Ready Player One
by Philip Price
Director Steven Spielberg has a way with not only bringing the viewer into the spectacle but making them appreciate the aura of the spectacle he has concocted on screen. We're not just in awe of what we're seeing on screen, but we're in awe of how it makes us feel. Spielberg is a master of this kind of spellbinding visual storytelling, but as the filmmaker has grown older his filmography has naturally become more serious. It’s been a decade since that fourth Indiana Jones movie and while Spielberg has co-directed a motion-capture ‘Tintin’ movie here and an adaptation of “The BFG” there the majority of Spielberg's latter filmography consists of more "adult" projects. With his latest, “Ready Player One,” Spielberg returns to that era he helped define with films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jurassic Park” and even “Hook” as “Ready Player One” mines the kind of wonder each of those films elicited as they were all, in some fashion, told from the point of view of a child who was allowed to run wild with and fully indulge in their imagination. Some may state that this is the very thing wrong with “Ready Player One” in that it is a little too indulgent in such imagination; reveling in the nostalgia of pop culture rather than relying on its own inventiveness to make it stand apart yet feel familiar. And yet, the way in which “Ready Player One” utilizes these aspects to tell a brand-new story is so creative and so striking in its relatability-especially to a movie-goer-that it feels rooted in a truth that movies were afraid to discuss until now. It may be due to the fact that I came of age in an era where the site of that T-Rex in “Jurassic Park” was something that couldn't have been realized in such life-like fashion prior or because I grew up re-watching “Hook” to the point those lost boys became an integral part of my childhood, but the fact of the matter is “Ready Player One” doesn't just utilize the same tone and a barrage of references to trick audience members who might have an affection for any one of the many cameos this thing trots out in order to make them feel an affinity for this new product, but rather it takes the real world into account, advances it into a hyper, but all too probable reality, and then comments on how it's nice to indulge in our imaginations and appreciate what others have given us with theirs, but that-as with everything-balance is key and it requires real world interactions and relationships and experiences to allow those imaginations to grow. It's not a groundbreaking thesis, but it's executed so well and is such a fun journey to go on the fact its ideas aren't brand-spanking new isn't a deal-breaker. If nothing else, it's a comforting reminder told from the perspective of a filmmaker with fresh (or at least re-invigorated) eyes.
If you're like me and wanted to read the novel, but never made it around to doing so this positive review might comfort you in knowing that even going in blind you are sure to get as much out of the experience as the person sitting next to you who may have actually invested the time to read Ernest Cline's novel. In fact, it is because “Ready Player One” would work with or without its this basis or its vast library of pop culture references that makes it so good and compelling. Cline, who is credited as a co-screenwriter on the film alongside Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), created a world from that of his childhood-a place where he and all his fellow Buckaroo Banzai-loving friends could hang out and play games, race their favorite vehicles, and explore the environments of their favorite movies, video games, and TV shows. To be honest, walking into “Ready Player One” I was somewhat preparing myself to not understand many of the references as the visual style of the avatars within this world of the Oasis resembled something from a Japanese anime (of which I have no knowledge) with many of the supporting characters and worlds resembling those from a multitude of video games (of which I have minimal knowledge), but while I'm sure there were plenty of things I didn't catch or even understand that will maybe enhance the viewing experience for others, the adventure the story takes even the most clueless of viewers on is worth taking for its pure inventiveness and fun. There is a strong story here-and one that is so expertly structured and executed it will be interesting to go back and read the source material to see how they compare. Having never been one to do that, but instead being one to typically make a point of reading the book prior to seeing the movie I enjoyed “Ready Player One” to the point there is a desire to see what more the world of the Oasis has to offer and how it compares to what Spielberg has created for the screen.
“Ready Player One” is set in the not too distant future of 2045 and follows the orphaned and largely alone Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) as he navigates his way not so much through life-no school, job, or aspirations are ever mentioned-but more through who he imagines himself to be in the Oasis. In this future it's also as if the world itself has stopped caring about structure as the only corporation to seemingly remain is that of Innovative Online Industries or IOI as run by the evil Nolan Sorrento (an always menacing Ben Mendelsohn) who looks to take control of this virtual playground known as the Oasis and turn it into a cash cow. This would of course be at the behest of its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who passed away five years prior to the events of the film, but who left multiple challenges for the many players of his game to decipher and if successful could garner full control of the Oasis and Halliday's trillion-dollar fortune. In the beginning, Watts AKA Parzival as he is known in this virtual world, is simply looking for an escape from his rough reality where he lives with an Aunt who seems to have been physically and verbally abused by a string of bad boyfriends among a mountain of mobile homes referred to as the "stacks", but in joining forces with other rogue players including his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), their comrades Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), and the mysterious Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) they become the unsuspecting leaders of Halliday's revolution; piecing together the mysterious creator's clues and gaining access to three different keys that unlock the ultimate Easter egg.
