Tag Archives: Films

My Review of The House with a Clock in Its Walls

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, CocoWinchester, The Little Stranger, and Astraea.

This is a spoiler-free review. 

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is a 2018 American fantasy film based on John Bellairs 1973 novel by the same name. While it was written for a middle grade audience, I think adults would enjoy it, too.

This story was set in New Zebedee, Michigan in 1955. A ten-year-old boy named Lewis was recently orphaned, so he was sent to Michigan to live with his uncle Jonathan.

The interesting thing about Lewis and Jonathan was that they didn’t seem to have any sort of relationship before the opening scene of this film. It made me wonder why he’d been selected as Lewis’ guardian! There was a reason for that, but you’ll have to watch it to find out.

While most of my aunts and uncles lived far away from the communities I grew up in, I did see all of them at least occasionally while growing up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go from not knowing a relative at all to being raised by them.

I liked the fact that the characters acknowledged how odd that transition was before diving into what Uncle Jonathan was capable of as a warlock and what was really going on in his magical, clock-filled home.

There wasn’t one clock in Uncle Jonathan’s house, there were dozens – or maybe even hundreds – of them. The vast majority of them were perfectly ordinary and were only capable of telling you what time it was.

Yet there was one magical clock hidden somewhere in the house that had the power to end the world. If Jonathan couldn’t find it soon, the bad guy might beat him to it.

The Characters

Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt.

Lewis, the protagonist, was a bookish and intelligent 10-year-old boy whose parents had recently been killed in an automobile accident. He was sent to live with his uncle after their deaths.

Jack Black as Jonathan Barnavelt

Jonathan, a quirky bachelor, was Lewis’ uncle and guardian. He worked as a warlock and was quite good at his profession. While he had good intentions when he took in his nephew, he knew absolutely nothing about raising children. Some of the funniest scenes in this film showed what happens when someone who doesn’t understand anything about children attempts to parent one.

Cate Blanchett as Florence Zimmerman

Florence was an old and dear friend of Jonathan’s who lived next door to the Barnavelts. She was sensitive, caring, and by far the most intelligent character in this tale. I’d love to see a spin-off about her someday.

Kyle MacLachlan as Isaac Izard

Isaac was the antagonist in this story, but I can’t share anything about his backstory without giving away spoilers. Like Florence and Jonathan, he had developed the ability to perform various types of magic.

Colleen Camp as Mrs. Hanchett

Mrs. Hatchett was the nosy, grumpy neighbour who spent a great deal of her time spying on the Barnavelts and complaining about all of the strange things that can happen when one lives in a magical household.

My Review

One of the many clocks in Jonathan’s home.

I loved the humour of this film. Yes, it was written for a preteen audience, so there were the obligatory bowel movement and other body fluid jokes you’d expect for this age group. There were other scenes that were clearly written for adult viewers, though, and I don’t mean that in an x-rated sort of way at all. Instead, the storytellers showed how easy it is to make mistakes when you have no parenting experience and have suddenly found yourself raising a grieving 10-year-old.

That might not seem like good fodder for a joke, but it strangely was. I had so much compassion for Uncle Jonathan even while I laughed at his sometimes incredibly odd ideas about how a child of that age should be treated and how much influence they should have over stuff like what they eat for dinner or when they go to bed.

Jack Black’s goofy persona was the perfect fit for who Uncle Jonathan was, but I was also impressed with how this actor handled the more serious scenes Uncle Jonathan eventually experienced. He brought a lot of depth to a character that could have easily been written as nothing but fodder for comedy.

This picture-perfect casting repeated itself with everyone else in this film. Every actor was well-suited for his or her role, including the supporting characters who didn’t necessarily have a lot of screen time but who still managed to make their roles memorable. I always enjoy finding films that pay such close attention to matching actors to the roles that they play.

Be sure to pay close attention to what’s going on in the background of the scenes. Occasionally there are surprises lurking where you might least expect them, and I loved picking them out.

While I know that this movie was based on something that was written in the 1970s and set in the 1950s, I was disappointed with the gender-based insults that wereso carelessly thrown around in it. There were several times when Uncle Jonathan made sexist comments that made me wince. They were supposed to be written in the context of him having playful banter with another character, but I don’t personally see anything amusing about using gender-based slurs as a retort. As much as I enjoyed the plot itself, these scenes dampened my urge to recommend it to others without warning them about it first.

It would be one thing if those terms somehow played an important role in understanding the context of the storyline and the world in which it was set. I do not think that every potentially offensive reference should be edited out of classics when they are retold for modern audiences, but I do believe there’s something to be said for updating non-critical parts of a story that are understood in a completely different light now than when they were originally written. This was a case where those terms could have easily been been exchanged for non-sexist insults instead.

I like to end all of my reviews on a positive note, so the last thing I’ll say about The House with a Clock in Its Walls is that it was quite creative. It blended the wonders (and occasional frustrations) of childhood beautifully with the many references it included to more serious, adult topics like how to deal with grief or what it truly means to be a family. This is the sort of film that can be enjoyed by kids and grown-ups alike in my opinion.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is available on iTunes.

Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge: Favorite Movies of All Time and Why

Hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

Oh, this week’s topic is a tough one. How can I possible narrow it down to a list that won’t take half an hour to read? I think I’m going to accomplish that goal by choosing films off the top of my head that I’ve already seen multiple times and would happily rewatch over and over again in the future. There is something to be said for enjoying a film as much the fifth or tenth time you’ve seen it as you did the very first.

  • The Princess Bride
  • The Matrix
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
  • The Babadook
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Dead Poets Society
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Selma

I find it interesting that Selma is the only piece of nonfiction on this list. Normally, I watch a lot of documentaries and films based on historical events, but this was the only one from those genres I could think of that I’ve watched over and over again without wanting to move on and see something else. There is something about the battle for civil rights in the 1960s that always feels relevant and timely to me.

Dead Poets Society originally struck my fancy because I was pretty young when I first watched it and it showed me a side of being wealthy that i’d never considered before. Not everyone who has access to wealth and power also has love or attention from their parents and other relatives.  Money can do a lot of things for other parts of your life, but it can’t make up for emotional neglect or growing up knowing you were unwanted.

The rest of the titles on this list are among the best that the (modern-ish) science fiction and fantasy genres have to offer. I’d happily show any or all of them to someone who was curious about these genres and wanted to learn more about them.

How did you decide what to put on your lists? Did any of the titles I select make your cuts?

I’ll end this post with a stock photo that reminds me of The Matrix and makes me want to rewatch that film right this second:

Hopeful Science Fiction: Astraea

Last June I blogged about my desire to read more hopeful science fiction. Since then I’ve talked about Woman on the Edge of TimeThe Lovely Bones and Semiosis. Today I’m back with another recommendation for hopeful sci-fi, and this time it’s a film! 

If you have recommendations for future instalments of this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

Astraea

Astraea is a 2016 film that is set in a slightly futuristic version of what used to be the United States. The main character, Astraea, is a young girl living in what’s left of human society after an epidemic killed off a huge percentage of the population. She’s convinced that their brother and grandmother are still alive, and tries to convince her older half-brother, Matthew, to travel around North America in search of them.

Unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic societies, this one is pretty peaceful world. The human population is so small that it’s rare to run across another person in general, much less one who might have bad intentions.

I’ve reviewed several science fiction and fantasy movies for this site so far. This is the first truly hopeful one I’ve come across, so I thought I’d add it to the Hopeful Science Fiction reading (and now watching) list instead of writing a regular review for it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find photos of all of the characters like I normally do. This was an Indie film, so I’m guessing their fan base wasn’t large enough for them to have the resources or time to commit to such a thing.  I was able to find photos of the two main characters, though, which is the most important thing.

Nerea Duhart as Astraea

Astraea is the protagonist, a teenage girl who may or may not have telepathic abilities. By the time she and her brother begin travelling to find their parents, there are very few living people left in North America. They spend the majority of their time with no company other than each other.

Scotty Crowe (left) as Matthew

Matthew is Astraea’s older brother. He is fiercely protective of his little sister. While he has doubts about whether or not their journey to find possible surviving relatives is a smart idea, he’s determined to travel with her and keep both of them safe.

Dan O’Brien as James

James is one of the few survivors of this plague that Astraea and Matthew met while travelling.After a tense misunderstanding during their first meeting, James and his wife, Callie, agree to give Astraea and Matthew food and shelter over the winter.

There Is Goodness In Our World

The first thing that struck me about this film was how ordinary life was for the characters despite the fact that they were technically living in a post-apocalyptic world. Their days were filled with going on food runs at the nearest grocery store, doing the occasional bit of hunting, keeping the fireplace burning, and finding ways to amuse themselves when those basic chores were finished. Their story happened during the winter, so their to-do lists were much shorter than they would be if the characters also needed to plant a garden or preserve food.

