Real-Life Foundation of 'Glass Castle' Can't Support Theatrics

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton; Runtime: 127 minutes
Grade: C+

Adapting a memoir for the big screen can get complicated, especially if the story involves harrowing circumstances that could make one question the genuineness of what's happening. For the sake of pacing or achieving a certain rating, the writers handling the screenplay may choose to excise crucial or outlandish details; for the sake of character development or achieving a cohesive tone, certain elements might also be expanded upon. Therefore, giving a pass to a film's credibility simply for its roots as a true-to-life memoir isn't such a straightforward thing. Short Term 12 revealed that writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton understands how to authentically capture the intensity of a traumatic childhood, boding well for his adaptation of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' recount of her family life plagued with homelessness and alcoholism. While powerful, well-crafted, and driven by a raw and versatile performance by Brie Larson, the director's third feature-length effort can't keep the sheen of cinematic melodrama under control, producing a ramshackle tearjerker with some gaps in the remembering that'd help it along.

The "glass castle", also the name of the novel, refers to a fanciful dream home constantly being blueprinted and promised to be built by family patriarch Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson), an intelligent, skilled engineer and manual laborer. His insistence on independence and bouts with alcoholism prevent him from doing so, though; his inability to hold down a job and his need to escape from creditors force him and his family -- his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), and four children -- to live as nomads, traveling between rental homes and squatting in others that have been abandoned. Despite the harsh limitations of this lifestyle, second-eldest child Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) ultimately makes it out of the situation, as seen by how the story transports ahead many years later to when she's become a renowned gossip journalist and fiancée to a wealthy financial professional. The Glass Castle reveals how she engineered her escape from her destitute conditions to this New York lifestyle, and how the troubles of her past both figuratively and literally followed her to the big city.

In its cinematic form, The Glass Castle is constructed with nonlinear storytelling throughout, jumping between the turmoil of the Walls' hard-living years to Jeannette's stable yet emotionally burdened adulthood. These two narratives also move forward normally and in lockstep with one another, and in the process Destin Daniel Cretton -- teaming up with co-writers Andrew Lanham and Marti Noxon -- swiftly establishes certain before-after expectations to the film's layout based on Jeanette's escape and her father's fluctuating alcoholism. Cretton cleverly operates in meeting points and the vague knowledge of what's coming up in either the near or distant future, which, considering the Walls' constant state of impoverishment and fear of whatever state Rex might be in, successfully gives the film a progressive and mostly melancholy type of expectancy. That said, the script also tends to over-explain during dramatic endeavors while leaving out more mundane, yet difficult details of the Walls' complex life, combining into a depiction with an expressive agenda instead of one focused on realistic hardship.

The depiction of the Walls' lifestyle shares a few similarities to last year's Captain Fantastic, in which an alternative family -- led by an intelligent yet volatile patriarch -- concentrates on homeschooling, meager means and self-sustainability as they perpetuate a rustic vagabond existence. Once Rex's drinking come into play, however, The Glass Castle takes on a different attitude, commanded by familiar tones involving children threatened by deadbeat parents in destitute conditions. Destin Daniel Cretton tries to keep up with an evenhanded portrayal of alcoholism through Woody Harrelson's gritty performance, depicting Rex's menacing and narcissistic attributes alongside his flickers of consideration for his family, mostly during holidays and when he's in trouble. The lengths in which the film goes to stress the danger posed to his family crosses certain boundaries, though, to such a point that any attempts to highlight his merits struggle under the weight of degeneracy. It's a symptom of the big-screen adaptation: the balance of a nuanced portrayal gets thrown off by the need to enhance necessary overtones.

