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Simplified On-Screen, “The Glass Castle” at Least Boasts Strong Performances

The dictates of Hollywood screenwriting can’t quite constrain the wildness of Jeannette Walls’s family and her bestselling memoir. Despite a tidy resolution, too many scenes whose shapes are immediately familiar from other movies, and an absurd climax that dramatizes the conflict between a daughter and her father through the wheezy beats of a romantic comedy, Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Walls’s book of the same name just often enough bursts to raucous life.

Here’s an itinerant dreamer/drunk of a dad (Woody Harrelson) blasting the station wagon across desert scrub to teach his kids the lesson that they’ll learn more from him than they will in any school — why, check out these juniper and Joshua trees! Here’s a hippie-painter mother (Naomi Watts) dashing out of the car to sit before one of those trees and capture it on a canvas, moved by its resilience, certain that her four children will be just fine camping tentless in the wilderness so that she can chase her epiphany. Here’s that dad, again, tenderly removing bandages from tiny Jeannette (played in flashbacks by a succession of actresses), revealing the skin she burned when she caught fire cooking hot dogs in the house they had been squatting in. The family’s on the lam, fleeing social workers, but what could be better than the campfire and the madness and the silent horizons the size of God? What could be better than Harrelson’s Rex Walls calling Jeannette “Mountain Goat” and insisting, “You learn from living — everything else is a damn lie”?

Not much. At its best, this Glass Castle brushes up against the rich complexity of lived experience. It’s the rare star-driven crowd pleaser smart enough to present more than one idea on-screen at a time, a paean to but also warning against cussedness that manages to exhibit some of its own. We see the Walls shove off to West Virginia, always just one step ahead of whoever’s running them out of town. In the mountains they buy a shack that Rex plans to build into a see-through palace for his off-the-grid clan. Problem is he talks big but drinks bigger, and while the kids go days without eating, Rex — so outsize an American crank that he might hail from Look Homeward, Angel — vanishes with the family’s last couple of bucks and comes home soused and so beat-up that Jeannette has to give him stitches. That night, Jeannette (now played by Ella Anderson, a young actress possessed of great focus and emotional acuity) turns his wheedling bullshit against him. He promises her he’d always do anything for her. She asks, with trembling strength, if he’d quit drinking. Harrelson, too, is excellent in these scenes, a wounded child in a man’s body, ashamed of what he’s become but also in love with his own surly wickedness.

Studio films rarely convincingly capture backwoods poverty with anything like verisimilitude, but almost everything here looks right: the pile of trash outside that swells with the years; the secondhand books and clothes; the minor improvements as the shack becomes a home, but also the inescapable dinginess as Jeannette grows older and that home becomes a prison.

Nearing her teens, after witnessing and getting caught up in a violent episode between her parents that came on like a squall and might shred your nerves in the theater, Jeannette and her siblings vow to get out.

Something like two-fifths of the movie occurs years after her escape. Jeannette, played with coiled wariness by Brie Larson, has become the celebrated Intelligencer columnist at New York magazine, and she’s engaged to the very embodiment of everything her father raised her to stink-eye: an investment banker (Max Greenfield, bringing warmth and specificity to a role as nuanced as a vintage editorial cartoon’s sash-wearing plutocrat). It’s 1989, Jeannette’s parents have come to the city to squat in a tenement and rail against her choices, and these sequences prove more simple-minded than the flashbacks. These scenes evince a self-consciousness that the coming-of-age material doesn’t: The movies have taught us to read Jeannette’s gig and Eighties couture as somewhat villainous, a betrayal of the dreams of the father who so often betrayed her. It’s beyond the capabilities of screenwriter and director to suggest that her childhood — her yearning for New York, her dreaming over books, her willingness to stand up to the wealthy and powerful — is part of why this self-invented talent was so very good at her job. Instead, the movie acts as if gossip columnist is something that all decent people know one simply shouldn’t be, and Jeannette gets shamed into being her better self like a Barbara Stanwyck heroine might.

