Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in Five Feet Apart

FIVE FEET APART

Is there any stronger gauge of movie stardom than the ability to singlehandedly redeem an otherwise unworthy film? The YA drama Five Feet Apart isn't entirely terrible; its heart is in the right place, and director Justin Baldoni plays some laudably clever tricks with framing and composition. Yet this deeply contrived, baldly telegraphed outing might have been unendurable if not for Haley Lu Richardson, who gives a performance of such natural warmth, charisma, and intelligence that she alone makes it worth seeing, and potentially worth seeing more than once. Richardson may not be a “name” actor quite yet. But like Emma Stone in Easy A, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, and Brie Larson in Short Term 12, she's so very, very good in her first showcase lead that you bask in every minute of her presence, enjoying both the work in front of you and the possibility of what she might give us in the future.

Saddled with one of those goopy acoustic-pop soundtracks in which every song sounds like it's being sung by Regina Spektor (although, near as I could tell, none of them were), Five Feet Apart concerns the burgeoning love between two hospitalized teens with cystic fibrosis: Richardson's upbeat, vlogging Stella, a master at coordinating her medication regimen, and Cole Sprouse's Will, the requisite nihilist troublemaker with floppy bangs eager to break down Stella's defenses. In short order, Will pursues Stella, and then Stella pursues Will, and if you've seen The Fault in Our Stars, Everything, Everything, Midnight Sun, or any other recent movie in which chronic illness is viewed as the be-all/end-all of youthful romantic bliss, little that happens here will likely surprise you. (This being the rom-com's near-identical twin the rom-drom, there's even a gay best friend – energetically played by Moises Arias – with whom Stella can share witticisms, and whose character arc feels less written than designed with a stopwatch.)

You won't even be surprised by its specifics. Of course Stella's cheerfulness masks a debilitating tragedy from her past. Of course the white teens have a sassy black nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who responds to the kids' medically inadvisable romance with an audience-pandering “Oh, hell no!” Of course Will isn't just super-handsome and super-rich, but an incredibly gifted artist who wants nothing more than for Stella to pose while he sketches her. (Sadly, Mikki Daughtry's and Tobias Iaconis' “original” screenplay isn't witty enough for Stella to concede by asking Will, á la Kate Winslet in Titanic, to “draw me like one of your French girls.”) And of course everyone in the movie speechifies when they could instead merely talk, and the whole of the thing begins to sound like a script constructed through the stitching together of empowering fortune-cookie advice. Richardson makes that all – almost – immaterial.

Haley Lu Richardson in Five Feet Apart

Baldoni, to be fair, often does his part. Because CF patients, due to the risk of contracting new ailments, are required to stay six feet apart at all times, the director plays shrewd games with visual perspective, frequently underscoring the teens' intimacy by making it look as though they're inches apart when they're actually keeping a healthy distance. (This makes it all the more affecting in moments in which Stella and Will are clearly getting closer to one another than they're supposed to.) And any movie that spends as much time as this one does breaking down the nuts and bolts of life for cystic-fibrosis sufferers can't, and shouldn't, be entirely discarded. The film's blitheness and ludicrously manipulative scenes of imperilment, though, would make it all too easily discardable without Richardson's supreme soulfulness.

Despite being magical in movies ranging from Split to Operation Finale to Support the Girls to The Edge of Seventeen, in which she offered a priceless portrayal of conflicted-bestie allegiances, Richardson's dry wit and mature low voice are given exceptional purpose here. She's so fabulously empathetic in both her ebullience and her pain that you watch Richardson in a state of almost constant euphoria, and Stella's long-delayed romantic ardor feels so real that you can handily ignore the fact that the profoundly surface-level Sprouse, a Disney Channel actor to his teeth, doesn't seem remotely worthy of his co-star's affections. Haley Lu Richardson feels like a human being first and a human being with CF second, and that makes all the difference in a feel-good weepie as engineered for cheap uplift and tears as Five Feet Apart. If it hadn't been used just a few months ago (and several times before that), A Star Is Born would've been a perfectly acceptable, perfectly deserving alternate title.