The key word here is fun. “Ready Player One” is the first Spielberg film in quite some time where it feels as if the director wasn't weighed down by his material, but more that he found something new and interesting to invigorate his senses with. As solid of films as “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” are there is this sense with each that Spielberg was going through the motions of these interesting, but safe projects where he knew exactly how to accomplish what he needed to accomplish before a single frame was shot. With “Ready Player One” there is this sense of discovery in the fact of how big and overwhelming it feels to be as audience members and so to try and imagine how Spielberg and team must have felt when coming to terms with having to bring such material to life in the first place must have made for a scary but welcome challenge. This may sound like pure speculation but witnessing this film on the big screen it's impossible not to gravitate towards this sense of necessary imagination to make these events spring to life in the way they do. By allowing the film to take its time in the first hour, establishing the world as Wade experiences it if not who Wade really is within it, as well as all the players within the game not to mention the weight of the story that forms the backbone of the Oasis that concerns Halliday and his partner, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), we are granted a peek into this future that we can't help but to become invested in despite a fair amount of our heroes being little more than thinly drawn archetypes. Is Wade anything more than your typical hero? Not really, but Sheridan makes what is a blank slate of a guy someone with an endearing drive who isn't out to necessarily prove anything or anyone wrong, but more to simply try and make connections in ways that are meaningful as no such relationships in his life exist. The more interesting character is that of Cooke's Art3mis or Samantha as she's known in the real world. We are only given a single line of dialogue that hints at her motivations for doing what she's doing, but from the moment her avatar shows up in the Oasis alongside Parzival's DeLorean Art3mis is as intriguing to us as she is our hero. Aech is a fine example of supporting comic relief and Mendelsohn knows how to walk the line between camp and palpable intimidation and demonstrates that sense of awareness keenly throughout, but for my money's worth the most interesting dynamic the movie hints at is that of the one between Morrow and Halliday and how it informed the tasks and challenges our present heroes must overcome in order to win the game. The truth that “Ready Player One” isn't really about the characters, but the journey they take us on becomes irrelevant when discussing Halliday and Morrow because without them there is no adventure and there is no meaning to this sequence of events. This kind of mythical friendship is glimpsed just often enough to maintain its mystery, but still offer the right amount of answers to hammer home that thesis. To this point, Spielberg elicits another stellar performance from Rylance.
Sure, the movie has some issues with character development or lack thereof and it is maybe a little too long when it could have shaved a solid ten minutes off, been all the more subtle for it, and therefore slightly more effective as a result, but given the target audience it is understandable as to why Spielberg felt the need to spell things out more than he might have were he making this in the vein of one of his more "adult" pictures. Still, it's hard to find fault in the film's running time when spending as much time as is done in this world is pure joy. For starters, the way the title card is positioned is fantastic-classic Spielberg (which I'm a sucker for anyway), the soundtrack is fantastic without being overbearing, especially early on when we venture into Aech's workshop for the first time and she's blasting "I Wanna Be Your Lover" not to mention Alan Silvestri's score that compliments the nostalgic-inducing tone perfectly as the composer elicits inspiration from some of his own “Back to the Future” movements. Spielberg can lean on his friend Robert Zemeckis often as not only does he borrow the score and iconic elements from that filmmaker's prized trilogy, but also his name as "The Zemeckis Cube" is a tool to be purchased in the Oasis that allows a player to rewind any moment in time 60 seconds. This goes back to the point that "The Zemeckis Cube" could have been anything and still functioned as it does for the sake of the story, but the fact it gets to function the same while making a nod to a piece of well-known pop culture only makes it even more fun if not admittedly a little cute. After this first hour has embedded us into the Oasis the audience really begins to understand the crux of the story and are fully on board for the adventure Parzival and Art3mis are on. We begin to understand that the game is all about coming to better understand not only Halliday and his love for all things eighties pop culture, but who he was and who he desired to be as a person. While there are plenty of things it seemed, Halliday wished he might have done in his lifetime the moral of the story seems to be that of being aware of the moments we exist within and being able to stop and experience them as they are. This light at the core of all the CGI wizardry and non-stop adventure is who Halliday was as a person and what he desired to stand for or at least convey to all those eager to follow in his footsteps. “Ready Player One” is an extremely well-structured film with the caveat of maybe moving through each of the challenges a little too quickly given the game had been stagnant for five years prior, but during unraveling these challenges Spielberg places on full display his ability to craft some truly classic cinematic moments. This can be seen in how naturally the clues for the final challenge are layered in and executed, but more in a sequence that takes place in the middle of the film that will, let's just say, inspire new generations to discover Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining.”