Jeannette's youth takes up a substantial amount of time in The Glass Castle, but most of the story's thematic interest comes in how older Jeannette resolves her attitude toward her past and her parents, which, along with the quasi-flashback nature of it all, justifies the nonlinear design of the narrative. It also spreads out and makes ample use of Brie Larson's talents, who brings a similarly wide-eyed rawness and somber resolution to Jeanette that she did in Room. This is a challenging role, one that involves a lot of internalization and evolution of her character, from her desperate ambitions of her early years to the hollow routine she falls into with her wealth-driven fiancée. Larson elevates The Glass Castle by injecting specific personality into all facets of Jeanette, especially the subtleties of her tolerant, yet determined attitude; sharp flips in her personality, like when she defends her Chinese dumplings with chopsticks during a meal or how she caves into the feral attributes of her old self while encouraging her husband, transform into some of the film's most notable moments.

Neither Larson's portrayal nor Destin Daniel Cretton's focus on the intimacy and power of conversations -- which served him so well in Short Term 12 -- can fully realize the true-story potency of The Glass Castle, growing more complicated as Jeanette's story approaches foreseeable moments of catharsis. Themes of forgiveness and coming to grips with one's past are involved that, despite an earnest effort from the director to follow-up on his previous film's success, struggle to make sense with everything that happens beforehand, and the abridgment and cluttered merging of past and present story threads bear the responsibility. Daniel Cretton pays close attention to the progression of events in Jeanette's past, but the same attention isn't paid to arguably more poignant scenes in her present, in which significant phonecalls, reunions, and changes in viewpoint latch onto emotions that aren't earned in their neglectful buildup. The urge might be there to cut The Glass Castle some slack for its attempt at sentimental consideration of all sides of coping with self-destructive loved ones, but much like Rex's blueprints for the ideal household, it's a pursuit that lacks the grounded wherewithal to make it happen.

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'Devil's Candy' Unwraps Disturbing, Flimsy Supernatural Horror

Directed by: Sean Byrne; Runtime: 78 minutes
Grade: C

Despite leaving a mark on the horror genre with The Loved Ones, a polarizing mixture of revenge cinema and torture porn centered on a rejected high-school dance invitation, it took Australian director Sean Byrne over a half-decade to follow up on the mounting cult status of his feature debut. Regardless of its controversial nature, the visual interest and challenging rawness within the film seemed like it'd nail Byrne into the commercial horror discussion, but year after year passed without hearing out of the director. Eventually, Byrne's latest, The Devil's Candy, emerged on the "midnight madness" docket at Toronto's film festival, only to vanish after its screening without gaining the same traction as his debut. Both more tonally ambitious and less viscerally provocative than The Loved Ones, writer/director Byrne's sophomore effort trades pure warped psychosis for the uncontrollable mind-twisting of demonic possession, and relying on the supernatural ends up keeping it from striking the same chord.

Times aren't easy financially for the Hellman clan, but that doesn't prevent them from considering the purchase of a home in rural Texas, reduced due to the troubling history that fills the place. They're a "metal" family: the father-daughter duo of Jesse (Ethan Embry) and Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are into aggressive rock music, which is tolerated by wife and mother figure Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Jesse's a struggling painter who resorts to somewhat flowery commission pieces to pay the bills, amount to just barely enough for them to meet their mortgage; his true artistic talent goes largely unappreciated by local galleries. Once Jesse moves into the house -- and into a sprawling new studio -- there's a presence that overtakes him as he's painting, yielding disturbing yet visually interesting pieces that he cannot fully recall creating … and oftentimes distracts him from his other obligations. As he starts trying to manage this new onset creativity, a heavy and intimidating relative (Pruitt Taylor Vince) of the previous owners starts to impose upon the Hellmans, generating fear for their safety.

The Devil's Candy never offers a glimpse at Jesse's artwork in an untainted state, transitioning from the butterfly-infused commission piece he hates making to the disturbing paintings composed under supernatural possession, which turns out to be an appropriate reflection of Sean Byrne's objectives. Joy, humor, and concern are generated by the Hellman family that lead to endearing development from the start, driven by the ups and down of father-daughter bonding amid their headbanging and Jesse's troubles in discovering financial success with his artwork. The Hellmans serve purposes without summoning more engaging traits that'd flesh them out as characters, though, notably the reasons behind Jesse's rejected creativity and, well, much of anything about his anchor of a wife beyond her concerns for the family and her skepticism for their music choices. Their poverty and edginess come across as explanations for buying a foreclosed house with a dark past instead of the traits of a nuanced family unit, each lacking an extra something to compliment the cast's universally soulful performances.

