Thursday, September 20, 2018

"The House with a Clock in its Walls"


Kids' movies stink. They're dull, lifeless, uninventive, uninspired things that pander to children, talking down to them and treating them like idiots. The House With a Clock in its Walls is not, thankfully, a kids' movie, though it has a child at its core and is filled with colorful magic. But it's a real movie, a full-fledged one that adults can see by themselves and enjoy tremendously, while children will experience the rare satisfaction of being entertained without condescension.

While many movies featuring children treat adults as something distant and neglectful or strange and mystical, The House with a Clock in its Walls presents adults who are just as unsure of themselves as any child. One of its best attributes is that it shows that adults are capable of supreme self-doubt and children are capable of supreme courage, which is a wonderful thing to see.

Maybe it's saying something about the state of our own world that a story like this couldn't possibly take place in the 21st Century.  The House with a Clock in its Walls is set in 1955, that nostalgic moment in time when kids wore coonskin caps and button-down sweaters and when everything seemed hopeful, at least on the surface. (In this revisionist nostalgia, school hallways in middle America are filled with black and Asian kids, playing and laughing harmoniously.)

Ten-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro, terrifically engaging) comes to town after the death of his parents, and he's greeted by his kindly and eccentric uncle (Jack Black), who lives in a rambling old house filled with clocks that are strategically positioned to drown out the sound of one giant clock that is buried under or built within the house. Next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) helps keep things ticking, and it's not long before Lewis suspects something is up with his weird uncle.

Uncle Jonathan comes clean about being a wizard, and it's here that the story both kicks in to gear and, oddly, the movie loses a bit of its oomph as it unveils a complicated plot about another wizard and his plans to destroy the world, which will happen when that gigantic clock somewhere in the house winds down.  The more we learn about Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), the wizard who used to live in the house, and how Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman fit into the history, the less interesting the movie gets.

Yet, it remains at all times supremely entertaining thanks to the work of its three leads, who have wonderful on-screen chemistry.  Black and Blanchett bicker and argue in the way of couples whose love has moved way beyond lust and into real fondness, and Vaccaro brings emotional dimension to his role as a suddenly orphaned, socially awkward youngster who is eager to find his own voice.

There's a delightfully wicked sense of humor at the heart of this movie, which may prove to be too scary for some of the little kids -- which is nicely in keeping with the movie's general assumption that kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for being; they can handle surprises and scares and jolts (and there are a few) if they're in service to a larger story that engages them, and The House with a Clock in its Walls is always engaging.

The director is a surprise: Eli Roth, who's better known for extreme, graphic, brutal horror movies like Hostel and Cabin Fever. With this film, Roth shows impressive flair behind the camera and restraint in his approach; there's some horror here, but it's all for fun. It's a stylish movie, and a great-looking one, but what's really surprising is how the film is suffused with unexpected qualities like kindness and patience.

It goes a little bonkers toward the end, but it also is filled with sweet and gentle grace notes, like a scene in which Mrs. Zimmerman and Uncle Jonathan argue with fierce passion, ending with a deeply moving revelation about the hard job of being a parent. It's also got some sweet and insightful things to say about being different, about the importance of not fitting in.

In many ways, The House with a Clock in its Walls recalls one of the best and most off-kilter family films ever made, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which also combines magic and enchantment with some sharp and cutting observations of the world and some tough but true lessons about life and its disappointments.

They're lessons kids need to learn, sometimes the hard way. The House with a Clock in its Walls is a lovingly crafted reminder that some of the lessons are still being taught to us when we're adults and old enough that we should probably know better, but all too often don't.

Viewed September 20, 2018 -- DGA Theater


Sunday, September 16, 2018

"A Simple Favor"


Two strangers agree to swap murders. An old woman kills a lost traveler. A hated rich man is found dead on a train. The best murder mysteries are simple to describe and extraordinarily complex to explain, yet elegantly simple once they are unraveled. You should have seen them coming.

A Simple Favor meets two of the criteria so well that it's frustrating to see the fall so short of the third in its critical final act. The trouble isn't so much that the movie should have been better than it is, it's that most of it is so much better than it turns out to be.

