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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

They were smoking some wild shit and licking frogs when they put together Thor: Ragnarok, a film so nutty that it easily surpasses the Guardians of the Galaxy films as the screwiest offering in the Marvel universe.

When you hand the keys to the Thor franchise over to a director like Taika Waititi, you know you are going to get something bizarre—and Waititi doesn’t disappoint. Waititi is the New Zealand comic actor/director responsible for the hilarious vampire faux documentary What We Do in the Shadows and the funny family drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople. There’s really nothing on his resume that screams, “Hey, let’s have this guy direct an action packed, highly expensive Thor film!” but he got the gig, so there you go. Sometimes the wild card pays off.

Borrowing from a host of Marvel comics (including the famed “Planet Hulk” storyline), the hallucinogenic plot drops Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a crazy garbage planet where everyone is bent on around-the-clock, violent entertainment, and led by Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, finally getting a worthy high-profile role outside of a Wes Anderson film—that was a long drought). The Grandmaster shaves Thor’s head, dresses him in gladiator gear and throws him into the ring for a weaponized bout with his prized competitor.

That prized competitor would be the Hulk, who has been held captive on the planet for the past couple of years. He’s been nothing but the Hulk the whole time, with Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) trapped inside him. Thor and Hulk have a battle royale for the ages, followed by some great scenes in which the Hulk actually speaks. (Ruffalo provides the voice, and this is the first time in the recent Marvel films where Lou Ferrigno isn’t providing Hulk’s growls.)

There’s also a whole other, apocalyptic subplot in which Thor’s long-lost sister Hela (a striking and devilish Cate Blanchett, decked out in black) is causing major havoc on his home planet of Asgard. Blanchett is now high in the ranking of Marvel movie villains. She’s played a baddie before, but never this entertainingly.

Thor’s mischievous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes it into the mix, siding with his brother in the war for Asgard, although he’s still not 100 percent trustworthy. Waititi wisely plays upon the comic notes from Loki’s past Avenger films and makes Loki, more or less, a clown in this movie. It works beautifully.

The great Tessa Thompson plays Valkyrie, an Asgardian-turned-trapper for the Grandmaster who has a slight drinking problem. Karl Urban gets perhaps his best role outside of Star Trek as Skurge, an Asgardian who becomes Hela’s right-hand man; he boasts a collection of stuff that includes an infamous exercising tool.

To say the result of all this is trippy is an understatement. The movie looks like Thor meets Boogie Nights (minus the porn) meets The Lord of the Rings. It scores high marks in the fantasy genre realm while being one of the year’s funniest movies—and that’s high praise. Most of the cast members get to demonstrate both comedic and action chops, and the film never feels off balance. Goldblum, thankfully, gets to riff most of his dialogue, Goldblum-style. It all feels very improvised and loose.

As far as moving the stories of Thor and Hulk forward … in this respect, the movie spins its wheels. Ragnarok is largely a standalone, expensively silly curio that looks great and distinguishes itself without worrying much about connecting to plot threads in other films. It does do that (stay for the after credits scene), but it does so without being too obvious

This is not a problem. These are comic-book movies, and sometimes (like with Avengers: Age of Ultron), they can take themselves a little too seriously. Ragnarok embraces its insanity and takes it to highly entertaining, WTF? levels.

No, I don’t want to see this happen with every Marvel movie, because it could get tired and gimmicky. But, say, with every fourth movie, why not let a rogue director go crazy with some Avengers? It certainly works here.

Thor: Ragnarok is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

Director Kenneth Branagh knows what Disney junkies, young and old, crave in their fairytale movies—and he unabashedly delivers the goods with Cinderella, the latest live-action (non-animated) retelling of a Disney animated classic.

Pixie dust, ornate castles, fireworks, princesses, evil stepmoms and quirky CGI mice abound in this lush and striking new take on the girl with the glass slippers. Of course, any Cinderella movie would be a slog without a good actress playing the title character. Luckily, Branagh has scored a great one with Lily James (TV’s Downton Abbey); she’s one of the most charming actresses to ever occupy a Disney iconic role.

Screenwriter Chris Weitz gives Cinderella a sweet and sad backstory, showing us a young girl (Eloise Webb) living a happy and secure life with her doting parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). As the fairytale dictates, Cinderella loses her mom, paving the way for the queen of all stepmothers—played here by a spot-on, devilish Cate Blanchett.

Branagh takes a traditionalist approach to the material—but that doesn’t mean his take isn’t original. He brings a lot of class to the Disney universe, and he also respects how beloved the Cinderella storyline has become.

There’s nothing in his and Weitz’s telling that betrays the original material. Cinderella doesn’t bust out an electric guitar or ride a motorcycle while chewing tobacco: This is a relatively straightforward treatment. As with his Shakespearean adaptations, Branagh has a way of making traditionalist approaches original and fresh.

Blanchett and James are so good in their roles, in part because they aren’t trying to break the mold. They embrace their parts as if they know what we have come to expect, and the result is a sort of adorable nostalgia, in the case of Cinderella. She’s a genuinely nice person for whom you can root, as portrayed by James.

As for Blanchett, she’s completely cruel—a conniving, reptilian, selfish person. However, this stepmother also has her charms. She’s a two-sided beast able to convince Cinderella’s affable dad that her moving in is a good idea.

Adding to the charm is Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. As to be expected, Carter plays the character as joyfully weird and quirky. The “transformation” scene in which the Fairy Godmother gets Cinderella ready for the ball is the best scene in the film. When the pink gown transforms into that glorious blue dress adorning the spinning James, it’s pure movie magic.

It’s all very Disney, with Branagh relishing the chance to show Cinderella immersed in pixie dust, and geese transforming into stagecoach drivers. It’s fun to see Branagh embracing the Disney canon and making it his own.

The film isn’t a musical, although it does contain a wondrous score by Patrick Doyle, and Cinderella does sing one tune deep in the movie. It’s a marked improvement over the animated Disney original, which was never one of my favorites.

Live-action renditions of Disney animated classics seem to be a new trend, and Cinderella is much, much better than the muddled Maleficent. Tim Burton is supposedly in talks to do a live action Dumbo (Huh?), while Jon Favreau is doing the same with The Jungle Book.

Most promisingly, Emma Watson is pegged to play Belle in live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I have high hopes for that one. Branagh has proven here that remaking Disney cartoons as live action films isn’t such a bad idea after all.

A side note: Frozen lovers will have the pleasure of a cute, brand-new Frozen short before the main feature kicks in.

Cinderella is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel) and Toothless the lovable dragon return for another round of computer-animated magic—this time with a slightly darker tone. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great-looking, fun movie, and after watching it at home, I regret missing it on the big screen in 3-D.

The film picks up five years after the initial film, with dragons and Vikings now living together in peace. That peace is threatened when Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon ruthless dragon-trappers who want Toothless as a prize for their villainous leader, Drago (the voice of Djimon Hounsou). Along the way, Hiccup is reunited with his long-lost mother, voiced by Cate Blanchett.

The movie has some nasty moments involving Toothless that might freak your kids out—and might freak you out. Director and co-writer Dean DeBlois was apparently going for an Empire Strikes Back vibe, and he succeeds, in that the movie exudes an impending sense of doom. Let’s just say some of your kids will learn about death while watching this one.

A third Dragon is indeed on the way, slated for release in 2017. This sequel is a better movie than the first one was, so more installments are most certainly welcome.

Special Features: This is a nicely packed Blu-ray, featuring a behind-the-scenes look (that’s nearly an hour long) to go along with plenty of deleted scenes and a director’s commentary.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director George Clooney’s war epic about historians racing to save art from the Nazis looks and feels like it was taken out of a time capsule buried in 1958.

The Monuments Men is quite breezy for a war movie, and is peppered with laughs provided by a strong cast, including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and John Goodman, as men trying to thwart Hitler’s plan for a giant museum.

The film has one of those whistle-infused soundtracks, and it doesn’t hurt that Clooney and Dujardin remind of Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly. The movie moves briskly—in fact, it may be a bit too weightless for a movie with such heavy subject matter. It also has a useless subplot involving characters played by Damon and Cate Blanchett that was deserving of the cutting-room floor. When they are alone on screen, the film comes to a dead stop.

Still, Clooney has a great command of the camera here; the ensemble (especially Murray and Goodman) shines; and the film is fun to watch. This is an interesting piece of World War II history, and it’s good that somebody has made a decent movie to cover it.

Initially, this was expected to be a big awards contender last year. However, the release date got moved, with producers claiming they needed to do some more special-effects work. They may have taken a look at it, realized they had a good but not great movie, and decided to give it a less-competitive opening date in 2014. The film wound up taking in $154 million worldwide on a $70 million budget, so things worked out just fine on the money front.

Special Features: A relatively meager gathering of supplements that includes deleted scenes and some short making-of docs.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director George Clooney’s war epic about historians racing to save art from the Nazis looks and feels like it was just taken out of a time capsule buried in 1958.

The Monuments Men is quite breezy for a war movie, peppered with laughs provided by a strong cast, including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and John Goodman. They all play men trying to thwart Hitler’s plan for a giant museum. The film has one of those whistle-infused soundtracks, and it doesn’t hurt that Clooney and Dujardin look like Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly.

The movie moves briskly, and is perhaps a bit too weightless for a movie with such a heavy subject at its heart. It also has a useless subplot involving Damon and Cate Blanchett that is deserving of the cutting-room floor.

Still, Clooney has great command of the camera here; the ensemble shines (especially Murray and Goodman); and it’s fun to watch.

This is an interesting piece of World War II history, and it’s great that somebody has made a decent movie to cover this chapter of Hitler’s insanity.

The Monuments Men is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business. Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us former Allen fans have been seeking, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by the Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is bankrupted and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister (Sally Hawkins, also an Oscar nominee) and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes comedians Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay—who, doggone it, delivers an amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, though, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see. As far as the Allen film canon goes, it’s a Top 5 installment.

On top of the acting nominations, the film got a nom for Allen’s screenplay. It deserves the nomination. However, the film didn’t get nominations for Best Picture or Best Director—and Blue Jasmine is better than most of the films nominated in those categories. That’s a bit annoying.

This is one of those films in which everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center. Yeah, Woody Allen is total scum, but he’s still making movies, and this is one of his best.

Special Features: As is usually the case with Allen releases, there’s not much here. You get a press conference and some quickie interviews. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

There was a time when Woody Allen was consistently making the best movies in the business—and Blue Jasmine is that return to form that some of us Allen fans have been waiting for, thanks in large part to a phenomenal central performance by Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett—sure to nab an Oscar nomination here—plays Jasmine, the wife of a Bernie Madoff-type financier (Alec Baldwin) who must relocate from New York to San Francisco after she is financially ruined and emotionally destroyed. She gulps martinis, criticizes her helpful sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and, quite frighteningly, is prone to bouts of talking to herself.

Allen finds the dark humor in the story, and employs a supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and, most astonishingly, Andrew Dice Clay, who, doggone it, delivers one amazing performance as Ginger’s financially destroyed ex-husband, Augie.

Above and beyond the humor, Allen makes his film a parable about how some deeds are irredeemable, and some folks are simply doomed. It’s as bittersweet as any movie you will see this year—or any year, for that matter.

As far as the Allen film canon goes, this is in the Top 5. It’s one of those films where everything comes together perfectly, with Blanchett at its powerful center.

Blue Jasmine is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews