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Tue11202018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

Bruce Willis sleepwalks through Death Wish, a listless remake of the Charles Bronson vigilante movie that made a bunch money back in the 1970s, one year before Jaws was released. (I measure most things in the ’70s by the year Jaws was released. It’s a thing.)

On paper, this looked like a potentially nasty fun project, considering Eli Roth was at the helm, and Willis was in the Bronson role. Sylvester Stallone gave the remake possibility some steam years ago, but subsequently chickened out. Then John McClane himself stepped into the role—and the remake started to take shape.

Sadly, Willis is phoning it in here—and too many horribly acted scenes reveal that Willis and Roth probably didn’t gel as an actor/director combo. Willis seems tone deaf in some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes, and just plain bored in the remainder. When Willis gives a shit about the movie he’s making, it shows—but when he doesn’t care (which seems to be the case in many of his recent projects), he is zombie-like.

The original Death Wish, from 1974, is a hard watch these days. Apart from its racist depictions of criminals and extremely dated Herbie Hancock soundtrack, it’s poorly acted by Bronson. It is, however, worth seeing for walk-ons by Christopher Guest as a police officer and, most horrifically, Jeff Goldblum as Freak No. 1. They would both go on to do much, much better things. The film actually marked Goldblum’s acting debut; he took part in the infamous scene in which the daughter and wife of architect Paul Kersey are attacked. It’s a terrible scene—almost comedic now more than 40 years later. For the remake, that attack scene is mellowed out a bit (nobody gets their ass spray-painted), with Elisabeth Shue as Mrs. Kersey and Camila Morrone as their daughter. As in the original, one of them doesn’t survive the attack—and Paul gets a taste for weaponry and vigilante justice in the aftermath.

Unlike in the original, many of Kersey’s crimes are not random. This time, he’s out for revenge, playing a detective of sorts as he seeks out and eliminates his family’s attackers while slipping in the occasional drug-dealer execution. Bronson’s Kersey was an architect living in Manhattan; while Willis’ Kersey is an emergency-room doctor in Chicago. No actor has ever looked sillier in scrubs than Willis.

Roth, of course, is best known as a horror director (Cabin Fever, Hostel), and that shows in a couple of the “kills,” including one in which a thug is crushed by a car, and his guts squirt out. The scene in which this happens, with Kersey executing a meticulously planned torture act on a bad guy, feels utterly ridiculous. The whole point of Death Wish is a real guy taking (mostly) real action with real consequences. This scene is outrageous torture porn, like an outtake from Roth’s lousy Hostel: Part II.

Roth usually makes a good-looking movie, and his films often have a good, sinister humor streak to go with the carnage. That doesn’t happen this time: The attempts at dark humor fall flat, and only Vincent D’Onofrio as Frank, Paul’s sad brother, hits the right notes with his performance. D’Onofrio seems to be giving it his all, while Willis acts like somebody with true contempt for his director and really swell dinner reservations.

Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) shows up alongside Kimberly Elise as the investigators on Kersey’s trail. They try to get a couple of laughs, but they can’t rise above the mirth. Shue and Morrone are OK, but don’t have enough screen time to really register.

There is one moment in this movie that works: The final shot, in which Willis re-creates Bronson’s point-and-shoot moment from the original. Willis actually looks like he’s got the vibe right—and seems interested in the shot. Sadly, these few seconds are the only ones in which he properly earned his payday.

Death Wish is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, 12 year-old Eric Zala got the idea to remake the movie, shot for shot, as an experiment with his buddies.

Over the course of the next six years, they did just that, doing a remarkable job of re-creating the legendary Spielberg film note for note. Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made captures the creative team as they set out to film the one shot they never got: the massive airplane explosion after the fight with the big, bald Nazi.

There’s a lot of fun stuff about the making of the movie, including the time the boys almost burned a house down. They also almost burned one of the actors, and nearly suffocated another with a plaster mold on his face. Another amusing fact: They used a little puppy instead of a monkey for the infamous Nazi-salute monkey scene.

The film includes interviews with Eli Roth and Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, who were both major champions of the project. At the documentary’s center is the reunion of the boys, 25 years later, to film that final airplane explosion—with actual big-budget props.

It’s a fun movie about fanatical fan boys—and how being a geek can sometimes pay off. Sometimes.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Just a couple of weeks after the release of one of his worst movies, writer-director Eli Roth is at it again with Knock Knock— a far-better offering.

Keanu Reeves stars as Evan, a loving husband with two children who is left alone for a couple of days while the wife and kids go on a trip. Just as Evan is about to light the old pot pipe, there’s a knock at the door. Two of the most beautiful women in the world, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), are soaking wet and in need of assistance.

Evan innocently lets them in to use the phone, dry their clothes and, as things eventually turn out, have mad sex. Unfortunately for Evan, he winds up being part of a nasty torture game in which he will pay for his infidelities in horrible, gut-churning ways.

