Movie reviews: 'Wrinkle in Time' thrills visually but bites off more than it can chew
Published Friday, March 9, 2018 6:00AM EST
A WRINKLE IN TIME: 2 ½ STARS
The last time someone tried to adapt Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel “A Wrinkle in Time” for the screen, the author herself was not impressed. “I have glimpsed it,” she said of the 2003 TV movie, “I expected it to be bad and it is.”
The novel’s mix of science fiction, math and spiritualism is intoxicating on the page but the story’s trip through time and space, heavy on symbolism, alien life and pop psychology has rumoured to be an unfilmable fantasy. Fans of the book will find out this weekend if Ava DuVernay, Oscar nominated director of “13th” and “Selma,” can bring the wonder of L’Engle’s vision to the screen.
Like many Disney movies “A Wrinkle in Time” begins with the loss of a parent. Husband and wife Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) and Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are astrophysicists and loving parents to Meg (Storm Reid) and Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Alex is determined to push the limits of their research, to find a wrinkle in time that could propel them to the ends of the universe. One night, alone in his laboratory he discovers the wrinkle and, just like that, he’s gone.
Cut to four years later. Meg’s sunny disposition disappeared with her father. “What would happen if your father walked through the door,” asks her principal. “The world would make sense again,” she replies.
Charles Wallace has grown into a precocious, intelligent child who believes he can help locate his father with the help of three astral travelers, Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling).
Here’s where it gets trippy.
Guided by the trio of spirit beings, Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend—and Meg’s crush—Calvin (Levi Miller) ascend to the universe in search of Alex. In their astral travels they meet a helpful seer called the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis), talking flowers—“Everyone knows the flowers are the best talkers,” says Mrs. Whatsit—and the universe’s most evil entity. Meg will learn life lessons along the way that may—or may not—reveal what happened to her dad.
“A Wrinkle in Time” is a big, colourful and complicated movie with a simple moral. Love conquers all. Like all fantasies, the story isn’t really about the tesseract, fifth-dimensional phenomenon time travel or any of that, it’s about fundamental truths, self-worth and the struggle between good and evil. Director Ava DuVernay wrestles all these themes and more into the film, which occasionally feels more interested in the visuals and ideas than it does with the story. The movie’s many moving parts and heaps of CGI overwhelm but DuVernay gets much right as well.
Casting wise, the success or failure of “A Wrinkle in Time” hinges on the kids. In Reid, DuVernay found a young actress capable of portraying Meg’s complexity, from her struggle to fit in to her very relatable flaws. She’s heroic but also a real girl in an unreal situation and Reid breathes life into her.
As Charles Wallace, the precocious preteen whose personality takes a turn for the worse in outer space, McCabe brings a weight to the character that feels beyond his years.
The trio of aliens are vividly portrayed by Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling who impart wisdom and smooth the way for Meg’s emotional journey but I found their somewhat psychedelic presence distracting from the telling of the tale.
“A Wrinkle in Time” contains good messages for kids and some visuals that will make your eyeballs dance and it is made with heart but—there’s always a ‘but’ when I discuss this movie—it feels like it bites off more than it can chew.
THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT: 2 ½ STARS
Movies like “The Strangers: Prey at Night” unsettle me more than stories featuring Dracula, Frankenstein or anything other thing that goes bump in the night because there’s nothing supernatural going on. At the same time, there’s nothing natural about the horrors unleashed by the all-too-human monsters of this film.
The story gets underway when parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) load their teens Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman) into the car, on the way to a new life. Leaving the city behind, they’re off to Gatlin Lake, a small community that empties out after Labour Day. The change is an attempt to separate Kinsey from the bad influences surrounding her in the city. You know Kinsey is a rebellious teen because she wears an off the shoulder Ramones T-shirt and smokes cigarettes.
Arriving at their new home, a deserted trailer park, the kids are immediately bored as the parents try and make the best of an uncomfortable situation. Things get lively when three masked psycho killers—Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei) and Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin)—emerge from the woods with knives, axes and bad intentions. From that point on this becomes a movie where people make terrible decisions and frequently scream, “Leave us alone!”
The spooky opening, complete with anxiety inducing music, a bit of murder and a title card claiming the tale you are about to see is “based on true events,” sets up the film’s uneasy atmosphere. However, the movie never gets to the point where it is actually scary. Instead, it is a queasy-making experience that stems from the idea of people doing awful things for no reason. It’s nihilism. Bad things just happen and that’s the creepy part. “Why are you doing this?” Kinsey shrieks. “Why not?” mumbles Dollface.
