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—


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Review of “Inside Out”

Growing up is never easy even if your parents don’t move you across the country far from everything and everyone you’ve ever known. My folks lived in the same house for 50 or so years. The year after I got married my wife and I moved to a small town in the Florida Panhandle. It was a less than pleasant experience for the three years we were there but we look back on it with a fondness that comes with hindsight and maturity as we realize everything we experienced there helped make us the people we are today. Your whole life is like that from, to paraphrase from literature, the best of times and the worst of times, you learn how to deal with both success and failure. It’s the pain that makes us appreciate the good times. Learning that lesson seems a bit unfair when you are young as we all want just the positive and feel the negative is something to be avoided. I don’t go looking for failure so I can appreciate success that much more but it usually finds me whether I like it or not. In the latest from Disney/Pixar, “Inside Out,” a young girl learns some valuable lessons and the parts of her personality that color her memories learn even more.

Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is your average 11 year old girl. She loves her parents, loves to play hockey with her friends and loves her life in Minnesota. That all changes when her mom and dad (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move the family across the country to San Francisco for a business opportunity, forcing Riley to leave her friends and everything she’s ever known behind. The move throws Riley’s emotions into turmoil but they try to make the best of it. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the self-appointed leader of the team made up of herself, Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) and Anger (voiced by Lewis Black). Together they make up Riley’s personality and oversee the creation of her memories. Joy believes every memory should be a happy one especially the core memories that make up the base of Riley’s personality. Just after the move, Sadness touches one of Riley’s core memories turning it from happy to sad. Trying to correct the problem, Joy and Sadness, along with all of Riley’s core memories, get sucked up into the pneumatic tube that transfers memories into long-term storage. Now only Disgust, Fear and Anger are left in the control room and try as they might, they cannot keep Riley on an even keel. She begins to act out, argue with her parents and withdraw from the world, saddened by leaving her old life in Minnesota. Joy and Sadness must be careful navigating their way back to the control room so they don’t lose Riley’s core memories in the giant chasm where old memories go to die. They get some help from Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind) but still struggle to get back where they belong and thanks to a misguided idea by Anger, Riley is planning to runaway back to Minnesota…alone.

We expect any Disney/Pixar film to be entertaining and nice to look at but they usually surprise us with the amount of depth and intelligence these “kids’ movies” contain. “Inside Out” is no exception to this and may be the smartest film in the studio’s long and illustrious history. Without talking above the heads of the core audience but not talking down to the adults, “Inside Out” manages to tell a simple tale in a way that is illuminating and far more clever than one usually gets from an animated film. It doesn’t hurt that it is beautiful to look at and more than a little funny.

While the entire voice cast is great the stand out has to be Lewis Black as Anger. Best known for his aggressive standup style and his rants on “The Daily Show,” Lewis Black is perfectly cast as the stumpy, red-bodied Anger. His line delivery mixed with the perfect animation makes Anger, who could have been grating and annoying, the character you wish had been the focus of the film. You may have seen a trailer where Anger asks if he can use the curse word Riley knows. In the trailer it’s funny but in context it is much funnier. You would think Anger, stomping around with the top of his head glowing then bursting into flame when he reaches his limit, should really be the one in charge of the group. I understand why he isn’t since this is a movie for children and that would send the wrong message. Maybe if there is a sequel, Anger and Joy will have a power struggle over who is running things. Lewis Black is certainly the reason many adults will enjoy the film.

Parents will also appreciate the story as it develops during the course of Joy and Sadness journey through Riley’s mind. The two learn lessons about their place in Riley’s life and their relationships to each other. While many people think and speak in absolutes such as, “Everybody thinks like this” and “Nobody wants that,” that simply isn’t how life works. While a majority of people may think one way or the other or do one thing or another, there are always those that have differing opinions and preferences. Joy believes all of Riley’s memories should be happy and is most contented when, at the end of the day, the group of memories transferred to long-term storage shares her color of bright yellow. Any that are Disgust’s green, Fear’s purple, Anger’s red or Sadness’s blue means to Joy she is a failure. The story shows that life isn’t just happiness. Sometimes, other feelings make up our memories and hence our personalities and that’s the way it should be. It’s a lesson many adults could stand to learn as well.

Prior to “Inside Out,” the short “Lava” played. It tells the story of a volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that watches the pairs of animals in love and wishes he had a companion as well. Pixar is terrific at telling heart wrenching stories in just a few minutes and they do the same with “Lava.” When it ended there were sniffles scattered around the theatre and it wasn’t allergies. If either “Lava” or “Inside Out” doesn’t at least make your eyes misty you have no soul.

“Inside Out” is rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action. The concept of upheaval and moving across the country to a scary house with a dead mouse in the corner might upset especially sensitive children. There is a train wreck shown that exposes some characters to a chance of physical danger. A character makes the ultimate sacrifice to save another and that was quite a gut punch for me personally. Foul language is, of course, not an issue.

From its imaginative depiction of the mind and the fairly realistic portrayal of a preteen girl in turmoil to some especially perfect voice acting, “Inside Out” may be Disney/Pixar’s best film for both a combined child and adult audience. It is so good, so funny, so well rendered, so moving, it should rank right up there as one of the greatest Pixar films in its history. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

“Inside Out” gets five glowing bright yellow stars out of five.

Three new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of them.



Ted 2—

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