The House With a Clock in its Walls

I know this movie is based on a book, but I am not familiar with that book. So fans forgive me when I say that The House with a Clock in its Walls is better than it has any right to be. The movie doesn’t really look like anything great; it mostly looks like a second rate Harry Potter knock-off. Luckily, watching it I realized that it is much more than that; The House with a Clock in its Walls feels like nothing less than an update on the Amblin movies of the 80’s and early 90’s that have been largely absent for the last decade and a half (I know Super 8 exists).

After the death of his parents, young Lewis Barnavelt has to move in with his eccentric uncle. His uncle soon reveals himself to be a warlock, or as Lewis repeatedly calls him a boy witch. By some accounts he is a good warlock, in the sense that he is not evil, though he is not particularly adept at magic. However, his neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a strong sorceress. Uncle Jonathan starts to teach the awkward Lewis to do magic, while searching his odd house for the clock the previous owner left there somewhere that is counting down to something ominous. Soon, Lewis joins the efforts to stop the clock from triggering its cataclysmic countdown.

The performances are kind of uneven. Cate Blanchett is delightful as Mrs. Zimmerman, though way overqualified for this movie. The same goes for Kyle MacLachlan, who is bother overqualified and underused as the undead villain. Jack Black is near perfect as Uncle Jonathan. He brings a sense of wonderfully playful weirdness; it makes him perfectly believable as the slightly incompetent Jonathan. Then there are the kids. I don’t want to crap on young actors, but Owen Vaccaro has some rough moments as Lewis. He’s not really bad, but he isn’t quite up to shouldering all that the movie puts on him. Sunny Suljic, playing his new friend Tarby, is likewise nothing more than fine. This is a movie where kids have to do a lot of the heavy lifting and the kid actors are merely adequate, especially compared to the adults.

The film isn’t perfect. While it does a lot of good work with practical effects, or at least digital effects good enough to appear to be practical, there are some really dodgy shots in the last act that seem out of place. Some of the character beats don’t quite land, and some seem like the meat of them got left on the cutting room floor.

Altogether, the movie is interesting. It is not afraid to leave the sadness and loss in there that a lot of children’s movies don’t really dwell on. Lewis has lost his parents and is having trouble dealing with that trauma. As well meaning as Uncle Jonathan is, he is still kind of bumbling and not really prepared to help this kid through his problems. Mrs. Zimmerman is similarly broken over the loss of her family. That loss plays into the the villain’s plan, whose losses in life have broken him and now he has embraced nihilism.

The House With a Clock in its Walls feels like a throwback to movies that came out when I was a youngster. Movies like The Goonies or Gremlins or *batteries not included. This isn’t quite as good as those movies, but it is certainly fine kids movie.

***1/2

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Suikoden V Sialeeds

To me the most interesting character in Suikoden V is easily Sialeeds. She is in many ways a unique figure in a game with a cast deliberately designed to evoke the past. For one thing, she is the aunt of the protagonist. I can’t say I recall any other JRPG characters with that sort of family relationship with the protagonist. She comes along with the player for much of the first half or so of the game, as an integral part of the hero’s team. She is the one with the knowledge of the political situation and the country’s history that has been kept from the younger characters, like the Prince and Lyon, and unknown to newcomer Georg.

Sialeeds is also just a vibrant character, with an interesting design that says a lot about her. Like the fact that she dyes her hair. Many members of the royal family have silver hair (the Prince, Arshtat, Haswar, though notably not Lymsleia who takes after her father); Sialeeds does as well, though she dyes hers blond as an outward indicator of her estrangement from the royal line. She clearly cares deeply about her family, but in order to keep the peace she has deliberately allowed herself to be sidelined. That makes her an interesting companion for the Prince, who as a male is not in line for the throne and suffers from a similar irrelevance.

Sialeeds puts up this disinterested front. She sleeps late and takes a back seat on all diplomatic missions she goes on with the Prince. She is the fun aunt, but even early on there is an undercurrent of sadness there. Arshtat is clearly losing it, and there is nothing she can do. She has been completely and deliberately removed from any place of power.

That brings in her tragic backstory; really the tragedy of the entire Royal Family of Falena’s story. As the game eventually reveals, the generation before the present one in the game was marked by infighting among the various branches of the royal family. Queen Arshtat and Sialeeds’ mother was the younger sister and their cousin Haswar’s mother the older. Using ties to noble families, including the Barows and Godwins, and the assassins at Nether Gate, Arshtat’s mother schemed her way onto the throne. She left much destruction in her path, including Marscal Godwin’s wife. Arshtat, Sialeeds and Haswar were determined to not let history repeat, so when Arshtat took the throne, Haswar became the Oracle at Lunas, which meant that she would not be able to marry and have kids, so there would be no competing bloodline. Sialeeds broke off her engagement to Gizel Godwin, determining not to marry and create a possible rival royal line. By all indications, Sialeeds and Gizel were happily engaged, but Sialeeds sacrificed her happiness to try to keep peace.

So when civil war breaks out again, Sialeeds is understandably distraught. It also makes her eventual betrayal so surprising; though after the shock of the first time it makes more and more sense. The player knows how she feels about the politics and the nobility of Falena. If the Prince had managed to win when he did, the underlying problem would not have been fixed. Perhaps the Prince and new Queen could have fully defeated the Godwins, but they might have made peace and the plotting would begin all again. Sialeeds joins wanting to force this conflict to its final resolution. To her, Falena needed to be freed from the Barows and the Godwins so the country could move on. Her despair is disappointing and the betrayal shocking, but it is not hard to see her reasoning.

That makes her not unlike Jowy from Suikoden II, who prolongs the war after Luca Blight is defeated out of the belief that as long as both Highland and Jowston existed, there would be war between them. Unlike Jowy, though, there is no way to save Sialeeds in Suikoden V. She will die. Heroically, yes, but also tragically. There aren’t many characters in the series that get permanent deaths like this, outside of the opening hours of the games. At least not among characters that spent a good deal of time as a player character. The shocking death is usually the inciting incident, whether it is Odessa Silverberg in Suikoden 1 or Annabelle in Suikoden 2 or Lulu in Suikoden 3. Suikoden 1 does have the death of the protagonist’s father at about the same point in the game, and while it is tragic, he is mostly an absent figure in the game. The same goes for Suikoden 3’s Jimba. There are sometimes consequences when a player messes up, like with Pahn or Ridley in the first two games. Sialeeds death is inevitable, unavoidable and sadly permanent.

For all of her carefree attitude, her story is a tragic one, with the only silver lining that her plan apparently succeeded. She purposefully limited her life to try to keep the conflicts of the past from rising up again. Those conflicts came anyway, resulting the death of her sister. She deliberately betrayed everyone she loved to join people she hated just so that they could put a stop to the countries troubles once and for all and while she succeeded, it cost her her life.

Between her attitude and her role in the story, Sialeeds is not only the most interesting character in Suikoden V, but among my favorite characters from the PS2 generation of JRPGs.

A Simple Favor

For the vast majority of its runtime, A Simple Favor performs a wonderful balancing act with its tones. The film is a mystery/thriller in the vein of Gone Girl, but it is also a comedy. Those two things really should not mix, but somehow DIrector Paul Feig does it. There are genuine laughs throughout that don’t completely puncture the building tension of the mystery. Then it gets to the end and it all falls apart. Fortunately, the rest of the movie is so good that it is easy to forgive its disappointing ending.

A Simple Favor star Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, an overprotective single mother who runs a mommy vlog. She strikes up a friendship with Blake Lively’s Emily Nelson, a mother of friend of her child and a high powered executive. Their friendship grows, but soon Emily disappears. This sets off a mystery of what happened to Emily and who exactly Emily was. Both Stephanie and Emily’s husband are suspected.

