Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

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New Releases for the Week of November 19, 2021


GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE

(Columbia) Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Jason Reitman

A single mother is forced to move her kids to a small town in the middle of nowhere, unaware that they have a connection to the original Ghostbusters and that their legacy may be all that stands between us and Armageddon.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide
Rating: PG-13 (for supernatural action and some suggestive references)

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

(Screen Media) Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Jason Fine. The legendary Beach Boys mastermind takes a journey through his own past with his close friend Jason Fine to discover the road from a quiet neighborhood in Hawthorne, California to his position as one of the all-time greatest musical minds today.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian (Monday only)
Rating: NR

Bruised

(Netflix) Halle Berry, Stephen Henderson, Adam Canto, Shamier Anderson. A former MMA fighter who left the sport in disgrace, makes a comeback through the sketchy underground fight circuit. When the son she gave up for adoption shows up on her doorstep, she is given a more compelling reason to fight.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando, CMX Daytona Beach
Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content/nudity and violence)

India Sweets and Spices

(Bleecker Street) Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, Rish Shah. A young Indian-American woman home from college invites the son of a poor grocer to their upper class home for dinner, setting the stage for the revelation of long-buried family secrets and how the tendrils of traditional prejudices continue to entangle their lives.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Orlando, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, sexual material and brief drug references)

King Richard

(Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn. Richard Williams, an African-American man, sets high standards for his children and sets his daughters Venus and Serena along a path to tennis superstardom, breaking down barriers along the way.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: Wide (also on HBO Max)
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references)

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

(IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston, Edie Vonnegut. Vonnegut was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. This is the story of his life as seen through the eyes of his long-time friend Weide, completing the documentary he began forty years earlier.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Biographical Documentary
Now Playing: Cinematique Daytona Beach
Rating: NR

Kurup

(Phars) Dulquer Salmaan, Indrajith Sukumaran, Sobhita Dhulipala, Shine Tom Chacko. This is the story of Sukumara Kurup, one of the most notorious criminals of the Indian state of Kerala.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Crime
Now Playing: Cinemark Orlando
Rating: NR

The Youngest Evangelist

(Atlas) Princeton Bryan, Crystal Clark, Duranice Pace. The true story of John King, a ten-year-old African-American child who, after witnessing his mother’s joy of salvation following years of domestic abuse, and determines to experience it himself, putting himself on a path of evangelism that captivated the world of faith in this country back in the Eighties.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Faith Biography
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Amstar Lake Mary, Cinemark Orlando, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Marketplace
Rating: NR

Zeros and Ones

(Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Cristina Chiriac, Valerio Mastandrea, Phil Neilson. A soldier races against time in the dark streets of Rome to find his imprisoned twin brother, who has information that could foil a terrorist attack on the Vatican.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Picture Show at Altamonte Springs, Studio Movie Grille Sunset Walk
Rating: R (for language, some violence, bloody images, sexual material and drug content)

COMING TO VIRTUAL CINEMA/VOD:

A House on the Bayou
Black Friday
(Tuesday)
Boiling Point
(Tuesday)
Clerk
(Tuesday)
Dean Martin: King of Cool
El Hombre Bufalo
The Feast
Jagged
(Thursday)
Keep Sweet
(Wednesday)
Outlaws
(Monday)
The Princess Switch 3: Romancing the Star
(Thursday)
Procession
Psych 3: This is Gus
(Thursday)
She Paradise
Tick…Tick…BOOM!

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Black Friday
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road
Dean Martin: King of Cool
The Feast
Ghostbusters: Afterlife
India Sweets and Spices
Jagged
Keep Sweet
King Richard
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Premonition (2007)


Premonition

"That's strange, Jim NEVER has a second cup of coffee..."

(2007) Romantic Fantasy (Tri-Star) Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Nia Long, Kate Nelligan, Amber Valleta, Peter Stormare, Shyann McClure, Courtney Taylor Burness, Marc Macaulay, .Jude Ciccolella, Mark Famiglietti, Matt Moore, Jason Douglas, E.J. Stapleton.  Directed by Mennan Yapo

Some movies sound like a great idea on paper, then lose something in the execution. Premonition is one of these. See, Linda Hanson (Bullock) has become unstuck in time. Much like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, she bounces back between past and future but without much rhyme or reason. She starts on Thursday, the worst day of her life; the day she receives word that her husband has been killed in a particularly gruesome car accident the day before on the way to a sales meeting which is actually a job interview, at least I think so — it’s kind of muddled, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The next morning she wakes up and – presto chango! – Jim (McMahon) is alive and it’s Monday. She chalks it up to a particularly vivid dream but when she wakes up the next morning, Jim is dead again, it’s Saturday and all her friends and family are gathered for his funeral, which makes it a bit embarrassing when she comes downstairs in her skivvies. Linda is naturally suspicious that something is amiss, but maybe she can influence the future and save her husband from his doom. That’s when she finds out that he may have been having an affair with an attractive new assistant manager (Valleta) at the office where he works. Now she’s not so sure she wants him to live.

I’m normally a sucker for movies of this type – just ask Da Queen. Hey, I even gave The Lake House a positive review, and not many critics did that. I don’t have a problem suspending disbelief. I do ask, however, that the movie stay true to its own internal logic. During the course of the movie, Bullock is able to change some outcomes but not others and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of consistency as to what she can change and what is unavoidable. She also bounces around her week like a ping-pong ball for no apparent reason other than to justify the plot points.

Not that I have a problem with Sandra Bullock’s performance. Far from it; I thought she does a very solid job as Linda, portraying a woman forced to relive her husband’s death on a daily basis but also on top of it must do it in a non-linear manner, so she is unable to even grieve properly. That she comes a bit unhinged is certainly understandable, to say the least. Bullock is nearly matched by Stormare, who plays a psychologist who is as confused by events surrounding Linda as we are. McMahon does a nice turn as the husband who is at a crossroads in his relationship, but is at heart a loving father and husband. Quite a change from Dr. Doom.

Screenwriter Bill Kelly, who previously did the much better Blast From the Past, totally drops the ball. German director Yapo, making his English-language debut, fares no better; he has a tendency to move the camera in such a way as to be annoying, rather than creating any sense of urgency or excitement. I don’t mind kinetic camera work, but not to the point where I’m unable to see what’s going on. There are many ways to portray a character’s sense of disconnection and disorientation without making the audience dizzy.

Time travel has long been a staple of romantic fantasies, but they are not as easy to write as it may appear. In order for us to accept the circumstances, the circumstances need to make sense and quite frankly, they don’t in Premonition. That’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this movie. I like Sandra Bullock, I admire the performances and I thought it had a terrific premise; they just needed to iron out the details a little more. Quite frankly, if you are in a mood to see something like this, go rent yourself Somewhere in Time until the urge passes.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by Bullock, Stormare and McMahon. Nifty concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story fails to stick to its own internal logic. Overly kinetic camera movements.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few images that are on the disturbing side, as well as a bit of violence, foul language and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally to be set in New Orleans, but had to be filmed elsewhere due to Hurricane Katrina.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 45 minute feature on people who claim to have had premonitions of their own.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $84.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mamma Mia