DUMBO

Directing: B-
Acting: C+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Special Effects: B

Trafficking in nostalgia is one thing, but how many people are even still around to feel nostalgic about the original Disney animated feature Dumbo, which came out seventy-eight years ago? Certainly there are some; even I, as a 42-year-old, watched that 1941 movie many times as a child. But was it my favorite? And now, consider people half my age now — themselves adults — and, more importantly, kids a quarter my age. They have no context for this as a longstanding intellectual property, and plenty will see the 2019 live-action Dumbo as their introduction to the character. What reason do they have to care? Not a whole lot, honestly.

And then we get to Tim Burton, the greatest director of the eighties and nineties, whose output in the 2000s was spotty at best, and who hasn’t given us a film even close to great since Sweeney Todd in 2007. That’s twelve years ago, if any of you are counting. Since then, he has phoned it in and cashed in with pretty much every project, even Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) only hinting at the great works of his past.

One might think Tim Burton a perfect choice to direct the live-action remake of Dumbo, which, the few people still familiar with it probably remember, had some pretty dark elements to it. And to be fair, some of the nods to the original film here work very well, not least of which is the circus bubbles show that harkens back to the “Pink Elephants On Parade” sequence.

That said, a peculiar element of this iteration of Dumbo is how, more often than not, the countless nods to the original in its first half rather drag it down rather than lift it up; and it’s the second half, with original concepts that expand on the story, that actually won me over. I’m not sure it won me over enough to make me say anyone should rush out to see this movie in the theatre, but it did win me over.

The sad thing is, Dumbo succeeds in large part in spite of itself. Because it’s got a lot dragging it down, not least of which is a first quarter or so that struggles to be even interesting, let alone genuinely compelling. And I sure hope the two kids who star in this movie never see this review, because I don’t particularly want to hurt their feelings, but frankly, as actors, they suck. In fairness to the kids, the responsibility here ultimately lies on the director, who really wanted totally wooden and emotionless delivery from them, I guess?

There is also the script, the dialogue itself, to consider. Once was a time Tim Burton worked with script writers who gave his movies an eminently quotable, dark wit — and Dumbo, which could have soared on such strengths, has no such wit. It’s also nice to see familiar Burtonian faces: Michael Keaton an Danny DeVito are both working with Burton here for the fourth time; Eva Green for the third. Clearly there is deep affection among actors for Tim Burton as a director, and vice versa. It’s too bad not one of the perormances in Dumbo stands out in any way.

It’s Dumbo himself who is the standout here, an endlessly adorable and stunningly rendered CGI baby elephant who can fly thanks to his oversized ears. But when it comes to the special effects, there remains something oddly static about the rest of the effects shots in this movie, which it has in common with all Burton films to come out in the digital age. This is a man who truly excelled back in the days of practical effects, but when digital effects exploded, his skill level did not quite blossom in the same way.

And it kind of pains me to say these things, as I said for years Tim Burton was my favorite director. Is he still? He remains the best of the eighties and nineties, and even today, in spite of his recent frequency of missteps, I will literally see anything with his name attached. That’s about loyalty more than quality, sadly.

There’s just so much unrealized potential here. From the beginning of Dumbo, Danny Elfman’s characteristically wonderful score brings high hopes. We see the circus train on its way around the American South, and the front of the engine car is rendered with a grinning grill that gives it a design element reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That is where this potential begins and ends, as we spend about half an hour struggling to find one thing a character says interesting.

It must be reiterated, though: Dumbo himself lights up the screen, and even without any actual lines — unlike the animated feature, none of the animals talk — he proves to be by far the most adorable and expressive character. This even includes the usually very expressive Colin Farrell, as the injured WWI veteran father of the aforementioned children. Eventually there are sequences of Dumbo flying under the Big Top in circus performances, and these scenes are genuinely exciting. The problem is just how long it takes to get there.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

More of this please. The rest of the movie is . . . blah.

Overall: B-

WHAT MEN WANT

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Well, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be found in it, so What Men Want certainly has that going for it. Honestly, that being a point in its favor should not be underestimated.

