A Wrinkle in Time

Posted on March 8, 2018 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and some violence, some scary images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: June 5, 2018
Copyright Disney 2018

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all-time favorite books. I loved it when I was 11, read it aloud to our children, and went on to read all of the sequels and most of her other books as well. So it was with a lot of anticipation, excitement, and not a little trepidation that I looked forward to the film.

On the one had, the book had been dismissed over the decades as unfilmable due to its planet-hopping storyline, fantastical characters, and genre-straddling themes. On the other hand, I have the utmost respect for director Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “13th”) and co-screenwriter Jennifer Lee (“Frozen,” “Zootopia”) and the all-star cast looked promising. I held my breath, crossed my fingers, and leaned forward and caught my breath as the iconic Disneyland castle in the opening logo suddenly…wrinkled.

Most of what I love about the book was beautifully realized, and the movie is sure to be a middle school sleepover perennial and a family favorite for generations. It’s made straight from the heart of people who remember what it feels like to be 12 — and the way we all become 12 again in moments of uncertainty. If there’s a bit more Oprah-esque “you go girl” and “living your best life” than in the book, well, the movie features not just Oprah (who was also in “Selma”) but a house-sized Oprah with lips and eyebrows that look like someone went overboard on the Bedazzler.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is the daughter of two scientists (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine). She was once a gifted and attentive student, but since the disappearance of her father, four years before the movie begins, she has been sullen and uncooperative. Mean girls pick on her, and when she responds by throwing a ball at the ringleader, she gets in trouble. Nothing makes sense to her, and she wonders if her father left because she was not good enough.

Meg has an exceptionally precocious six-year-old brother named Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). In the book, he is her bio-brother and they have two older brothers as well but in the movie it is just the two of them and Charles Wallace was adopted just before their father disappeared. Charles Wallace is one of the major challenges of adapting the book, because on the page he is endearingly hyper-aware and ultra hyper-articulate, but on screen it is difficult to make him believable and keep him from being annoying. It is one of the film’s most salient weaknesses that this critical character does not work.

Meg gradually learns that Charles Wallace has been befriended by three extraordinary and very strange women known as Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). (NOTE: L’Engle insisted that there be no period after “Mrs” in the British style.) As disturbing as it is reassuring, they seem to know what the Murrys were working on, a form of “wrinkling” time and space to permit instantaneous travel to other planets that they call a tesseract. (For some reason, the explanation appears in the trailer, but not the film.)

Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller), is a well-liked, confident boy who seems to have nothing in common with the Murray children. But one day he impulsively visits them, and stays for dinner, appreciating the warmth and acceptance in their home. And then the three ladies explain why they are there. They have heard a call for help. It is the children’s father. And they are there to help Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace rescue him from “the darkness.”

And so, the rest of the film is candy-colored CGI, as the group visits first a paradisiacal planet for no particular reason other than a romp through a delightful garden of gossipy flying flowers who communicate via color and a soaring tour on a creature like a flying green manta ray with a rainbow Reese Witherspoon face. They visit a psychic called the Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) for more information about where Dr. Murry has gone, and finally they get to the planet where he is being held captive by an all-controlling force. The film brings to life one of the book’s most vivid scenes, with a pristine suburban street where every house has a child standing in the driveway bouncing a ball in perfect rhythm and all of the Stepford-style moms come out at the same moment to call them in to dinner. The book was written a a time of post-WWII concerns about conformity and “houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same.” But the image is just as compelling today. The 1950’s may have led to an explosion of “do your own thing” individuality in the mid-to late 1960’s and self-actualization in the me-decade 70’s, but the importance of intellectual courage, thinking for yourself, and challenging assumptions is even more important in the era of fake news and “both sides.”

