Sunday, March 11, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time/Red Sparrow

A Wrinkle in Time is a tough ask for any filmmaker in 2018. The novel by Madeleine L'Engle was published in 1962, and is full of both scientific concepts and a quasi-religious understanding of how the universe works. Director Ava DuVernay's new adaptation is working from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell which turns the story into a fable of self-empowerment for young Meg Murry (Storm Reid). We meet Meg four years after the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine), a scientist whose work involved ideas of universe spanning travel that get laughed out of the room at an early presentation. Once a bright student, Meg is now a sullen child who lands in the Principal's office after striking back against a bully (Rowan Blanchard). When a stranger named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) arrives at Meg's home one night the truth is revealed: Meg's father is still alive but it will take Meg becoming a "warrior" against an existential darkness - known as "The It" - in order to bring Doctor Murry back home. A Wrinkle in Time is an expensive proposition even for Disney, with a budget just north of $100 million. Considerable attention has been paid to designing the story's various worlds, which include a green planet where Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) get a lesson in flying from a transformed Mrs. Whatsit. The film's climax takes place on a planet called Camazotz, a place which can be whatever The It needs it to be. There's a disorienting scene on what appears to be a crowded beach, and later a blank white space all the scarier for it plainness. If only Meg's interior journey had been as interesting as her physical trip. The script doesn't ask anything of Meg other than that she acquire a sort of generalized belief in herself at the urging of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (a miscast Mindy Kaling), and their leader Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). Winfrey's regal performance, all comfort and encouragement, is an extreme distillation of what people respond to when they say Winfrey should run for President. But Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling are playing an idea as opposed to playing characters, and while we know Meg is intelligent - DuVernay starts the film on a charming scene of young Meg and her father in his lab - her attachment to the scientific concepts in play is too thin and the stakes never take hold. In her final battle with The It Meg is presented with an alternative vision of herself as a sort of Mean Girl with fancy clothes and straightened hair, but given the natural fluidity of teenagers the image seems oddly inconsequential. Why shouldn't Meg change her look if she wants to?

There is a bigger problem with A Wrinkle in Time, but mentioning it feels somewhat mean-spirited. The character of Charles Wallace speaks often and at length in the film. We're made to understand that while Meg succeeds through finding courage, the prodigious Charles Wallace has some sort of psychic connection to forces beyond human understanding. With all that's required of the character - who at one point is possessed by The It - the child-actorish performance of Deric McCabe isn't sufficient and the film loses emotional power because of that. A Wrinkle in Time contains enough messaging and star power to be a meaningful film if it can reach its intended audience of young girls, but it is too broadly conceived to be more than a pleasant curiosity for everyone else.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballerina who in the opening scenes of Red Sparrow suffers a grotesque accident onstage. What Dominika does once she finds out who caused her injury promises some nasty, Black Swan-style fun. Red Sparrow instead is an involving but not terribly original espionage film that suggests Dominika's resourcefulness and comfort with violence - the film is studded with violent scenes - make her a natural candidate to be a Russian agent. A "Sparrow" undergoes intense psychological training at a special school run by a headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) who views her job solely in terms of service to the State. Complications ensue, including the existence of a mole inside the Russian government and the American agent (Joel Edgerton) trying to protect that source. No one fully trusts Dominika, not even her powerful uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), but no one can seem to do anything without her involvement either. Good actors flit around the edges of Red Sparrow, including Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker,  and Joely Richardson, and the casting may be the film's saving grace. Jennifer Lawrence is admirably committed, but Dominika remains somewhat opaque and the audience is too often catching up to the character when we should be right with her. Red Sparrow isn't bad, but it is lightweight Le Carre.

No comments: