Monday, March 19, 2018

THE WARRIOR: a review of "A Wrinkle In Time"

Based upon the novel A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Screenplay Written by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell
Directed by Ava DuVernay
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Earlier this afternoon, as I took in a screening of Ave DuVernay's adaptation of the classic Madeleine L'Engle novel, A Wrinkle In Time, I was subjected to what felt like an endless cavalcade of trailers promoting a slew of upcoming movies being released to general (i.e. family) audiences...and when I say "subjected," trust me, I am being more than kind.

Now dear readers, if you have been regular visitors to this site, you are already more than aware of my emotions concerning consistently gloriously shiny yet completely mercenary and ultimately disposable motion picture entertainment that is geared to children and families, so there is no need for me to prattle on about it allover again. Even that being said, the sight of one exceedingly, painfully crass and classless looking feature disheartened me, making me wonder again about the films that can entertain with the dickens yet still aspire and inspire.

With "A Wrinkle In Time," while not perfect and does possess some minor flaws to my sensibilities, the boldly inventive Ava DuVernay has largely succeeded with creating the very type of children's film that is in shockingly rare supply. Operating within the same creative, conceptual universe as with what Ryan Coogler masterfully achieved with "Black Panther," DuVernay has strongly ensured that her film does not solely exist as a romp through flights of fancy and fantasy as she has created an experience that was more head spinning and soul stirring that I would have first imagined after just seeing the initial trailers. You know, I never should have underestimated the director of "Selma" (2014) but I guess the starkness and grounded nature of her work made me skeptical if she could tackle adapting a work that has been claimed to be "unfilmable."  Strangely, and beautifully, it feels as if Ava DuVernay has been precisely the right person to take the challenge after all.

"A Wrinkle In Time" stars the terrific Storm Reid as Meg Murry, a 13 year old caught in the throes of grief and loss after the unexplained disappearance of her beloved Father, Alex Murry (a continuously impressive Chris Pine), an Astrophysicist housed with ambitions to discover the secrets of the universe and existence itself.

Four long years after his disappearance, Meg, also gifted with skills in Science and Math, has fallen behind in her studies at school, grown increasingly sullen and belligerent and is the target of a gaggle of bullies, making her an escalating cause of concern for her Principal (Andre Holland) and worry for her Mother, also a scientist Dr. Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who was adopted two years before Alex's vanishing. 

Just as mysteriously as Alex exited, Meg and her family, plus Meg's schoolmate Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller), who houses a crush upon Meg, are introduced to a trio of astral travelers: the loquacious Mrs. Whatsit (an absolutely delighted Reese Witherspoon, who seems to be relishing the opportunity to at long last be portraying a Fairy Godmother), the quotation delivering Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the oldest, wisest, and most formidable Mrs. Which (the inimitable Oprah Winfrey).

The trio of travelers inform Meg and her family plus Calvin that her Father is indeed alive yet he is imprisoned upon the planet Camaztoz, itself under the control of the malevolent force known only as The It, an entity determined to engulf the universe. Through the use of a tesseract, the three Mrses with Calvin, Charles Wallace and a most reluctant teleport to the planet Uriel to begin the quest to rescue Alex Murry.

I have to first inform you that I have not read the source material so with that in mind, I am unable to tell you of how faithful this film version happens to be. But what I am able to say is that this film is filled end to end with childlike wonder, a dazzling array of psychedelic journeys, and a palpable inner journey from self-doubt to empowerment which makes Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" a visually ravishing and emotionally satisfying adventure that certainly resonates and reverberates long after leaving the theater. Again, by nature of the proceedings being a children's film, there are those "children's film" qualities that did not sit terribly comfortably with me as an adult but may be just perfect for younger viewers.

Yes, I felt Composer Tobias A. Schliessler's bustling score to be intermittently effective as it was more than an insistent presence through its wall-to-wall usage and sadly did not augment the film as much as direct the audience's emotions unnecessarily.  But, that quality is indeed a trademark of the children's film and I gather that viewers that happen to be somewhere between 6-10 won't mind a whit.

