Tag: jack black

The House with a Clock in Its Walls


The House with a Clock in Its Walls (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.

Jesus’ Son


Jesus’ Son (1999)
★★ / ★★★★

FH (Billy Crudup), shorthand for “fuckhead” because of his tendency to bring the worst out of a situation, is hitchhiking to Mexico in hopes of finding his girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), who ran off with a man named John Smith. A family is kind enough to stop and agrees to take him where he needs to go, but the ride is short-lived when they get into a car crash. FH recalls the events in the past three years that lead up to the accident.

“Jesus’ Son,” based on the book by Denis Johnson, is a film that means so well, full of optimism and small but important life lessons, so it pains me a little bit to admit that it did not quite work for me. Although Crudup’s strong performance is a thread that unites the funny, eccentric, tragic characters, there is a lack of cohesion in the story. In retrospect, what I remember is the individual misadventures that FH gets into throughout the months and years, not his evolution from an irresolute man to someone who has developed self-awareness.

It is difficult to imagine anyone else playing FH. Crudup makes his character into a real person by using his good looks to lure us and his talent to defy our expectations. Just when we feel like we have a good grip on the character, the performer reveals another layer that is either contradictory of what we came to know about FH just a couple of scenes prior or a deeper detail like a sadness underneath FH’s comforting smiles or charming ticks. It is easy to label FH as a loser given his addiction to drugs, very laid-back attitude, and lack of prospects. Crudup gives the character a chance. Yes, the protagonist can be considered a slacker, but that is not what all there is to him.

The supporting actors are interesting, too. Morton could have played her character as a typical white trash, especially in the way Michelle is introduced, but she does a good job showing her character being drawn toward the heroine that gives her temporary ecstasy versus FH who may not be perfect but he is there and he is real. Also, Dennis Hopper makes an appearance in the latter half, a man on a wheelchair with a bullet hole on each side of his cheek. To reveal more about FH’s interaction with Hopper’s character is to take away something from the film. But what they share is tender, amusing, and honest. I wished it had been longer.

However, some performances are so alive, they threaten to derail the mood of the picture. The first is Denis Leary playing Wayne, a man who has a plan for making a quick buck. He demands our attention. The second (and more distracting) is Jack Black, FH’s eventual co-worker as orderlies in a hospital. The scene with the hunting knife is hilarious due to the situation itself, but Black’s tendency to exaggerate pushes the kind of amusement that feels right for this material into a comedy show. Still, at least Black’s character is far from boring.

Since the story is non-linear, it is most critical that the transitions among time jumps and location changes feel smooth. Otherwise, it will feel like the story is choppy–as it does here. Mix such techniques with dream sequences, it almost feels like trouble. Because of this, it gives the impression that the mood fluctuates so much that the inner turmoils that FH goes through almost become an afterthought.

Directed by Alison Maclean, “Jesus’ Son” has very good performances but its disparate techniques in storytelling do not consistently reach a synergy that is necessary for the work to be truly memorable. But at least the final scene is nicely handled when it could have been treated as a throwaway, how the protagonist is finally able to be in control after always lumbering toward the direction of pleasure for so long.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Anyone who has played role-playing video games from the ‘90s is likely to be entertained by “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a clever, self-aware adventure-comedy propelled by charismatic and energetic performances. Credit to the team of screenwriters for making the smart decision to depart from the beloved 1995 classic in nearly every way, from the setting of the story to the overall tone, mood, and characterization. With a twenty-year gap between the original and its sequel, it is critical for the latter to come across contemporary while remaining tethered to the spirit of its predecessor. It is a welcome evolution.

Casting directors Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy deserve a pat on the back for selecting four performers (Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan) who are more than up to the task in embodying in-game characters, or avatars, playing out-of-game characters (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner) who just so happen to be high school students, teenage baggage and all, on top of being complete opposites of how they look like. It is a winsome twist in body-switching teen archetypes.

For example, Black must play a female teen, the popular princess type who thinks the world revolves around her and her selfies. But Black’s character, the avatar, is obviously male, and one who has more on his mind than taking pretty “no filter” pictures for likes on social media. Rarely does a movie make me want to watch the outtakes because the actors seem willing to do anything for a laugh. Perhaps their near-hits or misses are pretty funny, too. Each finds a way to have fun in his or her respective role without relying on being campy or loud all the time. I enjoyed moments when the film manages to sneak up on the viewer and makes us realize how much we care that the four teens in adult bodies make it out of the game with the lessons they learned, about themselves and one another, intact.

