A Wrinkle in Time (2018)


Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid try to bring balance to the Force.

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney) Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Bellamy Young, David Oyelowo (voice), Conrad Roberts, Yvette Cason, Will McCormack, David MacPherson, Akemi Look, Tim Kang, Jessica Rockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

As a boy I read – eagerly, I might add – Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. I was fascinated by the amazing worlds she created and thrilled to the adventures of the intrepid Murry children. It was a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in almost since I was 11 or 12 and the details have become lost to me.

Ava DuVernay has created a nine figure-budgeted version – much has been made that she’s the first African-American female director to be at the helm for a movie with a budget more than $100 million – which is not all sizzle and no steak precisely; it’s more accurately that the steak has been overwhelmed by the sizzle.

Meg Murry (Reid) is depressed and acting out to a large degree. Her physicist father Alex (Pine) disappeared four years earlier and her principal (Holland) as well as her mother (Raw) are both beginning to gently push her into letting him go and come to the realization that he’s gone for good. Then into their lives – including her precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) who might be more brilliant than her and her father put together – comes Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), a kind of kooky and eccentric woman who tells her that her father is alive in another part of the universe where he had traveled by the sheer force of his mind and he needs her help in returning home.

Through Mrs. Whatsit she meets Mrs. Who (Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), equally eccentric and just as powerful. The two Murry kids along with Calvin (Miller) who’s kind of sweet on Meg, accompany the three Missus to rescue Alex. But he’s being held captive by an evil force of energy called The It (having nothing to do with Pennywise the Clown) and it is growing rapidly to the point that if her father can’t be rescued the Universe will be overrun by the It.

The movie is a massive misstep by one of the most talented directors working today. The story gets lost in a turgid script that emphasizes the visuals (which to be fair are incredibly imaginative and a literal joy to behold) over the story. Worse yet, the dialogue is wretched; people in this film don’t talk like real people. At least Mrs. Who has an excuse; she’s programmed (essentially) to talk in affirmations, but everyone else seems to mouth platitudes that after awhile grow wearisome.

Winfrey, Kaling, Raw, Pine and Witherspoon are all fine actors and they do very well here. Reid can sometimes be a bit smarmy but for the most part she is asked to carry the film on her young shoulders and she doesn’t disgrace herself. McCabe however is Hella annoying and he brings to mind poor Jake Lloyd from Star Wars Episode One as a candidate for worst juvenile performance of all time.

The movie failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in March. Some blame it on the fact that the Murry family was interracial, although the African-ness of Black Panther didn’t seem to hurt it any. I’m sure the success of the Marvel film had an impact on the audience for A Wrinkle in Time but I also think poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth doomed it. In all honesty, I don’t think A Wrinkle in Time is a bad film but it’s not a very good one either. It’s kind of bloated and the message of family, hope and tolerance gets completely lost. I have no doubt DuVernay is going to be making important films for decades to come; this one though likely won’t be on her highlight reel years from now.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are insanely imaginative. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are perfectly cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue torpedoes the film. McCabe’s performance is overbearing most of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Although suitable for most children, the film contains scenes of peril as well as some themes that may go over the heads of some of the less socially developed kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two more Murry children (twins Sandy and Dennys) who appeared in the novel were cut from the film version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holy Mountain
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bright

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


Stop! In the name of love...

Stop! In the name of love…

(2013) Supernatural Fantasy (Screen Gems) Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Harry van Gorkum, Stephen R. Hart, Chad Connell, Chris Ratz, Elyas M’Barek, Melantha Blackthorne, Lucy DeLaat. Directed by Harold Zwart

Even William Shakespeare knew enough to write “tis nothing new under the sun” and nearly 500 years later that’s even more true. We’ve seen it all and there is little out there that is going to be completely original. Of late there have been a spate of young adult fantasy books that have gone for film franchise-dom a la Harry Potter and Twilight with varying degrees of failure – most don’t get past the first installment. Is this another would-be phenomenon destined to crash and burn?

Clary (Collins) is a fairly normal Brooklyn teenager who has just had her 18th birthday (at least I think so – she’s apparently old enough to go to bars and drink) who has had enough of her overprotective mother Jocelyn (Headey). She’s not really seeing anybody, although her bookish buddy Simon (Sheehan) wouldn’t mind changing that which Clary is wholly oblivious to.

However Jocelyn has good reason to want Clary home early – she’s part of a half-human, half-angel group of warriors called the Shadowhunters, who battle demons in the ongoing war of good against evil. When Clary witnesses (apparently) a brutal murder in a nightclub, she’s pretty shaken up but more so when she comes home to find her apartment trashed and her mother missing. Oh, and there’s a demonic dog waiting to play fetch with her intestines.

She’s saved by a Shadowhunter named Jace (Bower), a blonde even prettier than Clary who’s a bit of a badass in his metal band leather pants and bad boy with a heart of gold attitude, certainly enough to have teenage girls hearts melt in ways that Buffy’s Angel and Twilight’s Edward could only dream of. He takes her to the Institute, home base for the few remaining Shadowhunters where they and housebound Hodge (Harris) discuss ancient runes and compare Goth tattoos.

Apparently Clary is being stalked by Valentine (Meyers), a renegade Shadowhunter who only wants to rule the world (doesn’t everybody?) and his thugs as well as vampires (bad) and werewolves (good). They discover that Valentine is after an artifact called the Mortal Cup, one of several powerful artifacts that Hodge is aware of. Clary and her friends will seek the help of a somewhat agoraphobic witch (Pounder) and a mackin’ wizard (Gao) but the only salvation for Clary and her mother will lie inside Clary. But when Clary finds out the truth about who she is, which side will she choose?

The source young adult novel by author Cassandra Clare was over 500 pages in length. There are a couple of ways to go about adapting it – one, cut extraneous plot points out and condense the novel into a 120 page script, or cram as much as you can in there. The filmmakers went the latter route and unfortunately that leads to the serious drawback of an often confusing and conflicting plot. While those who love the series (and there are 22 million copies of the book sold worldwide) will be happy that they didn’t skimp (although the book is far more detailed on the background of the Shadowhunters), those that are less familiar with the books may feel like they’re treading water.

We might be able to tolerate the overabundance of plot if it weren’t so darn familiar. Those who wait for the home video edition of the movie can have themselves a nifty little drinking game if they try to spot all the plot elements borrowed from other movies – I stopped keeping track after I saw things from Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priest. Someone can get themselves smashed real good playing that game.

The mostly young cast are exceptionally attractive (even the semi-nerdy Simon is quite the hunk) so that will appeal to the teen audience to whom such aesthetics are important. In terms of their skills as actors, let’s just say they’re an attractive cast and leave it at that. Collins in particular doesn’t seem to have done much more than reprise her work from Mirror, Mirror.

While the movie looks good and the CGI isn’t bad, the movie’s final confrontation suffers from an excess of histrionics. I do think they were going for an epic scale on this one but really fell short of the mark. I also think that they are really trying to play to the Twilight crowd with a plucky heroine with hidden powers who has two gorgeous guys vying to be her protector and both deeply in love with her yet she merely bestows semi-chaste kisses on one and not even that on the other. Screen Gems confidently green-lit the sequel even before City of Bones opened but the anemic box office and terrible critical reception may cause them to reconsider. Unfortunately, this is just another in a long line of young adult fantasy adaptations that fails to make it as a cinematic franchise which begs the question – maybe if they tried doing some adult fantasy series (i.e. The Wheel of Time, The Codex Alera or Shannara) maybe they might attract a broader audience – but maybe people who read a lot of books don’t have time to go to the movies as much.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive cast. Decent effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Meandering plot. Overwrought climax. Borrows from other sources a bit too freely.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence of a fantasy nature, some fairly disturbing-looking demons and some sexually suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins, who was an ardent fan of the book series, active campaigned for the role of Clary when she discovered that there was to be a film made of it.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: American Reunion

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

There's a Blue Light special in Bellatrix Le Strange's vault.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Tom Fenton, Matthew Lewis, Michael Gambon, Warwick Davis, Evanna Lynch, Jason Isaacs, Maggie Smith, Bonnie Wright, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Julie Walters, George Harris, Kelly Macdonald, Helen McCrory . Directed by David Yates

All good things must come to an end, and in every sense, the Harry Potter film franchise has been a good thing. It has brought untold joy to millions of viewers, not to mention untold billions to the coffers of Warner Brothers. Will the series go out with a whimper or a bang?

