Movie Review

Photo courtesy of Fathom Events

In honor of its 80th anniversary, “The Wizard of Oz” returns to over 700 select theaters nationwide on Jan. 27, 29 and 30, courtesy of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. The beloved classic will include an exclusive commentary by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz.

The 1939 musical fantasy film, based on the 1900 children’s book by L. Frank Baum, starred Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, a young girl who dreams of more than her life on a small Kansas farm and suddenly finds herself whisked away by a tornado to the magical world of Oz.

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film was nominated for several Academy Awards upon its release, including Best Picture, which it lost to “Gone with the Wind” but won for Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”) and Best Original Score.

Considered to be one of the greatest films in cinema history, “The Wizard of Oz” was one of the earliest films to be deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Participating movie theaters in our neck of the woods include  AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on Jan. 27 at 2 and 5 p.m., Jan. 29 and 30 at 7 p.m.; and Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville on Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. To purchase your ticket in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

A STORY OF RESISTANCE: From left, actors Julia Lewenfisz-Gorka, Wojciech Zielinski and Marta Ormaniec portray Ora, Abraham and Luba Lewin in a ghetto street scene from the film. Photo by Anna Wloch/Katahdin Productions

By Donna Newman

“History is written by the victors” is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. Some allege that history is written by the survivors. In at least one unique case, however, history was written by people who were neither victors nor survivors. During the Holocaust of World War II, a historical record was assembled by a group of doomed Polish Jews with only one goal: to let the truth be known.

Actor Wojciech Zielinski as Oyneg Shabes member Abraham Lewin. Photo by Anna Wloch

As designated by the United Nations in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been observed each year since on Jan. 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp. On that date this year, the world can see the global premiere of a new documentary, “Who Will Write Our History,” detailing the trove of evidence regarding life, atrocities and death within the Warsaw Ghetto, as compiled and buried before the ghetto’s destruction by Jewish inmates who were imprisoned there.

As part of an international event, the film will screen simultaneously at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. These are just three of the more than 250 venues in 41 countries around the world taking part in this unprecedented event, with more joining daily. 

Here in Suffolk County, the film may only be viewed at North Shore Jewish Center, 385 Old Town Road, Port Jefferson Station, at 3:30 p.m. The suggested donation is $10 per person. Call 631-928-3737 to RSVP.  

“Who Will Write Our History” is a documentary film based on a book by the same name written by Trinity College Professor Samuel Kassow who was born in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. The film was written, produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Roberta Grossman; the executive producer is Nancy Spielberg. 

Men praying in Warsaw Ghetto in a scene from the film.

Both book and documentary tell the story of the secret society — code named Oyneg Shabes, or joy of the Sabbath — composed of journalists, scholars and community leaders who were among the 450,000 Jews confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe, beginning in November 1940. 

The website for the documentary introduces the film: “‘Who Will Write Our History’ is a story of resistance. It is a story about who gets to tell the story. It is about a group of spiritual resistors who risked their lives so that the truth would survive, even if they did not.”

Leading this band of resistance fighters was historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who masterminded  “one of the most astonishing research projects in human history” according to Culture.pl, a government-sponsored website funded by Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

The archive that Ringelblum’s team of about 50 to 60 individuals assembled contains approximately 6,000 documents, written in Yiddish and Polish. Artifacts also collected include newspapers, ration and tram tickets, letters, postcards, leaflets, German orders, theater posters and candy wrappers. Original literary pieces and works of art — drawings, watercolors and cartoons — were also deposited in the archive.

Shortly after the war, the first hidden cache to be unearthed was discovered on Sept. 18, 1946. A second trove was found in 1950. A third stash, which has yet to be located despite a 2003 excavation attempt, is thought to be buried on the grounds of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw.

A Warsaw Ghetto market scene from the film.

North Shore Jewish Center congregants Marsha Belford and her husband, Wlodek Guryn, learned about the documentary last spring at the 2018 Hillel and Jewish Theological Seminary-sponsored Jewish University for a Day held at Stony Brook University.

In a plenary session, not only did Grossman talk about and show a clip of the film, which was then in production, but Dr. Eleonora Bergman of  the Ringelblum Archive also spoke.

“Bringing this documentary to our synagogue started with my husband’s friendship with Eleonora Bergman, who is also a Polish Jew and who grew up on the same street in Warsaw as he did,” said Belford in a recent interview. “Dr. Bergman served as director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw [2007-2011] and is still very much involved with the Ringelblum Archive.”

