Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2017: The Glass Castle (dir by Destin Daniel Cretton)


The Glass Castle, which some people expected to be an Oscar contender until they actually sat through the damn thing, is a film that nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at my television.

Seriously, I was curled up on the couch and watching the movie on TV.  On the screen, Woody Harrelson was playing an obnoxious, selfish alcoholic who resented both his daughter’s success and her boyfriend.  According to the alcoholic who was living in a trash-strewn hovel with his wife, success meant selling out and money was the root of all evil and blah blah blah.  Anyway, the drunk ended up punching his son-in-law.  The very next scene featured the son-in-law whining about getting punched and that’s when I realized that the film somehow expected us to be on the side of the drunken asshole.

I reached down and picked a shoe up from the floor.  I was just about to throw it at the television when my sister Erin reached out from behind me and grabbed my hand.

“Lisa Marie,” she said, “you are not throwing your shoe at the TV.”

“But Errrrrrrrin,” I whined, “this movie really sucks!”

“Well, then write a review about how much it sucks.  But you’re not going to throw another shoe at the TV.”

Reluctantly, I dropped the shoe.  Though I may have been annoyed at the time, I see Erin’s point.  The Glass Castle is not worth losing a shoe over.

The Glass Castle is based on a powerful memoir by Jeannette Wells.  It tells the story of how she and her siblings were raised by an alcoholic father and an artist mother.  It’s a story that’s full of adventure and pathos and everything else that you could hope for from a family memoir.  It’s also a memoir that works because Walls refuses to idealize her life.  Though she writes about how her childhood seemed like a grand adventure when she was actually living it, she’s also very honest about the fact that it really wasn’t.  Though her love for her family comes through on every page, she never shies away from the darker aspects of growing up as American vagabonds.

The film largely takes the opposite approach to the material.  As played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, Walls’s parents are portrayed as being somewhat lovable eccentrics.  Early on, when her mother’s carelessness leads to young Jeannette being burned and permanently scarred in a fire, there’s a scene where Harrelson compares it to the fire that burns inside of the entire family.  When I realized that we were supposed to be moved by this asinine comparison, I ended up rolling my eyes so hard that the world literally looked like it was upside down for five minutes.  “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME!?” I yelled at the movie.

This was followed by another scene where, at a public pool, Harrelson attempts to teach Jeanette to swim by repeatedly tossing her into the deep end and nearly drowning her.  And while the film acknowledged that this wasn’t exactly the best parenting technique, it was hard not to feel that we were supposed to think that Harrelson had a point when he said that he was preparing Jeannette to be a strong and independent person who would be able to survive being plunged into the deep end of existence.  “NO!”  I shouted at the TV, “YOU JUST NEARLY DROWNED YOUR DAUGHTER, YOU PRICK!”

(Full disclosure: My Dad once tried the same thing with me.  Fortunately, he only nearly drowned me once — as opposed to Jeannette’s father who just keeps dunking her in the deep end.  Still, it was frightening enough to not only leave me with with an obsessive fear of drowning but it also kept me from ever really learning how to swim.)

When Jeannette grows up, she’s played by Brie Larson, who does a passable Virginia accent and gives about as good a performance as anyone could, considering the script and the direction.  Her husband, David, is played by Max Greenfield.  David is a good, responsible person who doesn’t drink much and who makes a lot of money.  Jeannette’s father looks down on him for those two reasons and the film seems to expect us to do so as well.  But why?  David hasn’t done anything wrong.  He’s certainly not the one who tried to drown his own daughter or who came up with some bullshit explanation about why it was a good thing that she was allowed to burst into flame.  But, if we accept that David’s not a bad guy then we also have to accept that Jeannette’s father is being an asshole.  The film’s not sure how to handle that so instead, we’re just supposed to laugh at David because he gets the worst lines in the script.

It’s a very dishonest film.  Unlike the memoir on which it’s based, it has no interest in honestly examining what it’s like to grow up with an alcoholic.  Instead, it’s too busy giving us Woody Harrelson playing yet another redneck with a drinking problem.  Harrelson does a good enough job but fuck it.  If I want to spend time watching a drunk Woody Harrelson, I’ve got The Hunger Games on Blu-ray.

