X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Mr. Peabody and Sherman


Every dog should have a boy.

Every dog should have a boy.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Alison Janney, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Lake Bell, Zach Callison, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Lauri Fraser, Steve Valentine, Guillaume Aretos, Karan Brar, Joshua Rush, Mel Brooks, Thomas Lennon, Tom McGrath, Leila Birch. Directed by Rob Minkoff

Those of a certain age group (i.e. my own) will remember with great fondness the Jay Ward cartoons on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, from Fractured Fairy Tales to my own personal favorite, Peabody’s Improbable History. They were subversive for their time, with humor that sailed above my innocent yet pointy little child head but still the cartoons managed to educate about history almost despite themselves. When you compare them to the drekk that passes for animation on the Cartoon Network, it’s clear that modern animators think that modern kids are dumber than a sackful of dead cats.

In this 3D updating of the Jay Ward cartoon, Mr. Peabody (Burrell) – a brilliant beagle who also is able to talk – is the adoptive father of Sherman (Charles), a none-too-bright but full of heart kid who has trouble making friends at school. Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine called the WABAC to help teach Sherman about history.

When the gentle Sherman gets into a fight with the overbearing Penny (Winter) at school, Mr. Peabody realizes that something is wrong. Peabody is summoned to the principal’s office where he is confronted by Ms. Grunion (Janney), a social worker who thinks that dogs are not fit parents and threatens to take Sherman away if an upcoming visit to Peabody’s apartment turns up any irregularities. Peabody also takes the opportunity to invite Penny’s family – parents Paul (Colbert) and Patty (Mann) – to dinner.

At first things go swimmingly well as Peabody charms both the parents. However, Penny is a tougher nut to crack and when Sherman accidentally lets slip that there is a time machine in the house, he is forced to prove it to her when she calls him a liar. Of course,  the spoiled little princess finds herself in ancient Egypt as the bride of Tutankhamen (Callison) and looking forward to a life of indolent pleasure, not wanting to return back with Sherman.

In desperation, he gets his father to intervene. Mr. Peabody must drag the unwilling brat back to the present so that he can keep the nosy Ms. Grunion from finding an excuse to take Sherman away and while he’s at it repair a disturbance in the space-time continuum. It’s a dog’s life indeed.

Burrell, the star of Modern Family is the perfect choice to replace the late Bill Scott as the voice of Peabody. He captures the dog’s supercilious demeanor and urbane charm but adds a little bit of beagle warmth to the mix. He gets the inflections and tone Scott used down perfectly. It can safely be said that Burrell carries the film and should a sequel be made (and it looks like that’s a distinct possibility judging on the box office) could be a lucrative sidelight for the actor.

While there are a few brief celebrity cameos (Brooks as a kvetching Einstein is the best), the movie doesn’t stoop to being a cameo-fest as some other DreamWorks films have tended to do. There are also fewer pop culture references than a lot of the movies from the DreamWorks studio, although there are enough of them to be pleasing when they arrive but not so many as to be overbearing.

The animation is cool looking enough, particularly the WABAC which going from the clunky 60s version is a kind of red orb looking not unlike Spock’s spaceship on the reboot of Star Trek. There are plenty of nods to the original series (such as the street sweeper who ended every five minute MP&S cartoon in the 60s making an appearance in the end credits) but has enough cool credibility to keep most young ‘uns (particularly the boy types) delighted, which has to make every mom smile. And most moms and dads, who grew up on this stuff, will have enough here to feel a pleasant wave of nostalgia break over them like a tropical beach. All in all as far as this film is concerned I’d say “Mission Accomplished” – and not in a George W. Bush manner either.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming. Some nice animated effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the sophistication of the original cartoon. Dumbed down a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild peril and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A sketch of Bullwinkle hangs in Peabody’s apartment over his yoga mat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters vs. Aliens

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: 300: Rise of an Empire

About Time


Father and son.

Father and son.

(2013) Fantasy (Universal) Domnhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery, Joshua McGuire, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Will Merrick, Vanessa Kirby, Tom Hughes, Clemmie Dugdale, Harry Hadden-Paton, Mitchell Mullen, Lisa Eichhorn, Jenny Rainsford, Natasha Powell, Catherine Steadman. Directed by Richard Curtis

We often wish the opportunity was there to go back in time. What would you do if you could? Fix the mistakes you’ve made? Spend it with a loved one who’s passed on?

Tim (Gleeson), a diffident just-turned-21-year-old who lives in one of those eccentric British families that is more endearing than creepy, is given just that dilemma. He’s pulled aside from his kindly eccentric dad (Nighy) and told that the men in the family can inexplicably travel back into the past. Not just any past – just their own. All they have to do is go into a dark place, shut their eyes and clench their fist and think about the moment they want to go to and bingo bango bongo! There they appear, wearing the same clothes they wore at the time.

Tim, an aspiring lawyer who is just about to move to London to take up a practice, is surrounded by that lovably eccentric family I just mentioned. Kit Kat (Wilson) is his free-spirited younger sister who loves to hug but hates to wear shoes and has terrible taste in men as it turns out, leading her down a scary road. Uncle Desmond (Cordery – referred to as Uncle D) is scatter-brained and possibly senile but is a natty dresser. Only Tim’s mum (Duncan) seems to have any grounded sense whatsoever, putting up with her husband’s eccentricities and puttering about in the garden in their lovely but somewhat seedy Cornwall manse.