For her extensive work, Bergman received the French Légion d’Honneur in 2012. She and Prof. Tadeusz Epsztein shared the 2017 Jan Karski and Pola Nireneka Prize, awarded by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for their work coordinating the publication of the Ringelblum Archive.

Belford patiently awaited the film’s release because she appreciates Holocaust testimonies for very personal reasons. “My husband’s parents escaped Pinsk and survived the war as Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union,” she said. “Originally from Hungary, my mother — whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis — was a survivor of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.”

Members of the cast

When Belford learned that the documentary would be shown at the U.N. as part of its International Holocaust Remembrance Week observances and also at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove — but nowhere in Suffolk County — she contacted the organizer of NSJC’s annual Jewish film festival, Robin Appel.

Belford is grateful to Appel for her expertise and assistance in obtaining the film. “It was Robin who handled all the negotiations that made the NSJC screening possible,” she said.

North Shore Jewish Center Rabbi Aaron Bensen is delighted to offer the community a chance to see this important film. 

“I am tremendously proud to be hosting this screening,” said Benson. “We’ve held an annual Jewish film festival for a decade now, thanks to a team that researches and selects excellent Jewish, Israeli and Holocaust-themed films. Bringing ‘Who Will Write Our History’ to the area is a major accomplishment for the group.”

“We’re also happy to be partnering with Temple Isaiah [in Stony Brook] as sponsors,” he added, “since it is a wonderful opportunity to engage a broader audience on this important topic.”

After the war, Rachel Auerbach — one of only three members of Oyneg Shabes to survive — noted the importance of informing the wider world: “We wrote, collected, guarded and hid while in the circumstances of our own destruction. We prepared the register of our own suffering and death, not for ourselves, but for other Jews. For the Jewish community of the wide world.”

Thanks to Auerbach and her courageous cohorts, that perspective will reach the eyes and ears of Suffolk County and beyond Jan. 27 via the film “Who Will Write Our History.”

All photos by Anna Wloch/Katahdin Productions

'Traitor'

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Last week, we took our first major film, “One Life to Give,” to an out-of-town showing. An audience of more than 100 history lovers and friends in Philadelphia watched the dramatic story of the friendship of Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge and the beginning of the Culper Spy Ring. We were impressed by how interested the Philadelphians were in a tale of George Washington’s intelligence service centered in Setauket, Long Island. This is, of course, an authentic narrative of the Revolutionary War and of the founding of America, so I guess we needn’t have been surprised at its broad appeal.

In addition, we screened for the first time the almost completed sequel, “Traitor.” This story picks up some five years later, in 1780, and tells of the capture of John André, British spymaster, by the Patriots, and his fate at the hands of, ironically, Tallmadge. He is now a major in the Continental Army and has been tortured with guilt during the past four years since his Yale buddy, Hale, was caught and hanged as a spy. It was Tallmadge who so earnestly persuaded Hale to join the war effort, and we know of Hale’s end at the hands of the British.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.

André has been caught with detailed maps of West Point, the fort that the British are lusting to capture so as to have free rein in the Hudson River, dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. The fort is under the command of Patriot general, Benedict Arnold, who is about to become a turncoat, hence his dealings with André. 

The sequel is, if anything, even better than the original film. And mine is not the only such verdict. Here are some comments emailed to us by the members of the audience after the screening of both films in succession:

• “Thank you so much for including me in the extraordinary film screening last night. … I was not expecting to see something so professional and polished on every level: script, acting, photography, sound, production and, yes, gory makeup! It is also wonderful to see what an incredible family [my grandson, Benji, is the director] and community production this has been — pulling in all sorts of expertise, including [Bev Tyler, historian of the Three Village Historical Society, who accompanied us to Philadelphia]. … Congratulations to Benji [Michael Tessler, Andrew Stavis and the rest of the team]. … Please let them know how much I enjoyed it. And we’ll all be able to say, ‘We knew [them] when … .’”

• “Wow, what a great night. The films were great, great turnout.”

• “What a joy to be there, we really learned from the movie.”

• “Wonderful event! You should be proud. The movies were great. I learned a lot. I’m excited to share new stuff with my students.”

• “What a treat to attend the viewing … last night. Thank you for including us.”

• “HUGE congratulations from me! Wow, I really enjoyed the movies.”

• “Thanks for including us in the movie viewing. An impressive undertaking with fantastic results!”

• “Had a great time at the movies. We were really impressed!”

And this from an old friend who has followed Benji’s development: 

• “Thanks for inviting me to witness [this] fabulous work. … [Benji’s] enthusiasm of his early years with a camera is super matched by his gifts of eye, mind and devotion to story and characters. It’s a little humbling to think that simply giving him a theater with a screen in his early years [he directed films as a teenager] encouraged him to continue creating worlds in film.”

• “I was so impressed with the level of sophistication given that [they] are young filmmaker[s].”

As you can tell, it was a successful and fun evening. We look forward to screening the two films, one right after the other, here in late spring. All will be welcome. Please stay tuned.

Photo from CAC

‘The Cat Rescuers’

The Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington will present the documentary “The Cat Rescuers” on Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. With over 500,000 street cats struggling to survive in NYC, spirited volunteers like Sassee, Claire, Stu and Tara have come to their aid. Their beat is Brooklyn, where the problem has exploded. Combing the borough’s alleys, backyards and housing projects, they trap the cats, get them fixed and returned to their colonies, or adopted. “The Cat Rescuers” shows the skill, resilience and humor they bring to this challenging and rewarding work, and how their mission to reduce animal suffering, has changed their lives. With director Rob Fruchtman in person. Tickets are $16, $11 members. Visit www.cinemaartscentre.org for more information.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, takes on his first major film role in ‘Mary Poppins Returns.’ Photo by Jay Maidment/Disney

By Heidi Sutton

Fifty-four years after Disney’s beloved “Mary Poppins” magically dropped out of the sky and into our lives, its long-awaited sequel arrived at local theaters for the holidays.

Titled “Mary Poppins Returns,” the movie is based on the second book in the Mary Poppins series by author P. L. Travers — “Mary Poppins Comes Back.” Co-starring Emily Blunt (“Girl on the Train,” “A Quiet Place”) as Mary Poppins and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) as Jack the lamplighter, it picks up the story 25 years later in 1935.

Recently widowed, Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives in London at 17 Cherry Tree Lane with his three children, Anabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson) and longtime housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters) while Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) lives in a flat across town. Set during the Great Slump, the family home is in danger of being repossessed unless a loan can be paid back in five days.

While Jane and Michael search frantically for their father’s bank shares, the children spend the day in the park and come home with — who else — Mary Poppins! “I was flying a kite and it got caught on a nanny!” exclaims Georgie. 

“I’ve come to look after the Banks children” says Mary. However, while Michael’s children go on all kinds of magical adventures, it is Michael and Jane who are ultimately watched over by their old friend.

Directed by Rob Marshall (“Chicago,” “Into the Woods”), with screenplay by David Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Life of Pi”), the film features a fresh score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and new dance numbers, animation scenes and cameo appearances by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Karen Dotrice (the original Jane), Colin Firth and, at 91 years old, a tap-dancing Dick Van Dyke.

In the title role Blunt is practically perfect in the way she captures Mary Poppins’ mannerisms, and Lin-Manuel Miranda steals every scene in his first major film role. However, it is the many songs (over 25 in all), from the undersea adventure “Can You Imagine That?,” the emotional lullaby “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” the big dance number “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” (a companion piece to “Step in Time”), Miranda’s Hamilton-esque rap in “A Cover Is Not the Book” and the finale, “Nowhere to Go But Up” that are the heart of the film.

There are many wonderful aspects to this film — all of the actors are terrific; the singing, dancing and choreography are amazing; and the sets are impressive. That being said, I found it hard to fall in love with this film. Maybe because I kept comparing it to the original, but I found the plot to be thin and rushed somehow — as if it had run over the allotted time and then was edited too much. For a Disney film, it didn’t feel magical enough and failed to capture the charm of its predecessor.

Rated PG, “Mary Poppins Returns” is now playing in local theaters. Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes.

Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne star in ‘Fantastic Beasts 2.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The thirty minutes prior to seeing “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” were taken up with trailers for movies that were almost exclusively CGI. One film after another displayed a visual and auditory assault of effects. This was an appropriate herald to the main attraction.

The latest addition to the Potterverse is a hodgepodge of characters too numerous to mention — and, in the case of the script — too numerous to develop. Several plots (and what seems like myriad subplots) wander around the two hours and fourteen minutes of playing time.

Eddie Redmayne in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Vaguely at the center is Eddie Redmayne, returning from the first film, as Newt Scamander, an expert in exotic magical creatures.  Redmayne has created a character that mumbles and meanders his way through the story to the point where the audience wants to scream  “Please make eye contact with anyone!”

