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In the picture

Jennifer Lawrence's Russian thriller is one long 'nyet'; Ava DuVernay's singular take on Madeline L'Engle's beloved book is inclusive, empathetic, visually sumptuous – and all over the place.

In the picture

Red Sparrow**

*ing: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts

Directed by Francis Lawrence

“You sent me to whore school,” says an indignant Bolshoi ballerina-turned-spy Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence to her less than caring uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) in Red Sparrow, and it’s dialogue like that, with thicker-than-borscht Russian accents yet, that gets your hopes up for a trashy international-intrigue funfest. Consider them dashed. This piece of cinema du airport thriller starring Lawrence as a dancer who goes full Mata Hari after suffering a career-ending accident on stage, is a punishingly long (133 minutes), shamelessly shallow downer that makes the mistake of taking itself oh-so-seriously. Big mistake.

Director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who guided the star through the last three Hunger Games blockbusters, is clearly jazzed by Dominika’s plight at being raped, tortured, toughened and sexualized until she’s nothing but a killing machine with a hot body. He sure as hell lingers on every debasement. Why is Dominika doing this? Long story short, she has a sick mother (Joely Richardson). And as a “Sparrow,” code for graduates of the sex-spy school, the young woman is also an asset to Uncle Vanya – yes, that’s actually his name – who runs the SVR, the Russian intelligence service that’s enlisted her for erotic espionage. He also has a creepy incest vibe for his niece (eww), whose first big assignment is traveling to Budapest and ID-ing a Russian mole.

That mysterious traitor to the State, it seems, is feeding intelligence to Nate Nash, an American CIA agent played by Joel Edgerton with the resigned look of an actor trapped in an underwritten role. Do Dominika and the agent get it on? Is it love or is Nate just trying to turn her? Will other SVR bigwigs, played by British and Irish actors (Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling), catch on to Dominika’s secret agenda, whatever that is? Why are the secrets that Mary-Louise Parker is selling to the Kremlin on floppy discs, a digital storage system that went out when Putin was a pup? (With the Russians making headlines for sophisticated technology that meddled with U.S. elections, Red Sparrow gives us fossilized floppies!) And why is it that Lawrence has never seemed more American than she does in the role of a Russian terminator in training?

The film’s sadistic streak leeches the fun out of the script that Justin Haythe has adapted from the novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews. Otherwise, the spy plot seems like a rough draft of something John le Carré tossed in his reject pile; there’s more exciting spycraft in 10 minutes of The Americans than you’ll find in the entirety of this turgid twaddle. Talk about an opportunity missed. Back to whore school for everybody.

– by Peter Travers

A Wrinkle in Time***

*ing: Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Storm Reid

Directed by Ava DuVernay

“It was a dark and stormy night.” That’s the first sentence of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, a smoke-screen opening salvo that doesn’t begin to prep readers for what lies ahead in this beloved kids’ book: tesseracts and shape-shifting biddies, shadowy forces and M.I.A. fathers, interdimensional travel and preternaturally genius preteens and the revolutionary notion that a young woman can save the world. From such simple, mundane beginnings spring the skeleton keys that unlock imaginations, and if you can say nothing else about Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of this middle school curriculum staple, it most definitely taps into a childlike sense of what-if wonder. What if a run-of-the-mill misfit kid like Meg Murry (Storm Reid) had the power to stop evil from taking over? What if the neighborhood’s crazy cat ladies were really time-tripping celestial beings? What if you took a lot of corporate money and made a genuinely odd, hallucinogenic movie that featured youngsters flying through a candy-colored landscape on a leathery cabbage?

Disney has released a new trailer for A Wrinkle in Time, director Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the acclaimed young adult fantasy novel.