With this gift in his grasp, he decides that rather than pursue fortune or fame (or just catch up on his reading as his father does) he chooses instead to get himself a girlfriend. At first he goes after Kit Kat’s friend Charlotte (Robbie) but that doesn’t go quite so well, so he moves into the flat of perhaps the meanest most curmudgeonly playwright in Britain (Hollander) and strikes up a friendship with office doormat Rory (McGuire). He also maintains his longtime friendship with socially awkward Jay (Merrick).

Going out to dinner with Jay at one of those restaurants that serves their meals in complete darkness, they end up sitting at a table and having an unintended double blind (literally) date with the tartish Joanna (Kirby) and the mousy American Mary (McAdams). Tim falls for her hard at first sight outside the restaurant. From then on, his focus is on winning her over, correcting the mistakes he makes by ducking into nearby closets and toilet stalls.

As his extraordinary but ordinary life progresses and Tim continues to use his gift he discovers that not everything can be fixed and those things that can be often come at a great price. He also learns what is important in life and what moments shouldn’t just be relived – but lived in the first place.

Curtis previously directed one of my all-time favorite movies (not to mention one of the best romantic comedies ever) in Love, Actually and also has written such fine films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones’ Diary. His penchant is for writing about somewhat awkward, stammering nebbishes with nonetheless sweet hearts who look for and find love, sometimes with unexpected partners. Hugh Grant has been his main stand-in but Gleeson (son of brilliant character actor Brendan) isn’t half-bad. The ginger-haired ex-Weasley from the Harry Potter series has a lot of the same characteristics that Grant has – the wry wit, the stammering delivery, the self-effacing charm.  He is less handsome in the traditional sense (although he’s plenty good-looking) and is more of a believable un-self-confident sort than Grant ever was.

Bill Nighy, a regular in Curtis’ films (who could forget his Billy Mack in Love, Actually?) can steal a movie just by being Bill Nighy. His droll delivery and eccentric demeanor are completely endearing. His chemistry with Gleeson is considerable and there seems to be a genuine warmth between the two men. One looks forward to Nighy’s films and his final scenes are powerful indeed.

This isn’t just a movie about finding love, or of time travel. It’s much deeper than that. This is a movie about appreciating the moment, of cherishing the things that are small and everyday occurrences.  Curtis reminds us to live each day to the fullest possible, to savor the little joys – the gratitude of a harried counter girl, the smiles on the faces of your children when you come home from work (although if this were an American film the little brats would be glued to a videogame) or the glow of lamplight as you walk into your home from the darkness after a long day.

While like a lot of Curtis films the cute factor sometimes brushes up against overload, the meaning behind the movie is clear and will give you lots of food for thought well after the end credits roll. While the cynical and jaded sorts (many of whom are New York film critics) may not find this to be their cup of tea, you’ll want to pour honey and lemon in and sit back and sip contentedly. Like a good cup of hot tea, this movie will leave you with a warm, loved feeling and perhaps also with an irresistible urge to hug someone you love.

REASONS TO GO: Surprising depth and warmth. Nighy steals the show but Gleeson proves to be an able comic actor.

REASONS TO STAY: Too cute for its own good in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair bit of cursing and some sexual scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This the third movie in which Rachel McAdams plays the love interest of a time traveler (Midnight in Paris and The Time Traveler’s Wife are the other two).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Traveler’s Wife

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Zaytoun

Timeline


The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

The aforementioned nifty battle scene.

(2003) Science Fiction (Paramount) Paul Walker, Billy Connolly, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Matt Craven, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilson, Marton Csokas, Rossif Sutherland, Steve Kahan, David La Haye, Richard Zeman, Patrick Sabongui, Mike Chute, Lois Dellar. Directed by Richard Donner

The late Michael Crichton’s novel have always translated  well to the silver screen; Timeline  is one of his best novels and with director Richard Donner at the helm, it should be a recipe for success, no?

No. Young Chris Johnston (Walker), the son of a renowned archaeologist (Connolly) is visiting his dad on the site of a medieval French castle. Chris is not much for history; he’s watched it consume his father. Chris is more interested in Kate (O’Connor), one of his dad’s students. Although Chris finds a sympathetic ear in Andre Marek (Butler), one of his father’s colleagues, there is a gulf between father and son that neither man quite knows how to bridge.

That all has to wait however as Professor Johnston has been summoned back to ITC, the high-tech corporation that funded the digs that has helped in leading the researchers to different finds with almost uncanny precision. Professor Johnston intends to find out why.

Kate is seeking a rumored tunnel that led from the castle to the monastery below. Marek relates the story of the castle’s fall: How when the English lord who held the French castle hung the Lady Claire from the battlements; rather than demoralizing the French, this spurred the Gallic troops to greater fury and they overwhelmed the castle.

Meanwhile back at the monastery, a hidden room has been discovered. And in that hidden room, which has not been seen by human eyes since the 14th Century, an even more amazing find: an eyeglass spectacle, and a note, in the Professor’s handwriting, with a date and the words “Help me.”

This causes all sorts of consternation among the dig team. And when they are unable to contact the professor, they become considerably upset. Finally, they force a face-to-face meeting with Robert Doniger (Thewlis), the CEO of ITC, and his top scientist, Dr. Kramer (Craven).

It turns out that ITC’s big project is a teleportation device, something that will send physical objects from one location to another, which Kramer likens to “faxing.” Except that it doesn’t work exactly the way they intended. They inadvertently opened a wormhole to the past. However, they are only able to go to a specific time and place; you guessed it, 14th-century France — and the very castle which is doomed to be overrun by the French. It turns out that Professor Johnston was sent there and then, but is unable to return. A rescue team is needed, and who better than the experts on the area where the Professor is trapped?