Initially, the movie does an excellent job of balancing tones, setting up a thriller while also being very funny. That mix of tones also helps develop the friendship between Stephanie and Emily. Without the humor, Emily is an expressly terrible person. She is mean to her kid and husband, she drinks a lot and is frequently just awful. It is played as a joke, and it works, contrasting the uptight Kendrick with the relaxed Lively is delightful. You can see how the lonely Stephanie is taken in by the delightfully awful Emily. It keeps balancing the tones as Stephanie begins to investigate the disappearance. It manages to keep the humor present without completely puncturing the tension.

This sort of thriller, like Gone Girl, tends to not have a lot of place for humor. It naturally lessens the tension that the movie is trying to build. Here, largely by keeping the humor closely related to the characters and not the mystery itself, the movie manages to have its cake and eat it too. At least, it does until the final act. The tension builds through Stephanie’s searching and all the inconsistencies that she finds in Emily’s history and story. But the final revelations alternate between disappointing and laughable. It ends up in complete comedy territory, but it stops being funny. Instead of the character based humor from the start, it relies on slapstick and stupidities. It just doesn’t work.

The ending is undoubtedly disappointing, but that mostly serves to highlight how brightly the rest of the movie shines. Anna Kendrick is delightful as the perky and occasionally sad center of the movie. Blake Lively is perfect as Emily, the only problem is that the structure of the movie keeps her off screen for the bulk of the movie. There is good, real stuff with how the characters deal with loss. Ending notwithstanding, A Simple Favor is a fun, entertaining movie that is well worth seeing.

****

Operation Finale

I can’t help but feel like I should have liked this Operation Finale more than I did. At times it is a supremely moving and thought provoking film. Unfortunately, at other times it is just a second rate thriller. The latter portions drag down the former so the whole experience is merely very good rather than great.

Operation Finale is based on the true story of how Mossad agents located Nazi Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina in 1960 and extracted him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. After being tipped off about Eichmann’s potential location in Argentina, a team is dispatched to confirm his presence and bring him back to Israel alive. The group includes Peter Malkin, played by Oscar Isaac, who has a reputation of being something of a loose cannon. They capture Eichmann with little difficulty, but then have to hold him until he signs to agree to be tried so they can arrange their flight back. This leads to several tense scenes between Malkin and Eichmann as he tries to convince him to sign. This is played against a backdrop of an increasingly anti-semitic Argentina, as the rhetoric of Fascism rises again.

The movie succeeds on strong performances. Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, who inspired the phrase “the banality of evil.” He shows his complete justification of his actions; his belief that he can explain his actions in such a way that shows he was right. Oscar Isaac further cements himself as a star, playing the earnest agent who eventually gets to Eichmann. Also present and wonderful, if underused, is Melanie Laurent as an anesthesiologist who is there to help sedate Eichmann. Also shockingly good in a dramatic role is Nick Kroll as another agent present.

The problem is that it fills in the gaps with standard thriller stuff that never really pays off or adds anything. The movie makes a big deal about leaving characters behind during the escape, but nothing happens to those characters, they just have to take a later flight back to Israel. They all show up at the end just fine. The same goes for the thread that Malkin puts his own vengeance over the needs of the mission, an idea that is spoken about but only really portrayed in one scene. It plays his big decision at the end of the movie as something changing, but it literally has no consequences. The movie opens with a botched mission of his, but that had nothing to do with personal anger and was simply mistaken identity. The various threads never really get pulled together into a comprehensible theme.

Still, despite its scattered nature, the strong parts of the movie are definitely worthwhile. The movie ends up feeling like a well made missed opportunity. All the ingredients are there for something great, but somehow it just comes up short

****

Now Playing September 2018

Beaten

Yakuza 0 – read review here.

Yakuza Kiwami – review coming soon.  Shortly, this is a pretty great remake of a game I already really liked.  The Majima Everywhere sidequest stuff is fun on its own, but it doesn’t fit in all that well.

Ongoing

Yakuza Kiwami 2 – I am nearing the end of this. This game is built on a different engine than Yakuza 0 or Kiwami 1 and it took some getting used to. There are a lot of ways that it is an improvement, but I am not sure I actually like more. I was at time frustrated with how limited the usual Kiryu style was in Kiwami and Zero, but at least those games gave options. The fighting options here seems more limited. It might just be that I don’t like Yakuza 2 all that much; I think it may be my least favorite in the series.

