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(2001) (Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: After their parents are killed in a car crash, a teen and her younger brother move in with her parents' best friends, only to discover that their seemingly idyllic new home is anything but that.
Ruby Baker (LEELEE SOBIESKI) is a typical 16-year-old girl who enjoys hanging out with her friends and getting away with some misbehaving. Her world is turned upside down, however, when her parents, Grace (RITA WILSON) and Dave (MICHAEL O'KEEFE), are killed in a car accident, leaving Ruby and her 11-year-old brother, Rhett (TREVOR MORGAN), orphaned.

Yet, they're not on their own or in dire financial straights. As informed by estate attorney Alvin Begleiter (BRUCE DERN), Ruby and Rhett's parents left them a trust worth $4 million and guardians in the form of Terry (STELLAN SKARSGÅRD) and Erin Glass (DIANE LANE), their former next-door neighbors and parents' best friends.

Moved away from their friends and school in the valley to the Malibu coast and into the Glass' huge, glass-walled home, the siblings try to get on with their lives as best as possible. Yet, as they try to adapt to their new lifestyle, Ruby starts seeing and sensing various things that begin to make her uncomfortable around and apprehensive toward Terry and Erin.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Once upon a time, there were two young siblings forced into the woods to forge for their own food. They eventually found it in the form of a house made of all sorts of delicious sweets on which they promptly gorged themselves. The owner of the house, however, was a witch desirous of plumping them up for her own dinner. The kids eventually discovered that with the girl ultimately pushing the witching into her own oven, thus ending her despicable and sinister plan.

The story, of course, is "Hansel and Gretel," the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that has mesmerized, delighted and scared kids throughout the ages, despite its theme of children in danger and cannibalism of all things. Aiming for a somewhat older crowd, director Daniel Sackheim (who makes his feature film debut after directing TV shows such as "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order") and screenwriter Wesley Strick ("Return to Paradise," "Cape Fear") have fashioned a contemporary thriller partially inspired by the fable with "The Glass House."

Rather than sticking with the basic story narrative as did the little seen English film "Who Slew Auntie Roo?" the hungry witch has been replaced by a seemingly wealthy couple. In addition, instead of them wanting to eat the children, the motive here seems to be more financial than culinary based, as they're after the kids' trust fund and are apparently willing to do whatever it takes to get it, although they're initially rather sly about that.

Accordingly, the film not only plays off the basic fairy tale theme, but also that of the paranoid character who grows increasingly suspicious and anxious about what they think is some bizarre and unwelcome behavior. As viewers, we're then supposed to worry and care about that character's well-being, all while simultaneously questioning their sanity and viewpoint of what's occurring.

It's a setup that's been used in countless films such as "Arlington Road" where the resulting efforts are only as good as the filmmakers' ability to keep us off balance as long as possible about what's really occurring. To do so, several important ingredients are necessary, including the suspicious main character and those who are making them nervous.

While men are almost always portrayed as the take-charge sort of characters in such situations, female protagonists come in a wide variety. There's the damsel in distress type who either runs and hides or does dumb things as commonly occurs in slasher films. Then there's the Ripley/Clarice Starling types (of "Alien(s)" and "The Silence of the Lambs" respectively) who may be scared and unsure, but nevertheless are proactive in remedying the situation.

Here, Leelee Sobieski ("Joy Ride," "Here on Earth") plays something of a combination of the two, creating a mostly realistic character reacting in a mostly credible fashion to what occurs and unfolds (notwithstanding some dumb behavior such as changing clothes out in the middle of an open air hallway rather than in another room, all to avoid her brother watching her). The character isn't written well enough for us to really care about her as much as we should, but Sobieski does a decent enough job portraying her that we're not completely aloof from her predicament.

Then there are the potential villains portrayed by Stellan Skarsgård ("Time Code," "Deep Blue Sea") and Diane Lane ("Hardball," "The Perfect Storm"). While both deliver solid performances in their respective roles and thankfully bring a bit more dimension to their characters than is often found in such films, their efforts are mostly undermined by the way in which the filmmakers have fashioned them and the basic plot.

The fun of such films is usually found in the way the would-be villains are created and behave, with all sorts of red herrings mixed in with legitimate activities and explanations to confuse the protagonist and viewer about whether the "suspects" are really bad, evil and/or sinister or not.

While we pretty know they are by default - particularly since they're appearing in the suspense/thriller genre - it's simply too obvious here from the onset, thus stealing part of the film's "fun." By showing their hand too early and not creating enough believable, let along imaginative explanations for their behavior and actions, the cat is let out of the bag far too soon.

The film's biggest problem, however, is how mundane most every aspect of it turns out to be. The villains aren't scary or seemingly dangerous enough to make us worry; their modus operandi isn't particularly noteworthy (or believable, for that matter); and the various close calls and action moments simply have a blasé aura to them, both from the fact that we've seen all of techniques before and the non-imaginative way in which they've been staged.

Supporting performances are generally okay, but don't add much to the proceedings. As the other sibling in danger, Trevor Morgan ("Jurassic Park III," "The Patriot") doesn't make much of an impression, while Rita Wilson ("The Story of Us," "Runaway Bride") and Michael O'Keefe ("The Pledge," "The Great Santini") understandably get little screen time as their parents.

Bruce Dern ("All the Pretty Horses," "The Haunting") appears as an estate attorney who's about the only character whose motivation isn't exactly clear, while Chris Noth (TV's "Sex and the City," "Law & Order") is so briefly in the film that it's surprising his part didn't go to some unknown actor.

Easy enough to watch, the film isn't entirely horrible (except for the standard he's not dead yet ending, far too much obvious foreshadowing, and the fact that it seems to be raining every day in Malibu), but no more of it is great, exciting or even interesting. It's simply there, burning up a few hours of our time and offering absolutely nothing new or noteworthy to the genre.

Containing a few mildly suspenseful moments and a decent performance by Sobieski, "The Glass House," may have the desired "edge of the seat" effect on younger viewers. Yet, for anyone who's seen this sort of film before, its inner workings are all too predictable and obvious to the naked eye, resulting in a picture that's surprisingly banal and far too easy to see through. Maybe an inclusion of the Hansel and Gretel pushing the witch into the oven bit would have heated things up enough to get our attention. In any case, the film rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 14, 2001 / Posted September 14, 2001

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