Most of the group agrees to go, and Doniger insists on sending three security men with them, including head of security Gordon (McDonough). The team is warned not to bring any modern items with them, especially weapons; but they must keep electronic markers with them at all times, so they will be able to return to the 21st century.

Things go wrong immediately, when the team is attacked by English knights who mistake them for French spies. One of the security team panics and returns back to the future, with a loaded grenade he incomprehensibly smuggled. The grenade predictably goes off, destroying the time machine and stranding the rest of the team in the past. While ITC’s technicians frantically work to repair the time machine, Marek, Kate, Francois (Sutherland), Chris and Gordon work on finding the professor while staying alive.

They are aided by a plucky French girl (Friel), but eventually are captured by an evil English lord (Sheen) who immediately kills Francois, the only one of them who speaks French (fortunately, nearly everyone in the movie speaks English — modern English at that).

Soon after, they anti-climactically find the Professor, but are unable to return to the future (where is Christopher Lloyd when you really need him?) and spend most of the rest of the movie believing that one or another of them is dead, evading dastardly English knights and discovering Doniger’s real treachery. All this on the eve of the big blow-out battle. And, if you haven’t already seen it coming a mile away, the plucky French girl turns out to be the ill-fated Lady Claire — and Marek has fallen head over heels in love with her.

The novel Timeline is a taut, thrilling and well-researched book. Crichton paid special attention to the details of the time. How the characters in the book were able to handle things such as communicating with people who don’t speak any language we currently understand, for example, is part of the book’s charm. That’s all jettisoned in favor of dumbing down the plot to its lowest common denominator.

Therein lies the major flaw of Timeline. Crichton never talked down to his readers, but screenwriter Jeff Maguire finds it easier to just gloss over whatever obstacles you would think time travelers would face in favor of setting up nifty battle sequences. And nifty they are; flaming arrows rise into the night sky, balls of fire are launched by ballistae, exploding against the castle walls. The battle sequences are visually inspiring, and it’s amazing they were accomplished without CGI, which is rare even in 2003.

Butler and O’Connor are quite good in their roles, as is Wilson as a French knight. But there are plenty of big, big holes. For example, the time travelers in this film kill people with abandon, without thought as to how what they are doing might affect the future to which they hope to return. These are themes being explored in movies like A Sound of Thunder and The Butterfly Effect far more effectively and logically and when someone says that A Sound of Thunder is far more logical than your movie, you should cringe.

While there are some cool moments (such as when Marek realizes that the grave he discovered in the 21st century is his own), the time travel here is mainly the means to set up the big action sequences. And if that’s all that you’re going to use time-travel for, why not just set the movie in 14th century France?

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty battle scenes. Butler, O’Connor, Connolly and Wilson all perform admirably.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The screenwriters are talking down to you. Lapses in logic and consequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Brief foul language and some fairly intense battle sequences that while not terribly gory still might give the more sensitive a bit of trouble.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the French knights carried shields emblazoned with the flag of Quebec; some of the film was shot in the Canadian province.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on an $80M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Captain Phillips

Back to the Future Part III


Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

(1990) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson, Richard Dysart, Matt Clark, James Tolkan, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, J.J. Cohen, ZZ Top, Donovan Scott. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

If you’re going to end a trilogy, there should be a definite ending, one which brings the franchise to a close in case no further films are made, but leaves the possibility for further films if they are warranted. That, in Hollywood terms, is the definition of success of a final entry in a film franchise.

Following the events of Back to the Future Part II (NOTE: If you haven’t seen the first two films there are spoilers in the synopsis of the third. Skip ahead or don’t read if you’d rather not know what happened) Marty McFly (Fox) is stranded back in 1955 and the Doc Brown (Lloyd) of his time has been stranded back in 1885. Marty has to enlist the aid of the 1955 Doc Brown to get Marty home – except they discover that Doc will be murdered in 1885 not long after he arrives.

Marty instead returns back to 1885 a few days before the date on Doc’s tombstone but in the process the gas tank of the Delorean is punctured and all of the gas leaks out, leaving the car essentially an inert hunk of metal. However Doc and Marty figure out a way to get the car moving to 88 MPH and return to the future using a souped-up steam train.

But as always there are complications. Doc and Marty have angered an outlaw named Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Wilson) and Doc has fallen in love with pretty schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Steenburgen). Doc is torn between his love for Clara and the need to get Marty home; will Marty be able to make it back to the future?

My main complaint about the second film was that it didn’t possess the heart of the original. This one more than makes up for it, particularly in the relationship between Doc and Clara. Marty in some ways takes a back seat to Doc in this movie, which is a bit of a refreshing change.

The movie was the least successful at the box office of the three having as much to do with its Western setting as anything else. Westerns were very much out of favor at the time this was made (and continue to be fairly low on the cinematic totem pole, no pun intended, even today) and might have kept away a segment of the audience who preferred the more sci-fi elements of the first two films.

The train scene that is the film’s climax is one of the most impressive of the trilogy and will keep even the most jaded movie buff on the edge of their seats. The camaraderie between Doc and Marty is as always the heart of the film and never is it more in evidence here. In many ways we watch Marty grow from a teenager into a man during the course of the film and for no small reason because Fox went through so much during the back-to-back filming of the last two films in the trilogy; his father passed away while this film was being shot (and filming was suspended for two weeks so he could grieve) and his first child was born as well. Those are the kind of life events that can make even the most immature of men grow up quickly (and no, I’m not trying to imply that Fox was immature back then – hater!) and Fox certainly did that.

