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

New Releases for the Week of January 4, 2019


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

(Annapurna) KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Dave Franco. Directed by Barry Jenkins

In Harlem of the 1970s, a young couple is getting ready to get married and have a baby together but their plans are shattered when the groom-to-be is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Now the bride-to-be sets out to prove his innocence in the meanwhile dealing with the physical challenges of her pregnancy and with the love of her family for support. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, this is the first project for Jenkins since he won an Oscar for Moonlight.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama

Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Barnstorm Theater, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Escape Room

(Columbia) Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Jay Ellis. Six strangers find themselves in a deadly Escape Room where they must find clues to exit, ot they will all die.

See the trailer and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, DBOX
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language)

On the Basis of Sex

(Focus) Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston. Lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes on a case that she hopes will make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. The case will end up going all the way to the Supreme Court, change American life forever and pave the way for Ginsberg to becoming one of the most respected and beloved Supreme Court justices in history.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive content)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Being Rose
Odiyan
State Like Sleep
Support the Girls

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Njan Prakashan
Return of the Hero

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

American Hangman
Njan Prakashan

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Distant Drums
Njan Prakashan

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Escape Room
If Beale Street Could Talk
On the Basis of Sex
Support the Girls

New Releases for the Week of December 9, 2016


Office Christmas PartyOFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

(Paramount) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry, Jamie Chung. Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck

The CEO of a large company wants nothing better than to close down the branch that her hard-partying screw-up of a brother manages. The Chief Technical Officer wants to save the jobs of the people there. The only way to do it is to close a big sale and the only way to do that is with a Christmas party of epic proportions.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity)

All We Had

(Gravitas) Katie Holmes, Stefania Owen, Richard Kind, Luke Wilson. A young mother of a teenage daughter flees yet another ill-advised boyfriend and heads out on the road. When the money runs out and the car breaks down, they are stranded in a small town where a kind-hearted diner owner gives her a waitressing job and the two find out that the world may not be as bad a place as they thought it was. Look for a review for this here on Cinema365 shortly.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Bounce Back

(Viva) Shemar Moore, Nadine Velazquez, Matthew Willig, Kali Hawk. A relationship expert appears on a talk show whose host is convinced he is a charlatan. Of course, you know he’s going to fall in love with her and in doing so must confront the painful truth of his past relationships.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, language and brief drug use)

Frank and Lola

(Paladin) Michael Shannon, Imogen Poots, Justin Long, Rosanna Arquette. An up-and-coming chef and an aspiring fashion designer have a torrid affair. It seems to be everything he ever wanted – until a man from her past appears on the scene, calling into question everything he thinks he knows about her – and himself.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Premiere Fashion Square Cinemas

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence and language throughout)

Manchester by the Sea

(Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler. A janitor living in Boston is shocked to discover that he has been named guardian of his teenage nephew after his older brother dies. Moving to his hometown – a quaint New England fishing village – his life is transformed by the experience.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)

Miss Sloane

(EuropaCorp) Jessica Chastain, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Allison Pill.  Elizabeth Sloane is one of the most formidable and successful lobbyists in Washington. She is known for doing whatever it takes to win but when she takes on the most powerful opponent of her career, she must choose whether winning is worth the price she must pay for it.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality)