Friday, March 9, 2018


Opening this week:

A Wrinkle in Time14-year-old Storm Reid plays heroine Meg Murray in this first big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's much-loved novel of 1962. She brings the role a sober, guarded manner that is very touching. Meg's father (Chris Pine), a scientist who was working on a method of instantaneous time/space travel called a "tesseract," disappeared a few years earlier, and Meg's thick glasses and mop of curls can't hide her pain and anger at the loss, or her worry about its implications for her family. They can't hide her intelligence, either.

Young Reid is impressive; unfortunately she's the best thing about the movie. I read and liked the book as a kid, though it wasn't the knockout for me that it was for many readers of my generation. The makers of this version, however, seem to have missed the book's charming originality: It's an epic sci-fi tale told in the prosaic manner of a rural-Connecticut adolescent coming-of-age story, with a strong undercurrent of liberal-ecumenical Christianity (L'Engle was a devout Episcopalian). In its less ambitious way, it prefigures the Harry Potter books, with their inspired blend of high fantasy and school story.

The difference in the approach of director Ava DuVernay and the screenwriters, Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell, shows up nowhere more plainly than in the characterizations of the dotty Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quotation-spouting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the lofty Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who take Meg, her prodigal little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her school friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on an odyssey to distant worlds in search of the missing dad. In the book, the three strange, kindly ladies are venerable old bats.

In the film, they are glitzed-out in costumes and makeup that seem more appropriate to a Mardi Gras parade float, or maybe a Bette Midler back-up singer from the '70s. All three are formidable actresses, of course, and Kaling, in the most enigmatic role, makes good use of her sly, knowing smile. But on the whole, as New Age angels, the trio feels ersatz and unconvincing and simply way too young.

This feel extends to the production as a whole. Backed by a bottomless Disney budget, this Wrinkle in Time turns into a typical blockbuster effect spectacle. There are times when this generates some magic, as when Mrs. Whatsit takes the kids on an aerial tour of a paradisiacal planet. But at least as often, the story gets lost or disjointed in all that CGI, and the pace curdles.

The movie has its vivid moments, particularly in the visit to Camazotz, a world of conformity where the inhabitants are in thrall to IT (here called, for some reason, "The IT."), a sinister alien entity. There's a sunlit spookiness to the scene in which our heroes pass through a cul-de-sac of stucco houses, which looks startlingly like a subdivision in west Phoenix, and see children bouncing identical red balls in unison before their midcentury-magazine-cover moms call them inside to eat. Still, there may be something disingenuous about a movie from this particular voracious conglomerate inveighing against social uniformity. After dinner, I bet all those kids sit down to watch the Disney Channel.

The Leisure SeekerThe title refers to a faded ‘70s-era Winnebago in which an elderly married couple decide to take a last road trip, from Wellesley, Massachusetts to Key West, Florida. John (Donald Sutherland), a retired English professor, has Alzheimer’s, but can still pilot the huge vehicle, and Ella (Helen Mirren), a cheerful southern belle, is determined that that they will at long last make the trip to see the house of John's literary hero Hemingway.

So while their kids (Christian McKay and Janel Maloney) sit home and worry, Ella does her best to navigate both the roads and her husband’s ever-shifting mental state. One minute he's holding forth on literature to a waitress, or remembering a former student with perfect clarity, and seconds later he's monosyllabic and primal, like the half-wit handyman Sutherland played in Die! Die! My Darling! back in 1965. Painful, long-held family secrets leak out, and in the movie's one ripe moment of satire, we see John, a lifelong Democrat, wander off and happily join in cheering at a Trump rally.

Directed by Paolo Virzi from a novel by Michael Zadoorian, The Leisure Seeker shows some signs of having sat on the shelf for a while; for one thing, Dick Gregory, who died in August of last year, has a small but funny role in it. It's a highly uneven movie, with many heavy-handed episodes and some curious loose ends. But the star power of the leads makes it moving, both in the tragedy, and the grim comedy, of dementia, and in the exhilaration of travel.

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