The House with a Clock in its Walls (12A)

Horror film director Eli Roth makes a left field foray into children’s stories with book adaptation The House with a Clock in its Walls. He describes it as “…sort of the gateway to [children] being scary-movie fans.” Roth takes influence from PG rated kids films of the 80s, such as E.T. and Gremlins, but the result is something much darker, and stretches the limits of it’s 12A rating.

Spoilers follow.

Recently orphaned Lewis goes to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), who is a warlock, or ‘boy-witch’, as Lewis calls him. Jonathan lives platonically with witch Florence (Cate Blanchett), and Lewis soon wants to learn their trade. But this isn’t the fairy-tale magic of Disney, or even Harry Potter – this is much closer to real-life satanic practice. The house is full of upside down crosses and pentacles, and the plot bounces from blood rites to necromancy and demons from hell. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a poison pill with a very thin sugar-coating.

Lewis struggles to make friends in his new neighbourhood. After learning a few ‘tricks’ of the trade from his uncle, he uses them to dazzle the kids at school. But one of them will not be impressed by anything short of a resurrection, so Lewis sneaks to the local graveyard, sheds his blood onto a pentacle and resurrects the former owner of the house – powerful warlock Isaac Izard! E.T. would have found another way home if he’d met this kid.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the purpose of the ticking clock in the walls. Traumatised by the horrors of WWII, Izard made a deal with a demon to destroy the world by turning time back to the very beginning. Izard’s repulsion at evil is the cause of his own descent into it. This muddying of good and evil is characteristic of the story as a whole. The idea that evil can be used for good is a dangerous misdirection, and the story ends without making any clear distinction.

At best, The House with a Clock in its Walls manages to be an entertaining throwback to a mischievous style of fantasy film, with Black and Blanchett revelling in the comic aspects of the script. But at worst it is introducing young audiences to Satanism, and is far too frightening for its target demographic. The book was aimed at ‘young adults’ – making the film’s pitch to children all the more misguided.

Roth says Steven Spielberg advised him: “Kids want to be scared”, “…make it scary.” Uncharacteristically unwise advice to give to a director whose early films started the horror sub-genre ‘torture-porn’. Roth fails to emulate the warmth and innocence of Spielberg’s 80s classics, and is predictably gleeful in giving children nightmares.

★★☆☆☆ A crass, occultic misfire.

First Reformed (15)

A character study of a spiritually tormented loner, from screenwriter Paul Schrader – it sounds like Taxi Driver (1976) all over again. But First Reformed is ultimately a very different story. This time the man with an overwhelming sense of moral outrage is the minister of a small church in Upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller. His dwindling congregation includes depressed environmental activist Michael, and his pregnant wife Mary.

Mary confides to Toller that her husband wants to end their unborn child’s life, to spare them from what he sees as the planet’s bleak future, post-global warming. Toller agrees to counsel him, and the stage is set for a deep tête-à-tête, in which the film’s themes are laid out. Michael poses the question: ‘Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?’ Secretly shaken, but thrilled by the debate, Toller posits that the essence of life is in the simultaneous holding of conflicting truths: hope and despair. The story goes on to vividly dramatise the tension between these concepts, in the face of a broken creation.

Schrader was raised in a Christian home, attending the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church. Clearly this a deeply personal project. Returning to issues he first tackled in Taxi Driver, the influence of his apparently abandoned faith still looms large. Drawing inspiration from 1951 French film Diary of a Country Priest, Schrader even used the same aspect ratio as that film, giving only a slightly wider image than old ‘square’ televisions.

First Reformed gives a fair portrayal of many difficult Christian truths. When Toller assists with a youth meeting at the megachurch that supports his tiny parish, he is asked why some Christians have cushy lives, while others face trials. He gives a considered response, explaining that Christ doesn’t promise health and wealth in this life, and that the path of faith may be a hard one.

As Toller is drawn into the world of extreme environmentalism, more pressing deficiencies in his spiritual walk go ignored. He dismisses an affair he once had as not ‘real sin’, and in becoming obsessed with Michael’s question of whether God will forgive us for destroying the planet, he seems to forget the free forgiveness Jesus offers for all sins.