This is a fitting end of the trilogy, with a believable romance, great action sequences and is just plain fun to watch. I would put up the Back to the Future trilogy with any film series in Hollywood in terms of sheer entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen all three of the films a dozen times apiece, they still never fail to bring a warm feeling into my heart every time I see them. What more can you ask from a movie?

WHY RENT THIS: Big on thrills. Steenburgen makes an excellent addition to the cast. Reclaims the heart of the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates a bit from formula.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only actors who appear in all three films are Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Wilson, Tolkan and Cohen (McClure appeared in a single scene in Part II but the scene was cut).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of ZZ Top’s “Doubleback.”. A Back to the Future FAQ text feature illustrates the obstacles of time travel and is an entertaining read if you’re so inclined. There are also animated factoid pop-ups which can be set to appear periodically throughout the film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $244.5M on a $40M production budget; while it still is considered a blockbuster it was strangely the least financially successful of the three films.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Turbo

Back to the Future Part II


Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can't believe what's in the script.

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd can’t believe what’s in the script.

(1989) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Weissman, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, J.J. Cohen, Charles Fleischer, Ricky Dean Logan, Darlene Vogel, Jason Scott Lee, Elijah Wood, John Thornton, Flea, Buck Flower, Joe Flaherty, Tracy D’Aldia. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Back to the Future was one of the biggest successes of the 1980s for Hollywood, and has stood to this day as a cultural linchpin. Could Robert Zemeckis capture lightning in a bottle yet again?

Marty McFly (Fox) has just returned home from his trip to 1955 when Doc Brown (Lloyd) returns, having gone to see what 2015 was like. It turns out that the future’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Something has to be done about his kids.

It turns out Marty Jr. (Fox again), a nebbish nothing like his dad, is about to take part in a robbery gone bad which will get him sent to jail. His sister Marlene (also Fox) will attempt to break him out of jail and get caught and jailed herself. The plan is for the 1985 Marty to meet up with Griff Tannen (Wilson) and tell him that he won’t take part in the robbery. Griff, who’s got bionic implants that are a bit fried, blows a fuse and with his gang of thugs chases Marty on hoverboards until Griff loses control and crashes into City Hall, going to jail himself and returning the future into something more palatable.

Doc catches Marty purchasing a sports almanac that would give Marty all the results of every sporting event for decades. Marty is thinking he can make some cash off of the deal but Doc refuses to allow it and throws the almanac out. They then go to find Jennifer, who after being knocked out by Doc (who doesn’t want her to see too much of her future) had been picked up by the cops and taken to her future home, not knowing that Griff’s grandpa Biff (also Wilson) overheard them and quickly figured out a plan.

That plan was to steal the Delorean, return to 1955 and give himself the book. He manages to do so and narrowly returns back to 2015 before anyone’s the wiser. When Marty and Doc return back to 1985, they find it a very different place than where they left it – a place in which Biff has amassed an incredible fortune, turning Hill Valley into a rat hole and marrying Marty’s mom Lorraine (Thompson) after her husband and Marty’s father George (Weissman) was murdered.

Doc realizes what has happened and the two must return to 1955 and prevent Biff from getting the almanac so that the timeline can be returned to normal. However, they’ll need to avoid the original Marty so that he can take care of business or risk further contaminating the timeline.

Sequels rarely live up to the originals and this one doesn’t at the end of the day when it comes to heart but it does make up for it in innovation and imagination. The 2015 sequences are visually striking while the alternate 1985 sequences are wrenching. The real payoff here however is the 1955 sequences which preserve the integrity of the original movie while telling its own story – which isn’t easy when time travel and the consequences thereof play such an important role.

Fox by this time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, in no small part thanks to the first movie. Despite a nearly five year gap between films he steps back into the Marty McFly role without missing a beat (although he had to learn how to skateboard all over again). One of Fox’s strengths as an actor is his ability to interact seamlessly with other cast members and create chemistry with everyone, no matter how small the role. He is always in the moment which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Zemeckis who had filmed Who Framed Roger Rabbit in between the Back to the Future films (the third one was filmed back to back with this one) made it easy for Fox to step back in so perfectly – you know this because every other actor did the same thing which we don’t always see in sequels. Watching the three movies in order you never get a sense that there was any kind of gap between them, the characters are so perfectly matched between films. That’s a tribute to both director and cast.

However for all the technical excellence and the fine performances all around, the movie lacks some of the elements that made the first movie great – the portrayal of parents as people who have been through many of the same issues as their kids, the 50s nostalgia, the feeling of coming home at the end. The latter element can’t really be helped – the movie is meant to lead directly in to the third film in the franchise and so the film ends on a cliffhanger note which is understandable but one leaves the theater feeling like they haven’t seen a complete movie. Of course, these days you just pop in your disc for the third film into the Blu-Ray player and continue on but even so the movie feels more like a transition and less than a stand-alone story which of course it isn’t.

The middle film of the Back to the Future trilogy isn’t as good as the film that preceded it nor as good as the film that succeeded it but even so it is solid entertainment and an innovative piece of cinema that stands the test of time.

