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

The Nun: Horror film is Predictable, but Fun

2.5 out of 5 stars (Decent)

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The Nun is the newest installment in the popular Conjuring film series, though you don’t need to have seen the other films to get it.  While it certainly isn’t as good as The Conjuring 1 and 2, the film is a suitably fun Haunted House Movie (or, Haunted Abbey Movie in this case), and should satisfy people who enjoy easy, predictable jump scares with friends.  Unfortunately, anyone expecting a character-driven story like the first two Conjurings will be sorely disappointed.

Father Burke (Demian Bichir) has been sent to an Abbey by the Vatican to investigate a nun’s suicide.  He is joined by unavowed novice Irene (Taissa Farmiga, TV’s American Horror Story) and comedic relief guide Frenchie (an enjoyable Jonas Bloquet), and the trio sets off to the abbey unaware of the sinister and supernatural evil that calls it home, namely a ghostly Nun (An effective Bonnie Aarons).

I understand why most critics are being harsh on this film.  This is a horror series that has stood out from the crowd by providing engaging stories and interesting characters along with effective scares, and this one is more focused on the scares.  The characters are not as interesting as they could be, but the performances are good enough to get you through if you like this kind of thing.  I’ll likely forget most of the details of this film after writing this review, but I enjoyed watching it with my cousin alone in the dark theater.  This should have been a Halloween release, not a Summer one.  The dark, gothic design of the Abbey and candle-lit hallways make it perfect for home viewing parties with friends, and there are unexpected bits of humor to lighten the mood (something other films did not have), to good effect.

The Nun’s biggest failure is its reliance on predictable jump scares over an engaging story or characters.  The camera movement repeats in every scary scene to prepare you for the ghouls to pop out: Shot of the room from the ceiling, then a close-up shot of the character’s face, then the camera slowly turns to reveal the ghost behind them.  It’s fun, but seriously predictable and feels longer than its 96-minute runtime.  Despite that, I would still recommend renting the film, as there are enough good effects and some good humor to make it a fun ride. Rent it.

Rated R for Terror, Violence, And Disturbing/Bloody Images

Wade into “The Shallows” For a Bloody Good Time

3.5 out of 5 stars (above average)

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I walked into The Shallows thinking it would be a borderline exploitative examination of star Blake Lively in a beautiful bikini, that just so happened to involve a shark. To my astonishment, the film provided a strong female character, gritty realism, and a career-best performance from Ms. Lively.  The Shallows is Jaws for a new generation.  It is a bloody and thrilling ride from start to finish that will make you think twice about going in the water.

Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical student and surfer coming to terms with the death of her mother some time ago. She has decided to visit her mom’s favorite hidden beach in order to gain some closure, while her father and sister only wish for her to come home.

When the day comes, Nancy ends up going out by herself (a big mistake for anyone) and ends up wiping out and crawling on a rock about 200 yards from shore. The problem?  No one knows she’s out there, and there’s a giant, bloodthirsty shark circling her position.  Now, Nancy must use her wits to escape the shark, all while nursing dangerous injuries and rapidly depleting strength.

The Shallows is a rare kind of PG-13 movie in that we actually see blood. Most films with this rating are toothless when it comes to showing aftermaths of violent attacks, but The Shallows sticks to its guns and isn’t afraid to show us the realistically gory results of the shark attacks.  It isn’t over-the-top in any way, just gritty and intense.  This is NOT a film to take your young kids to, as they will be scared by the shark and other environmental hazards Nancy must face in her journey for survival.  I don’t scare easily, but many of these sequences had me glued to my seat hoping that she would not die.  I was thoroughly invested in this character, something that few modern movies are able to do, and felt every hit she took.

That solid investment is due to the gritty performance by Blake Lively. Previously, I saw Lively as an actress who took on relatively safe roles, either because she didn’t have the range or couldn’t get any meaty parts.  I was proven wrong with this, watching with awe as Lively delivered an A-game performance that makes me excited for her next project.  This isn’t academy-award winning here, but based on what I had seen her do before (Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series and Green Lantern), I never would have pegged her for this kind of role.  I guess it just goes to show that some actors just get some bad luck starting out, but secretly have it in them to deliver a great and memorable performance when given the chance.

The camerawork is also well-done, allowing intensity to build throughout and even make some effective jump scares. The shark scenes are jerky without using too much shakeycam, meaning you can actually see the shark when its onscreen.  I don’t know about you, but I personally like to be able to see the thing that might haunt my nightmares in a movie.  Lastly, the filmmakers want you to admire Lively’s beauty, but not in a pervy way.  They show you close-ups of her bikini, but not exploitatively.  However, if  you just want to come and look at Blake Lively, you’ll get your money’s worth.

The Shallows is a well-acted, gritty, and unexpectedly scary thriller that proves that there may still be a reason to be afraid of the water. Enter them if you dare.

Rated PG-13 for Bloody Images, Intense Sequences of Peril, and Brief Strong Language