Unsettling madness and murder are what actually kick off The Devil's Candy, hinged on a large, intimidating man loudly rocking out on a Flying V guitar to drown out the voices plaguing his head. Much of the film's escalation of his demon-infused ruthlessness relies on other people getting concerned or agitated over the extreme loudness of his playing, when, really, it could've been avoided had he plugged headphones into the amplifier and quietly muted the spectral urgings. The Devil works in mysterious ways, though, so let's assume it'd worsen and provoke the villain anyway. Primetime Emmy winner Pruitt Taylor Vince offers a fiercely disconcerting presence as the dazed, disconnected brute with a violent streak, amplifying the domestic invasion dread alongside the painter's own struggles with voices in his head. The harshness of the guitar thrashin' parallels with the scraping and stroking of Jesse's artwork into a tense provocation of the senses, invigorated by Byrne's grasp on mood and discomfort.

There's a theme at play in The Devil's Candy that attempts to add layers to the horror experience, one not-so-subtly hinted at by the title: that of the distraction and pitfalls of temptation, notably involving Jesse's artistic profession. While it seems as if director Sean Byrne wants to channel this into the spark that gets the suspense roaring on a meaningful note, the vagueness of the supernatural persuasion's functionality and the unbreakable control it enacts upon its victim drains the film of those deeper possibilities. Despite the eerie, piercing presence of Tony Amendola at a crucial juncture in this side of the film's intentions, the concept of the trademarked Devil luring in the susceptible gets undercut by the enigmas of mind control interwoven into the spirit of the house itself. It's the human component of temptation, of surrendering to the rewards of ambition even when it does harm to the other facets of one's life, that make the concept work and that Byrne has obscured; see The Devil's Advocate for a more compelling representation.

Regardless of its more thoughtful endeavors, The Devil's Candy continuously swells with intensity and terror as satanic possession seeps into Jesse and deeper into his family's menacing stalker, going in some rather dark directions involving child kidnappings and murder. Again, though, so much hinges on mistake after mistake made by Jesse while under supernatural influence that it's partially distracting from the mood generated by Byrne, even if they deepen the supernatural intrigue of what's transpiring. Either way, the brutal events possess such a potent, well-executed escalation of the situation that the success of its thought-exercise becomes secondary, where the mysteries flare up into an unpredictable ending that isn't afraid to go in chaotic directions that defy common sense. Stylistically and viscerally, The Devil's Candy is a concise, admirably shocking follow-up to Sean Byrne's premiere feature, and those merits should hopefully put him in the horror spotlight; however, the ways in which the director executes and leans on the supernatural like a crutch also twist this into a lesser sophomore effort.

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Assayas Can't Close Deal With Obscured 'Personal Shopper'

Directed by: Olivier Assayas; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: C

Olivier Assayas seems to have discovered a new muse in Kristen Stewart, an actress whose specific sort of grim, troubled dramatic aura struggled over the years under the weight of awkward Hollywood outings, from the cumbersome reimagining of Snow White to, well, y'know … Twilight. That bad rap has gradually dissipated as she's transitioned to reputable indie projects, filling out roles that range from a Guantanamo Bay soldier to a farmland law-class instructor, but she hasn't yet landed that crucial leading role that'll completely distract from her past foibles. Perhaps this will eventually happen under the guidance of Assayas' intuitive and layered filmmaking, but his first film with her in a leading role is unable to do so. Despite a steadfast and raw performance from Stewart, Personal Shopper can't figure out what kind of character study it wants to become, leaving one waiting for the true spirit of the film to arrive amid a hodgepodge of grief, temptation, and absorption with the supernatural.