On top of character, story, and theme “Ready Player One” is just a ton of fun and that can't be emphasized enough. For starters, it is genuinely and consistently funny in ways that were unexpected while also finding clever ways in which to integrate those much-discussed references. The CGI, of which I was concerned-especially since the movie seemingly relied on the avatar characters for the majority of the runtime-are so lifelike and natural in their movements it's astonishing such visual effects are even possible. The look of the film is spectacular in all regards as the sheen of the Oasis is naturally intriguing, but the live action sections contain a grain to their aesthetic that places us in the mindset of watching so many of the movies “Ready Player One” references that Spielberg isn't only inducing nostalgia through references, but through as many senses as he can. In other words, everything about the film just feels cinematic. And so yeah, one could look at “Ready Player One” as another movie where a corporate asshole tries to corrupt the purity of an artist's endeavor that is meant to make humanity a better place and leave it at that, but being done in this fashion where every aspect truly does feel as if the time was taken to ensure it was conveyed in the most creative way possible while still remaining intriguing throughout is what gives the movie this sense of life; this heartbeat that is impossible to suppress. We all inherently have these incredible imaginations as children but depending on where and when we go to school, what style of parenting is enforced upon us, and what friendships we make there inevitably comes a time when we begin to limit that imagination or begin to shape it. While it's easy to forget we can use that imagination in our day to day grind to survive it is always there and it is always ours and it's kind of magical. “Ready Player One” reminds those whose imaginations might have went dormant some time ago of this possibility and for those who were lucky enough to have that imagination cultivated the movie reminds us of what is possible with this magical part of the brain. In using our imaginations, we tap into other imaginations and both Cline and Spielberg have tapped into something special here. I loved the little details at play-Sorrento's very telling password, Parzival's ThunderCat belt buckle, the expert use of their single F-bomb, and the expert use of Madballs, but underneath all of that is this subtext that life was never meant to be a single-player game and that, in the end, our relationships with those we love and respect are what come to mean the most. That may sound like kind of a groaner, but it works and “Ready Player One” will work on many levels for many kinds of viewers. A true sign of transcending the art form and coming to stand as something larger in our society. In this regard, “Ready Player One” should accomplish that which it so unabashedly idolizes, but only time will tell if this is to be.
by Philip Price
The newly re-booted and freshly grounded “Tomb Raider” from Warner Bros. isn't necessarily bad, but it is pretty bland. There is a constant back and forth as one experiences the final product given there is real promise in what is essentially the entire first act as the viewer gets to know this younger, more inexperienced Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) and the mysteries surrounding her father's disappearance as well as the issues she has been working through because of such. It is when the movie goes from slyly intriguing to full-on what the target demographic expects from a “Tomb Raider” movie that most of the intrigue disappears and what we're left with is a series of action sequences that look like the actual video game that inspired the movie. The more reliable and realistic visual effects become the easier it will be to lean on them and while this seems to have become more and more apparent over the last few years it seems especially glaring when the source material for an effects-laden blockbuster is that of a fully digital world. Once our titular protagonist gives into the life she was always meant to have, despite who she was when trying to make a living on her own accord being more interesting, Croft is quickly swept off to Hong Kong and then to the next level, I mean act, of the movie where we continue to go through stage after stage of Croft getting closer and closer to her end goal, which in this movie, has something to do with an ancient Queen that was said to command the power over life and death. Why someone would want to seek out much less break open the tomb of an ancient spirit that can kill people simply by touching them is beyond me, but that is the quest we're sent on and the tomb we're meant to raid and so that is what unfolds. Naturally, there are layers and bad guys along that way that make this journey a little more interesting or at least a little more dramatic, but it no matter how much “Tomb Raider” wants to feel like a fun adventure tale it is far too gritty and routine for its own good. Unlike last week's “A Wrinkle in Time,” which didn't necessarily work, but was at least trying to do something fresh and innovative with the material it was based on “Tomb Raider” instead works as a coherent whole in terms of style and tone but does nothing with these features to accentuate them in any special or meaningful way.
