Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels like a mishmash of family-friendly Halloween tales—and it’s a messy mishmash at that. It wants to be Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Goosebumps all rolled up into one wacky movie. It’s all a little too much, and it falls apart in its final act.

Granted, it’s based upon a novel published in 1973, so perhaps the aforementioned tales were actually inspired by author John Bellairs. As for the cinematic punch, however, this movie adaptation definitely pulls a lot of style choices from films that came before it.

If your kids go to this one and then request permission to watch other films by the director, beware—for it is directed by Eli Roth, frequent purveyor of gross-out torture porn like Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno. While Roth shows he can conjure enjoyable elements within the realm of a PG rating, he can’t quite wrangle the story together to deliver something that makes sense. While the film does contain some genuinely creepy stuff, many of its attempts at frights with living dolls and scary pumpkins feel recycled.

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett deliver fun performances as a warlock and semi-retired witch, but much of the film rests upon the young shoulders of Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, an orphan sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) in a creepy house. Jonathan and neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann (Blanchett) eventually start coaching the misfit Lewis in the powers of witchcraft—an offense that would get child services on their asses, even back in the ’50s, when this film is set.

Vaccaro looks like he’s a capable actor; for much of the film, he’s good and quirky. However, there are moments when he’s called upon to really emote, and some of them go way over the top. Keep in mind that Roth hasn’t worked much with kids in his career (although one must give him props for the action he got from the cool karate-kicking kid in Cabin Fever). Perhaps a director who has worked more with kids might’ve found a way to pull Vaccaro back a bit.

Black delivers a quintessential Black performance, featuring manic glee spiced with warm smiles and occasional glimpses of rage. It’s like Black performances before it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I especially liked the whistling ode to Tenacious D. Blanchett does admirable work, too, although her character is a bit underdeveloped.

Kyle MacLachlan co-stars as a magician responsible for putting a powerful clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house—a clock that could contribute to the apocalypse. MacLachlan doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and he is usually under heavy makeup, but he does well in his shots. There’s an evil underbelly involving his character (including an encounter in the woods that pushes the PG rating, because it is legitimately freaky), and it had me wishing more of the movie was about him. There’s a terrifyingly dark and intriguing movie to be made based on his character’s backstory, which is mostly glossed over.

Much of the film looks dark and under-lit. While some of the visual effects are good-looking, including animated stained glass, some of the practical effects are a little too goofy to gain true scares.

Black and company occasionally make the movie watchable, and even enjoyable. Unfortunately, things go flat in the second half, and you’ll find yourself checking the clock on your wrist more than worrying about any clock in the wall.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Gus Van Sant gets back into fine directing shape with Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, his best effort in years.

Joaquin Phoenix gets much of the credit; he’s terrific as real-life cartoonist John Callahan, an alcoholic who wound up in a wheelchair after a car accident with a friend (Jack Black). Van Sant jumps around with his timeline—but the film is never confusing, no matter where it goes. We see Callahan pre-accident, drinking tequila first thing in the morning. We also see him during one of the film’s framing devices, a convention at which Callahan is sharing his story. Most effectively, we see him in group-therapy sessions led by Donnie (Jonah Hill), a free-spirited, generally kind man who, nevertheless, isn’t going to give you many breaks as your sponsor. Those sessions have a documentary-like feel, and Hill is especially good (and nearly unrecognizable) in them.

Phoenix is having a great year—if you haven’t seen him in You Were Never Really Here, you must—and this might be his very best work yet. Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth show up in brief, yet effective roles. This is one of the summer’s better films.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens Friday, July 27, at theaters including the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

I was surprised as heck when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, still doing relatively well at the box office, beat the new Star Wars movie to iTunes. Man, the significance of in-theater revenue dips with each passing second.

Well, I missed this in theaters, and I feel a relative amount of shame about that. As a critic, I should’ve raced out to see this box-office darling. Sometimes, I’m just a lazy asshole. Anyway, I’m not so lazy that I can’t click “download” and watch and stuff on my iTunes account, so I jumped into the latest from Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as soon as the damned thing showed up as rentable.

I can see why people flocked to it. It’s a lot of fun, and much more enjoyable than the Robin Williams original, a movie I enjoyed, even though it was definitely flawed. In this one, a bunch of high school kids in detention wind up in a video game (instead of a board game). They become avatars that don’t necessarily represent their real-life personalities: The geek becomes the muscle-bound explorer (The Rock); the cheerleader becomes a middle-aged chubby guy (Jack Black, killing it); the jock becomes a scientist (Kevin Hart); and the introverted girl becomes a badass akin to Lara Kroft (Karen Gillan).

The results aren’t groundbreaking, but they are consistently enjoyable, especially in scenes dominated by Black and Gillan. Gillan has a scene in which she is forced to flirt that is one of the film’s best.