Now, to be fair to everyone else who made that movie released in 2000, What Women Want was made far before anyone had any idea what a douche Mel Gibson would reveal himself to be. It was also slightly more realistic about how people think — although there should be an emphasis on slightly. In a male-dominated world, there’s arguably more to be learned by a man gaining the ability to learn what women are thinking, rather than the other way around.

In What Men Want, sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, gleefully making the best of the role) is presented as a woman with her own lessons to learn about “connecting with men.” She’s self-involved and often selfish, although to this movie’s credit, she’s still presented as “likable.” That said, by and large, the men she comes across after bashing her head and then gaining the ability to hear everything they’re thinking, are themselves presented as innocent and pure of heart by default. In other words, this movie is pure utopian fantasy from every angle.

Sure, there’s a couple of men who are villainous. But these men exist only for that purpose: to be specific adversaries to Ali, as plot devices. If this script made any attempt to be at all realistic, probably half the men whose thoughts Ali heard thinking would be aggressively disgusting, somewhere on the spectrum of misogynistic to racist, and often both in equal measure. But then, that wouldn’t make for the fun, light-hearted movie director Adam Shankman (a white guy, incidentally) was going for here.

Now, some of these utopian elements are maybe not so bad — “be the change you want to see,” and all that. There is a couple of hints of real-world struggles we all know a woman like Ali Davis would face; in one scene, she challenges her boss to fire her, after he references “me too” and she suggests he’s only afraid to fire her because she’s a black woman. The fact that virtually none of her coworkers, <i>all</i> of them men in a male-dominated field, have any overtly bigoted thoughts about her, still places this story squarely in fantasy land.

I even have mixed feelings about Ali’s gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener — who is straight, though he’s fine in the part), who seems pointedly presented as a gay person who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about sports and is therefore qualified to be a sports agent. I like that the character is still relatively effeminate even within that otherwise “bro culture” context, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are patting themselves on the back for how “progressive” they’re being. But as long as we’re talking about tokenism, I did like that among Ali’s core group of close friends, instead of there being one token black lady, there’s a token white lady (Wendi McLendon-Covey), although the running gag about her being a foul-mouthed Jesus freak is a little odd.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem in What Men Want: none of its supporting characters particularly ring true, with the possible exception of Ali’s dad (Richard Roundtree). Ali herself comes closest of everyone in the film, but she otherwise lives in a universe of two-dimensional characters. This movie gave me a fair number of semi-consistent chuckles, but that’s not exactly the ringing endorsement a “fun comedy” would want. Ultimately this is just another throw-away, moderate amusement that no one is going to remember by next week.

And it’s too bad, because it does have some winning performances, and certainly a great lading lady in Taraji P. Henson. It gets bogged down in its script-by-committee: aside from the three writers of the 2000 film receiving credit on this one, this updated script was itself written by another four people (two white guys, two women of color). And although the diversity is necessary and to be commended, it’s not enough on its own to make this movie particularly great.

It’s not exactly awful either, though — What Men Want is palatable for as long as it’s in front of you, in spite of its tendency toward over-the-top diversions. It does seem to represent a transitional time in Hollywood that reflects some turns in the right direction, broadly speaking. That just means there will be more near-misses that get an E for effort. (Or, I guess in this case, a B-.)

what men want.jpg

Overall: B-

ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-
Music: B+

The zombie genre has been so overdone for so long. now even “funny takes” on the zombie genre are overdone — from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to Zombieland (2009) to Warm Bodies (2013) to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Even television shows are getting in on the “funny take on zombies” action, from The CW’s iZombie to Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet.

The point is, there really is no original take on zombies at this point. Even the idea of a genre mashup has been done, with roughly the same amount of middling success, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which, if you can believe it, worked better as a novel). Honestly, I should have known better. Anna and the Apocalypse is clearly trying to hark back to the original “edgy comic take” on zombies, Shaun of the Dead, being a low-budget British production with clear affection for the American productions it emulates.

I could be said this film is a mashup of four different genres, if you want to consider “Christmas” a genre. Anna and the Apocalypse is a horror-comedy-musical Christmas movie. The thing is, director John McPhail blends these genres fairly well, all things considered. Most strikingly, the music and songs are good — they’re catchy, the performers have fantastic voices, they often have irresistible beats. The actual zombies don’t show up until maybe a third of the way through, and there are several songs prior to that, as though this story is a perfectly straightforward musical about kids in school. A British High Shool Musical with a slightly quirkier sense of humor.