The book’s most memorable message comes when Meg is told that what will help her to rescue her father is her faults. Though how those faults help is not as explicitly explained in the film, that idea retains its power here. That makes up for some faltering in the climax, some under-imagined images, and some distractions that seem to stem from a lack of trust in the audience. We don’t really need that extra back story on the mean girl or Calvin (an odd change from his home life in the books, which will be a problem if they decide to film the sequels) to understand what their insecurities are or the time spent cheering Meg on (and apologizing to her and deferring to her) without making it clear what her strengths are and how they are connected to her faults. It would be better to focus on the book’s rare combination of both faith and science and how important both are. In the book, the children visit the planets to learn about the darkness and to see that it can be overcome (Mrs Whatsit is the result of one such triumph). The movie leans more toward an Oprah-eque message of empowerment, so the focus is more on individual self-realization (and being appreciated by others, including Calvin, which seems to be his primary purpose in the story).

The three Mrses are not quite as fun as the movie thinks, though Mrs Who’s Bumblebee-like “post-language” use of quotations (always noting the nationality of the author, from Rumi and Shakespeare to Lin-Manuel Miranda and OutKast) is charming. But Reid is a heroine to root for, and the Murry family is one we are, like Calvin, glad to have a chance to visit.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy peril with some violence and scary images, issues of an absent father, a school bully, and an abusive parent.

Family discussion: What are your most valuable faults? Why was Meg so important to IT?

If you like this, try: “The Neverending Story,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Narnia series

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Home Again

Posted on September 7, 2017 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic and sexual material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, marijuana, discussion of antidepressant medication
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffle
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 2017 Open Road

Producer/director/writer Nancy Meyers has the formula on lockdown: Take one Oscar-winning performer, preferably of a certain age (Diane Keaton, Anne Hathaway, Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet). Create a setting of lush, heavenly comfort with soft pillows, gleaming surfaces, white wine, and luscious food. Add a generic title (“The Intern,” “The Holiday”). Put some overly familiar pop songs on the soundtrack and use them to hide the lack of dialogue in scenes when we should be allowed to hear what the characters are saying that is making them think differently about each other. Settle back for a story where the female character is ADORED by everyone and also very capable and pretty much right about everything.

Whether her daughter absorbed all of this by osmosis or is merely a fully-owned subsidiary of the Meyers operation, we may never know. But “Home Again,” the first film from writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is produced by her mother and follows exactly the same formula. It is, to say the least, highly unusual for a first-time writer/director to helm such a high budget, high-profile project, starring, yes, an Oscar-winner, Reese Witherspoon, as yes, a women of a certain age who lives in a spectacularly gorgeous home (Fountain in front! Guest house in back!). But Meyers is a reliable commodity, and as generous with her daughter as her ever-beneficent heroines are in the films. Remember Streep bringing out all those pies for her friends?

If there are no surprises here, one of the non-surprises is that the movie is an easy watch, combining, as Meyers films do, pleasant fantasy with aspirational settings. I know I’ll watch it again when it comes on cable, or if I have the flu or need to fold laundry.

Witherspoon is Alice, as in Wonderland, a mother of two who has moved into her late father’s house in Los Angeles because she and her music industry producer who wears leather bracelets husband Austen (Michael Sheen) have separated. Her father was a much-married, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director because apparently that is pretty much the only world she knows or the only one we can dream of.

Alice goes out with friends on her birthday and gets tipsy with three young men who have just arrived in Los Angeles after success with a short, black and white film they are hoping to turn into a feature. She and Harry (Pico Alexander) end up in bed together, though too drunk to do anything. The next morning, Alice’s mother (Candace Bergen) arrives, befriends the three young men, and invites them to stay in Alice’s guest house.

Alice is against this at first, but comes to enjoy it, as the guys help her with the house and her girls and she and Harry end up doing what they were unable to do that first night. The ultimate seduction move is, of course, fixing the hinge on her cabinet, and I don’t say that metaphorically. They all of course ADORE her and are themselves adorable. Enter Austen, wanting to assert his alpha male status and win back Alice because of course he ADORES her, too.

So, basically a high-end Hallmark movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

NOTE: This is the second movie in a row for Meyers with an inappropriate and borderline offensive “joke” about children who take antidepressants. What’s up with that?

Parents should know that this movie includes sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, as well as family conflicts and divorce, a child dealing with stress, and a scuffle.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Alice’s decision? How did Harry help her understand what she needed?

If you like this, try: “The Holiday” and “It’s Complicated” — and you can glimpse writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer in her parents remake of “The Parent Trap”

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Wild

Posted on December 4, 2014 at 5:58 pm

“If your Nerve, deny you—
Go above your Nerve—”

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) adds the name of the author, Emily Dickinson, to the quote she has inscribed in a journal for hikers kept at her entry point on the Pacific Coast Trail. And then she adds her own name as well. It is her own name in a very real sense as she was not born with it and it was not her husband’s name. It was a name she chose from a dictionary at the end of her marriage as the name she wanted to go on with, a name for going above her nerve.

Copyright 2014 Fox Searchlight
Copyright 2014 Fox Searchlight

Strayed was lost. Her mother Bobbi (a glowing Laura Dern), the “great love of (her) life,” died of cancer. Her husband Paul (“Newsroom’s” Thomas Sadoski) was loving and supportive but Strayed fell into a self-destructive death spiral, obliterating herself through “detached” sex with strangers and substance abuse that ultimately included shooting heroin. She and Paul recognized their divorce with matching tattoos to keep some part of the idea of permanence connecting them. And then, with nowhere else to go, she decided to take a walk, more than a thousand miles. It was a chance to reconnect with something she knew she loved to do and to get away from the bad choices she was making. The Chinese proverb says that the longest journey begins with a single step. Strayed wanted to take those steps between her old life and whatever was ahead, to begin to feel an un-obliterated life.

Her 60 pounds of equipment filled a backpack called The Monster. She did not practice putting up her tent or using her stove before she left. She was scared, and soon she was also hungry. She had brought the wrong fuel for her stove. A burly farmer driving a tractor gruffly agreed to give her a ride to some food, and then told her he was bringing her back to his house. She looked at him, trying to figure out if he was planning to attack her, hoping he was not. He was not. The farmer and his wife were kind and generous with her. She got the right fuel, and, a few stops later got some advice about getting rid of some of her load, down to burning each night the book pages she had finished reading. Plus, she didn’t really need all those condoms, did she?

Strayed’s book became an international-bestseller, so poetic and inspirational Oprah rebooted her Book Club to endorse it. Like other memoirs combining real and spiritual/emotional journeys, what makes it work is the narrator’s voice. This is as much an internal story as an external one. Screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”) understand that this is not a travelogue, though there is some stunning scenery. It is about Strayed thinking back through her chaotic, messy life through the experience of putting one foot in front of the other on her way to a place called The Bridge of the Gods. As she thinks back on her life, we begin to understand the context for this trek at the same time that she does. As we expect from Hornby, there are some great song choices, too.

Strayed’s adventures and encounters along the way resonate with her memories. The farmer is not the only potential danger. The film understatedly but clearly shows how any woman in any sort of wild has to constantly calculate the threat level of the men she encounters. And, in a scene where Strayed comes across another hiker taking a bath in a lake, we get something we rarely see in films, a woman appraising, or maybe just appreciating, a male body. This is a character moment for Strayed, who as we see, has been too impulsive in sexual encounters. But here, she stands back and just savors the moment on its own, owning it without having to do anything about it. “I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here,” she says.

Feeling your feelings can be painful. Strayed loses toenails and, at one point, her shoes. There are angry, raw patches of skin where The Monster digs into her. She thinks through painful memories of her mother’s illness, her father’s abuse. She remembers being inconsiderate of her mother, a woman who was thrilled to get a chance to go back to school, to think and question and learn. And for the first time, she begins to understand what her mother said about putting yourself in the line of beauty. Just because some things are terrible doesn’t mean everything is. “This has the power to fill you up again if you let it,” someone tells her.

Witherspoon gives a performance of quiet vulnerability and courage. In some ways, as producer as well as star, this was as daunting an undertaking for her as the hike was for Strayed. There was a real risk of making it a glamorized, soapy star vehicle. But as producer and actor, she gives this story the film it deserves.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations and nudity, substance abuse, references to domestic abuse, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What do you think the quote means and why did Strayed use it to begin her hike? What does it mean to say that wounds come from the same source as power?

If you like this try: Strayed’s books, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and another 2014 film about a real-life woman on a long, long walk, Tracks.

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