House with a Clock in Its Walls, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
To its credit, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” directed by Eli Roth, fires on all cylinders right from its opening moments. From its ostentatious display of special and visual effects, dialogue clearly written to entertain young children, to the hyperbolic—sometimes cringe-inducing—acting, it brings to mind direct-to-DVD fantasy-comedies of the ‘90s. But this comes with a cost: the inability to slow down and convincingly create a portrait of a dysfunctional family who just so happen to have magic right on their fingertips. Here is a film in which enchantment is consistently placed on a higher tier than heartfelt human connections.
Recently orphaned Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) is sent to live with Uncle Barnavelt (Jack Black) whose home, according to word around school, is a murder house. Inside is palatial but strange: chairs make puppy-like noises, images on paintings change suddenly, and clocks are everywhere. In the middle of the night, Lewis finds his enthusiastic uncle placing his ears on walls, as if in search of something. There is even an instance when Barnavelt destroys a wall with an axe. The upside of living in a so-called slaughterhouse: there is no bedtime, eating vegetables is not required, and uniqueness is highly encouraged. There are numerous books on magic in the library.
Amidst the razzle-dazzle of magic spells we are asked to empathize with ten-year-old Lewis, especially how lonely he feels in a house so full of wonder and in a school that celebrates normalcy and popularity. This is when the picture is at its weakest. The screenplay by Eric Kripke is so busy providing superficial entertainment, not enough effort is put into making even slightly believable characters. Nearly every person, including Lewis, is a walking exaggeration. After a while, the quirkiness becomes numbing, peculiarities are reduced to boredom.
The sole figure who commands genuine fascination is Mrs. Zimmerman, Uncle Barnavelt’s next-door neighbor, best platonic friend, and partner-in-crime. She has lost a child and, in a way, she has not finished mourning. This affects her magical abilities. Mrs. Zimmerman is played by Cate Blanchett whose dramatic power is able, at times, to overcome a frustratingly simplistic script. Blanchett can simply look at the boy and there is a story in her eyes. The character may be elaborate on paper, but the performer is always in control of how we see her.
The relationship between nephew and uncle is severely undercooked. And so when the inevitable dramatic moment arrives, which involves the former employing forbidden blood magic to impress a boy from school (Sunny Suljic) and the guardian expressing great disappointment, we are not convinced. The material trudges on while our protagonists are in emotional pain, but we are left wondering why we do not feel more invested in the conflict. I think it is because the writing does not have enough appreciation of children’s emotional intelligence. Notice that up to this point, the material consistently chooses silly computer-generated effects over humanity.
Based on John Bellairs’ novel, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” belongs in the pile of generic children’s movies to be forgotten over time. Overtly, it tries so hard to offer something fun and memorable, like pumpkins coming to life and the dead rising from the grave. Upon closer inspection, however, it offers no resounding human drama that will remain strong even when all the expensive special and visual effects begin to look dated.
Ocean’s Eight (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
If the goal of heist comedy “Ocean’s Eight” is to jumpstart a new trilogy with a female-centric cast, as opposed to a male-centric cast of its three predecessors, then the attempt is unimpressive for the most part. In fact, it comes across uncommitted. While there are familiar elements like a highly charismatic cast, a script that exudes effortless cool, an ambitious heist, and a few left turns during the third act, there is an important ingredient that the picture is missing: Not once do we believe that the crew is close—so close that, if a member were to get caught, no one would be thrown under the bus.
While the previous trilogy need not provide character development because the element of a strong bond is established almost immediately, an argument can be made that having it front and center in this case would have separated this installment from the previous entries. Especially curious is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), having just released from prison after serving five years, being relegated to the side once the rest of the crew (Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Helena Bonham Carter) have been put together.
This is a miscalculation on two fronts. First, it is paramount that the viewers are given a thorough understanding of why Debbie is worth following in this film and possibly onwards. It is not enough that she is the sister of Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney since “Ocean’s Eleven”) and that she came up with the daring idea of stealing diamonds worth around a hundred fifty million during a posh event at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Putting her on the sidelines and allowing the other characters to shine brighter do not contribute in strengthening the bond between Debbie and the viewer.
