Review of “The House with a Clock in its Walls”

Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is 10-years old and is being sent to live with an uncle in Michigan after the death of his parents in a car crash. That uncle, his mother’s brother, is Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), an unusual man living in an unusual house. The old Victorian-looking home is filled with dusty books, stuffed animals and clocks. Clocks of every type and style are on the walls, on tables and standing on the floor. Jonathan introduces Lewis to Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). While Jonathon and Mrs. Zimmerman are friends they insult each other almost constantly. Lewis misses his parents a great deal but especially his mother (Lorenza Izzo). She appears to him in his bedroom and comforts him. Lewis struggles to make friends in his new school with only Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic) paying him any mind. Tarby is running for class president. Lewis notices things around his new home are odd: Things move on their own, a stained-glass window changes scene from one moment to the next and there are sounds late at night. Investigating these sounds, Lewis finds his uncle searching for something through the house. Lewis finds it all very strange and confronts his uncle. Jonathan admits to Lewis he’s a warlock and Mrs. Zimmerman is a witch. The home is filled with magical things. It used to be the home of a powerful warlock named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Isaac died the year before and Jonathan says he hid a ticking clock somewhere inside the walls of the house to drive Jonathan crazy. Jonathan wanders the halls at night looking for the clock to remove it, even taking an ax to the walls to find it. Jonathan isn’t telling Lewis everything about the house or Izard but, after Lewis pesters him, he is teaching the boy the ways of magic and that he must find his own style before any spell he casts will be successful. Lewis had better be a quick study as an evil force is coming and looking to exact its revenge on the world.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is based on a 1973 book of the same name by author John Bellairs. Fans of the book will find a fair amount of the story has been changed to provide a more cinematic plot and a definitive ending. It has all the elements of a new magical franchise for children and adults as the action is never too graphic and the scares are relatively mild, but the characters are interesting, and the story has moments of real tension and excitement. Sadly, the film also has some real problems that drag it down to very average.

My first issue is the pacing. Director Eli Roth, better known for his gore-filled horror films like “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” movies, doesn’t seem to know how a story that isn’t filled with graphic deaths should be told. While we get bits and pieces of backstory and plot scattered about in the parts of the film that aren’t the magic action scenes, much of this time is wasted with filler and fluff that doesn’t amount to anything. Tidbits of story are dropped like crumbs yet never go anywhere. Valuable clues as to the history of some characters is practically hidden and never expanded upon.

Second, the script from Eric Kripke doesn’t mind taking the long way around to get to a point. A couple of scenes with Lewis in his new school feel unnecessary as they don’t move the story forward. A friend that becomes a bully and a bad influence felt like a red herring as it is easy to interpret it as a magical deception that winds up being nothing more than the cruelty of adolescence. We are also treated to essentially the same events multiple times. This again feels like filler. The running time of 105 minutes feels far longer.

The world building in “The House with a Clock in its Walls” could use a bit of refinement as well. There’s no history of the magical world other than the immediate events that set the story in motion. We don’t know how Jonathon came to learn magic. Did he have a teacher? Did he join a coven? Is he self-taught? The same questions apply to Mrs. Zimmerman. We only have a few suggestions of her past and know she has dealt with the pain of loss like Lewis. Again, we don’t get much in the way of details. We know each character has suffered similar emotional pain, but that never gets explored in any way. Perhaps the source material was thin on this background or it was cut for time; however, I think it would have connected us more with the characters if we had known a bit more about them. We could have better understood why these three very different people would make their own kind of family.

All that said, “The House with a Clock in its Walls” has some moments of wonder and joy. Most of those come from Cate Blanchett’s Mrs. Zimmerman. Blanchett plays Zimmerman with a twinkle in her eye. She knows this is all bizarre and wonderous and loves every moment of it. Even when things get dangerous she manages to bring a bit of fun to it all. Blanchett has the best scenes with young Owen Vaccaro as Lewis. She emits a motherly presence around the boy and wants to protect him from both the dangers of magic and his uncle. I would have liked for Blanchett to get more screen time and more to do than just support Jonathon.