Assayas opens the film with Maureen (Stewart) feeling out the paranormal presence within a dim, creaky house, positioning herself as a medium between this world and the afterlife. She hopes for a sign from her twin brother, who recently died of a genetic defect and who could also interact with spirits, going so far as to stall her plans to leave Paris until she makes tangible contact with him. To afford Parisian life, Maureen serves as a personal shopper and quasi-stylist for a high-profile celebrity, sometimes purchasing clothing for her to wear in public and other times merely "renting" the items. Being that she's a maddening woman to work for who imposes rules upon her shopper and skirts deadlines for returning items, it's not a great career for Maureen. The complications of her layers of communication merge when she receives mysterious messages from an "unknown" sender, forcing her to decode what's real and what's from beyond the pale.

Maybe it seems like typecasting to view spiritual mediums as more casual bohemian types unconcerned with the material things of this world, but Maureen's soulful angst and the contemplation involved with being at least partially attuned to the spirit world clash with the superficiality of shopping for and dressing someone else. Sure, communing with the dead doesn't pay the bills very well unless it's from an entrepreneur who aggressively publicizes themselves, yet there's a strong disconnect between what Maureen divulges about her comprehension of the paranormal and her high-dollar acquisitions at local boutiques. This happens so noticeably that they almost seem like two versions of the same person, two entirely different examinations of the context impacting their lives instead of a cohesive portrait of someone struggling to juggle both realms of an existence. Assayas may have intent there, depicting the true Maureen and the false version of herself she's created to sustain her existence in Paris; if that's the case, the disparity between the two backfires on his intentions, lacking focus instead of emphasizing duality.

Little of this has to do with Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper, who projects the same type of enthralling melancholy attitude upon both sides of Maureen, enhanced by her signature narrow-eyed gazes and distinctive body movement that shifts from bold assertiveness to recessive discomfort. What could be a tremendous medium for exploring the depths of Stewart's capabilities inside the skin of an overburdened lead character instead struggles to preserve the illusion that she is, in fact, the same person throughout. Profoundness gets drawn out of Stewart when Maureen interacts with the spirit realm in scenes resembling the moving parts of a supernatural thriller, but then shortly after she's scooted into the position of buying thousand-dollar garments and resisting the urge to try them on, stitching together oddly cold perspectives on the realistic minutiae of her diminishing stability in everyday activities. Stewart conveys the progression of her character even when Assayas' script doesn't possess enough material to do the same with her daily routine.

A big source of frustration with Personal Shopper comes in a drawn-out sequence where Maureen responds to message after message on her cellphone, all while she's traveling via train between shopping destinations. Beyond the peculiarities of why she's indulging the conversation in the first place, and continues to indulge it, this amounts to an exceedingly bothersome cinematic experience on the surface that hinges on seemingly -- and, soon after, deliberately -- out-of-character actions from Maureen, regardless of her supernatural perception. Dramatic momentum gets lost in this expansive text conversation, which spills over into the remainder of the film's developments and overshadows whatever deeper intentions Assayas yearned to achieve with Maureen's grasp on the death of her brother. Sure, an air of ambiguity hangs over this dialogue with an "unknown" participant and the specific knowledge that they possess, but the contents of the texts themselves gradually undermine the mystique by promptly narrowing the possibilities of who or what might be on the other end.

Maureen's paranormal waiting game and the pressures and taboos of her unrewarding job initially appear as if they'll remain the cerebral stimuli of Personal Shopper, but Olivier Assayas isn't content with letting these elements of psychological suspense play out on their own terms. His film, whose two sides felt like mixing water and oil at many points, eventually transforms into something else entirely that doesn't play out like a rational extension of what comes before it, nor like something that those invested in a low-key supernatural drama would anticipate; those who saw the abrupt macabre direction taken by the tone of Clouds of Sils Maria might not be that surprised. Impacted by another of Assayas' fade-to-black evasions of key details, it's tough to know what to make of Personal Shopper's viewpoint on communicating with the dead and moving on after tragedy, especially when it builds toward a conclusion that's dependent on esoteric vagueness and engineered for interpretation. Whether Maureen sees dead people or not matters less without a sturdier grip on who she really is.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]