Second, her relationship with Lou (Cate Blanchett) is never explored. They are supposed to be best friends but we are never provided an appreciation of the complexities in their relationship. They have one disagreement in the film and it comes across as forced, disingenuous, out of place. How can we buy into their clash when we only know how they are together on a superficial level? Like Debbie, Lou is also benched for the majority of the picture. I wished to know this woman who dresses masculine and rides her bike everywhere. It is the correct decision to cast Bullock and Blanchett in their respective roles, but their characters are not given the required substance in order for the material to command a level of gravity. What is the point of hiring high-caliber performers?
The heist is not that ingenious—which I did not have a problem with. It is meant to be breezy, occasionally silly, and alluring. Notice how the camera glides over the extremely detailed dresses, how the jewels shine a certain way depending on how the light hits them, the atmosphere of an “elite-only” party where cameos abound. The intention is pure escapism and there is nothing wrong with that.
It is apparent that the performers are having a ball with their roles. The standout is Anne Hathaway who plays an actress who will wear the diamonds to be purloined. One gets the impression that she is aware of the adjectives that people use to describe her online and so she decides to use some of the pointed words by creating a character that is, at the very least, annoying… but you cannot take your eyes off her. Her character is the most fun to watch. If only the rest of the film were as creative or inspired.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
There is a gag in this third installment of “Thor” involving the title character being thoroughly convinced that he is the “strongest Avenger.” Up until this film, however, I held the opinion that hammer-wielding God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was the “most boring Avenger,” all superpower and good looks but severely lacking in the personality department. It is to my great surprise then that “Thor: Ragnarok” is able to change my mind. It is the funniest and most entertaining entry of the series thus far—not a surprise because it is directed by Taika Waititi, one of the two masterminds of “What We Do in the Shadows,” the most enjoyable mockumentary horror-comedy of the decade.
For a series that has taken itself too seriously in the past, its new approach is a much-needed breath of fresh air. The first half offers a joyous experience. Arguably, its attitude is punk-rock in that it is willing to throw everything against the wall just to see what would stick. But the strategy is not lazy because just about every scene, at times coming across as comic strips due to their ability to reach the punchline in a matter of mere seconds, is executed with infectious energy and glee. Sure, the special and visual effects are seldom cheesy but the Marvel spirit is consistently present, alive, and willing to experiment. I enjoyed that I did not know where the story is heading—nor did I care so long as it is able to maintain such a high level of entertainment.
One can feel that the performers are having fun. Cate Blanchett, playing Hela the Goddess of Death who wishes to rule Asgard, chews the scenery as if she were in some high fashion photoshoot. Whenever the camera is focused on her, she is posing and selling every bit of clothing and accessory on her body. It amusing to watch because the performance is an exaggeration—which, oddly enough, matches the over-the-top universe that these characters inhabit. Jeff Goldblum, who plays the flamboyant ruler of planet Sakaar, is the runner-up when it comes to scene-stealing performances. His extemporaneous dialogue added more color to an already pavonine display of alien personalities.
Perhaps the picture’s weakness is, as expected, the action sequences involving groups of people either fighting one another or one group attempting to flee the fray. Although well-choreographed and there is a technical believability among the chaos, self-seriousness kicks in during these scenes. One tends to notice the dramatic score more often. Strong personalities are muffled for the sake of delivering kinetic energy. The fighting and the repercussions of violence are supposed to tug at the heartstrings. But it is strange because we never get the impression that war is hell since there is minimal depiction of blood, severedl limbs, and gruesome deaths.
Regardless, “Thor: Ragnarok” provides the excitement, bona fide sense of humor, and high energy that viewers expect from a Marvel film. Here’s to hoping that future installments that have Thor in it would not forget that Hemsworth can do physical comedy and understands the importance of timing instead of simply putting him up as golden-haired decoration.
Monuments Men, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.
The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.
In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.
The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.
The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.
What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Carol,” based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, oozes class and elegance from every pore. Under the careful and observant direction of Todd Haynes, the picture is an exercise of dramatic tension, milking every scene for what it is worth as two characters, who happen to be lesbians, fall in love in 1950s New York City.
