Movie Review – The House with a Clock in Its Walls

The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)
Written by Eric Kripke
Directed by Eli Roth

The name Eli Roth is typically associated with, what I consider, mediocre horror films. He made Cabin Fever, the first two Hostel movies, among others. I’ve never clicked with the style and tone Roth goes for in his films, they feel like horror movies intent on undercutting any potential fear or creepiness, almost parodies of horror movies. I was a bit surprised when this was announced, an adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel written by John Bellairs in the 1970s. I feel like Roth hasn’t found his niche in the type of films he makes typically so I thought this could be a chance for him to make something I’d enjoy.

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Movie Review – Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)


German music teacher Winfried Conradi is happy in his simple life, playing oddball pranks that no one actually falls for and just create awkward moments. His favorite prop is a pair of novelty teeth he wears and fails to get a laugh out of anyone. His daughter, Ines, is a business consultant working out of Bucharest, Romania currently trying to outsource labor for the oil industry. Winfried decides to surprise her with a visit and discover she not the sort of person he hoped she’d become. Ines has been consumed by her work and adopted a very corporate philosophy through every aspect of her life. The trip goes south when Ines sleeps through a meeting with a client because he father wanted her to get her rest. He retreats back to Germany and Ines goes about trying to salvage things on her end. But then man in a tangled messy wig and novelty teeth pops up calling himself Toni Erdmann. He claims to be a life coach and looks a hell of a lot like Ines’ father.

Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin on some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.

Ines is forever frustrated by her father and focuses on gaining the respect she believes she deserves in her very male dominated profession. Her adherence to stepping in line with Western capitalism elicits a quandary from her father about her humanity. That comes at a very tense moment and acts as the crux on which the film flips. She has tolerated him to this point but after this she tells him he must leave. Later, her boss labels her a feminist as he goes on about the direction he believes their business proposal should take. Ines replies “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” This is less a commentary on a feminism than it is the way in which the world she finds herself is systematically erasing a sense of self. Every decision she makes is calculated based on the effect it will have on her career interests. Winfried seems to believe he can save her through his shtick and that eventually her shell will crack.

Toni Erdmann is a long film, just short of three hours. This is also a part of the subversion. Jokes are meant to be punchy and quick. The film, like Winfried, lingers longer than we expect it to. The awkwardness increases and we wonder when this nuisance will just move along. We also see Ines as the pestered working parent and Winfried as the obnoxious child fawning for attention. Through all of this subversion and intentional annoyance, there is a genuinely real story about parent and child trying and failing to reconnect. It’s a situation many of us have faced as we get older and find ourselves distanced physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Even the way the film brings about it’s “happy ending” doesn’t follow the conceits you would expect to see. Toni Erdmann is a truly bizarre but fantastic film that earns the “it’s not for everyone” motto.

Film Review – The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011, dir. Terence Malick)
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick

In the first hour of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life we see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the violent volcanic upheavals of land masses on a young earth, and the evolution of animal life. This massively cosmic scope is sandwiched in the middle of an equally intimate examination of a young boy in smalltown Texas during the 1950s. Malick presents all of this in the form of a prayer, beginning with The Mother (Chastain), a red-haired aging woman who receives a letter that her son has died overseas in the Vietnam War. She must relay this news to The Father (Pitt) and the entire scene is done with as a little dialogue as possible. We also have the surviving eldest son, Jack (Penn), in present day still struggling with childhood anger towards his father and the loss of his brother. All of these plot pieces are purely interpretive though. What I stated in the most obvious, traditional narrative way of describing the film, but much more in happening underneath it all.

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Film Review – I Am Love

I Am Love (2009, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini

I Am Love is attempting to tread the same territory of Italian cinema in the late 1950s and 60s, in particular I was reminded of Visconti’s The Leopard. They were films about the aristocracy and the secrets that lied beneath the clean and constructed surface. I Am Love brings modern elements into its plot, but still manages to evoke a sense of the classical. Swinton is perfectly cast as a Russian-turned-Italian via marriage. And the cast around her does an excellent job in their roles. The plot is fairly straightforward, there are only a few twists, but its the cinematography and music that really raise the picture above the rest.

Emma Recchi (Swinton) is the matriarch of an Italian family who has made its fortune in textiles, even during the time of Mussolini, an element that plays a bit part sub-textually in the film. Her husband and son have inherited the business from the elderly father and a tension exists, as Emma’s husband believed he would be the sole inheritor. Emma has recently met her son’s friend, Antonio, an aspiring chef. Emma’s son is helping fund Antonio’s first venture into the restaurant business and so she and the young man become more acquainted, eventually starting an affair.

You will be an awe of the camera work in this film. It is some of the most lush and gorgeous work I have ever seen on film. Director Guadagnino is able to pull the warmth right out of his bright spring scenes and bone chilling cold from the winter ones. This is a very sensual film, constantly focused on sex and food, and to get those themes across you need powerful cinematography just like this. In addition, the choice to use musical pieces by John Adams was brilliant. Adams’ contemporary orchestral music helps to create momentum and then a sense of urgency, especially in the film’s surprisingly frantic finale. A great overlooked picture that every fan of good foreign cinema should check out.

In Theaters Now: Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime (2010, dir. Todd Solondz)
Starring Alison Janney, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Dylan Riley Snyder, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling

I can’t see anyone who hasn’t seen Solondz’s 1998 film Happiness being able to get much from this movie. It is about a direct sequel as you can get, making references to plot points from the first film in ways that makes it un-enjoyable for someone unfamiliar with the older picture. It’s not a bad film, I enjoyed it a lot, it just is not made for the uninitiated. What it does is revisit some familiar faces, some in a more interesting way than others, and offer different perspectives on their personalities. It’s very sad and at times very funny, probably Solondz’s most restrained film to date, but also has me worried about his lack of new characters or material. Life During Wartime also shares elements with Palindromes, as not a single one of the actors from Happiness reprise their roles here, which I suspect is a choice made by Solondz.

Joy (Henderson) has dinner with her husband, Allen in a scene that mimics the opening of Happiness. The entire affair has her remembering that first dinner with Andy (Reubens) who killed himself after she rejected him. It’s decided she will take a trip to visit family in Florida, and Joy ends up in the company of her divorcée mother and single parent sister. Trish (Janney) is getting involved with a new man and helping her middle child, Timmy (Snyder) prepare for his bar mitzvah. Up the coast, Trish’s ex and convicted child rapist, William (Hinds) is released from prison. He also wanders down to Florida sneaking into the house just for glimpses of the family he lost. Joy ends up in California at the home of her other sister, Helen, a pretentious and self-obsessed writer. Where ever she goes she is haunted by the ghost of Andy, who always starts out gentle but becomes violent. It’s a large ensemble movie where characters are connected, but rarely interact.

Solondz seems to have a very strong personal connection to these character types, and I suspect they come from his own family and acquaintances, an exaggerated cinematic sheen spread over them. I found his criticisms of the East Coast Jewish community very interesting. At one point, Trish is talking about her new beau, a middle-aged New Jerseyian and says that he voted for Bush twice and McCain, but only because he knows they support Israel. From many of the more liberal Jews in America, this has been an issue of frustration, how the right has co-opted the pro-Israel cause as their own. So, there’s a lot personal issues in this and all of Solondz’s films. The film has three central figures: Joy, William, and Timmy. All three of these characters are haunted (some literally) by the past. Joy is visited by Andy, whose suicide she spurred forward. William, newly released from prison, has lost every thing and wanders down the east coast and eventually to the pacific northwest searching for something. Timmy has been told William was dead his entire life and has just now learned his father was a pedophile. This warps his sense of intimacy with others, and will have a profound effect on his mother’s burgeoning relationship.

While the film is seen as an exaggeration of real life, I suspect it is closer to realism than most films. Solondz appears to be a very good listener, especially for interactions between family members. In almost every conversation between a mother and daughter, sisters, etc. no one is every asking about or talking about the other person they are with. While Helen may be the most outwardly self-absorbed, every character here only talks about themselves, is only concerned with what they need. The only exception I would say is William, the pedophile. There’s a couple moments where we gasp, thinking he may be tempted, but he abstains. He contemplates stealing from his family to pay his way, but stops. William eventually ends up at his eldest son, Billy’s college in Oregon and explains he sought him out just make sure Billy didn’t inherit his father’s predilections. Once he is assured Billy is “normal”, he says goodbye, and the implication is that he goes off somewhere private and kills himself.

Wartime is a heavy film, to be sure, but also surprisingly funny in very dark moments. Not a movie for the cinematic light at heart, but for the viewer who wants to have their ideas about “good” film challenged, then I think there is definitely some thing here for you.

Criterion Fridays – Summer Hours

Summer Hours (2008, dir. Oliver Assayas)
Starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier

It’s always refreshing to see a film made for grown ups. Too often American dramas dumb things down, maybe out of a lack of talent in the writer or maybe a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence. Here director Assayas looks at the strange dynamic of being both the adult child of a parent and a parent to your own children. In one position you are still looked on as an infant or adolescent and in the other you are the supreme authority. This difficult place is used to examine how we deal with death and responsibilities placed on us by the dead. The whole thing is a very naturalistic, quiet piece of cinema that is rewarding and ambiguous. The answers we receive will be as open ended as the characters in the film, and like them, we have to learn to happy with that.