Additionally, being a children's film, we are given platitudes upon platitudes upon platitudes over and again, all of which are indeed designed to inspire Meg upon her journey, and while that lack of subtlety rubbed against my adult sensibilities the wrong way from time to time, for children, it just may be precisely what is needed for repetition is key. I guess I had some minor issues with two of the children's performances in the film from both Levi Miller and Deric McCabe, who each seemed to be a tad stiff and stagy (although McCabe was stronger in the film's darker, later half) but again, for younger viewers, they don't necessarily need Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. These young actors deliver just what is needed to make you buy the fantasy and I have a feeling that children will not need much at all in order to be superbly whisked away.

I firmly believe that Ava DuVernay knew exactly the kind of tone she needed to establish her film, and it is indeed one that finds stronger footing the longer the story develops and the stranger and darker the story becomes. In fact, DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time" is impressively multi-layered, to be taken at face value as an interstellar voyage and as metaphor exploring themes of love, loss, mourning and renewal in addition to realizing the fullness of one's potential.

Most of all, the film feels strikingly personal despite the mega budgeted razzle dazzle. It is as if we are receiving a greater trip through DuVernay's wires than ever before with a work that feels to conceptually honor Neil deGrasse-Tyson and the late Stephen Hawking as it does the metaphysical musical musings of Funkadelic on selections like "Maggot Brain" and "Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts."  Essentially, and again like Coogler's "Black Panther," Ava DuVernay has utilized "A Wrinkle In Time" to deliver her deeply substantive slice of Afro-Futurism and passionate demands for Black excellence and the effect does indeed build to a certain esoteric euphoria by film's end.

"A Wrinkle In Time" extravagantly exudes special effects wizardry throughout yet so thankfully, Ava DuVernay deftly escaped all of the traps that even the likes of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi could not wrestle themselves from with their terribly bloated and impersonal to the point of being anonymous entries for Disney with "Alice In Wonderland" (2010) and "Oz The Great And Powerful" (2013), respectively. By contrast, what DuVernay has devised, while CGI heavy, feels much more akin to more thoughtful, awe inspiring and at times, disturbing imagery that would not feel terribly out of place in works from Terry Gilliam or Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" (2009).

And...truth be told, once the three Mrses depart the story for the film darker second half, when our heroes are left to their own devices to navigate the universe alone on the dangerous Camaztoz and the domineering influence of The It (as voiced by David Oyelowo), DuVernay creates one gently nightmarish sequence after another. A creepy, primary color drenched cul-de-sac filled with Stepford Wives and strange children bouncing red, rubber balls in unison. A sinister beach where delicious delicacies taste like sand. A race through an exploding forest before it disintegrates entirely. As we bounce from one set piece to the next and rapidly so, Ava DuVernay flies by the speed of her own imagination with a joyous fearlessness that suggests the work of the late Ken Russell.

These sequences and more, and in addition to the whimsical, fantastical flights of the film's first half showcase DuVernay's determination to not allow the visuals to just become impersonal wallpaper. For these special effects have character and purpose--visually, conceptually and emotionally--as DuVernay threads the realms of the cosmic and the psychological, all the while allowing her "Freak Flag" to fly higher and higher, as well as with a certain amazement that she is able to create with this type of a cinematic canvas (especially as DuVernay is indeed, the very first African-American female director to command a motion picture of this scope and $100 million budget--a bit more on this later).

For a film such that is often as bizarre and arcane as it is unapologetically innocent, it is crucial that  as far beyond the universe the film reaches, Ava DuVernay never lets go of the through-line so to speak, which are Meg's connection to her Father and her growing connection to herself. With that, each landscape Meg visits in the film feels like another corner of her own brilliant, growing mind as she is confronted with a problem or seemingly insurmountable obstacle and has to believe in herself enough to problem solve her way through in order to continue her personal ascension. Again, what we have is another telling of the mythical, eternal hero's journey but through a lens that we are not  typically accustomed.