The work transcends sexual orientation. To label it as another “lesbian movie” or “movie for lesbians” is tantamount to saying that all books are the same solely because books’ pages are bounded by front and back covers. Such a statement fails to give where credit must be given. Here, there is a specific story, there are specific characters living in a specific time with specific circumstances that prevent them from being together.
Gay or straight or anything in between, or even outside popular and convenient labels, just about everyone is likely to be able to relate to the story’s conflict. This is because, at its core, the material is about that painful yearning for wanting to be with someone rather than a calculated, predictable, trite march toward a happy ending. The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy assumes the viewers are intelligent and so the work is able to navigate the complex circuitries of being human. It works on almost every dramatic level and it is a joy to experience two people continuing to develop intense feelings for each other throughout the course of the film’s running time.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as an older woman going through divorce and a shopgirl, respectively, are able to tap into what makes their characters tick with seeming effortlessness that there are many moments that feel so intimate, I’d completely forgotten I was watching a movie. Because their performances are able to draw us in so completely, we tend to notice the little things—like a tick near one’s lips as she hesitates to ask a question or how one looks away just subtly as she grapples with disappointment—that we typically ignore in lesser films.
The cinematography, costumes, and set decor form a strong partnership to create a gorgeous-looking film. Notice that in every scene there is something worth looking at for at least three seconds whether it be a positive image like an object in which the color pops out or a negative image such as blank wall surrounded by detailed furniture. But the beauty is never a distraction. Here, it enhances the experience. Because the picture looks beautiful, there is a subliminal and positive message that what the characters share, too, is beautiful even though people around them don’t understand or are repulsed by it, and them.
“Carol” is a highly sophisticated project that gets just about every single thing right. Imagine that it could have been just another melodramatic queer-themed film targeted toward a specific audience. Instead, credit to the writers and filmmakers for adapting the novel with utmost respect, ambition, and intelligence and delivering a film that they absolutely should be proud of.
★★★ / ★★★★
To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.
Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.
The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.
James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.
I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.
There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.
“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), until she gets back on her feet. Jasmine is completely broke; her husband (Alec Baldwin), who had recently killed himself, was involved in fraud and they lost everything—the big mansion, the expensive cars, the bank accounts. Having been used to a life of privilege, the New Yorker must learn to live in a small apartment, earn her own money, and endure a sibling she never felt close to but is nice enough to take her in.
“Blue Jasmine,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is propelled by an electrifying performance by Blanchett. She is willing to try anything: allow herself to look ugly, create a most despicable character that—still—we hope will change or learn something throughout the course of the picture, and modulate the character’s broken mind as if she were living two realities. Just about every decision she makes to get us to feel closer to or feel repelled by Jasmine—often at the same time—is fresh so watching her perform is a delight.
It is easy to make fun of the character for hitting the ground hard. After all, she is not a very nice person. She talks about the responsibility of being rich and how it is important to be generous but her actions do not match what she preaches. When she was swimming in money, she treated her sister like they were not related. One of the scenes that got the most reaction out of me was when Ginger visited Manhattan. Giving Ginger material things—such a a ridiculously expensive Fendi bag—is easy for Jasmine, but giving Ginger some of her time—a tour around New York City, spending a birthday dinner together—is a lot harder for her. It is most ironic that this repugnant woman wants to be an anthropologist.
Hawkins’ Ginger provides a good foil for Jasmine. She is the nicer half—maybe too nice—and I found her likable, an energetic auntie that one looks forward to seeing during the holidays. Perhaps it is the point but I was frustrated with her at times. She is too much of a pushover, always yielding, never realizing she does not have to put up with any of her sister’s prolific neuroses. For once, I would liked to have seen her put Jasmine in her place. Interestingly, the the screenplay never goes in that direction.
“Blue Jasmine” has a few subplots which do not quite come together. The conflict between Jasmine and her stepson (Alden Ehrenreich) feels tacked on. There is a dramatic scene between them near the end but I was left more confused than impressed. Also, Ginger’s ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) is given big scenes but his background is not developed in such a way that enhances the otherwise good acting.