Here's the setup: Two moms -- one perfect (Anna Kendrick) and one far from it (Blake Lively) -- become best friends, and just as they start goading each other to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets, one of them disappears into thin air.

How? Where? Why? It's high-powered New York City fashionista and PR director Emily who disappears and seemingly simple, Polly Perfect single mom Stephanie who is left behind and turns herself into Nancy Drew (or maybe Veronica Mars) to get to the bottom of what happened.  Meanwhile, there's Emily's slightly less-than-distraught husband Sean (Henry Golding), who seems to have equally less-than-noble intentions, while his young son Nicky starts insisting with increasing certainty that he's seen Emily lurking around.

There's a lot going on here, and the script by Jessica Sharzer (based on a novel by Darcey Bell) is not afraid to come right out and name-check both Diabolique and Gaslight. You've got to be pretty confident to reference movies of that caliber, and for a great long time, director Paul Feig is nothing if not confident.

Like his ridiculously good Spy, A Simple Favor is a comedy-genre mash-up that doesn't skimp on either: It excels at comedy, but its central story is legitimate and fulfilling. The murder-mystery at the heart of A Simple Favor is a good one, but can't be content to present a straightforward whodunit -- it wants to be a stylish, fashionable mystery that deals in the sort of twisty, unpredictable plots of thrillers like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, so it piles on revelation after revelation until it feels like a parody of itself, and not the good kind of parody.

It has a great premise and an extraordinarily complicated explanation -- but try to piece it all together in your head afterward, and most if it won't make any sense.

At just about the time it should be shocking us, A Simple Favor becomes a bit of a head-scratcher. There's one scene in particular set in a cemetery that is no doubt intended as a triple-twist jaw-dropper but ends up as a weird eleventh-hour head-scratcher: Why is that person saying those things, and why does the other person seem so unbothered? And when the final moments of the movie attempt some ironic humor, it comes at the expense of logic and fulfillment: Shouldn't that character face a much worse fate?

Most audience members (myself included) would benefit from a scorecard to keep track of all of the characters and their motives, and one utterly unnecessary detour that attempts some odd combination of Gothic melodrama and mild character humor falls entirely flat.

So, why recommend A Simple Favor? That's easy: Kendrick and Lively, who are pitch perfect in everything they do, even managing to pull off the over-the-top ending.  But it's the beginning that matters most, and these two actresses radiate such chemistry on screen that they need to be cast again in something even better.  They lift A Simple Favor in remarkable ways: funny, smart, knowing, ironic, sincere, clever, biting, daring, even shocking, they are the reason to see -- and to recommend -- A Simple Favor.

Viewed September 15, 2018 -- AMC Burbank 16


Sunday, September 9, 2018

"The Nun"


God help anyone who sees The Nun.

Someone, somewhere must have committed an awful sin to result in The Nun, because sitting through it certainly is a major act of penance. I'll take Our Fathers and Hail Marys anytime over a punishment this severe.

The Nun is related to The Conjuring, but then again The Exorcist II: The Heretic was related to The Exorcist, and this movie is almost as bad as the notoriously awful 1977 sequel in which Linda Blair tap danced while Richard Burton looked ready to die from embarrassment.  About the only good news is that as far as "horror" movies go, The Nun isn't quite that bad, but it's pretty awful all right.

There are lots of scenes in The Nun. There is a lot of music. Also, the movie must have had the biggest dry-ice budget of any film in recent years.

The scenes don't fit together. The music doesn't match the scenes. The dry ice, however, is effectively used.

My favorite scene with the dry ice is when a handsome young foreigner living in Romania -- he speaks French and is even called "Frenchy," a name no movie that doesn't include the word Grease in its title should be allowed to use -- is whistling in the dark through a creepy cemetery.  He lights his way with a lantern.  The dry-ice smoke swirls menacingly around his feet.  And the whole thing is about as scary as it was back in the 1930s, when a scene like this was already long in the tooth.