After the events of the first part of the finale (think of it as Act I), Harry Potter (Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Watson) and Ron Weasley (Grint) are on the run from Lord Voldemort’s (Fiennes) Death Eaters who have essentially taken over the Wizarding World. Harry needs to find the Sword of Godric Gryffindor in the bank vault at Gringott’s belonging to Bellatrix Le Strange (Carter). To do so, they will need the help of the captured Griphook the Goblin (Davis) and for Hermione to use polyjuice potion to impersonate Le Strange. If you aren’t into Harry Potter, you probably didn’t understand a word of that last paragraph bbz.

The plan is bold and might have worked but as is par for the course for the trio (“When have we ever made a plan that actually worked?” ponders Harry early on) they barely escape with their lives and without the Sword. However they do get a clue that one of the Horcruxes that contains the soul of Voldemort resides in Hogwarts itself, so off they go to their old school which has become more of a gulag overseen by Severus Snape (Rickman), the man who killed Albus Dumbledore (Gambon). Dumbledore’s brother Abeforth (Hinds), a bitter man who lives in the shadow of his late sibling, helps Harry and his friends elude the Death Eaters and dementors that patrol the skies above Hogwarts and slip him in through a secret passageway, assisted by their old friend Neville Longbottom (Lewis).

With the help of a secret underground at Hogwarts and the surviving members of the Order of the Phoenix, Harry retakes Hogwarts and sets about retrieving the Diadem of Rowena Ravenclaw (one of the founders of Hogwarts) and eventually winds up facing down Draco Malfoy (Fenton), his old nemesis and winds up saving him from certain death.

Realizing that Harry is at Hogwarts, Voldemort and his Death Eaters engage in a pitched battle at the old school in preparation for Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort. Only one of them will walk away and many friends old and new will not survive.

The fact that the movie had the biggest opening weekend box office in motion picture history isn’t really an indication of whether or not this movie is worth seeing, but it certainly is a clear marker of the anticipation surrounding its release. As much as Part I was somewhat unsatisfying (which given the circumstances was inevitable), this is completely satisfying and a fitting end to the franchise.

Radcliffe gets to show Harry as the hero he was always meant to be. He has a scene in the forest near the end of the movie in which he faces his own mortality that is absolutely heartbreaking, one that I will remember for a long time. It’s not just a great scene in a summer blockbuster; it’s a great scene in any movie period. Oscar winning performances have been based on less.

Sure, there are times when you might feel lost or left out if you haven’t seen the first seven movies of the series. Sure the 3D is unnecessary and makes a dark picture darker, but it at least doesn’t ruin the movie, which a bad conversion can do.

Simply put, this is the movie that I may wind up remembering with the most affection in a summer full of underwhelming movies for the most part. There is spectacle, but there is also human pathos. It is on an epic scale, but also very much intimate character studies. There is something for everyone here and even for those who are ambivalent about Harry Potter and fantasy in general, this is worth your while to spend your hard-earned cash at the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: An appropriate and fitting end to a great franchise. Epic in scope and personal in nature, you will laugh, cry and ooh and ahh – everything a movie should be.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like Harry Potter, fantasy or good movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few frightening images and some fantasy action. Some of the more wrenching scenes might be difficult for younger kids to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the movie Hermione impersonates Mafalda Hopkirk (portrayed by Sophie Thompson, the sister of Emma Thompson – who plays Professor Trelawney) and Bellatrix Le Strange (portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter who played Emma’s sister in Howard’s End).

HOME OR THEATER: It may be a bit of a cliché but it is true in this case – if you see only one movie in a theater this summer, this is the one to go see.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Zombie Strippers

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole


Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Half the way there.