As usual, Allen excels in showing contrasts: Jasmine’s life in NYC versus SF, the extravagant interiors of the mansion versus a humble but homey apartment, the protagonist’s glistening face when everything seems to be going right versus her haggard look when everything is being burnt to ashes. The writer-director jumps back and forth between past and present so effortlessly that it never feels distracting. We are put inside Jasmine’s troubled psychology. She’s there but sometimes she’s not really there.
★★ / ★★★★
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent, had been living in isolation in the snowy mountains of Europe. Hanna was trained to defend herself, to always be alert, and to never trust anyone. But the reason for their preparation was unknown to us. When the two finally revealed their location using a tracker, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, was given the case because she was willing to do whatever necessary to assissinate the sixteen-year-old girl. “Hanna” had all of the elements of a film I would immediately love despite its less significant flaws. Unfortunately, it failed to explore its characters in a meaningful way so that we would care more about what would happen to them when placed in a situation where a small mistake could cost them their lives. For example, Erik, Hanna’s father, seemed to have a past which involved Marissa when she was still an active agent in the field. But the bond between the two opposing sides was never under a magnifying glass. Instead, there was one flashback designed to explain it all. I thought the writers were confused about the notion of subtlety versus keeping its audiences in the dark for the sake of mystery. When Erik and Marissa were finally in the same room after years of not seeing each other, there was, without a doubt, genuine tension. However, it was because the technical aspects, like editing and camera angles, were so strong. It wasn’t because we fully understood their history and the possible repercussions if one of them received a bullet in the head. There was also a strand that involved Hanna meeting Sophie (Jessica Barden), a hilarious and outspoken girl who traveled with her family (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Aldo Maland), and how the two eventually became friends. The things Hanna and Sophie went through, like spending time with handsome Spanish boys in motorcycles, were typical coming-of-age elements designed to explore Hanna’s capacity for humanity, despite being a killing machine, and the childhood she never had a chance to cherish. It was effective in its own way because we had a chance to see Hanna laugh and, in small dosages, experience emotions outside of her training. Unfortunately, Hanna had to go back to reality and face the woman who wanted to kill her. Blanchett sported a great haircut and creepy compulsions, but I wish she was given the chance to really show the monster behind her composure. Directed by Joe Wright, “Hanna” was not as rewarding as it should have been. I appreciated the risks it took so that warrants a slight recommendation. However, it could have been more engaging if we knew Erik and Marissa just as deeply as the title character.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” moved me in a number of ways and I found it to be strange because I find that to be a rarity in most historical films. Queen Elizabeth I (played by the ever-talented Cate Blanchett) must quickly take control of England and the lands it possesses after the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke). But it proves to be a clincher of a task because England was divided by religion, increasing poverty, a lack of men to form a proper army to defend itself from those who were hungry for power, and not to mention those who wanted to assassinate her. I really felt for Blanchett’s character because I saw her change from this warm, free-spirited woman who was open to love and idealism into a fierce queen who learned how to set her heart aside and make difficult decisions. Blanchett was the perfect actor to play the role because I’ve always seen her as warm but having the capacity to turn in an ice queen in a second. I enjoyed how the picture managed to balance the romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), the insidious affairs of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), and the eventual revelation of the secretive Sir Francis Walshingham’s (Geoffrey Rush) intentions. I was so engaged with the story because each scene had a purpose and something crucial was always at the forefront. Aside from the acting, I admired the picture’s use of lighting (especially the scenes inside the palace during the day), stunning set pieces and wardrobes. I cannot believe “Shakespeare in Love” won against this film because this one is far superior in every respect. I did enjoy “Shakespeare in Love” in some ways but it did not quite take me in a rollercoaster of emotions as “Elizabeth” did. This is far more complex especially with the issues it tried to tackle such as feminism during a time when men dominated the scene and how religion was often used as an excuse to justify sinful actions (in the least). While I do admit that I do not know much about the history of Queen Elizabeth I, I am now that much more curious to read up on her accomplishments.