Despite the film’s staid construction and slow pace, it builds to surreal heights. The disarming finale uses a powerful rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, achieving something close to what Schrader describes as ‘transcendental style’.

★★★★☆ A rewarding study of faith in crisis.

Blade Runner 2049 (15)

More than thirty years later, revered sci-fi classic Blade Runner has been given a sequel. The original boldly opted for mood and soul over excessive plot. Through unique visuals and unpretentious poetry, it was an achievement greater than the sum of its parts. Blade Runner 2049 is the opposite. It is a convoluted fan-fiction that looks incredible, but falls short on story and emotion.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a new breed of replicant (genetically engineered slave) created to be perfectly subservient. He is a Blade Runner, tasked with ‘retiring’ (killing) fugitive replicants from past generations, who still have the ability to rebel. K stumbles on a secret long kept by his quarry, which sets him on a detective journey that could rewrite his identity.

Three short films were produced to be seen before the main feature. These set the scene and give crucial backstory. But such important plot points should have been made clear in the film itself – which is confusing and incomplete without them. They can be found online and on the home release. But even without the full story included, 2049 somehow manages to be ponderous and overlong.

Therein lies the problem with the new Blade Runner. Director Denis Villeneuve was so busy recreating the look of the its predecessor that he neglected to make sure the story was worth it. A self-confessed fan of the original, one wonders how he could get this so wrong. He dwells on the idea that memories are what makes us human, and only briefly touches on the more interesting notion that having a soul could be the key. Villeneuve shies from further exploring our spiritual side, whereas the first film was rich with Christian motifs.

The opportunity to explore new themes is let down by the overwrought plot. The introduction of Joi, a virtual companion for K, is one of the more original ideas. She demonstrates K’s unfulfillable longing for human warmth and love, which motivates him to try and attain these for someone who can appreciate them. But unfortunately, in portraying a female character so subservient, not to mention with explicit nudity, the film becomes exploitative in a way that it was perhaps trying to warn against.

The original’s composer Vangelis is sorely missed. His majestic music is replaced by a noisy exercise in atmospheric sounds, devoid of melody and harsh on the ear. Harrison Ford makes a welcome return however, giving a career best performance. But he arrives too late to rescue the film.

The real star of 2049 is the visuals. Rightly winning Oscars for cinematography and special effects, the film plays like an extended show reel for director of photography Roger Deakins. Drawing visual cues from the first Blade Runner, and introducing new touches such as atmospheric use of snow and pollution, this is where the film really shines. A key scene involving a holographic Elvis Presley is especially dazzling. But it’s a pity the story ends up playing second fiddle to the imagery.

The filmmakers should have listened to actor Rutger Hauer, who contributed so much to the 1982 masterpiece: “I struggle to see why [Blade Runner 2049] was necessary. I just think if something is so beautiful, you should just leave it alone and make another film. …I’m not certain what the question was in the second Blade Runner. It’s not a character-driven movie and there’s no humour, there’s no love, there’s no soul. You can see the homage to the original. But that’s not enough to me. I knew that wasn’t going to work.”

This disappointing sequel is a reminder of just how good the 80s classic is. Villeneuve brings his own creative flourishes, but doesn’t let the story go as deep as it could. He couldn’t capture the old Blade Runner magic.

★★★☆☆ Impressive visuals can’t redeem a cold and unsatisfying story.

2001: A Space Odyssey – 50th Anniversary (U)

Half a century on, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is once again dazzling and mystifying audiences in cinemas around the world. In 1968 it was met with both praise and ridicule. Since then it has been widely accepted, in the words of Avatar director James Cameron, as “the all time great science fiction film.”

Spoilers follow.

2001 is a film of big ideas, but deliberately obscure ones. Kubrick worked with Arthur C. Clarke to lay the film’s foundations in the form of a novel, the broad stroke themes of which are the origins of intelligence, humanity’s destiny and the nature of ‘god’. Kubrick chose to leave much of the book’s explanatory material out of the film, keeping the meaning out of reach. As such the novel is more accessible, but can’t produce the same sense of wonder as the film.