While Roth never really reveals why the girls are acting so terribly, there are hints—and that’s all the film really needs. Reeves does a nice job of acting scared shitless and out-of-his-mind angry. He has a rant near the end of the film, when he is tied in a chair, that might be the best moment of acting he’s ever produced. Izzo—who was the only good thing about Roth’s recently released The Green Inferno, besides some of the eating scenes—is great as the ringleader, while de Armas makes for a fun, wildly sadistic sidekick.

The movie has restored my faith in the directing chops of Roth, and it gives Reeves another good movie after last year’s John Wick.

Knock Knock is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For a good chunk of its running time, Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno is unquestionably his worst movie yet.

However, there is then a moment of redemption, of sorts: A plane crashes in the jungle, culminating in some annoying college students winding up on an indigenous tribe’s picnic menu. With this, the film offers a few good gross-outs, and as a result, The Green Inferno winds up being just one of Roth’s worst films, along with Hostel: Part II.

The main protagonist in this messed-up movie is Justine (Lorenza Izzo), a somber college student whose dad works for the United Nations. Justine is getting woken up in the morning by a band of protestors who are trying to get the college janitors benefits. The group is led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), your typical, acoustic-guitar-strumming, throw-your-arms-around-the-whole-world activist asshole.

Justine is recruited for a trip to the Amazon jungle, where Alejandro plans to disrupt some bulldozers that are there to displace tribes and wreck the forest. She’s grouped with a band of mostly forgettable performers—and the movie is unspeakably bad during its first half. There is bad acting, bad writing, bad set design, bad outfits, bad fake tattoos—just about everything that could be bad in a movie is bad.

Then the group’s plane crashes, and the natives who find them are not only restless, but really, really hungry. The crew is horrifically groped as they are led to a cage. Then things get really bad when the leader of the tribe pokes the eyes out of a living victim and eats them. Said victim is then chopped into pieces (still alive) and put in a smoker (I think he was dead by then) for a good old-fashioned Amazonian barbecue.

This grisly scene, concocted by Roth and makeup artists Ozzy Alvarez and Jonah Levy, is, dare I say, awesome. It’s terrifying, and gross in that way that only zombie movie fans will appreciate. I’d put it in a league with that kid getting his mouth ripped open on The Walking Dead, and any number of disembowelments from the earlier Romero zombie films. In short … BLECCHH!!!

There’s an uncomfortable plot thread involving female genital mutilation that I could’ve done without, as well as a couple of other gore sequences (Spy Kid Daryl Sabra has a rather bad time in this movie) that are pretty good, even if they don’t compare to the first “feeding.”

It’s hard to say who the worst performer is in this film. Maybe singer Sky Ferreira, who pollutes a good portion of the movie’s Manhattan scenes? Perhaps Aaron Burns (also on the film’s effects crew), who is terrible in his straight acting scenes? I think I will let Burns off the hook, because he is the movie’s first cannibal victim, and he dies well. The winner for shittiest The Green Inferno performance is … Sky Ferreira!

The tribe members—extras were played by actual jungle villagers—were allegedly recruited to be in the movie after Roth screened Cannibal Holocaust (a major inspiration for this movie) for them. They are the best performers in the movie, making the most of Roth’s one-note, ugly script.

The movie was completed more than two years ago, held up by financial mumbo-jumbo, and then nearly thrown on the permanent scrap heap. Except for about 15 minutes, Roth should’ve let this one stay buried. Its notoriety as an unreleased film was sort of cool—much cooler than the movie itself. Roth is a hit-and-miss director, and this one is a giant whiff.

Up next for Roth is Knock Knock, a horror film about infidelity starring Izzo and Keanu Reeves. After that, he’s supposed to direct the giant-shark movie Meg. If Knock, Knock fails as bad as The Green Inferno, Roth might not get to make his prehistoric shark movie. Heck, he might not get to make any big movies for a very long time.

The Green Inferno is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at the River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Horror maestro Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) produced, co-wrote and stars in Aftershock, a silly film about an earthquake hitting Chile while people are partying in a nightclub.

Roth’s involvement had me hoping for some good, sick fun, but this is a crappy, cheap-looking movie. Plus, I like it better when Roth is behind the camera, or playing a small role, because he looks like Sarah Silverman, and he weirds me out. He’s basically the star here, so I just spent the movie confused.

There’s a lot of gore, but most of it is pretty run-of-the-mill. One of the cool things about the film is that nobody in the cast, including Roth, is safe. Lots of people die unexpectedly, and in very bad ways. One dude has a large rock land on him, then somebody mean sits on the rock to apply pressure and pain; then somebody else, even meaner, pours liquor on him—and finally, he is set aflame. It takes him a long time to calm down after that.

After the initial quake, there are aftershocks (as the title of the movie implies) and the threat of a tsunami. This is a low-budget affair, so don’t watch this thinking you are going to get a lot of water throwing people around like in The Impossible. It’s mostly just Roth and friends running around while somebody shakes the camera.

Special Features: None. This is a feature currently available for rental on demand through cable providers, Amazon.com and iTunes. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing