Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Review: “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

** 1/2 out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at

Amblin and doomsday clocks and warlocks, oh my. The House with a Clock in Its Walls sounds like a perfect fit for Amblin Entertainment on paper. After reading through the Wikipedia synopsis of John Bellairs’s 1973 children’s book, you can’t fault screenwriter Eric Kripke. It seems to follow the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series to a T.  While all the boxes are ticked, there’s something that doesn’t quite tock.

It’s 1955 in New Zebedee, Michigan. Ten year old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) has been orphaned and sent to live with his estranged warlock uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Quickly, Lewis senses there’s something off within Jonathan’s house. Turns out, the original owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) died in the house. But not before Isaac hid a doomsday clock within its walls and now, only Lewis, Jonathan, and their eccentric witch neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) must beat the clock with Isaac hot on their tails after Lewis brings him back from the dead using a spell to impress his friend Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic).

Roth keeps touting that his one piece of advice from Steven Spielberg was to make it scary, but it never is. He’s clearly working way outside his comfort zone. This is the man who created the Hostel franchise after all. It’s also never as funny as it thinks it is either. Black does what he can, but he’s always just playing himself, something that’s been wearing thin for years. Vaccaro tries to be the next Jacob Tremblay, but has a long way to go. One minute he’s charming, the next he’s whiney. And he could really use some coaching on his cry face.

The best part of the movie — which should be the house itself — is Blanchett. She commands the screen and keeps Black on his toes as a pair of bickering neighbors whose platonic friendship revels in verbal sparring.  Unfortunately, for a movie filled with magic, that’s what it’s missing the most. Roth tries to keep the film chugging along, but it never awakens your inner child. Considering I still watch old school Amblin films on a regular basis, there’s a lot to live up to when your Universal logo is out of the ’80s followed by Elliot and E.T. flying onscreen, and it rarely does.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls does what it can and ticks along to the finish line — thankfully, MacLachlan makes for a decent enough villain. But it never manages to find its footing and go full steam ahead. Kids will get a bigger kick out of it than their parents — which is the whole point of course — but that’s what makes all the difference. There are kids films, and there are family films. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the former. Kids may enjoy it, but the adults will be left saying, “well at least it didn’t suck.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Movie Review: “A Simple Favor”

A Simple Favor

***** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence

Article first published at
Spoiler ahead.

Try as they might, I wasn’t buying Lionsgate’s marketing for A Simple Favor. Advertised as “from the dark side of Paul Feig,” something just didn’t add up. From the way it’s filmed — combined with being from the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters — I wasn’t buying it as a straight thriller. And it absolutely is not.

Feig — and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer — give Darcey Bell’s novel the Spy treatment and all for the better. While masquerading as a thriller, it’s a comedy through-and-through. After the box office/Academy Award-nominated success of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train killed the subgenre a swift death. But Feig has dug it up and hilariously turned it on its bloated, cold-hearted head.

Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mommy vlogger who has just become BFFs with the most mysterious mom at her son Miles’s (Joshua Satine) school: Emily (Blake Lively). Stephanie quickly learns there may be more to Emily than it seems. Stephanie always gets stuck watching Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho) and working late in spite of Emily’s steamy marriage to Sean (Henry Golding).

It isn’t long before Emily winds up dead, Stephanie and Sean become the prime suspects, and Nicky starts seeing his mom around the playground. Is Stephanie going crazy? Did Sean kill Emily over a $4 million life insurance policy? How do you make the perfect martini? All this and more are answered as love, loyalty, and revenge are put to the ultimate test.

When you look at Feig’s last four films, this is his most polished yet. Feig knows funny better than anyone, but he also knows when to slow down and take some time to get serious — something most comedies fail to remember. For the mystery, twists, and laughs to work, you have to be rooting for someone. Stephanie is a pitch perfect Nancy Drew.

The best way to describe the humor is to think of how Feig made Spy as a pretty straight spy movie with a slathering of jokes. And A Simple Favor is no different. I’ve heard it’s pretty different from Bell’s novel, and all for the better. The heightened sense of reality plays like the funniest big budget Lifetime version of Gone Girl you could hope for. Lively has come a long way from her Gossip Girl days and it’s clear she’s learned a thing or two from her hubby (Ryan Reynolds) when it comes to spewing hilariously filthy one-liners.

Marketing aside, do yourself a favor and make A Simple Favor your only plans this weekend.

Movie Review: “The Predator”

The Predator

*** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

If there’s any reason I was excited for The Predator, it’s co-writer/director Shane Black. The man has been making a resurgence since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang put him back on the map. After the triple play of KKBB, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys, there should have been no way for Black to fail at continuing on with a franchise he starred in 31 years ago. Rumor had it that he also provided uncredited rewrites to the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but The Predator winds up as an oddball mix of big dumb fun and just plain super dumb.

In the present day, a Predator has crash landed on Earth. After making bloody first contact with sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), McKenna quickly mails off some alien hardware back to his house. There, his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) manages to turn it on and a new Predator comes hunting. Meanwhile, McKenna is thrown on a bus with a gang of prison misfits — Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). With a new Predator hot on Rory’s heels, McKenna joins forces with his newfound frenemies — and an evolutionary biology professor (Olivia Munn) — to keep the Predator, and agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), away from his son and figure out exactly why the Predators are back.

With Black at the helm, The Predator should have been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action extravaganza. Instead Black — along with co-writer Fred Dekker — merely cobble together a coherent enough story to barely push the Predator series into new territory. This is the fourth official entry aside from two excursions battling Xenomorphs. So at least they tried taking it in a new direction?

Black and Dekker have provided us action/horror/sci-fi classics such as House, Night of the Creeps, Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, Last Action Hero, and some of the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, The Predator is the kind of film that veers from wow, that was really cool, to okay that was super dumb in the same scene. At least it is peppered with some classic Black moments of hilarity and bloodshed. And the camaraderie amongst the cast is infectious. Even if Brown seems hellbent on chewing every inch of scenery he can.

The Predator never lives up to the original while never trying to stand on its own either. At least there are some over-the-top action scenes and plenty of blood for interested viewers. It’s never horrible, but never truly awesome either. In a summer filled with Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s jaw-dropping stunts and the “snapture” of Thanos, The Predator barely registers. It may not be a complete bust, but it should have been way better than this considering everyone in front of and behind the camera.