Shuffle: A life out of order

10-Oct-12 4:05 PM by
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What do you get when you cross Quantum Leap, The Time Traveler's Wife, and "All Good Things…"?

The answer is Shuffle, a 2011 film from writer and director Kurt Kuenne, creator of the Showbits Summer Shorts pieces Rent-a-Person and Validation. Kuenne reunites with Validation star T.J. Thyne for Shuffle, a mystery about a man living his life out of order for a reason he has to decipher — before it's too late. Here's the trailer for the film that production studio Theatre Junkies describes as "Twilight Zone meets Frank Capra":

Kuenne's previous shorts were so sincere and touching that I'm eager to see how he manifests the human condition in Shuffle. The film was released this past August to home video, streaming via Netflix, and rental from iTunes and other services.

Surprises Found in Hot Tub Time Machine

15-Jul-10 2:00 PM by
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I don't go to the movies very often these days, and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for something called Hot Tub Time Machine. Science-fiction fan that I am, I thought this film looked more like the generic "aging hipsters acting like college brats" film that you'd more often find starring Will Ferrell. Imagine my surprise when the film actually got good reviews — including from Roger Ebert, who suggested it succeeds beyond any expectations suggested by the title. With its recent release on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

After some introductions, the film sends four friends back to a ski valley they last visited as high school seniors. The nostalgic quartet is composed of John Cusack as down-on-his-luck (is there any other kind of John Cusack?) Adam, Craig Robinson (The Office's Darryl Philbin) as discouraged and whipped Nick Webber, Rob Corddry as alcoholic, sexaholic Lou, and Clark Duke as the sheltered Jacob. The four are an eclectic mix with different responses to and advice for every situation, ensuring each encounter they have is a lively one.

There is some genuine camaraderie among the four, as this film is more than a sexual romp (though it's certainly that as well). Each time traveller suffers from regret not only how things turned out twenty years ago, but also the pattern of life choices that have led them to be miserable in the present. Rather than have company for their misery, the former best friends have drifted apart, losing the support and dreams they had for themselves and each other as kids. Returned to 1986, they hope they can recapture that passion and bring it back with them, at the same time that they are forced to face the beginning of their downfall.

The option of avoidance is withdrawn by Chevy Chase, who plays a mysterious repairman who encourages the travellers to not change the timeline. Unlike Don Knotts in Pleasantville, Chase's purpose and motivations are unknown. The four men nonetheless vacillate between sticking to history and avoiding unpleasant situations, even though there is no motivation to listen to Chase or consequence for not doing so. The struggle between doing what they want versus what they're "supposed" to do gives the film some tension, even if it is superficial.

HTTM's temporal mechanics are also paper-thin, with an ending that wouldn't hold up to any fan versed in science fiction. Yet the film does not exist in a vacuum, with several devices that work quite well. For example, the paradox of the four running into their younger selves is eliminated when they discover that they have effectively "quantum leaped" into their 18-year-old bodies, appearing as adults to each other (and the audience) but as kids to the residents of 1986. At times the film reminded me of nothing of much as Back to the Future — a parallel made intentional through several references, not the least of which is a recurring character played by Crispin Glover, aka George McFly. Plus, any movie with an Apple II is okay by me.

HTTM is a film that I can recommend without reservation, but with caveats: some of the humor is very base and even disgusting, and you have to be in the right mood (or have sufficiently low standards) to enjoy or even tolerate it. The movie's actors and director obviously did not take themselves very seriously, and it's important that the audience do the same to maximize their enjoyment. I watched the unrated DVD version of the film; without having seen the theatrical release, I would guess the differences are in the quantity of female nudity.

Prince of Persia Pines for Passion

09-Nov-09 12:43 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 1 comment.

It's not a new phenomenon for video games to be adapted to film, though it is rare that it's done well. Mortal Kombat is my favorite such effort, and even it was a fun popcorn movie of little substance. Yet such translations continue unabated.

The latest attempt to carry a game's success to the silver screen is the storied Prince of Persia, which dates back to an Apple II program originally released in 1989. The game enjoyed many ports and sequels, then lay dormant for some years. In 2003, the franchise was revived for a new generation of consoles with a trilogy of 3D action-adventure games, many of which bestowed the protagonist with power over the timestream. It's those elements that are behind the subtitle the star-studded film The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, and Alfred Moina star in this film, opening May 28, 2010. Here's the trailer:

After watching the trailer, I have a similar opinion of the film as I do with the majority of today's video games: it's not all about the graphics. The above trailer is absolutely gorgeous, and the action sequences look quite intricate — but, in a way, they also seem rather standard. Okay, so we have people running and jumping and climbing and fighting, and a princess and a street rat making snide yet flirty remarks at each other. Is this Aladdin? That film's "gimmick" was the genie, and PoPSoT's should be the titular sands of time. It's apparently a sparingly used plot device, as the trailer overlooks the consequences of this mystic artifact in favor of action that could be found in any number of other frenetic films.