To be fair, the movie does come back around to explain why Croft's father, a wealthy aristocrat with his own holding company, desired so strongly to keep the location of this tomb a secret and seek it out for himself so that the powers within didn't fall into the wrong hands, but still...they may as well have made it so that at least Croft was seeking a rare artifact or something to really play up the female Indiana Jones angle, but whatever you say, world-builders. From what I've gathered concerning this re-boot this latest Croft film is based almost exclusively on a video game from 2013 that also took on the prequel story of our heroine and made the character more dimensional by making her a little less dimensional, know what I mean? None of this really matters though unless the story itself is interesting enough or the characters become endearing to the point of genuine investment. Obviously, with a potential franchise-type character one would want the characters to be appealing enough to the point that whatever adventure Croft goes on it doesn't really matter if the viewers want to go on those adventures with her. This is the strongest quality of director Roar Uthaug's film as the best thing Warner Bros. could have done was cast a quality actress in the role rather than leaving this to feel like the second-tier franchise it is. By placing a pedigreed actor such as Vikander in the role there is this inherently draw to her presence and what she might do with such a commercial role that pulls the viewer into Croft's plight and in the two opening scenes this couldn't prove to be more true or more charming in the sense that despite the fact Lara Croft is known for being this badass female action hero we see her get her ass handed to her at the boxing gym and then in a really cool chase sequence that lays the foundation for her skill-level and ambition while showing that she's not this unstoppable or immortal hero, but rather that she is a fallible human being. The boxing scene is more one to display Vikander's chiseled physique (cue those who want to complain about her lack of curves, but any way you cut it the girl is gorgeous) and to endear us to her somewhat goofy personality whereas Uthaug stages the chase scene that entails Croft attaching a fox tail and a can of paint with a hole in it to the back of her bicycle to be chased by a horde of other cyclists who are trying to retrieve the tail for a cash prize in a way that is both exhilarating and visually interesting setting a precedent he unfortunately can't uphold throughout the rest of the film.
Soon after being jailed for her "fox run" stunt Croft is bailed out by an old associate of her fathers and the woman who now runs her father's company, Ana Miller (the always formidable Kristin Scott Thomas). Miller informs Croft that if she doesn't soon sign the papers to claim her inheritance that her family will lose their estate. Signing these papers and accepting said inheritance though, means accepting the fact her father truly is gone forever and Vikander's Croft just isn't ready to accept that truth just yet. It has been seven years since her father, Richard (Dominic West), disappeared after travelling to the mysterious island of Yamati. Upon Croft showing up at Croft Holdings to follow through on Miller's recommendation she receives a gift from the family lawyer (Derek Jacobi showing up for no more than two scenes) that she is told was to be given to her only after her father's death. Through this gift Croft discovers a coded message with a key that leads her to a hidden office her father kept a secret on the grounds of the family estate. Within his office, Croft finds maps and plans concerning Yamati, but most importantly-a video message-from her late father telling her to destroy all his research concerning Himiko, the ancient queen, but given Croft's pension for following rules and her desire to better get to know who her father truly was, she decides to investigate further. It is at this point that the movie begins globe-trotting as we travel to Hong Kong where Croft tracks down the son of the deceased sailor whom her father chartered a ship from when he originally traveled to Yamati and whom she asks to do the same for her. Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) makes something of an amusing foil for Croft as his character is more than paper thin, but his intentions are as noble as could be given the context of their circumstances. On top of this, Wu has a natural charisma to him that makes his Lu more memorable than the script seems to want to make him. From Hong Kong the two children of the two men who presumably died making this same journey seven years prior set out to try and figure out the fate of their fathers and what made leaving them behind worth it. Naturally, this trip leads to another would-be engaging action sequence were it not for the audience having to suspend their belief not in the physics of how far Croft can jump, but more in the fact that it doesn't feel like either of these characters are ever in any real, tangible danger-at least in this sequence. Granted, there were no doubt large tanks of water used to accomplish this sequence, but for a guy that directed a micro-budget movie about an 85-meter high violent tsunami one would imagine this would be the most thrilling sequence of the movie rather than the least of what “Tomb Raider” has to offer.
This is all to say that by the time we reach Yamati and are introduced to the exiled Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) AKA the pre-determined baddie even though we come to find out the guy is really just a dad who wants to get back home to his kids, but can't until this dead queen's soul is unleashed, that we've already been delivered a handful of moments that have sent us back and forth on whether we're in for the long haul with this franchise or not. Over the course of the next hour or so it only becomes more and more clear that whatever Uthaug was going to bring to the material was brought in the first half of the film as the second is a series of more than competent, but ultimately routine action sequences where Vikander's determined title character makes her way through gunfire and booby traps in hopes of beating her newly sworn enemy to the punch. It's not hard to see where the story is going and worse, it's not hard to know where the franchise hopes to go should this re-introduction make enough money. The worst part of this though is the fact the screenplay was co-written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet in her first writing credit ever. How she landed such a big job for her first gig remains to be seen as she is now also writing the most current draft of “Captain Marvel” as well as having a handful of other major upcoming projects on her IMDb page. This idea that an up-and-coming female voice landing all these major jobs in Hollywood would first be glimpsed with this new “Tomb Raider” film was maybe the most exciting aspect of a “Tomb Raider” re-boot, but that is what also makes this so disappointing as there is no singular voice to be heard when it comes to Robertson-Dworet and Uthaug's collaboration as “Tomb Raider” more or less hits the beats we expect it to, takes us through the motions just as we expect it to, and then lands with a quick post-title card shot of Vikander looking more like the iconic images of Croft than she has the entire film. So yeah, “Tomb Raider” is one of those prequels where, by the end the audience gets a glimpse at the hero they know and love, but unfortunately this movie isn't good enough to convince everyone they needed to see how Lara Croft became Lara Croft. Coming from the perspective of someone who doesn't really play video games and has never played a “Tomb Raider” game, I could care less what is faithful and what isn't; all I really want is a good movie and while “Tomb Raider” is passable with a few moments that hint at what might have been it is largely an exercise in adequacy made all the worse by those passing opportunities where Uthaug, Robertson-Dworet, and team could have really lent this some style and flavor.
A Wrinkle in Time
by Philip Price
This one is a hard nut to crack. Both for this reviewer and the filmmakers as Madeline L'Engle's 1962 novel that serves as the source material for this latest Disney live-action adaptation has been said to be unfilmmable. “A Wrinkle in Time” was always going to be different though, in that this wasn't a Disney live-action re-make in the vein of one of their treasured animated films from their golden age or renaissance period, but rather the Mouse House had enlisted “Selma” and “13th” director Ava DuVernay to bring this much beloved material to the screen. On the other end of this review is myself who somehow made it through grade school without finding L'Engle's novel despite being an avid reader and fan of all things science-fiction/fantasy. “A Wrinkle in Time” is one of those cases where my intent was to in fact read the book prior to seeing the film, but that intent never led to any kind of fruition and so I walked into DuVernay's adaptation of this seemingly complex yet still kid-friendly source material last night with little to no expectation as to where the story might take me. What I did know was that the trailers hinted at some pretty spectacular imagery as well as some intriguing ideas that would be interesting to see worked out through a narrative. First things first though, “A Wrinkle in Time” misses a huge opportunity to inject a rather epic title card (which, if you've read my reviews before, is kind of a thing for me), but more so by the third or fourth scene it's clear there is a stiffness to the events that have unfolded thus far and that there is a certain flow most movies settle into that A “Wrinkle in Time” isn't finding. It's a weird kind of phenomenon that either happens or doesn't and most of the time, especially with movies such as this AKA big-budget spectacles produced by Disney, there is such a reliability factor that we as viewers automatically settle into the groove and/or movement of the environment the movie invites us into, but this speaks to what is the biggest weakness of DuVernay's adaptation in that it's never sure enough of itself. Where this apprehensiveness comes from in terms of movie language doesn't necessarily seem to come from DuVernay's filmmaking skills as anyone who saw “Selma” can attest to her talent, but there is a more deep-seeded issue at the heart of this big-budget spectacle and I don't know whether it comes from the seeming compression of the original text or the inability to materialize the countless words L'Engle put on the page, but 2018's “A Wrinkle in Time” is essentially a concept that possesses these larger than life ideas as reduced to their simplest form.
Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”) and Jeff Stockwell's (“Bridge to Terabithia”) screenplay may be at the root of this problem as, by the second act of the film where we are indeed deep into the adventure despite not feeling like we really know these characters, there seems to be no sense of structure, no stakes or rising action despite events undeniably taking place. It is in this lack of character investment and the consistently evident pacing issues that plague the entirety of the picture that we find fault in DuVernay's direction. The trailers have hailed the filmmaker as being "visionary" and the visuals present in “A Wrinkle in Time,” at least some of them, may warrant this adjective above her name, but if we're talking about someone who sees the entire package, the big picture, it doesn't ever feel as if DuVernay earns that title in this film given that unease that seeps into nearly every scene. Individual scenes are moving, individual sequences are fun and interesting, but on top of one another they never build to anything worth caring about or anything that is as interesting as these characters seem to believe their situation is. This begins by keeping Mr. and Mrs. Murray's (Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) scientific ambitions rather vague. Sure, they want to travel across time and space without rocket ships and think they've discovered a way to potentially do so, but the scene given the most exposition around this also plays up what a quack the audience listening in on Mr. Murray's lecture thinks he is by the time he comes to the end of it. Keep in mind, we are also only given such exposition after Dr. Murray has been gone for four years-disappearing without a trace and leaving his wife, daughter, and newly adopted son behind. And sure, it's cool to want to try and accomplish these insane things and to crave the knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but why? Why do Mr. and Mrs. Murray, both seemingly respected scientists otherwise, want to achieve this or prove the possibility of such? What is the personal angle? What is their drive other than validation? Unfortunately, we never become privy to such insight because Mbatha-Raw and Pine are essentially small supporting characters in this children's adventure that ultimately comes to reinforce the simple lesson of love conquering all rather than exploring the philosophical questions inherent in good versus evil and why as much exists in the universe as that would seem the more fulfilling territory. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate this is a rather strange and pretty trippy movie unabashedly made for younger audiences, but that isn't an excuse to not make it mesh as well as it should or be as compelling as it so easily could have been.
Furthermore, this vagueness within who these characters truly are extends even into our trio of main characters as beyond the fact she misses her father and has let her grades and mood deflate because of it we don't really know why Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is so disconnected from those around her save for her younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who is beyond pretentious and a little grating in the way he comes across via the child performer. Reid comes across as an endearing enough presence and we want to root for her Meg, but while she is supposedly not as ready to experience or understand what Charles Wallace has more easily taken to we never fully comprehend why this is such a difficult transition for Meg to make when her biological father of all people is the one to have discovered and fulfilled its potential (it being the ability to "tesser" across space and time into other parts of our universe). There are hints of Meg feeling inadequate and unsure of herself as there are bullies at school who are kind of beyond cruel for no apparent reason (as led by Rowan Blanchard), but this aspect only seems present so as to show that bullies more often than not are coming from a place of their own pain. Still, while bullying and her father's disappearance may play into Meg's inability to feel worthy of the possibilities and opportunities she is presented with shortly thereafter there is never a strong enough sense throughout the rest of the film as to why the solution to her insecurities is that of being herself and being okay with being herself other than it feels like the right message to send to the many kids who will be seeing this movie. That isn't to say this wasn't the same message that was conveyed in the novel, I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but if so I have to believe it didn't feel as blatantly bland as presented in this new adaptation. Meg is a character who, as we come to learn, is meant to become one of the great minds of our human race alongside Einstein, da Vinci and Gandhi, but there are no glimpses as to why Meg would be positioned as such given Reid's portrayal of the character other than the fact she learns through the coaxing of these three celestial beings that she has more to offer than she gives herself credit for. And it may be unfair to come down on a character who is on the cusp of her teenage years for not fully knowing who she is or what she wants to be yet, especially after dealing with a traumatic experience, but while Meg seemingly should be this surrogate for so much of what DuVernay wants to say she ends up feeling as empty as the spectacle that surrounds her throughout much of the (what feels like abbreviated) runtime.
Speaking of those celestial beings, how do they play into the proceedings and is there more weight to them than their extravagant wardrobes? Well, somewhat. In many ways, they are the most engaging characters in the film as they offer this doorway to these galaxies and planets we've never seen before and while Reese Witherspoon is delightfully eccentric in her first appearance as Mrs. Whatsit she is given very little room to spread what are very clearly very wide wings any further other than in a sequence where she morphs into a CGI leaf creature with a face that exists solely for the visual spectacle of it all as well as to introduce the audience to the antagonist of the piece in a planet referred to as Camazotz and the "IT" which, as I understand it, is the disembodied brain that controls all the inhabitants of Camazotz or the embodiment of evil on this planet. Sounds menacing, right? Too bad it looks like something akin to Parallax in 2011's “Green Lantern” (yes, that awful Ryan Reynolds comic book movie) which brings me to how, despite a handful of stunning shots, this feels nowhere near as stunning as it should. Anyway, if Witherspoon has the most to do out of the three celestial beings and already feels limited one can only imagine then how expendable Oprah and Mindy Kaling's Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who must feel despite being inherently intriguing. As Mrs. Which, Oprah more or less does her Oprah thing and spouts inspirational adages that are meant to give Meg just enough insight to figure out what she really needs to possess within herself in order to defeat the "IT" and free her father without spelling it out whereas Kaling's Mrs. Who only speaks in quotations from famous thinkers and writers which leads to the most unbelievable moment in a movie with a flying lettuce monster where Calvin (Levi Miller), a 13-year old white kid in 2018, knows an Outkast lyric by ear. So many of these elements are fascinating on their own terms and would likely be more effective were the narrative compounded in a way that gave the audience any real interest in where this journey was taking them, but as it unfolds on screen “A Wrinkle in Time” more feels like a series of events with no real connective tissue which is never more apparent than in the scene featuring a fun, but ineffective Zach Galifianakis. Even in the climactic sequence, the visuals in which DuVernay chooses to illustrate these large ideas and lessons her characters are supposed to be learning feel more basic than they do cinematic; as if something out of a commercial rather than that of the mind of a visionary director. Ultimately and unfortunately, much of “A Wrinkle in Time” comes to be rote and recycled rather than fresh and inventive. It's a flat and uninvolving mess of a movie that needed to take its time to figure out where all of its individual parts stood before beginning their collaboration.