Owen Vaccaro is terrific as Lewis. Able to handle the scenes were Lewis is more awkward as well as the emotional scenes where he shows just how much the character hurts from the loss of his parents. We also see Lewis begin to grow and gain confidence as he studies and learns more about magic. Being that this is a kid-friendly movie, Lewis is on a path to be the hero of the story and Vaccaro is up to the challenge of showing the growth of his character. From timid and awkward to a brave hero, the journey of Lewis is believable thanks to Owen Vaccaro’s talent.

Jack Black is a bit of a wild card in the movie. Many times, I’ve considered Black to be best viewed in small doses: Better as a supporting character than a leading man. He always seems to be trying too hard. However, in “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” Black seems to be hardly trying at all. We get a few flashes of his usual antics, like the wicked grin and the sudden yelling of a line to dismiss a character, but this time he seems to be much more reined in. I’m not sure if he just didn’t feel like turning his character up to 11 or if director Eli Roth was putting the brakes on his performance. Either way, Black is almost subdued as Jonathon and that doesn’t help the film with its pacing issue.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is rated PG for rude humor, language, thematic elements, scary images, some action and sorcery. The rude humor is mostly derived from a topiary griffin that farts and poops leaves as a running joke. There are mummified hands, stuffed animals and haunted house characters scattered throughout the house. One character looks like a zombie with grey skin, bits of flesh falling off and bloodshot eyes. There are a few jump scares, but all are mild. Foul language is scattered and mild.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” has numerous problems from pacing to an overstuffed script to a lackluster Jack Black. It also has the wonderful Cate Blanchett, a new star in Owen Vaccaro and a magical universe that has more than a few similarities to the world of Harry Potter. Despite its weaknesses there’s a great deal to like about the movie. I enjoyed the wonderous and magical aspects and hope any future installments streamline the storytelling. Also, somebody give Jack Black a minimum of three cups of coffee before each shooting day to power up his performance.

“The House with a Clock in its Walls” gets three stars out of five.

This week, four films want you to bring your eyes to your local multiplex and watch them closely. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Hell Fest—

Little Women—

Night School—

Smallfoot—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news in movies, TV and streaming available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “The Shape of Water”

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Four high school students are sentenced to detention for various infractions. Their punishment includes cleaning out an old storage room. There they find an old video game system with one cartridge of a game called Jumanji. The four plug in the game and select their characters. When they push start the game begins to glow and the students are sucked inside. When they arrive they find themselves in the bodies of their avatars: Dr. Xander Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Franklin “Moose” Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillen). Each has a unique set of skills, strengths and weaknesses and each has three lives. A non-playable character named Nigel (Rhys Darby) tells the players about how the land of Jumanji is under a terrible curse after an explorer named Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) stole the Jaguar’s Eye from a statue giving him control of all the animals in the land. The players must put the Eye back where it belongs in order to win the game and exit. They must also do so without losing all three of their lives otherwise they will really die.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly decent action/fantasy/comedy. Its appealing cast delivers high-octane performances in a video game scenario with plenty of stunts and special effects to keep the story, if you want to call it that, moving. The two hour run time of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” goes by quickly and the film has little in the way of slow spots. So why don’t I care more about the characters or the outcome of the film? Maybe because I know there’s going to be a happy ending with no surprises (there is and there aren’t). Perhaps it has something to do with cynically slapping “Jumanji” on a movie that has very little to do with the original film. Whatever the reason, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a perfectly fine diversion from life but it doesn’t really have a reason to exist.

I suppose it could be argued the movie does encourage the viewer to accept one’s self, including your strengths and your flaws, and live life without fear and regret. It’s a simplistic message but one that younger viewers should hear; but it seems unlikely they will pick up on this message when the movie is much more focused on the wish fulfillment of its primary character going from weak nerd to super buff hero. He does still have the fears and lack of confidence of his real world counterpart but that falls to the wayside as he gains more experience in the game.

All the avatars retain their real world personalities; but the big and strong high school football star and the pretty and popular girl both become weaker and less attractive characters while the nerd and the social outcast gain strengths and abilities they lack. The weak become the strong and the leaders become followers. The transition is difficult for them all but through living life on the other side of the physical and emotional equation all the characters learn how to accept others for what they are. With a bit more focus on the characters and their journey the film might have had a bit more impact. With the spotlight on the action and the humor the movie packs less of a punch.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is rated PG-13 for some language, adventure action and suggestive content. Various faceless minions are killed in numerous ways including exploding boomerangs, beaten to death and being kicked off motorcycles. The main characters die from being eaten by a hippopotamus, run over by a herd of rhinoceroses, pushed off a cliff, bitten by a snake, eating a piece of cake, shot in the chest and attacked by a jaguar. One character is killed when a scorpion crawls out of the mouth of the bad guy and stings him. The suggestive content is limited to a brief reference to touching a woman’s breast and an attempt to distract some guards with sexy dancing. Foul language is limited and mid.

I didn’t hate “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” despite what it might sound like. The movie has some funny moments and a cast that puts their all into their roles. Younger viewers will probably like it just as the young kids behind me seemed to. They were verbally reacting to the events on screen and one youngster was kicking the back of my seat during the more stressful moments (not so much that I had to ask him to stop, but occasionally). The film clearly has an audience and it is well made. It suffers in my eyes for being so utterly vapid.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” gets four unenthusiastic stars.

The Shape of Water

It’s 1962 and the Cold War is at its peak. Eliza and Zelda (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer) work in a government research facility as part of the maintenance crew. Eliza is mute. She has scars on both sides of her neck and was found as a child on the banks of a river and raised in an orphanage. Eliza speaks via sign language and Zelda is her interpreter at work. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) also speaks sign language. He is a graphic artist and works from home. A new project begins at the lab lead by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) involving an amphibian creature referred to as the Asset (Doug Jones). Strickland considers the Asset to be an abomination and treats it cruelly. Eliza sneaks into the lab when no one else is around and visits with the creature, feeding him hard boiled eggs and playing him music. Eliza even teaches the Asset a few words of sign language. Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the lead scientist on the project but he is also a Russian agent. Strickland and the government want to see if they can figure out the Asset’s anatomy by dissecting it and somehow apply that to helping astronauts breathe. Hoffstetler’s Soviet handlers instruct him to kill the creature and dispose of it to prevent the Americans from getting an upper hand in the space race. Eliza knows of the Asset’s impending death at the hands of the Americans and hatches a plan to break him out of the facility with the help of Giles.

“The Shape of Water” is filled with little moments. Some are important to the story while others are like spackle: They fill in the holes and provide a full and complete canvas for director and co-writer (with Vanessa Taylor) Guillermo del Toro to create a beautiful piece of art. That is what “The Shape of Water” is: A moving portrait of moments that tell a compelling story with a unique visual style.

The little moments that build “The Shape of Water” are both beautiful and ugly: Moments of poetry and pornography. Visions of music, dance and love along with racism, sexism and homophobia, all combining to create a stew of sweet and sour that becomes a satisfying meal of beauty and emotion. It is amazing that a movie about a mythical creature living in the rivers of South America and dragged into the dingy world of the Cold War United States can evoke such powerful emotions and be presented so beautifully. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking by a director hitting his prime right before our eyes.

The performances in “The Shape of Water” are equally beautiful. Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing as Eliza. She is able to convey more with a look than most actors can with pages of monologue. Some might consider playing a mute to be confining but Hawkins is able to express more emotion and thought with an expression than you might think possible. Her use of sign language is subtle and beautiful until she becomes emotional; then her movements become emphatic and almost violent. Hawkins expresses her feelings and thoughts through movement in a kind of ballet that holds the eye and demands the viewer pay attention. It is an amazing performance.

Equally amazing is the work of Doug Jones as the Asset. Encased in a full-body latex suit and head gear, the only way Jones can perform is with his body and movements. He, like Hawkins, is able to express a great deal with just a slight nod or the way he breathes. Jones has been the go-to creature guy for del Toro in several of his films including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and both “Hellboy” movies. Seeing his performance in “The Shape of Water” makes clear why Jones is so popular with del Toro and other directors looking for the perfect actor to bury under tons of makeup and prosthetics. According to his Wikipedia page, Jones has studied mime and is a contortionist with both of those skill sets coming in handy in his creature career. It’s a tribute to just how good Jones’ performance is that at a certain point you no longer consider the Asset a creature. Jones is able to show you he is more of a child lost in a world he cannot understand. That is the mark of a great performance.

There are so many wonderful actors doing amazing work in “The Shape of Water” it is difficult to give them all their due credit. Michael Shannon is a scary but sympathetic villain. Richard Jenkins will break your heart with the more we learn about him and how he is just looking for love and a place to fit in. Octavia Spencer is the best friend struggling with a difficult marriage and having to deal with the prejudice of 1960’s America. Michael Stuhlbarg is the enemy but is more of a hero than anyone working for the government. There are more great performances in this movie than you usually find in three films.

