A Wrinkle in Time

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine

Director: Ava DuVernay

Writers: Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell


A Wrinkle in Time is a noble, well-intentioned film with a lot to root for. It marks the first instance of a female African-American director helming a $100 million fantasy blockbuster, it boasts a richly diverse cast, and its central message is about love and acceptance of yourselves and others. Good intentions however do not a great film make, and those intentions can even work against the film when they take precedence over story, character, sensation, and everything else that makes for great cinema. So strong is this film’s desire to celebrate liberalism and to be inspirational that it cannot help but lead its viewers by the hand at every turn and ensure that none of the morals get lost on them. The film is quite clearly targeted at a young audience of 6 to 12 year olds and isn’t embarrassed about it (nor should it be), yet it doesn’t seem to trust them enough to rely on their own imaginations and to learn the lessons through inference. The movie spoon-feeds us its rhetoric so forcefully that its message of empowerment and affirmation loses all power and meaning, making for an unfulfilling watch.

The film tells the story of 13-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid), an introverted teenage girl with low self-esteem. She possesses a curious, inquisitive mind and an unfathomable fascination with the world around her that she shares with her scientist father Dr. Alexander Murray (Chris Pine), who disappeared without a trace four years ago. Since then Meg has lived a withdrawn and lonely life; she underperforms at school, has no friends to speak of, and she lashes out when attacked by her bully Veronica (Rowan Blanchard). While Meg and her mother Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) continue to mourn their loss, her prodigious, six-year-old adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), relentless in his optimism, provides a source of joy and comfort for them both. These early scenes are the most affective in the whole movie as we get a strong sense of the affection that Meg shares with her family and of her adolescent troubles.

Meg soon learns that her father is still alive and that he has been lost in space ever since solving the mystery of the tesseract, a mode of travel that can cross dimensions. She, Charles Wallace, and would-be boyfriend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) are invited to help search for him by three celestial beings. These are Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a scatter-brained, unearthly woman who hasn’t quite mastered keeping her thoughts to herself, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only in quotations attributed to such great thinkers and artists of the world as Shakespeare, Buddha, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who towers over everybody else and looks as regal as a deity played by Oprah ought to look. She reveals that Meg’s father is trapped on the planet Camazotz, home of the dark force known as the IT, and that it is up to Meg to find and rescue him in a journey across time and space.

The adventure that follows however doesn’t feel very adventurous. Meg doesn’t so much set out on a quest as she does get carried along one (by a flying lettuce creature no less), get told what to do, and be reminded at every turn about how special and extraordinary she is. Even when Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin must make it on their own in the third act, the conclusion still feels far too easy considering the universe-shaking, existence-threatening stakes that were set up. It would be like if Frodo simply flew to Mordor on the back of an eagle with Sam and Gandalf showering him with praise and support the whole way and then ultimately defeated Sauron by learning to love himself. I get that A Wrinkle in Time isn’t trying to be The Lord of the Rings, but the point is that in order for a story with a quest to feel like an adventure, a journey with obstacles and trials has to actually take place. There is no sense of urgency propelling them from place to place and no tension in the tasks they must complete. The movie is instead so focused on validating Meg as a heroine and making sure that the children who relate to her are empowered by her victory that it neglects to make the journey itself all that interesting.

If the intention was for Meg to be a passive participant in a fantastical voyage like Alice or Dorothy that would be one thing, but here she is built up to be a chosen one upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. “Be a warrior”, says Mrs. Which, obviously not intended in a literal Joan of Arc sense but rather in an emotional sense, yet still a role that requires Meg to be more assertive and active than she’s allowed to be. The film doesn’t seem to trust that Meg’s positive qualities will make themselves evident to the viewer if displayed through actions and instead must assure us whenever possible that she is a great person capable of great things. Even when her wits and scientific know-how actually help to get them out of a spot when they’re caught up in a twister, the movie still has to stop for a second so that Calvin can remark on how incredible Meg is. Reid for her part delivers a remarkably confident performance and does a terrific job of showcasing Meg as the complex and flawed character that she is. I wish this film showed half as much confidence in depicting her arc.

What’s equally as disheartening is that the film’s visuals and style are shockingly weak given what DuVernay has proven herself capable of crafting as a director with films like Selma. There are some neat looking visuals such as the designs of the three Mrs. Ws and the orange corridor where Dr. Murray is trapped, but then there are others that just look bland and unoriginal. The dark forest where the kids wind up upon reaching Camazotz looks like any other foreboding forest you’ve ever seen. The use of CGI in the cave in the scene with the balancing stones and with the aforementioned flying lettuce creature is so fake looking that they could’ve been lifted straight out of a Disney Channel TV Movie. Even when we get a nice-looking setting like on the planet with the resplendent grass, shimmering lake, and colourful flowers, we don’t get to appreciate them much because DuVernay makes continuous use of tightly framed medium and close-up shots with seldom an establishing shot. The staging of each scene is often so awkward that it almost seems like some of the performers are acting in different films. It was only in the creepy, nightmarish neighbourhood scene where we see a row of children bouncing their basketballs in unison that I was reminded of what a great director DuVernay can actually be.

