Category Archives: film reviews

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

The book by Madeleine L’Engle on which this movie was based was one of my childhood favorites. I looked forward to the film eagerly because I wanted to see a gifted director do justice to the material. I thought that many of the changes were promising updates for modern audiences, able to bring the book’s uplifting message of love to more people.

On an even more personal note, my still-unfinished novel, Hallie’s Cache, was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories, a misfit young teen girl looks for her missing father and grows into herself in the process. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected from 26 publishers before going on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century. There has been a previous attempt at making a movie out of this material in 2003, with mixed success. It has always defied categorization: is it for adults or children? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is it too Christian or not Christian enough?

After watching the current version, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make a good movie out of this book. The director, Ava Duvernay, did everything right: she assembled a great cast and approached the project with care, respect, and a wide open vision. And I enjoyed it on its own terms; I identified with Meg and her teenage problems. I found Storm Reid to be an appealing and relatable actress. I rooted for her and her friends to save her father. I loved the trippy visuals, the costumes, the animations. I even cried for the brokenness in the world, as gently as it was portrayed, and cheered for the family’s reunion. But it wasn’t the story that packed the emotional punch that I remembered and loved all these years. Opening to mixed reviews and eclipsed at the box office, it is likely to remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Duvernay’s career.

As much as I hate to admit this about a childhood favorite book, the problem is likely not with the filmmakers, but with the source material. Written in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is of a particular time and place. The book’s characters are all European-Americans, redheads or mousy-brown-haired with Anglo-sounding names like Charles Wallace and Dennys (who, with his twin brother, is wholly absent from this movie). It famously opens with the Bulwer-Lytton cliche: “It was a dark and stormy night,” as Meg watches a thunderstorm from her lonely, cluttered attic room. For these reasons, and because of the three witches, the gossip about Mr Murry’s disappearance, and the neighbor’s sheets drying on the line, I had always pictured it taking place in an eccentric, secretive New England small town–a small town with a dark side like the ones that L’Engle herself, and her contemporary Shirley Jackson, lived in and raised their families.

Bringing this story out into the bright Southern California sunshine as this movie did took too much of the edge off. Certainly there are edgy areas of Southern California too, but we didn’t see those. The Murrys’ home is gorgeous and spacious. The middle school Meg attends is a well-resourced model of ethnic diversity headed by principal of color who is a three-time science teacher of the year award winner. This muddies the rationale for why Meg is bullied by the other students. In the book, Charles Wallace is an odd prodigy, perhaps a savant on the autism spectrum although that was not understood at the time the book was written, and Meg gets in trouble at school for defending him from bullies. She is thereby always his protector, and her actions at the end of the book, when her fierce love saves Charles Wallace from IT’s clutches, are perfectly in character and make emotional sense.

In the movie on the other hand, Charles Wallace is still a prodigy, but he appears quite well tolerated, happy, and self-contained, and he doesn’t need Meg to protect him. If anything, he is the one protecting Meg. Meg’s outcast status is instead attributed to her father’s disappearance. But in present day California, with so many children being raised by single parents and blended families, her father’s disappearance would not be the scandal it was in 1962. Her loneliness can and does lead her to act out further, but it is a feeble justification for her school situation as depicted here.

Details of what happened on Camazotz are also compressed in the movie. The book’s depiction of Camazotz, the planet that has given in to evil, gives off a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic banality. Complete conformity to a 1950s suburban nuclear family ideal is expected, and outsiders’ food turns to dust in their mouths. “IT,” the master controller, appears in the book as a disembodied brain on a dais. IT appeals to Charles Wallace and seduces him to ITs side because of ITs ability to control and impose order on messy human impulses. IT was a metaphor for the tyranny of a society that values and runs on brains and intellect alone and disregards love. That in the book there are two battles against IT and that Meg must make the decision on her own to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles Wallace compound the sense of foreboding and dread, as well as making Meg’s triumph sweeter and more meaningful when she does ultimately rescue him.

The movie, however, shows little of Camazotz; the scene with the kids bouncing balls in unison seems like a confusing non-sequitur rather than a Potemkin village masking the fear and desperation of the populace. After her father and Calvin are defeated, Meg is forced immediately into lonely battle with IT. This battle scene was disappointing. Some of the creepy tree-like things with branches might have supposed to have been neurons with dendritic trees, but the overall connection of the movie’s IT to an emotionless, loveless, disembodied brain capable of the ultimate in mind control was weak.

The rescue scene itself focused too much on whether Meg herself was lovable in spite of her faults and not enough on the transforming power of Meg’s sacrificial love for Charles Wallace. The book is unapologetically Christian in outlook, reflecting L’Engle’s own Christian faith and naming Jesus as one of the warriors against the darkness that enveloped Camazotz. I believe that L’Engle intended Meg’s love for Charles Wallace here to be selfless and Christlike, yet her Christian imagery and references have been dropped from the movie, to its detriment. Mrs. Who quotes and references many world religions; Christianity could have been included there. And why not acknowledge Jesus’ role, and the role of faith for many Christians, in fighting evil? True to her character, the scientist Meg would likely remain skeptical, and that would be okay too. Warriors can come from all faith traditions, and from no faith tradition.