WHY RENT THIS: Fox delivers a star turn. Innovative and imaginative. 1955 sequence is right on the money.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: 2015 sequence doesn’t work as well. Lacks some of the elements that made the first film great.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While most of the cast of the first movie returns for the sequel, two notable cast members did not; Claudia Wells, who played Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (played by Elisabeth Shue here) was caring for her mother who had cancer and had given up acting for the time being, and Crispin Glover who played Marty’s father George made exorbitant salary and script control demands and was essentially written out of the script; his future self was played by Jeffrey Weissman and was mostly see from the back, at odd angles, upside down or with dark sunglasses.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” from the first film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $332.0M on a $40M production budget; once again this was a big blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Butterfly Effect

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT; The East

Back to the Future


Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

(1985) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George diCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Harry Waters Jr., Donald Fulilove, Lisa Freeman, Courtney Gains, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people my age and slightly younger have a real soft spot for Back to the Future. One of the biggest box office successes of 1985, the movie has become a treasured icon of its age, a movie very much associated with the decade despite its time-travelling motif. Younger generations are well-versed with the film mostly from frequent cable and broadcast TV appearances as well as from their parents VHS and DVD collections. Either way, there are few movies of the last 30 years that have resonated the way this one did.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a frustrated high school senior. He lives in a kind of middle class hell, his mom Lorraine (Thompson) a somewhat prudish, somewhat bitter woman who knows the best days of her life are behind her. His father George (Glover) is a picked-on milquetoast who allows his boss, Biff Tannen (Wilson) to abuse him mercilessly, taking credit for work that George does. Marty yearns for something better, whether it be through rock and roll or through his girlfriend Jennifer (Wells). Even the town he lives in, Hill Valley, is in a state of decrepitude; its clock tower that was once the crown jewel of the town square hasn’t worked for decades since a chance lightning strike left it inoperable.

He is also friends with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd), considered to be a crackpot by most (and it’s kind of understandable) but he’s been doing some research into time travel and thinks he’s found a way to make it work. Through a series of accidents, Marty gets into the time machine (which is in, appropriately enough, a Delorean) and is sent back to the year 1955. Through a further series of mishaps, Marty manages to prevent his parents from meeting and instead takes his father’s place convalescing in the home of his mom, who instead of falling in love with his dad falls in love with Marty himself.

Without plutonium for the reaction, Marty is stuck in 1955 but he may not be for long – if he can’t get his parents to meet and kiss on the dance floor of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, he’ll never have been born. And even if he does get them together, how is he going to get back home to 1985?

Zemeckis and Gale were at the top of their game here and for Fox it is the role that he is most associated with, maybe even more so than Alex Keaton from Family Ties. The movie was kind of a perfect storm of elements coming together in just the right way. It was a movie that fit the time, but it was also much more than just a sci-fi adventure flick with lots of thrills and great characters, although it is that as well. The movie was supposedly inspired by writer/producer Bob Gale finding one of his father’s high school yearbooks and wondering if he had known his dad back then would they have hung out together, an intriguing concept.

We rarely think of our parents as people, but they were all young once; they all had the bloom of youth in their cheeks, all had hopes and dreams, all loved and lost, all got into trouble with their own parents and all did exactly the same kinds of things you did yourself. We can’t really put them in that perspective however; we need our parents to be parents. It’s hard to see them as young kids who didn’t have all the answers and weren’t always right. We can’t see them as ourselves.

This movie kind of forces you to look at them that way and realize what a crap shoot it is that you even exist; one missed connection and you’d never have been born. But at the same time, it’s a fun ride (so fun that it became a ride at Universal Studios theme parks although they have since replaced it with Simpsons -themed rides) that never lets up and is huge fun from minute one to closing credits. Movies like that are few and far between. From the Huey Lewis and the News songs to the eccentricities of Doc Brown to the awkward humor of having Marty being hit on by his mom (which offended some critics at the time), the movie remains an icon of the 80s and if it is a bit anachronistic with its Delorean time machine, Walkman cassette player and Libyan terrorists, it is no more so than most movies which are all without exception a product of their times. This is a classic that should be an essential part of any collection.

WHY RENT THIS: An absolute classic, one of the best movies to come out of the 80s. One of the most beloved films of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find this a little dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality and mild violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox was still starring in Family Ties when he signed to do this film. Because of his television commitment, he filmed most of his scenes from 6pm until 3am, getting about five hours of sleep a night. Scenes set in daylight were filmed on weekends. He managed to film the entire movie without missing a single shot of his television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also an extended conversation with Fox. The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition also includes a TV special, Back to the Future Night made to promote the sequel hosted by the late Leslie Nielsen, the footage from both the lobby and the ride of Back to the Future: The Ride which once was a big attraction at Universal Studios but no longer exists. There is also an independent retrospective, Looking Back to the Future which was originally feature-length and has been considerably cut here. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $381.1M on a $19M production budget; this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast From the Past

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: In My Sleep

Looper


Looper

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt engage in a staring contest to determine who picks up the check.

(2012) Science Fiction (Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms, Frank Brennan, Garret Dillahunt, Nick Gomez, Marcus Hester. Directed by Rian Johnson

 

They say time travel is impossible, that because of the nature of paradoxes travelling into the past would so change the future that you might cease to exist (at least in the way you did before you left the future) and because there are so many variables travelling into the future is likewise impossible. But if there were a way around it, human nature is such that we’d find a way to make it sordid and awful.

And that’s just what we do. In 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet but in 2074 it has – and has been outlawed. When something is outlawed, only outlaws then do it and that’s exactly the way it works. Because it is nearly impossible to get rid of bodies due to advances in tracking technology, crime syndicates who want to make someone disappear send them back to 2044 where there is an assassin waiting. These men are called Loopers; they put a shotgun blast into the chest of their assignments, then collect their payment in silver which has been draped over the back of the body. The corpse is incinerated and the Loopers have themselves a nice little party.