Larson does what she can, and is moving when shouting down her father, but she’s tasked with too much silently dramatic decision-making in sequences radically, dopily condensed from Walls’s book and life. That said, one scene in the film’s uncertain present erupts into full messy raucous family-makes-you-crazy life: Rex, in his squat, challenging the investment banker to arm-wrestle. Walls’s book will touch and surprise you consistently; the movie manages it a couple of times a reel.

The Glass Castle
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Lionsgate
Opens August 11

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Murray Plays for Laughs Until St. Vincent Gets Maudlin

The big news: In its first half, before it bottoms out with the rankest feel-goodery, Theodore Melfi’s too-familiar ain’t-he-irascible comedy-drama St. Vincent features scene after scene of Bill Murray actually trying to make you laugh. How long has it been? He plays Vincent, a drunk-driving Brooklynite whose look suggests science figured out how to grow whiskers on a half-deflated air mattress. Before the opening credits have wrapped, Vince steals from a fruit stand, gets dressed down by a bank loan officer, knocks himself out on his kitchen floor trying to break up ice with a hammer, and groggily balls with a pregnant Russian prostitute played — for some reason — by Naomi Watts, who shouts, after he can’t quite pay in full, “My shit is not layaway!”

This stuff is broad and a little labored, but at least it’s funny. Murray could score laughs with this material his sleep, and here he almost does: Witness Vincent, sacked out on an easy chair, every breath a pained gurgle. It’s just that woozy, checked-out quality that makes Murray’s assholes so potent. They shamble through a life that hasn’t worked out for them, insulting everyone who gets in their way, their hostile grossness something like the shell of a mollusk: a source of pride, a protective coating, all made up of their own secreted gunk.

In Stripes and Ghostbusters, all that was implied. Why else would Dr. Venkman, under the guise of science and courtship, subject Sigourney Weaver’s Dana to such unrelenting harassment and disdain? Or squander what resources his university has given his team on a torture/flirtation study with nothing in the way of reproducible results? The funniest thing about him is that we can’t possibly imagine the specifics of his past: When did this guy buckle down and write a dissertation? The classic Murray heroes never craved or even needed our love — and, with a crack or a roll of those eyes, they would always find a way to spurn it.

But St. Vincent, like most late Murray movies, wants to dig beneath that gunk, to see where it comes from, to strip it away and reveal the warm heart beneath it. Here that task is taken up by a kid, who actually narrates Vincent’s life story to a roomful of nuns and other kids, who reward our hero with terrific applause, and then there’s a big hug, which Vincent is totally into. Somewhere, Venkman pukes.
After that winningly broad opening, and some fine comic dust-ups between Murray and a neighbor played by a smartly restrained Melissa McCarthy, writer-director Melfi crosses streams that maybe shouldn’t be crossed: He pairs his grumpy old lead with a likable but gently troubled youngster (Jaeden Lieberher), the son of McCarthy’s character. Don’t think Rushmore, though: St. Vincent‘s scenes of age-inappropriate bonding at bars and racetracks would have seemed hoary back in Walter Matthau’s day, and the one of Vincent beating up the kids who bully his little pal plays like the edited-for-TV version of Bad Santa. There’s so much here you’ve seen before: life lessons, a cruel dodgeball game, trouble with the Mob over gambling debts, even an urgent quest to raise thousands of dollars for a loved one’s medical expenses. Why not have Murray try to save the surf shop, too?

Some moments still work after the movie grows mawkish: A bartender cuts Vincent off, and Murray embodies a frightening and pathetic rage. A third-act crisis that’s new and dark, and it pushes Murray and the film into surprising directions for a reel, but by the end it’s mostly forgotten. Best of all is McCarthy, doing her finest work since Bridesmaids, this time playing a just-divorced nurse worried she’s going to lose her kid and just desperate enough to let Vincent babysit. For once a McCarthy character holds her rage in, trying to temper the world with politeness, which of course makes it all the funnier when she does go off.

Tammy made McCarthy’s character a comic monster and then insisted in the final scenes that, no, she’s actually the best person in the world. St. Vincent makes the same mistake with Murray — the movie climaxes with Vincent getting a standing ovation just for walking into a room. But at least here you’ll laugh sometimes, though not as much as you would if a Bill Murray character were making fun of it.

Written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Jaeden Lieberher, and Naomi Watts.

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On American Poverty, Sunlight Jr. Walks the Line Between Empathy and Exploitation

For depictions of American poverty, there’s a fine line between empathy and exploitation. Sunlight Jr. repeatedly tiptoes on, around, and over that threshold, ultimately coming off as the socially conscious drama it sets out to be thanks to a roster of lived-in, relatable performances.

Like her last film, 2006’s underseen Sherrybaby, Laurie Collyer’s newest shines a light on the fiscally downtrodden by way of a struggling working woman, Melissa (Naomi Watts), a Florida gas station cashier who also supports her wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Richie (Matt Dillon). On any given day, she narrowly fends off a sexually harassing manager, a stalker ex-boyfriend (Norman Reedus), an alcoholic mother (Tess Harper) who herself scrapes by as a foster parent of 11 small children, and, most oppressively, an American infrastructure that makes it virtually impossible for the poor to succeed.

Watts’s stellar performance distinguishes a film that is overburdened with welfare clichés. Even when it seems like she’s stuck in a lightless tunnel, Melissa never panics, evincing a quiet make-it-work fortitude that feels convincing. Richie’s receding Medicaid benefits and her minimum wage paycheck barely sustain them, but, as in life, their below-the-line status doesn’t preclude happiness: The couple is ecstatic when she becomes pregnant.

People like her are interminably “getting by,” so small dramas like running out of gas and walking down the highway in the rain to work (both of which happen) are just par for the course. Collyer has a keen eye for underrepresented populations, but she’d be better served in the future to scale back on the overstatement.

 

 

 

 

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Diana Is Nice, Dumb, and Even Affecting

She was a lonely princess. He was a cocky civilian. And after she escaped the palace, the unlikely couple fell in love. It’s the plot of Roman Holiday and — according to this soapy romance from director Oliver Hirschbiegel — the true-enough story of the last two years of Princess Diana’s life. (Alas, unlike Audrey Hepburn, this short-haired gamine had a fatal destiny in France.)

You’re forgiven for assuming the boyfriend is Dodi Fayed, the wealthy Harrods heir who spent the month of August 1997 squiring the world’s most photographed woman on his yacht. Nope, Diana is about her other beau, Pakistani doctor Hasnat Khan, who was so determined to keep his private life private that what split the couple up after two years was secrecy itself. That you probably haven’t heard of Dr. Khan, now 54 and living quietly in England, speaks both to his continued silence and to the Fayed family’s continued flogging of their son’s deadly six-week fling. The flagship Harrods store in London has a bronze statue of Di and Dodi dancing under a bird, plus a memorial exhibit starring the engagement ring she might have worn had the couple actually been engaged. They weren’t, of course — Dodi’s father, Mohamed, bought the bauble after their funerals.

The Fayeds would be thrilled if Hirschbiegel, who also bowdlerized the Borgias for Canal+, made this film about them. Dr. Khan is not. As for us, we’re mixed. Diana is a Lifetime movie in sensible pumps, at once too silly to be taken seriously, yet so self-serious it rarely allows us to giggle. The British press hates it, but Americans simply don’t care enough about the royal legacy to muster up serious outrage at scenes where the pampered princess (Naomi Watts) gets horoscope advice from her masseuse and blinks in astonishment to learn that a hamburger is something you can cook at home. In Stephen Jeffreys’s script, when Khan (Naveen Andrews) calls Diana a dilettante, she’s not offended — she literally doesn’t know the definition of the word.

Yes, Diana was dumb. But it’s not entirely her fault. Like an entire generation of aristocratic British daughters, she was raised to be a potential Windsor brood mare. Instead of receiving an education, she was shipped to a Swiss finishing school to study skiing, sewing, and French. If she hadn’t married Prince Charles at 20, she would have landed the next best thing and spent her life snickering at her fellow socialites at parties.

To its credit, the film doesn’t hoist up Diana as a tragic angel. Watts plays her as awkward and uncertain as a teenage girl — which, psychologically, she still sort of was. In an early sequence, we see the newly separated princess slip out of her public armor of helmet hair and pantyhose to pad around Kensington Palace with flat locks and sweatpants, slipping into the kitchen to make a supper of canned beans on toast. When she meets Khan, we’re surprised to feel so much empathy for her crush on the handsome heart surgeon (so metaphorical!). How would a girl learn to date when her first marriage was arranged by her grandmother, the Queen Mum’s best friend? Hell, how can she even ditch her guards for some sexy snogging?

No one could mistake Diana for a psychologically piercing drama. But at least it doesn’t flatten the woman out to a lovelorn heroine. She’s at turns petty, excitable, stalkerish, and sincere—too naïve to know better than to break into Khan’s apartment and wash his dishes (a scene that provoked loud snorting at a press screening), yet crafty enough to think she could get away with using her paparazzi friends to make him jealous by, say, posing soulfully on the diving board of Fayed’s boat.

In contrast, Andrews’s Khan is almost comically unflappable, a white collar Heathcliff who doesn’t give a hoot about titles. During his first visit to Diana’s posh digs, he asks her to order takeaway and then turns on the telly to watch soccer. She swoons. We don’t quite buy their odd romance as an eternal love, but after a decade and a half of using antique fish forks, we can see why she likes the guy.

Hirschbiegel never forgets that his trifle stars a would-be queen. When Watts’s Diana walks into a room, the extras stop and stare; we’re always aware that she’s aware of her effect on strangers. That adds a desperation to her attempts to be normal: She can’t go on an ordinary date without wearing a wig or hit the bars when she and Khan get into a tiff. We’ve seen these scenes in fictional romps before, like when Julia Roberts flees the press in Notting Hill. Yet, for Diana, it was real. Even offscreen, we feel the paparazzi’s hand in guiding what she could and couldn’t do. And the film continually reminds us that we’ve participated in her persecution, as Watts’s costumes are deliberately familiar, each polo shirt and ball gown one we’ve already seen in the pages of People.

An inquest by the Fayed family found the paparazzi innocent of causing Diana and Dodi’s death. As for Khan, the only man on earth who knows the truth about his tryst with the princess, he eventually acquiesced to an arranged marriage of his own, to a descendant of Afghan royalty. They, too, divorced. He and Diana finally have something in common — it’s a pity that their romance, and this guilty pleasure, can’t have a happy ending.

 

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Cougars and Hunks Frolic in Self-Serious Adore

There’s something unsettling about Anne Fontaine’s Adore, and, surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the film’s two middle-aged women who fall in love with each other’s teenage sons. The cougars in question are Lil and Roz, best friends since childhood played with notable earnestness by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright. They are inseparable, save for an inexplicable amount of time spent hanging out with their barely legal sons—scantily clad beach forays, drinks after dinner, exchanged sexual histories: Nothing is off limits. After copious innuendo, Lil’s hunky son, Ian (Xavier Samuel), finally seduces Roz, prompting a seemingly vengeful tryst between her equally hunky son, Tom (James Frecheville), and Lil. However, there’s more to this taboo foursome than unquenched prurience; the couples fall in love. An idyllic Australian seaside provides the backdrop for this creepy, quasi-pedophiliac entanglement, which is just one of the many conspicuous ways the film shows its hand: The disparity between the inherently trashy appeal of the story and the self-serious way it’s presented cripples much of the potential for enjoyment. The setup screams pulp, but the film doles out stately drama. Fontaine tenderly directs this Doris Lessing adaptation, striving for depth with material most would crassly play for comedy. Everything is meticulous, especially the nuanced performances by Watts and Wright, but there’s no way to compensate for the final product. When Watts’s Lil tearfully proclaims “I’m in love with him,” it’s hard to stifle the giggles.

