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Review: “A Wrinkle in Time” is a Beautiful Mess of Bluntness

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There’s a slew of inspirational messages in this film, and Ava Duvernay wants to make sure every young person hears them. She does so by repeating and stating them so directly and forcefully I almost expected her to jump out of the screen and start shaking every preteen girl into being positive. That’s a profound goal for such a director to instill a sense of heroism in the least popular kids at school, but it comes with a twinge of awkwardness in how the hero has to be told multiple times she is special and that only she can defeat the evil in the universe. She’s given so many pep talks I wondered why she didn’t start displaying the same uncomfortable nature of a kid’s over-encouraging parents at their baseball game.

What’s so unique about our protagonist of Meg (Storm Reid)? Nothing much. She seems to be your average nerdy kid in school that misses her dad (Chris Pine) who went missing years ago. But she’s in for a big surprise when her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and her crush Calvin (Levi Miller) all discover that dear old dad found a way to bend space and time. He’s been held captive on the other side of the universe, and Meg needs to rescue him with the help of three astral travelers. These travelers include Reese Witherspoon trying to channel the ditziness of Amy Adams ala Enchanted, Mindy Kaling speaking only in Earthling quotes (a gimmick so monotonous even the character stops doing it), and Oprah Winfrey literally watching over them as a towering giant. I don’t fully understand who these beings are supposed to be past their good samaritan attitudes with warping space and time. Get used to this unexplained surrealness because the film won’t slow down to explain any of this.

While the story seems as though it’s taking steroids to sprint through a teenage hero plot in under two hours, I almost prefer it as opposed to when the movie slows down to focus on the theme delivered with the force of a sledgehammer to the face. When Meg isn’t having her self-esteem boosted by the magical female trio, she’s speaking awkwardly with her smart brother or shyly with her crush. Their dialogue is so matter-of-fact that their delivery comes off more clinical than charismatic. This is especially true for the young Deric McCabe that is struggling to pull double duty as an insanely intelligent young man and then a possessed vessel by the easily-angered spirit of evil. I felt bad for him since he’s the youngest and has the most demanding of roles among the young heroes, whereas Meg needs to look bewildered and Calvin needs to look cute.

It’s undeniable that A Wrinkle in Time is beautiful to look at, but one would hope so with a $100 million budget. Indeed, the first stop on a trip around the universe is too a grassy meadow of sentient flowers and flying creatures that look like a cross between a fairy and a manta ray. It seems like a fun place to frolic, but the plot seems to stop instantly as if the astral trio demand the children enjoy the production design. Those visual effects teams spent a fortune on making this world, and you will enjoy it, an impending quest for your long-lost dad be damned! There is an additional stop at the cave of a universal seer (Zach Galifianakis), dwelling in a cave of balanced rocks. Again, great to look at, but does little more than either push the plot or stop it. There’s no happy medium of establishing our characters, even with Galifianakis playing a role called The Happy Medium.

And you better get used to those ridiculous and base names. Oprah Winfrey’s character is Mrs. Which, a name that is quickly exhausted for all its comedic potential. The same goes for Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit and Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who. Curiously missing is Mrs. Huh to ground their clunky introductions. The evil they must face is referred to as the Darkness, controlled by the being known as the It. And when the It is finally met, it’s about as bland as its description implies. It’s a mess of dark tendrils that pulsate with bursts of orange light, completely underwhelming when finally revealed after the less frightening Darkness entrances of a wheat field and a crowded beach.

While I half-expected the movie to go for the old cliche of the Darkness representing all the anger in the universe and Meg is the only one that can stop it, I was still disappointed that the film went there. And in case that wasn’t blunt enough, the movie goes the extra mile to call Meg a warrior to be compared to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler, and Gandhi. Those men made great sacrifices that will be remembered in history, but I guess you can be their equal if you fight a giant tendril monster by stating your love for your brother.

A Wrinkle in Time is mostly whimsy for the sake of whimsy, tossing as much magical surrealism as it can at the screen without much emotional weight behind them. It’s a gentle enough story where kids get to be the hero and boast positive messages so obvious it’d be impossible for kids to miss the themes. But so much gets lost in the race towards the special effects and broad motives that the film becomes difficult to follow at times, making most developments in the plot seem random at times. There came the point in the picture where I just stopped caring about what happened to these characters and tried to enjoy the spectacle of it all. That’s the best possible way to enjoy a picture that feels like playing the most trippy of video games with an empowering television commercial on a loop in the background.

As a kid’s first fantasy film, they’ll probably get a kick out of the visuals and the message. Just don’t expect it to stand as tall next to stronger fantasy films that do a far better job at placing young heroes on pedestals without directly telling them that they’re special.