Considering that by 2044 the U.S. economy has pretty much tanked being a Looper is a pretty lucrative profession. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one and he’s a lot smarter than most. He hoards most of his silver, hiding it in a hidden compartment in his apartment. He spends time with Suzie (Perabo), a stripper who has a kid and a fairly practical attitude, while Joe wishes for something else.

What he gets is his best friend and fellow Looper Seth (Dano), terrified because he had botched his last hit. His target had turned out to be his future self from 30 years hence. All Loopers know that inevitably their last target will be themselves. It’s called “closing the loop” and is part of their contract. However, a lot of loops have been getting closed of late. It seems there’s a new boss in town in the future; he’s known only as the Rainmaker and his identity is a closely guarded secret. This much future Seth (Brennan) communicates to his younger self.

Joe reluctantly agrees to hide Seth and the big boss, Abe (Daniels) summons him to his office – at the point of a Gat (a powerful handgun that is useless in close range but a fearsome weapon farther away), wielded by Kid Blue (Segan), a young and unstable wanna-be gangsta. Abe himself is from the future and has used the Gats, as his Gat-wielding thugs are called, to take over the crime in the city. Abe convinces Joe to give up Seth, which he reluctantly does leaving both Seths to a gruesome fate.

This is all well and good until Joe gets a client to kill who turns out to be his own future self (Willis). Old Joe is wily and manages to use young Joe’s payment to protect himself from the shotgun blast and overpowers his younger self to get away.

Old Joe isn’t just motivated by self-preservation; the woman he married (Qing) in the future was accidentally murdered by the Rainmaker’s flunkies when they came to collect Old Joe. The wily old ex-Looper has discovered some information about when the Rainmaker was born and has figured out that he was born not far from the city in Kansas where Young Joe was based; and he has an idea of how to find him but he must go pretty far off the reservation beyond where his moral compass will send him.

In the meantime Young Joe is being stalked by Abe’s crew who are none too pleased that he failed to carry out his contract. Young Joe, having been injured in a gunfight takes refuge at the farm of Sara (Blunt), a comely young woman who is raising up the precocious young lad Cid (Gagnon) by herself. Still, the forces that are after Young Joe are implacable and there really isn’t a safe haven. He knows that he must find Old Joe before Old Joe finds him – and in the process stay out of the way of trigger-happy Kid Blue and all of Abe’s gang.

This is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen in quite awhile. Johnson wrote the film with Gordon-Levitt in mind and that’s a smart move in and of itself. Gordon-Levitt is the real deal; he’s a star in the making and he holds his own with Willis, who looks nothing like him in reality; Gordon-Levitt studied films of the young Bruce Willis and adopted his mannerisms and vocal patterns, not to mention wearing make-up prosthetics to make him appear a lot more like his co-star (there is one montage where we see the progression of Joe’s aging in which Gordon-Levitt and Willis have the same haircut and the resemblance is a little spooky).

Willis has always been a solid movie star, He’s always good in terms of being kind of a rumpled action hero. He doesn’t always play smart but he does play clever and that’s what he does here. Joe is more cunning than brilliant, more pragmatic than ruthless. He’s a character who is basically within the understanding of most of us – bad enough to do what he wants, good enough not to be a total jerk.

Blunt affects a fine Midwestern accent and is less the English rose that she usually is. Sara’s seen some hard times and has become hardened herself, but again, not so much that she’s a block of ice. She has some compassion and Joe helps her discover that – and, of course being a mom has a lot to do with it too.

The visuals are a mix of dilapidated 2012 and futuristic 2044 (some of the film was shot in Shanghai which looks like it’s been 2044 there for ten years) which makes it again relatable to the viewing audience. Yeah, there are cell phones in the movie that make it look like the iPhone 27.0 is worth camping out for but most of the vehicles and weapons are strictly early 21st century. There is an economic meltdown collapse going on, after all. Still, they do have hover-cycles so it’s not all bad. There is some gee-whiz stuff here.

Time travel flicks are generally among the hardest to make work simply because by their own nature they have complicated strictures. Rian Johnson, whose first film was the much-praised Brick has written a movie that succeeds both as a taut thriller and a sci-fi action film and does both while retaining a level of intelligence that is rare in American films.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligently written. Taut, well-made thriller and visually stunning.

REASONS TO STAY: Cid is a little too creepy in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a bit of sexuality and some drug use. Of course, there is a fair amount of foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A set for the diner, built outside of Thibodaux, Louisiana was so realistic that locals were enquiring when the diner would be opening. The set withstood Hurricane Isaac which went through the area after production wrapped and is reportedly still there.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. I think it’s safe to say the movie has been a ratings hit with the critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecop

SHANGHAI LOVERS: Some of the movie’s financing came from China so scenes that were initially written for Paris were moved to Shanghai not just because of cost-effectiveness but because Shanghai’s Pudong district already looks futuristic and relatively little CGI was required to add additional buildings and vehicles to make it look like 2074.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Butter

Safety Not Guaranteed


 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza applies the old “come-on with Campbell’s” method of seduction to Mark Duplass.

(2012) Comedy (FilmDistrict) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Jenica Bergere, Karan Soni, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, William Hall Jr., Tony Doupe, Xola Malik, Grace Arends, Alice Hung. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

So read an actual 2004 classified ad in an alternative weekly in the Northwest (it actually showed up on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’s” headlines segment. Someone thought it would make a good springboard for a small budget film. Someone was right.

