Friday, October 19, 2018

Three Movie Reviews

The House with a Clock in its Walls - The first of two Halloween-themed Jack Black vehicles that came out practically on top of each other, this movie was based on a beloved book by John Bellairs. It is perhaps for the best that I hadn't re-read the book for several years before seeing this movie, so my impression of it as a fan of the book is that it was pretty faithful to the source material. More importantly, as an amateur judge of filmmaking, I thoroughly enjoyed this spooky, magical family movie.

It's all about a somewhat pathetic boy named Lewis Barnavelt (less pathetic in the film than in the book, as I recall), who loses both his parents and ends up being raised by his uncle Jonathan. Then he finds out that Jonathan and the neighbor lady, Mrs. Zimmerman, are a warlock and a witch, and that the house and its grounds are full of weird stuff, such as carnivorous topiary and friendly furniture. It also has a dreadful book that Lewis is warned never to touch (but of course, he disobeys), and an ominous ticking inside the walls that Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman worry about, when they aren't bickering like an old married couple. Unfortunately, having his best friend at school turn against him is the least of little Lewis's problems. Soon he is being drawn into a plot to end the world by an evil wizard from beyond the grave.

The cast is just right. Jack Black is much better in the role of a midwestern sorcerer, without the unconvincing fake British accent he affects in his Goosebumps role. Also, Uncle Jonathan is much more loving and lovable than his R.L. Stine persona, and his chemistry with Mrs. Z (Cate Blanchett) is terrific. As Lewis, Owen Vaccaro makes a promising lead-role debut; he previously played Will Ferrell's stepson in two Daddy's Home movies (I haven't seen either) and has played somebody's son in a couple other films. The vulnerability of these characters is a Bellairs trademark. Kyle MacLachlan takes a villainous turn as the wizard Izard; seeing the little people thwart his plan is truly a pleasure. Not to be glossed over is the production design of this film, which created a nostalgic look for its 1955 small-town-Michigan setting and the even more historic Izard mansion, not to mention Uncle Jonathan's old beater of a car.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Mrs. Z remarks, "He's so weird," when Lewis demonstrates his unique style of making magic. (2) Naturally, the jack o'lantern attack. (3) Lewis' dodge-ball revenge on the best friend who betrayed him.

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween - Going into the second kids' movie that came out around Halloween and featured Jack Black, I was a little nervous about his performance. I liked the original "Goosebumps" movie, but only in spite of Black's performance as R.L. Stine, the author of the spooky kids' book series on which the movie was based. Black played Stine as a prickly intellectual with what sounded like an unconvincing fake British accent. It wasn't his best work, and I say that fully aware that I'm talking about Jack Black, whose performances regularly make me wince. This sequel, however, took the prudent step of relegating Black's character to an almost superfluous bit part. It also replaced the hero teens from the original movie with an entirely different group of kids who come across the nefarious Slappy (a living ventriloquist's puppet who absolutely hates being called a "dummy," also voiced by Jack Black) and unwittingly aid him in his comeback, via an unpublished R.L. Stine manuscript. You know, because the monsters created by Stine always stir up trouble when they escape from his books.

In this instance, Slappy hatches a plot to turn the town's Halloween decorations into real monsters and, basically, unleash Halloween-ageddon. The kids fight back, supported in part by that crazy neighbor who goes way over the top with holiday decorations. It's a funny, goofy, special-effects-driven thrill ride for kids that I thought hit all its marks and didn't fail to entertain, in spite of having a little-known leading cast. With its present-day setting, it contrasts nicely with the season's other Black/Halloween flick. However, because I left the writing of this review in "pending" mode for way too long, I'm afraid I can't remember it in enough detail to provide my usual "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." Sorry!

First Man - This movie about Neil Armstrong's journey from testing experimental aircraft to planting the first human bootprint on the moon was a visually stunning, emotionally overwhelming powerhouse of a historic biopic starring Ryan Gosling. It spotlights the strains on the legendary astronaut's marriage, his emotional unavailability, his devastating grief after the death of his daughter, his tough relationship with his two sons, and the losses of many of his colleagues in a variety of crashes and accidents leading up to the Apollo program. Normally, at this point in the review, I would recite the names of a bunch of people in the film's awesome cast, but if you're reading this, you're on the internet; so use it.

As I've mentioned before, I've been operating on a minimum of recreational online time for a while now, so unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to write this review until months after posting it with a "review in progress" blurb. Ordinarily, that would mean that I couldn't recall enough detail to provide my customary "Three Scenes that Made It For Me." In this case, however, the film made a very strong impression on me, so here goes: (1) Armstrong shuts himself in his study during the reception after his daughter's funeral and puts her charm bracelet, with beads spelling her name (Karen), in his desk drawer. This moment of repressed emotion pairs beautifully with a scene of healing toward the end of the movie, when the astronaut extends his space-suited hand over the rim of a lunar crater, opens it, and lets that charm bracelet fall into the darkness below. (2) Armstrong's wife (played by Claire Foy) blows up at him, in a display of emotion that pushes the needle into the red that stands out all the more after the stifling emotional repression previously depicted, and forces him to talk to his sons about the risk he is taking in his voyage to the moon - and what an awkward conversation that proves to be. (3) The stunning moonscapes depicted as the lunar lander descends, and after it lands.

As for the gripe some people have that the movie glosses over the planting of the U.S. flag, an omission that allegedly serves some anti-American interest or at least aims to appeal to people who don't love mom and apple pie, eh. I didn't even think about this until somebody quizzed me about it after I saw the movie. I thought I recalled seeing somebody digging a hole that I presumed was for the flagpole; though maybe he was taking a soil sample. I thought the movie's focus on Armstrong's personal experience was what made the moon scenes powerful. The film is unafraid to depict this American hero as a marginally functional person who must have been tough to live and work with. In fact, I think that insight into Armstrong's character does a lot to explain just how the U.S. achieved a moon landing when the science and technology that made it possible were so sketchy. Also, I am fascinated by the idea of solving a big problem by breaking it into smaller problems and solving each of them separately, which is depicted as a key to achieving the seemingly impossible feat. But it's the achievement of Mrs. Armstrong being able to reach out to and touch Mr.'s heart that is finally the central miracle of this story. What a cool surprise that is. And what a tremendous impetus this film is to follow the directing career of Damien Chazelle, whose only previous feature films were the Oscar-worthy La La Land, Whiplash and some obscure film about a jazz trumpeter. If this guy keeps going like this, he is going to be mentioned in a lot of awards buzz in movie seasons to come.

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