John Goodman in Captive State

CAPTIVE STATE

In the sci-fi thriller Captive State, the world has been overrun by hostile alien forces, and after a prelude establishing that these creatures resemble oversize porcupines who shoot blasts of annihilating energy out of their face holes, we learn that as of 2027, they're referred to as Earth's “legislators.” I'll admit that I was mentally cackling at this information, imagining these testy space beings in the halls of Congress blithely passing bills and ordering Chinese takeout. But those interior laughs turned out to be the only ones possible in director Rupert Wyatt's film – a decidedly serious, even grim affair that's largely inscrutable, fundamentally unsatisfying, and, almost despite itself, pretty damned fascinating.

Ordinarily, I applaud releases that keep you guessing and don't spell everything out with obvious, easily digestible information. But Captive State really is unusual in that it refuses to outline the intricacies of its plotting until literally its final five minutes. We know that an insurrection is being planned, and that it involves a bunch of fringe figures darting through back alleyways in high-security sections of Chicago, and that John Goodman is playing some kind of potentially nefarious intermediary between alien and human forces. The storyline, however, is so obscure as to seem incoherent. Who are these shadowy figures (played by the likes of Alan Ruck, Madeline Brewer, Kevin J. O'Connor, and the great, underused James Ransone) whose exactingly detailed fringe chores are never explained? What is the traumatized 21-year-old Gabriel (Moonlight's superb Ashton Sanders) doing in a job his family history should have made instantly unfeasible? Why is Vera Farmiga, with a picture of a Trojan horse on her wall, lounging around in hooker lingerie while listening to Nat King Cole LPs? The answers eventually come, but only after about 100 minutes of solid confusion with little beyond the intermittent laser blast and swarm of robotic drones to keep genre fans happy. Yet if you can make it through the beautifully photographed uncertainty and your growing bewilderment about where it's all leading, Captive State boasts an unexpected amount of narrative pull – Wyatt's movie is tantalizingly perplexing. It's also uniformly well-acted and offers a bunch of arresting images (the shot of a dog barking at zooming spacecrafts overhead is an instant classic), and I was quite taken by the film's imagining of an electronics-free environment 10 years down the line, with secret messages delivered by carrier pigeons and conversations recorded on reel-to-reel tape. Life in this future world may suck for most, but I guess the Luddites among us won't be entirely unhappy.

Wonder Park

WONDER PARK

Nickelodeon's new animated family comedy isn't a movie that'll likely inspire a lot of burning questions, but if you bring your children, be prepared to try to answer a big one: Why is it titled Wonder Park, and not Wonderland? The film, after all, is set within a make-believe tourist attraction called Wonderland. The name “Wonderland” is prominently displayed throughout. Characters say “Wonderland” with a frequency usually reserved for “the” and “and.” And yet Wonder Park it is, leaving me with the troubling thought that some rival studio with rights to certain Lewis Carroll characters just might have proprietary issues with a company wanting to present a Wonderland of its own. Whether or not that's true, I'll admit that the release in question does feel a bit like knock-off Disney/Pixar – a little bit Up, a little bit Inside Out, and a whole lot of anything populated by wacky talking animals all taking place in a second-tier version of the Magic Kingdom.

Its takeaway message – that playtime imagination is vital, even necessary, at times of emotional strife – is unimpeachable, and the frenetic amusement-park action is sometimes a lot of fun. Yet this outing by director Dylan Brown (whose name was removed from the credits following allegations of “inappropriate and unwanted conduct”) doesn't display the personality necessary to lift it above the cookie-cutter norm. Its plotting is simple yet dull, and somehow not even enlivened by the arrival of hundreds of dementedly grinning chimpan-zombies … and you'd think that any movie would benefit from hordes of dementedly grinning chimpan-zombies. Talents such as Jennifer Garner, Matthew Broderick, Mila Kunis, Kenan Thompson, and Norbert Leo Butz vacillate between bland exposition and blander jokes, with John Oliver, as a nervous porcupine, merely trotting out every agitated “funny” voice he employs for just about every episode of Last Week Tonight. And its Wonderland visuals are surprisingly perfunctory, with the wild roller-coaster creations that our eight-year-old heroine June devises in the real world far more beguiling than those in her invented Magic(-ish) Kingdom. Still, Wonder Land is genial enough if you simply have to take the kids to something, and I did laugh out loud during June's early, aborted trek to math camp, with her fellow campers singing songs about pi and her teacher insisting that those not up for a summer of mathematical excitement were clearly “on the rhom-bus.” That pun may have made June jump ship, but I would've happily traveled with those nerds for weeks.

Superpower Dogs

SUPERPOWER DOGS

It always feels awkward, as a 50-year-old man, to attend a movie such as Wonder Park without being chaperoned by a child. This is partly because you invariably wind up looking like a Person of Interest, but also because no matter how much you like or dislike the film, it really wasn't meant for you, but rather some version of you 40-odd years ago. I'm happy to report, however, that I didn't make my traditional mistake with Superpower Dogs, as my favorite four-year-old agreed to join Uncle Mike for a screening of the Putnam Museum & Science Center's new edu-doc about the trials and triumphs of rescue canines.

For the record, I adored it. Writer/director Daniel Ferguson, who previously made the excellent giant-screen documentary Jerusalem, provides enough globe-trotting action for a James Bond flick, treating us to first-rate training footage and re-created missions in locales ranging from the Canadian Rockies to the Italian coast to a debris-strewn site near New York's Ground Zero. We're given just enough information on how the heroic pups pull off their feats of derring-do to wholly appreciate them in practice, with the duties of the stunningly well-trained Ricochet – a special-needs dog who aids military veterans and on-the-spectrum youths alike – proving especially moving. As one of the film's first images is that of Captain America, it only makes sense that Ferguson's latest is narrated by Chris Evans, who voices the role of canine narrator Henry with winning, Steve Rogers-esque earnestness. And while I thought the 3D was mostly unnecessary – with the Putnam's one-size-kind-of-fits-all eyewear proving too small to fit over my eyeglasses and too big for the face of my four-year-old friend – the images themselves are glorious, with cinematographer Reed Smoot, particularly on the African plains, eliciting proper “Oooo!” and awe. Meanwhile, my petite buddy appeared to have a good time as well, giggling madly every time a pup came within licking distance of the camera (“He's coming right at me!”) and frequently interrupting the proceedings with coos of “Oh, how cu-u-ute!” Even at only 40 minutes, Superpower Dogs did make her a tad restless. Yet as the end credits rolled, she told me she liked the film … although it was evident that she liked the Putnam gift shop way more, her movie experience inspiring her to request, and dutifully receive, a couple of gift-shop creatures on our way out. Granted, they were penguins, not dogs. But hey – cute is cute.

Apollo 11

APOLLO 11

Not ones to be left out willingly, we grown-ups got a documentary of our own in area release this past weekend, though director/editor Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11, with its G rating, is obviously appropriate for all ages. I'd almost say it should be mandatory for all ages, given how inconceivable it must be to youths that there was ever a time in which our entire country – hell, our entire planet – seemed momentarily united in thrall to the majesty of human accomplishment. Over the years, of course, there have been loads of documentaries on the moon landing, and Damien Chazelle delivered an Oscar-winning docu-drama on the subject in last fall's gripping yet emotionally reserved First Man. But I think it's fair to say that we've never before experienced anything quite like Miller's film, and not just because of its newly unearthed film footage and audio recordings – some of it synched, astoundingly, to look like 70-millimeter sound cameras were actually rolling in NASA control during that July of 1969.

Employing no voice-over narration, no talking-head commentary, and no present-day testimonies on What It Was Like or What It All Meant, this magnificent achievement simply – yet very much not-so-simply – takes us from three hours before the Apollo launch to the first weeks after astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned from their space mission. And over the course of 90 perfectly paced minutes, we're all but overwhelmed with torrents of dazzling minutiae: Walter Cronkite and other news anchors trying their best to sound serene in the face of unprecedented eagerness; a sea of white, black, and brown faces (one of them Johnny Carson's!) gathered together near Cape Canaveral to witness history in the making; the heart rates of our astronauts as they depart our atmosphere (Aldrin's, unsurprisingly, stays the steadiest); the views from inside Apollo 11, with the moon looming and Earth gradually becoming the size of a marble; the image from beneath the lunar module as it makes first contact with unfamiliar terrain; the folk tune – John Stewart's “Mother Country” – that plays inside the craft as its inhabitants return home. Barring a few overbearing musical flourishes in composer Matt Morton's generally outstanding score, Apollo 11 isn't sentimental or manipulative in the least. Yet I was still frequently teary-eyed with excitement and wonder, and so moved by the visible joy in the on-screen faces – the astronauts', the NASA staffers', the cheering Florida masses' – that even thinking about Miller's movie now causes me to both smile and well up. There's a blast-off, of course, and the film containing it is a total blast.

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