It worked in Young Frankenstein because it was silly and had no intention of being scary.  It doesn't work in The Nun, when it wants to be scary and doesn't succeed at being silly, either.  Nothing in The Nun is scary, especially not all those scenes.

Let me explain for a moment about these scenes.  In a typical movie, they flow together in a more or less linear chronology, forming the film's narrative, the story that propels the action forward.  Not so in The Nun.  In this movie, the scenes relate to each other only in the loosest possible way -- they might contain the same characters, for instance, or those characters might say a few words that were previously spoken in the movie. But mostly the scenes seem to have been shot out of order, then edited together in an equally random way, in the vain hope that somehow they might end up creating a plot.

The basic structure is: A nun watches in horror as another nun is violently assaulted after she enters a door marked, helpfully (I guess), "God ends here." Quite a door to have anywhere, much less an abbey.  The nun who watched then commits suicide.  Frenchie (who, by the way, isn't French, he's -- wait for it -- French-Canadian) finds the body. Later, the Vatican decides to investigate, calling in a priest (Demi├ín Bichir) who specializes in particularly loud and bass-heavy exorcisms. He is paired with a postulant nun (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera, who starred in the original Conjuring). The nun is chosen because she has visions.

They go to Romania. Frenchie takes them to the abbey.  He flirts with the young nun. He walks through a cemetery. He sees scary nun violence. The priest gets buried alive. The young nun manages to find him. They suspect maybe there is something bad going on. They split up to investigate further. The priest finds some weird books. The nun keeps seeing scary things. Awful things happen. From time to time, The Nun of the title (originally seen in the first Conjuring movie) pops up.

There are a lot of very loud sound effects to emphasize how scary it is. Eventually, everyone gets around to talking about a gateway to hell and imply that the hatred and violence of World War II somehow opened it up. Now, it's open again. That's why The Nun with the sharp teeth and pancake makeup keeps popping up.

See, the thing is, she isn't really a nun.  Whaaaaaaaaaaa?  She's evil!  Evil I tell you!  And she must be stopped!

Frenchie comes back, this time with a shotgun.  The young nun, who has come to Romania carrying only a tiny suitcase, finds a full nun habit to don and then decides she wants to take her vows, so just when they should be trying to close the gate to hell, everyone stops to watch her become a nun.

The Sound of Music was playing a couple of theaters down from where I saw The Nun, and I cannot lie, I wondered how these nuns would have solved a problem like Maria.  Likely with lots and lots of blood and even more dry ice.  And yet, I've gotta tell you, the scariest scream from The Nun is nothing compared with the cold and icy stare of The Baroness.  I'm pretty sure she could have closed that gate to hell with just one sharp word and left the demons feeling woefully inadequate.

The gate to hell closes.  The movie ends. There is a quick coda that flash forwards 20 years in which Frenchie, now apparently happily repatriated to his Canadian home, is seen as the subject of a study by psychics Ed and Lorraine Warren, so I guess the plan is to somehow relate stories back to the couple that started it all.  At best, it's a loose connection, but then, the whole movie is a loose connection, so it fits the mold.

The Nun left me wondering exactly how a movie about a young nun trying to close the gate of hell in an ancient castle in Romania could turn it to be bad.  How could you possibly botch that?  But they did, and how.  The Nun isn't merely awful; it's the worst movie of 2018.

Viewed Sept. 9, 2018 -- AMC Burbank 16


Sunday, September 2, 2018



Told in a more traditional way, Searching would still be a superior thriller, a missing-child story with a unusually strong sense of human-scale emotion at its core. That alone would set it apart from a routine procedural, which in some ways it is.

But it's different in a crucial way, blending a distinctive and innovative storytelling style with a central performance by John Cho that won't be recognized by any of the stuffy awards programs but is certainly one of the best (and most technically challenging) of the year. He's on screen almost all of the time, acting with characters who are often never there.

That's because the movie is told in the way we're living more and more of our lives: on computer screens. That sounds like a gimmick, and it is, but not necessarily a cheap one.  Searching begins with a dazzlingly choreographed series of shots that recount how David Kim (Cho) came to be a single parent; it's one of the most unexpectedly and genuinely moving pieces of montage filmmaking since Up devastated the lives of every parent in the audience with its wordless recounting of childhood, courtship, marriage, adulthood and death.