And to be fair, I did laugh pretty hard a few times. Still, McPhail can tend to linger on the same gag just slightly too long, until the joke runs out of steam. Perhaps the relative earnestness of the songs themselves is part of the joke. But if that’s the case, then that part of the humor is slightly too high-minded to work for a production that basically amounts to “scrappy.”

When the songs aren’t going on, the dialogue in Anna and the Apocalypse is not particularly concerned with wit, which is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a lot of pretty forgettable stuff said in this movie. There are some memorable moments, such as the beheading of a zombie in a snowman outfit.

Anna and the Apocalypse is mostly fine, which is about as glowing a review as it deserves. It would find a comfortable home on any streaming service; there is absolutely no reason for anyone to go out of their way to see it in a theatre. It seems strange that any effort should be made to give movies like this a theatrical release, and such cinematically visionary work as Roma get a single week in theatres before being disseminated on mobile devices.

So, Anna is fun enough, and good for a few laughs. But it does have a key thing in common with all these other comic takes on the zombie genre: it’s okay, not great. The only one that comes within spitting distance of greatness is the original comic British zombie movie, Shaun of the Dead, and one could even make the case that that one’s overrated. Why do we need all these “zombie comedies,” anyway? The endless stream of zombie horror movies wasn’t enough?

Well, it will be eventually. Maybe even with Anna and the Apocalypse, which is about as entertaining as it looks (as in: moderately), and pretty much guaranteed not to make a whole lot of money. Especially if, curiously, it apparently has some kind of promotion deal with MoviePass — making it literally the only movie available to users on the day I went. (I showed my MoviePass card to the cashier and he said, “Yeah, you better use that while you can before the bottom falls out.”)

Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience here. I went to see this movie only barely convinced to: because the critical response was slightly better than average; I had free access via MoviePass; there was nothing better playing at the moment; I love Christmas. I’ve been bitching about there being too many movies about zombies for ages — since before I started bitching about superhero movies (and now also Star Wars movies) over-saturating the market. Tonight, I literally settled for Anna and the Apocalypse. It proved to be a movie that can work if it’s something you’re settling for. It has well-sung, toe-tapping music, at least.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Anna takes a moment to realize the zombie apocalypse is about to catch up on her.

Overall: B-

MARIA BY CALLAS

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

I’m in a curious position when it comes to any critical response to the documentary Maria by Callas, and I have mixed feelings about it — although I suspect I would have mixed feelings even had I known who the woman was before this year.

Okay, so she was apparently arguably the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. What if you’ve never been particularly into opera? Or more specifically in my case, I was all of one year old the year she died, of a heart attack in 1977? It follows that I would have known little to nothing about her.

How many people alive in 2018 do, I wonder? In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that I was the only one in the theatre where I saw this movie who did not qualify for the Senior Discount. And even for those who do: billing this film as the story of Maria Callas “in her own words” is a little misleading. It’s not exactly an autobiography. Although, sure, everything said about her in the narrative is either Callas herself in archive interviews, or her own words as narrated by Joyce DiDonato, there’s something to be said for editing.

Maria Callas, quite obviously, had no part in making this movie. Other people cobbled the story together using her words, which brings along with it their own biases. It’s directed by Tom Volf, his sole directing credit; edited by Janice Jones; all of this done 41 years after Callas’s death. How much can we trust this as an accurate representation of her life, really? They certainly linger on several of her performances, showcasing her undeniable talent while still making the film perhaps 15 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Well, we can regard it as a collection of insights into the woman’s life, at least — and it must be said, even for someone who has never heard of her, there is much to be fascinated by. For one thing, the old footage reveals that Maria Callas was a woman of unparalleled charisma, memorably beautiful and expressive, even in interviews, for many years. There definitely was something special about her, as an individual as well as a talent. She lights up the screen with her face, even in old, grainy, television footage.

