. When she holds the pin, she discovers that it takes her to the future, filled with chrome, jetpacks, and time machines.  Realistically, she freaks out, but then decides to figure out where the pin came from and why she got it.  This journey will have her cross paths with Frank Walker (Clooney), a mysterious man who holds the answers and an interesting little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy).  These two will change Casey’s life in a way she never imagined.

I love George Clooney. He is able to legitimize nearly any role he’s in because of his great screen presence and delivery.  He brings all he can to the table here, and it helps elevate the movie quite a bit.  This isn’t his best performance, but he is still as engaging as ever.  Britt Robertson does fine, but is a bit overshadowed by the more experienced actors in the film.  However, Robertson kept my attention and made me care about the character, something that very few young stars can do with this type of role (Garrett Hedlund in Tron: Legacy could not pull this off at all, read my review of that here).  Hugh Laurie, best known for his roles as the titular House and the father in the Stuart Little movies, does some fine work here.  He too was engaging and was perfectly cast.  Again, while I will always think of him as Gregory House, this character is more memorable than he had any right to be because Laurie played it.  The final acting note I should speak of is newcomer Raffey Cassidy.  She did very well for a child actress, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.  I liked her immediately, and that is a true rarity.  I find child actors annoying most of the time, but Cassidy was right on mark throughout the film.

The credit for that goes squarely on director Brad Bird (who also co-wrote the script with Damon Lindelof of Star Trek: Into Darkness).  Bird is a great director, providing me with some of the most memorable (and favorite) film experiences.  Bird also directed The Incredibles and the iconic The Iron Giant.  Both of these films are very good and show what cinema can do when the right man is behind the camera.  Bird knows how to shoot action in a way that is exhilarating and absorbing.  He does not use ShakeyCam, in which the director will shake the camera to make up for poor fighting choreography, but actually lets you see what the heck is going on.  It’s rare where I can complement the action in a film that isn’t from Marvel, and I always love to do it.

Though the acting and action are great, the pacing threw me off at first. I was nervous at the start that the movie would be kiddish and silly, but that problem is evened out quickly enough.  I think children will enjoy the visuals and action sequences even if they don’t understand what is going on.  This doesn’t feel like a “Disney” film, in that they don’t really dumb anything down.  Most of the elements are fully realized and it doesn’t feel like anything important was left on the cutting room floor for time (I’m looking right at you, Age of Ultron).  This film isn’t a classic by any means, but as a fun summer family movie, Tomorrowland is a trip worth taking.

Rated PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Peril, Thematic Elements, and Language (there are two incompleted SOBs and a few milder words, but it’s not too bad).

“Penelope”: Down and snout

2 out of 5 stars (has some good moments, but is overall bad)

penelope poster 400 pixelPenelope (played by Christina Ricci) is a girl with a pig snout for a nose. Many years before she was born, a witch put a curse on her family: the next newborn girl would have the face of a pig. The curse would only be broken when “one of her own kind” would come to love her for who she is.

Penelope’s mother Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and father Franklin (Richard E. Grant) have kept her inside their mansion ever since a news reporter named Lemon (Peter Dinklage) tried to run a story about Penelope’s pig face. Only men who might break the pig curse are allowed to see Penelope. They always run away, however, because of Penelope’s pig snout, leaving her sad and alone.

Lemon teams up with Edward (Simon Woods), a man who also tried to tell people about Penelope to no avail. The two get a broke gambler named Max (James McAvoy) to take a picture of Penelope to prove to the world they aren’t crazy. Yet, instead of getting a picture of Penelope, Max unintentionally makes things worse by making Penelope run away, driving her mother crazy.

Will Penelope get a real nose? Will she come back to her mother? Will she fall in love? The ending surprised me and I hope it does the same for you.

However, I thought this movie stunk like a pig pen. Some parts kind of bored me, and the film wasn’t a comedy like I was expecting. There were a few funny moments here and there but not enough. I don’t think little kids will like the grown-up parts of the movie after Penelope runs away, and I’m not sure who is supposed to like this film.

Rated PG for thematic elements and mild language.