The other big problem with this story is the science, the so-called “Wrinkle in Time” itself, known in both the movie and the book as a tesseract. Back in 1962 at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when the theory of relativity was new and humans hadn’t yet gone to the moon, the idea that you could bend space-time with your mind by “tuning” it to the right frequency might have been a little more believable than it is now. There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. Murry is shown giving a seminar about how tessering works. Jeers and guffaws of disbelief come from the audience; as well they would in real life. He sounds like a New Age motivational speaker in the tradition of Werner Erhard, or a trickster like Uri Geller.

I still remember when an annoying boy in my physics class explained to me what a tesseract “really” was: a cube within a cube, a projection of 4-dimensional space into 3 dimensions the way the drawing of a cube on paper as a square within a square was a projection of 3-dimensional space onto 2. There was nothing about wormholes or traveling 93 million miles with just your mind. Talk about disappointing! It wouldn’t have taken much to give Dr. Murry in the film a high-tech device that would make tessering possible, or some novel psi powers based on his and his wife’s research. These would have to be hand-wavey and entirely fictional of course, but good shows have been based on less. What doesn’t work is asking us to accept that New Age mumbo-jumbo somehow became true for this family because they “believed in themselves.”

As a smart girl who was interested in science, I believed too long in this book’s oversimplified and inaccurate version of how science works. Meg’s parents worked together in a homemade lab; when her father disappeared, her mother continued her experiments in the kitchen, bunsen burner on one counter, soup on the other. There was no mention of grants, funding, students, safety regulations, collaboration outside the family unit, or even publication. It’s a more romantic and family-friendly vision of doing science than has ever actually existed. Perhaps this vision was inspired by the real-life Curies, French Nobel Laureates Marie and Pierre and their children, who discovered radioactivity; yet their work had a visible dark side. Modern science is safer for its practitioners, and it is more open and collaborative than either what the Curies experienced or L’Engle’s vision. It is also more expensive and more technical, and requires more energy and perseverance than romantic genius for success. A film that wants to inspire young people in science in the 21st century would do well to tell a more accurate story about the scientific process. This film drops that ball completely.

I hope this movie inspires its young audience, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s memorable enough for that.


Film Review: Coco

I saw two movies over Christmas break, The Last Jedi and Coco. I don’t feel like reviewing The Last Jedi right noweven though I enjoyed it. Maybe it needs to percolate a bit longer, or maybe with all the hype and dissection afterwards it just didn’t seem like I had anything to add. But Coco was a delightful surprise. I’d heard it was about the Mexican custom of celebrating the Day of the Dead and honoring one’s ancestors, but I hadn’t realized it was about music. The film has been out for a while, so I’m not going to be concerned about spoilers. If you are, please stop reading here.

Coco starts out as a sort of Cinderella/Harry Potter-ish tale, with a child, Miguel, who doesn’t feel like he belongs with the rest of his family. He plays a homemade guitar and sings, hiding in the attic where he has built a little shrine to his musical hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, a celebrity singer and guitarist. His family of shoemakers is mean to him, and seemingly tone-deaf about what he needs. The scene in which his grandmother smashes his guitar is particularly harsh. At first the idea that the family hates music and has banished it from their home because of their musician ancestor who abandoned the family seemed overdone and melodramatic to me. The story was heavily weighted in sympathy with poor little Miguel, forbidden by these old, hidebound meanies from following his sacred dreams. The film is visually gorgeous and inventive, so I was prepared to enjoy that aspect of it even if the story was cliched.

And then the story surprised me.

In order to “seize his moment” and enter the talent show his family forbade, Miguel tries to steal Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar from his mausoleum, and thereby becomes cursed and sent to the Land of the Dead. There he meets the ancestors he has heard so much about over the years. He meets Hector, a ne’er-do-well who seems good only for comic relief, and he meets his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, as big a celebrity in death as in life.

The rules governing the Land of the Dead are both complicated and unforgiving: souls can’t cross back to the Land of the Living, even for a holiday visit, unless their ancestors have put their photo on the family’s ofrenda, a ritual altar for the Day of the Dead containing a collection of objects associated with the familial ancestors. (One might wonder what happened in the days before photos, but that, and other equally interesting questions, are left to the viewer’s imagination). Hector, whose descendants put up no photo of him, tries to cross every year by disguising himself as someone else who does have an ofrenda photo, and keeps getting caught and returned. Ernesto, who has no known living descendants, prefers to stay in the Land of the Dead anyway, where he is still a big celebrity who throws a swanky concert and sunrise party. Hector claims to have known and played music with Ernesto in life, and offers to take Miguel to him.

At first, Miguel’s meeting with Ernesto goes well. Miguel is convinced that Ernesto is his long-lost great-great-grandfather, and that Miguel is his rightful musical heir. Ernesto parades around with Miguel at the party and urges him to do “whatever it takes” to follow his own dream. But in the course of their conversations, Hector shows up, and it is revealed that not only did Hector and Ernesto know each other and play together, but that Hector wrote Ernesto’s most famous songs. And not only that, but Hector wanted to go home to his family, and Ernesto murdered him and stole the songs for himself. Hector, not Ernesto, was really Miguel’s great-great-grandfather. And Hector didn’t abandon his family on purpose; he was murdered while trying to return to them.