It would also seem as though she embodied the essence of a “diva” in very much the old-school sense of the word. Callas was evidently not much of a feminist in her thinking, stating plainly that a woman is best placed at home in service of a husband. She never had children, though, because first her mother and then her first husband pushed her to focus on her singing career, not to waste her incredible voice. She spoke in interviews as though, as opposed to ever being particularly ambitious, she simply sacrificed the traditional woman’s role in favor of “destiny.” As if she just resigned herself to this fate, of a singer adored literally around the world.

One short sequence in particular really stands out. Reporters are interviewing ardent fans who have been waiting in line since the day before, to see Maria Callas in New York City, performing for the first time in seven years. The interview subjects are nearly all young men, and I found myself wondering not just how many of them were gay (pretty much all of them seemed to be), but how many of them even know it themselves. This was a time half a century before the evolution of queer vocabulary we know today, after all, and it occurred to me that perhaps Maria Callas was a gay icon long before the term was coined. She was only one year younger than Judy Garland, and thus one of her contemporaries.

These are the details I found most compelling, but Maria by Callas is far more concerned with controversies regarding high-profile performance cancellations (sometimes mid-show), and in particular her off-and-on relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who left Callas for Jackie Kennedy, then left Jackie to return to Callas again.

Maria by Callas offers a window into a world-famous, stunningly talented opera singer in the 20th century, and it has its insights, but might be most appreciated by those who are already fans of her. In which case, might not it have been better to make this movie in, say, 1978?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Overall: B-

THE FRONT RUNNER

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

If The Front Runner is any indication, Jason Reitman’s directorial ambition is to be a low-rent Robert Altman. From the opening sequence, we get elaborately choreographed sequences with a lot of low-volume chit chat, overlapping dialogue that is ultimately without much substance.

In this case, it begins with Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) conceding his loss of the party nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The moment comes after the camera pans through media vans and new anchors and packed crowds with political signs outside hotels, then tips up to the window to the room housing the Hart Campaign. This whole pre-credits sequence ends with a similar shot of campaign staff drinking away their disappointment at a bar, which is where Hart declares that winning wasn’t “what it was about.” What was it about, then? “Now they know who we are.”

Jump four years later to the 1988 election campaign, and The Front Runner depicts the three weeks immediately preceding Hart dropping out of the race. We know it’s three weeks because the title card says it specifically: Hart is the Democratic front runner by a large margin, but, “A lot can happen in three weeks.”

In the end, I rather wish this movie did a better job at showing us who the people in it were. Instead, it is far more concerned with the procedural depiction of how the story of Hart’s infidelity made it into the press. There is particular focus on The Miami Herald (with staff played by Kevin Pollack and Bill Burr) and The Washington Post (with an editor played by Alfred Molina), and this is really where The Front Runner stumbles.

This is a movie, more than anything, about how the downfall of Gary Hart marked the end of privacy for politicians in mainstream media. Presumably whether this was the definitive turning point could be debated. The disingenuous thing about The Front Runner is how it depicts journalists who are, to a person, each of them conflicted about the moral dubiousness of what they are doing. Not one reporter here is unscrupulous about this kind of work, which is patently ridiculous. Our country in 2018 being run by individuals who attack a vital free press is one thing; depicting all journalists as somehow being forced to compromise an inherent nobility is not a whole lot better.

Then there is the couple at the center of it, Gary Hart and his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga, elevating the material with her performance as always). Reitman observes his characters with a consistent detachment, offering a macro view of the media circus as well as the campaign chaos hardly kept under control by a campaign manager played by J.K. Simmons. He never truly gets into the heart of these people, rather settling for a surface reflection of how they handle the media crisis. There is very little in the way of character development.

Granted, Hugh Jackman’s Gary Hart is a guarded man, that being a big part of his downfall. It’s easy in retrospect to declare that there’s no reason to give a shit about what a politician does with his private life, especially after the likes of Anthony Weiner or, god help us all, the Trump Era. Gary Hart’s problems look positively quaint by comparison. Maybe he simply should have learned to be as nakedly shameless as the politicians we have today. On the other hand, I still found it difficult to feel any sympathy for him. He knew very well what world he lived in in 1988, and this was what being a conniving liar got him.