The jump scares are secondary to the notion of the ruthless faceless murderers. The family is generic, just victims waiting to be taken. The villains are the stars, even though their faces are covered and they barely speak. They’re not thrill killers. They don’t seem to take much pleasure in their work despite their penchant for listening to syrupy pop music and leaving a bloody happy face symbol at the scene of their crimes. They are primal evil, nothing more.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is one note. Summed up in one line it’s, “unstoppable killers do dreadful things to wide-eyed victims.” Like the first film in this franchise—2008’s “The Strangers”—it’s tight, only 85 minutes long, and values suspense over gore but goes too heavy on the sadism.
GRINGO: 2 ½ STARS
Everyone loves an underdog. From Rocky defying the odds to go from zero to hero to Billy Elliot chasing after his dream of being a dancer, tales of people beating the odds have been a Hollywood staple for years. “Gringo,” a new film starring Charlize Theron and David Oyelowo, features a character with the steepest climb to success that we’ll see this year.
Oyelowo, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for playing Martin Luther King in “Selma,” stars as the mild-mannered Harold Soyinka, a middle manager at a start-up pharmaceutical company. Personally and professionally, his life is a dumpster fire. In debt and on the verge of bankruptcy, his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) is having an affair with his boss Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), who plans on selling the company and firing Harold.
As his life swirls out of control, Harold accompanies Richard and business partner Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) on a trip to their manufacturing facility in Mexico. Here things really start to unravel when it’s revealed that Richard and Elaine made a deal with a drug cartel to sell their product off the books for a quick infusion of cash. Now, trying to go completely legit, the devious pair wants out of that deal. Trouble is, the cartel isn’t ready to end the deal and poor old Harold is in the middle. “The world is upside down,” Harold moans. “It doesn’t play to pay by the rules.”
This is loads more like a kidnapping plot, a wide-eyed American (Amanda Seyfried), double-dealings, a mercenary with a heart-of-gold (Sharlto Copley) sent to find Harold and a deadly Beatles fan, but there will be no spoilers here.
It’s stuffed-to-the-gills with intrigue, which makes for a chaotic final third, but for all the huggermuggery, the big surprise here is Oyelowo’s light touch. Best known for his dramatic turns in movies like “A Most Violent Year” and “A United Kingdom” here, he finds a pleasing balance between Harold’s desperation and exasperation, mining the character’s situation for maximum humour. Most importantly for this underdog story, you want him to succeed.
Copley’s mercenary is fun but the same can’t be said for the rest of the generic characters populating the story. Theron is one note as a trash-talking executive who doesn’t hesitate to tell a man she just fired to “stop crying and go down to unemployment.” Edgerton, whose brother Nash directed the film, is all alpha-male bluster and not much else.
Aside from showcasing Oyelowo’s comedic side “Gringo” feels old fashioned, like it has been sitting around on a shelf somewhere, hidden from view since the 1990s. It was the heyday of indie crime dramas like “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag,” a time when writers looked to Tarantino for inspiration only to fall short. “Gringo” wears those fingerprints all over it. It’s a good but derivative effort that feels more like a Netflix film than a big screen experience.
MEDITATION PARK: 3 ½ STARS
Mina Shum’s “Meditation Park” takes place within a few blocks in East Vancouver but tells an emotional and universal story of the immigrant experience in Canada.
Cheng Pei Pei is Maria, the wife of workaholic Bing (Tzi Ma). A stay-at-home wife and mother, she doesn’t feel confident with her grasp of English and is dependent on Bing for almost everything. When she discovers he is having an affair with a much younger woman and is planning a trip to Japan, she, along with the help of her family and neighbours, asserts her independence and comes out from underneath her overbearing husband’s shadow. “First we obey our fathers,” her friend says. “Then our husbands. When they are gone, we obey ourselves.”
“Meditation Park” sees Maria break free of the conservative constraints of her upbringing and family life to assimilate into the wider community. The story of her personal journey is told with a mix of comedy—occasionally bordering on slapstick— and heartfelt emotion but it is the performances, particularly from Cheng Pei Pei that breathes life into the movie. Her broken heart is palpable but so is the joy on her face as she dances to music only she can hear at a block party.
Strong supporting work from Sandra Oh and Don McKellar highlights the strong support system that helps prop Maria up in her time of need but it is the personal story of awakening that lingers.