Honestly, I actually found the storytelling a little slow at times. It felt a lot like how real life unfolds. Most days are fairly ordinary and peaceful. Occasionally, someone might get into an accident, have an argument, or need medical treatment, but that is by the exception to the rule and it is always punctuated by other people doing everything they can to help.

This isn’t to say that the characters lived in perfect harmony all of the time. They had disagreements like any group of people living together are bound to do, but that was as far as the conflict went. Unlike violent shows like The Walking Dead, there were no roving bands of humans waiting to hurt the innocent folks they met on the road. The survivors were simply trying to stay alive through the winter.

Speaking of innocence, I was pleasantly surprised by how well all of the adults in Astraea’s life were able to protect her. She was seen as the child she was, and there was always someone around to make sure she had a nutritious meal to eat and a safe place to sleep. That isn’t common in this genre at all, and I found it refreshing. It wasn’t until I’d finished the scene that I looked up her name and realized that it is also the name of the Greek goddess of innocence. I’m sure the filmmakers did that on purpose. It was a wonderful reference that I’m glad I took the time to google.

Grief and Hope

All of the characters in this story lost people they loved in and shortly after the epidemic, so there were references to their deaths sprinkled in with the happier scenes. I appreciated the fact that the storytellers mixed these emotions together. There is hope after grief. You can miss someone who died recently or a long time ago and still find a reason to believe that tomorrow will be a brighter day.

In my quest to find hopeful science fiction, I keep circling back to stories that acknowledge the pain people experience during the course of a lifetime. There’s something immensely appealing to me about this sturdy kind of hope that thrives in difficult circumstances.

If you feel the same way, I highly recommend checking out this film.

 

Astraea is available on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

Don’t Make a Sound: A Review of A Quiet Place

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, CocoWinchester, and The Little Stranger.

Content warning: death of a dog and death of a child. I will not be mentioning those portions of the story in my post today, and this will otherwise be a spoiler-free review. 

A Quiet Place is an American post-apocalyptic thriller that was released on March 9, 2018.  It’s set in a near-future version of Earth in which sightless monsters have taken over the entire planet. Where these creatures came from is unknown, and their skin is so thick that it cannot be pierced by bullets. The only way to being detected by them is by remaining perfectly quiet twenty-four hours a day.

The opening scene of this story happens 89 days after this apocalyptic event began, and it follows the Abbott family as they attempt to survive on their own. One of the children in this family has become ill, so they must travel into town to find medicine for him while avoiding all of the monsters who may be wandering nearby.

Interestingly enough, there are very few characters in this film. The vast majority of humans and large animals have been killed by the monsters, so the Abbott family must rely on their own skills and common sense in order to survive without any hope of finding help elsewhere.

I will be writing the character section in the present form. It’s a trick I discovered while working on a previous review, and I do it to avoid giving away any spoilers about the fates of the characters I write about.

*Yes, I know I said I was done watching horror flicks. Let’s round that down to 98% done watching this genre since I keep finding (fairly) non-gory horror movies that tickle my fancy.

The Characters

Emily Blunt as Evelyn Abbott

Evelyn is Lee’s wife and the mother of their children. Her desire to protect her family is strong, and she expresses it in practical ways like making sure they have food, medical supplies, and clean clothing. She struggles with guilt over decisions she’s made in the past and anxiety about what will happen to her loved ones in the future.

John Krasinski as Lee Abbott

Lee is Evelyn’s husband and the father of their children. He is determined to find a way to reach out to other survivors and keep everyone safe, and he spends a great deal of time gathering as much information as he can about the monsters and their whereabouts. Sometimes this urge gets in the way of more urgent and practical needs, but he does always have the best of intentions.

Millicent Simmonds as Regan Abbott

Regan is the oldest Abbot child. She is about twelve years old, quite intelligent, and has begun to question whether she should be listening to everything her parents tell her to do.

Noah Jupe as Marcus Abbott

Marcus, the Abbott’s middle child, is about eight years old. He shares his mother’s anxious personality and is reluctant to do anything that he perceives to be dangerous.

Cade Woodward (bottom right) as Beau Abbott

Beau, the youngest Abbott, is a curious and imaginative four-year-old. As a preschooler, he’s too young to understand the danger everyone is in and relies on his parents and older siblings for guidance and protection.

