For a re­view of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,”

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

Witches are so 2017. Make way for war­locks, aka “boy witches,” as de­fined by the in­trepid young Lewis (Owen Vac­caro), the boy hero of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” The adap­ta­tion of John Bel­lairs’ 1973 young adult fan­tasy novel, di­rected by Eli Roth and writ­ten by Eric Kripke, makes a play to move in on the young war­lock turf va­cated by Harry Pot­ter, but the film just can’t quite keep time as a proper young adult fan­tasy ad­ven­ture. The story, which takes place in 1955, fol­lows Lewis as he trav­els to New Zebedee, Michi­gan, to live with his un­cle, Jonathan Bar­navelt (Jack Black), af­ter the tragic death of his par­ents. The film has a vin­tage steam­punk aes­thetic, with Lewis out­fit­ted in tweeds and a ubiq­ui­tous pair of gog­gles. He fits right in to his un­cle’s creak­ing, groan­ing, tick­ing house of won­ders, where there are no rules, plen­ti­ful choco­late chip cook­ies and lots of mys­te­ri­ous go­ing­son, cour­tesy of Jonathan and his neigh­bor, Mrs. Florence Zim­mer­man (Cate Blanchett). It’s not so easy to fit in with the kids at school, al­though Lewis does make one friend in the cool-kid greaser Tarby (Sunny Suljic). But if Lewis is go­ing to learn any­thing from his im­pres­sively bearded and kooky un­cle, it’s to em­brace the weird — it’s the only way to be a war­lock. Lewis is soon re­ceiv­ing lessons in magic from his un­cle and Mrs. Zim­mer­man, a com­bi­na­tion of old-school vaude­ville ma­gi­cian tricks, and real, mys­ti­cal con­jur­ing of the ethe­real fan­tas­tic. De­spite all the rich el­e­ments — the fan­tas­tic cast, the won­der­fully de­tailed pro­duc­tion and cos­tume de­sign, an od­dball fam­ily story of black sheep find­ing each other — there’s some­thing miss­ing from “The House with a Clock in Its Walls.” It’s weight­less, hop-skip­ping over nec­es­sary story-build­ing, gloss­ing over Lewis’ war­lock train­ing as well as the per­sonal his­to­ries of his guardians. It’s all style, no heft, and there’s lit­tle per­sonal con­nec­tion to the char­ac­ters. Piles of ex­po­si­tion pour out of char­ac­ters’ mouths via speeches and mono­logues, rather than or­gan­i­cally through­out the script. There’s a layer of ar­ti­fice that never quite evap­o­rates, never al­lows us to fall head­long into this world. The film can serve as a gate­way for goth chil­dren, who may be drawn to spooky and ma­cabre things, but with­out too much blood, guts or real scares. The cli­max, in which Lewis, Jonathan and Mrs. Zim­mer­man bat­tle Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLach­lan), a war­lock risen from the dead, is breath­less, hys­ter­i­cal and goopy, but never all that ter­ri­fy­ing. He and his wife, Se­lena (Renée Elise Golds­berry), want to turn back the world clock housed in the walls of the house and es­sen­tially “Eter­nal Sun­shine” all peo­ple off the planet. The film, with its 1955 set­ting, ges­tures at the trauma of “the war” for the rea­sons why good war­locks turn bad, or strong witches be­come weak. “No peo­ple, no war,” Isaac says. No char­ac­ter em­bod­ies that more than Mrs. Zim­mer­man, and ev­ery mo­ment Cate Blanchett is on screen is a small sav­ing grace. Her one-on-one scene with Lewis is far more grip­ping than any­thing else in the film, which un­for­tu­nately drags. Blanchett makes “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” tick, but the cogs never quite fit to­gether as snugly as they should. “The House with a Clock In Its Walls,” a Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures re­lease, is rated PG for the­matic el­e­ments in­clud­ing sor­cery, some ac­tion, scary im­ages, rude hu­mor and lan­guage. Run­ning time: 104 min­utes. ★★

“Life It­self”