The Glass Castle ends with footage and pictures of Jeannette’s actual family and, as I watched them, it occurred to me that I would happily watch a documentary about the Walls family.  That would presumably have the honesty that is so lacking in The Glass Castle.

A Movie A Day #43: The Big Heist (2001, directed by Robert Markowitz)


the_big_heist_2001In 1978, low-level mob associate Jimmy Burke (Donald Sutherland) is released after serving a six years in prison.  As soon as he arrives home, he discovers that his son, Frank (Jamie Harris), has failed to keep up with the family business and that the Burke Crew is close to becoming a joke.  Looking for a big score, Jimmy masterminds a robbery at John F. Kennedy International Airport.  The so-called Lufthansa Heist becomes the largest cash robbery committed on American soil at that time.  Growing paranoid, Burke decides it would be easier to just kill all the members of his crew than to give them their cut of the robbery.  What Burke doesn’t realize is that his closest associates are destined to be his downfall.  Tommy DeSimone (Rocco Sisto) has offended John Gotti (Steven Randazzo) while Henry Hill (Nick Sandow) has become hooked on drugs and is considering turning informant.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because part of this story was already told in Goodfellas.  The Big Heist was made for TNT and, because it focuses exclusively on the robbery, it goes into far more detail than Martin Scorsese’s film.  For instance, the character of Frank Burke was entirely left out of Goodfellas and it’s interesting to see how much more negatively Henry Hill is portrayed in The Big Heist.  Since it’s told from the viewpoint of Jimmy Burke instead of Henry Hill, The Big Heist makes for an interesting companion piece to Goodfellas but, at the same time, it never escapes the shadow of the other film.  With both movies employing voice over narration and frequent freeze frames, it’s impossible to watch The Big Heist without comparing it to Goodfellas.  Since Goodfellas was made by Martin Scorsese and The Big Heist was made for TNT, the former comes out on top.

It’s also hard to watch Donald Sutherland as Jimmy Burke without comparing his performance to Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway.  Though he never reaches the heights of De Niro’s performance, Sutherland is convincing as a sociopathic criminal mastermind.  Less convincing are Rocco Sisto and Nick Sandow, who both struggle to make an impression in roles previously made famous by Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta.

Playing Catch-Up: Room (dir by Lenny Abrahamson)


Room_Poster

Have you seen Room yet?

I ask because I’m debating how much information I should share in this review.  Room came out a few months ago and I’ve been late in reviewing it because watching the film was such an emotionally overwhelmingly experience that I wasn’t sure where to begin.  Now, all of this time has passed and I’m in a hurry to review this film because it’s obviously going to be nominated for some Oscars on Thursday morning and I’m wondering how much I can reveal without spoiling the movie.

It’s always tempting to say “Spoilers be damned!” but I’m not going to do that this time.  Room is a great film and it’s one that deserves to be discovered with a fresh mind.  I imagine that many people who missed the film the first time will see it once Brie Larson has been nominated for Best Actress.  Out of respect for those people, I am going to hold off from going into too much detail about the film’s plot.

Of course, this means that, if you haven’t seen the film, you’re going to have to have a little bit of faith in me.  You’re going to have to trust me.  When I tell you that this is an amazing film that will take you by surprise, you’re just going to believe me.  Because if I ruin those surprises … well, then they won’t be surprises anymore, will they?

When I first heard all the Oscar talk swirling around Room, my initial instinct was to make a joke about Tommy Wiseau finally getting the credit he deserves.  But then I saw Room and, within a few minutes of the film, I was in tears.  It’s hard for me to think of any other film this year that made me cry as much as Room.

Room is narrated by Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a 5 year-old boy whose hair is so long that he is frequently mistaken for being a girl.  Jack lives in a filthy room with Ma (Brie Larson).  The tiny room has only a toilet, a sink, a bed, a small kitchen area, and a cheap television.  There’s also the small closet where Jack sleeps and a skylight in the ceiling.  As quickly becomes apparent from his narration, Jack has never been outside of the room.  All he knows about the outside world comes from TV and the stories told to him by Ma.