And: What if a major blockbuster property was made by a woman of color? It’s not a question we should still have to be asking in 2018, and thankfully, we no longer have to. The story behind Wrinkle’s waltz to the screen has arguably eclipsed the film itself, and it’d be disingenuous not to acknowledge what a big deal it is that DuVernay – and not, say, some white twentysomething male with one decent Sundance movie under his belt – has been handed the reins to this massive endeavor. There’s never been a question as to whether she’s a major filmmaker: Middle of Nowhere (2012) should be taught in film schools on how to make a perfect intimate indie, and Selma (2014) is one of the best biopics made by anybody in the last 20 years, full stop. It was simply whether the barrier-breaking accomplishment would, in the end, outweigh the end-result achievement. This Wrinkle in Time is undoubtedly flawed, wildly uneven and apt to tie itself in narrative knots in a quest to wow you with sheer Technicolor weirdness. It’s also undeniably DuVernay’s movie as much as Disney’s, and works best when she puts her feminine energy, high-flying freak flag and sense of empathy front and center.

So yes, join Meg and her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) on that dark and stormy night, as they welcome a visitor named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into their household. Mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is understandably confused as to why this cheerful eccentric has shown up unannounced in her living room; she’s also shocked to be told that “tesseracts” are real, given that her husband (Chris Pine) had been preaching about a time-travel concept with that very name before he mysteriously disappeared. The siblings begin to wonder whether the woman knows where their dad is. They’re soon joined by dreamy neighborhood teen Calvin (Levi Miller) and Mrs. Whatsit’s daffy companion, the quote-spewing Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) – for once, Who’s on second and Whats(it)‘s on first. As for third base, that would be the divine being that towers over all of them and calls the shots. Unsurprisingly, she looks just like Oprah.

From the moment Winfrey’s gigantic earth mother starts making a backyard bend and ripple like a disturbed waterbed, Wrinkle begins toggling between very familiar multiplex fodder and a sort of Fischer-Price’s My First Acid Trip. Between Naomi Shohan’s production design, which spans everything from Seussian fantasias to slate-grey wastelands to a beach filled with enough Day-Glo to blind an outer borough, and Paco Delgado’s extraordinary everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink costume design, the movie’s visual template tends to favor a lysergic sense of excess. (We sincerely hope Kaling got to keep those Spongebob-square ruffled pantaloons.) Bizarre touches abound, from the questionable – sure, why not make an oracle Zach Galifianakis in guyliner! – to the inspired, like a creepy suburban nightmare of 1950s conformity, bouncing balls and dead-eyed kids.

Whether these genuinely offbeat, brain-melting scenarios actually sync up with Frozen writer Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell’s script, however, is where we start to find ourselves on even shakier ground than our protagonists. You’re never sure whether you’re watching a psychedelic, “difficult” science fiction movie hidden inside a Disney kids’ movie or vice versa – and you’re never sure if the movie’s ambitious attempt to serve both of those masters is a feature or a bug. The result is indeed an eyeful, an earful, a handful, but one that’s hard not to feel is dotted with collateral damage. DuVernay has reclaimed and rejiggered the concept of hero’s journey by recasting it for a young black woman, which is no small feat (and, it bears repeating, a necessity). Yet her star Storm Reid and the story itself seem to keep getting relegated and/or faded into the background at key moments, whether from sensory overload or stock moments like a shadow monster named “The IT” mounting a climactic CGI attack. No amount of Oprah’s self-affirmations can stave off the feeling that there’s tug of war going on here.

DuVernay doesn’t so much win said war as fight it to a draw, and what you’re left with is a movie of dizzying peaks and stomach-dropping valleys. It’s worth seeing just to bask in a film that does ask for inclusion on such a grand scale, that does score points both subtle and not-so-subtle (“I’ve never seen the point of fences,” notes Whatsit, and the subtext is understood), that does question why the province of tentpoles belongs to one group and not every group. What she brings to the party is invaluable. And what is on screen is a singular adaptation that stumbles more than you wish it would. If you can embrace that and forget the title’s baggage, this dark, stormy ride may make up for it in sheer out-thereness. Every generation gets The NeverEnding Story it deserves. This one may very well be ours.

– by David Fear

– Courtesy: Rolling Stone


Rating system:  *Not on your life  * ½ If you really must waste your time  ** Hardly worth the bother  ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only  *** Good enough for a look see  *** ½ Recommended viewing  **** Don’t miss it  **** ½ Almost perfect  ***** Perfection


Peter Travers

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