The story consists of three main parts. The first is a depiction of a certain popular theory of humanity’s ‘natural’ origins, but with ‘early man’ prompted by a higher intelligence to advance in their evolution. The middle part most closely resembles a traditional narrative, and features the legendary HAL 9000 computer – one of the most chilling villains in cinema history, and a prophetic warning about the rise of artificial intelligence. The third act lives up to the film’s tagline ‘the ultimate trip’, as Kubrick treats us to psychedelic photographic effects and a surreal climax that has the power to either hypnotise or bewilder. Martin Scorsese described the finale as “one of the best religious moments in moviemaking”, and 2001 certainly has a sense of spiritual zeal. The classical soundtrack, grand shots of the heavens and deceptively simple plot combine to transform the cinema into a cathedral – a place for contemplation and awe.

Steven Spielberg suggested that 2001’s sense of mystery stems from the three sections of story not quite fitting together. Kubrick’s decision to keep things mysterious can be attributed to his belief that a film should be “more like music than like fiction”, “a progression of moods and feelings”. Viewed more as a concert piece than a traditional story, 2001 is a special opportunity to appreciate cinema’s unique power to stir emotions through the marriage of pictures and music.

Kubrick said that “the god concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of god. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of god”. But he falls into the inevitable trap that in trying to replace God as creator with a superior alien civilisation, the same question has to be asked about who created that civilisation, and so on. Conceding that a higher power is needed, even just to coach life on earth, is a backhanded admission of the existence of God – but Kubrick and Clarke use the hypothesis as an excuse to deny that conclusion.

Kubrick’s wife called the film the prayer of an agnostic. 2001 reflects a filmmaker considering the possibility of a god-like being and the consequences that would have for scientific thought. These heady concepts are expressed through one of the most exquisite and uncompromising works of art of the 20th century.

★★★★★ Majestic and maverick, but with important themes that stop short of their logical conclusions.

Annihilation (15)

Annihilation continues in a similar vein of twisted, mind-blowing sci-fi to director Alex Garland’s debut, Ex Machina (2014). He started out writing scripts for Danny Boyle, including 28 Days Later… (2002) and Sunshine (2007). Garland’s first two projects behind the camera measure up impressively to Boyle’s work.

Natalie Portman is on top form as Lena, a military veteran turned biologist. She specialises in cancer cells, how they multiply and overcome a host. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a soldier who suddenly reappears after a year missing in action. Kane is mysteriously ill however, and when Government agents intervene to quarantine him, Lena sets out to discover the truth of his secretive mission.

An alien force has arrived from beyond our atmosphere, creating a translucent wall, dubbed a ‘shimmer’. It’s boundaries are steadily growing, threatening to engulf the earth. Teams of soldiers and scientists have entered ‘Area X’ beyond the wall, but none have returned. Except Kane.

Lena joins the next team to go, desperate to save her husband by finding out what happened to him. Each expedition member has their own personal sadness that motivates them to volunteer for the potentially suicidal mission, but the film doesn’t give enough time to get to know them before the action starts. The script suggests that they represent three different ways to handle a crisis (such as cancer): learn from it, fight it, or succumb.

They find a beautiful, weird environment, and the genre gradually shifts from sci-fi to horror. The shimmer has caused animals in the zone to mutate into such grotesque, terrifying forms they (almost) make Alien (1979) look tame. There are brilliantly tense scenes, but Garland indulges in some unnecessarily over-the-top gore.

The story works on both visceral and cerebral levels, vividly depicting the paradox that is the miracle of life versus the self-destructiveness of nature. In a flashback scene Lena tells Kane that the ageing process isn’t natural, but a mistake in our DNA. In the Christian context of a fallen world, where death is an unnatural curse on God’s ‘very good’ creation, her point rings loud and true.