I really did want to like this film because I like what it’s trying to be. I like the message that it wants to convey, I like that it takes chances and risks and tries to do something a little different, and I like cast and crew involved. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are still fun to watch even in their roles as glorified exposition spouters, Pine continues to prove himself the most versatile of the Hollywood Chrises, and Reid is a star in the making. There’s even a fun Zach Galifianakis cameo to enjoy. I did find Charles Wallace pretty insufferable, but a lot of people seem to like him so maybe that’s just me. A Wrinkle in Time however is simply not a good film. The story is incoherent and not compelling, there isn’t nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance, and the liberal ‘believe in yourself’ rhetoric is so constant, generic, and is hammered in so much that the ultimate lesson loses whatever power it might have had in the original L’Engle novel (which I have not read). I suppose the film is fun enough that it might work alright for its target audience, especially those who aren’t used to seeing themselves represented on screen, and maybe for them that’ll be enough. All that I, a 25-year-old white guy, can really say is that it didn’t work for me.

★★

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Wonder Woman

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

Director: Patty Jenkins

Writer: Allan Heinberg


Whether it wants it or not (and whether it’s fair or not), Wonder Woman has got a lot of pressure and expectation riding on it. Not only is it the first solo movie for one of the most iconic female characters of all time, it is also the single biggest movie to ever be made by a female director. For years studios have been pointing towards flops like Catwoman and Helen Slater’s Supergirl as evidence that female superhero movies don’t work (as if male superhero movies have such a perfect track record). With the MCU so far neglecting to make any female-led movies in spite of having a popular character and marketable star in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it falls onto DC to finally break this glass ceiling. While it’s not up to me to judge this movie from a feminine standpoint, I also cannot ignore what a big deal this movie is or how significant its success will be. And it is by all means a resounding success.

The movie starts off with Diana (Gal Gadot) as a child on the secret island of Themyscria, the home of the Amazonian race. There, as the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is forbidden to partake in training as a warrior, but does so anyway with her aunt, General Antipone (Robin Wright). Years later, having grown into a strong and capable woman, she rescues a downed pilot as his plane crashes nearby. The pilot is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and he is an American soldier fighting in the First World War as a spy. He was being pursued by the Germans as he was escaping with a notebook stolen from the infamous chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and must return to London as soon as possible. Diana, believing that the war god Ares, whom her people have sworn to oppose, is orchestrating this war in the form of General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), arms herself with the Amazons’ ‘Godkiller’ sword and accompanies him. Thus she joins the war to end all wars where she will discover the true extent of her powers and find her destiny.

This film marks the fourth instalment in the DCEU, a franchise that has so far proven uneven in its storytelling. Batman v. Superman for example was a movie that felt messy and overblown because it took on too many storylines and spent too much time on world building. One of the strengths of Wonder Woman is that it tells an entirely self-contained story. There are no forced cameos, no tangential set ups for upcoming titles and no unnecessary subplots. This is Diana’s story and the movie keeps the focus on her. When approaching a character such as Wonder Woman, one might have been tempted to sculpt her simply as a strong, badass warrior woman, essentially a female Braveheart. The movie however is more thoughtful and complex than that. Diana is indeed tough and vengeful, but she is also curious, compassionate, earnest and brave. She is an inspiring hero of a kind that movies haven’t really seen since Christopher Reeve’s Superman. When Diana runs into battle to face the enemy, there isn’t a childhood trauma that forces her, no words of wisdom from a mentor that move her, no inner conflict about responsibility and morality that compels her. Diana is a kind, virtuous person who wants to help simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Joining Gadot in her wonderful turn as the DC legend is a strong supporting cast, the best of whom is Chris Pine as the dashing WWI pilot. Whereas Diana is hopeful, naïve even, Trevor is altogether more pessimistic and world weary, a quality to which Pine brings both charm and humour. There is a clear attraction between them on the outset which feels utterly authentic and organic due to the electrifying chemistry they share. Not many superhero movies can make their romances work, but this is definitely one that can. Also great are the Amazonian women, particularly Wright, who are every bit as fierce, steadfast and awesome as a warrior people ought to be. Watching them in action is one of the most thrilling parts of the movie as Jenkins does away with the rapid editing and generic framing we see in most blockbusters. Instead we get to see the warriors in their full glory, fighting in a variety of styles that make the combat feel more like an epic ballet than a punch-by-numbers.

Jenkins is to applauded on more than just the action scenes. Much of Wonder Woman feels unlike anything we might’ve expected from recent blockbusters, including and especially those of the DCEU. For one thing, Wonder Woman has actual colour in it. The magnificent gold of the Amazonian armour and the luscious greens and deep blues of their paradise island can all be seen in their splendour. Even the reds, greys and browns of the Western Front show that dark colours can be dire without being murky and stale. The movie also installs much humanity and humour into its story which, far from undercutting, help to enhance the film’s more serious moments. When we see Diana charging into her battle with her comrades, which include Charlie (Ewan Bremner) the sharpshooter, Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) the Native American smuggler, and Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) the Moroccan master of disguise, its all the more affective because the movie has actually taken the time to show these characters bonding. Wonder Woman, being set in 1918, also does a good job of tackling issues of sexism and racism without beating us over the head with it.

The fatal flaw holding this movie back from greatness is its third act which sadly slips into the more generic territory we’ve seen in recent blockbusters. In starts off promisingly enough with a reveal for the villain that is surprising in its sophistication, suggesting that Ares is not in fact the simple baddie we took him for, and there is an excellent final scene between Diana and Steve that I found moving. Otherwise, unfortunately, the climax is typical of the sort of explosive finales that modern blockbusters like with overwritten, pretentious dialogue and a morally confused resolution. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a weak ending and it certainly doesn’t kill the movie, but it was underwhelming given how strong and fresh the first two acts had been. Still, even if I would have preferred an ending that took a few more risks, Wonder Woman is despite its flaws a great watch. It is gorgeous, exciting and inspiring and is entirely worthy of the comic book icon it has brought to life.

★★★★

Hell or High Water

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.

Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.

What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.

As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.

Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.

★★★★★

Star Trek Beyond

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba

Director: Justin Lin

Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung


I’m not a huge Star Trek fan. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t like it but rather in the sense that I haven’t watched enough of it to consider myself a huge fan. While I have watched all three instalments of the reboot, the only classic Star Trek movie I’ve ever gotten round to seeing is Wrath of Khan (which I found to be a better movie than any of the new ones). Therefore when I talk about the characters in this movie and the universe they inhabit, I do so from an unenlightened perspective. I am not intimately familiar with this franchise and have no substantive opinion of how a Star Trek movie is supposed to be done. The only fair standard I can set for this film is that provided by the J.J. Abrams movies, both of which I enjoyed but didn’t love. That is more or less how I feel about this movie as well.

Three years into their five-year mission, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) starts contemplating the endless nature of their voyage as he approaches his thirtieth birthday, making him one year younger than his father was when he died. While on shore leave Kirk is offered a promotion and recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his successor, should he accept that is. Spock meanwhile finds himself in a similarly dejected state after ending his relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and receiving word that Ambassador Spock has died. The Enterprise is then sent on a rescue mission which turns out to be an ambush. The ship is destroyed by Krall (Idris Elba), a ruthless alien seeking revenge against the United Federation of Planets, and most of the crew is taken captive. Kirk manages to escape with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) while Spock escapes with Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban). Stranded, scattered and crippled, it is up to Kirk to reunite his crew, find out what Krall is planning and save the Federation.

While I understand that the classic Star Trek movies were largely concerned with character-based drama and themes of morality and philosophy, these modern takes have leaned more heavily towards aspects of action/adventure. Although I’ve enjoyed these movies for the thrills they’ve provided, I have often felt that the stories and characters have left me wanting. While the characters in these films are certainly memorable, likeable and entertaining to watch, I’ve seldom found them to be truly compelling. In Star Trek Beyond there was a lot of potential for drama that the movie was able to set up but couldn’t quite follow through on. In Kirk’s arc for example it seems like the movie is trying to present him in a lost, estranged state, living under the shadow of the father he never knew and undergoing a crisis of identity. To me however, it just came across as Kirk being bored of his job. Spock, who lost his home planet in the first film and has learned of the passing of his alternate self, could have been allowed to confront issues of mortality, endurance and responsibility. Instead he breaks up with his girlfriend. Because these movies are so focused on getting to the action, there just isn’t enough time for them to really ask the big questions or to delve deeply into these characters. This doesn’t make them bad or boring, it just makes them somewhat unfulfilling.

Still, the action is often spectacular and is a nice change from the shaky cam and lens flares that often proved distracting in the Abrams movies. There are some incredible sequences in this film, such as Krall’s attack on the Enterprise, that had my heart racing. The action does get more generic in the third act but the ones that really work well are simply stunning. The movie also puts its excellent cast to good use, at least on an entertainment level. The banter between Spock and Bones is good for a few laughs. Pegg provides Scotty with plenty of moments in the spotlight and crushes them. Uhura isn’t given really given enough to do but Saldana is still able to deliver far more than what she was given. Pine has really grown into the role of Kirk and carries an undeniable air of authority befitting a strong and respected leader. The only disappointment was the villain who, despite Elba’s best efforts, is let down by a forgettable personality, vague motivations and a weak plot twist.

Star Trek Beyond is a good enough movie on a purely entertaining level. It has good characters portrayed by a superb cast, some great comedic highlights and plenty of action. It’s weakness, as with the previous two instalments, is its inability to give its story and character the depth that they deserve. The promise is there, the films just aren’t brave enough to follow through with it. Star Trek Beyond is thrilling and it is enjoyable, but there ultimately isn’t very much that separates it from all the other sci-fi/action blockbusters being made today. I may not have seen enough of the classic Star Trek movies and TV shows to claim any sort of authority where they are concerned, but what little I have seen I’ve found to be intelligent, captivating and unlike any big budget movie being made in this current climate. If these movies ever took the risk of putting the action in the backseat and allowed themselves to attempt that same level of innovation and nuance, we might have been treated to something truly special.

★★★

The Finest Hours

Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy


This is the kind of film that I’ve always found to be the most difficult to review. The Finest Hours is not a complicated film. It has a simple story that gets told in a straightforward manner. It is not an artistically ambitious film either nor does it tackle any challenging or difficult themes. Therefore, as far as deconstructing and interpreting the story goes, the film does not pose any particular challenge. It also isn’t a particularly surprising film and did not provoke any sort of a notable emotional reaction out of me. It is on the whole an adequate film with writing, directing and acting that is perfectly serviceable. That’s the problem. I have found this film to be so overwhelmingly average that I can hardly think of anything to write about it. Just about every element of this film that I can think of can be summarised by the word ‘fine’. It is difficult to write anything substantial on a subject that does not provoke any strong feelings from you whether they be positive or negative. For the sake of the word count though I’ll have to try.

The story is that of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, a real-life event that is still remembered today as the greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States Coast Guard. The SS Pendleton is torn in half during a fierce storm and the surviving crewmembers have to work out a plan to survive until the rescue crew can reach them. Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the ship’s engineer, uses his knowledge of the vessel to keep her afloat for as long as possible. Meanwhile the Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders that a rescue mission be carried out by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a young but talented coast guard still feeling the weight of his last failed mission. This operation requires Bernie and his crew, including the hardened seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) to cross a bar that is perilous and difficult to navigate even in the most ideal weather conditions. As Bernie embarks on what many consider to be a suicide mission, his fiancé Miriam (Holliday Grainger) prays for his safe return.

I wish there was more of substance I could offer to this review but there really isn’t much more to say. This movie is fine and that’s about it. The film hits the beats that it needs to, showing the stories of both the rescue team as they make their way to the ship and of the crewmembers in their struggle to remain alive. Characters and motivations are sufficiently established, the conflicts and tension are passable enough and the major plot points are all given the suitable amount of coverage required. It doesn’t offer anything new or surprising but it also isn’t exactly bland or substandard. I wasn’t actively invested in the fate of these characters or in the outcome of their mission but I also wasn’t wholly indifferent to them. The film goes where it needs to go and it does what it needs to do.

The cast does well for the most part. Chris Pine plays a different sort of character from his usual as this shy, quiet, unconfident who is basically everything that Captain Kirk is not. Holliday Grainger looks like she really belongs in the 50s setting and does well enough as a wilful and assertive woman tackling the dilemma of marrying a man whose job could very well kill him. Ben Foster gives what is probably the strongest performance in this film as this haggard sea veteran taking on a job that his gut tells him cannot be done. Even after seeing him in Six Feet Under and the National Theatre’s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I often forget how good he is at being brooding and intense. Eric Bana on the other hand gives the weakest performance playing what is by far the film’s most one-dimensional character. He is basically this uptight, inexpert authority figure who is an outsider to the community and doesn’t understand how this job is really done.

There really isn’t much more to say. The Finest Hours is an average film that did not leave any notable impression on me. It is a feel-good based-on-a-true-story film (the kind that your mum likes) that goes exactly where you think it will go. It is a decently executed film that manages to convey the feelings that it needs to convey but not much else. I enjoyed it while I was watching it and have barely thought about it since. Disney didn’t seem to have much faith in this movie and barely put any effort into advertising it, probably because they’re more focused on promoting movies like The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War. It seems like with all of these massive and highly publicised blockbusters in the works, this was essentially the movie that slipped between the cracks. For what it’s worth it is a decent picture, but the fact that Disney did not show any strong support for it doesn’t really surprise me.

★★★