Archive for April, 2013

I love a good old-fashioned time travel flick.  There is of course the Back to the Future trilogy.  You’ve got wonderful Terry Gilliam gems like Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys.  You even have great movie romances that tackle the subject such as Time After Time and the heartbreaking Christopher Reeve vehicle, Somewhere in Time.  I find that I most appreciate the movies with multiple time jumps.  They usually involve someone trying to fix a wrong only to create a new timeline where everything is all catawampus.  Then they try to fix that and so on.  You get the point.  It’s often referred to as the butterfly effect.  So, it’s only fitting that I begin this list of perhaps lesser known or under-appreciated time travel movies with…

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5.  The Butterfly Effect

This is a nice little sci-fi thriller that should not be lumped in with its inferior direct-to-video sequels which to their credit don’t star the at times grating Ashton Kutcher who is at his well-behaved best in the 2004 original.  Kutcher plays a collegian prone to frequent blackouts in times of stress.  His was a troubled childhood filled with abuse both sexual and psychological.  While reading his journal entries from his youth, he discovers that he can send his mind back in time to occupy his past body.  He realizes these little mental jaunts through time are the source of his blackouts and he decides, that like Sam Beckett, he will put right those things that once went wrong.  Oh that it were that easy.  His actions, of course, have unforeseen consequences.  It’s a little shoddy.  It’s definitely trashy.  But if you just like a pure time travel yarn, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

4.  Retroactive

James Belushi is Frank who, along with his co-dependent girlfriend, picks up a stranded motorist on a lonely road in Nevada or New Mexico (I don’t remember which…maybe Arizona?)  Anyway, the grateful motorist, a psychiatrist by trade (played by the fetching Kylie Travis), quickly recognizes the signs of an abusive relationship and realizes Frank is not such a good guy.  She decides to bail at the next gas station but bears witness to a shocking act of violence by Frank.  She takes off on foot through the desert with Frank in hot pursuit to eliminate her.  She stumbles onto a research facility where a lonely scientist is studying time travel. She explains her situation.  He offers to send her back so she can save the lives previously taken.  The carnage continues as everything she tries to fix the situation results in more death and more jumps back in time.  Finally, she decides to take control and confront Frank directly.

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3.  Triangle

The UK brings us this trippy little tale that loops back in on itself multiple times before a devastating conclusion.  Melissa George plays Jess, a single mom with an autistic son.  She’s more than happy for the opportunity to get away for a while on a boating trip with some friends after dropping the kiddo off at school.  They hit a strange electrical storm on the open waters which disrupts their communications and capsizes the boat.  The survivors come across a bizarrely empty cruise ship and desperately search for a way to contact the coast guard.  They quickly realize they are not alone as a masked assailant begins stalking and killing them one by one.  Jess soon discovers that she is in a never-ending time loop and decides that she will do whatever she must to break the cycle and return to her son.  There’s some really clever stuff and striking images in this one.  To say much more would be to spoil the fun.

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2.  Primer

Filmed in Dallas, TX in 2004 on a budget of $7,000, writer/director/star Shane Carruth delivers perhaps the smartest time travel film one is ever likely to see.  The simple plot is that a pair of scientists stumble across the key to time travel.  As most people would, they decide to make money by using advance knowledge of the stock market.  Then they decide to play.  And that’s when things get ugly.  It can all get a bit confusing considering Carruth made the choice to use actual technical jargon as opposed to spelling out the science for the viewer.  Since its release the film’s cult status has grown.  There are web pages devoted to tracking the many alternate time lines that are created by the protagonists multiple trips back.  There’s a scene near the beginning of the third act that will blow your mind and make you doubt everything you’ve seen prior.  This is truly a film that rewards multiple viewings.

1.  Timecrimes

Written and directed by Spanish wunderkind Nacho Vigalondo, this is quite possibly the perfect little small-scale time travel movie.  Hector lives with his wife in the Spanish countryside in a house they are renovating.  One pleasant afternoon while she is off shopping, his spies with his binoculars a comely young lady undressing in the woods just beyond his property.  Being a dude, he goes to check it out only to be attacked by a pink bandaged man.  He flees the scene and breaks into a nearby building.  An intercom bursts to life instructing him to hide in a large mechanical device.  When he emerges from the machine, a scientist is waiting and informs him that he has gone back several hours in time.  Hector then sets out a mission with, against and back again in time to discover the truth behind the man who attacked him.  Ultimately, a great sacrifice must be made to protect the one he loves.

Writing about all these movies makes me want to watch them all over again.  If only I had the time.  Wait a minute.  Maybe, just maybe…

Sometimes you just don’t get around to catching a flick 

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Killing Them Softly (d. Andrew Dominik)

So why didn’t I see it in the theater?  There was a wide gulf between audience and critical responses.  CinemaScore, an audience polling group, assigned the film an ‘F’, a rarity with easy to please mass audiences, while Rotten Tomatoes, the critic aggregate site, gave it a ‘fresh’ rating of 76%.  The great disparity gave me cause for pause and the film was gone as quickly and as quietly as it arrived.

So why did I buy the DVD?  The disparity.  The truth is I don’t generally trust the movie going public.  These are the people who have made Adam Sandler and Kevin James billionaires.  The eventual explanation for the audience response was that they were not presented the movie they were expecting.  The previews led one to believe they were getting a typical Mafia movie but Dominik and star, Brad Pitt, delivered an offbeat, slower moving art house flick, more concerned with characters and motivations than with bloody shoot outs.  Hell, that’s not the movies fault that’s the ad agency who was trying to get butts in seats.  One should never judge the movie they think they’re going to see.  One should judge the movie they actually see.