Suikoden V – I am still making progress through this game. I didn’t make it quite as far as I had hoped, which was the pivotal moment of the Queen’s Campaign. But I made progress. I will finish this game before the end of the year. I am struggling more than I thought I would with technical limitations. Not the graphics or load times, but the awkward menus and other such similar frustrations. I’ve always known those were a problem with this game, but they have never bothered me as much as they have this time. Like a lot of PS2 games, Suikoden V could really use a remake, I guess.

Inazuma Eleven – I struggled through a bit more. The further I get into this game, the less like the gameplay. Fortunately, the story is increasingly nonsensical. I don’t think we missed much not getting these on the original DS, but I wouldn’t say no to more Inazuma Eleven.

Upcoming

Yakuza 3 – I need a little break from Yakuza, but I’ve decided to turn playing 0-2 into a full series replay leading up to playing Yakuza 6. So that means playing through 3-4-5 on my PS3. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get through them before the end of the year. 4 and 5 are still fairly fresh in my mind, but it has been a long time since I played Yakuza 3 and I’m eager to play it again. I know that Sega is planning HD re releases for these games, but I have them now and seen no reason to wait.

Final Fantasy XV – I got this for Christmas last year and have barely started on it. I want to play it. I have been hearing very good things from online friends, so if I can fit it in I am going try to put some hours into it.

Super Mario Galaxy – I started this a few months ago, but haven’t really made an effort to much time into it. I plan to get around to it during Fall break.

Etrian Odyssey V – I have never given this game a real chance. Once I finish a couple of books that have been my going to bed routine, a 20 minute dungeon foray will likely replace it.

BlacKkKlansman Review

Spike Lee comes in the with final great movie of the summer with BlacKkKlansman. It is an interesting mixture of tones and subjects that manages to be both entertaining and enlightening. The movie has powerful performances and still sadly relevant subject matter for a movie set 40+ years in the past. There is some unevenness, but the whole thing is an unforgettable experience.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is at first relegated to the files room, but soon they need him to lead an undercover operation into a black student activist group. From there he gets promoted and ends up in the intelligence division. In his new job he cold calls the KKK to start looking into their activities. He is successful, but he used his real name. That starts a new undercover operation with Flip (Adam Driver) playing Stallworth in public while Ron keeps up his connection over the phone. They work together to infiltrate the group and stop a bombing the KKK has planned.

There is a lot more going on than just the plot. Lee sets up parallels between the black student union activities, and black power movement, and the KKK, showing the surface similarities and more crucially the deep differences. There are the comparisons between the two cops central to this investigation as Flip is Jewish and Ron black. It is also just delightfully entertaining, with some 70’s style on top of what is, outside of its heavy themes, as delightfully fun cop movie. Driver shows once again how great an actor he is. Topher Grace is good as a delightfully contemptible David Duke. John David Washington gives what should be a star making performance; we will see more of him. The movie also has one of the most powerful endings I’ve ever seen, as it punctures the fun the movie had built up and cements connections to the problems the country is currently facing. It ends the movie with a hammer blow that left me in tears.

The only note that rings sour in the film is the scene where all of the good cops catch the bad cop in a sting operation. It just doesn’t work, especially with the captain, who has shown himself in the movie to be at best a tentative ally of the protagonists participating. The scene doesn’t work in the context of the film; it comes out of nowhere and I don’t know why it is there, knowing that that sort of cop is even today rarely punished in any way for that sort of behavior. Still, that is one short scene in a movie that is otherwise excellent.

This year has had quite a run of racially conscious movies, from Black Panther to Sorry to Bother You to Blindspotting to BlacKkKlansman. Other than Black Panther, they are not movies that were on my radar coming into this year, but all of them have turned out to be some of the best I’ve seen this year. I hope this is not a blip but the start of a trend.

****1/2