But, okay, Jason Reitman clearly isn’t making any attempt to make the man sympathetic anyway. The Front Runner’s purpose is to show us how we got to where we are today, with Hart’s story as the starting point. But if that’s the only purpose, it might as well have been a documentary. The Front Runner succeeds as an intermittently engaging procedural about media interference, but with a couple exceptional scenes, it fails as a drama.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Reporters ask Senator Gary Hart how he feels about the shit he stepped in.

Overall: B-

BOY, ERASED

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Why does it happen so often that two movies about basically the same thing get released within a year of each other? I guess Hollywood really is so barren of original ideas that on the rare occasion that one happens, someone else within earshot has to try snatching it. Who knows which person, or studio, had the idea first? All we know is which one got an earlier release date.

And our fun topic in 2018 is . . . gay conversion therapy for minors! What a blast that sounds like! First one out of the gate this time was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is also an objectively better film than Boy, Erased. There’s some irony there, because that other film, released in August, was based on an Emily M. Danforth novel of the same name, published in 2012. Boy, Erased is based on a Garrard Conley memoir of the same name, published in 2016.

So Boy, Erased is the true story — or based on one, anyway: it’s also a little overwrought. Clearly some artistic license was taken by director Joel Edgerton, who also adapted the screenplay, and to be blunt, maybe should have ceded at least one of those jobs to someone else. Unlike many adaptations, the characters’ names are changed here. The main character, Garrard, gets the more simplified name of Jared.

Anyway, this is a movie with as much melodrama as star power: Jared is played by the very talented Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird), his conservative preacher-and-wife parents by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. Kidman, in an honestly kind of ridiculous looking wig, figures far more prominently in the story, but Crowe’s part is no less important.

And I certainly don’t mean to trivialize anything about gay “conversion therapy,” which is a very real problem. The end of this film notes that it has affected “more than 700,000 Americans” — I saw that, and it hit me: I am part of that number. I never dealt with anything as severe as Jared (or, presumably, Garrard), but I did undergo a form of it as a teenager. The experience makes me uniquely qualified to become furious at the very continued existence of these so-called “programs.”

A movie is still a movie though; Boy, Erased is not a documentary, after all — and it could be argued it would have been more effective as one. Then again, it would not be as watched. Not that I expect Boy, Erased to be some hit at the box office. One thing The Miseducation of Cameron Post understood far more than Boy Erased was the value of levity: even people in oppressive circumstances are capable of moments of joy and humor. There is one such moment in Boy, Erased, but it’s so isolated that I laughed perhaps more than it deserved, just because it was a relief.

I have no idea how close Boy, Erased is to the truth because I never read the memoir. For all I know, the insane things Jared witnesses and experiences all really happened. They all run together in this film with just enough contrivance, however, to keep it from quite ringing true. There is an odd detachment to the proceedings, as though Joel Edgerton is more concerned with manipulating emotions than with being authentic.

Much of Jared’s story prior to the conversion therapy program is shown in flashback. His first sexual encounter is traumatic and horrible, and I have mixed feelings about how it is presented here, largely as a plot point. It deserves more nuanced examination than it gets, which is an observation easily spread across this film as a whole. This is what happens when greater importance is placed on sending a message than on telling a story. And the thing is, it was only months ago that a very similar movie came out which had far greater success at maintaining that balance.

There’s no denying that these issues are important, and command attention. As affecting as the lead performances in Boy, Erased genuinely are, they get largely neutralized by distractions, like the casting of young gay musician Troye Sivan in a supporting part, who proves to be a mediocre actor; he’s a far better singer. The unfortunate thing about Boy, Erased is that it’s an okay movie that should have been far better. At least we already got another movie this year that filled that role.

Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Nicole Kidman needs a gay son to give her some hair styling tips.

Overall: B-

BEAUTIFUL BOY

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

It might come across to some as being somewhere on the spectrum between disingenuous and self-righteous for me, a white guy, to declare Beautiful Boy the epitome of white privilege, but I can’t deny that I thought a lot about it while watching this movie.

I’ll be clear about this first off: the story of father and son David Sheff and Nic Sheff (Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) dealing with Nic’s persistent drug addiction is a worthy one. It even hits close to home, given that I do have a family member with a history of drug addiction, as many of us do — another family member even loaned me Nic’s memoir, Tweak, one of the two books on which this movie is based; the other is the book of the same title as the movie, written by David. I long planned to read it, and may yet, but still haven’t.