As I have been writing in recent years and as what I am certain so many of you have been reading elsewhere and perhaps feeling among yourselves, representation and inclusion means everything!! From the entirely of having the first female director of color to command this mega sized project to the film's diverse casting to the sheer audacity if having our main protagonist exist in the form of an African-American girl in the first place because in this regard, when was the last time you have seen a young Black female in the lead of a major motion picture?

Even for myself, my own memories are slim and the ones that I am able to think of right in the moment are films more relegated to independent films or the art houses. I think of Zelda Harris in Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" (1994), Keke Palmer in Doug Atchison's "Akeelah and the Bee" (2006) and definitely Quvenzhane Wallis in Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (2012). But in a mainstream, big budget science fiction fantasy adventure from the wonderful world of Disney? Nope. I am unable to think of even one.

Yet, for "A Wrinkle In Time," DuVernay has given us the mightily named Storm Reid as Meg, a young actress who more than lives up to her powerful name with a magnetic screen presence that instantly draws you into her interior world of insecurities and fears, pain and sorrow, as well as her growing determination. Just having a young actress of color in the leading role, of course, is not going to make the film in it and of itself. So, it is terrific that Reid delivers the goods with a performance that easily makes you root for her solace and evolution. 

Even further, I really think that DuVernay's casting of Storm Reid holds an even deeper agenda for which she is challenging each and every one of us in the audience who has been exposed to all manner of pop culture from films, television, music videos, pop stars and so on, where the principals are predominantly White. DuVernay is challenging the very idea that when we all read fiction how our minds just may automatically default to "White" as we envision characters to ourselves, unless they are described as being otherwise. Because why can't Meg Murry be an African-American girl? Why not? Why can't a young Black girl save the universe for once? Just once?

Ava Du Vernay, with this film, has already delivered an impassioned change in the perception of what a hero can be plus what it even means to be heroic in our shoot-em-up, blow 'em up real good culture. Meg Murry doesn't use weapons. This film is not about a war of the worlds. The It is not a being but a representation of the darkest thoughts that we all have that impedes our own individualized progress. Returning to my Funkadelic comparison, The It represents "the maggots of the mind" and "A Wrinkle In Time" presents how Meg just may overcome her own inner demons.

Meg Murry's power is her own mind, her intelligence and her heart and love to connect with and inspire herself to change her fate as well as attempt to reunite with her Father. Love will change and save the universe as well as herself for she is not the same at the end of the film as we see her at the beginning. Ava DuVernay has challenged and changed our perceptions for at the beginning of "A Wrinkle In Time, " as we are witness to a young, bespectacled Black girl enraptured in scientific discovery and by film's end, she is literally flying through the astral dimensions of time and space...and really, when have you ever seen a young, bespectacled Black girl flying in the movies?

For all of the worlds, dimensions, and adventures we are given, what Ava DuVernay asks us to hold onto the greatest with "A Wrinkle In Time" is the following: the sight and vision of a young, bespectacled African-American girl who is a Scientist and Mathematician and is given the opportunity to change the universe through the brilliance of her intelligence, the belief in herself and her abilities and gifts, the strength of her convictions and character and the unshakable purity of her heart. If that is not heroic, then I do not know what is.

Ava DuVernay's "A Wrinkle In Time," even with the aspects that kind of grated upon me, is a testament to the reality that children's films do not need to be mercenary, disposable works that treat their core audience as product and not as people wholly deserving of the best that can be offered. DuVernay has helmed a film that is appropriately child like and child friendly while also being sophisticated, artful, free flowing with its imagination and forthright with its messages of believing in oneself.

Just imagine is simply seeing someone who looked like you save the universe just through being smart, tenacious and loving. Just imagine how many could be inspired.

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