Searching is billed as a low-budget digital thriller, and such a vivid and affecting opening sequence serves the dual purpose of throwing its audience off balance (weren't we here for a simple little thriller?) and establishing some serious emotional stakes in what could well have been an easily dismissed B-movie.

It also eases us in to its carefully constructed, beautifully executed storytelling style. Everything we see in Searching is on a computer screen of one kind or another -- and if that seems like it would be limiting, director Aneesh Chaganty, who's making his feature-film debut, and his co-writer Sev Ohanian have thought it all out in ways that feel mostly seamless. There are moments that require suspension of disbelief -- the camera on David's computer is always and conveniently turned on -- but they don't distract.

Searching begins with a phone call between David and his 15-year-old daughter Margot, who checks in with her dad while studying with friends. And that's the last time he ever hears from her. It's the kind of right-before-our-eyes scenario that has driven taut thrillers like The Vanishing and Breakdown, and Searching certainly belongs beside them.

It takes David a while to come to the horrifying conclusion that a sinister fate may have befallen his daughter, and as he begins his investigation into her disappearance, he also begins to dig into her digital life.  It's here Searching adds some complexity -- and complicity -- to its tale, offering up a rather sobering reminder of how much even a 15-year-old does online that she doesn't want others to see. David is soon joined by an enormously sympathetic detective (Debra Messing, surprisingly good in a straight dramatic role), who works with him to piece together the days leading up to Margot's last moments.

Searching is gripping enough narratively, but in its impressively complex use of different kinds of screens and a variety of websites and computer programs it also becomes a bracing look at how we've come to live so much of our lives online. With few exceptions, the screen-based storytelling doesn't feel forced, and it moves at such a brisk pace and uses so much of the screen in clever ways that there are times when Searching feels like genuine cinematic innovation.

(It's worth noting, too, that in the midst of the enormous media attention foisted upon Crazy Rich Asians for its Asian cast, Searching is a movie that puts an Asian-American family front and center and builds an entire movie around Asian characters in an unassuming, matter-of-fact way. Searching offers compelling evidence that the best movies reflect the demographics of the world today.0

The resolution to Searching offers up at least two, maybe three -- or four, depending on how you look at it -- climactic twists, all of which are pleasingly unexpected and none of which feel forced. There's a confidence on display in Searching that's impressively reassuring.

And yet, the confidence of Searching could easily turn into hubris -- the filmmakers have announced plans for more films told in the computer-screen style. Here, it's a gimmick that works, but just as The Blair Witch Project begat endless "found-footage" movies, Searching is likely to get others to jump on this bandwagon, thinking that the style is what makes Searching work so well.

It's not, of course. Rather it's a movie fueled by by actors who are in command of their craft, filmmakers who have a clear vision, and a vivid, enthralling story told tremendously well.

Viewed September 2, 2018 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


"Crazy Rich Asians"


Crazy Rich Asians has been hailed as a groundbreaker, and representationally there is no doubt about that -- it's a story about Asian people who are played by Asian people without stereotyping. From a storytelling standpoint, though, Crazy Rich Asians is as tried and true as they come, which is anything but faint praise. Here's a movie that revels in an old-fashioned love-conquers-all plot and that makes no pretense at all about being anything other than a straightforward romantic comedy.

That the cast and characters are all Asian, that the setting is distinctly Asian -- Singaporean, to be specific -- and that the movie contains scenes and references that are Asian through-and-through, is obviously its selling point; just look at the title. But that's not the only reason to see the movie, which does come as something as a relief after a pre-opening media blitz that emphasized the race of its cast almost to the exclusion of the film's many other sparkling qualities.

Chief among those are its old-fashioned, tried-and-true plot: A young, self-made professional woman falls in love with handsome, debonair guy who seems like he's a man of the people until he invites her to his family home, only to have her discover that he's super, ultra rich. It's a rom-com fish-out-of-water story, and in Crazy Rich Asians its complete with a stern, ice-cold mother who dotes on her son; a set of gossipy, mean-spiritied aunts; best friends who are always good for a deep talk; and false friend who will stop at nothing to keep our hero and heroine apart.

