movie reviews

Movie Review: The House with a Clock In Its Walls

The books of John Bellairs cast a spell over my childhood. The first one I read was The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which I chose from a shelf filled with Goosebumps titles solely because the cover was illustrated by Edward Gorey. I knew Gorey’s style from the opening credits of Mystery! on PBS. Along with the Bellairs books and the Sherlock Holmes stories, Mystery! was my window onto a world that was stranger, older, and darker than suburban Northern California in the early 1990s. It was somewhere a chubby kid—one whose idea of fun invariably seemed to alienate his fellow students—could see himself going places in. Maybe solving mysteries or digging up lost cities. Or even learning to practice magic himself.

The House with a Clock in its Walls was Bellairs’s first and best supernatural story for middle grade readers. Its shadows are darker than in all his subsequent tales, perhaps because it was adapted from a version he wrote for a grown-up audience, rejected by his publishers in favor of the juvenile rewrite they suggested. My twelve-year old self is happy Bellairs’s first efforts were retailored to young readers, but my present self longs to read the original manuscript.

The plot of the film is different from the book, but it gets the weirdness right, and more explicitly offers permission to kids to just go ahead and be as weird as they like, because it might just be their ticket to powerful magic. The visuals and the reworked storyline are just a little too clean and silly, more Disney’s Haunted Mansion than the dusty, chilly realism of Bellairs’s sentences. But the film’s heart is in the right place, and as it is for the spellcasters in the story, that grants access to a deep well of dark, weird, delightful magic.

The Feminism of Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is lovable for many reasons (as its record box office performance demonstrates). One of them is how it effortlessly portrays a world in which women are the prime movers. The men in the story are either absent or seen in moments where women are center stage. The two scenes where we do encounter men only both pass a kind of reverse Bechdel test, in which the male characters are important enough to be named but their conversation is entirely about a woman.

It is in the traditionally female domain, the mahjong parlors, kitchens, high-end fashion boutiques, bedrooms, boudoirs, and garden pavilions of Singapore that the true stars of this film move like warring goddesses, dripping with jewels and clothed in a procession of jaw-dropping outfits. But these remarkable women are more than mannequins. It is their struggle to balance duty and love, to find peace with each other, and to keep alliances in an uncaring world that generate all the suspense and joy of this story. The men of the film are the objects that keep that plot moving. They are beautiful objects, but untransformed by the story. Like the jewelry which is so important to the plot, men are valued more in the exchange than the possession.

So much of the talk about Crazy Rich Asians has focused on its breakthrough status for minority representation in cinema, that its remarkable feminism has gone unremarked, perhaps because it wears it so lightly but so well.

Movie Review: The Invisible Woman (Dickens in the doldrums)

MV5BMzQxMTI3MDUzOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzc4MzI1MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The Invisible Woman is full of missed opportunities. Take the scene which recreates the horrific train accident that Dickens and his mistress survived in 1865. The film focuses on the fact that even in a life or death situation, Victorian propriety demanded that he and his mistress deny that they were travelling together. This is a good dramatic moment. But left out are the great author’s heroic efforts in tending to the crash victims, some of whom died in his arms, and his risking his life by climbing back into a train car hanging off a bridge in order to retrieve his manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. I myself once saw some pages of the manuscript at the Morgan Library and there were ruddy droplets on them a darker and more sinister color than ink. Dickens died five years to the day after the accident. There is mystery and fascination in these details, but all the film gives you is the gloomy emotional moment between him and his mistress, Ellen Ternan.

And that is the essence of what is wrong with The Invisible Woman. It shows you Dickens’s shattered family life at the near total expense of portraying the great man’s manic charisma and genius. Dickens had an oversized life worthy of any of his characters. We get glimpses of it at the beginning of the film when he’s shown hypnotizing people at parties and goofing around with his author pal Wilkie Collins, but by the end of The Invisible Woman Dickens seems like nothing but a plodding depressive, standing around in the shadows, ready to cry at any moment.

I get it that the draw of this film is to show us the dark love life of a genius. But it should’ve spared more moments to introduce us to the genius. Why couldn’t we see the Dickens household at Christmas, or experience one of his famous practical jokes? (He once barged into his future in-laws’ parlor disguised as a sailor and danced a hornpipe, only to return later the same evening and deny any knowledge of what happened).

I also get it that this film is about Ternan, the mistress, as much as it is about Dickens, the genius. But without a loveable Dickens we cannot empathize with why Ternan would sacrifice a life of respectable marriage to spend her life with him. The only reason that emerges is her desire for financial security because she was a failed actress. This makes her poor company as a main character. It might’ve been true to her life, but you can’t build a two hour film around such a marginally likeable person. No amount of top-tier acting, and there is quite a bit of it in this film, can rescue it from the gloom of its central relationship.

Visually, The Invisible Woman is as close to time travel as movies can get. I’ve always loved the Victorian period, and the costumes and locations are presented in glorious detail without feeling showy. As far as I can tell, the film was shot with only natural light. We experience many of the scenes from the perspective of an intimate onlooker, peeking around corners, catching glimpses in mirrors and windows, or straining to make out details in shadows. As a Dickens fan, I delighted in seeing the details of his life, even those which went unremarked by the characters, lovingly recreated. The result is bewitching, immersive, and totally convincing. I am tempted to watch The Invisible Woman again, just to spend more time in its world. But if I do, it’ll be with the sound off.