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The Impossible

When the words “true story” appear twice in a film’s opening disclaimer, it’s a guarantee that what follows will include at least one questionable fiction. The Impossible is inspired by the Alvarez Belons, a Spanish family of five who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed almost 300,000 lives; in the film, the Iberian quintet has been remade into the more “relatable” British clan headed by Ewan McGregor (as businessman Henry) and Naomi Watts (as Maria, a physician who left her practice to be a full-time mom). Currently stationed in Japan, Henry, Maria, and their three boys, ranging in age from about five to 12, have arrived in Khao Lak, Thailand, for the Christmas holiday. The enormous waves that battered that country (and many others) on December 26 are staggeringly staged by director J.A. Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage)—a feat of dubious distinction. (Does verisimilitude to actual disaster serve any purpose besides, as Susan Sontag wrote, allowing “one [to] participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death”?) Separated from Henry and the two younger children, Maria—trailing pools of blood from a muscle-deep gash as she deliriously trudges through brackish water—and the oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), eventually make it to a chaotic hospital. These horrors, and the absorbing performances of Watts and McGregor, will soon be undermined by a surfeit of sentiment. Melissa Anderson

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Plamegate Gets the Somber Sean Penn Treatment in Fair Game

Adapted from Valerie Plame and Joseph C. Wilson’s memoirs, the unsurprisingly validating Fair Game begins as a timeline-hopping international thriller of the countdown months to the Iraq War. Covert CIA operative Plame (Naomi Watts) and ex-ambassador husband Wilson (Sean Penn) are proverbial ships passing in the night, shuttling from Niger to Amman to Cleveland on fact-finding missions concerning Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program or lack thereof—until Plame’s cover is blown in The Washington Post as apparent retaliation for Wilson’s administration-critical New York Times op-ed. Retelling headline news in human fine print, Doug Liman makes a show of peeling back the layers of noise, cutting from televised shock-and-awe to ground-level impact in Baghdad, from cable-news talking heads accusing nepotism to domestic tension in the Plame-Wilson household, and, finally, from Watts to the real Plame. Realism means an underlit beige-and-gray palette, swinging handheld for firefight and dinner party alike, and plenty of kitchen-sink business, with the Wilsons’ rugrat twins always underfoot in domestic scenes. Penn’s lachrymosity and hotheaded indignity seem cartooned against Watts’s contained conviction—though more incongruous couples have certainly existed—but the film’s assertion of Plame and Wilson as real people rather than characters consists mostly of draining them of anything compelling, so that David Andrews’s Scooter Libby commands the single best scene.

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Naomi Watts Showed Her Pregnant Stuff To Mexicans

Mother and Child, the very strong film about motherhood and all the wrong reasons to engage in it, was produced on a relatively small budget.

So the creative team must have been beside themselves when they needed to show Naomi Watts‘ pregnant belly and realized they didn’t have to order out for prosthetics–she was really preggers!

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And Naomi was not the least bit shy about it, according to writer/director Rodrigo Garcia.

He says that Naomi has a bawdy sense of humor and was extremely unselfconscious about showing her pregnant tummy on the set in Mexico and even letting complete strangers line up and photograph it.

But understandably, once the baby popped out, that was the end of that!

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Mother and Child: A Powerful Film About Adoption

In his work as writer-director, Rodrigo García has admirably distinguished himself through his commitment to creating intelligent, complex roles for his heavily distaff casts. Like his debut, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), and Nine Lives (2005), Mother and Child is a compassionate, multi-threaded tale about the lives of everyday women—though this time, they are more explicitly defined by the primal bond of the title. Driven, as his earlier work was, by the strength of the performances from both the leads and the minor characters, García’s latest takes potentially banal subjects—what defines “family,” biological parents versus those who adopt—and transforms them into something powerful. The force of the acting alone almost compensates for some of the more difficult (and realistic) questions about not giving birth that García willfully sidesteps.

Paring down the number of interlinked protagonists from his earlier movies, the director focuses on three women: defensive physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening), who lives with her ailing mother and writes letters to the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 14, in 1973; steely attorney Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), adopted at birth and proudly free of emotional attachments to anyone; and high-strung bakery owner Lucy (Kerry Washington), who, unable to conceive, begins the process of adoption with her husband.

Connections snap into place: We quickly surmise that Elizabeth is the child Karen gave up. But though Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is the executive producer, García’s film shows no trace of that director’s overburdened, highly contrived linkages. As each woman’s story braids into the others’, García (the son of Gabriel García Márquez), gives each main actress ample time and space to burrow deep into her character, showcasing talents often underused by other directors. Bening does some of the best acting of her career here (and in the upcoming The Kids Are All Right). Dutifully caring for a still-disapproving parent who shows more kindness to the cleaning woman than she does to her own daughter, Karen may be weighed down by regret and anger that her life was derailed when she was barely an adolescent, but Bening never plays her as a calcified construction. More than a middle-aged depressive, she’s a woman who takes tremendous pride in her work and who will eventually let down her defenses with a colleague, Paco (Jimmy Smits), who’s kind to her. “You took me by surprise with your attention,” Karen tells him—a line that Bening delivers with incredulity perfectly calibrated with a small amount of hope.

Where Bening’s character thaws, Watts’s Elizabeth grows harder, even as her appetite for destruction mellows into a form of self-preservation. Though far more polished, Elizabeth shares some of the searing, feral intensity of Watts’s Mulholland Drive character Diane Selwyn, particularly during a sex scene when she tops senior partner Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, also thrilling to watch in a rare subdued role). Watts is saddled with some of the most awkward dialogue in García’s otherwise rich script—”There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” she tells Paul during some pillow talk about the best way to become a circuit judge—but makes even clichéd speech sound fresh.

Balancing a neurotic desire to please with an unwavering commitment to get what she wants, Washington hasn’t had a part this thoughtfully drawn since her breakthrough role in Our Song a decade ago. Her adoptive mother-to-be becomes even more nuanced in the scenes she shares with the outstanding S. Epatha Merkerson (as Lucy’s mother) and Cherry Jones (as a nun who oversees a private Catholic adoption agency).

In a film with several welcome, graceful touches—in addition to so many remarkable performances, Mother and Child stands out for its colorblind casting and the casualness of its interracial relationships—García’s strenuous avoidance of another reproductive choice disappoints all the more. Though Karen gives birth to Elizabeth in 1973—the year Roe v. Wade was decided—none of the pregnant women, regardless of age or financial security, discuss abortion (one lead character’s gynecologist does, sending her into a white-hot rage). The sanctity of the titular connection is real, as are the characters García creates. But in not addressing an option that these women surely must have grappled with, García’s laudable film stops short of being great.

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Liev Schreiber/Naomi Watts Insight

At a New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend event the other day, Liev Schreiber talked about working with his lady Naomi Watts in the 2006 period drama The Painted Veil.

First of all, Liev said, they were already dating when the movie went into production and she got him the part, nepotistically enough.

But it wasn’t all joyful. He said it was awkward to film the lovemaking scenes because they were experiencing the early throes of real intimacy off camera, so doing it for the crew was rather strained and he just wanted to get it over with.

When the interviewer showed a smoochy clip and remarked, “That was a great movie star moment,” Liev said, “For her!”

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He explained that for that scene, he had to uncomfortably crouch, with cameras and lights behind him, someone constantly adjusting his head position, and a makeup lady looming under him. Naomi, meanwhile, was beautifully lit with a shaft of soft rays around her eyes.

“I was chopped liver on that set,” Liev said, half-smiling.

In other painful news, Liev admitted that he had a sour Christmas because, “The kids went away and Naomi went away and I had one of those shotgun in the bathtub holidays.”

But he’s still here, thank God; he’s got to do A View From The Bridge on Broadway every night.