It’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss what “Life It­self ” is ex­actly about, be­cause the film, writ­ten and di­rected by “This Is Us” cre­ator Dan Fo­gel­man, is such a twisty, tan­gled nar­ra­tive that to de­scribe any as­pect of it is to risk spoil­ers. Be­sides, it’s best to ex­pe­ri­ence the twists and turns for your­self — go­ing in cold re­ally en­hances the baf­fling ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing this emo­tion­ally sadis­tic film. The worst thing about “Life It­self ” is not that it is emo­tion­ally sadis­tic. It’s just how much it wants to be emo­tion­ally sadis­tic, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously miss­ing the mark by a mile. Maybe over the course of a series, one could build the kind of at­tach­ment to char­ac­ters in which the mor­bid and frankly, gory sce­nar­ios might wring an emo­tional re­ac­tion, but con­tained within a fea­ture-length run­ning time — and with so much ef­fort show­ing — it’s a grand fail­ure. Watch­ing “Life It­self ” it­self feels like be­ing con­stantly pranked. It is an ex­er­cise in pulling the rug out from un­der the viewer, be­cause the larger theme of the film is the “un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor,” which is spelled out for us in kinder­garten blocks when Abby (Olivia Wilde), in a flash­back, de­clares her col­lege English the­sis is go­ing to be on said lit­er­ary de­vice. She de­scribes her epiphany to her boyfriend Will (Os­car Isaac) in a tum­ble of words: The most re­li­able nar­ra­tor is … life it­self. Or maybe life it­self is the most un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor. Who knows? It’s one or the other, but truly, the film drains all mean­ing from the phrase. The cheap­est thing about Fo­gel­man’s un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor de­vice is he uses it like a party trick, not to en­hance the story in any way, like un­re­li­able nar­ra­tors used to great ef­fect in film noir. The en­tirety of “Life It­self ” is a cheap trick, start­ing with the trailer. You thought this was a movie about Os­car Isaac and Olivia Wilde in love? Think again. Will and Abby do serve as our en­try point into the sprawl­ing story. Drunk, crazy Will has re­cently been re­leased from an in­sti­tu­tion, par­tic­i­pat­ing in man­dated ses­sions with a ther­a­pist (An­nette Ben­ing). Abby’s no longer in his life, and his ther­apy in­volves de­scrib­ing the hor­rors of her rough child­hood and writ­ing screen­plays like he and Abby used to dream about. Their fa­vorite movie was ob­vi­ously “Pulp Fic­tion” (un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor), and they’re dressed as Vin­cent Vega and Mia Wal­lace when Will de­mands Abby “say yes” to his im­promptu pro­posal over the keg at a Hal­loween party. We see snip­pets of their re­la­tion­ship — dec­la­ra­tions of love at frat par­ties, ar­gu­ing about Bob Dy­lan in bed, happy lunches with Will’s par­ents (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart), wherein his mother is de­lighted Abby’s par­ents are dead, so she doesn’t have to share the grand­chil­dren. You know who else de­lights in dead par­ents? Dan Fo­gel­man. Sud­denly, we’re in Spain, on a bu­colic olive farm owned by a philo­soph­i­cal Mr. Sac­cione (An­to­nio Ban­deras), who has a close con­nec­tion with the fam­ily of his fore­man, Javier (Ser­gio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Is­abel (Laia Costa) and son Ro­drigo (Adrian Mar­rero). Some­how the fam­ily in New York and the fam­ily in Spain are go­ing to come to­gether, sim­ply be­cause Fo­gel­man wants to prove he can, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the char­ac­ters like a bunch of very de­press­ing Sims. “Life It­self ” con­jures up a lot of ques­tions, but not the ex­is­ten­tial ones for which Fo­gel­man might be hop­ing. Rather, the ques­tions are more “what the…?,” “why?,” and by the time the whole sod­den, death-ob­sessed thing wraps up, all we’re left with is “that’s it?” The con­vo­luted sto­ry­telling tries but fails to cam­ou­flage that there’s just not that much story there. It turns out the most un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor was Fo­gel­man all along. “Life It­self,” an Ama­zon Pic­tures re­lease, is rated R for lan­guage in­clud­ing sex­ual ref­er­ences, some vi­o­lent im­ages and brief drug use. Run­ning time: 118 min­utes. ★½

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Olivia Wilde, left, and Os­car Isaac star in the Ama­zon Pic­tures re­lease “Life It­self.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.