Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in Firestarter
After nearly 30 years of writing about movies, I will still never understand why filmmakers would decide to take perfectly good source material and make deeply stupid choices about changing it structurally. This second screen version of Stephen King’s 1980 novel casts Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Charlie McGee, the 11-year-old pyrokinetic sought by a shadowy government agency, along with her telepathic father Alex (Zac Efron), to continue the research that gave Charlie’s parents unique powers during experimental testing. Screenwriter Scott Teems waits for nearly half an hour to put Charlie and Alex on the road, fundamentally altering the dynamic of their relationship while also giving us way too much time during which nothing interesting is happening. And considering how little time is actually spent on the evil government agency, it’s almost laughable that part of that involves Kurtwood Smith doing a weird bit of business with piles of Pixie Stix dust. Efron and Armstrong are both perfectly solid when they’re actually allowed a moment to explore a dad trying to teach his child how to control potentially deadly emotions, and we do get a satisfyingly retro score with contributions by John Carpenter. But even the big fiery finale gets ruined by a terrible, emotionally ridiculous ending. From literally the first shot to literally the last shot, this is a movie that doesn’t understand the story it’s trying to tell. Available May 13 in theaters and via Peacock.
It’s hard sometimes to separate the intensity of the basic subject matter—especially given the horrifying Supreme Court news of recent days—with the execution of that subject matter, or the question of whether it adds anything new to the conversation. Co-writer/director Audrey Diwan adapts Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel set in early-1960s France, where talented college student Anne Duchesne (Anamaria Vartolomei) finds herself pregnant after a brief fling, and becomes determined to end her pregnancy despite France’s strict anti-abortion laws. The ferocity of Vartolomei’s performance drives everything that works about Happening
, capturing a woman with a vision for her own future that includes continuing her education, and a growing realization that everyone she reaches out to for help is judging her in some way. Yet this is the kind of movie that wears its gritty, naturalistic style as a cloak of righteousness, waiting for us to shake our heads at the accumulating indignities to which Anne is subjected, and to wince at the extended sequences involving makeshift attempts at termination (super-super-super-trigger-warning). There are only glimpses of Anne as an actual character, like when she almost angrily has sex with another man because what the hell, it’s not like things could get any worse. Otherwise, it too often feels like she is a case study onto which burdens are laid so that we can see in detail what a terrible thing this is for a woman to endure, and enduring the movie itself becomes an act of commiseration. Available May 13 at Broadway Centre Cinemas.
The Innocents ***1/2
Like every genre cliché, the “creepy children” trope only feels like a cliché when it’s being done poorly, and Eskil Vogt directs the living hell out of this variation to terrific effect. It begins with 9-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family—including her non-verbal autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad)—moving to a new neighborhood for her dad’s new job. There Ida meets a couple of potential new friends in Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), each of whom has special abilities—and that those abilities might be getting stronger as they interact with one another. Vogt builds Ida’s character beautifully, enhanced by Fløttum’s fantastic performance to indicate a kid jealous of the attention given to her special-needs sister, yet slowly realizing that turning your own pain into cruelty (trigger warning: violence against animals) comes at a cost. Mostly, it’s simply a cracking pieces of suspense filmmaking, as Vogt layers so much tension into his key set pieces that they’re almost unbearable, while still finding room for bits of heartbreak like the deeply damaged Ben breaking down while all alone. It’s a skill to recognize that the real horror in “creepy children” might be dealing honestly with the things that can turn them creepy. Available May 13 in theaters.
See feature review
. Available May 13 at Broadway Centre Cinemas.
The Sanctity of Space **1/2
On the one hand, credit to Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson for trying to differentiate their movie from several other recent documentaries about the thrills and perils of high-level mountaineering; on the other hand, I’m not convinced that the path they choose results in a cohesive movie. Much of their narrative involves their own efforts, along with friend and colleague Zack Smith, to plot a previously unclimbed route on Alaska’s Moose’s Tooth ridge, near Denali, over the course of several years. The footage involves some now-familiar you-are-there fare, with vertiginous views and moments of life-or-death decision-making, all while waving occasionally at the curious psychology driving “because it’s there” adventurers. But they’re also telling the story of Brad Washburn, a pioneering climber and photographer whose early images of Alaska’s mountains in the 1930s inspired many climbers’ efforts at climbing those mountains. Washburn is a hell of a fascinating character, along with his just-as-pioneering wife, and some available archival interview footage makes it clear that he’s a compelling documentary subject. That doesn’t mean that his story neatly meshes with the more contemporary efforts by the filmmakers; it starts to feel like something they can use to break up the “chapters” in their long mission to conquer Moose’s Tooth. They show plenty of respect for the guy who led them to this place, but might have shown more respect by letting his story stand on its own. Available May 13 in theaters.
Senior Year **
Rebel Wilson in Senior Year
The premise of nearly every high-concept comedy of the past 30 years is learning What Really Matters, what distinguishes them is the skill of the players, and whether the situation has enough comedic energy to survive the platitudes. There’s certainly promise in this premise, which begins with high-school senior Stephanie (Angourie Rice) about to conclude her transformation from picked-on nerd to prom queen when a fall during a cheerleading routine lands her in a coma for 20 years. When Stephanie at age 37 (Rebel Wilson) wakes up, she becomes determined to go back to school and complete the project. The script could have dived deep into the ways high-school has changed since 2002, embracing the way a teen alpha female has to re-imagine her game in the social-media age. And while there’s a little bit of that, the plot makes sure we know Stephanie isn’t really the queen bee, like her now-grown rival (Zoe Chao), so the character arc doesn’t give Wilson far to grow. There’s a tepid quality to nearly every potentially edgy idea; this is an R-rated comedy that at every turn feels like it’s trying to earn a PG-13. At least there’s a standout performance from Mary Holland, as Stephanie’s high-school bestie-turned-earnest principal. Somewhere, there’s a much more interesting high-concept comedy about an administrator trying to remake a high-school experience without cliques and cruelty, and figuring out What Really Matters to today's teenagers. Available May 13 via Netflix.
All the basic ideas for a fresh spin on the Cinderella story make sense: Let’s gender-swap the lead roles! Let’s make it less lily-white! Let’s give it some energy with hip-hop-flavored original songs! So yeah, kind of a bummer that the whole thing isn’t worth more than a shrug. Our Cinder-fella here is named El (Chosen Jacobs), an aspiring sneaker designer in Queens struggling with a seemingly uncaring stepfather and two mean stepbrothers. His princess is Kira (Lexi Underwood), daughter of an ex-NBA star-turned-sneaker empire king (John Salley), who might be able to give him his big break. The tunes are solid enough—particularly the opening production number “Kicks” with its ear-wormy refrain and bouncy choreography—and Jacobs has charisma to spare. But too much of everything else has that overly-scrubbed style of a Disney Channel Original, including a “fairy godfather” (Juan Chioran) who gets to do little but smile benignly. It doesn’t help, either, that there’s not nearly enough chemistry between the two leads, directed to make it feel like they couldn’t imagine doing anything more physical than waltzing to “A Dream is a Wish” in a fantasy sequence. The more the plot tries to squeeze in elements familiar from other Cinderella stories, the more this one just feels like a competent but uninspired brand extension. Available May 13 via Disney+.