The first film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” had a benign whimsy with dark edges. The newest entry is basically a mess of hidden secrets and a very frightening look at fascism through the actions of the titular villain (played by Johnny Depp, alternating restraint and scenery-chewing) as a budding Hitler — complete with a chilling nod to the Nuremberg Rally.

There are other villains and half-villains; there are holdovers from the first film; and there are new characters with shifting or surprising allegiances. In short, there are just too many characters. This would all be well and good if the movie had a modicum of charm. It plods, alternating between grand effects and brooding close-ups.

Director David Yates has directed much of the film like it’s ready to be the newest ride at Universal’s theme park.  Visually, it is stunning and the designs are striking but the center is hollow. There is a lack of depth and the actors are left to play with little-to-no dimension. 

Sadly, blame must go to Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who is credited with the screenplay.  The Harry Potter books are works that will endure as great literature. The world Rowling created was populated with people whom we grew to know, care about, and, ultimately, love.  There was honesty and humor, and, most importantly, humanity.   

Unfortunately, she brings very little of this here and seems to contradict or reinvent elements that were part of and at the heart of the series. Even the glimpses of Hogwarts and Jude Law’s Dumbledore seem foreign in this setting.

Finally, we are left with what feels like a very long set-up to the next film. Rowling has announced that there are three more films to come. We can only hope that she finds the magic that was so lacking in this sophomore outing.

Rated PG-13, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald” is now playing in local theaters

A scene from 'White Christmas'

Ring in the holiday season when Irving Berlin’s beloved “White Christmas” returns to select cinemas nationwide for a two-day celebration on Dec. 9 and 12, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events.

Originally released in 1954, the classic film stars Bing Crosby (Bob) and Danny Kaye (Phil). After Phil saves Bob’s life in the army, the two become a widely popular vaudeville musical act. They agree to see a sister act as a favor to an old army buddy. The sisters, Rosemary Clooney (Betty) and Vera-Ellen (Judy) are going to Vermont to perform at an inn and Phil, determined to play matchmaker, sneakily arranges for himself and Bob to go along. When they realize the owner of the failing inn is their former general, the duo decide to bring their entire musical act to Vermont in a secret attempt to bring in guests and give back to the man that meant so much to them. 

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen perform ‘Sisters’ in a scene from ‘White Christmas.’

Directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”), “White Christmas” includes such Berlin classics as “Sisters,” “Snow,” “Blue Skies,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and the enduring title song.

Presented as the final film in the 2018 TCM Big Screen Classics series, the screenings include new commentary by TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz.

Participating movie theaters in our neck of the woods include AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook on Dec. 9 and 12 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas, 1001 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale on Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 7 p.m.; and Island 16 Cinema de Lux, 185 Morris Ave., Holtsville on Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. and Dec. 12 at 7 p.m. To purchase your ticket in advance, visit www.fathomevents.com.

Photos courtesy of Fathom Events

A scene from 'Mid90s' Photo courtesy of A24

By Kyle Barr

The real question with films like “Mid90s” and other throwbacks to the days of the childhoods of those born in the ’80s and ’90s is really how far you can get with callbacks and brand recognition. 

It has worked well in some places, such as with the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” but a movie still needs a storyline to fill out the space left between brand name dropping and scenes of, “Oh, don’t you remember this? Wasn’t this fun?” Well, “Mid90s,” which opened in theaters Oct. 21, is an interesting take on nostalgia, one that shows the ugly sides of childhood without any kind of judgment.

Sunny Suljic in a scene from ‘Mid90s’

“Mid90s” takes place in Los Angeles during the titular 1990s as the California skating scene was at its peak. Young Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in a dysfunctional house with abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his co-dependent mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston). While riding his bike Stevie sees a young group of skaters at a distance and decides to infiltrate that friend group, despite the fact he has never ever skated in his life. The skaters, made up of pro-skater hopeful Ray (Na-kel Smith), party-hopper F**** (Olan Prenatt), lonely Ruben (Gio Galicia) and the reserved filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), start taking a liking to the young kid, who they nickname Sunscreen.

Stevie, while learning to skate, also falls into the seedier elements of the scene, the ones involving drugs and alcohol. He picks up terrible habits, acting out against his family. His friends are tested even harder when it becomes evident Ray is coming closer and closer to becoming pro, potentially leaving all those who look up to him behind.