The climax is thrilling and bizarre, with dialogue-free sequences of dazzling visual effects, abstract music and even a kind of interpretive dance. There is a symmetry to the themes and imagery that bookend the film, leaving your mind with plenty to chew on as the credits roll.

It’s a shame Annihilation is only available from streaming service Netflix. It was obviously made for the cinema, with intricate visuals and expansive compositions. Crucial details are almost lost on a smaller screen. It’s worth catching on the biggest one you can.

★★★★☆ Strange and compelling. Not for the faint-hearted.

The Shape of Water (15)

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is inspired by iconic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In that film, scientists discover the evolutionary ‘missing link’ between fish and humans – a gill-man who is attracted to the female lead, in the tradition of King Kong (1933). But del Toro has twisted the story into a clumsy vehicle for his personal views on religion and love.

Spoilers ahead!

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute janitor at a top secret US research facility. Richard Jenkins plays her neighbour Giles, a gay man isolated by the prejudices of society. The amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought from South America for military study, and Elisa learns to communicate with it through sign language, forming a romantic bond. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the brute in charge who treats the captive fish-man with cruelty and disdain – but is supposedly a Christian.

The name Elisa means ‘consecrated to God’, and in the Amazon the creature was worshipped as one. Its touch has healing powers. Their relationship soon becomes physical – can the filmmakers really be condoning bestiality? The film is also unnecessarily explicit. Creature from the Black Lagoon may have had risqué undertones, but The Shape of Water shows everything.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Dr Hoffstetler, an open-minded scientist. With this character del Toro seems to suggest that logic and reason are all you need to forge a moral compass. The philosophy of the story is pure humanism. “If we do nothing, so are we”, Elisa says to Giles, who then realises his obligation to support her forbidden love, after being thrown out of a restaurant for being gay.

The discrimination Giles suffers is of course despicable, but the film deceptively compares it to the ‘Christian’ villain’s treatment of the creature. Strickland is nothing but a cartoon bad guy. Del Toro didn’t need to make him a Christian – the script is too puerile to disguise the preachy message.

Del Toro has said: “It’s really urgent that we do not fear the other, do not believe the ideology that they’re feeding you to reduce a person to one word.”  But all the film does is offer a different ideology. The villains – who flinch at the sound of blasphemy – argue that man is made in the image of God and that the fish-man is ‘an affront’, while the heroes blindly pursue a false ideal of ‘love’.

In one scene Elisa and the creature find themselves in an old-fashioned cinema, as The Story of Ruth (1960) plays on the big screen. Christians often hold Ruth as an ideal of godly romance – is the director positing his characters as a new model of love, for the modern world? Later the characters are in a fantasy song and dance sequence so silly and out of place, that even those with a taste for the surreal might think del Toro has lost the plot.

Stylistically The Shape of Water oozes with affection for a bygone golden age of cinema, executed with technical excellence and visual panache. But sadly, the man behind the camera is misusing his considerable skills to promote immorality. The prophet Isaiah said: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” – but this year it seems they get Oscars instead.

★★★☆☆ Beautifully made, but dangerously misguided.

Ready Player One (12A)

Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, is a treasure trove of 1980s pop culture. Initially it has a nihilistic message, that there is no God and that the world we live in is only good for escaping from.

The film differs wildly from the book, leaving many fans of the source material furious. The changes are mainly to make the story suitable for younger audiences – with a greater range of pop references, minimised peril and Cline’s snipes at religion removed. Spielberg’s movie-going audience is much broader than the book’s readership.

The setting is a common one in science fiction – a not so far off dystopian future. Almost everyone is living a parallel life in the OASIS – a virtual universe accessed by the internet. Their alter egos, or avatars, are controlled with the user’s whole body, so they can do everything that can be done in the real world – and more. Tye Sheridan plays Wade, a lone player who spends all his spare time in the OASIS – where his only friends are.