But there is also no denying what informs the very existence of those books, and by extension this movie: the expectation of empathy and a lack of judgment. And where does this expectation come from? This story is about an upper-middle-class, white family.

Late in Beautiful Boy, there is a scene with David and his wife Karen (Maura Tierney), attending an Al-Anon meeting, or something akin to it. They sit in silent resignation about Nic, as they listen to another woman deliver a monologue about having recently lost a loved one to an overdose. This is a clear example of David and Karen knowing empathy in the most tragic of ways, but here’s the thing: Where’s that woman’s movie? There’s a sort of sad irony to having seen Beautiful Boy right after seeing The Hate U Give, which pointedly addresses how institutionalized racism pushes black communities denied resources into drug dealing and addiction, and then blames them and denies them the empathy that Beautiful Boy assumes is a given for its characters. And even in The Hate U Give, the protagonist is a well-educated, stellar young woman who happens to witness the shooting of her best friend by a white cop. It’s far from the kind of “honest examination” of drug addiction that Beautiful Boy purports itself to be.

And strangely, Beautiful Boy doesn’t even bother to show us how the hell Nic got into drugs in the first place. What were the circumstances? Are we to suppose this kid, who had every conceivable advantage, tried every drug under the sun, and ultimately became addicted to crystal meth, simply by random chance? Presumably the memoir reveals that. This movie, on the other hand, tells the story of Nic’s relentlessly vicious cycle, getting clean and relapsing, over and over again, until his loving parents — including the mother who lives in another city, played by the unfortunately under-used Amy Ryan — are forced to accept that they are powerless to save their son from his own self-destruction.

To their credit, the performances are solid all around. I’m not sure that alone means you need to see this movie, however. I don’t regret seeing it, myself, and I suppose it has a usefulness as an indicator that other families in similar situations are not alone. (Again, I get back to this, though: that relatability is aimed squarely at white audiences, this movie’s couple of black characters in very bit parts notwithstanding.) It paints a woefully incomplete picture, with its ending title cards referring to the epidemic of meth addiction in this country. The vast majority of the people having this problem do not look like this family — hell, even the vast majority of white people with this problem don’t — and it says something that it’s this family’s story that was declared worth sharing. I’m all for feeling compassion for the Sheff family, and their story is a compelling one that leaves you wishing them the best. The attention they get is still at the expense of many others who are no less deserving.

So should we talk about the subtext here?

So should we talk about the subtext here?

Overall: B-

THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B
Special Effects: B+

Fantasy stories about witches and warlocks aren’t exactly new, so it would be unfair to call The House with a Clock in Its Walls a retread of, say, the Harry Potter series. But in a world where Harry Potter exists, a movie like The House with a Clock in Its Walls still feels decidedly low-rent. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to offer; it’s also about an orphaned kid who realizes previously unknown magical potential; it feels like the start of an intended franchise.

One might wonder if the John Bellairs novel on which the movie is based feels low-rent. I never read it. But, it could hardly owe any debt to Harry Potter — which, it must be noted, was technically derivative itself, throughout the series; it was just better at adding a new, modern spin — as it was first published in 1973. This movie, though, as directed by Eli Roth, is the first-ever film adaptation, and having waited all this time, it does feel a bit like a cash-grab so late to the party that even the peak of early-21st-century movies with fantasy and magic has passed.

Roth is the director behind the first couple of films in the Hostel franchise, and he does bring a subtle undercurrent of horror in The House with a Clock in Its Walls. It’s a rated-PG kind of horror, clearly meant for kids but kids old enough to handle a few jump-scares. I jumped pretty hard at least once. And that seems to be the niche Eli Roth is attempting to carve here: Harry Potter dipping his toes in the horror genre.