My Review

There are certain portions of the plot and character development that I have to leave out out of this review in order to avoid sharing spoilers with you. Needless to say, there is a lot more going on in the story than you might originally assume. Since I didn’t know anything about it when I first began watching it, I was pleasantly surprised by these plot twists. I hope you will be, too!

One of the things I found most unusual about this tale was how little dialogue it had. The monsters had ultra-sensitive hearing, so even a quiet conversation would be noisy enough to draw their deadly attention. I was impressed by all of the non-verbal cues the filmmakers included in the script in order to keep the audience clued in to what was happening to the Abbott family. This is definitely something you’ll want to pay close attention to while watching. Multi-tasking is not a good idea here! So much information is shared with the audience through the characters’ body language, events happening in the background, or the strategic placement of certain items in specific scenes.

While there were a small handful of scenes that briefly involved the sight of blood or serious injuries, this was not a gory film. Nearly all of the horror elements involved the characters’ reactions to the unknown and how they’d had to adapt to a world where speaking or any other types of noise was enough to ensure your quick and certain death.

The relationships between all five Abbotts were interesting. There were times when two or more of them had disagreements and had to convey those feelings primarily through any means other than speaking. This lead to some scenes that I thought were particularly well done, especially when it came to Regan’s desire to have more independence now that she was getting older. How do you parent a smart, willful kid who thinks she has everything figured out while living in an apocalypse? It definitely isn’t easy!

I would have liked to see less foreshadowing, especially since not all of the foreshadowing actually turned out to be accurate. It was a little jarring to me as a viewer to get so many hints about how things might end only to find out that they were misleading.  With that being said, this is still something I’d recommend to anyone who likes horror, survival flicks, or science fiction films about scary creatures.

This premise of this story was solid. It would have been just fine with some foreshadowing and more time spent building up the tension as the Abbott family attempted to build a new life for themselves.

By far my favourite part of this film was the ending. There were so many false starts along the way that I didn’t make any assumptions about how everything would turn out until the credits rolled. I loved the fact that the filmmakers kept us all guessing until the end.

A Quiet Place is available on Netflix.

Echoes of the Past: A Review of The Little Stranger

Earlier this year, I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing certain films that I enjoyed and thought you all might like, too. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, and Winchester

This is a spoiler-free review. 

The Little Stranger is the 2018 film adaptation of a book by the same name written by Sarah Waters, one of my favourite authors. This story was set in 1948, and it followed about a year in the life of Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged man who was one of only two doctors in his rural community. He grew up in a low-income family at a time when the vast majority of children did not move into higher social classes as adults than the ones they were born into, so he was still adjusting to the changes that higher education had brought to his life when this mystery began.

In one of the earliest scenes in the plot, Faraday revisited Hundreds Hall, a mansion that his mother once worked in, after one of the servants who worked at that estate came down with a mysterious illness. The last time he’d visited it had been nearly 30 years ago when he was a young boy and his mother brought him to a public celebration there after the end of World War I.

Hundreds Hall was crumbling by 1948, and the family who lived in it had isolated themselves from the surrounding community to an alarming degree. It was nothing at all like the glamorous, well-kept home that Faraday recalled from his childhood, and the Ayers themselves didn’t seem to be doing well either. After a brief encounter with Roderick, Faraday asked to come back again to see if he can treat some of the pain and muscle stiffness that Roderick had been dealing with since he was wounded in the war. (I’ll give you more details about these characters in a moment).

While he knew that the Ayers have lost much of their wealth over the past few decades, Faraday was still shocked by how much the property has deteriorated since he last saw it. Could their inability to pay for necessary repairs explain what is going on, or was there something else afoot in this once-stunning mansion?

 

The Characters

Domhnall Gleeson as Dr. Faraday

Dr. Faraday, the protagonist, was a middle-aged bachelor whose days are generally spent holding office hours at his clinic and doing home visits for patients who were too contagious, sick, or frail to come see him. Most of his patients were poor, so he didn’t make a great deal of money for someone in his position despite his prestigious title and the long hours he worked.

Charlotte Rampling as Mrs. Ayres

Mrs. Ayers was the matriarch of the Ayers family. Her life had changed dramatically since Dr. Faraday first met her in 1919, from the births of Caroline and Roderick to the steep decline in her fortunes and social standing. She had once hosted grand parties in her home, but she now hid away from the community she’d once embraced. Even her own children didn’t seem to spend a great deal of time with her despite the fact that they all lived in the same home.

Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres (right)

Caroline Ayers was Mrs. Ayers daughter. She was by far the most intelligent and resourceful member of the Ayers family, and there were several intriguing references to the things she’d accomplished before her brother’s terrible injuries happened in the war.

Will Poulter as Roderick Ayres

Roderick was Mrs. Ayers son. He was badly injured during World War II. When the events of this book began, he was still dealing with both the physical and psychological effects of his wartime experiences in a time when mental health issues were not well understood and when doctors had far fewer treatments for the serious burns and other injuries he’d survived.

My Review

One of the things I’ve always loved about Sarah Waters’ writing style is how adept she is at giving evidence that can support multiple interpretations of a scene or plot. Most of her books don’t have the strong mystery elements in them that this one does, so the fact that she was able to pull this off while writing in a genre I haven’t seen her spend much time in before was impressive.

Dr. Faraday was a character I had mixed feelings about from the beginning. In one of the earliest scenes, the audience saw him visiting Hundreds Hall in its heyday and purposefully breaking off an ornamental acorns from one of the walls in this home. The reasons why he did that were explored later in the storyline, but they didn’t give me a good first impression of this character.

Getting to know him as the adult he was a few decades later softened my opinion of him. As I mentioned earlier, he’d grown up in a time and place where it was nearly impossible to escape the social class one was born into. The fact that his family had scrounged up enough money to get him through medical school was amazing, and I did admire the determination and grit he must have needed to get through such an experience when his family had so little money to spare.

As intrigued as I was about the Ayers, I didn’t feel like I got to know them quite as well as I could have. I appreciated the fact that Faraday was given so much time to shine, but I would have liked to know a few more details about who Roderick, Caroline, and Mrs. Ayers were as individuals before they began experiencing so much misfortune. The little pieces of their pasts that were shared were well done. I simply needed a few extra scenes describing how and when things had gone so terribly wrong for them.

With that being said, this was something I also noticed in the novel. Explaining why these characters weren’t quite as open with Faraday or the audience as I would have preferred them to be would be wandering dangerously close to spoiler territory, and I do understand why they were written that way even though I wish they could have been a little more forthcoming in the film.

What I did love about the storyline was the way it encouraged the audience to ask questions. It wasn’t immediately clear what was really going on at Hundreds Hall. The servant that Faraday was called to treat was quite spooked by living in there, but she refused to tell him who or what had frightened her. This pattern of dancing around the question of whether what was happening in this mansion was supernatural in origin or had a purely rational explanation occurred over and over again.

Just like when I read the book, I formed my opinion about what was going on pretty early on. I won’t tell you what it was, but I will say that I really enjoyed the process of weighing the evidence and coming up with the most likely explanation for all of the strange, and sometimes violent, occurrences at Hundreds Hall before the final scene was revealed.

This is something I’d strongly recommend checking out to anyone who likes any of the themes or genres I mentioned in this review. I liked this adaptation and thought it complemented the original story nicely.

Speaking of Violence, Is It Gory?

I definitely wouldn’t call this a gory film, but there were a few scenes in it that involved a little blood. If anyone would like more information about this, know that I’ll have to share some mild spoilers in order to go into detail about it. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t bothered by these scenes even though I strongly dislike gore in general. They were brief and fit the tone of the storyline well.

The Little Stranger is available on iTunes.

5 Funny Short Horror Films You Should Watch This Halloween

One of the things I love the most about Halloween is seeing all of the creative things storytellers do with common horror, science fiction, and fantasy tropes at this time of the year. There’s something about the Halloween season that seems to bring out the best in writers, filmmakers, and other creators. The films in… Read More

The Unforgiving Dead: A Review of Winchester

Winchester was originally mentioned in my to-watch list in this post. So far, I’ve also reviewed Into the Forest, Annihilation, and Coco from that list. A content warning for anyone who is sensitive to this topic: this film does contain a few brief references to the death of a child, but I will not be discussing that part of… Read More

Families Are Forever: A Review of Coco

This review is spoiler-free and suitable for all audiences. This was one of the films I talked about wanting to watch in this post. So far, I’ve previously reviewed Into the Forest and Annihilation from that original list.  Coco is a 2017 film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. It followed the… Read More