Tag Archives: B-

PILGRIMAGE

Producer: Conor Barry, John Keville and Benoit Roland
Director: Brendan Muldowney
Writer: Jamie Hannigan
Stars: Tom Holland, Richard Armitage, John Bernthal, Stanley Weber, John Lynch, Ruaidhri Conroy, Hugh O'Conor, Donncha Crowley, Gaetan Wenders and Eric Godon
Studio: RLJ Entertainment

B-

The conflict between faith and fanaticism—not to mention simple disbelief—lies at the core of this dark but curiously hopeful (though extremely violent) medieval tale about a journey gone terribly wrong. “Pilgrimage” isn’t really about one in the Chaucerian sense—the term, after all, usually refers to a trip to visit a holy place in the hope it will bring some redemptive effect, and the trek here involves the transport of a precious relic from western Ireland to Rome. But the essence of Jamie Hannigan’s script revolves around whether such sacred totems are worth the credence placed in them, or can effect justice in unexpected ways.

Following a prologue showing the stoning of Matthias, the “thirteenth disciple” who was Judas’ replacement, in Cappadocia, the scene switches to an Irish monastery, where a stone struck by lightning is venerated as being that which killed him, wielded by a man then incinerated by a bolt from the heavens. In 1209, a Cistercian named Geraldus (Stanley Weber) appears with a bull from Pope Innocent III, ordering that the strangely deformed stone be sent to Rome, where its power will be accessed to ensure the success of a crusade the pontiff is planning (presumably either the so-called Albigensian Crusade in southern France or the Fifth Crusade of 2013 to Egypt). The Abbot (Donncha Crowley) orders the reliquary, which had been buried to safeguard it against invaders, to be retrieved and assigns a group of four monks—Ciaran (John Lynch), Rua (Ruaidhri Conroy), Cathal (Hugh O’Conor) and young novice Diarmuid (Tom Holland) to accompany the relic and Geraldus to the port of Waterford for transport to England. The house’s mute but strong servant (Jon Bernthal), who washed up on shore years earlier and has remained ever since, will also go along.

For the first part of the journey, the group is protected by bowmen from a friendly Celtic tribe, but eventually they meet up with a force headed by the feudal lord (Eric Godon) who is leading the Norman effort to conquer the island. Elderly and desirous of absolution for his bloody life, he welcomes the travelers warmly and provides them with an ample squadron of knights. His son Raymond (Richard Armitage), the leader of the defenders, is, however, much less scrupulous in his religious practice, perhaps as a result of what he witnessed during the recent crusade that attacked the Christian city of Constantinople, where he picked up—from a priest, no less—a little knifelike device that causes excruciating pain when inserted into a foe’s abdomen and ever so slightly twisted, a tool he is not at all loath to employ.

The troupe will have hard going when most of their Norman protectors are called away on another mission and some hostile Celts attack. Two of their number will fall, one of them tortured to death, and only the intervention of the mute servant—who has a violent past—saves Geraldus, Diarmuid and Cathal. Recovering the relic, the four continue their trek with villains in close pursuit, and must try to escape on the river to Waterford, with the mute’s ability to hold off the attackers their only hope of success. In the end, however, the young, naïve novice will have to face off against the grimly determined Cistercian in what amounts to a contest between two very different conceptions of what faith entails.

“Pilgrimage” has a considerable number of virtues, from an attempt at historical accuracy that extends to the use of different languages—mostly English, but also some French and Gaelic, with occasional bursts of Latin (along with subtitles, of course)—to the magnificent vistas shot on location in luminous widescreen by Tom Comerford. It also boasts a convincingly grubby look (courtesy of production designer Owen Power and costumer Leonie Prendergast), a brooding atmosphere fashioned by director Brendan Muldowney, editor Maired McIvor and composer Stephen McKeon, and some expert acting from a committed cast, including Holland, who employs subtlety to make the novice a convincingly conflicted figure standing in contrast to Weber’s rigidly self-certain Cistercian and Armitage’s amoral, duplicitous Raymond.

There is, however, a central problem with the film: while it raises intriguing issues about religious belief, it also aims to be an action-adventure, a sort of thirteenth-century western, and the two parts don’t always mesh very happily. The periodic scenes of hand-to-hand combat and torture, though intensely played by Armitage, Lynch and especially burly Bernthal, are often so protracted and gruesome that they throw the film’s balance out of whack. Yes, the Middle Ages were a period of great brutality and copious bloodshed, but “Pilgrimage” is so determined to make that point over and over that the more thoughtful questions the embedded in the plot are often put on the back burner.

Despite its propensity to aim for the jugular rather than the brain, however, “Pilgrimage” proves an intriguing attempt at capturing the often contradictory spiritual and material realities of Europe’s so-called age of faith.

THE GLASS CASTLE

Producer: Gill Netter and Ken Kao
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
Stars: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Max Greenfield, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Sarah Snook, Josh Caras, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Sadie Sink, Charlie Shotwell, Shree Crooks, Olivia Kate Rice, Iain Armitage, Eden Grace Redfield, Robin Bartlett, Joe Pingue, A.J. Henderson and Dominic Bogart
Studio: Lionsgate

B-

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton brings the sure touch in dealing with material about troubled youngsters that he demonstrated in the gritty “Short Term 12” to a far glossier project in this adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about growing up with adventurous but neglectful, even abusive, parents. “The Glass Castle” features a starry cast—Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and Brie Larson—and they’re generally very good; but Cretton is especially successful in drawing strong performances from the young actresses, Chandler Head and Ella Anderson, who play Walls in childhood and adolescence, and he gets strong performances from the youngsters who play her siblings in the flashback sequences as well.

The success of Walls’ book means that there’s a built-in audience for Cretton’s film, and most of her readers should be more than satisfied with it. But others should find it agreeable as well. The deciding factor will be one’s willingness to embrace an old-fashioned family drama of a sort that Hollywood studios used to turn out regularly, but are now deemed rather passé—one that, given the material, might have been a good deal edgier than it turns out to be.

The film has a then-and-now construction, with the “now” focusing on Walls (Larson), in full Ross Hunter-Lana Turner mode as a successful NYC magazine writer—a gossip columnist, really—in the early nineties. Beautiful and cultured, she’s engaged to David (Max Greenfield), an investment banker with whose clients she hobnobs at swank restaurants and upscale parties. But while appearing to be at home among the upper-crust, she’s hiding the secret of her upbringing, which is revealed in periodic flashbacks as she and David deal with her family, particularly her voluble, alcoholic father Rex (Harrelson) and sharp-tongued mother Rose Mary (Watts), who are living as squatters in a dilapidated building on the seedy side of town, scrounging for food from dumpsters.

Rex and Rose Mary’s disdain for the choices Jeannette has made, including David, are a constant cause of friction, which forces her to come to terms, once and for all, with her feelings toward her parents. That leads to a stream of reminiscences, a jumble of good times and bad, of fleeting happiness and more pervasive misery.

The focus is on charismatic but unpredictable Rex: when sober he could be a wondrous dreamer, giving stars in the night sky to his children as presents or making elaborate blueprints for the glass house he promised would be their utopian home. But he could shift on a dime, especially when drinking, stealing his kids’ savings and shoving them around. His idea of teaching Jeannette how to swim simply involved tossing her into the deep water of the local pool, which led to a scuffle with the lifeguard that forced them to leave another house and move on before the law found them. Yet even then his complaints about segregation at the pool showed that there was an underlying point of principle to his apparent madness. Still, can one forgive under any circumstances the time that he effectively pimped out Jeannette to a guy in a bar he was trying to hustle at pool, simply because he was peeved to find out she wanted to leave home?

Rose Mary was less volatile but no better a caretaker. Early on she’s shown telling little Jeannette to see to her own lunch because she’s busy on one of her innumerable paintings, and an accident with the stove left the girl with a bad burn—and a permanent scar. On another occasion, the only food in the house for the children is butter and sugar. Of course, the fact that Rex is likely to spend the little money they have on booze doesn’t leave much for the grocery list.

The culmination of the family’s travels in the early flashbacks—which involve regular run-ins with doctors and social workers—is the decision to return to the Walls hometown in West Virginia, where the children first meet their father’s sad-sack father (A.J. Henderson), his brutish brother (Joe Pingue), and—most importantly—his severe, callous mother Erma (Robin Bartlett), who proves especially hard on Jeannette’s younger brother Brian—but also interested in him in a distinctly unsavory way. An episode in which Rex and Rose Mary leave the kids in her supposed care will force a move to their own place further up the mountain—where things alternately improve and deteriorate, in the usual Walls fashion, until the kids escape, one by one, although, as they learn, escape is really illusory.

Harrelson and Watts work hard to capture the spirits of Rex and Rose Mary, and though one occasionally gets the feeling that they might be trying a bit too hard, their extrovert performances are excellent. Larson, on the other hand, has the more difficult task not only of conveying a conflicted personality, but of doing so in collaboration with others playing the character’s younger selves, and it must be admitted that the various elements don’t quite mesh. It’s no help that she spends much of her “glamorous” New York footage playing against Greenfield, whose David (an invented figure, it seems) is rather like a caricature. But even her scene with Dominic Bogart, as the seedy fellow at the bar who wants more of Jeannette than she’s willing to give, doesn’t quite come off.

On the other hand, Head and Anderson are extraordinary as Jeannette’s younger selves, and Barrett makes Erma precisely the sort of fearsomely hard-boiled woman her dismal life might have forged And while Sarah Snook, Josh Caras and Brigette Lundy-Paine are only okay as Jeannette’s grown siblings, once again the younger versions are remarkable—Sadie Sink and Olivia Kate Rice (as Lori), Iain Armitage and Charlie Shotwell (as Brian) and Eden Grace Redfield and Shree Crooks (as Maureen) are all exceptional.

“Castle” boasts an excellent production design by Sharon Seymour, who shows sensitivity to the differing timeframes without undue exaggeration, equally appropriate costumes by Mirren Gordon-Crozier and Joy Hanae Cretton, and fine widescreen cinematography by Brett Pawlak, whose appreciation of the West Virginia locations is especially evident. Editor Nat Sanders deserves credit for splicing that glides smoothly through the back-and-forth chronology.

There will undoubtedly be some who take issue with the liberties Cretton’s film takes with Walls’ book—the omissions, the truncations, and—it must be added—the inventions. But while one might wish it possessed more of the grit of “Short Term 12,” the film mostly works as a more traditional kind of family melodrama—Cretton by way of Douglas Sirk.