So was it worth it?  Oh, hell yeah!  I was more than pleasantly surprised with the film.  There’s a brilliant scene towards the beginning that is so filled with anticipatory dread that I could barely contain myself.  It’s filled with great performances from familiar actors like Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta.  Oddly, it reminded me a bit of my favorite film of 2011, Drive, which also subverted audience expectations.  My only real complaint is that the second act felt a bit light.  At 99 minutes, the movie is very streamlined and its admittedly spare plot gets straight to the point. Allegedly, the director delivered a much longer first cut at 2 1/2 hours which he willingly edited.  I’d be very happy to see that first cut.

So what’s it about?  It’s the fall of 2008.  Barack Obama is about to be elected president.  The economy is in collapse and the job market sucks.  A shady businessman, Johnny Amato, enlists two petty criminals, Russell and Mickey, to knock off a Mob protected high stakes poker den (the aforementioned tense scene) run by Markie Trattman (Liotta), who’s got a bit of a reputation when it comes to busted up card games.  In response, all the other action around town is shut down.  Nobody’s making money and they’ve got mouths need feeding.  A cool as ice hitman, Jackie Cogan (Pitt), is called in to clean up the mess.  He quickly susses out the perpetrators but is having a difficult time getting the okay to take care of business from Driver (Jenkins), the mouthpiece of the men running the show.  After some negotiations, he’s allowed to bring in another shooter, Mickey (Gandolfini), to split the hit.  Mickey’s glad to take the assignment cause he needs the cash and is facing some legal issues back home.  These sordid characters bounce off each other leading to an ultimate and cynical realization that the good ole’ US of A isn’t just a country, it’s a business.  And people need to get paid.

So what’s the grade?  I gave this 4 of 5 stars on Letterboxd which would translate to 8 stars on a 10 point scale. So if 10 stars were an A+ and 9 were an A, I’d be more than comfortable giving this film an A-.  However you grade such things the movie’s just plain good.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

I can’t remember the first time I saw Roger Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel on television.  By the time I was exposed to their movie review show, they may have already segued from Sneak Previews to the now classic At The Movies.  I do remember that I immediately loved what I saw.  The dynamic between the two men, who worked at rival Chicago newspapers, was fascinating.  Their’s was a contentious relationship fueled by friendship, mutual respect and a love for cinema.  More often than not they were talking about movies I’d never heard of or had no chance or interest in seeing.

As I grew older I became more interested in movies that weren’t Star Wars or directed by Steven Spielberg.  I started sneaking into R-rated movies and paying closer attention to my local newspaper’s movie reviews.  Every Friday I would open the Life & Arts section of the Corpus Christi Caller Times and pore over the ads for the new releases at Cinema 4, Cine 6, The Mann’s and The Movies.  My eyes would skip over the blurbs from Gene Shalit and Joel Siegel.  I was looking for three simple words.  ‘Two Thumbs Up.’  Sometimes, there were ‘Two Very Enthusiastic Thumbs Up!’  These movies went to the top of my list.  I have to admit I felt pride when a movie I liked got the famous seal of approval.  And I felt a bit chastened when a movie I enjoyed received a review pointing in a downward direction.

After I graduated high school and moved on to college, I became a little less dependent on those famous opposable digits.  Of course, I still watched the show to see what was playing and what they were liking.  I was a fan but I understood that my enjoyment of a film was not predicated on the critics’ approval.  Later still, I had stopped watching altogether.  It came as quite a shock to me when it was reported that Siskel had died.  I hadn’t even known he was sick.  I was sad.  I recall thinking at the time that I would be just as sad, if not more so, when Ebert passed.  To his credit, Roger soldiered on through his best friend’s death.  He kept the show going with a rotating cast of guest reviewers before eventually teaming on a full-time basis with Richard Roeper.  Their collaboration lasted until Roger himself fell ill to cancer and inevitably the show died.

Ebert was a warrior though.  He suffered through thyroid cancer and his jaw was eventually removed.  He lost the use of his voice.  He emerged from his illness proudly and unafraid despite the drastic change to his appearance.  He kept reviewing movies.  He emerged as a presence online gathering a huge following on Twitter and on his blog.  He revived At the Movies serving as a featured critic. He was as respected and as esteemed as he had ever been.  And so it appeared he’d just keep going.  But a couple of days prior to his death, he announced that he would be stepping back from his reviewing duties.  What was thought to be a fractured hip was revealed to be a recurrence of the cancer.  He would fight it because that was his nature.  Besides, he still had plans which he detailed on his blog.  He was excited.

And then he was gone.  Gone but never forgotten.  His legacy will live on in the writing of every film critic, professional blogger, and would be hack like me.  It will live through his website where thousands of movie reviews are waiting to be discovered.  It will live in his series of books, The Great Movies.  It will live whenever two or more are gathered together and start talking about their favorite movies.  Yes, the man is gone but his passion for the medium will fuel generations to come.  For now though, I’m kind of heartbroken.

If I could say only one other thing to any one who reads this and to Roger himself, it would echo the last thing he said to his fans:

‘So on this day of reflection…thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.’