Cinema Signal:

. "The Glass House"

The best mystery thriller of the year, this is the extremely well written adult version of "Scare", "I Know What You Did... ", etc., etc. It offers all the classic thriller elements of nearly helpless victims, desperate and unscrupulous villains, and all within the confines of plausibility and recognizable human behavior. Kudos, especially to writer Wesley Strick and director Daniel Sackheim.

16-year old, typically rebellious teenager Ruby Baker (Leelee Sobieski) is a partying brat well skilled in parental deception, pulling off regular escapades with drugs and drink with her pals. But it's all brought to a screeching halt when her parents, Dave and Grace (Michael O'Keefe and Rita Wilson) returning from dinner, die in an automobile accident.

Sobered, devastated and in mourning, she is visited by her parent's attorney, Alvin Begleiter (Bruce Dern) who informs her that she and younger brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) are to be taken in by the former neighbors of the family, Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgard and Diane Lane) to live in their fabulously shiny glass and concrete house high on a hill in Malibu, California (though a shot tieing in this particular house to the ocean was oddly avoided, as though it was in reality located somewhere else entirely). He also tells her that her parents' estate is more than enough to secure their future. Later, she learns that it's a $4 million legacy.

The Glasses are an apparently highly successful couple, she a doctor, he a movie producer. As they introduce the kids to their new digs, young Rhett squeals with delight at the state-of-the-art contents and the promise of high tech goodies. Curiously, the pair is put into a single room but this is compensated for, at least for Rhett, by the latest Playstation and associated video games. But Ruby is not so easily satisfied, remaining somewhat suspicious of her hosts and erstwhile guardians.

So are we, the audience, and these suspicions are soon borne out when Terry makes his first pass at the comely, vulnerable teenager. His abiding skill though, is in smooth talking his way out of any awkwardness or embarrassment and, for awhile, this is the pattern in the household. It's not too long, however, before the motivations behind Terry and Erin's guardianship are exposed, particularly when Ruby overhears a conversation Terry has with a hoodlum to whom he owes a million dollars and, later, when she witnesses their strongarm methods to coerce their money out of him. He and his doctor wife are in desperate financial trouble and the children pawns in their game of draining the inheritance to repay their debts.

19-year old Leelee Sobieski plays this very aware and controlled 16-year old and the age gap starts out as a problem in credibility -- not only for the 3 year difference, but more for the fact that Sobieski conveys considerable maturity for her natural years. The illusion is bothersome until we get into the dramatic elements of the story when the lives of the children are at risk and we become thankful for this girl's level of control and ability to fight back. By then, we're so hooked on her and her brother's survival that the age problem is forgotten and we want desperately for her to find out what she needs to know. We're behind her when she becomes the investigator in her own case and the strong adversary in the evil plot against her.

After her stunning, sexy appearance in "Eyes Wide Shut" it's no surprise that she'd be cast in a film taking full advantage of her naturalness and nubility. She's come a way since 1998's "Deep Impact" and the more recent TV drama as "Joan of Arc" in 1999. She's been busy and by any calculation, is destined to continue on a stardom path.

As far as casting goes, Stellan Skarsgard is an interesting choice as the bad guy full of all manner of charm. This fine Swedish actor has an instinctual grasp of realism and plausibility in his work and, while he rarely is the evildoer, he gives the role all that it requires as well as the character's capacity to be trusted, an important attainment in order for his character to carry out his plans as far as he does in a credible manner. Fans of more obvious fright pics might be disappointed, but an adult audience is likely to be thankful for his avoidance of playing the imbecilic Freddie Kruger-type ogre such that grace the mystery thriller genre so thoroughly.

Those who know Skarsgard's work since his American "debut" in the French "Breaking the Waves" of 1996, will find that he manages to effect a much more American accent than he has done heretofore. Some accent lingers, but it's no break with reality to have a foreign-born American film producer with an accent.

In liking this movie as much as I did I should add that I realize I'm in the minority. For a reason I can't quite explain, this film has been met with a barrage of negative criticism. In exploring the possible reason behind such condemnation I've considered that a lot of people don't rate the craftsmanship of the film highly enough.

Holes in the story? Yes, perhaps more than one, but the only one that disturbed me was when the Glasses gave the children only one room out of the dozen the house must have. This is an off note which, I suspect, was a misguided effort to reveal the duplicity of the guardians when, confronted by the prying social worker (Kathy Baker), Ruby suddenly gets her own room. Not good enough. It's a cheap ploy either way but not enough to sink the film, one which is unusually steadfast in its plausibility even through some melodramatic exaggerations.

Visually, it's a marvel of angles exploiting all the possibilities of such classy architecture, including undulating shadows of pool reflections which penetrate many rooms, obscurity of glazed semi-transparencies, angles of threatening, half-seen viewpoints. Cinematography, by Alar Kivilo ("A Simple Plan", "Frequency") is first rate and memorable.

Estimated cost: $22,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $19,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written, insightful
I'll recommend and get my local newspaper to hire this reviewer
Rating: 9

The movie is well thought out, and very well played. And so is this review.

                                                        ~~ Adam 

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Leelee Sobieski in
"The Glass House"
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