Review – Witches And Warlocks And Watches, Oh My! (“The House with a Clock in Its Walls”)

Two parts Harry Potter, one part Goosebumps, and sprinklings of Lemony Snickets and Mary Poppins, this kids gothic horror/comedy/fantasy movie is based on John Bellairs 1973 novel (pre-dating Harry Potter) about a young orphaned boy who is taught magic from a rather odd witch & warlock.
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It’s 1955, and recently orphaned ten-year-old Lewis Barnavent (Owen Vaccaro) meets his only relative, a wacky uncle living in New Zebedee, Michigan. But one thing is for sure, his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) isn’t what he expected, nor is the creepy, creaky old mansion he lives in, which is laden with every conceivable clock, watch, and timepiece imaginable. He also meets Jonathan’s next-door neighbor, the always purple-wearing Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchette). But after a few days of dining on nothing but chocolate chip cookies and seeing/hearing weird things happen, he’s told an amazing secret.

Uncle Jonathan tells his aviator-goggle wearing nephew, “I’m a warlock!” He’s also told the tragic tale of the living house they reside in, which once belonged to a crazed magician named Issac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife, Selena (Rene Elise Goldsberry). And somewhere hidden inside this house is a clock, but not an ordinary clock, mind you, but a Doomsday clock! But where is it? When will it tick down to Armageddon? Is there any way of stopping it? These are the burning questions that haunt Jonathan and Florence every day. Hmmm… maybe the new kid who’s begging to learn the craft can help.

Well, faster than you can say, “You’re a wizard, Harry”, Lewis is taught the fundamentals of magic. At school, he meets cute Rose Rita Pottinger (Vanessa Anne Williams) and scheming Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Sulkic), who coerces Lewis into doing the one thing he should never do… reading from the evil magic book, the Necromancy! With the prev-iously dead Izard back, will that Doomsday clock finally be triggered? Will Lewis be able to help with his own magic? How can that clock be stopped if protected by dark sorcery? And what’s up with that Griffin topiary bush that keeps pooping leaves all the time?

Eric Kripke adapted the kids novel, having written many episodes of TV’s Supernatural and Timeless. The screenplay, while simple and well told, doesn’t cover any new ground. We have the requisite lonely kid, bullied at school and wanting to be loved, the ditzy uncle (i.e. the surrogate father), the second act fall-out with the subsequent third act reconciliation and, of course, a child saving the day! It’s a good thing the plot moves along quickly with clever dialogue that doesn’t pander to children. The visuals are striking, the ‘magic’ is done nicely, and I was stunned at how scary it was in places!

All that creepiness and horror thrown in? You can thank director Eli Roth for that, as he’s made quite the career of making some of the bloodiest R-rated movies around (Hostel, Hostel II, Cabin Fever). Here, he shows off his camera work and love for the “zooming-in for the kill shot”. Selling this movie is the cast and Jack Black fits his role like a glove. Trading lovable barbs with Blanchett without going over-the-top, Black holds this picture together. He’s lovable, creepy, honest, and warmly quirky.

Blanchett is like an older, cynical, motherly Mary Poppins and let’s talk about that kid, Owen Vaccaro. Really the star of the movie, Owen doesn’t have that ‘cutsie’ kid factor, but an actor’s soul. This, his sixth-only film, he looks completely at ease on film and interacts with the adults like it was a walk in the park. For the kiddies, this is a much more sinister and scarier film than the earlier Harry Potter movies, and for the adults you have Black & Blanchett having some fun together. Predictable and hokey, true, but nevertheless entertaining.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
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Next to Mickey Mouse, there isn’t a man, women, or child on this planet who doesn’t know Harry Potter and his creator, British novelist J.K. Rowling. The character single-handedly caused a resurgence in children reading, seen a global upswing in magic-awareness, and made untold billions in merchandising. (jaw-drop) Wow!

And it all started with this movie (one of seven sequels) about orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), a child whose parents were savagely murdered by the worst wizard ever, Lord Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle, aka He Who Must Not Be Named). Luckily (??) baby Harry’s offered shelter at the Dursley’s, the worst Muggle (non-magical) family ever! But after Harry reaches his tenth birthday, he gets the surprise of his life. He’s told that he’s a wizard by Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a half-giant who’s the game-keeper at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. Sweet!

Harry soon meets his life-long friends, know-it-all Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and red-haired Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). He also gets an enemy with the blonde-haired acerbic Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), who always keep two doltish bodyguards with him, Crabbe & Goyle (Jamie Wyatt & Joshua Herdman). In his new boarding house, Gryffindor, he learns many new things besides magic: his hatred for Professor Snape (Alan Rickman), his respect for head-master Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), and his own superior broomstick flying skills at Quiddich.

Ah, but there’s a mystery to be solved at Hogwarts, and it involves the mythical Sorcerer’s Stone which, should the spirit of Voldemort gets his hands on it, could become whole again. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are soon on the case, breaking rules, getting into trouble, discovering secrets, and almost getting expelled in locating the Stone. In the end, true friendship wins out, and Harry triumphs over insurmountable odds. Fanboys all over the world breathed a huge sigh of relief when Warner Bros decided NOT to film the first three Harry Books books as one movie AND make it in America! Egads!!

A decent screenplay by Steve Kloves (who sorta/kinda adapted Rowling’s books in every movie) and faithfully directed by Chris Columbus, this signature entry into the Harry Potter franchise was pure gold, right down to John Williams earworm score and John Seale’s breathtaking cinematography. The kids were lovable, green, and downright cute while the adults (especially Rickman) were excellent, never overplaying their parts. Called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in England, it adapted well in the States, since J.K. Rowling held onto her creative control rights (and thank God for that!).

It’s almost been 20 years and, in this age of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings, it’s only a matter of time before the entire Harry Potter book series gets a fresh coat of paint with either a whole new movie series, a TV/cable/streaming mini-series, or weekly TV/cable series. Hey, maybe Daniel Radcliffe will play Snape!?

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