Occasionally, a nervous man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters the room.  Whenever Old Nick shows up, Ma orders Jack to hide in the closet.  However, even in the closet, Jack listens to Ma and Nick talking in the room.  Ma talks about how Nick kidnapped her when she was 17.  Nick talks about how he has recently lost his job and may not be able to continue to take care of his two prisoners.  Fearful for her life, Ma humors the self-pitying Nick.  Nick, meanwhile, plays the victim and complains about how difficult it is to keep her and Jack prisoner.  It quickly becomes apparent that Jack is Nick’s child.

Now that Jack is five, Ma knows that he’s old enough that she can tell him about her plan to escape from Nick.  However, escaping means exposing Jack to a world that he’s never experienced and that Ma fears she no longer remembers.

Meanwhile, Ma’s parents wonder what has happened to their missing daughter.  (It’s from her parents that we learn that, much like a character played by fellow Oscar contender Jennifer Lawrence, Ma’s name is Joy.)  Ma’s mother, Nancy (Joan Allen), is now divorced from Joy’s emotionally repressed father (William H. Macy).  Nancy is now married to the kind and appealingly disheveled Leo (Tom McCamus).  However, still hoping that her daughter will someday return, Nancy hasn’t even touched Joy’s old bedroom.

Finally, the opportunity comes for Ma and Jack to escape and…

…and that’s all I can tell you without spoiling the film.  Room is an emotionally exhausting film, one that will make you cry but which will also leave feeling strangely hopeful for the future.  Brie Larson gives a courageously vulnerable and emotionally raw performance as Joy while Jacob Tremblay is perfectly cast as Jack.  Since Larson and Tremblay are both getting a lot of attention as possible Oscar nominees, I want to take a few minute to single out one member of the cast who, so far, has been overshadowed.  Tom McCamus doesn’t have a lot of screen time but he makes the most of every second he gets, turning Leo into the ideal father figure.

Room made me cry and cry and I can’t wait to see it again.

Shattered Politics #86: Casino Jack (dir by George Hickenlooper)


Casino_JackI had two reactions to the 2010 film Casino Jack.

My first reaction was to think, “Wow, Kevin Spacey really can act!”  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  I knew that, especially when working with a director who is strong enough to curb his natural tendency to go overboard, Kevin Spacey was capable of giving a great performance.  However, Spacey is one of those actors who has such a unique look and style about him that I think sometimes we forget that he’s capable of doing more than just playing variations on Kevin Spacey.*

And it is true that, in the role of real-life Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kevin Spacey gave a performance that was full of the usual Spacey tricks.  By that, I mean we got the Spacey voice going from a purr to a roar in just a manner of seconds.  We got the Spacey glare, where he narrows his eyes and stares at whoever has offended him with an intensity that lets you know that something bad is about to happen.  We got that somewhat strained Kevin Spacey smile, the way facial expression that lets us know that we don’t want to know what’s going on behind that friendly facade.

But, even though Spacey was up to his usual tricks, all of those tricks still came together to create a unique character.  As I watched the film, I forgot that I was watching Kevin Spacey.  Instead, I really felt that I was watching and listening to one of the most powerful lobbyists in American history.

And, when Abramoff was eventually arrested and prosecuted for defrauding his clients, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for him.  Spacey plays the character with such a combination of hyperactive charm and righteous fury that you can’t help but be a little bit enthralled by him.  That’s not to say that Kevin Spacey turns Jack Abramoff into a sympathetic character.  (Indeed, as good as Spacey is, there are a few moments when his contempt for Abramoff comes through and his performance suddenly turns into a one-dimensional caricature.)  But what Spacey does do is show that Jack Abramoff was less an inhuman monster and more the logical product of Washington culture.  The only difference between Abramoff and everyone else in Washington is that Abramoff got caught.

But, at the same time, the move itself is never quite as interesting as Spacey’s lead performance. The movie’s main theme appears to be that Washington is corrupt and we’d do better if we curtailed the power of lobbyists but … well, do you really need a movie to tell you this?  I mean I’m pretty much apolitical and I knew that long before I saw Casino Jack!

Casino Jack: Good performance.  Boring message.  Bleh movie.

* This is better known as the Christopher Walken syndrome.

Two Late Reviews: The Legend of Hercules (dir by Renny Harlin) and Pompeii (dir by Paul W.S. Anderson)


As I mentioned in a previous review, I’ve only got a few months left before I’m going to have to make out my list of the 16 worst and the 26 best films of 2014.  With that in mind, I really need to get caught up on reviewing some of the films that might appear on those two lists.  For the most part, I try to review every single movie that I see but, occasionally, a movie or two will slip through the cracks.  And now, with Oscar season approaching but not quite arrived, seems like as good as time as any as to try to get caught up by reviewing two films that came out earlier this year: Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules and Paul W. S. Anderson’s Pompeii.

Hercules_(2014_film)_poster

The Legend of Hercules is a film that I first saw with my BFF Evelyn way back in January.  And while I meant to review it after I first saw it, I simply never got around to actually doing so.  Some of that is because, when Kellan Lutz first showed up on screen, Evelyn said, “Nice tits,” and I ended up laughing so hard that I nearly fell out of my seat.  This led to Evelyn spending the entire film trying to make me laugh again and, in between all of the whispering and the giggling, we undoubtedly missed out on a lot of the film.

However, I recently rewatched The Legend of Hercules on Cinemax and I was quickly reminded about the other reason that I hadn’t gotten around to reviewing it.  There’s really just not that much to say about The Legend of Hercules.  It’s just not a very good film but yet it’s not bad in a fun way either.  It’s just boring.  As played by Kellan Lutz, Hercules wanders through the ancient world and he does all the stuff that you would expect Hercules to do.  Actually, he does all the stuff that you would expect any character in a rip-off of 300 to do.  The film could have just as easily been called The Legend of Eammon, an Irishman in Greece.  

In fact, I’d really like to see a movie called The Legend of Eammon, an Irishman in Greece.  Get on it, someone.

According to Wikipedia, The Legend of Hercules had a budget of 70 million dollars, which makes it a bit odd that the film itself just looks cheap and generic.  At one point, Hercules fights a lion and the CGI is so bad that, for a few minutes, the movie looks like one of those senior projects that students occasionally upload to YouTube.  (I was half-expecting to see a comment apologizing for the “crappy special effects” flash across the screen.)  During the film’s many fight scenes, director Renny Harlin does that thing where every punch is shown in slow motion.  It gets annoying after the hundredth time.

A few words about Kellan Lutz.  I happen to like Kellan Lutz.  I think he’s been likable in other roles.  But, in The Legend of Hercules, he really did spend the entire movie looking like he was wishing that he could be anywhere else.  But can you blame him?

Pompeii-posterFor a far more enjoyable trip into the past, allow me to recommend a film that came out a few months after The Legend of Hercules, Pompeii. 

Now, before I review Pompeii, I should admit that, as you all know, I am a history nerd and, as you all might not know, I’ve always been fascinated by the Roman Empire.  The summer after I graduated high school, I took a trip to Italy and I actually walked through the streets of Pompeii.  My two main memories of Pompeii: while we were touring an ancient brothel, an Australian man lay down on one of the slabs.  My other memory is that it was a very windy day and I was wearing a skirt so I can legitimately say that not only have I visited Pompeii but I’ve flashed Pompeii as well.

Anyway, Pompeii the Movie tells the story of the final days of Pompeii the City.  A Celtic slave and gladiator named Milo (Kit Harrington) is sent to Pompeii where he, in quick order, meets and romances the noble Cassia (Emily Browning), establishes a friendly rivalry with fellow gladiator Atticus (the always intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), spots the evil Roman General (Kiefer Sutherland) who killed Milo’s mother, and then eventually has to run for his life as a cloud of ash and a river of lava crashes down on Pompeii.

Pompeii is a lot of fun.  Harrington and Browning have a lot of chemistry, all of the actors are obviously having a good time with their melodramatic dialogue, and Kiefer Sutherland was born to play an evil Roman.  As opposed to the Legend of Hercules, Pompeii looks good and the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius is genuinely impressive.  Perhaps best of all, the film actually allows things to play out to their natural and logical conclusion.  For once, history is not changed just to force a happy ending on the viewers and Pompeii is all the better for it!

So, in conclusion: forget about The Legend of Hercules and give Pompeii a chance.  Actually, you’ve probably already forgotten about The Legend of Hercules so just try not to suddenly remember it.  But seriously, Pompeii is better than you might think.