Alas, the story, at least as presented here, just isn’t that compelling. Young Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) has lost his parents to a car crash at the age of ten and is being sent to live with his next of kin, a heretofore estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who has a close but platonic relationship with his neighbor, Florence (Cate Blanchett). Lewis learns quickly that Jonathan’s house is alive with its very own magical personality, and is also afflicted with a hexed clock in its walls left by Jonathan’s late magician partner Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). Trouble brews when Lewis succumbs to peer pressure from a new friend at school and opens the locked cabinet he’s forbidden from opening. This is literally the single rule Unlce Jonathan imposes on him, but of course Lewis breaks it.

Much of what happens in this movie is due to characters refusing to be fully honest with each other about things. The story never gives any particularly plausible motivation for this caginess, except to contrive a story that winds up not being quite as exciting as it wants to be.

It doesn’t help that Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are so mismatched, have such little chemistry, that they almost seem like people from different movies. Blanchett is as great as ever, as it happens; she has a knack for intensifying her own charisma by being restrained. Jack Black is a different story, always just slightly over-acting and never quite believable in his delivery. This is surprising indeed, given how fantastically he played a teenage girl trapped in the video game avatar of a middle-aged mad in last year’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. He clearly can be a great actor, and has demonstrated as much many times over the past couple of decades. He just doesn’t manage it here.

There are also running gags in this movie which are simply dumb, such as the “topiary griffin” that power-poops leaves out of its ass. It’s well-rendered CGI whose impact is neutered by playing for easy, silly scatalogical laughs. Jonathan looks upon the collection of mechanical dummies in his house, which eventually come to life, and says “So creepy!” — several times. Duh? On the other hand, I’ll give this movie credit for its brief forays into memorable weirdness: it’s not every day you see Jack Black’s head on the body of a baby, which even pees. Such an example is the exception that proves the rule, though: this movie hints at a direction that could truly set itself apart, but then never truly commits to it. A scene in which our heroes battle a yard full of living jack-o-lanterns could have been something far better executed than the silly farce of a scene Eli Roth makes it here.

The special effects are arguably the best thing about The House with a Clock in Its Walls, and it’s never showy. There’s a pretty fantastic scene in which celestial bodies and stars are conjured into the air over the house’s large backyard, complete with the topiary griffin batting at the stars like any cat would, and it is all too brief. So here we end up with a movie not great enough to sing its praises; not bad enough to complain much about. It’s just . . . fine. But unless you’re a fanatic for all-things magic, then why bother?

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

A trio with great skill at magic but not so much at chemistry.

Overall: B-

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: C+

It's hard to decide what to make of Sorry to Bother You. This is a movie with something clear to say, although exploring the corrupting influence of money and power is hardly a new idea. What's very new here is the way first-time writer-director Boots Riley does it. To say that very late in the story, things take a hard turn for the fucking weird -- that's an understatement.

I wanted to love this movie, I really did, but I just couldn't. Most of it is technical issues. It so lacks polish and refinement that it feels much like a rough draft turned in as the final product.

Plenty of people are loving this movie, so I still won't spoil any of the major twists. I went in ready to be all in, and progressively lost my patience for it. Part of the concept is that when Cassius Green (Atlanta's Lakeith Stanfield) gets a job at a telemarketing company, he's advised by a coworker, Langston (Danny Glover, great to see), that he'll only make sales if he talks in his "white voice." When Langston demonstrates, we hear the voice of Steve Buscemi. When Cassius finds his "white voice," it's David Cross. When Cassius is promoted to "Power Caller" upstairs, his unnamed new boss (Omari Hardwick) is voiced by Patton Oswalt.

Part of the joke, of course, is that these three white actors couldn't be more white, at at least the sounds of their voices couldn't. Oswalt in particular is playing up how this is "his whitest moment" as he gleefully promotes the film. It's very much like voice talent being hired for an animated film, except here it's live action and the onscreen actors appear to be lip syncing. And honestly, this is executed with mixed results, very few of them including finesse. It's amusing, and the satirical point is clear, but it's also distracting. It nearly always seems as though they could have used a bit more rehearsing, as the lip movements barely succeed at matching. To be fair, I guess, that is likely far more the fault of the voice talent than the onscreen actors, given the likelihood that instead of lip syncing per se, the scenes were shot first and then the voices looped in later. But it's still up to the director to make sure it looks right.

