Hallmark sentimentality, passionate defenses of Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” and horrific head traumas are thrown together in Dan Fogelman’s “Life Itself”, a curious cocktail of a movie from the “This is Us” creator about all of life’s highest highs and lowest lows across generations and continents. Fogelman has seemingly never met an extreme emotion he doesn’t want to exploit, and “Life Itself” might be the apex of that guiding principle.
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For a movie in which the phrase “unreliable narrator” is repeated at least a dozen times, “Life Itself” is incredibly easy to spoil and oddly difficult to tease. It starts over several times, it lies, it backtracks, it misleads and surprises all in service of trying to hammer in the thesis that “life is the unreliable narrator”. Life may be unreliable, sure, but movies sure as heck don’t have to be to prove the point and this cynical device does not serve the earnest story he’s attempting to tell. Nor does all the head trauma.
If there is a beginning, it’s with Will (Oscar Isaac) and Abby (Olivia Wilde), who are apart in the present, but not too long ago were married, living in New York, extremely pregnant and spending long mornings in bed cooing at each other under white linens and discussing that 1997 Dylan album. Will is doing so poorly with the separation that he’s taken up screenwriting and berating baristas while pouring alcohol into his coffee at an hour when such behavior is generally frowned upon.
He tells his therapist, Dr Morris (Annette Bening), about Abby and how in love, or, more accurately, how obsessed he was with her. She’s beautiful, nurturing, and will eat everything the sushi chef puts in front of her, “Even the uni”. There are shades of “(500) Days of Summer” in this whole segment as they go from the fateful Halloween where they fell in love while dressed as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace, back to Abby’s tragic childhood and up to dinner with the in-laws (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart).
But then that part of the story ends, quite abruptly, and we’re taken to Spain to meet some new people who are sort of cosmically linked to the New Yorkers. Spain is the stronger part of the movie, with a contained and compellingly written story of a simple farmer Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), his wife Isabel (Laia Costa), their son and the wealthy farm owner and landlord, Mr Saccione (a very good Antonio Banderas who has a heck of a monologue about his mother and the Italian man she married). Yet even this reads as a little false, a little foreign and a little too conveniently cute and folksy to be fully believed and embraced.
In fact, nothing much in “Life Itself” feels like life itself. It is too polished, too winking, too big and too much to be all that relatable, even with a cast as appealing as this. Plus, Fogelman makes the odd choice to make nearly everything look present day, despite the fact that the story takes us through multiple generations.
As someone who has failed to be won over by “This is Us” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, which Fogelman wrote, I had come to believe that his worldview was for some people and not for others. Now I think “Life Itself” might be the thing that unites us.
“Life Itself”, an Amazon Studios release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.” Running time: 118 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
The 10-year-old hero at the center of the film “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” likes to look up words in the dictionary, like “foreboding” and “indomitable”. He might want to be familiar with the term “execrable” – that’s a good one for this movie.
Adapted from the 1973 John Bellairs young adult supernatural thriller, the film somehow manages its own witchcraft in finding the perfect un-sweet spot – it’s too scary for little kids, not scary enough for older ones, not funny or clever enough for their parents, and too redundant for everyone. Poof! Watch the audience disappear.
Horror specialist director Eli Roth has stumbled badly as he enters the dangerous realm of whimsical, which is added here at such high doses as to be lethal. The film is ostensibly a Harry Potter-lite coming of age yarn, but the real spooky thing is why Cate Blanchett and Jack Black decided to tag along.
The story – by Eric Kripke, creator of TV’s “Supernatural” – centers on a recently orphaned 10-year-old boy named Lewis in 1955. He moves to a Michigan town to live with his mysterious, chocolate-loving uncle, played by Black, who turns out to be a warlock. The next-door neighbor, Florence Zimmermann, is an elegant, purple-loving witch played by Blanchett.
“You’ll see. Things are quite different here,” Black’s character says to the astonished boy. But he’s lying – things are very familiar here: foggy graveyards, creepy dolls, dusty books, animal skeletons in small carved boxes, ornately carved book jackets, secret rooms behind bookcases, thumping in the walls and even comedic non-human sidekicks (this time an armchair and a topiary griffin).
There’s been an obvious attempt to ape the chilly menace of Edward Gorey, who supplied images for Bellairs’ book, but this movie really just leans on props and suggestive music, never finding a consistent tone or vision. Sometimes it feels like a Wes Anderson film, at others it goes more like Wes Craven.
Young Lewis, uptight, precocious – and outfitted in the laziest way to show that, with a pair of WWI-era aviator goggles and a bow tie – must learn to be a warlock himself, fit in at school, solve the mystery of the hidden clock and save the universe. Child actor Owen Vaccaro does admirably here. It’s the adults who have let him down.
Foremost among them is Black and Blanchett, who are in different movies – he’s in a comic farce complete with vomiting pumpkins, and she’s doing some very serious English drawing-room drama. “It’s the nuts that make things interesting,” she says at one point. “I’ve found that all one really needs in this world is one good friend,” she tells Lewis primly.
Toward the end, Blanchett arms herself with a weapon resembling an umbrella, becoming a sort of Oscar-winning Mary Poppins as she mows down enemies with what seem to be bolts of lightning. What happens to Black? Would you believe a truly disturbing sequence with his bearded adult face? (There’s an image we’ll all take to the grave.)
This whole mess drags itself to a messy conclusion – wait, is that Kyle MacLachlan making an appearance late on? Kyle? Did you lose a bet, too? – and then it all ends on an impossibly sticky, sweet big kiss of a finale that undermines the entire project.
Fittingly, the closing credits evoke the goofy humor of a completely different animator – Charles Addams. (Look for jokey credits for the sofa and the griffin if you’re one of the rare people sticking around.) Nothing makes a lot of sense in “The House With a Clock in Its Walls”, except perhaps when Black’s character warns: “This is no place for a kid.”
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