Helene has just turned seventy-five and has come to terms with the fact that her life is coming to an end. She takes her eldest child, Frederic aside and explains to him how the family’s vast art collection and the country home they grew up in is something she wants him to maintain and make sure her grandchildren can bring their children to. Helene dies soon after her children make their last visit to the house, all of them caught up in busy lives: Frederic in Paris, Adrienne in America, and Jeremie in China. Frederic comes together with the siblings who all want to sell off the artwork and the house as they don’t have the funds or time to maintain the property. Frederic concedes and they go about cataloging the contents of the home. Frederic maintains a sense of guilt as he watches the promise to his mother fade away.

Summer Hours is a film that will demonstrate how programmed you have become by cliched Hollywood plot devices. There is a never chance anything of major conflict with occur, no one is going to explode in an emotional rage and there will be no ironic twist of fate. This is a very relaxed film about a family and the compromises we all make as a part of families. Frederic never really puts up a fight and its hard to be angry at him. As much as his mother loved the collection her uncle had amassed and she inherited, it is almost impossible for her children to maintain it. What is interesting is how Frederic’s teenaged daughter, Sylvie feels a strong emotional connection to the country house. The opening scene is of her and her little cousins running through the woods, playing, being children. The final parallels this, but with a more bittersweet tone as it is the last time she will be there.

This is not a film that has a message for you. Assayas simply tells the story of these three adult siblings, lives without melodrama, dealing with the aftermath of the death of a parent. What you are meant to get out of the film is what ever you want. So often in American mainstream cinema scripts are locked into formulaic beats and its all about hitting certain plot notes by certain page numbers. Here no one is rushed along, no one reveals some deep dark secret. Its very refreshing, and beautiful, and ultimately stays with you a lot longer than a script that sloppily goes didactic. If you are looking for an incredibly thoughtful film that lets you decide what you want it to mean, then I think you’ll be in for a treat with this one.

Criterion Fridays – Make Way For Tomorrow

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937, dir. Leo McCarey)
Starring Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi

The economy is bad. Unemployment. The Housing Market. Small Businesses. Crashing every day. During The Great Depression, cinema reflected this moment in history where the common man was struggling to make ends meet. People were losing their homes, ending up jobless and on the streets, and Hollywood wasn’t afraid to put that up on the screen.There were many escapist pictures in the theaters during the Great Depression, particularly musicals, but even those had elements of the financial struggles people were under going. Not so now. Particularly during the summer, we have mindless film after mindless film, featuring people so distant and out of touch with our own reality that, for myself, I become disengaged. What I am shocked to see is reality reflected on the screen.

Barkley and Lucy have been married for fifty years when the bank notifies them that their home for all this time is being taken away. Barkley hasn’t worked in four years and he and Lucy don’t have enough money for a new place right away. They contact their four adult children and explain the situation. Behind the couple’s back, the children fight about who will take them, with it being decided that Lucy will go to stay with George, the eldest son, and Barkley will go to Cora, the eldest daughter. Lucy soon finds George’s wife and teenaged daughter don’t care for her presence in the home. Hundreds of miles away, Barkley has come down with a cold and is bedridden. Cora is infuriated she has to deal with him, but puts on the facade of a caring daughter when the doctor comes calling.

Make Way For Tomorrow introduces an idea that would still be controversial today in many circles: Do not live your life as a parent completely when you have children, you must have a definition outside of that. The children in the film are not monsters; stepping back when can see things from their point of view. But we also sympathize greatly with Barkley and Lucy, they truly gave every thing they had to their children and it may have not been the smartest move. Once their children became adults they vanished from their parents’ lives and only now have becoming aware of the financial situation back home. The relationship between Barkley and Lucy is deeply loving, its rare that I see a couple on screen when I completely buy their relationship. The paths the film leads them down are not happy ones, like the title suggests, it becomes about accepting change in your life.

Orson Welles said of this film that “it would make a stone cry”. He was exactly right. The love between these people is so pure and beautiful. The final sequence of the film involves them taking an unexpected car ride to the hotel where they honeymooned fifty years earlier. The coat check girl, the hotel manager, every one treats them in the way we wish their children did. The drinks are on the house, the band conductor plays an old tune when Barkley and Lucy hit the dance floor. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi master these characters with a sly humor that undercuts a lot of the sadness that pervades the film. It doesn’t end on a hopeful note, but a realistic one, an admonition that life changes in ways don’t want. We are powerless to fight it, so instead we should embrace the people around us.