Its familiarity is why Crazy Rich Asians is at once supremely satisfying and somehow a mild disappointment: It could have done just about anything, but it sticks with the formula, and how. When Hollywood made a movie like this in the 1930s, set in East Coast mansions where men and women dressed for dinner and were served by uniformed house staff, there was generally no commentary made about the economic state of a world heading into depression, and glamour existed for its own sake.

That's exactly the way it is in Crazy Rich Asians. There is no talk of the economy, or of the ostentatious way these people live their lives. There is no subtext of socio-economic disparity.  Indeed, if there are any areas of Singapore that are less than jaw-droppingly glorious, we see none of them in this movie -- the only thing it cares about is luxuriating in its own excess.

The movie opens in New York, where NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) gets an unexpected invitation from her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, who is making his film debut here, but seems preternaturally comfortable as a leading man) to come with him to Singapore for a family wedding. Rachel, who wants to visit her old college roommate Peik Lin (Awkwafina) accepts with no awareness at all that her beau is not just from Singapore -- his family basically made Singapore, and is one of the wealthiest in the world.

Does Rachel have a hard time fitting in?  Does she get rejected by the rich people?  Does that lead to misunderstandings with her boyfriend?  Does she have to turn to her best friend for emotional support when things get tough?  Have you ever seen a movie before?  If so, you'll recognize the plot, and Crazy Rich Asians will offer you no surprises on that front.  Rachel will have to stand up for herself.  She will (in a way that hasn't changed at all since Pygmalion, at least) need to become one of "them" in order to assert her independence. (Yeah, that bit is still as weird and uncomfortable now as it always has been.)

But Wu and Golding make an ideal screen couple. Nick's imperious mother is played with perfect iciness by Michelle Yeoh. Akwafina has all the best one-liners as the best friend (who's also rich, but merely wildly rich, not "crazy" rich).  And the movie spares no expense to show the world of these crazy rich people, these people whose lives have nothing in common with anyone sitting in the audience.  And director Jon M. Chu spares no expense to take us deep into the lives of people who are exactly what the title promises.

The settings are ambitious, sometimes ridiculous, always over the top, frequently gaudy and never less than fun.  There's a lot for the eyes here, and for the ears, too, with pop songs and standards rendered in multiple languages. Crazy Rich Asians is often crazy good fun.

But there's a darker side to the movie that's not explored much -- it's almost obsessed with money, it seems unsure whether it views money as the root of all problems or as the very best thing in the world.  Maybe it doesn't need or even want to take an ethical stance, but when, near the end of the film, one key character (you can probably guess who this will be) says love is more important than all the money, Crazy Rich Asians doesn't seem so sure about that.

Think back to a movie like 1980's Arthur, which was almost the same story but set in America. When  Arthur talks about willingly giving up his fortune to marry his working-class girlfriend, he seems aware of the stakes, and can understand what they'd mean. But here, it's hard to be so sure, and in the end the movie plays it both ways, turning Nick into a nice guy who also can stay super-mega-rich.

Less is made of the dilemma facing Rachel, and her choice is made to seem the far less interesting one here. She's put through a lot of unhappiness in the film, for the sake of proving her love. Crazy Rich Asians seems to be saying that life can't possibly be all that good unless you stay really wealthy.

If it had taken a little more time to really contemplate the problems that wealth brings, maybe it would have ended up a little emotionally more, well, rich. And while all that is problematic enough to make me second-guess at least some of what I enjoyed while watching the film, it's undeniable that Crazy Rich Asians is an entertaining, stimulating delight.  It doesn't want to make any big statements about, well, pretty much anything, it just wants to delight us with a story of two people trying to overcome the obstacles put in the path of love.

To that end, it might not be groundbreaking -- and it doesn't need to be.  It just needs to be a lot of fun, and that's exactly what it is.

Viewed September 1, 2018 -- AMC Burbank 16