Movie Review: The Glass Castle

I don’t know what this says about me, but there’s a particular stock character in Hollywood movies who I always wind up feeling sorry for – sometimes even more so than for the protagonist, as I did in the just-released “The Glass Castle.” It’s the “nice guy fiancé” role – you know, the heroine’s dream guy, who’s witty, devoted and charming, but who is destined to either be a) left literally at the altar, or b) given an impromptu off-the-cuff speech about values by the heroine, after Life Lessons about being yourself above all, dawn on her. Here, it’s Max Greenfield, who is witty, devoted and above all, quite rich, to whom Brie Larson is engaged as the film opens. However, she has not yet told her parents (Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts) who are currently squatting in an abandoned home in New York. By all measures, Max is perfect for Brie, a magazine columnist, for whom saying that she had a chaotic upbringing is like saying the Titanic sustained some water damage. In real life, this match would make it through the wedding, but because this is your typical movie, we know from the start that Brie’s issues will get in the way, and the collateral damage won’t be pretty.

“The Glass Castle” is based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, and charts how she and her three siblings were dragged from pillar to post across the country, often hungry if not penniless, while her artist mother painted and her alcoholic father dreamed big dreams that never came to fruition because he, too, was tormented by demons. They lived in homes with no electricity or heat (when Jeannette’s older sister points this out, her dad responds, “Ignore her. She was born without vision.”) when they weren’t staying with Woody’s evil mother. But all this was temporary, according to Woody, because he was going to one day build the titular Glass Castle. At first, Jeannette (played as a girl by Ella Anderson) finds all these adventures thrilling and has the utmost faith that Daddy will come through; eventually, she realizes that she is being “parented” by incompetents and makes a pact with her siblings to stick together until they are old enough to escape. When they do manage to, their parents follow them to New York with their youngest sister. Neither Woody nor Naomi is thrilled to see their middle daughter embracing the bourgeois lifestyle. Eventually, Jeannette begins to have doubts, as well.

The movie includes most of the memorable scenes from the book: the opener when Jeannette burns herself badly enough to land in the hospital; the scene where the kids band together against Woody’s evil mother (for good cause), and one in which Woody repeatedly throws Jeannette into the water to “teach” her how to swim. This serves as the film’s central metaphor, which is pounded helpfully into the movie-goer’s cranium. The cast all does a decent job bringing the memoir to life, but those critics who have pointed out that the film tries to wrap up dysfunction with a pretty bow have a point.

Movie Review: Shut-In

This movie has a major twist, which the review reveals. Read at your own risk.

“Am I dreaming?” stammers Mary Portman (Naomi Watts), as she opens her eyes and discovers that her mouth is bound with duct tape, her previously comatose son is looming over her, and – oh by the way – she’s nude in the bathtub. This may prompt a snicker from the viewer given how many times the main character has woken from a nightmare and “fooled” the viewer. But this time, yes, it’s for real. In “Shut-In,” Naomi plays a child psychologist who winds up getting stuck in a New England snowstorm in her home “alone” with her disabled son from a car crash that killed her husband. And in a plot twist best described as Freud meets “Misery,” she’s about to be taken hostage by her own son. Oh, and she also has an adorable deaf boy (Jacob Tremblay from “Room”) who is one of her patients in the house. who was previously believed to be lost, in peril because – why not? The more people in peril the better! Luckily, Naomi’s doctor, Oliver Platt, has been able to glean from Skype that something is amiss and is hopefully on the way to intervene, snow and all. So there is a lot of suspense – or at least is supposed to be.

Before going into the rest of the plot, let’s discuss “Misery,” for a minute. I know it’s movie villains like Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates that tend to get mentioned as the scariest of all time, but in my opinion, Kathy Bates’s performance as an unbalanced “greatest fan,” of romance writer, James Caan, is one of the most frightening I’ve ever seen on screen. (Who else could make epithets like “Mr. Man,” and “Dirty birdie,” sound more sinister than cursing?) However, if you are hoping for an equally or at least somewhat as suspenseful movie with “Shut In,” you will be waiting quite awhile. Sure there is eye candy in the form of the troubled (to put it mildly) adolescent son, Charlie Heaton, who sulks and pouts smolderingly in the mold of a young Leo DiCaprio or Stephen Dorff, and there’s plenty of cringe factor in the set-up of a son who is infatuated with mom – but the pacing is odd. How slow is this movie? It’s the equivalent of sitting in a really boring class with a growling stomach before lunch. Things tend to happen either lickety-split or with the agonizing slowness of molasses trickling from a congealed jug in August. Perhaps the mistake was putting in enough “Misery” elements so that the viewer naturally expects a similar movie in terms of quality. That was my mistake anyway.

“Shut-In,” expects the viewer to swallow wholesale a couple of things that might be difficult. First, that a parent who is a child psychologist could completely miss the signs that her son is a sociopath, as he has never done anything violent save for a one time stand against some bullies. Second, it asks you to believe that said sociopath could successfully fake catatonia from the moment he wakes up in the hospital to the moment where he takes mom hostage. Said sociopathic son has only decided to drop the façade because he’s overheard Naomi and Oliver discussing putting him in an institution. Now Naomi is not only trying to save herself and the little boy, who Charlie believes is his “replacement,” but she must also play along at times when she’s cornered. I can see how a loving mother, even a psychologist, might be blind to the signs that there is something off about her child, especially if his behavior doesn’t fit the neat little diagnostic boxes. However, the second part seems impossible or at least implausible. Your mileage may vary on this.

As for the storm itself, it’s pretty benign by New England standards. Most New Englanders are going to look at it and shrug because they’ve lived through way worse. But it does put a crimp in the plans of Oliver, although I was never really concerned that help wouldn’t show up in the nick of time. As Naomi struggles to figure out if she’s going insane, there is talk of ghosts and intruders, but nothing can beat the sheer creepiness of Charlie’s behavior. The suspense mainly comes from wondering if the movie will “go there.” After it was over, everyone walked out with “What the heck was that?” looks on their faces. Myself included.