As such, this entire production feels rushed. And that's not to say I have no issues with the script, either: A money-hungry Cassius being called "Cash" for short is just one of many things in this movie that are a bit too on the nose. That twist at the end is a "workhorse" metaphor just as obvious as it is bizarre.

The actors nearly across the board have undeniable charisma, at least, and Lakeith Stanfield gives Cassius a lot more dimension than the script does. He has great chemistry with Tessa Thompson, who plays his girlfriend. Armie Hammer is perfectly cast as the CEO of WorryFree, a company that gives workers "contracts for life." If you blink you might miss Forest Whitaker in a rather surprising context.

The thing is, I can understand someone loving this movie. I can even see credible arguments that I just didn't "get it." (Although I think I pretty much do.) Maybe everything I criticize here was done by Boots Riley pointedly and for a reason. Or maybe it was they were crunched for time and budget. This is Riley's debut feature film, though, and it feels very much like it -- the kind of film you might give a backhanded compliment by saying it's good for a debut. Boots Riley has clear talent, and a clear eye for talent. If nothing else, Sorry to Bother You certainly leaves me looking forward to what he might do next, with more time and a bigger budget that hopefully is the byproduct of this movie's success.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

I'll give credit to the costume designer, at least.

Overall: B-

THE LAST SUIT

Directing: B-
Acting: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

I'll give The Last Suit this much: it has a novelty to it I had not yet encountered -- namely, a story about Polish Jewish immigrants in Argentina. Typically movies about Jewish people are either seen through the lens of American perspectives, or if they are foreign films, either German or Israeli -- for obvious reasons. Conversely, most films from Latin America are specific to the Latino experience. This movie combines those two things.

Beyond that, however, Argentinian director Pablo Solarz oversimplifies things a tad, in so doing somewhat cheapening the truly tragic history of the Jewish people. Even though we learn that the elderly Abraham Bursztein (Miguel Ángel Solá) once witnessed the Nazi execution of both his parents as well as his sister, this movie never truly succeeds in bearing down the weight of the Holocaust. It's too busy following this eccentric man's travels and exploring diversions with people he comes across.

We do learn that he was born in 1927. A reference to the iPhone 6 by one of his great grandchildren establishes the present day to be fully modern: the story is set now. Being released in Argentina in 2017, that would make Abraham 90 years old. Miguel Ángel Solá was born in 1950, which means the actor was significantly aged for the part. I'll admit the movie's makeup department does a good job here.

Abraham, disillusioned with grown children who now want to put him in a retirement home (he's ninety, for fuck's sake), skips town in Argentina and takes flight to Europe, on his way to the Warsaw of his youth to reunite with the best friend who nursed him back to health after returning from a concentration camp. The first stop is Madrid, where his one estranged daughter still live. He travels, over the course of the story, from Madrid through Germany -- much as he tries to get to Poland without having to set foot in Germany -- to Warsaw.

Other characters come and go through his travels. The young man sitting next to him on the airplane, who gives him a ride to his hostel. The older woman working the front desk at the hostel, who takes him out. And potentially the most problematic, the middle-aged German woman he meets on the train who seems to exist only as an avatar for German's national shame about the Holocaust. "Things have changed in Germany," she says, after speaking to him in Yiddish because she studied it in college, and then spends a good portion of the film being a sort of German Good Samaritan for his benefit.

All of this is readily engaging, but never really gets to the meat of the issues, or particularly the history at play. Furthermore, it's maybe halfway through the film before we get flashbacks to 1945 Warsaw, and the scenes of Abraham being nursed by the young friend he's now searching for -- the lack detail and context, to the point that they fail to ring true. Those scenes in particular feel a little like watching an amateur play.

The Last Suit does have its charms. It's about a cranky old man bringing a suit back to a friend, now a taylor (hence the film's title), he hasn't seen in seventy years. Those charges are incongruous with the horrors in the man's past, barely touched on, mentioned almost in passing. Those family murders are only brought up as justification for Abraham's hatred of all Germans. Predictably, his heart softens with the German woman after a while.

It's all just too tidy. As a film, there's nothing terribly wrong with The Last Suit, but neither does it ever feel quite right.

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly .

Still waiting for all this to come together satisfyingly.

Overall: B-