The special and visual effects are not particularly impressive. For instance, by comparison, I find the wildlife stampede in the original “Jumanji” picture to be more visceral, exciting even though the chaos is unfolding in a suburban area. In fact, here, some set pieces look rather fake, clearly shot in a studio. Movies shot in actual jungles, particularly war films set in Vietnam and other countries by the Pacific, tend to capture the looks of vegetation and sounds in a matter-of-fact, occasionally haunting way. Here, at times plants look as though they have been purchased at a dollar store, clearly dummies, plastic.

Still, the energy of the film is so infectious, I believe most viewers will overlook such details. A shortcoming not easily ignored, however, is a lack of a great villain with strong presence. Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) is a recognizable name in the “Jumanji” universe, but the writers neglect to create an interesting character who has more to him than looking mean with bugs crawling all over his face. Had there been something else to the antagonist, a self-awareness perhaps, even a sense of humor, Van Pelt might have been a formidable opponent.

Because Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” succeeds in modernizing a brand, it is possible that a new franchise is born. Surely box office numbers will tell, but the real question is, if it does continue, would the screenwriters be able to tap into a wellspring of new ideas and put them together in such a way that is focused and relevant? Time will tell. But hopefully not another two decades will pass.

Kung Fu Panda 3


Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)
★ / ★★★★

The animation looking beautiful is probably the only compliment I can give to “Kung Fu Panda 3,” directed by Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, because it provides no compelling story, the characters we have come to know from previous installments are not challenged or changed in any way, and the jokes rely too much on cutesy exchanges and exclamations. I imagine children as young as five or six years old are likely to be entertained because of the colors and battle scenes. But intelligent viewers within the same age group are likely to be bored. The film scrapes the bottom of the barrel for a semblance of creativity.

A major character introduced is Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston), the long lost father of Po the Dragon Warrior (Jack Black). The central story involving the father-son reunion is not dealt with in a remotely interesting way. Of course, the requisite scenes involving Li and Po bonding through the activities they like to partake in, what they find amusing, and how much they look alike are present, but the screenplay offers no genuine emotional connection between them.

The writers, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, have simplified the script to such an extent that what is left is a skeletal idea of two characters coming together. There is no substance to them; there is not one scene where Li or Po expresses how much it means to him to have found a surviving family member. I experienced a sinking feeling that the writers felt as though deep, complex emotions would go right over the heads of their target audience. So, as a solution, we are pummeled with reductive, superficial exchanges followed almost immediately by kinetic action scenes. It is astounding that given the numerous battles we are provided, not one of them stands out.

Consider Pixar films and Miyazaki pictures. They are often highly successful within and outside the expected age demographic because emotions and situations are dealt with honesty, respect, and insight. We are continually surprised by the characters and the world they inhabit exactly because we are allowed to understand their perspectives—whether it be through open dialogue, creative ways in which thoughts are expressed without words, and the decisions the characters make sometimes, especially when they are difficult or goes against their own set of morality. Life lessons organically seep into our minds.

Here, lessons about working with your natural talent is forced and, once again, reductive. The better nugget of truth to offer is that sometimes you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone because you might find another strength that you otherwise might not discover if you stayed within your bubble. Providing alternatives is not the picture’s strength: It has a vision of going from Point A to Point B and is blind to everything else. It offers no excitement or surprises.

“Kung Fu Panda 3” inspires kids not to think outside the box. It doesn’t even teach lessons about empathy—which is pretty much the bread and butter of animation aimed toward young children, the standard. So, who is the movie for, really? The answer is the studios. This is nothing but a cash-grab from audiences who have been impressed by the “Kung Fu Panda” brand in the past. Here’s to hoping people realize the charade so no more sequels would be made.

Goosebumps


Goosebumps (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right from its first few minutes, “Goosebumps,” directed by Rob Letterman, overcomes a major concern of having the quality of a direct-to-DVD piece of work but was released in theaters anyway because it boasts household names: Jack Black, R.L. Stine, and the “Goosebumps” brand.

Looking at the first scene closely where a mother and son, Gale (Amy Ryan) and Zach (Dylan Minnette), move into their new home, there is a warmth in their relationship and yet there is a hint of sadness, too. We learn that they migrated from the city to the suburb partly so that they can move on from the death of a family member. Then it makes sense: their bond is especially close because the memory of the passing remains fresh.

The screenplay avoids the expected, tired scenario of a teenager being or acting annoyed toward a parent for having been torn away from friends or a familiar milieu. Instead, the focus is on the love the two characters share and what they are willing to sacrifice to make the transition easier for one another. Notice that Dylan is able to make fun of himself just so there is laughter in their new home. The screenplay by Darren Lemke is surprisingly efficient in establishing likable characters who are of substance, worth following through whatever story is going to be told.

Although there is a lack of genuine scares, there are a handful of well-executed suspenseful scenes with a beginning, middle, and a twist. Of particular standouts involve Zach and his new friend named Champ (Ryan Lee) breaking into a secretive neighbor’s home—so secretive that there are bear traps in the basement, facing The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena in an ice rink, and being hunted by The Werewolf of Fever Swamp in a supermarket. The varying energies in these scenes are spooky, fun, and infectious and so we look forward to the next paranormal encounter. With each new environment, one can expect a run-in with a creature or mysterious entity. Thus, the film moves at a constant forward momentum so it is never boring.

Although one-on-one encounters work, less effective are the scenes where the monsters converge in one place. The third act, although tolerable, is not strong. This is because the CGI is so overwhelming at times that everything begins to look fake. The more there is to look at, the less convincing the danger. It would have been preferred if the leader of the monsters, Slappy the Dummy from the “Night of the Living Dummy” books (voiced by Black), had a more active, cleverer role in terrorizing the mean neighbor, his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), Champ, and Zach instead of commanding creatures to do his bidding. Slappy is one of the more terrifying (and devilishly creative) characters in the “Goosebumps” series and so it is a slight disappointment that he is not written as more menacing here. Instead, he gets pun-tastic one-liners.

I found the ending to be disloyal to the “Goosebumps” brand and so, despite its aforementioned strengths, I was this close to giving it only a marginal recommendation. Each R.L. Stine story has a lesson. Here, it is being able to deal with personal losses. This is hinted at the beginning of the film where Zach is shown to be missing his father as he watches a homemade video.

However, in order to have a standard, kid-friendly happy ending, the last few minutes cheats, essentially, by circumventing the fact that sudden losses, grief, and sadness are a part of life. I felt offended by the decision. I would rather have a film that inspires conversation afterwards—especially between parent and child—than the audience forgetting about the experience almost immediately because the material fails to leave a lasting impression that feels exactly right to the story.

Bernie


Bernie (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

The citizens of Carthage, a small town in Texas, regarded Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) so highly, even when he murdered a rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they were convinced he couldn’t have done such a thing. Equally shocking was that some of them thought that Marjorie deserved it. Bernie was a mortician with a magnetic personality. When someone died, he showed his respects by not only preparing the body with the most utmost care, he also made sure that the loved ones of the deceased were not alone in their unbearable grief. On the other hand, Marjorie was hated by everybody in town. Not only was she parsimonious, she was downright unpleasant with people for no reason. When her husband passed away, Bernie became her closest companion. Based on the screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, while “Bernie” was not devoid of humor, it was confusing in terms of what it ultimately wanted to be. Most of its amusement, divided into three sections, stemmed from interviews of those who lived in Carthage: Bernie’s acclaim, Marjorie’s condemnation, and the reactions to the news that Bernie had killed Marjorie. Every scene was bombarded by interviews, more than half unnecessary, which eventually destroyed the film’s dramatic arc. As funny as some of the comments were, I wanted to know who Bernie and Marjorie were divorced from people’s opinion of them. Since the audience didn’t get a chance to observe the two characters without the peanut gallery’s pointed remarks, I felt detached from the killer, the victim, and the murder. Black did the best he could do given the material he had to work with. Although his character was painted by the script as more a caricature than a person who existed in real life (given that the film was based on a true story), there were times when I felt Black trying to step out of the box. The small decisions he made, from the way he would tilt his eyes just when he was about to offer words of encouragement to the way his body would sometimes seem to shock itself erect when his name was called by Marjorie, made an otherwise unvaried writing into something a little more fun. Meanwhile, the style of MacLaine’s acting irked me to the core. There were plenty of times when she acted like a spoiled child instead of an old grouch. Particularly painful to watch was the scene when Bernie came to talk to Marjorie for firing her gardener because she thought he was stealing the lawnmower. Their argument felt extremely false because MacLaine failed to inject her character with edge, someone who was hardened by experience and had grown tired of being abandoned by people. Why not allow her to be human and give us a chance to consider that maybe she wasn’t so bad? Another frustrating element in the film was its neglect of the specific details of the crime. Bernie was able to hide the body for nine months and make everyone believe that the old woman suffered a stroke. There was about a five- to ten-minute uninspiring montage on how he accomplished such a deception. The scenes felt like a series of sketches with subtitles at the bottom that denoted how much time had passed since the murder. Why not show us exactly how Bernie disposed of the body? Why not force us to feel Bernie’s panic when people started asking questions regarding the missing widow? By not doing this, “Bernie,” directed by Richard Linklater, had an air of detachment that prevented the material from taking off. Despite the murder that took place, there was a deficit of curiosity. For a supposed dark comedy, it didn’t take enough risks and so the laughs were few and far between. In retrospect, I believe I unwittingly forced some of my laughs because I desperately wanted to have a good time.

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.