This was a big hit, so a sequel is certainly on the way. I’ll probably see that one in theaters.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is available via online sources including iTunes and, as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I never got around to seeing Goosebumps while it was in theaters. That’s probably a good thing; while I found the fantasy flick to be mostly enjoyable, it is not a film that needed my presence in a theater.

In this fairly clever adaptation of the young-adult horror of R.L. Stine, Jack Black plays the author, a paranoid man living a hermitic life and keeping his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) in virtual imprisonment. When Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves in next door and befriends Hannah, they find themselves opening some books in Stine’s library—and unleashing the beasts within.

Black is pretty good in this typically manic performance, and the kids are OK. Ryan Lee gets the typical nerd role, and he does decently with it, although his character does feel a little clichéd.

The special effects are passable. They include a confused yeti, evil garden gnomes and the requisite evil ventriloquist’s dummy.

Rob Letterman directs; this marks his third teaming with Black after Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels. This is easily their best work together.

Special Features: You get deleted scenes, blooper reels and some featurettes.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Jack Black returns as the voice of Po in this decent second sequel in the saga of the Panda warrior and his warrior cronies.

This time out, Po encounters his long-lost dad, Li (the warm growl of Bryan Cranston), who takes him to the land of pandas so that he can learn the powers of his chi. An advancement in his warrior techniques is absolutely essential, because the lands are being threatened by a spirit-realm warrior named Kai (J.K. Simmons, voicing some sort of super-muscular yak-type thing).

The stuff with Po and Li is cute; the added element of Po’s adopted dad (James Hong) being a little jealous is sweet. There’s a cool psychedelic look at times, and the animated series continues to impress on artistic levels.

However, the story feels a bit like a repeat of the previous two. That’s OK, but doesn’t necessarily place this chapter high on the originality scale.

I’ll say this for the film: With a voice cast that includes Black, Cranston, Simmons, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Kate Hudson, David Cross, Jackie Chan and Angelina Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 3 boasts one of history’s all-time-great lineups (as far as animated movies are concerned). This one is good enough to ensure there will be more chapters to come.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I have never attended a high school reunion, for my high school is very far away, and quite frankly, there are a few too many douchebag classmates I fear may have become super-duper douchebags over the years. Sorry, but I just can’t share a punch bowl with some of those tools. I mean, one of those shitheads put my winter coat in the boys’ locker room toilet. That’s hard to get over!

I have, however, seen many high school reunion movies, and The D Train is one of the better ones. It strays from the formula in quite a few ways while also having fun with some of the clichés. It possesses a completely original twist, and the film has a refreshing pitch from all involved, especially stars Jack Black and James Marsden.

Dan Landsman (Black) is the self-proclaimed chairman of his school’s reunion committee. (Hey, he has the password to the Facebook page!) He takes the gig very seriously, much to the chagrin of his co-members, which include his School of Rock co-star Mike White. Dan wasn’t very popular during his high school days, and those same classmates aren’t all that crazy about him now. When the group finishes an evening of phone calls to alumni, they go out for beers—and forget to invite Dan.

One night, after a typically humdrum evening with his wife, Stacey (the always fun Kathryn Hahn), Dan spies a commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen that has a familiar face in it: It’s Oliver Lawless (Marsden), the coolest kid from his high school—and he has apparently made the big time out in Los Angeles.

Dan makes it his mission to get Oliver to attend the reunion. After all, everybody would want to attend, because, hey, the national Banana Boat spokesman is going to be in the house! Oliver’s attendance will make Dan a hero, and he’ll finally get that dose of high school popularity that has been eluding him. He concocts a scheme to fly to Los Angeles on his workplace’s dime, which results in his boss (Jeffrey Tambor, in fine form) unwelcomingly going with him. (This brings us the added bonus of a mini road comedy with Black and Tambor!)

In Los Angeles, Dan meets up with Oliver, and they have a wild night on the town. We’ll just say that some things happen and leave it at that. Oliver agrees to attend the reunion—but Dan no longer thinks that’s the best of ideas.

The movie is just fine leading up to the L.A. trip, but it really takes off afterward. Black is hilarious as a man dealing with some emotional situations. He’s an adult now, and he will no longer be shunned like that stumbling kid was in his high school halls. He’s going to take a stand—and Oliver is going to pay. Of course, Oliver has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve. His ability to put a high school geek in his place hasn’t waned over the years, and both men take things to an unavoidable climax at the reunion. They provide the material for one major Facebook scandal.

Marsden hasn’t been this great since he played the Prince in Enchanted. His Oliver has selfish, dickish qualities, but there seems to be good heart lurking beneath all that sunscreen. He and Black make for a great screen pairing; their every moment onscreen provides combustible goodness. Much credit goes to writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul for making the characters seem very real, no matter how outlandish the situations become.

This film is taking a beating, and that mystifies me. It’s funny; it’s original; and it has a killer cameo from Dermot Mulroney. It also features Black and Marsden at the top of their games. When this comes out on video, it will make for a helluva double feature with Grosse Pointe Blank.

The D Train is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews