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Films I Neglected To Review: Father Figures
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Glass Castle," "Menashe" and "Pilgrimage."

Considering that it appears to be prime Oscar bait on the surface with its combination of best-selling source material, a cast of acclaimed actors and a story dealing with family trauma, poverty, alcoholism and People Coming To Terms With Things, one may wonder why ''The Glass Castle'' is hitting theaters now--a time usually reserved for the last remaining dregs of the summer box-office derby and long-delayed films being dumped by their distributors--instead of later in the fall when it might have more award season impact. After watching it for only nine minutes or so, it is obvious why it was forsaken as an awards contender, though the question of why anyone would actually want to sit through any of it remains unanswered. Based on the best-selling memoir by writer Jeanette Walls, it chronicles her hardscrabble childhood as one of four kids being raised in squalor by a father (Woody Harrelson) who might be a genius but who is definitely a drunk who is incapable of maintaining such bourgeois symbols as a job or a house with running water, electricity and food in the kitchen and a mother (Naomi Watts) who is more interested in pursuing her artistic vision as a painter than in taking five minutes to make lunch (this results in young Jeanette setting herself on fire but at least those scars inspire a life lesson) until she finally bolts at age 17 to live in New York. Sure, Jeanette loves her parents and there are some good times here and there but as time goes on, they are far outstripped by the bad times as she and the other kids are basically left to fend for themselves while their parents engage in behavior that on a good day could be described as ''wildly neglectful.'' These scenes are interspersed with later ones in which the now-adult Jeanette (Brie Larson), employed as a gossip columnist for ''New York'' magazine and engaged to a financial advisor (Max Greenfield), is reunited with her parents, who are now squatting in the city, and finds herself confronting them at last about the trials that they put her and her siblings through in order to follow their own pursuits.

''The Glass Castle'' was co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose previous film was ''Short Term 12,'' a powerful drama that featured Larson as a supervisor in a residential facility for troubled kids and which contained nary a false note in its entire running time. Based on the available evidence, it appears he was saving them all up for this one. You would think that would be virtually impossible in regards to any project that pools together the considerable talents of people like Larson, Harrelson, Watts and Cretton. For a story like this to work, a proper and delicate balance must be established between the moments of grim horror and those of a more poignant and uplifting nature. Not having read the book, I cannot say how Walls accomplished this on the page but Cretton never manages to pull it off on the screen. In compressing a couple of decades into a two-hour narrative, the film feels like a literal parade of horrors that teeters on the brink of self-parody at certain points--so many, in fact, that when one of Jeanette's siblings is apparently molested by a relative of their father, the implication being that the same thing happened to Dad as a kid, a seemingly key part of the puzzle is introduced and then simply tossed away so that the film can move on to the next atrocity or elusive moment of ultimately false-seeming cheer.

Larson, who also plays Walls in her teenage years, is as good as she can be under the circumstances and keeps things grounded in a certain reality whenever she is on the screen. On the other hand, Watts is saddled with a character that gives her nothing to do except to remind people every once in a while that she is an artist. Harrelson, on the other hand, gets entirely too much to do and has no idea of what to do with it--instead of showing us a complicated and deeply flawed man torn between his love for his family and the inner turmoil that leads him to a constant state of self-destruction, he comes across more like an ogreish buffoon who is never as smart as he thinks he is nor as tragic as the film insists he has. To make matters worse, he gets saddled with some of the worst scenes in a film filled with them--if his endless talk about one day creating a glass castle (which just might be symbolic of both his lofty ambitions and his inability to follow through on anything) doesn’t inspire incredulous giggles, his deathbed monologue in which he actually remarks about how his demons were inside him all along certainly will. ''The Glass Castle'' is a truly terrible movie across the board--the kind that almost makes you feel a little more kindly about the similar (and similarly ghastly ''Captain Fantastic'' by comparison--and instead of coming out of it feeling elated at the triumph of the human spirit, most will come out of it feeling anger, annoyance and the suspicion that they may be in need of a tetanus shot.

Set in the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community of Brooklyn, ''Menashe'' tells the story of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a recent widower who is trying to keep custody of his young son (Ruben Niborski) instead of turning him over to the family of his late wife's brother so that he can be raised in a two-parent home as decreed by tradition. The trouble is that Menashe is not at all certain that he wants to continue upholding a tradition that he clearly does not hold much stock in anymore--he refuses to wear the traditional hat and coat that men are required to wear, it soon becomes clear that his arranged marriage was of the decidedly loveless variety and he is clearly in no hurry to get married again anytime soon, even if refusing to do so could cost him custody of his son. However, what makes this debut narrative feature from documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein interesting is that it is not simply a tale of a noble dad butting heads with a tradition-bound religion whose blind unwillingness to change with the times threatens both his happiness and that of his son. Instead, it takes pains to point out that, for all of his complaints, that Menashe himself is equally responsible for his current problems--on his own for what may be the first time in his life, he seems fairly clueless as to how to act like a responsible adult (the rent is always late, he seems in perpetual danger of losing his low-level grocery job and his forgetfulness about the basic necessities leads to mornings where breakfast consists of leftover cake--and that maybe a little bot of structure might not be the worst thing in the world in his particular case. To be honest, the film as a whole is not especially revelatory but it does offer a look at a culture and its traditions that is rarely seen on movie screens these days and I appreciated the way that it managed to avoid most of the cliches that one might have expected to find in such a story. On the surface, ''Menashe'' may seem like it is telling a simple and straightforward story about a father fighting for the love of his son but it does so in a quietly complex manner that should intrigue viewers of all faiths.

Under normal circumstances, a film as tiresome as ''Pilgrimage'' most likely would have bypassed theaters and received, at best, a decidedly unheralded VOD release but since one of its stars, Tom Holland, hit it big earlier this summer as the new Spider-Man, it is being put out into the marketplace on the premise that moviegoers will want to see something else featuring the latest iteration of everyone's favorite web-slinger. In this case, what they get is a tedious and oftentimes grotesque period drama set in post-Crusades Ireland in which a trio of monks (Holland, John Lynch and Jon Berenthal) are charged with transporting the most precious relic in their monastery to Rome and the headquarters of the rapidly expanding Catholic church under the watchful eye of a papal representative (Stanley Weber). In theory, this journey is meant to serve as a mediation on the conflict between pure religious devotion and the corruption that is an inevitable byproduct of power but the film as a whole is less interested in presenting those ideas than in giving viewers a seemingly endless number of indifferently staged and horrifically violent battle scenes between those bearing the relic and those who want it for themselves--heads are split, throats are slashed and entrails are twisted but there is precious little point to any of it. Banal and brutal in equal measure, this is a ''Pilgrimage'' that is most definitely not worth the trip.

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originally posted: 08/12/17 00:41:52
last updated: 08/12/17 01:03:44
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