The idolised creator of the game is the enigmatic James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a cross between Steve Jobs and Willy Wonka. The story begins years after his death, with players (including Wade) on a quest to discover a hidden prize, known as an Easter egg. Halliday’s fortune is at stake, as the winner is set to inherit his empire. Innovative Online Industries (IOI) are corporate bad guys pouring money into the search, with plans to dominate the global economy, and flood the virtual world with advertising.

To say that Ready Player One is a feast for the eyes is an understatement. Spielberg has crafted a digital wonderland, full to bursting with imagination and detail. The story touches on social issues that have been raised before, in films such as WALL-E (2008), but with greater prescience as VR gaming is already a reality.

Spielberg’s usual composer, John Williams, is sadly missing, with stand-in Alan Silvestri’s score completely unmemorable.  A nostalgic rush of classic 80s tracks helps to make up for this, plus musical nods to Silvestri’s magnum opus, Back to the Future.

For a film aimed at younger audiences the amount of blood and gore is surprising. Scenes from 18 rated horror films are smuggled in as references, but still have the power to shock, even in the context of a simulation. That said they include one of the most inspired sequences in Ready Player One – a huge treat for fans of the classic film in question, where Spielberg pays tribute to one of cinemas greatest directors – and one of his old friends.

The coherence of the story starts to fall apart in the last sixty minutes or so. The plot moves at lightening pace as Spielberg works to cram the book into less than two and a half hours. The intercutting between the real and virtual worlds isn’t always convincing, and the villains’ actions sometimes don’t make sense. These problems would be easier to overlook if the film was aimed strictly at children, but for anyone over 12 there are huge plot holes. The flaws aren’t enough, however, to detract from the overall effect of wonder and fun.

Spielberg’s achievement with Ready Player One proves he will always be a relevant voice in cinema. The book might be anti-Christian, but this adaptation has a simple and wholesome message. It offers an encouragement to spend less time escaping from reality, and more time making the most of what’s real.

★★★★☆ Immense fun, even if the story doesn’t always work.

Mother! (18)

Darren Aronofsky’s follow up to Noah (2014) finds him again grappling with biblical themes, in an abstract and original story. Mother! is a return to the kind of small-scale filmmaking he began with, as well as the more graphic and disturbing content that his film Requiem for a Dream (2000) gave him a reputation for.

Spoilers follow.

The characters have no names, credited simply as ‘Mother’, ’Him’, ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and so on. Clearly they are meant as symbols, though who or what they represent is open to interpretation. Jennifer Lawrence is in the title role, the young wife of a mercurial poet (Him), played by Javier Bardem. Living a seemingly idyllic life in a country house, their peace is disturbed when Ed Harris (‘Man’) knocks on the door. Apparently a fan of the poet’s work, he outstays his welcome, and soon his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives to join him. Some obvious symbolism identifies them as Adam and Eve, the first in a series of forced symbols that pepper the film.

‘Mother’, most likely representing Mother Nature, becomes increasingly panicked as her home fills with more and more intruders. Lawrence pushes herself to the limits of emotion as her character endures horrifying situations. It’s a difficult film to watch – you can feel the director wrestling with what he’s read in the Bible, trying and failing to make sense of it.

The stakes increase when Mother becomes pregnant, and as the story nears its distressing climax, Aronofsky seems to suggest that the Christian idea of God sacrificing his son is disgusting and depraved, with a shocking scene that matches that description.

Mother! is an unsettling allegory of an imperfect god’s fragile hold on a chaotic world. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker of Aronofsky’s calibre putting his mind to spiritual issues, even if the results are mixed.

★★★★☆ A dizzying mix of the sacred and the profane.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)

Abrasive, brutal, opinionated and ambiguous. Not natural fits for a Christian audience, and perhaps that’s why Three Billboards has received a bad rap from the Christian press. But look beyond the rage and violence, and you’ll see an honest story that wrestles to reconcile our natural sense of justice with the evil in the world around us.

Major plot spoilers follow.

Francis McDormand plays Mildred Hays. Her life has been torn apart by the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, and the local police are failing to investigate. Her fury building, she takes action by hiring advertising space to post messages challenging the police, in particular police chief Willoughby.

Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a character so unlikable that initially it strains the limits of believability. But all is not as it seems… writer/director Martin McDonagh is cleverly setting up our expectations for a surprise later. Dixon is the first police officer to see Mildred’s billboards, and so a hate-fuelled face-off begins.

By contrast, Mildred’s relationship with Chief Willoughby is marked by a measure of mutual understanding. Woody Harrelson plays him as a world-weary and compassionate man, who makes efforts to sympathise with Mildred. But she doesn’t soften, even when he confides that he is dying of cancer.

McDormand and Harrelson particularly shine in their roles, and the soundtrack is one of Carter Burwell’s most memorable. McDonagh’s wicked sense of humour that worked so well for In Bruges (2008) sometimes gets in the way here. Comic interludes break the tension, usually not in a good way. A scene where Mildred kicks two children in the crotch serves no purpose beyond giving a splash of dark humour – the story’s theme of justice put on hold as she gets away with it, no questions asked. An early scene where she makes an illogical rant against the Catholic Church also undermines the otherwise exceptional script.

A dramatic twist turns Dixon’s life upside down, and his attitude to Mildred’s case is set right – just as Mildred is firebombing the police station. In one of the most moving scenes of recent years, Mildred looks on from the shadows as Dixon emerges through the flames, clutching her daughter’s case file, rescued from the fire.

The scarred Dixon is now a changed man, and sets his mind to solve the case. Mildred gets away with the arson attack, but her once clear conscience is increasingly sullied, as she starts to realise that anger just leads to more anger.

The cliffhanger finale shows it wasn’t all about retribution, but forgiveness too. The desire for revenge is a sad trait that makes the characters all the more believable. As Mildred and Dixon drive off together in pursuit of a scapegoat to punish, they ask each other whether they are sure about such vengeance. “No”, they admit, agreeing to work it out along the way. Dixon touchingly reveals he knew all along that it was Mildred who torched the police station, causing his horrific injuries. At this Mildred smiles a smile of immense gratitude – their reconciliation sparking hope in her heart once more.

Three Billboards is a dark and angry film, that builds to reveal thoughtful examples of grace and redemption. There are depths that few filmmakers dare to sound, and if you can forgive the missteps you’ll be rewarded with an unflinching, all too recognisable study of human nature.

★★★★★ A brilliant, authentic look at the human condition.

Mary Magdalene (12A)

Rooney Mara plays the title role in this well-intentioned film from Lion (2016) director Garth Davis. Her casting smacks a bit of the whitewashing Hollywood has been accused of in recent years, but that aside her performance is ample, though constrained by a very limited script.

In striving for a sense of depth and awe the screenwriters have stripped out most of the known narrative, favouring silence and space over the literate and clear message that Christ brought. The usually great Joaquin Phoenix mumbles his way through the few lines he has, giving us a Jesus who seems distant and disturbed.

The film seeks to restore Magdalene’s reputation, as for centuries she has been wrongly assumed to have been a prostitute. In 2016 the Pope declared her ‘Apostle of the Apostles’, somewhat over-egging this correction. The film doesn’t do much better, portraying the disciples as slow-witted and in much need of Magdalene to explain Jesus’ words to them.

Key moments from the gospels are barely touched on – perhaps Garth Davis thinks we’ve seen it all before. But for those who don’t already know the story, little is left beyond a simple tale of a headstrong woman leaving her family to follow a troubled religious leader, whose message is unclear.

The cinematography is transporting, often appearing only to use natural light, and the music has its moments – but quality of craft alone can’t make a film worth watching.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian sailed close to the wind of blasphemy with a fictional story that ran parallel to Jesus’ life, and there’s more than a whiff of that here. The real story is always just out of reach, as the filmmakers turn the camera away from the action to focus on Mara’s saintly and earnest expression.

Hopefully Mel Gibson, when he returns with his sequel to The Passion of the Christ, can include a more worthy portrait of Magdalene. He could do more in five minutes than this film does in two hours.

★★☆☆☆ A confused, boring disservice to the woman it tries to honour.