“The Shape of Water” is rated R for language, graphic nudity, sexual content and violence. We see Eliza nude on a couple of occasions. We also see her masturbating a couple of times. A character has two fingers bitten off by the Asset and there is a great deal of blood. We also see a couple of characters shot, one is shot in the face and another in the head. We see one of those shot characters tortured for information. Foul language is fairly common but not overwhelming.

I couldn’t stop thinking of “The Shape of Water” for hours after I saw it. A song used in the film, “You’ll Never Know,” would play in my head and I would be close to tears as memories of what I’d just seen would flash in my mind. I can think of no movie that has affected me so profoundly in my entire life. It may sound silly but I thing “The Shape of Water” has made me a better person. See it and allow the film to make a change in you as well.

“The Shape of Water” gets five stars.

It’s the end of the year and the release schedule is a bit thin so I’ll be seeing and reviewing at least one of the following films that are in limited release:

Darkest Hour—

Molly’s Game—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast for the latest movie and streaming news. Our next episode will be available on January 8, 2018. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The D Train”

Have you ever heard the expression, “He/She peaked in high school”? It isn’t meant as a compliment and suggests every aspect of that person’s life since graduation has been less than spectacular. Some people (i.e. me) wish that fate on their fellow students. At one of my reunions the jock that had made my life miserable since fourth grade was sitting alone at the bar. He had gotten fat and while everyone else was dressed for a night on the town he had on cutoff jean shorts, a t-shirt, flip-flops and a ball cap. I secretly smirked at how his life appeared to have gone in the gutter but then realized how petty that was. He and I are now Facebook friends and he appears to have a very nice life. The point of all of this is that we sometimes carry our high school personas through our lives while also applying what we thought of classmates to theirs. It isn’t until we’ve grown up some that we let these trivial resentments fall away and accept classmates for what they are now instead of who they were then. In “The D Train,” one person who is in a near constant state of delusion approaches the king of the class to attend the high school reunion. The affect it has on both their lives is profound.

Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is the self-appointed head of his high school graduating class’ alumni committee. He and a group of fellow alumni are making calls to other classmates as the date of their 20 year reunion approaches. They aren’t having much luck getting commitments and it looks like very few, if any, will attend. Sitting at home watching TV one evening, Dan sees classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) doing a commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. Oliver was who every guy wanted to hang out with and every girl wanted to sleep with. Dan thinks if he can get Oliver, a big-time actor in Hollywood, to come to the reunion it will encourage others to attend. Telling everyone on the alumni committee he is a good friend of Oliver’s, Dan concocts a plan to head out to L.A. on a bogus business trip to get Oliver to commit to coming to the reunion. He tells his boss Bill Shurmur (Jeffrey Tambor) at the small consulting firm for whom he works that he has been in contact with at possible new client and needs to fly out to L.A. to meet with him. Bill surprises Dan and says he will go as well. Dan does everything to get Bill to stay home but he insists. On the trip, Dan calls Oliver and the two meet up for drinks. Oliver loves to drink and uses cocaine as well. Dan jumps in with both feet to impress Oliver. Dan still has to take care of the fake business meeting Bill expects and Oliver agrees to pose as the prospective client. Oliver tells Bill that while he’s impressed with the company they don’t have the budget to make any deals. Bill agrees to cut their consulting fee by 50 percent and, caught up in the moment and his performance, Oliver agrees. After a second night on the town, Dan convinces Oliver to attend the reunion. The pair, drunk and strung out on cocaine, return to Oliver’s apartment where their friendship takes a significant turn that leaves Dan questioning everything about his life. The trip to L.A. has spun wildly out of control. The only good thing that has happened is Oliver has agreed to come to the reunion. That should go off without a hitch, right?

Don’t go to “The D Train” expecting to see Jack Black be his usual wild and crazy self for the entire film. While he shows some of his wide-eyed enthusiasm and take-no-prisoners humor for part of the film, the trip to L.A. causes a change in his character that can only be described as dark. Black plays a man whose entire world is teetering on a knife’s edge. He’s close to losing his comfortable life with a wife, two kids, a nice house and steady job just to get a classmate that he idolizes to come to the reunion and reap the reward of respect and adulation he expects from his friends at home. “The D Train” is a study of a man melting down due to the heat of his own insecurities. While Black’s performance is riveting, the story that surrounds it is disappointing.