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Jim Sturgess, Emily Barclay, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Joel Edgerton, Geoffrey Rush, Ryan Kwanten, Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Barry Otto, Leigh Whannell, Sam Neill, Adrienne DeFaria, Abbie Cornish. Directed by Zack Snyder

As CGI animated features have become more sophisticated, they have begun to attract big-name live action directors. Snyder, who arguably has plenty of CGI experience with his previous two features 300 and Watchmen goes all the way with this adaptation of the first three of Kathryn Lasky’s series of novels for young adults, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole.

Young Soren (Sturgess) is entranced by the stories of the mythic Guardians of Ga’Hoole told by his dad Noctus (Weaving); the Guardians are a group of owls who live far, far away who come when owlkind is threatened – did I mention Soren is a barn owl? – and aid the weak against the strong. Soren even has his own hero, Lyze of Kiel, who defeated the evil leader of the Pure Ones in the Battle of the Ice Claw and disfigured him, forcing him to wear a metal helmet to hide his disfigurements.

His sister Eglantine (DeFaria) shares in his rapt adoration of the Guardians stories but his brother Kludd (Kwanten) is less impressed. He is in fact quite jealous of the attention Soren gets from his father, and is constantly falling short of Soren’s accomplishments.

The two go out to practice branching, a practice in which young owls glide from branch to branch in the large tree that they live in as a preface to learning how to fly for real. However, an angry Kludd knocks over Soren when he is attempting to leap off a branch, causing Kludd to lose his balance as well and the two brothers wind up on the ground, not the place they want to be.

It isn’t long before the two find out why their father warned them about the ground; they are attacked by a large rodent-like creature and it looks like one or both of them are destined to be rodent dinner until they are saved by a pair of strange owls who take them far away, to St. Aegolius, an aerie inhabited by the Pure Ones. Nyra (Mirren), the mate of Metalbeak (Whannell) who still lives, informs them that they’ve been abandoned by their families and are now part of the Tyto family – their word for Pure Ones. The strong will be Tyto warriors; the weak will be Pickers. When Soren speaks up to defend Gylfie (Barclay), an elf owl that Soren befriended on the journey to St. Aegolius, he and Gylfie are relegated with most of the others to being Pickers. Soren calls out to Kludd but Kludd denies him, and joins the Tytos.

The rest are led outside and made to sleep under the glare of the full moon, which Gylfie informs Soren will lead to a zombie-like state in which they’ll become pliable and docile. Soren means to resist the effect by staying awake the night, which he and Gylfie do. They discover the next morning that their work will involve sifting through owl pellets, the regurgitated remains of the mice and other animals that owls eat, to find a small metallic bit called a fleck, which the Pure Ones are using to create a weapon that creates a magnetic field that disorients owls. They use bats to actually handle the flecks as bats are immune to the effect.

Soren and Gylfie make plans to escape but before they do they are taken aside by Grimble (also Weaving), the Pure One who had kidnapped Gylfie. Once safe in his library, he tells them he’s been waiting for someone who would stand up to the other Pure Ones and avoid being moon-blinked; he would have left long ago if his family wasn’t being held hostage. He tries to teach them how to fly so they can escape and warn the Guardians, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Nyra, Kludd and a group of Tyto warriors. Grimble tries to hold them off to buy the two some time to escape; Soren hesitates and calls again to Kludd but it is clear that Kludd has become one of the Tytos and he again denies Soren. The two, forced to flee, barely manage to escape but Grimble dies defending them.

Exhausted, they look for a place to rest and meet Digger (Wenham), a somewhat eccentric burrowing owl and his friend Twilight (LaPaglia), a great grey owl who fancies himself a warrior bard, although his poetry leaves something to be desired. Hearing that Soren and Gylfie are off to find the Guardians, they offer to go with them on the adventure, Twilight knowing where the Sea of Hoolemere is, which is where the Island of Ga’Hoole resides. Twilight has also captured Mrs. Plithever (Margolyes), the snake that acted as nanny to Soren, Kludd and Eglantine, ostensibly as dinner but now they have a fifth companion.

On the way there, they discover an Echidna (Otto), a mystic who knows more about their journey than they let on. While flying through a raging ice storm, they are discovered by two guardians – one of whom happens to be King Boron (Roxburgh) – and escorted back to Ga’Hoole. There their story is heard, disbelieved by Allomere (Neill), one of their trusted advisors, but believed by Ezylryb (Rush), who is very eccentric but also an advisor. Boron decides to send Allomere to scout out the situation.

Eventually he returns, having barely returned alive but with two young owlets that have been moon-blinked, one of whom is Eglantine, who was led to it by her own brother. As the guardians gird for war, they have no way of knowing that they will be betrayed by someone close to them and that a hero will rise from the least likely among them. But will it be enough to overcome the numerical superiority of the Pure Ones, or evade the trap that is being laid for them?

The first thing you need to know about this movie is that the animation is absolutely superb. The owls look real, and the backgrounds are spectacular. An owl civilization is created that looks not unlike the elf civilization of Lord of the Rings. The owls are given human characteristics and each one is easily distinguishable from the others. Considering that in the past all owls looked pretty much alike to me, that’s no mean feat. Kudos must be given to Animal Logic, the Aussie firm that did most of the animation. Work like this will put them in the league of Pixar before too very long, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar come February.

This is certainly a work of fantasy, and it borrows heavily from all sorts of genres, from the high fantasy of the aforementioned Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars saga and even bits of the Indiana Jones adventures. The Pure Ones have been compared to the Nazis and while in some ways that comparison is dead on, I would also liken them to the Kali cult of India as depicted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

While the Aussie accents are occasionally thick enough that some of the small tykes around me were repeatedly asking their parents what was just said, the voice acting is top notch here, particularly Sturgess (whose star is rising these days) as the heroic Soren, Wenham as the loopy Digger, LaPaglia as the unctuous Twilight and Mirren as the imperious Nyra.

The main complaint I have about the movie is that it seemed to be cramming a whole lot of story into the 90 minute runtime. At times the pacing seems a little rushed, which gave short shrift to some of the characters and story points. However, that’s a fairly minor sin when compared with all the positives the movie had going for it.

Another aside; the music here is wonderful, and they made effective use of Dead Can Dance’s “The Host of Seraphim” during the climactic battle scene. That happens to be one of my favorite songs, and it is so cinematic in tone that I have often wondered why it hadn’t been used in a movie until now. Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard’s voice is used on two occasions in the movie (once from one of her solo albums) and it enhances the movie’s mythic quality.

In fact, that is one of the things I liked the most about the movie, and the word “mythic” sums it up well. Lasky created a credible owl mythology, as credible as any of the fantasy worlds you would find in adult fantasy (I’m talking George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, Piers Anthony’s Xanth and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time so get your mind out of the gutter, it’s crowding me) and it translates nicely to the screen. I found it easy enough to follow, and it gives the movie an epic scope.

Perhaps because the movie is something of a hybrid, or perhaps people just aren’t plain interested in seeing owls as lead characters, the movie has underperformed at the box office thus far, although good word of mouth may eventually wind up saving it. I hope so, because it is clearly one of the class of the field of this year’s animated movies, clearly as good as How to Train a Dragon or Despicable Me, both of which did far better at the box office than this one has thus far. Even if you don’t have kids who want to see it, I urge you to go anyway; there’s plenty there to delight adults and if you like some of the aforementioned influences, you will love this as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is phenomenal, up there with Pixar’s best work. The storyline is easy to follow, and along the lines of great fantasy works as Lord of the Rings.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the pace seems a bit too hurried, as if the filmmakers were trying to cram too much in to the time kids would be likely to sit still for.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutality that might be too much for the very young, but otherwise okay for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Zack Snyder not to be rated R. This is also the first film Snyder directed not to debut in the number one position in the box office rankings.

HOME OR THEATER: Absolutely this should be seen in a theater; the breathtaking animation is worth it, and I would also recommend that you shell out the extra few bucks for 3D as well.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: City of God