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Ticking Clocks, American Criminals and Puppies – Which to Watch?

Hope Madden Hope Madden Ticking Clocks, American Criminals and Puppies – Which to Watch?Photo still from "The House with a Clock in its Walls," via IMDb.
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Are we approaching Halloween or April Fool’s Day? Hardcore horror director Eli Roth has a new kids movie. Provocative. And if that’s not your bag, indie filmmakers rethink the whole Lizzie Borden story. Meanwhile, puppies!

The House with a Clock in its Walls

by Hope Madden

Eli Roth made a family film. That’s weird. Although there is certainly something juvenile about the filmmaker’s work in general.

Yes, the Hostel director (and Cabin Fever, The Green Inferno and any number of other hard-R flicks) indulges a sillier side with his big screen adaptation of John Bellairs’s 1973 novel, The House with a Clock in Its Walls.

Set in a mid-50s slice of Americana (New Zebedee, Michigan), the film lazily crosses Spielberg with Tim Burton by way of Nickelodeon.

Orphaned Lewis (Owen Vacarro) finds himself in the charge of weird Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who is a warlock. The two items most likely to be found in Uncle Jonathan’s big, weird house are his next door neighbor/best friend/fellow witch Mrs. Zimmerman (the always formidable Cate Blanchett), and clocks. Loads of clocks.

Why so many? Jonathan likes the ruckus they create—keeps his mind off that one ticking sound he can’t quite locate…that ominous harbinger of something terrible.

The house also boasts a number of bewitched items, none of which are given much point or presence as Lewis struggles with the loss of his parents, unpopularity at school, and the sudden realization that he might have just triggered the end of days.

Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke streamline Bellairs’ charming prose. Some updates are sensible, although neutering the novel’s image of powerful women is not one of the more courageous or welcome choices the filmmakers made.

They entirely miss the novel’s tone, amplified with intermittent illustrations by the great Edward Gorey: subdued, wondrous yet melancholy. These are not adjectives used in conjunction with the work of Eli Roth.

What he substitutes instead is colorful, artificial, sloppy fun.

Black—more or less revisiting his role from 2015’s Goosebumps—charms exactly as he always does. Watching the incandescent Blanchett slyly deliver lines and easily steal scenes from Black—and anybody else who happens to be present—is a joy.

Vacarro isn’t given much opportunity. His is a story about grief and loneliness. Or maybe it’s about embracing your inner weirdo. Roth can’t seem to decide, and he’s far too sidetracked by the demonic jack-o-lanterns, topiary Griffin and inexplicable roomful of carnival freakshow dummies to pay attention to the story.

There is utterly forgettable fun here, mainly thanks to Black and Blanchett, but the intended audience is a little tough to gauge. Things are likely a bit too slow-moving and eventually too wicked for the very young, while teens and adults may be bored by the lack of logic or what passes for humor. Still, if you have a 10-year-old who wants a seasonal scare that’s not too scary, here you go.

Grade: C

Lizzie

by Hope Madden

Screenwriter Bryce Kass has some interesting thoughts on the case of Lizzie Borden, the American woman suspected in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. In director Craig William Macneill’s hands, those intriguing ideas receive a proper, historical treatment.

Whether they have merit or not is mainly beside the point.

Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) was a spinster of 32 when her parents died. She was home at the time, as was the family’s Irish immigrant servant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart).

The film does not create a whodunit atmosphere, instead painting a historically realistic picture of some of the details that may have driven Borden to commit the crimes—likelihoods that wouldn’t have been considered in 1892 and have, therefore, rarely been taken into account over the years.

The struggle facing a single woman—economic and otherwise—is handled throughout this film with a desperate grace that elevates most scenes. Sevigny’s wily, lonesome outsider role plays to her strong suit. She shows here, as she did in 2016’s Love & Friendship, a capacity with the delicate language of the entitled.

Kristen Stewart continues to impress, even with a brogue. Yes, she is again morose, conflicted and put-upon, so maybe her range isn’t as strong as I’m suggesting, but she really knows her niche.

The way Macneill and Kass piece together the well-known pieces to this puzzle, this time considering how each may impact and be impacted by the fact that Lizzie was an unmarried woman, is consistently compelling.

Do the filmmakers take their somewhat subversive approach a step further than necessary, moving from honest if overlooked likelihood to vague possibility to “are they doing this just to be lurid”?

They do.

It doesn’t sink the film, though, mainly because Stewart and Sevigny commit to the direction and keep it from feeling exploitive. Plus, it is a fresh and believable take on a very old, oft-told story, so that counts for something.

Grade: B+

Pick of the Litter

by Brandon Thomas

Whether it’s true or not, dogs make us feel like their sole purpose in life is to fill us full of happiness: dancing at the front door when you come home from work, a sneak attack of kisses that always ends with you in a fit of giggles, nice long naps together on the couch. More than just making us feel good, dogs can serve a greater purpose in the lives of people with visual impairments. That journey to find this purpose is where Pick of the Litter takes us.

The documentary opens with the birth of Labrador pups Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Primrose and Poppet. They are the newest arrivals on the campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind, and their training will start on only their second day of life. The training to become a guide dog isn’t easy; out of the 800 dogs born there each year, only 300 become actual guides. The process is time-consuming, strict and unemotional. But it’s never, ever boring.

Directors Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman give us plenty of cute puppy footage but never shy away from the seriousness of what a guide dog will end up doing. Bonds immediately form between the puppies and their “raisers,” who will work to socialize them. They can be quickly pulled away from those same raisers if it’s felt that the dogs can benefit more from being in another home. It’s that pull between emotion and dedication that gives Pick of the Litter its ultimate strength.

The urge to root for these pups is there from the beginning. Pick of the Litter doesn’t get too clinical in its approach to the dogs. We’re allowed to get to know them and pick out those distinct personalities. It also stings when one of them isn’t able to make the cut.

The stories of the people involved are just as important. The frustration felt by the trainers when the dogs don’t pass is palpable. Of course, the end game is for these dogs to end up with someone who will rely on them as their guides. Those stories are thankfully not lost and give the audience that light at the end of the tunnel for our pup stars.

It’s easy to forget that dogs can do more than fetch, roll over and shake. They can give some people their independence back.

Man’s best friend, indeed.

Grade: A

Also opening in Columbus:
Assassination Nation (R)
Bel Canto (R)
Fahrenheit 11/9 (R)
Good Manners (NR)
I Think We’re Alone Now (R)
Life Itself (R)
Love, Gilda (NR)
No Date, No Signature (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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