At a story meeting for Seattle Magazine, the tyrannical editor Bridget (Rajskub) is looking for a story to go into the next issue. Most of her minions are silent but finally Jeff (Johnson) comes up with investigating the classified ad mentioned above. Bridget greenlights the story, allowing Jeff to take two interns – Darius (Plaza), a cute but anti-social sort, and Arnau (Soni), a nerdish Indian-American virgin. Jeff himself is quite the horndog, boasting that he’d already scored with the editor.

But he has an ulterior motive in heading to the small town outside of Seattle. He wants to hook up with Liz (Bergere), a lost high school lover he recently re-connected with on Facebook. He has the interns stake out the post office box and find out who the guy is who placed the ad. It turns out to be Kenneth (Duplass), a brilliant but socially awkward clerk at the grocery store. He lives out in the boonies in a house that he inherited from his deceased parents. Locally, he’s considered flaky but harmless.  When Jeff tries to contact him, Kenneth sends him packing, being a suspicious and paranoid sort. When Darius gives it a shot, her somewhat sharp and caustic attitude seems to attract Kenneth and he agrees to train her.

He is also paranoid and thinks that government agents are following him. Imagine Darius’ surprise when it turns out that government agents are following him. Some of the supplies that he’s purchased to build his time machine (which he swears is the real deal) have raised red flags somewhere and there are thoughts he could be building a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, the reporters think he’s a nutcase but Darius finds herself strangely attracted to him. And why not? He plays heartbreaking songs on the zither, has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about earth, the universe and time and isn’t hard on the eyes either. She finds herself opening up to him and letting him inside her very staunch defenses. But he can’t be serious about building a working time machine…can he?

One of the things that struck me about this movie from the get-go is the amount of heart it has. Some movies fake it really well, while others try to manufacture it or force it. This one has it. Yes, there are occasional elements of indie quirkiness but Trevorrow doesn’t stoop to clichés. There isn’t any of that hipster smarm that often makes me want to head over to the Village and open up with an Uzi on the trendy spots. No, there isn’t any indie band name-checking, no artists living in lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, no pop culture-peppered dialogue that will sound lame and dated in six months.

And certainly no romance between odd gamins who are way too smart and way too un-ambitious. The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is organic and realistic. These aren’t just a couple of characters who fall in love because the script calls for them to; this is a relationship that grows in an unexpected way as most love does in the real world. There is a scene during the training sequence when Kenneth is running and Darius is right behind him. The smile and measuring look she gives him tells without a single word of dialogue that she not only finds him interesting but that he is treating her like she’s never been treated before. You know that the love is there maybe before the characters do which is again, not unlike real life.

Plaza, who has a similar role in TV’s “Parks and Recreation” (and for whom the part was initially written) makes a splash in her feature film debut. She has the presence and charisma to be appealing on the big screen. I hadn’t really gotten that vibe from her television work but for my money she has a very bright future. She reminds me of Sarah Silverman in some ways, only less annoying and more charming.

Duplass, who is one of the Duplass Brothers responsible for directing some memorable indie hits like Jeff, Who Lives at Home proves himself an adept actor and quite frankly he’s much in demand – he’ll be appearing in no less than seven films that are slated for a 2012 release in some way, shape or form. This might be the best of the lot. He’s laconic, a little daft, a little edgy and a little romantic. This is a difficult role at best, to make someone so basically unlikable relatable. He’s guarded and standoffish and very much broken, but Duplass gives him warmth and grace. You end up liking Kenneth and root for him and Darius to make it.

Also of note if Johnson as Jeff. Jeff is basically a self-centered douche looking for a hook-up with a high school hottie who, like him, is wearing the years for all to see. As the film progresses we begin to see the layers stripped away as the horndog shows that he isn’t just all about Jeff. By the end of the movie he’s actually quite likable and the lazy, shoddy journalist we thought he was is put to lie as well.

The pacing is slow and laid back, so teens and other attention-challenged persons may find this boring. That’s a bit of a shame because this is as satisfying an experience as I’ve had at the movies this year. Sadly, the movie didn’t get a wide release – it’s not an easy sell and people might get distracted by the time travel aspect (which is a bit of a MacGuffin but kind of isn’t either – you’ll just have to see the film to find out what I mean). Still this is a movie I’ll certainly be remembering for my year-end best-of list. I hope you seek this out in its limited release – it’s a gem worth finding.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with as much heart as you’re likely to find. Cute and clever without being condescending.

REASONS TO STAY: Very quirky. A little too understated for the ADHD crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Darius and Arnau are staking out the PO Boxes, the first man to walk into the post office is the one who wrote the original ad that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primer

POST OFFICE LOVERS: Darius and Arnau stake out an old fashioned small town post office, one of the sort that is becoming increasingly rare in this day and age.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

Somewhere in Time


Somewhere in Time

A better looking pair of people we may never ever see again.

(1980) Romantic Fantasy (Universal) Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Teresa Wright, Bill Erwin, George Voskovec, Susan French, John Alvin, Eddra Gale, Audrey Bennett, W.H. Macy. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Sometimes being with the one you love isn’t an easy task at all. Distance and circumstance can get in the way, as can the disapproval of others. But what if the one you want to be with lived 60 years earlier?

Richard Collier (Reeve) is a budding playwright who is having a play produced at a community college. The future looks bright for this young man – Broadway producers are sniffing around for his work and he’s got his whole life ahead of him. However, at the cast party, something odd happens; an elderly woman (French) walks in, presses an antique pocket watch into his hand and says “Return to me,” then walks out without another word, a strange little half-smile on her face.