[author title=”About the Author” image=”http://popstermedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/mark_mcpherson-300×221-150×150.jpg”]Movie Reviewer Mark McPherson has been all about movies since working at a video store in his youth. His talents range from video editing to animation to web development, but movies have always been his passion to write about.[/author]


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Review: “First Moon” is an Emotional and Exciting Race to Space

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Damien Chazelle’s take on Neil Armstrong’s tough road to making it to the moon may not be the most accurate but it is certainly entertaining. Similar to how he directed intense jazz players in Whiplash, he lets us feel everything in Neil’s missions, from the rickety and nightmarish howling of straining spacecraft to the deepest fears of death always one error away. While the accuracy and motivation are debatable, there’s no denying that Chazelle locks us in as tight as Armstrong was to that rocket and never lets us go.

Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong as a pilot of few words, so focused on the next mission he pushes aside the death of his young daughter to get back to work. He doesn’t let it affect him but Chazelle’s direction suggests it does in a pocket of his mind. To keep his mind off such a traumatic event for his family, he pursues and is accepted into the Gemini program for the ambitious mission of traveling to the moon. His tone doesn’t sit well with his wife Janet (Claire Foy). She’s willing to stick with him, raise his son, and have another child, but she can’t stand the toll. Her husband is so distant and plainspoken, hiding all emotion that it drives her nuts to see his comrades bite the dust in the dangerous testing leading up to the ultimate launch. There’s a good man in there but he’s committed when it comes to the business of reaching the stars.

Armstrong’s journey always keeps us in the cockpit where he is, witnessing with his limited scope of what the glass and gauges allow. It’s intense to listen to the alarms go off, the metal straining, and the static-laced radio voices calmly state firm instructions and warnings. Few times do we cut away from the chaos when things spin wildly out of control, sometimes literally when a test of docking procedures sends his craft hurtling through the darkness of space as the grinding speed never seems to stop. He faces many fearful challenges, including a test of the lunar lander that goes up in flames. Yet he shakes off the dirt and keeps going. One person heading the team asks if all this will be worth the cost. “It’s a little late to ask that question,” Armstrong responds.

The few times we do cut away from Armstrong focuses on his wife trying to keep it together, expertly played by Claire Foy. Janet strains and stresses, sure, but she realizes that if she doesn’t try to snap Neil out of his tunnel vision that she’ll lose him before she knows it. One of her best scenes features her finally confronting Neil before heading off to the grand launch, shouting at him to say something to his children instead of treating it like one long business trip. But as they sit the kids down and Neil tries to explain where he’s going, he treats it more like a press conference than a family meeting and Janet coldly realizes this is her husband.

Where the film unfortunately plateaus is in its finale of when Neil Armstrong and the cocky Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) finally make the landing on the moon surface. Chazelle keeps this section quiet and contemplative, letting the original transmission audio fill in some of the gaps. It’s perhaps too contemplative the way the imagery and soft soundtrack tries to bring Neil’s grips with death to a realization. It’s a scene that perhaps comes off melodramatic but Chazelle’s direction keeps us more in the moment than rolling our eyes at the emotional bells and whistles of a realized character. The exceptional cinematography becomes astounding to be lost within, from the great use of lighting and shadows everywhere from the cramped quarters of the capsule to the hallway of the Armstrong household.

First Man is definitely an intriguing and gorgeous film, one that should certainly be seen in IMAX for the full effect of its well-shot sequences, but it still feels lacking as Chazelle’s lesser film. This fault mostly lies in how Armstrong’s aim shuts out most of the other elements of the film, including his co-pilots who have arcs that peter out as the mission takes on greater importance. While the film succeeds at making us stare directly into Armstrong’s psyche, there are too many distractions that I sometimes wish the story veered off course from its obvious target.


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Review: David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” Revives The Fear and Terror

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After numerous sequels, remakes, reboots, and even a failed divergence of trying to weave the saga into an anthology, it is ultimately David Gordon Green’s take on Halloween that is the worthy successor. It may have taken forty years to find that perfect follow-up but, as we’ve seen from the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max: Fury Road, several decades can make a world of difference for a sequel. And though we had to suffer through a long road to get here, we’ve finally arrived at the true Halloween film I’ve been pining for. And it feels so good to have a slasher picture so grim, beautiful, straightforward, and intense.

Despite being titled as Halloween, like another dreary retread, this new film acts as the true sequel forty years later, ignoring previous entries. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the role of Laurie Strode and she’s been waiting for her attacker Michael Myers, preparing for his return. He’s been locked up in solitary confinement for decades but Laurie is no fool when it comes to horror movie logic. She’s had plenty of prep time and nightmares that never cease to keep her pumped for Michael’s next rampage. And it’s coming up quickly when Michael is transferred to a high-security prison and makes his escape during transport.

It’s back to basics for the classic killer, slowly slipping back into his groove of intimidation and murder. He gets back his old attire by swiping a mechanic’s uniform to fit his massive frame and acquiring his old iconic Halloween mask that looks as though it hasn’t been washed since the 1970s. He’s a ways off from Laurie’s home but works his way over by attacking the neighborhood of Laurie’s family that includes her daughter Karen Strode (Judy Greer), her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), and Karen’s husband Ray (Toby Huss). Taking a stroll on Halloween night, he breaks into homes, finds some weapons, and begins his night of many stabbings with his following piano theme.

What makes this film so effective is that it never feels the need to delve deeper into Michael’s past, keeping his motivations a silent enigma hidden behind his mask and heavy breathing. There are many attempts to understand him, as with nosey podcasts journalists hoping to land a story and a curious psychologist who wants to know Michael’s secret of evil. Michael won’t spill the beans; he’d rather spill guts. Even Laurie, with her rocky history of not being trusted by her family, obsessed with keeping her home safe, and driven mad by Michael’s existence, has a tone that feels more natural than expositional. She’ll never slow down to explain herself when it comes to the dangers of Michael or how her odd house of tricks functions for trapping the killer she knows will come. She, too, will be interviewed by the podcasters and she won’t give them much, as though her wish to survive the night and kill Michael won’t come true if you tell.

David Gordon Green’s direction is superbly on track for matching the style of the original. The atmosphere always carries a creepy and intimidating feel, that familiar and simple John Carpenter style score piercing the tension almost as sharply as Michael’s knife. Michael’s kills are kept clever, bloody, and chilling; sometimes he’ll go as simple as choking someone to death with his giant hands and sometimes he’ll bring his boot down to splatter brains into the pavement. For as elaborate as it seems, I dug how Laurie’s secluded home comes with a slasher security system, including multiple door locks, an underground bunker of supplies, and special locks she can use to secure rooms she’s already explored. It turns Laurie into more of the screaming warrior than the scream queen she was originally known for. And there’s something oh-so-satisfying about transforming her into the gritty grandma with an arsenal of guns.

I doubt most jaded modern horror audiences would be as spooked into terror at the almost quaint killing spree of Michael Myers with his classic tactics but Halloween keeps a focus by maintaining its style and tone with grace. It’s a brilliantly shot film, from the checkerboard floors of a mental institution to the darkly lit interiors of Laurie’s stronghold, including some subtle callbacks and an alternate take on familiar shots. It’s viciously violent, slowly establishing that nobody is safe from the massacre via Myers, including kids. There are even a few twists thrown in to keep the story more interesting. Ultimately, it’s a wickedly faithful throwback to what made Halloween so gripping and infatuating before the saga descended into Stonehenge mysticism, a reality show, and dreams of white horses.


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“First Man” Fumbles In Crowded Weekend, “Venom” Drops and Tops

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October is proving to be a crowded month for genre pictures and Oscar-worthy films. As such, it’s astounding that a superhero film has managed to set records for the month. Venom, Sony’s Marvel movie about the anti-hero, continues to be at #1 in its second weekend with a weekend gross of $35 million. This brings its domestic total to a towering $142.8 million, covering its $100 million budget. Once again, not far behind it is A Star is Born, the musical drama with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, ends up at #2 with a weekend gross of $28 million, the domestic total sitting at $94 million, still great for a $36 million budget.

There were a host of new releases this weekend but weren’t as successful as they trailed behind the top two. First Man, the Neil Armstrong movie starring Ryan Gosling, only made $16.5 million, a major disappointment for the $59 million film. Just beneath it was Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, a sequel to the 2015 family horror film based on the books by R.L. Stine, coming in close with $16.2 million. Further down was Bad Times At The El Royale, the all-star ensemble campy thriller, making $7.2 million. Expanding for the weekend was The Hate U Give, the racially charged drama, but the expansion to over 200 more theaters did little to push it up the chart, making $1.7 million.

Though Venom took the big dip for the weekend with a 55% drop, it still ended up being the biggest money-maker of the weekend. It’s no surprise that the other big drop was for The House With A Clock In Its Walls falling 45% because there’s not exactly enough room for two Jack Black scary family comedies. Both Smallfoot, the animated comedy with the voice of Channing Tatum, and Night School, the education comedy starring Kevin Hart, each had only 35% drops. But it was ultimately the comedy A Simple Favor that took the biggest hit of dropping 59% to #10 in the box office.

View the full top 10 of the weekend box office below:
Venom ($35,700,000)
A Star Is Born ($28,000,000)
First Man ($16,500,000)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ($16,225,000)
Smallfoot ($9,300,000)
Night School ($8,035,000)
Bad Times At The El Royale ($7,225,000)
The House With A Clock In Its Walls ($3,975,000)
The Hate U Give ($1,765,000)
A Simple Favor ($1,380,000)

Next weekend will be far less crowded with a heavy-hitter horror film aiming for the top spot. While The Hate U Give will be expanding even more into 2,300 theaters, the new Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, will be hitting 3,700 theaters, presenting the biggest threat to Venom’s quickly draining box office.


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