by Philip Price
“Red Sparrow” is at once a movie that feels so calculated and well put-together that it should be obvious it knows what it is and yet this thing can't help but to feel all over the place. It knows what it wants to be, but doesn't accomplish as much. It has style for days and the feel of an epic spy saga, but the events that actually occur within these constructs couldn't feel more mediocre or forced. This is terribly disappointing considering the talent and money behind such a large, original production, but something about director Francis Lawrence's (“I Am Legend”) latest never clicks in the way it should. “Red Sparrow” is one of those films that asks you to settle into it; where the viewer becomes so entrenched in the proceedings it should feel as if the viewer is still in the world of the film when walking out of the theater, but “Red Sparrow” never hits a stride in such a way that the audience is able to make this transition from spectator to participant. Instead, “Red Sparrow” quickly shows all of its cards by letting us know this thing is going to be as bleak and brutal as one can possibly imagine and then some. “Red Sparrow” is a film that takes advantage of its star's status and places Jennifer Lawrence in this role where she is trained to use her sexuality in ways that are to the advantage of the men controlling her (timely, eh?). Lawrence's Dominika as well as the movie itself consistently relay that she's doing what she's doing to regain this feeling of being special that she's recently lost, but this quest holds no weight due to the fact she's the star of the film and we more or less can guess this aspiration is going to be fulfilled even when the odds are stacked against her. All of this is to say that “Red Sparrow” may as well be known as the movie where J-Law learns to expertly cover up domestic abuse with top-of-the-line make-up rather than the one where she kicks ass and takes names because, as was noted earlier, there is very little that occurs here that lives up to the style and scope on which it is operating. Likely the biggest mark against “Red Sparrow” though, is the fact this opinion is coming from someone who generally basks in the dark and gritty tone of movies that like to take themselves seriously. “Red Sparrow” takes itself seriously, no doubt, and it has spurts of tension that compel as well as several locations and shot compositions that are downright breathtaking, but in the end the final product tries so hard to twist social expectations that it ends up feeling like cheap shock rather than frightening truth.
This level of disappointment likely comes with the level of excitement that was brought to the film as Lawrence, the director, tends to guide his big budget tentpoles into interesting areas if not always the most successful ones. The look and tone of the film as conveyed in the promotional material couldn't help but intrigue and to have Lawrence, the actor, tackling something so overtly adult and so drastically different than anything in her filmography thus far only seemed a risk worth taking a chance on. As the opening shot appeared on screen without any sign of a title card it seemed safe to assume Lawrence had something up his sleeve as he interwove the necessary origin stories of Dominika as a famed Russian ballerina who supports her sick mother and Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash, a CIA operative working in Moscow. And while Lawrence does indeed take advantage of these eloquent prologues to an extent he doesn't go for it in a way that justifies the scale of what the viewer has just witnessed therefore hinting at the problems with the film as a whole. In this introduction we see Dominika experience a career-ending injury in a moment that literally made this reviewer squirm in his seat. On the other side of the coin we are made privy to the fact that Nash has an asset in Russia with whom he is set to meet, but that he fears has been picked up on by local authorities. Nash acts out of instinct so as to protect his informant and puts himself on the radar of Russian intelligence more so than he already was. Nash's superiors, the always welcome Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, force him to return to the U.S. where they hope to establish a new contact with Nash's asset. This is all well and good to begin with as the focus on both sides becomes establishing communication with and/or discovering the true identity of Nash's asset. Dominika's uncle, the brother of her deceased father, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a high-ranking official with Russian intelligence alongside Colonel Zyuganov (Ciarán Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons). After her aforementioned career-ending accident Egorov persuades his niece (more than once, in fact) to the fact that she has what it takes and is well-equipped to handle the kind of jobs he needs assistance with. More or less backing her into a corner, Dominika has no choice but to follow her uncle's wishes and attend "spy school" where she is to become one of the titular sparrows AKA an agent of mother Russia that is specifically trained to utilize her ability to sexually manipulate her victims into giving her what she wants and what her country needs.
It is at about the 40-minute mark, as the first act comes to a definite close, that one will likely decide whether they are in or out on this long and sometimes sordid affair as the first act, while undeniably intriguing, is also the most cringe-worthy section of the film as Charlotte Rampling (trying her best to make this work) is forced to be taskmaster to all of these potential sparrows, but the training is so incessantly sexual that it's as if screenwriter Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”), working from a novel by real-life CIA agent Jason Matthews, thought there was no other interesting angle from which to approach the material. Haythe does give Rampling some juicy dialogue such as, "The Cold War didn't end; it shattered into a million dangerous pieces..." or, "The West is drunk on shopping and social media," that convey a certain attitude and further serve to reinforce the tone, but never does anything come of these aphorisms. Rather, Dominika's sole lesson to learn is that of tricking her body into not being repelled by the subjects she will undoubtedly encounter and have to use it with as her body is seemingly her only weapon. After what feels like a rushed montage of as much and little to no progression on our protagonist's part the film decides to outright tell the audience it has been three months so that it may extract Dominika from the institution and send her on her first mission that has her cozying up to Nash after he has convinced his superiors to let him return to Budapest given his informant will talk to no one but him. By this point though, it has become apparent that no matter what it seemed “Red Sparrow” might have desired to be that it just doesn't have the will to execute as much in terms of how far it is willing to take the complications of the plot which feels weird to say given there is plenty of crossing, double crossing, and triple crossing that takes place. There are also the sections in which it seems the film is actually about to hit that plane it has been building to the entirety of its runtime, but just as long as it took for “Red Sparrow” to reach this point it seems it peaks just as fast. The movie does this weird thing of hitting these strides and essentially forcing the audience to sit up and pay attention, the viewer wanting to be enthralled, and while there are sequences that encapsulate all that Lawrence was aiming to accomplish and that Haythe was seemingly working to convey they are simply too few and far between to offer a wholly satisfying experience.
There is some credit to inherently be given to 20th Century Fox here for rolling the dice on what is a two and half-hour, R-rated, extremely violent and (again) incessantly sexual spy drama, but while the titular sparrows are supposed to be capable of performing tricks on the minds of others almost every scenario and conversation Lawrence's Dominika is confronted with is so pointedly sexual that the movie feels as if it only has so much to say about what a woman in such a position would be capable of and goes no further to try and explore this material beyond that of the woman's body as a tool or object. There is a line spoken in the film that goes something along the lines of, "If you don't matter to the men in power, you don't matter," in which it almost feels like the movie is trying to serve as some kind of analogy for women in Hollywood and while this may be true to some degree and is admirable it doesn't change the fact that “Red Sparrow” fails to be as consistently engaging as it should be given the genre and story with which it comes packaged. All of that taken into consideration this review thus far has largely reflected on the shortcomings of the film as they overshadow the many positives that “Red Sparrow” has to offer as well. First and foremost is James Newton Howard's understated score that the ear will pick up and rely on without cognizant knowledge of doing so until certain refrains are repeated. It fits the early nineties era in which a movie like “Red Sparrow” would have flourished feeling classically epic in its execution. And then there are the performances most notable of which is of course Lawrence who takes some major risks here and while the movie as a whole maybe doesn't payoff what is glimpsed through her capability to carry this thing on her own shoulders should be more than substantial. Sure, you've heard about her accent and how it may or may not flow in and out from scene to scene, but unless you're an expert in Russian accents you're not going to be bothered much. And sure, you've probably heard Lawrence does her first nude scene in the film, but it is (probably intentionally) the furthest thing from being sexy-in fact, the point of the scene is to prove how sex isn't about the image presented, but the attitude. More than these two noted aspects of her performance though, Lawrence allows the audience to buy into this scared, uneasy mentality Dominika possesses throughout much of the film while being able to layer it with how outwardly confident she has to be in order to remain alive. Edgerton is fine as well if not a particularly well-matched love interest for Lawrence while the supporting cast-especially Schoenaerts and a single scene-stealing appearance from Mary-Louise Parker-all turn in committed showings. “Red Sparrow” is beyond brutal, often squirm-inducing, but equally as hollow in large respect and still, when the final moments came the conclusion was surprisingly satisfactory even if the idea the film ultimately relays is that of how our world is often one big, ugly circle of running and reaping what we sow.