Jack Black is one of those actors I can usually only take in small doses. His manic energy and machine gun delivery tends to wear thin for me fairly quickly; however, Black is both bouncing off the walls and fascinating to watch as Dan scrambles to keep all the flaming batons he’s juggling in the air without getting burned. Dan isn’t a bad guy but he is a bit delusional. In his phone calls to former classmates, Dan has to go to great lengths to remind people who he is and most of them never do remember. Dan wants to be remembered as the life of the party and friends with everyone. Sadly, he was the guy who was always in the back of the yearbook photos for any club or group pictures. Black makes us feel Dan’s desperation and while it is often annoying, we feel for him as he just wants to be liked. That need for approval is at the core of all Dan’s bad decisions and lies. He needlessly involves his boss in his lie and ends up costing the company thousands of dollars when Bill decides to expand when Oliver agrees to the deal. Black is firing on all cylinders in “The D Train.” Later in the film, his jealousy of Oliver leads to all his dirty secrets coming out in front of everyone at the reunion. It is a painful scene to watch and will make you cringe in your seat. Watching as Dan is eviscerated in front of all the people he so desperately wants to impress is heartbreaking as you watch his ego and self-worth drain away with every word. If this was a better film and came out later in the year, Jack Black might have gotten nominated for some awards.

James Marsden, Jeffrey Tambor and Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s wife Stacey are all very good. Tambor plays Bill as a befuddled businessman who is stuck in the 1980’s. He doesn’t trust technology so he has very little in his office. Bill isn’t an annoying technophobe, he just likes things simple. Dan thinks this gets in the way of the business and eventually leads to some of the fallout over his lies. Kathryn Hahn is the much put upon wife of Dan. Several times in the film, Dan wakes her up out of a sound sleep and this annoys her greatly. Hahn isn’t given the chance to be funny like many of her movie roles have been; however, she is given opportunities to do some serious acting and she handles it very well. James Marsden plays a convincing burnt out actor. Marsden’s eyes always appear kind of sleepy and his constantly tousled hair gives Oliver the look of someone who has given up trying to look perfect. Oliver is just looking for the next good time because the next job is way down the road. Dan thinks he’s living the dream but, without telling us with words, Oliver makes it clear he’s it’s not nearly as idyllic as Dan thinks. Much of Marsden’s performance drips with a false bravado that barely hides his desperation. It’s only late in the film that Oliver admits to Dan what the audience has known the whole time. That’s part of what brings the film down in my opinion.

My biggest issue with the film is how the story chickens out with a hopeful ending. After all Dan’s shenanigans the movie ends with the implication that everything is forgiven. Considering all the lies he’s told his wife, his boss, his friends and himself, it seems unlikely Dan would escape largely unscathed. While the film is fairly confident in itself most of the time, it takes the easy way out in its conclusion. Maybe someone with the studio or one of the financiers wanted there to be some hope at the end of “The D Train” so the co-writers/co-directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel gave Dan a neat and tidy ending. Considering what comes before, the ending feels dishonest and like the filmmakers don’t trust the audience with the consequences Dan’s choices would likely bring.

“The D Train” is rated R for strong sexual material, drug use, nudity and language. There are discussions of sex that are sometimes rather crude. There are two sex scenes: One is merely glimpsed in flashbacks while another comes off as mostly comical. Both prescription and illegal drugs are shown being used to enhance the characters night on the town. We briefly see a couple of naked male backsides as well as topless women at a strip bar. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

As the film ended, I found myself feeling conflicted about the movie. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or if I hated it. The movie is certainly unlike many summer films and is aimed squarely at adults. The tone feels a bit flat and the ending is too kind to Dan. I wish those who made the film had been willing to give the audience an honest ending; however, the performances make “The D Train” worth seeing although you may feel conflicted as well about how the film affects you.

“The D Train” gets a C…or three stars out of five.

Three new films open this week and I’ll probably see “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Then again, who knows?

Mad Max: Fury Road—

Pitch Perfect 2—

Where Hope Grows—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.