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: The Edge of Seventeen

“If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life,” a character deadpans in “Dazed and Confused,” “remind me to kill myself.” It’s a sentiment that the heroine of “The Edge of Seventeen,” might share, trapped as she is in an excruciatingly awkward adolescence. We meet Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) in a flashback as a petulant seven-year-old refusing to get out of the car and go into school, and as the years progress, things only get worse, although she does make a best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), with whom she’s inseparable – at least up until the film begins. Then suddenly, things fall apart. Or more accurately, they explode.

So what is the cataclysmic event that rocks Hailee’s world? Well, actually there’s two. First, her father dies in an accident leaving the family: Hailee, her golden boy older brother (Blake Jenner) and her flaky mother (Kyra Sedgwick) coping shakily a couple years later. Second, after Hailee’s mom meets a guy online and departs for an impromptu weekend with him (are there really single parents who do that?), Blake winds up hooking up with Hailee’s best friend.  Even worse, it isn’t just a one night stand; they actually start dating. This triggers all sorts of unresolved issues, for which Hailee has just her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) to complain to. Woody, playing a real-life Haymitch who is still convinced the world isn’t that great a place (even without the Hunger Games), is basically an adult version of Hailee’s character, but that also means that he’s able to relate to her (albeit in a caustic way) and help her work through some of her problems. But even those occasionally leave him scratching his head, such as when Hailee posts an unfortunate message on Facebook, and he can only suggest she be careful of run-on sentences in the future. Luckily, as tends to happen in these movies with odd frequency, there is a backup guy (Hayden Szeto) waiting in the wings to console Hailee – after she’s learned some hard life lessons.

While watching “The Edge of Seventeen,” I started thinking about John Hughes’ movies for two reasons. One is that this film does a similarly perceptive job of capturing the pains and triumphs of those years. Two, I wondered why the filmmakers chose to use the title of a Stevie Nicks’ song yet not feature the song in the soundtrack? I’m not sure how they could have made it fit, but it made me remember how well Hughes incorporated the title songs that lent their names to films like “Pretty in Pink,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful.” But that’s nitpicking because “The Edge of Seventeen” is excellent with or without a retro tune of the same name. And although “The Edge of Seventeen,” does have a few minor problems (such as the unfortunate chemistry between Hailee and Blake), it is a film which deserves (like many of the Hughes’ teen ones) to be watched over and over. Even people twice the characters’ ages (for example, me) can always use a reminder that 1) it’s not always about you, and 2) everyone has problems. Some are just better at pretending otherwise.

Movie Review: Now You See Me 2

When a great actor appears in a mediocre movie, I often find myself thinking back to their better ones, which is what happened in “Now You See Me 2.” It shares some similarities with “The Shawshank Redemption,” mainly Morgan Freeman in a major role, Morgan’s sonorous voiceover, a scene set to opera and a jailbreak. Both movies also take the time to dissect a character’s miraculous escape so that the viewer can see exactly what happened – or in this case, five characters. However, the theme has more in common with “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” which is about a group of egotistical individuals learning that they’re more powerful when they work (wait for it) as a team.

The opening scene (just in time for Father’s Day) features a flashback with Young Mark Ruffalo, his dad, a magic trick that goes horribly wrong, and Morgan present as someone hoping to expose the dad as a fraud. Then we’re back in the present, when we’re introduced to the various four Horsemen (only now there’s five): Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo and Lizzy Caplan, who gets to be the newbie. The FBI (headed by Michael Caine) is supposedly hot on the trail of the Horsemen, and Morgan’s character is in jail because of plot points from the last movie that are explained. However, Morgan is planning revenge. The characters wind up in the lair of Daniel Radcliffe, who also has it in for them because of other plot points that get explained – and he forces them to pull off a heist against their will – after somehow transporting them without them knowing it to China. (I’m guessing perhaps the real world version of Floo Powder was involved.) The object: a computer chip that will let you hack into any computer on the planet. (There’s a bit more to their task, but that’s the gist.)

The characters come up with a plan and end up in the lair of yet another evil genius, whose hermetically sealed top secret chamber where the card with the computer chip is gave me another flashback to the TV room in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – it’s white, sterile and difficult to extract oneself from. The escape involves a card trick, that is fun at first, but then goes on a little too long. Eventually, the characters turn the tables on Daniel, Michael and Woody’s annoying twin brother, who insinuates himself in the high jinks, as well early on. At the end, Mark obeys his conscience and gives the Everlasting Gobstopper back, and as it turns out, Slugworth has really been on their side all along. Well, not exactly, but out of the two movies, it’s the one with considerably more magic.