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Glass Castle, The

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // November 7, 2017
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted November 13, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

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.

Video and Audio:

Much of The Glass Castle transpires in the highly rustic, weathered homes currently occupied by the Walls at any given point, which latches onto complex textures of age and neglect -- along with the dimness of a lack of electricity -- that give the cinematography vintage complexity and warmth. Lionsgate's Blu-ray handsomely navigates the texture density and contrast intricacy in its 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer. Wood grain, overgrowth and piled-up garbage offer challenging details, but the digitally-shot photography looks crisp and ornate in HD, also sporting sharpness in the pencil markings of Rex's blueprints and Rose Mary's paint brushstrokes, rust, and wallpaper. There's a consistently washed-out presence to the contrast balance throughout, though that's largely by design, and the ability for the lighter shadows and other black levels to commingle with the warm photography's temperature and the image's contemporary depth-of-field is quite elegant. Outdoors shots and those in modish restaurants and apartments in New York are more traditionally appealing, with a few vibrant colors in bows and paintings standing out.

The Glass Castle doesn't possess a lot of complexity in its sound design, revolving mostly around spatial dialogue and the resonance of music, but there are a few strategic sound effects that benefit from the ample use of the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track. The thuds of upstairs walking and banging in a highly echoic wooden house offer unique responses across the surround stage, while the muffling of underwater swimming and the sloshing of butter and sugar in a mixing bowl present uniquely subtle sound effects with delicate front-end separation. Dialogue tends to be the star of the show here, and the earthiness of the recordings and their balance alongside their individual settings -- oftentimes in the stale air of indoor houses -- remain clear and true throughout, whether it's the higher-pitched tempo of the children or the gravelly mumbles of Woody Harrelson. English SDH and Spanish subs are available.

Special Features:

Providing a fine foundation for these extras, The Glass Castle: Memoir to Movie (25:48, 16x9 HD) features writer Jeanette Walls, director Destin Daniel Cretton, and actress Brie Larson in interviews about adapting the book. They discuss the process of getting Walls' different stages of age into a cohesive portrait, the ways in which Woody Harrelson captured the nuances of her father and Naomi Watts' mirroring the mother's verbal tempo, and Jeanette Walls' deep emotional connection to creating the movie, all before shifting to about ten minutes of production design content. Terrific behind-the-scenes footage amplifies the content being discussed, with minimal clips from the film, and while the interview material goes a little overboard with the congratulatory tones, it forms into a strong portrait of the film's creation.

Jeannette Walls also sits down for a one-on-one discussion with film critic Josh Rothkopf in A Conversation with Jeannette Walls (15:24, 16x9 HD) in which they discuss the process of bringing her memoir to the big screen, from nailing the aesthetic to how she was integral in discussing how to streamline her story into a cinematic viewpoint. There's some overlap, though, with the prior making-of piece that does a better job of expressing certain points, which makes the conversation intermittently -- and frustratingly -- redundant. There's also a Making of Summer Storm by Joel P. West (3:22, 16x9 HD) featurette, which focuses on the craftsmanship behind making the film's title song that was inspired by Rex Walls' journals, and a featurette on the process of emotional alignments involved with Scoring The Glass Castle (4:06, 16x9 HD). Finally, there's a collection of nine Deleted Scenes (9:32, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

It required a lot of bravery for Jeannette Walls to reach deep into her experiences and tell her family's story, and the resulting memoir was met with universal acclaim for the raw truths it conveys about poverty, alcoholism, and what's learned from our parents regardless of the quality of one's childhood. The Glass Castle seems right up the alley of Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, in that he's already achieved success both with the mental turmoil of youths and adults who endured a traumatic childhood and with Brie Larson in a lead role. The complex tones and themes feel right, Larson delivers a frank and absorbing performance as Walls, and Woody Harrelson taps into a darkly stirring attitude in his performance as the father, but this adaptation struggles with hitting notes of authenticity within the boundaries of a fairly shocking and challenging true story. Lionsgate's Blu-ray look and sound great, and a n alright slate of extras lay out a fine Rental for this film.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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