It’s a movie called “Mid90s,” so it’s obvious that first-time director Jonah Hill, most known for his roles in films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is trying to make some kind of declaration of this time period. Unlike something like “Stranger Things,” the brands, music and albums so notorious from the era aren’t just set dressing but are integral to the theme. Stevie goes into his brother’s room and looks through his music, full of recognizable band names, just so he could give him a birthday gift in the next scene, which he then tosses on the table like he’s just received rotten fruit. The recognizable posters on Stevie’s wall are swapped out later once he starts to love the skating culture.

Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith in a scene from ‘Mid90s’

But what really drives the film’s forward momentum is the intense theme of skating as a relief from home life. Though it’s not so much an escape from problems, skating is shown as a way to connect with people on a deep spiritual level. It’s revealed relatively late in the film how each of the main characters has an imperfect home life, and that the friendship they have with each other is what keeps them all sane. 

Though it’s not a long movie, running at about the 90-minute mark, Hill doesn’t make this film overstay its welcome. That’s not to say there aren’t moments that makes one think this is a first-time directorial effort, small sequences that don’t add up, camerawork that pushes in a little too close to faces and a few other niggling details.

The film is also explicit in a number of ways, some of which involve the main character who is supposedly 13 years old, according to the film. Be sure to come at this flick without a sense of judgment for the characters, as the film itself makes it plain it doesn’t wish to judge them as well.

I was never a skater as a kid, but I knew those who were. Even if you have some sort of interest to dive into a time and place that few can honestly say they were a part of, then “Mid90s” should be a good run of some vicarious nostalgia.

Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use and violence, “Mid90s” is now playing in local theaters.

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John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

By Kyle Barr

Is there something to say about the fact that, even as so many Western genre movies have been released, covering every inch of America’s rugged past, that the genre still survives?

Though it’s one of film’s oldest and most tested settings, the entire concept of the Western has been deconstructed, reconstructed, parodied, satired, mocked and idolized so many times until today where we have different subgenres from the post-Western, the comedy Western and beyond.

So where does “The Sisters Brothers,” a film directed by French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, sit in this framework? The film was marketed as a comedy Western, and while the film is certainly funny at points, it really is so much more.

John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Photo by Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures

This is the jazz version of the Western, something recognizable yet off-kilter enough to be fresh in all the right ways. Adapted from a 2011 novel by the Canadian author Patrick deWitt, the story follows the brothers Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) as two hit-men gunslingers employed by the enigmatic figure of The Commodore (Rutger Hauer).

The Sisters brothers are tasked with finding Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a gentleman and a chemist, knowing that, most likely, they will have to kill him. When they finally find him, Warm and the man who was supposed to confine him, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) have a much more interesting offer to give the two murderous brothers.

The opening shot is one so cleanly reminiscent of Westerns but given a subtle twist of shot and lighting. It starts large, a black field with the hint of a purple horizon, but the silence is cut short with sparks and flashes of light as the Sisters brothers engage men fortified in a house. The film is violent without languishing in it, and, instead, Audiard likes to spend more time in finding comedic moments in the exhausting work of traveling across the West, from trying to ride when hung over or from a  random spider bite (one that crawled inside his mouth), or force a man near-comatose for several days while a bear attack nearly kills his horse. 

Westerns have long drawn their themes of the line between right and wrong, good and evil, society and the wilderness. “The Sisters Brothers” doesn’t so much run away from those themes as it does show just how deflated they are. The fact that the film ends not with so much of a bang but with a calm, pastoral scene of home and family goes to say something about the entire idea of the Western genre.

Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from ‘Sisters Brothers’

All actors involved do a great job with their performances, and both Ahmed and Gyllenhaal are particularly interesting to watch as they develop a respect for the other over the course of the film. Phoenix is terrific in his role, playing the slightly unhinged gunslinger with just the right amount of anger while leaving room for introspection.

“You do realize that our father was stark raving mad and we got his foul blood in our veins?,” Charlie Sisters says. “That was his gift to us. That blood is why we’re good at what we do.”

While it was Reilly’s own production company that financed the film, it’s good to note that the man who is most known for his comedies, often co-starring with Will Farrell, takes a far more interesting and nuanced turn as the older Sisters brother, killing people in the name of defending his brother, who does not believe he needs saving. He comes into his own especially at the end of the film, as he tries to make up for the past by protecting his brother as they run across the West pursued by men who would kill them.