I love Jordan Mechner's original Prince of Persia (also available via Xbox Live Arcade) and admire him for keeping the franchise alive across so many decades and media, and I appreciate that even this trailer acknowledges this property as his creation. As he said in Game Informer magazine:

With Prince of Persia, I've had the opportunity and the challenge of recreating the character and story anew, not just once but several times, since the first Apple II version 20 years ago… Each of these projects gave me the chance to work with a great creative team in a new medium — a triple opportunity that in my Apple II days I could have only dreamed of.

Mr. Mechner recently engaged in a more in-depth interview with ComingSoon.net:

I did the best I could on a side-scrolling Apple II to try to capture that kind of excitement, and running and jumping and really the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 was the immediate inspiration for the first "Prince of Persia" game. But I think the movie, as you've seen, goes very far beyond that. There's Parkour, there's sword fighting. It's pretty extreme.

I hope the latest adaptation of Mr. Mechner's prince is something he and his fans can all be proud of.

(Hat tip to Juiced.GS!)

Carry On Wayward Man

27-Dec-07 7:00 PM by
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My siblings and I don't have many television viewing habits in common — and not only because I cancelled my service eight years ago. So I was surprised recently to receive this email from my oldest brother:

I know you don't watch TV per se, but you might find this past Monday night's NBC show Journeyman quite interesting. You can log onto NBC.com and watch previous episodes, commercial free

I don't know if perhaps he was familiar with my taste for Quantum Leap, but I agreed that Journeyman, along with Pushing Daisies and Reaper, would be shows I'd be watching this season, if I were able. (NBC.com's quality doesn't compare to a 36" TV with 5.1 surround sound!) But since I get all my shows, like Heroes (another interest we discovered we share), on DVD, it'll be awhile yet before I can watch this variation on The Time Traveler's Wife (coming soon to a theater near you).

Unfortunately, I was the one to break the bad news when I quoted to him from Wikipedia:

The initial order from the network was for 13 episodes, all of which were produced prior to the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike by screenwriters. However, the series suffered from low ratings, and NBC allowed its option for a full season order to lapse by the 2007-12-11 deadline for renewal. According to trade reports, such an action effectively means a series has been cancelled. The final episode of Journeyman aired on Wednesday, 2007-12-19.

But I was quick to point out the variety of precedents that suggest no show's death is final. Family Guy was cancelled twice but came back based on strong DVD sales. Sliders and Buffy switched networks, with the latter written to a series conclusion, should the show not survive the transition to a new network. Firefly came back as the feature-length Serenity, while Futurama and ReBoot both received direct-to-DVD movies.

So though Journeyman's travels appear over for now, there's always hope for the future… but should this truly be the end, at least picking up the complete series on DVD ought to be a cheap affair. In the meantime, we have the time-travel series Life on Mars to look forward to, along with news that Early Edition is finally coming to DVD. Good things come to those who wait!

Up the Slipstream Without a Paddle

02-Oct-07 11:25 PM by
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When a student of mine wrote an essay on why the little-known sci-fi film Slipstream was one of the best films of 2005, my interest was piqued. I was already a sucker for any movie featuring time travel, so mix in a glowing review and a famous hobbit, and I was sold. Too bad I ended up wanting a refund.

Sean Astin plays a government physicist with a handheld, software-based temporal translocation unit. By using nearby cell phone towers, he can send himself and anyone in contact with him back in time up to ten minutes, displacing their selves of that previous moment. But the movie applies this concept unevenly. Are their bodies affected, or just their mind? Are objects affected, or are they duplicated? Frequency could be criticized for having an illogical temporal mechanic, but that film was both creative and internally consistent. Slipstream fails in this regard, as we see no truly clever applications of the device other than for do-overs.

It's typical for a movie to introduce the main character and show us his invention in action as buildup for when things go awry. Slipstream rushes this important getting-to-know-you stage by immediately putting Astin in a bank that gets robbed. And not just by any thugs; no, these are British mods and rockers who kept their outfits, hairdos, and tattoos when they turned 40. Despite the heist going off with a hitch and losing several of his comrades, the gang leader has time to stop and steal what he assumes is an expensive cell phone — but is, in fact, the titularly codenamed time machine.

It is the first of the story's many weak points. Already we have stereotypical villains, a loser scientist protagonist, and unrealistic behavior from both. Such examples continue: when the bank robbers get into a car accident, the first squad on the site are… the FBI? They should've gone with the local police, as maybe they've seen Quick Change and then that old "terrorist disguised as a hostage" trick wouldn't've worked again. The masquerade continues moments later as we see the evil mastermind demonstrate that anyone wearing a captain's uniform can get on a plane, without ID.

