FilmSpace: The House with a Clock in its Walls; Mile 22; The Little Stranger

Film critic Calum Cooper takes a look at some of the past week’s additional releases, including Eli Roth’s crack at family entertainment in The House with a Clock in its Walls, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s latest collaboration with Mile 22, and Lenny Abrahamson’s new film The Little Stranger.

The House with a Clock in its Walls – ★★★☆☆

In 2011 we got a film called Hugo. It was a charming, visually splendid film that celebrated cinema with such warmth and esteem. It was even more surprising as it was a U-rated family film directed by Martin Scorsese. I bring it up as this film is similar. It’s a family film directed by Eli Roth of all people, known for his ultra-gore fests.  While the movie in question is nowhere near as buoyant as Hugo it thankfully still has its charms for the right audience.

Based on the book of the same name, The House with a Clock in its Walls stars Jack Black as an eccentric warlock given the recent responsibility of guardian to his orphaned nephew Lewis. Alongside his neighbour, Cate Blanchett, they search through the house for a concealed doomsday clock that will bring about terrible things if unfound. All the while, Lewis must learn to fit in to a new school and harness his own magic.

The film can occasionally be tedious. The comedy doesn’t always land, its repetition can get annoying, and many of us who have watched Harry Potter, or even Percy Jackson, will see familiarities – particularly since the original book supposedly influenced the aforementioned titles. What graciously sets the film apart though is its willingness to challenge children with darker material than you may initially expect.

There’s plenty to admire on the surface level. The acting is pretty good all around, especially the chemistry between Black and Blanchett. The characters are decently constructed and there was some creative, intricate direction in terms of what it wanted to convey. The production design is one of the film’s finest qualities. The sets are incredible, and they utilise a wide assortment of light and dark colours to emphasise the wonderment or horror of the film’s setting and plot points, whether that be sinister magic or something as mundane as a dreary school life.

“You can’t change the past, but you can use what happened before to learn and grow into a better or stronger person, with the titular clock acting as a vivid metaphor for this very lesson.”

Its themes are surprisingly wise too. Not only does it see weirdness as something to celebrate, but it, through many of its characters, assures young audiences not to fret over the past. You can’t change the past, but you can use what happened before to learn and grow into a better or stronger person, with the titular clock acting as a vivid metaphor for this very lesson. It’s hard not to appreciate the film for going the extra mile here.

This is by no means a masterpiece though. It’s merely good as opposed to great.  But it respects its target audience and is willing to go a little further into the darkness than many films of its kind. That’s probably down to Eli Roth, but it’s commendable either way.

Kids will likely have a blast, and adults can at least be grateful that it isn’t Show Dogs.

Mile 22 – ★☆☆☆☆

Mile 22 is the fourth collaboration between director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg, who created an unofficial trilogy of American patriotism with Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day. Reception for those films is understandably polarised as they’re seen as either intense and exciting or pretentious and self-indulgent.

I reckon there’ll be no such division here.

The plot couldn’t be any simpler: Wahlberg plays a strike team leader with a lot of baggage (you can tell because he calms himself down with a rubber band). He and his team are tasked with transporting an Indonesian double agent (Iko Uwais of The Raid) from their compound to a plane into the US in exchange for a vital disc.  They get ambushed along the way. Gunfire is exchanged and plot twists are revealed.

This would be a decent shut your brain off experience if we could actually see what was happening.

Watching Mile 22 is like watching someone play a video game that you’re not allowed on. It’s chaotic to the point of frustration, yet it arrogantly thinks it’s being thrilling and deep instead. It really isn’t.

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Poor writing is a big factor here. The characters are flat and boring. They have no personality outside of being soldiers and obvious family problems. They speak in monologues so mechanical and pre-prepared they must’ve been reciting them in the shower that morning. And they say it with such speed, to emphasise importance I guess, that you can’t tell what was just said half the time. Wahlberg is usually the character we can at least identify with in these scenarios. But here he’s thoroughly unpleasant to be around. The way he treats his subordinates is indifferent at best and demeaning at worst, neither with any clear or justified reasoning.

But the imprudent craftsmanship is what truly tanks this film. It seems under the delusion that shaking the camera and cramming as much on screen as it can creates the feeling of hectic urgency. It doesn’t. It makes the film look messy and unrefined, as well as creatively brain bashing. Why hire such a skilled martial artist like Iko Uwais when you’re just going to bury his choreography and stunt work under a tsunami of shaky cam and rapid editing?

Simply put, it does everything wrong with the action genre. The pacing is awful, the general craft is misguided, and the writing is supremely ostentatious. There honestly isn’t much more to say than that.

I don’t enjoy giving reviews like this. Films are tough to make no matter how talented you are. I like both Berg and Wahlberg, even if they haven’t always made the best choices with cinema. However, their problematic logic has to be questioned when they make something akin to an explosion in the editing room, and then expect us to just go with it.

The Little Stranger – ★★★☆☆

Psychological films can be quite testing to audiences not accustom to their unorthodox tactics. This is true of films like last year’s mother! or of Satoshi Kun’s cult classic Perfect Blue, and it may be the case for The Little Stranger too.

The film is a lot of things, but it’s sadly not for everyone. It bravely relishes in taking its time and revealing its hand slowly to draw out the tension and confusion. For those who prefer atmospheric pieces this is quite the absorbing watch. But this isn’t a given. It’s blatantly false to assume slow moving inherently means bad. However, it may still seem a bit too slow for some.

Set shortly after WWII, Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleason) goes to a mansion, Hundreds Hall, to treat a patient. He’s had a fascination with the mansion ever since he was a child, becoming infatuated with it. When he arrives however, he sees that the house, and by extension its residents, are falling apart. His fixation with the house is reignited as the residents (Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling and a mesmerising Ruth Wilson) all seem to slip further and further into ruin. All the while we don’t know whether this is the work of a supernatural entity haunting the home or a loss of sanity from the residents.

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Unconventional is the best connotation that can be derived from this gothic film. It’s something that’s to be admired even if you don’t necessarily enjoy the picture. While it does contain all the usual qualities for a well-made film, such as good acting and impressive set design, it really is the strange, uncompromising narrative that makes the film so interesting.

It’s directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the man behind 2015’s gut-wrenching Room, and he clearly understands how to construct tension through the film’s quieter moments. While we see relationships build and revelations come to light, there’s always this uncanny presence of dread. We never know precisely what’s going on. While this may be a cause for frustration for some viewers who want more concrete answers, the anxiety of the unknown does lend to the film’s building of atmosphere, and themes on belonging. It makes the film a creepy experience that’s hard to turn away from for those who enjoy slow atmospheric pieces.

The Little Stranger could also be seen as a cautionary tale on fantasy versus reality, personified through the once grand, noble house of Faraday’s past now left crumbling in the present. It’s certainly a thought provoking piece if you have can dig its slower pace and meticulous construction.

That being said, this material may be too much to handle for some. It could be dismissed as pretentious and boring, and not without reason. While it’s certainly no Perfect Blue or Picnic at Hanging Rock, it is one of those films that rewards the viewers who have the time and patience for its deliberate choice of craftsmanship. This one’s going to be on my mind for a while.

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