Miguel returns to the Land of the Living and, in a touching scene, plays Hector’s most famous song for his great-grandmother Coco, Hector’s now-elderly daughter. She is the last living person who remembers Hector, and hearing Miguel play the music awakens her from what may be the silence of Alzheimer’s Disease. The denouement is graceful and returns Hector’s photo to its rightful place on the family’s ofrenda.

Most of these customs were new to me, as a Northern-and-Middle-European American, and I enjoyed that aspect of the movie very much. I had initially been a little put off of going to it at all because I recoil from the stylized iconography of death. I just don’t like skulls and skeletons; I find them creepy and uncomfortable, and not a fashion statement. Watching this movie, I got over those feelings in about 2 minutes. The filmmakers did their homework and Mexican culture and customs are treated with respect and love. For their perspective, read these wonderful reviews by Latino Film Critics.

I would like to offer my personal thoughts from the perspective of a musician. I don’t play the guitar; I play the violin and viola, stringed instruments with a different provenance. And I’m a musical mudblood, a Hermione Grainger (but with less talent). When I was Miguel’s age, my family didn’t hate music: they bought me my first instruments, came to my school concerts, and paid for and shuttled me to and from lessons. But they didn’t play music themselves, either. In fact my father had a bad experience with being forced to play the clarinet as a child, and he gave it up as soon as he left home. And my mother’s large working class family had not had money for music. So I don’t see myself as having come from musical roots. If it hadn’t been for that public school orchestra program I had in 4th grade, I doubt I’d be playing today. I still identified and sympathized with Miguel for that reason: music and family can be complicated.

The other reason I identified and sympathized with Miguel was that he became swept up in the excitement of achievements, goals, dreams, fame, and celebrity glitz. That is how music–even classical violin/viola music–is sold to us these days. Especially in early January when resolution mania reaches a fever pitch, we are exhorted from every side and even from within to seize our moment, do whatever it takes, and take charge of our dreams. It’s a seductive call to action; it’s the golden flower-petal promise of youth. Of course Miguel would desire it too. Don’t we all?

Coco may be the first mainstream, mass-market movie shown in the United States that I’ve seen that dares to suggest that this “seize your moment” and “follow your dreams” attitude has a dark side. And it doesn’t just suggest that, it spells it out plainly: no, doing “whatever it takes” to achieve your dream is not admirable. It can be downright evil. It can destroy families and destroy lives.

What had me crying tears of joy at its end is that this film doesn’t stop there as a cautionary tale. It offers an alternative: music as a way of connecting people and bringing them together in love. Coco, Hector’s daughter and Miguel’s great-grandmother, is the perfect title character. Elderly by the time the film takes place, she is brought back to herself by Miguel’s singing the song she heard her father sing when she was a child. At the end of the film, a year later, Miguel is shown playing joyfully on a new guitar. His cousin Rosa appears to have taken up the violin. Miguel didn’t have to make that false choice between his musical dreams and his family. He could have both.

Featured Picture: Concept art by Robert Kondo. ©2017 Disney•Pixar.

Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story

I was going to post this review a couple weeks earlier, but the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia, delayed my finishing it. Leia was barely in this installment, and much of the initial discussion of her cameo focused on the CGI. But even though I haven’t been a real Star Wars geek for many years, Fisher’s death hit me hard. Continue reading Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story


Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As the newest film set in the Harry Potter universe and J.K. Rowling’s screenplay debut, Fantastic Beasts has gotten a lot of hype, and quite a bit of criticism too for too much detail, plot holes, unclear motivations, and uneven pacing. My own kids and I were a bit confused when we went the first time, but that didn’t stop both of the kids from seeing it again with friends.

It is a visually arresting film, and I enjoyed the experience of watching it.  With the twisted cities of Doctor Strange still in my mind’s eye from the week before, the scenes of mayhem in old New York in Fantastic Beasts made an impressive counterpoint. I know the Harry Potter timeline and universe pretty well and so I also appreciated the world-building and the background to the more well known events from the HP books and movies.

Thematically, much of this debate about “craft” may be interesting, but beside the point. In this film Rowling returns to a theme that may ultimately define her body of work: the plight of wronged, abused children, the incompetent and/or evil adults who fail them, and the others who try to make it right. In the modern HP timeline, Voldemort/Tom Riddle came out of such a situation. In this film, and in other more recent work (notably, A Casual Vacancy) adults explicitly manipulate and use children to their own ends, and end up not only destroying the children’s innocence but unleashing a chaotic evil upon the world that can no longer be controlled.

This theme is rich, but sometimes, in Rowling’s hands, too simple–especially when the adults become caricatures. Newt Scamander is a worthy and well-meaning hero but IMO he needs more to do and to learn before this series can do justice to its ambition. The children are watching.