“The Sisters Brothers” is one of those films that you’ll either love or fully question what all the fuss is about. As a general fan of Westerns and all its spin-offs, this reviewer says it’s a much-needed spin on many overdone film tropes of the Western genre.

Rated R for violence, disturbing images and language, “The Sisters Brothers” is now playing in local theaters.

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By Kyle Barr

Us youngins can still remember when the first “Harry Potter” movie jumped so gracefully from book to the big screen. Those novels, written by J.K Rowling, were already a sensation before the whole thing exploded in popularity with a near decade of new movies.

 

Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro and Jack Black in a scene from the film.

It’s not strange then that Hollywood has since been pushing out more and more films based off young adult literature, from “The Hunger Games,” to “Maze Runner,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and on and on. It seems we’re at the point that Hollywood is looking back in time to “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” a book by John Bellairs written in 1973. This book is a precursor to all the Harry Potters and Hunger Games that line kids’ bookcases to this day. It must have seemed a cinch to bring it to theaters.

Sad to say it doesn’t work, and not so much because the material is rotten but because the tropes have become stale.

Our movie opens with young Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) taking the Greyhound bus to a new town after his mother and father have died in a car accident. He goes to live with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), an eccentric and near-recluse who lives in a house that contains any number of secrets. The elder Barnavelt spends most of his time with fellow eccentric Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) who quips regularly with Jonathan, though barely concealing a deep friendship.

Of course, not all is as it seems, and Lewis quickly learns that both Jonathan and Zimmerman are Warlock and Witch. Though reluctant, Jonathan agrees to teach young Lewis magic, all the while a clock ticks constantly behind the house’s walls, counting down to something, and both Jonathan and Zimmerman know it can’t be anything good.

Owen Vaccaro in a scene from the film.

Vaccaro does a fine, if standard job as the young kid trying to fit in to the conformities of a new town. Young actors have always had the hardest job, and its rare you’ll find a real exceptional performance, (If you’re curious for one, watch Hailee Steinfeld performance as Mattie Ross in the 2010 remake of “True Grit”.) The big problem is he and other leading kids such as Sunny Suljic, playing the young, athletic Tarby Corrigan, don’t have a good script to work from. Suljic also gets a raw deal as his character flips so suddenly from nice guy to bully right in the middle of the second act. It’s both jarring and confusing.

Black doesn’t seem to be taking the job too seriously either. He can be a fun actor, and he has done some fun jobs in kids flicks before, (just check out 2015’s “Goosebumps.”) It’s a mild performance at best without even Black’s usual blend of expressional and physical comedy.

Jack Black in a scene from the movie.

The jokes are so incredibly flat, and it doesn’t help they keep getting repeated. There is one particular joke about a hedge shaped like a lion, *ahem* expelling rotten leaves and twigs from its rear. Yeah, its crass, but it’s also repeated another three times during the runtime, and another time after the credits are rolling. 

Director Eli Roth is known mostly for his shock horror films like the “Hostel” movies. I think people were more curious than they were interested in seeing what chops Roth might have had for children’s movies. Sure, there are a few creepy scenes, such as with a number of puppets and jack-o-lanterns, but those scenes are marred with some really horrible CG. They’re made all the more apparent because set design, especially of the house, was quite good. The whole place had an off-kilter but intriguing vibe, from the stained-glass window that can change shape to the massive number of clocks that Jonathan uses to drown out the sound of the other clock hidden in the walls. 

Cate Blanchett in a scene from the film.

Blanchett seems to be the only one really trying, and it’s sad, borderline painful, to see her really excel in the role of the straight-backed aging spinster maintaining that edge of deviousness. I would honestly rather see her in the role of Mary Poppins in the upcoming sequel to that beloved Disney musical, but that’s really for a different’ review.

Have we exhausted the young adult fiction gold rush? No, we haven’t, as long as people continue to try. Even as one generation grows out of the right age for these types of stories, it’s a human inevitability that another will grow to take their place. 

Honestly, if you go rewatch the first “Harry Potter,” you realize most of the acting was subpar, and the plot, even when it was taken directly from the book, was really contrived. But that movie remains fondly remembered because it was new, different, and it captured the imagination of a young audience with sweeping shots of a huge castle, of a dining room filled with floating candles and a promise of a much wider world to explore. “The House with a Clock in its Walls,” is missing the wonder, and keeping the cliché.

Rated PG, running time is 1 hour 45 min.

Photos courtesy of Amblin Entertainment

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