Worse than any plot holes is the film's ego. It draws out scenes for seemingly no reason than to revel in its own creativity. Other scenes alternate between speeding up and slowing down, as if to hammer into the audience's thick skulls, "Hey, time is fluid in THIS film!" A couple scenes feature the background slowly revolving around the actors, or vice versa. It's like bullet time with one camera and a green screen. But Slipstream is just a shadow of the many films it wishes it was. Just as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank channeled Casablanca, Slipstream imitates Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Now that's what I call cinematic hubris.

Slipstream's first five minutes — filled with cheesy narration, slow-motion sequences, and screen savers — immediately suggested, "Oh, it's going to be one of THOSE films": not a bad one, but one that sets its sights low. Proper expectations can make or break a film, but even given the proper mindset, I still enjoyed Adam Sandler's Click (and Sean Astin's performance in same) more than this. Slipstream's goofy characters and illogical science make me think it was made for a younger audience, but language and violence have rated it 'R' — yet another inconsistency. Whatever target this film was aiming for, it slipped and slid right off the map.

Is There a Temporal Mechanic in the House?

22-Aug-07 12:37 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 6 comments.

Time travel is a fascinating concept that is bafflingly unpopular at the box office. With the exception of Back to the Future, few films that dabble in this science fiction staple have become household names — and those that do, such as The Lakehouse and Click, owe their recognition more to the stars than the plots.

Yet even Sean "Hobbit" Astin couldn't elevate Slipstream out of obscurity. But before I review this film, I'd like to rewind the clock and examine its ancestry of other little-known time travel films: Time After Time, Time Changer, Timestalkers, Out of Time, and Happy Accidents.

(more…)

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

27-Feb-07 1:29 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 2 comments.

In Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, Louise asks if it's possible "for someone to hit you hard like that — real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?"

Or, to place the question in a personal, modern context: can I watch Adam Sandler's Click and still have a good time?

By most accounts, this was a pretty rotten film. Fortunately, having appropriately lowered expectations allowed me to find some amusement in what I agree to not be a critical success — for, as anyone who saw Snakes on a Plane can attest, quality of film (C- for Snakes) is not necessarily an indication of quantity of enjoyment (B+).

In Click, Adam Sandler, who can't find enough time to balance work and family, receives from the ever-unsettling Christopher Walken a "universal remote control": a control for the universe (not to be confused with John Ritter's remote in Stay Tuned). With it, Sandler can pause, fast forward, and translate his surroundings — though it's the fast-forwarding that gets him into trouble as he skips ahead in his career, losing out on the accompanying joy of raising a family.

And what a family: wife Kate Beckinsale's "rockin' body", as Walken's character puts it, is enough to make anyone want to slap Sandler silly for skipping even a second with her. Other notable actors: David Hasselhoff and his pearly whites play the part of the pompous boss all too well; and I was surprised to see Sean Astin in a small, almost insignificant role. I thought, after Lord of the Rings, that he was destined for better things. But Henry Winkler was great as Sandler's dad. I hadn't previously realized Sandler's proclivity for recycling: his Waterboy coach and the O'Doyle family from Billy Madison are both present here.

As far as the movie goes, it's a story of maturation and realization that's been told countless times. There's an occasional laugh-out-loud funny moment, though for every clever moment, there's a scatological joke — exactly what I expected from Sandler. The last ten minutes or so, despite also being clichéd, were touching (reminiscent of the climax for Defending Your Life); it's getting there that's the trouble: Sandler learns fairly quickly the curse of the control, and the audience must endure another 30 minutes as this lesson is painfully beaten into his thick skull. With some judicious cutting, this movie could've been a one-hour episode of Amazing Stories.

That's right, woodchuck-chuckers…

02-Feb-07 7:37 AM by
Filed under Films; 4 comments.

IT'S GROUNDHOG DAY!

In a message on the online service GEnie, my friend Gary Utter once posted:

Category 3, Topic 23
Message 17 Wed Jul 24, 1996
GARY.UTTER at 05:42 EDT

GROUNDHOG DAY is more than a comedy, more than a love story. It is, among other things, a deep look at society, the way we view others, the way we view ourselves. It is also quite a metaphysical examination of the very reason for being, if you care to look at it that deeply.

This is, actually, an amazing film, and if it survives long enough, will be as overanalyzed as Shakespeare. There is meaning in there that I do not believe the producers intended. It just happened.

I think it will still be available for rental in 20 years…..

Fourteen years so far, so good. It took 12 of them for Roger Ebert to recant his original, mediocre review. It's never too late for a great film to grow on you, Roger. And "sublime" is indeed a great description of male lead Bill Murray, be it here or in another one of my favorite films, Lost in Translation.


So what are you waiting for? It's Friday night — there's no school tomorrow. Bust out this classic romantic comedy and watch it over and over and over.