Flash forward eight years. Collier’s now a successful playwright living in Chicago but his life is lacking something. He has no girlfriend, no love life and he is having a hard time writing his next play. He decides to take a breather and goes out on a weekend trip – he has no idea where he’s going, he just gets in his car and drives. He eventually winds up on Mackinac Island – a beautiful island in Michigan (note to purists: while cars aren’t allowed on the island, the production team got special permission to use them just this once). He espies the gorgeous, Victorian-era Grand Hotel and something about it calls to him. He pulls into the hotel and checks in.

He is escorted to his room by Arthur (Erwin), a bellman who has been at the hotel since he was five, back in the 1910s. The view is magnificent from his room and the ambience is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Collier goes down to the hotel dining room only to discover they won’t be open for another 45 minutes. He decides to wander around the lobby and discovers the Hall of History, dedicated to preserving artifacts from the hotels storied past. That kind of thing is of interest to Collier so he browses, but he feels something behind him, beckoning. It turns out to be a photograph of a beautiful woman, the nameplate for which has fallen off.

It turns out her name is Elise MacKinnon (Seymour), a renowned turn-of-the-century actress who once appeared in a play in the hotel’s theater. She became something of a recluse in her later years. Collier becomes obsessed with her. He checks out everything in the library that’s ever been written about her, which isn’t much. However, he discovers that she had a local woman as a caretaker, so he decides to visit her. That’s where he discovers that MacKinnon was actually the elderly woman who visited him with the pocket watch, on what would turn out to be the night she died.

He notices a book on time travel in her collection that an old college professor of his wrote. It turns out that if you hypnotize yourself properly, you can actually send yourself back in time where you will stay – so long as you don’t break the “spell” by seeing something anachronistic. So, he buys himself a turn of the century suit, fills his pockets with coin of the era and starts talking to himself. However, it works – he finds himself back in 1912.

He does manage to meet the lustrous MacKinnon who asks him “Are…you…the one?” to which he replies, “Why, yes…yes I am” which is the right answer, even if you aren’t the one. It’s love at first sight which is big trouble to MacKinnon’s Svengali-like manager W.F. Robinson (Plummer). However, despite all Robinson’s best efforts it appears obvious that MacKinnon is destined to be with Richard forever. However, fate has a cruel twist in store.

There are many who consider this one of the best romantic fantasies of all time, if not the best. French director Szwarc directed this from a nifty screenplay by Richard Matheson who adapted it from his own book “Bid Time Return” (Matheson is best known for his “Twilight Zone” scripts, although he is also an accomplished writer who has had several of his books adapted into movies, including Psycho, The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am Legend). As I mentioned, this is very well-written with a nice twist at the end.

Reeve was then fresh off his Superman: The Movie success and was one of the most sought-after actors in the world, but he did the movie for a considerable discount on what he could have commanded (his agent apparently refused to let him read the script because the producers couldn’t afford to pay him the salary the agent wanted) because he loved the script, which the producers slipped into his hotel room. He comes off a little bit too earnest here, a bit more like Clark Kent than Superman.

Still, his chemistry with Seymour is undeniable. Seymour is absolutely at her best here. She was very much the virginal romantic lead that seemed to be her stock-in-trade back then. She would later go on to “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” which remains her best-known role but at this time, she was still one of Hollywood’s hottest ingénues.

Almost as a third character is the gorgeous Grand Hotel itself. It was then and remains now one of America’s most beautiful hotels, and the movie has only cemented that magic – even today fans of the film flock to the Grand to stay in the place where the movie was made. It is largely unchanged since then, which makes it even more desirable for fans of the movie which are legion.

Which is a bit funny, considering the movie flopped when it was released. Part of that is due to the fact that there was a Screen Actors Guild strike on at the time, preventing the stars from doing any publicity for the film. It also got butchered by reviewers, who called it “overly sweet” and “too serious about itself.” I can see the criticisms, but this is certainly in many ways a Harlequin Romance novel onscreen and while that may have negative connotations to it, is meant to be complimentary here. The movie is not supposed to be anything but the portrayal of an epic romance and of the lengths a man in love will go to in order to be with the object of his affections.

Now if you want to talk about schmaltzy, let’s talk about the score. The late John Barry is perhaps the greatest film score composer ever (some might argue for Max Steiner but I prefer Barry, particularly for epics) but this score missed the mark. He pulls out Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini nearly every time the lovers are within earshot of one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s terrific music but it should have been used more sparingly to preserve its impact.

Nattering aside, the movie remains one of my favorites. I do have a sentimental attachment to it; my late father loved this movie. He was a romantic man, far more than his son – I certainly wish that I had more of that in my personality. Still, I can appreciate a good romantic fantasy – heck, I love a good romance movie too, when it’s done right. For all its faults, it’s a pretty good story and that it reminds me of my dad is icing on the cake.

WHY RENT THIS: A glorious premise and Reeve and Seymour make a magnificent couple. Beautiful Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is a star. Well-written, with a very clever ending.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A surprisingly schmaltzy score by John Barry, and a bit too serious about its epic love affair for its own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations but otherwise pretty mild, even for its day.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In scenes with both Plummer and Reeve, Szwarc referred to the former as Mr. Plummer and the latter as Bigfoot because of the confusion of their identical first name. This was also William H. Macy’s first movie (he is credited under the name of W.H. Macy).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD has a featurette on the film’s very rabid fan club, as well as an excellent hour-long documentary on the making of the movie (I know, there’s one of those on every DVD but this one is a little less of a commercial than most).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie reportedly flopped.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Day 3 of Cinema365: From the Heart